Superheroes: Batman (1989) part 1

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Batman has an interesting agenda: the screenplay wants to keep its title character mysterious and elusive for as long as possible.  Both Batman and Bruce Wayne are presented as cold, remote and unreachable.  "Why won’t you let me in?" asks Vicki Vale, as well she might.  Bruce Wayne takes a long time to emerge as a protagonist in Batman, and Batman takes even longer.  For the longest time, Bruce/Batman is pursued, tangled with and drawn out, with the effect being to turn him into a kind of mythological figure, or even a fetish object.

Since Batman takes so long to develop into a protagonist, the movie must give us a number of other protagonists to follow while we’re waiting.  In this, the screenplay does not disappoint — Act I offers no fewer than four different protagonists, some of which are more interesting than others.  First we meet Harvey Dent, Gotham City’s new District Attorney, who pledges to clean up Gotham City’s corruption, and for a moment it begins to look like maybe Batman, like The Dark Knight 19 years later, is going to develop into a Batman/Joker/Two-Face story.  But Harvey’s crusade against corruption in Batman barely receives another mention before being swept aside by more colorful, more dynamic forces.  Next, the screenplay offers Alexander Knox, a reporter who seems to be the only "straight" person in Gotham City concerned about the appearance of Batman.  (Batman, although he is around from the beginning of the narrative, does not operate initially as a protagonist — he’s more like a weather condition.  Civilians don’t take him seriously, and the powers that be are unconcerned; it’s only street criminals who fear and mythologize him.)  Knox’s interest in Batman brings us to Vicki Vale, a serious photojournalist who is sexually attracted to bats.  Once we’ve got a gorgeous blonde who’s turned on by bats, we kind of lose interest in Knox, who still hangs around the narrative, but is relegated to sidekick and functionary for Vicki.  Inbetween these three, we are introduced to Jack Napier, a high-ranking gangster in boss Carl Grissom’s crime empire.  Jack is a dandy and a thug, a little like 80s mobster-of-the-moment John Gotti, and is in trouble with Grissom, since he’s making whoopie with Grissom’s moll.  Out of all the characters who emerge in Batman‘s first act, Jack is by far the most interesting, perhaps because he’s played by the only bona-fide movie star in the picture, and perhaps because he’s not particularly interested in Batman.  His problem is Carl Grissom, whose problem is Harvey Dent.  Dent and Grissom are unconcerned about the problem Batman presents, but Knox and Vicki are concerned solely about Batman to exclusion of all the other serious problems that seem to plague Gotham City.

As Act I tools along, Jack comes into clearer focus as a protagonist as he is sent by boss Grissom to go clean out the files of the Axis Chemical Plant, which is apparently one of the businesses Grissom runs, and which is due to be under investigation by new DA Dent.  For a while, Batman seems to be developing into a serious crime drama on the level of The Dark Knight, but takes a left turn at the 30-minute mark as Jack goes to the Axis plant, finds the safe empty, knows he’s been set up by Grissom, and soon must deal with the police, who are there to arrest him, and Batman, who also shows up for reasons that are unclear to me.  I mean, I know that Batman’s plan is "to fight crime," but why does he pick this night, at this juncture, to make a move on Axis Chemicals and Jack Napier?  What is Axis, or Jack, to Batman?  The first time we meet Batman, he’s beating up petty criminals in an alleyway, why does he take it upon himself to intervene, in the midst of a police action, headed by none other than Commissioner Gordon?  What does he hope to acheive?

In any case, as I say, Jack runs into Batman there during the police raid on Axis, and remains unimpressed.  Batman, for his part, meets up with Jack, exchanges pleasantries, then goes on his merry way before circling back around later to have a separate confrontation a few minutes later, a confrontation that ends with Jack being mutilated by his own bullet and falling into a tub of goo.  At this point, Batman takes its left turn from "crime drama" to something much stranger and grander, more operatic.  Jack snaps into focus as the act drives to its close and Jack emerges from the tub of goo as The Joker.  And so we see that all the other plot lines — Batman’s war on crime, Knox’s interest in pursuing Batman as a story, Vicki’s interest in pursuing Batman as a sex object — are all subservient to the real point of Act I, which is concerned with telling the story of how Jack becomes The Joker.

