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Do I Look Like I'm Joking?

By Drew Morton | Film | September 1, 2010 |

By Drew Morton | Film | September 1, 2010 |

When Dustin informed me of Pajiba’s films of the 1980s retrospective, I was a little ambivalent to write on one of the first films I remember seeing theaters, Tim Burton’s Batman (1989; I think the honor for the first film I saw in a theater was Who Framed Roger Rabbit). First, Burton’s iconic film has been a defining element of our culture, inspiring a glut of thoughtful, scholarly analysis (two of my favorite texts are the anthology The Many Lives of Batman and Will Brooker’s Batman Unmasked); how can one approach the film with a fresh perspective? Secondly, I’ve been living and breathing comic books for years now, particularly Batman titles, so I was a little burned out when it came to thinking and writing about the film. Thanks a lot, Christopher Nolan! Yet, I realized that my runner-up title, the seldom seen but incredibly funny Ruthless People (1986), didn’t quite do the retrospective justice. So, in typical Pajiba fashion, albeit a-typical when it comes to my approach to reviews, I decided to write a real-time review with my favorite drink in hand: a Captain and Coke. So, in the words of Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne, “Let’s get nuts!”

1:00: What ever happened to Robert Wuhl (Reporter Alexander Knox in the film)? Oh, that’s right, “Arli$$.”

1:30: Batman obviously earned Warner Brothers a huge return on their investment: $411 million worldwide for an alleged $35 million production budget. It seems, in retrospect, that a film adaptation was the natural course of action for WB to take, especially given that they owned the property outright thanks to a series of corporate mergers during the 1970s. Shockingly, this was not the case. The “Batman” television show (1966-1968) cast a long, pop art-infused, camp shadow over the property and, after the big budget failures of a series of superhero films in the 1980s (some more campy than others) such as Howard the Duck (1986), WB apparently had cold feet. According to animator and Batman comic book writer Paul Dini, Frank Miller’s iconic title The Dark Knight Returns (1986) helped change that conception of the Caped Crusader.

6:40: Speaking of hindsight being 20/20, Michael Keaton’s casting as the superhero was controversial to say the least. The Wall Street Times ran an article entitled “Mr. Mom is Batman?” and the Los Angeles Times ran a piece of angry mail from a reader who felt that Keaton’s comedic persona was more fitting for the Joker than the brooding, dark knight. Allegedly, poor fan reaction forced WB to release an early trailer to allay fan fears. They also brought Batman creator Bob Kane in as a creative consultant.

10:22: Gotham City is such a pit in this movie. Not that Chris Nolan’s version is heavenly, but what the hell draws people to this town? The slew of jobs available at Axis Chemicals?

12:00: The producers of the film tried to position the film in contrast to the Adam West series. They publicly proclaimed that West would not be cast in the title role and the casting of Jack Nicholson as Jack Napier/TheJoker, similar to that of Marlon Brando in the first Superman film, was meant to draw both legitimacy and prestige to the title. Nicholson, I believe, drew a small salary in exchange for a profit participation deal. Pun intended, he probably made a killing.

14:10: Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger): “I like … bats.”

15:00: Burton and Nolan obviously took different routes to aspects of the Batman mythology…. Yet, the mise-en-scène of both directors seems to draw its inspiration from film noir. Their approach to the actors, however, is a study of contrasts…

18:14: Sean Young was supposed to play Vicki Vale. Picture that for a moment.

19:10: R.I.P. Pat Hingle (Commission Gordon).

19:30: Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams) is one suave, Colt .45 drinkin’ motherfucker.

20:49: My wife on Vicki Vale’s white cocktail dress: “Is she going to a wedding?”

22:45: I wish Bruce Wayne would give me a writing grant.

23:40: I forgot this film starts pre-Bat Signal. (Needless to say, it’s been a while.) Wayne still needs to use his detective skills to track cases…

24:51: I’m picturing Nicholson with that hoagie right about now…

26:43: I think Axis Chemicals violates nearly every code enforced by OSHA…

27:13: The infamous around-the-corner backhand. Nicely timed, Mr. Wayne!

