Superheroes: Batman (1989) part 2

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So: to review, here is the overall structure to Batman:

ACT I (0:00 – 40:00) sets the scene (Gotham City is a squalid, corrupt dystopia), establishes Batman as an element of that scene, and introduces two major protagonists: Jack Napier and Vicki Vale. Vicki Vale pursues the truth about Batman because, well, she has a thing for bats, and Jack Napier finds his world coming unglued. Events conspire to put Jack and Batman in the same room together, the result being that Jack falls into a tub of goo.The tub of goo turns Jack’s skin ghostly white, a plastic surgeon botches Jack’s reconstructive surgery, and Jack emerges as the Joker, a dyed-in-the-wool homicidal maniac, disinterested in profit (odd how he keeps a staff of goons loyal to his cause) and bent on the destruction of Gotham City. Meanwhile, Vicki Vale, in her pursuit of Batman, gets sidetracked by an attraction to Bruce Wayne. As Jack becomes the Joker, Vicki beds Bruce. As the Joker cements his credentials as an "agent of chaos," Vicki finds love, or something like it, in the arms of Bruce.

ACT II (40:00 – 1:27:00) This is where it starts to get kind of tangled. The Joker murders all of the crimelords in Gotham, and investigates whatever Batman is, and sets into motion his fiendish plot to contaminate consumer goods with Smilex, and pursues a romantic liason with Vicki. That’s a whole bunch of agendas for a bad guy to have, and the movie will squeeze in one more by the time the third act rolls around. A bad guy with four agendas in one act is a lot for any narrative to include, but Act II of Batman also pursues Vicki’s agenda of getting to know Bruce Wayne. At the mid-act point, Vicki’s ardent pursuit of Bruce pivots and becomes Batman’s passive-aggressive pursuit of Vicki — Vicki doesn’t yet know that Bruce and Batman are the same guy, and Batman isn’t keen to tip his hand. It’s bad-guy plots like this that give rise to bad-guy plot rules: one bad guy with one plot is best, one bad guy with two plots is weaker, two bad guys with one plot can work but is often problematic, two bad guys with two plots is weaker still, and so on. Here you have one bad guy with no fewer than three separate schemes (contaminate consumer goods, woo the girl, destroy the city) and they don’t fit together well. If you want to have a bad guy do a whole bunch of different things, it’s best to make all the different things part of One Grand Scheme, as it is in the Nolan Batman movies, not as a series of reactive gestures (Batman foiled my contaminated consumer goods scheme, so now I’ll destroy the city instead). While the Joker is doing all that, Bruce makes up his mind to go ahead and try to pursue an affair with Vicki. He goes over to her house to confess his dark secret to her, but is interrupted by the Joker, who also shows up in pursuit of Vicki’s affection. Just as Batman snatches Vicki away from the art museum without dealing with the Joker, thus violating several of Batman’s central principles, the Joker comes to Vicki’s apartment, finds Bruce Wayne there, shoots him, and then leaves without taking Vicki with him. Why, I have no idea — he’s murdered a squadron of ganglords on the steps of City Hall in broad daylight, and he’s destroyed an art museum and killed dozens of art-lovers without suffering the slightest repercussion, why the hell would he flee the scene of a murder without taking the thing he came for? In any case, Bruce, who’s not dead, silently flees (as he will) and it falls to Bruce’s butler Alfred to do the thing that Bruce cannot — tell her that Bruce is Batman. Somewhere in there, Batman gives Vicki the information she needs to foil the Joker’s Smilex plot (how Batman actually figures it out is another question — he refuses to tell us), which causes the Joker to come up with another plan to kill thousands of people.

