Saturday, October 09, 2010

My Confession

In the comments thread for the last entry (and by the way, I said it over on MightyGodKing and it's still true here, I love getting comments. Blogging is essentially unpaid writing, and getting feedback makes it all worthwhile. Thanks to everyone who comments on my posts!), sorry. In the comments thread for the last entry, Justin Garrett Blum said, "if it were true, then why did Tim Burton do such a dark film and why, of all of Batman films, was that the hugest smash hit?" (It, in this case, being my claim that the 60s Batman series made it hard for Batman to escape the label of being a campy kids' show.) And I'd like to respond to that, but doing so involves a confession. Crucify me if you may, but...I really don't like Tim Burton's Batman. I actually think it sucks pretty bad. And I think the only reason it has the reputation it does is because fans were cringing so much in anticipation of another Adam West-esque campfest that seeing a movie that treated Batman the way he was in the comics made them raise it onto a pedestal that it doesn't deserve.

The thing you need to remember, in order to make sense of all this, is that comics were actually popular and accessible to the general public back in the 1980s. (Rim Shot!) Seriously, Batman comics were easy for kids to get hold of back then, and the character had a massive fan following among teenagers. This meant that there was an enormous disconnect between the audience of Batman, who had come of age on Denny O'Neil and Alan Moore and "knew" the character to be a dark, serious, vengeance-obsessed detective who fought crime with grim brutality...and the popular impression of the character, forged by endless syndication repeats of the Adam West series, who "knew" the character to be a campy, brightly-colored kid's character who fought goofy pun-based villains like King Tut and Egghead. The discontent by Batman fans was bubbling under the surface like a pressure-cooker, just waiting for someplace to vent.

That someplace was Tim Burton's Batman. To Batman fans, and remember, finding out that the movie was going to be grim and serious and gothic was like finding out you'd just won a war you'd been fighting for twenty years. This was "our" Batman, not the stupid Batman for old fogies, and the word-of-mouth on that movie was killer. Every kid told every other kid that this Batman was going to be cool, not lame, and it created a buzz that turned the film into the smash it became. (Which, I hope, answers Justin's question. It's not that I think that Schumacher's films would have been good if not for the Adam West series, but the reason they were bad in the specific way they were bad was down to the 60s show.)

But setting aside that exuberant exhilaration at finally getting a Batman flick that didn't use the phrase, "Holy (Insert Stupid Catchphrase Here), Batman!"...which I can finally do, I think, after twenty-one years of emotional distance and lots of actually good Batman adaptations, including but not limited to the animated series and Chris Nolan's excellent film, The Dark's actually not very good. Michael Keaton is a decent enough Bruce Wayne, but he's clearly not physically capable of doing most of the stuntwork as Batman and the rubber muscle suit they put him in hampers him even further. The action sequences mostly consist of Batman standing still as thugs caper around him, until he finally manages to lift a fist up far enough for someone to run into. (Speaking of things that were long-term harmful effects, it does seem like it took a long time for people to get past the need to put their heroes into stiff, impractical costumes with sculpted muscles...)

The film labors, like most "first movies" in super-hero sagas, under the weight of having to introduce the character and its rationale. It's really most unfortunate in the case of Batman and Superman, two characters whose origins are already very well known and very simple to explain; honestly, there's no reason why, "My parents got shot by a mugger" should take longer than five minutes to show. But in practical terms, there's no Joker/Batman action until about forty minutes in, and that's too long. (Although, in the film's defense, it is better than the Donner Superman, which doesn't get around to even showing Superman in costume until about the same length of time has passed. I swear, cut off the opening Krypton sequence and people could be forgiven for thinking that the film is a coming-of-age drama set during the Great Depression for the first half-hour.)

Nicholson...on the one hand, he's just doing Nicholson. On the other hand, this is probably the film best-suited to him just doing Nicholson. (That's the big problem with his part in The never believe he's sane long enough to be surprised when he goes nuts.) On the other other hand...for a reported $50 million bucks, including his chunk of the gross, you'd think that he could have gone on a diet, maybe? The Joker is supposed to be gaunt, but instead he's pudgy. (Again, this goes back to the action sequences. The dramatic final confrontation between Batman and the Joker is two out-of-shape guys in their 40s wearing silly outfits kind of hitting each other. It really undercuts the climax when you can't believe either one of these guys could take the other in a fight.)