29:17: I know it goes up against the Batman mythology, but I didn’t really mind Jack Napier creating Batman creating the Joker. Many Batman comic book titles are about how the existence of both characters is contingent on the other, so it makes perfect sense here. The only misstep I found in the film is that Batman kills him off at the end. The Killing Joke anyone?

32:12: Bruce Wayne’s huge dining table. Maybe Billy Dee needs to give him some lady advice.

35:13: I don’t think Botox will fix that grin.

39:13: Bruce Wayne hangs like a bat when he sleeps. Guess he won’t be keeping that secret identity for long!

39:49: Hoot…hoot…hoot! Anyone else think Burton’s version satisfies fans of the original television series and Miller fans? After all, there’s even something a little campy about the later Miller titles (Anyone else try to read All-Star Batman and Robin?).

41:11: Case in point: “Honey, you’ll never believe what happened to me today!”-The Joker to Jerry Hall.

42:30: And singing during an electrocution.

43:03: One of the great aspects of Brooker’s book is that he contextualizes the campiness of Batman. For Brooker (as director Joel Schumacher also noted when he took over the franchise), many of the Batman titles of the 60s drifted away from the dark toned Golden Age titles to camp. For some historians and comic book scholars, this was a reaction to Fredric Wertham’s intervention and the establishment of the Comics Code. Overall, the tonal approach to Batman has been far from static over the past 71 years.

49:33: All this talk about Wertham makes me want to re-read Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

50:00: Death by pen!

51:21: Batman was the Karate Kid (1984) of my childhood. I dressed up like the Joker for many a Halloween, Batman came to my 8th or 9th birthday party, and I had one of the coolest handheld games ever: a Tiger Electronics Batwing game that my parents made me return because I was a tad too young for it (I think they thought it was overly complicated for me). They also took away my cassette of Prince’s soundtrack. No “Pussy Control,” mum and dad?

55:03: Not to harp on my parent’s parenting abilities, but those choices were made by the same people who allowed my 5 year old brother to rent another ’80s staple, Robocop (1987). After all, the film inspired a cartoon show and a toy line, how couldn’t it be kid friendly? I had ED-209 nightmares for years.

56:47: I had a poster of Joker on that beach. Jesus, I must have blown an allowance that added up to a small country’s GDP on Batman merch. You’re welcome, Jack Nicholson!

58:09: Great sight gag: News anchors stop using make-up because of fears of Joker products. Pimply faced, frizzy haired anchors on Channel 7. Thank God there wasn’t HDTV back in 1989. High-def acne baby!

61:00: I seem to recall when word came out that Heath Ledger had been cast as the Joker that there were a slew of concerns that he couldn’t top Nicholson. Yet, he did, brilliantly. Now, Nolan and fans do not want to even bother exploring the option of re-casting the late Ledger. Obviously, much of this decision has to do with honoring the legacy of Heath, which I appreciate. Yet, I think it could be done tastefully. First, Joker is known for continually re-inventing himself (see Grant Morrison’s latest incarnation of the character), so a slight shift in continuity could be sold, even in Nolan’s reality bound universe. Secondly, Joseph Gordon-Levitt or Johnny Depp could both make the role their own while paying homage. But, that’s just my humble opinion. I love the Joker and I’d hate to see his character left behind.

62:00: There’s a Prince song now!

65:00: Speaking of the Joker, many critics of Burton’s film tend to argue that he gets his villains better than he does his heroes. I think Keaton’s Wayne gets his shining moments (the scene at Vale’s apartment later), but that’s the nature of Batman. Everything he does is a reaction. For instance, if Vicki Vale had just been sitting at lunch some asshole, he wouldn’t have shown up as a jealous lover. It takes a kidnap attempt to bring Batman out of the woodwork, even if he has feeling for someone.

70:05: I wonder what would happen if I said this to a beautiful woman: “See that thing on my belt? Grab it and don’t let go.”

72:00: Never ask a woman what she weighs, Batman!

72:35: I think this scene was used for a Taco Bell commercial way back in the day. I love Danny Elfman’s score here though.

73:13: Who prefers Burton’s Batmobile to Nolan’s Tumbler? I’m a Tumbler man myself, although the gas mileage on that beast probably sucks.