ACT III (1:27:00 – 2:03:00) His Smilex plot foiled, the Joker launces into a new plot, to present himself as the true leader of Gotham City — not the mayor, not Harvey Dent, not Batman, but himself. The city fathers, which have been planning a bicentennial festival since the beginning of the movie, have been greatly discouraged by the whole murderous crime-wave thing, and has cancelled said festival. The Joker, steamed from the ruin of his Smilex plot, announces that he will stage his own festival, one with balloons and parades and jarring, out-of-place pop music, where he will give away millionsof dollars, take his place as the true leader of Gotham, then kill everyone. His third-act plot proceeds just fine, Batman shows up to foil it, which causes the Joker to abscond with Vicki to the World’s Tallest Belltower to make his escape. This all works just fine (although I’m a little shocked to see Batman, who has a gadget for everything, sigh and trudge up the stairs of the bell tower in pursuit of the Joker — where’s his grapple-gun when he needs it?) and it almost feels like maybe we didn’t need all that back-and-forth in Act II. As I’ve said, it’s a pity that Vicki slides from Major Protagonist to Damsel in Distress, but then nobody showed up to see a movie called Vicki Vale. There’s a big climactic fight at the top of the bell tower (where the Joker’s goons come from is a mystery to me), The Joker does his best to try to kill Batman and Vicki, and Batman turns the tables on the Joker at the last moment, sending him plunging to his death.

As several of my readers have pointed out, near the end of Act II Bruce figures out that the Joker is the guy who killed his parents in that long-ago dark alleyway. This plot-point, which is kind of important in the scheme of things, is handled rather gracelessly (Batman, the World’s Greatest Detective, should really need something a little less obvious than a bad-guy’s catchphrase as a clue, especially since the bad guy only uses the phrase twice in the movie, and for absolutely no reason whatsoever — honestly it feels like some studio person pitched it in the room as "the bad version" — "How shall we establish that the Joker killed Bruce’s parents?" "Well, here’s the bad version — he’s got a unique catchphrase that he recites every time he kills someone." "Like what?" "Like anything, it doesn’t have to make sense, it could be ‘Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?’" "Really? You think people will fall for that? It’s really fake and contrived." "Well, like I say, that’s the bad version, we’ll think of something better later.")

A note to the young: despite its flaws, make no mistake — the 1989 Batman absolutely blew people away. The radical re-thinking of the character, the weird darkness of the themes, the dense, oppressive production design, Jack Nicholson’s performance as the Joker, all that stuff was alarming, electrifying stuff back then. I happened to see it at a press screening in New York a week or so before it opened, and knew absolutely nothing about it going in, and let me tell you, it bent my brain. The second act was weak? Who cared, Jesus Christ did you see that production design? The very concept of the Nicholson Joker, that he wasn’t wearing a mask, that that was his face, and they got one of the greatest movie stars of all time to then wear that makeup, that idea sent a perverse, thrilling chill into the 1989 audience and still holds considerable power today. Although Batman doesn’t seem to take itself seriously enough in comparison to The Dark Knight, it was seriously freakin’ serious for its day. Thematically strong and narratively weak (like many of Tim Burton’s movies), it still stands as a milestone of Hollywood superhero narrative.


38 Responses to “Superheroes: Batman (1989) part 2”
  1. craigjclark says:

    You forgot one major element of the film’s success: Danny Elfman’s superb score (which I’ve listened to fairly recently since I’m on something of an Elfman kick). Forget about the dated Prince songs. There’s a reason why everybody with a superhero movie started banging down Elfman’s door to get to him write their scores.

    • Todd says:

      Elfman’s score was revelatory then, and it feels as classic as Bernard Herrman now.

      • ogier30 says:

        My 4 year old Batman-(LEGO version)-fan son loves the soundtrack, so it’s still got appeal some 20 years on.

        • noskilz says:

          When Danny Elfman’s name flashed across the theater screen, my first thought was It Only Makes Me Laugh, which amused me, but the person sitting next to me seemed appalled that someone seemed to think there was something funny about the opening credits – which, to be fair, there wasn’t, really (it was a silly notion, and there didn’t seem to be any point in trying to explain at the time.) Was it just me or did anyone else have that thought?

          However it also occurs to me that at the time, unlike today, one couldn’t hit the web for an almost obsessive-compulsive level of detail on an upcoming film, or anything else, so I’d expect that sort of surprise reaction to be rarer. At the time, I just had the promotional campaign to suggest there was a batman movie coming up and it looked like it was worth checking out.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I agree

    I saw it twice when it opened, and then a third time, to figure out how it affected people as it did.