I could go on--the Smylex gas plot is undernourished, the chemistry between Basinger and Keaton is non-existent, the story involves (perhaps even pioneers) the terrible super-hero movie cliche of the hero revealing his secret identity to his girlfriend after swearing he'll never reveal it to her, and the Prince soundrack is, in retrospect, awful and overused. But at this point, I'm just piling on. The movie is a typical bloated summer blockbuster, plotless and star-heavy, and the only reason it was the success it became was that its target audience was desperate for any kind of Batman movie where the sound effects weren't presented in big word balloons on the screen. Now that we've tasted better fare, this one hasn't aged well at all.

Or at least, that's my opinion.


Unknown said...

THANK YOU! I agree with all your points on this movie. I'd also like to add that making the Joker and the Waynes' murderer the same person was one of the most contrived and nonsensical twists ever.

John Seavey said...

Oh, yes. That falls under "long, convoluted origins" in my book, but you've absolutely nailed the specifics of my irritation with it.

A.J. said...

Your argument is true of some people, but in my case I was six when it came out, and I primarily knew Batman from the TV show reruns. I like 'Batman' mainly because 1. I love Keaton and Nicholson in their respective roles, 2. I love the set design, and 3. I love the Danny Elfman soundtrack. It's my favorite Batman film to this day, and I can watch it time and again. I don't get the outright hate some people have for the film, which is often couched in arguments about how true it is to the source material (which is funny, considering the Nolan films aren't any truer). Whatever mistakes it contains (and it's certainly not perfect) the Burton 'Batman' FEELS like a more like an archetypal Batman movie than any other to me.

Allegretto said...

I have to disagree with you A.J. While "Batman" is pretty much a "Tim Burton film" with Batman as the protagonist, the Nolan films really try to get to what makes Batman a memorable character. They are truer adaptations by focusing on the premise. A good adaptation is so if it keeps the essence and the defining traits of the original work. The Nolan films understand that Batman is about the virtue of sacrifice, in the same way that Spider-Man is about the virtue of fortitude. "Batman" by Burton is all about the aesthetics and not much else. Its gritty and "dark" and "srs", but only because that's an aesthetic choice that Burton is very partial to. It's almost just a fortunate coincidence that they turned out the way they did. There's no apparent effort by Burton to make a true Batman movie, it just seems like he felt comfortable with taking a shot at the character. Rather than telling a "Batman story" he's telling a Burton story with Batman in the middle.
The Nolan films, on the other hand, are very much truer to the character by staying true to the motivations and premises of the Batman stories, even if Ra's Al Ghul is not a carbon copy of comics Ra's Al Ghul, and even if there is a very clear PoV from the script and direction, its only that. There's no attempt to transform Batman's core characteristics, even if there is an attempt to "ground it", which has been there in comicdom since the 90's anyways.

magidin said...

I find some interesting resonances between your description of the fans reaction to Tim Burton's "Batman", and a similar reaction in the skeptical community with the "Contact" film. It would take me too far off the topic of this post to discuss why, but I just thought I would mention it.

Anonymous said...

I was silent during the previous post, but i would like to say that i also kinda disagree with your assessment that the 1960s West show damaged Batman. For one thing, it has been said at least once, on tv, i believe, that the show doubled sales for the Batman comics. Not to mention the show was on the air less than a decade after Seduction of the Innocent. I know it was a decade, but that wasn't so far off that people had forgotten about it. The longevity of a franchise wasn't an assured thing. Of course, in retrospect, we can all say "Well, the Batman television series damaged Batman for 20 years!" But we don't even know if there would have BEEN a Batman for the next 20 years if the show hadn't introduced Batman to such a large audience. True, it isn't "our" conception of Batman, but is "our" conception necessarily the "correct" conception? At this point, i'm almost getting off topic, but i think i said my piece about the tv show. I am not even defending the show, though. But i won't believe that it did more harm than good, or even that much harm in the first place.