75:32: Batman’s Cave needs a re-model. They have flat-screen, HD monitors now. Plus, that computer looks like a Tandy-2000. And is that a data tape deck? Is Bruce Wayne a billionaire or a hobo?!

80:00: This movie rushes the Wayne/Vale relationship, which feels all the more awkward considering where Batman Returns (1992) goes with it: nowhere.

82:38: Favorite line of the film coming up…

83:15: Ray Bans, a Leather Coat, and Fedora simply are not menacing pieces of attire. Sorry, Tracey Walter (Bob the Goon).

84:10: …”Never rub another man’s rhubarb!”

85:11: Why didn’t Bruce stay and explain? This reeks of unnecessary drama to me!

86:18: So, two of the top reporters in Gotham City were unaware that the family Bruce Wayne, two of the city’s richest citizens with a long lineage in town, were murdered? Guess that says a lot for the credibility of the Gotham Gazette.

88:24: I love how Gotham’s mayor can “see” Joker’s pirated broadcast while at his own press conference. This sequence feels like it partially paved the way for Ang Lee’s stylistic exploration of the comic book multi-frame in Hulk (2003).

89:55: When I was a kid, I took an old phone book and a binder to create my own folder of “Gotham City Unsolved Crimes.” Yeah, I was a geek.

90:30: So the Wayne family didn’t go see a Zorro film on that fateful night?

92:15: And the big reveal: Jack Napier killed Wayne’s parents. I think, in theory, it ties up nicely but that Burton didn’t get the most baggage out of the connection. Mainly because he de-rails it with this scene of Vicki Vale in the Batcave. What the hell was Alfred thinking? The two of them have only been dating for a couple months!

94:05: That suit doesn’t have any nipples!

99:45: Maybe Burton’s film helps terrorists. Couldn’t Al-Qaeda use Macy’s Thanksgiving Day balloons for a similar purpose? Or was that a subplot of that Tom Clancy novel Rainbow Six?

103:27: Joker nonchalant shooting of Bob might be the most villainous act he commits in the film.

104:30: Batman’s targeting system on the Batwing look’s like Rodney Dangerfield’s pimped out putter in Caddyshack (1980).

104:50: That’s some magnum force there! Why can’t they make a pistol like that for Call of Duty?

106:00: The film is slowing down for a moment to breathe. I think I’ll pour myself another C&C.

106:42: The C&C Music Factory is back online, although Joker and Vicki are still walking up that huge flight of stairs. Was this a Catholic Church?

107:27: Speaking of that Church, does anyone remember the last level of the Batman NES game. That game was tough, but not nearly as eye-gouging as Back to the Future. At least Arkham Asylum made up for all of those games in-between.

110:20: I’m running out of steam here. Where’s the fight with the previously unestablished villain who looks like Mr. T?

111:00: Oh, we get the ninja guy first.

111:20: And the guy who dove through the floor.

111:40: Here he is! Mr. T, he isn’t. This guy’s more like Jim Brown.

113:00: Now I have that song “Ring My Bell” by Anita Ward stuck in my head.

114:20: So Napier likes it when a woman kisses his suit coat? How un-erotic is that?

114:40: The delivery of Batman’s dialogue upon entrance into the scene is a bit off. That Keaton’s a Joker! Oh, wait. Beetlejuice… Beetlejuice! BEETLEJUICE!

116:20: Nicholson does some great eye acting here as he acknowledges his close call on the roof of the church. Michael Keaton, on the other hand, is an eye brow actor.

117:43: Doesn’t Gotham City PD have any back up or air support? Where the hell are the cops at?

118:27: An obvious use of symbolism: Batman grapples a Bat-like Gargoyle to the Joker’s foot, which proves the root of his demise. Killed by Batman twice over.

119:30: I thought Nolan’s homage to this sequence finally put right the relationship between Batman and Joker. Batman may occasionally kill (especially in the earliest issues), but even when Joker is at his most insane (Moore’s Killing Joke) there is a mutual respect between the two of them.

120:00: There’s the Bat Signal!

121:45: Again, it just seems like a big middle-finger to fans of the first film to establish the Wayne/Vale relationship and to relatively ignore it in the second film. Boo! Despite it’s missteps though, Burton’s film is still a hell of a good time.

Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Mediascape, The Playlist, and Senses of Cinema. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.

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