At the end of Act I, Jack announces his new persona, kills Grissom and takes over Grissom’s crime syndicate.  So far, so good.  As Act II develops, however, the Joker’s motivations become a little hazier.  He wants to be the boss of the syndicate, and he soon kills all the other crimelords in broad daylight, and that’s all clear.  Then, apropos of nothing, he falls in love with Vicki, and the movie spends a little time developing this improbable love story.  At the same time, he launches a genuine crime, contaminating consumer goods with his deadly Smilex chemical.  And he seems intent on killing Batman, his stated reason being that Batman is stealing his publicity.  (The Joker dislikes Batman because he represents "decent" Gotham — as much as a vigilante dressed as a bat can, I guess — and Jack, before he even changed, has averred that "decent people" shouldn’t live in Gotham.

While the Joker is pursuing these unrelated tasks, Vicki has shifted her pursuit of Batman to a pursuit of Bruce Wayne instead.  No particular reason is given for her attraction to Bruce, but it is her interest in his mystery that drives a good chunk of Act II.  As the Vicki/Bruce love story develops, Bruce himself slowly comes into focus as a protagonist in his own right and the narrative shifts from her point-of-view to his.  By the time Act III comes along, Vicki is demoted from Protagonist to Damsel, and Knox is demoted from Protagonist to Clerk, a sap whose job is to do Vicki’s research for her.

All of which is perfectly okay, since we’re interested in Batman too, he’s a much more interesting character than Vicki, and about a billion times more interesting than Knox.  So by the time the narrative launches into its action-packed third act, we’re totally on board for a Batman-Joker showdown and we feel like we’ve been let in on a mystery.  The Joker hates Batman, Vicki loves him, the Joker loves Vicki (although I kind of have to take his word on that, I’m not sure I buy this movie as a tale of the eternal triangle).  It would be nice if the Joker knew that Vicki loved Batman, but all he knows is that Vicki has a relationship with Bruce — whom the Joker kills, or thinks he does, late in Act II.

As you might have discerned by now, the problems in Batman all swarm around its second act, when the plot tries to get too much out of its characters and motivations become blurry.

For instance: the Joker sees a photograph of Vicki, and instantly decides that he’s in love with her and must pursue her.  He goes to great lengths to set up a date with her at an art museum, then arrives with his goons, destroys all the art (except for the Bacon), kills all the patrons, then proceeds to pitch his brand of woo to Vicki.  Batman arrives, grabs Vicki — and leaves, taking her with him back to the Batcave.

Why?  What does Batman want?  The Joker has just destroyed a billion or so dollars worth of priceless art and killed dozens of people, and Batman’s sole concern is to grab the dame and high-tail it out of there?  Leaving the Joker to do whatever he feels like doing?  Thematically, we could say that Bruce/Batman rescues Vicki and leaves the Joker as an illustration of the protagonist’s inner conflict — he wants to fight crime, but he also wants to experience a healthy love-life.  But then we find out that, after he’s grabbed Vicki, driven her out of town and taken her to the Batcave, all he does is give her the evidence she needs to solve the Joker’s Smilex crimes, and then steal the film of some pictures she’s taken of Batman’s identity being revealed.  Did he need to take her all the way to the Batcave to do that?  Why couldn’t he have rescued her, gotten her to safety, then dealt with the Joker then and there?

And what does the Joker want with Vicki anyway?  Why her?  She’s beautiful, okay, and we see that he likes to destroy beauty — she fulfills that impulse.  But why her?  I mean, narratively speaking, why her, except that it is convenient to the narrative?  She is connected to Batman/Bruce, but the Joker doesn’t know that — when he shows up in her apartment late in Act II and finds Bruce there, he’s totally surprised.

And what is the Joker’s "plan," anyway?  His Smilex plan, to contaminate thousands of consumer goods in a way that will kill millions — somehow — is evil enough, but it’s unclear what it has to do, specifically, with Gotham City — it seems like it would be a national, or even an international, problem.  Are we to believe that Gotham City has an entire host of local consumer goods — makeup, soap, eye shadow, hairspray, etc?  And if his plot is not specifically against the citizens of Gotham City, why should we care about it?