As for the '89 movie, i have read that Burton, while being trusted with something like Batman, was still somewhat on a short leash. He has said he had a dispute with Jack Palance, and he's barely more than a cameo character. You hit on the idea that Nicholson probably got the most money out of everyone involved in this piece. Now imagine what would have happened if he had done something like say "um, Jack, can you lose some weight, please?" Jack was the big name. If they wanted him to do anything he didn't want to do (i don't really know if he would have complied or not) then he could have just left and then the movie would have been much worse off. Again, i don't know the relationship between Burton and Nicholson at the time this movie was being made, but i am feeling that Burton let Nicholson do his thing so that the movie could have that name recognition, and he didn't want a confrontation with one of the most important actors in the movie.

A.J. said...

"The Nolan films, on the other hand, are very much truer to the character by staying true to the motivations and premises of the Batman stories"

Aside from that bullshit about Batman emphasizing that he does not kill, but weaseling out of it when it suits him ("Oh, well, I don't have to SAVE you. It's totally different). And the whole romantic conflict angle. Not to mention the grating endless pontificating. Personally I find the hyper-realism fetish (and the resulting contradictions) of the Nolan movies kind of hilarious. For me, the Nolan films are kind of a chore to get through ('The Dark Knight' is far superior than its predecessor, though) due to all the ham-fisted dialogue and thematic ideas, while the Burton films work are more consistent and better realized at what they are trying to do.

Also, forgot to mention I like Prince.

Lovecraft In Brooklyn said...

There's no 'true' Batman. It's all valid. Tim Burton's pop-gothic is a perfectly valid style for Batman, as is Nolan's hyper-realism and Brave and the Bold (the cartoons) parade of DC cameos and cheesy fun.
same goes for The Joker. 'evil Jack Nicholson' is a valid Joker choice
that said, i don't think the film has aged as well as it should

Anonymous said...

Let us not forget that at one point Batman has machine guns pop out of his car.


Has machine guns.

Points missed.

Chris said...

While I also can't stand the 60s TV show (though I thought it was awesome when I was a little kid), it's my understanding that the comics were already goofy camp-fests by the time the show was made and the tone and style of the show was actually pretty strongly influenced by the Batman comics of the day.

I do agree that the show cemented the Caped Crusader version of the character in the minds of the general public and is wholly responsible for the fact that the average mainstream press article about comics STILL has some variation of "BIFF BAM POW!" in the headline.

And yeah. Burton's Batman sucked pretty hard.

That said, I think we're going to look back on Nolan's films in much the same way 20 years from now. While I think Nolan's films are the best live-action Batman we've had yet, I don't think any adaptation has gotten it right(outside of animation).

Eric Qel-Droma said...


While I definitely have a soft spot in my heart for Batman '89, and while I still argue that it marks a fairly clean break in public perception of Batman as a "camp" character, I definitely agree with you that the Burton movie is just not that good.

It has lots of cool parts (music, set design, atmosphere) and some parts that were cooler/edgier in 1989 (the Joker KILLS people--which was a big deal for mass media Batman, the suit, etc.), but as a story, it falls apart. All I can say is that it got the tone right, and that was a big accomplishment. Ultimately, the movie didn't go "cute" as Sam Hamm pointed out in a Comics Scene interview back in the day.

Thanks for the memories and the analysis.

And hey, Lovecraft in Brooklyn: SO TRUE.

Jared said...

Okay folks, ready your torches and pitchforks, because I'm going to go out on a limb and say that I actually *love* the 1989 Burton film.

Now, in the last few moments before I get lynched, I'd like to explain just why:

1) Admittedly, I haven't read a whole lot of Batman, but I'm baffled by the criticism that it's not true to the comics. We have the Joker causing mayhem, we have Batman trying to stop him, we have psychological explorations of both the hero (when Knox and Vale are discussing the Wayne murders in the newspaper office, and when Bruce is alluding to his own reservations about being Batman when he tries to tell Vicki his secret in her apartment), and the villain (when the Joker discusses his depraved "artistic philosophy" to Vicki in the museum). What's not to like?

