The moviegoer hasn’t seen a whole lot of Michael Keaton lately. A staple of 1980s cinema, thanks to his roles in Night Shift (1982) and three Tim Burton films: Beetlejuice (1988), Batman (1989), and Batman Returns (1992), Keaton’s career slowly faded during the past 20 years with his main credits being voice work in Pixar movies (Cars, Toy Story 3) and his low-budget directorial debut The Merry Gentleman (2008), an understated and beautiful neo-noir. His career skyrocketed with a casting decision: normally a manic comedian, Keaton was cast as Batman. This scared the crap out of fans and, in one notable case, investors (the Wall Street Journal ran a front page story on Keaton’s casting at the time and was extremely skeptical) as the camp of the 1960’s television show left a huge stigma over Batman that Frank Miller and Alan Moore’s work had only begun to rectify.
Last weekend, the American Cinematheque ran a Keaton retrospective and the notorious eyebrow actor came out for Q&A during a double-bill of Beetlejuice and Multiplicity. I showed up the next night for a double-bill of the first two Batman films, the first of which was one of the first films I recall seeing in the theaters. The movie made me a movie fan, a Batman fan, and a comic book fan. I owned the toys, I owned the Prince soundtrack for a short time (until my mother heard the lyrics) and, most significantly, I owned the DC Movie Special comic book adaptation (scripted by Dennis O’Neil, one of the founding fathers of the camp-less Batman). My fascination with the first page of the comic book adaptation, featuring a film spool turned into the grid of the page, has become a totem of my descent into dissertation madness, a nexus of all the cultural objects I care deeply about. Obviously, and readers of my review of Batman will no doubt remember, the caped crusader as embodied by Michael Keaton cast a long shadow over my childhood and my blossoming obsession for comics and film.
Sitting in the double-bill, my first time seeing both films on a 35mm print since their original release dates, humbled my nostalgia. The first film seems to play better on the ivory reflective screen of my memory than it does on an actual screen in Santa Monica. Burton’s stylistic choices are odd; an out of focus zoom out from a roulette game, the goofy sequence in the art museum choreographed to a Prince track, his editing of action sequences, etc. Yet, for every odd stylistic choice Burton draws upon, making the film feel more and more like a cinematic time capsule of what both the blockbuster and Batman meant in the late 1980s, he completely nails the tone. Nicholson’s Joker, while easy to underestimate thanks to Heath Ledger’s showstopping performance, is pretty damn great. Anton Furst’s production design nails the grim and gritty approach of the seminal Miller and Moore Batman comics of the period. Batman, removed from the context of my six year old life, is not a perfect film but it was a pathfinder in how to do a complex superhero film.
I was more disheartened to watch Batman Returns after 20 years. I always remembered the film being darker than the original, more perverse, grittier. I remember hearing stories about how it scared kids to the point that Warner Brothers needed to franchise to lighten up to keep parents happy, once again spiraling into the flamboyant aesthetic of the television show and becoming, once again, a “bad” cultural object in the hands of Joel Schumacher. Yet, in retrospect, that seems like an odd reaction. We often remember Batman & Robin (1997) for bad puns and a disjointed narrative but, in reality, Returns predated that. The look of the film may be more refined; the production design, soundtrack, make up, and entire scope of Gotham City at Christmas time is stunning. However, the writing took a severe falling off. The project went from Sam Hamm, writer of the first film (who also wrote an excellent arc on the Batman comics entitled “Blind Justice,” a possible guide for the final Nolan Batman film), to Daniel Waters, writer of Heathers (1988), who turned the film into a social satire.
Returns is notorious for spending more time dealing with the villains than the hero. Batman only makes one appearance in the first hour of the film really, disarming a violent circus gang led by the Penguin (Danny DeVito) as they threaten businessman Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) and the mayor of Gotham City. Yet, we soon discover that Penguin’s attack was all a ruse to team-up with the evil Shreck, who plans on building a power plant that will milk Gotham of all of its energy. In order for Shreck’s plan to succeed, he needs adequate mayoral candidate, which the Penguin, freshly thrown into the media spotlight, can fulfill. Then there’s the creation of the film’s second villain, Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer). The first half of the movie is essentially a series of repeated origin stories (the creation of Penguin at the hands of cold hearted parents, the creation of Catwoman at the hands of the murderous Shreck) and the obvious shifting of the conflict’s wheels into motion at the hands of the villains (Shreck, via Walken’s unique delivery, wears his motives on his sleeve in a cringe-inducing monologue).
We lose focus on Batman for the complete opposite in subtle storytelling. Selina Kyle’s transformation into Catwoman is taken laughingly literally (thrown out a window to her death, she is resurrected by cats and returns home to disown her role as a feminine object). The subtext is great, but it’s handled with the gracefulness of using a sledgehammer to swat a fly. Walken’s performance doesn’t help matters but again, the chief cause seems to be the screenplay. When there are glaring leaps of logic (all the bat signals in town project on Bruce Wayne’s house, making it obvious who the caped crusader is) and eyerollingly bad one-liners (Penguin on being abandoned in the sewer system by his parents: “I was their number one son but they treated me like number two!”), not even Stan Winston’s great makeup design and Danny Elfman’s superior score can cover up the unsightly blemishes of Batman Returns.
This past week, I interviewed former Batman and DC editor Denny O’Neil for my dissertation. We spoke about his comics and the Batman films and he said to me that his favorite adaptations of Batman were the Nolan films and, not surprisingly,”Batman: The Animated Series” (1992). It’s easy to say in retrospect that the Nolan movies are better than the Burton films because Burton helped forge the path and did some of the heavy lifting (not to slight Nolan’s contributions, most notably grounding the mythos in reality, but it’s easier to do that in the wake of a successful franchise). “The Animated Series,” on the other hand, was a contemporary of Burton’s films. It was a spin off that ended up eclipsing the original and it holds up much better than the first four films. Keaton has all but disappeared and Burton, despite an upcoming exhibition at LACMA, has become his own worst enemy, remaking the same handful of movies over and over again like an auteur version of Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog’s Day (1993). The real enduring star of the films was the inspiration, Batman himself and, despite the casting of Anne Hathaway, I’m glad Christopher Nolan is now in the pilot seat of the caped crusader’s cinematic legacy. The fire rises!