Batman, like most of director Tim Burton’s movies, works best as a kind of "lives of the artists" drama — the Joker even calls himself an artist at one point.  Burton is interested in the Outsider, the bent individual who cannot fit into society and is thus feared and reviled.  The Joker, a homicidal maniac, is "created" by Batman, whom he sees as a symbol of "decent" society, and thus must pursue his revenge upon decency.  What he doesn’t know (or maybe he does) is that Batman is also an outsider, "created" by Jack years ago when Jack killed his parents.  At the apex of this triangle is Vicki, yet another artist (a photojournalist) who passes for straight in the public eye but who is secretly obsessed with darkness and, well, bats.  Vicki has a mask of beauty, Batman has a rubber mask, Bruce Wayne has a mask of impersonalness (there’s no indication that Bruce is "playing" at being preoccupied, he’s genuinely preoccupied).  It’s fitting that, in this iteration of the Joker story, he’s the only character without a mask — he must put on a mask of makeup when he wants to appear slightly less freakish to the public.  Burton seems to be saying that, without a mask, Bruce Wayne, or Vicki, or any of us, would devolve into the homicidal maniac that is the Joker.

I didn’t expect this particular post to go on this long, it kind of got away from me a little, and I don’t wish to try my readers’ patience, and so I’ll address the structure of Batman more anon.


18 Responses to “Superheroes: Batman (1989) part 1”
  1. johnnycrulez says:

    I can’t think of Tim Burton without thinking of Kevin Smith now.

  2. craigjclark says:

    I’ve read in various places that, based on screen time and character emphasis, this movie would more appropriately be titled Joker. And thoughts?

    • Todd says:

      There is a much more compelling case to be made for the Joker being the protagonist of Batman, yes. And yet, the fetishization of Batman does gather considerable steam in the course of the movie, and he does finally emerge as a protagonist — that is, as one who acts instead of reacts. On the other hand, we could see him as the Joker sees him — an antagonist.

      Burton, I’d say, is, like the characters in his movie, split — he clearly empathizes with the Joker, but he also sees Batman as a true hero, in a way only he can — a hero who places himself, literally, above society, at a great remove, a lonely figure overcome with gloom and darkness.

    • laminator_x says:

      “Love that Joker.”

  3. Anonymous says:

    I watched this yesterday–it was on TV–but slept through big chunks of it, waking up only for the big set-pieces, so my thoughts about it aren’t exactly coherent.

    Still, one thing that stuck out on the Joker/Vicki connection was that the Joker clearly wanted to replace the tall, thin, curvaceous blond he already had (a work of art whose beauty he’d destroyed) with a newer, fresher version — presumably to destroy her, too.

    I also think that the story would’ve been more interesting if Bruce/Batman knew from the beginning (or at least much earlier) that Jack/Joker was the one who had killed his parents. That information seemed to come rather late in the narrative. (Take that with a grain of salt, though, since all the sleeping messed up my sense of time.)


  4. chadu says:

    You know, I’m hoping you take a crack at some of the Animated Batman stories — your analyses of the Batman Beyond pilot and The Return of the Joker movie would be very interesting.

  5. curt_holman says:

    “in the pale moonlight”

    You should link back to your “tub of goo” post.

    One thing about Burton’s Batman is that I’ve never really liked the revelation that Jack Napier/The Joker killed Bruce Wayne’s parents. It seems like the kind of thing that could be an elegant connection — The Joker created the Batman, the Batman created the Joker — but part of me doesn’t buy it.

    For one thing, I like the way in the comics the actual murderer, Joe Chill (if memory serves me right), was an anonymous mugger with vague underworld connections. I like the idea of a “faceless” Joe Chill who represents crime in the abstract, thus inspiring Bruce Wayne/Batman to fight all crime and become a “symbol” himself. Having the killer be Jack Napier/The Joker seems to make him too specific, diluting that aspect of the story.

    The other thing is that the “Ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?” plot device is so contrived. If memory serves me right, the only time Jack/Joker says it in the film is when he kills Bruce’s parents and when he shoots Bruce. But doesn’t he say that it’s something he says all the time (presumably before he kills people)? Then, given all the times he kills people or tries to in the movie, why doesn’t he say it any other time?