    I think overall what Burton did extremely well was create an environment (Gotham) that was as much a character as the others within the film … and due to that world, he got away with much more than someone who made something realistic … we knew going in it was based on a comic book and somehow Burton made that comic book sensibility live and breathe as a film with its own rules and laws.

    He did the same thing with PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, one of my faves. Created a new world.

    Anyway, that for me is the strength of BATMAN. Lots of small and large images that added up.

    I remember the newscasters, once they couldn’t use makeup, having to give the news with bad skin and sores and how people laughed at that. It’s such a fascinating, throwaway gag yet it sums up for me what it does best, which was to make a cinematic fabric unlike anything else.

    And Jack, of course, fit like a glove, as did the casting of Keaton … he casts very well, I think.

    Anyway, great post.

    Joshua James

    • amanofhats says:

      Re: I agree

      Keaton remains my favorite Bruce Wayne/Batman.

      • laminator_x says:

        Re: I agree

        Casting him was another surprise, as most of America saw him as Mr. Mom or Beetleguice. Keaton had a subtlety in the role that none since have even attempted. I do feel he missed a bit of Bruce Wayne’s supposed charm, but Wayne seemd perhaps a bit more real for its absence.

        That being said, I think Kevin Conroy’s voice work has yet to be touched by any of the actors who have played the role in front of the camera.

  3. stormwyvern says:

    I think one of the greatest things that this film accomplished was to enable Batman – and superhero movies in general – to go to a darker place. Yes, the comics fans got the message a couple of years earlier when “The Dark Knight Returns” came out, but the movie delivered it to a far broader audience, which was no easy task considering the cultural reach of the Adam West show as was discussed in the comments on the 60s movie. While I wouldn’t say for certain that Batman Begins and The Dark Knight would have never been made if Burton’s Batman had flopped I’d be willing to bet they would have had a harder time making it to the screen.

    A book I have on the making of The Nightmare Before Christmas quote Burton describing Jack’s Christmas Eve sleigh ride as “beautiful and funny and sad.” I think when Burton is at his best, it’s partly due to these three elements playing in harmony to form a pleasing chord. It’s been too long since I saw Batman for me to say whether it has the perfect harmony of a good Burton film or not, but its impact is still undeniable.

    • robjmiller says:

      The success of a dark comic book movie paved the way for the creation of The Punisher with Dolph Lundgren, probably the worst comic book movie ever released (the 1995 fantastic four movie was worse, but at least they never released it).

      • stormwyvern says:

        Bad Punisher movies aside, the success of Batman did help comic book movies to be treated at least as seriously as other action movies rather than getting looked down on as somehow less worthy than a film that didn’t happen to be based on a comic book. The source material for thee films is still subjected to the “Bam! Pow! Comics Aren’t Just For Kids Anymore!” treatment from time to time, even though superhero comics largely haven’t been for kids at all for a decade or two. But no one assumes that movies based on these same comics are only for kids and I think that’s partly due to the influence of Batman.

        • Todd says:

          Whether that’s a good thing or not is a subject for another debate.

          • stormwyvern says:

            You mean the fact that no one assumes that any superhero movies should be kid appropriate?

            • Todd says:

              Or whether they should be at all.

              • laminator_x says:

                The pendulum is probably swinging too far in the other direction as we speak, such that the preconception is that superhero movies should be gritty and tragic adult fare.

                Ideally there should be room for a variety of styles. If that Captain Marvel movie gets made, I hope it will be PG at most. Children should get to experience the Joy and Wonder of Billy (and Mary, for that matter) shouting, “SHAZAM!”

      • black13 says:

        Not entirely. The Punisher movie was being produced at roughly the same time as Batman. Here in Germany, the two movies launched theatrically in the same week.

  4. greyaenigma says:

    I remember my boss scoffing at the publicity the movie was getting before it came out, predicting a flop. It was nice to see it succeed.