    It also kind of bugs me that the film presents Jack and the Joker as such radically different personalities, it’s odd to me that the Joker would retain one of Jack’s old traits. The Jack-in-flashback actually seems a lot more like the Joker than the aging Jack Napier we see for the first act. But that might be psychologically excusable (if unexplored) — maybe Jack rose to prominence as a giggly murderer with a flair for the theatrical, then mellowed out with age, but the tub-of-goo experiences caused him to revert to his crazier younger self.

    A more petty complaint I have is that I don’t “get” the Joker’s fondness for the music of Prince. Given that he basically wears a zoot suit, I’ve always thought that 1930s/1940s jazz/swing would be the kind of music that would suit the character. Plus, the Prince music seems particularly anachronistic given the film noir/Gothic setting of the film, even though I know it’s not meant to represent any decade in particular.

    • charlequin says:

      Re: “in the pale moonlight”

      I actually think the TDK solution is the most elegant, where neither one really creates the other directly; they’re just pulled together because neither one can ever “win” as long as the other is alive.

    • stormwyvern says:

      Re: “in the pale moonlight”

      I completely agree that keeping the killer of Bruce Wayne’s parents largely anonymous works better than giving the role to a major villain. Just about anyone will tell you that one of Batman’s greatest strengths is his top notch rogues gallery. And yet the criminal who actually created Batman, the character who for just about any other character would have been the object of tireless, single-minded pursuit, has never been an important character in the Batman universe except for the fact that he created Batman. Bruce Wayne may on some level be looking for revenge for everything that’s been taken from him, but I think he’s also smart enough to realize that killing or capturing the man who killed his parents isn’t going to bring them back or erase the pain of losing them. (One of the better parts of Batman Forever is Bruce Wayne hinting that killing his parents’ murderer hasn’t really brought him any comfort.) The only thing he can really do that will make a difference is to try and prevent what happened to his family from happening to anyone else.

      I guess somewhere along the way, someone decided this film would work better if Bruce ended up having a more personal reason to pursue the Joker and everything fit inside one neat little box. But I agree with you that the whole mythos is far stronger when this guy stays anonymous.

      • stormwyvern says:

        Well, I did say “Just About Any Other Character”

        I did remember after posting that Spider-Man was also brought into existence as a superhero by a criminal who has stayed pretty anonymous over the years. The main difference is that Peter Parker was in the position to immediately go after his uncle’s killer, only to find that the real enemy was the guilt he felt for failing to act responsibly and stop the man when he had the chance.

        So there’s an exception of sorts, but I still maintain that a lot of comics would have made the person who killed the hero’s parents into a major archenemy.

        • curt_holman says:

          Re: Well, I did say “Just About Any Other Character”

          Of course, Spider-man 3 revealed that Sandman was the real guy who killed Uncle Ben, but I don’t know how “canonical” that detail is with the rest of the comics.

          • jvowles says:

            Re: Well, I did say “Just About Any Other Character”

            Not canonical at all — though for all its faults, that movie *did* give an interesting motive for Sandman. Finally.

          • black13 says:

            Re: Well, I did say “Just About Any Other Character”

            It’s exclusive to the movie — and in my opinion, one of the dumber decisions. Even worse than the dance scene. Peter’s motivation is that he had the chance to prevent the death of his uncle, but didn’t, out of indifference. Revealing that the thief he let get away was not the killer, that Uncle Ben was really killed by someone Peter had never even seen, removes Peter’s guilt and driving motivation.

            • curt_holman says:

              Re: Well, I did say “Just About Any Other Character”

              Despite tampering with canon, that didn’t bother me, because it amped up Peter’s desire for revenge and created an “opening” for the symbiote/dark side aspects of the story to emerge.

              • black13 says:

                Re: Well, I did say “Just About Any Other Character”

                Yeah, but now Pete can sit back and relax. “Even if I had stopped the thief, my uncle would still have died. There was nothing I could have done to prevent that. So I can retire the mask and marry MJ and live happily ever after.”

                There were enough messes in this movie for Peter to get angry and dark side about. Making the Sandman Uncle Ben’s killer seemed contrived.

                Sorry, but this is something I get all Jesse Baker over, because of just how dumb I find it. I don’t generally mind some creative juggling in such things, but this particular case has me riled up. Perhaps because the entire movie was such a stinker.