    I could have done without the people in the theater yelling, “There he is!” when Batman first appears, though.

    • ogier30 says:

      The ad campaign for this film was also a revelation for the time and has almost, I think, had more influence on films than the movie did. It definitely helped build the momentum needed to turn it into the blockbuster it was.

  5. jvowles says:

    In Act II, the reason that the Joker doesn’t take Vicki is simple: The Joker doesn’t think straight; he’s insane. And in his weird little way, he’s attempting to woo her. He does so by inviting her out to dinner at the museum, and then he visits her with a gift of flowers. He wants her to come to him.

    • Todd says:

      “The bad guy is insane” is the worst reason of all for bad plotting.

      • jvowles says:

        I agree that insanity is a poor reason for obeying plot dictates. It’s hard to extrapolate from the one affair we see him conducting (with the model he carves up and later kills), but it doesn’t seem inconsistent behavior to me. He’s going to break her mind, as he broke the model’s face.

        (Even though it is against the list of stuff villains shouldn’t do.)

  6. mr_noy says:

    Being a (pre-Nolan) Joker goon required one of the most elaborate skill sets imaginable. Can you a wield a tommy gun? Check. Safe cracking, bomb making, get away car driving? All check. Advanced chemistry and hazardous materials handling as well as clown school or equivalent experience? Check, check and check. Juggling? Check. Mime? Check. Willingness to commit crimes dressed as a clown or as other circus related characters (subject to change based on nature of scheme)? Check. Willing to work for a homicidal madman who doesn’t hesitate to kill his own henchman at the slightest whim? Check.

    I always imagine the Joker running the most terrifying clown school of all time. “Ok, Barney. You’ve gassed the staff, disabled the silent arm and cracked the safe. Class, give Barney a hand. Excellent work. Now, Barney throws the jewels into some bags, climbs onto a unicycle and proceeds to juggle as he makes his way to the getaway car. You dropped the bags Barney. Do it again. Do it again! Barney, if you can’t juggle those bags while riding a unicycle how will we ever be able to pull off this job? You disappoint me Barney. You’re fired! (shoots Barney) Hahahahahahahah!!! Get it? Fired?! (Turns to a terrified goon) Why aren’t you laughing Larry?! That was funny?! Lighten up! (The Joker’s flame throwing lapel flower incinerates Larry) Lighten up! Hahahahahahahahaha!!! Get it?! (The surviving goons laugh nervously) Ok class, recess is over. Now, who wants to go next?

  7. laminator_x says:

    I saw this one twice on it’s opening day. I had never done that before with a movie, and have not done so since.

    Something that struck me about it then, and even more so now is how little the title character talks. There are lots of thoughtful reaction shots, not brooding exactly, more contemplative.

    Something that differed here from most other portrayals of the character, is the body-count. This would be the only time since his early appearances as The Bat-Man that you would see him gunning down mobs of goons with machine-guns from an aircraft, throwing them from precipices, or blowing them up.

    While this film does have some problems, this thing really did blow the doors off the preconceptions about what superheroes could be in popular culture.

  8. taskboy3000 says:

    Batman 1986 was miles ahead of the previous flick

    The 80s saw the fruition of the comic book hero reformation that started in the 70s with folks like Neal Adams. Sure, there had been two or three good Superman movies at that time (Sups isn’t exactly a complex character and the “new” Reeve films added complexity only to the Clark “beard”), but the face of old Bats was still Adam West.

    Burton did a great service to the character of Batman with his film, whatever Kevin Smith seems to think about it.

    Sure, it’s not Frank Miller’s sociopath Batman (not even Nolan’s is that), but Burton’s film introduced a serious, dangerous hero whose mild contempt for the law was right at home in Reagan’s America.

    As far as I can remember, there were two mutually supportive culture force that drove 80’s pop culture: cocaine and impedending nuclear Armageddon.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I, for one, was not bothered by the Joker’s A, B, and C stories running simultaneously. I actually enjoyed the time spent on hearing the main characters speak a little more, getting to know them by their interaction.
    Frankly, I found the characters in TDK to be examples of characters who are labeled for our thematic convenience.
    Re: the Nolan’s Joker, (and I will reveal here I was bored by TDK and unengaged), the one scene that made the whole film worthwhile for me, was the scene with Dent in the hospital. But when the Joker says he hates plans, is he being disingenuous or doesn’t he know any better because he is insane? He is a very clever planner. The film begins with his plan and is filled with his plans.

    • laminator_x says:

      He may hate them in spite of being so good at them. The Joker is not a very happy person.

      • johnnycrulez says:

        Also you do have to remember that the Joker’s insane. Insanity may not justify bad plotting, but it does justify a character who is consistently contradicting himself in his dialogue.

        • Todd says:

          There’s nothing wrong with insanity as a character motivation, but an insane character must have a pathology, they can’t just do whatever the plot requires them to because they’re “insane.” The Joker in The Dark Knight has a pathology, part of which is that he lies, part of which is that he’s brilliant, part of which he’s homicidal, and so forth. His pathology is consistent and logical, and everything he does moves toward a specific end.

          • Anonymous says:

            So you are saying that his pathology is consistent and logical and he is moving to the specific end of subverting all that is consistent and logical in society. Look, the only thing I liked about The Dark Knight was the Joker–he was the only character who had the depth to invite any further thought. But I don’t have a problem with Burton’s Joker having some romantic idea of winning Vicki Vale’s affection within his own twisted chivalric rules. I didn’t find it jarring at all.
            I just find The Dark Knight overwrought and thought it took itself too seriously. I thought the Nolan’s did a better job with The Prestige, though I was prepared to not like it because I loved the book so well.

  10. robolizard says:

    You mentioned Batman breaking his rules… I remember watching ‘Batman Returns’, and watching in horror as Batman fires the engine from his Batmobile in the first action sequence, setting one of the clowns on fire, and leaving him to burn to death.

    Tim Burton’s Batman occasionally kills!

    Also, what was weird to me is that Joker’s death in this movie is a lot like the Joker’s almost death in the Nolan film, where the Joker falls off a height after a fist fight with the Dark Knight, only in Nolan’s version Batman catches him, while in the other, he lets him die. I guess all it says is that Nolan wrote a more complex script and followed the rules of the comics more closely than anything else.

    Parallel realities maaaan… just a random observation with no real follow up.

    • Todd says:

      Since I think of The Dark Knight as a very different movie than Batman, I too was shocked to see that they share many of the same almost-plot-points.

    • laminator_x says:

      More than occasionally, I’d go so far as to say often. Batman opens with two petty crooks talking about their buddy who took a dive off of a rooftop.

      Batman goes easy on the goons during the fight at the museum, but after the weird confrontation at Vickie’s apartment he more or less goes on a killing spree.

      He blows up everybody at Axis chemicals with a bomb dropped via remote-Batmobile. Next he uses rockets and machine-guns on the parade floats. Finally he sends goon after goon down the bell-tower’s shaft in the fight at the end.

      • robolizard says:

        That reminds me of the ‘Legends of the Dark Knight’ Bruce Timm short, where one of the kids remembers a DKR version of Batman, with Batman firing madly from his Batmobile, as Robin looks at him, and Miller’s Batman growls ‘rubber bullets’.

        Miller’s Batman lies!

        Also, I think a human life was worth so much less in 80’s movies than it is now. That’s kind of how you ‘won’ in adventure movies, even classy ones like The Lion King, the Villain had to die! I guess it depends on who’s making it…

        • stormwyvern says:

          Perhaps, but in The Lion King (1994, by the way) as in most Disney films, great pains are taken to ensure that the villain dies in some way that does not directly involve the hero. My guess is that having a Batman who’s willing to kill was another way of distancing the “new” Batman from the guy who could not get rid of a bomb because some ducks would have been blown up.

          The same episode employs a strategically placed crash of thunder to cover up the sound of Dark Knight Bats breaking the mutant leader’s bones.