2) Jack Nicholson's Joker is actually funny. Aside possibly from that sequence where he dances around in the nurse's uniform, Heath Ledger is never really all that amusing. Sure, he's got his own twisted pseudo-philosophy, but otherwise he rarely does anything that's even all that amusing.

Compare this to the Joker asking Batman if he'd hit a guy with glasses, turning into the Wicked Witch of the West after Vicki splashes him with a pitcher of water, going on a stream-of-consciousness rant while killing a guy with an electrified joybuzzer, and giving Vicki a gift that's a bouquet of dead flowers in a mannequin's severed hand, which makes her faint dead away when she opens it.

Heath Ledger is top in his class when it comes to being evil and scary, but he really needs to go back to clown college and brush up on his act.

3) A.J. alludes to the hyperrealism of the Nolan films, and finds them somewhat contradictory. What I love about Burton's world is that he actually plays a number of superhero tropes both subtly and perfectly straight. We see the Joker using his acid-squirting flower, an electric joybuzzer, and an extended boxing glove to smash his TV set. Burton's Penguin uses actual trick umbrellas, and his clowns use Circus Of Fear paraphernalia...

Jared said...

...Heath Ledger uses...well, the same guns and knives that a million other villains use. The Scarecrow only wears a burlap mask, and he rarely even does that. What next, a Penguin who doesn't use trick umbrellas and doesn't have any deformities?

4) I actually feel like I can follow the plot. The more recent comics I've read by guys like Jeph Loeb and especially Grant Morrison seem to thrive on ridiculously complicated Xanatos Roulettes that somehow never fail and seem to be designed by people who apparently seem to be clairvoyant.

Just how many times could Hush's and the Riddler's plot have come unravelled if a character reacted differently, or if Batman decided to do something they hadn't banked on?

Could even Batman have conceivably set up an entire second personality within his subconscious if the first one was somehow overcome?

How can someone "wear" someone else's skin as a disguise? Wouldn't the flesh rot or tear easily? How do they get the face to smile if they need it to?

These sorts of increasingly convoluted plots and plot devices stretch my suspension of belief well beyond the breaking point. I can see Batman taking reasonable precautions like keeping his databases updated, or keeping a supply of antivenoms on hand to deal with both plant toxins and fear toxins, but somehow having an entire second personality waiting in your subconscious just goes too damn far.

There's being prepared, there's being Crazy Prepared, and then there's being So Omniscient You Know What The Villains Are Going To Be Doing Three Weeks From Now Before They Even Start Phase One.

I mean, could today's Batman make a mistake that leaves James Gordon seriously injured? Could the Joker be played for a sucker by Cameron Kaiser? Both these things occurred in the 1990s cartoon, but the levels to which both the bat and the clown ascend in the comics these days crosses from badass to just plain contrived.

With the Burton films and the cartoon that followed them, the plots were (to me, at least) a lot more straightforward and easy to follow. Just as in anything else, sometimes less is more and the direct approach is more effective.

5) I feel like I could actually take any kids I might have to see the Burton films and not worry about traumatizing them. The victims of Smylex were certainly gruesome, but still not as bad as driving a pencil into a guy's eye, or impaling him on a broken hockey stick.

Now, I admit, I'm not the biggest Bat-fan in the world, and my views are probably going to be at odds with a lot of people's. Maybe I'm the one who doesn't properly understand the appeal or the core concept of Batman and his world, especially these days. But still, I feel the Burton films are in fact much better than most of the other posters here are giving them credit for, and while I enjoy the Nolan films, I don't consider them to be quite as good as most other people seem to think, either.

John Seavey said...

No, Jared, you're not going to be lynched. :) If you genuinely like and derive enjoyment from the '89 Batman, then more power to you. I certainly don't enjoy not being entertained by a movie that I wanted to be entertained by, and I'm glad you were.

But since you asked, here's what I meant by "not true to the comics". Arguably, the two core elements to Batman's heroic persona is that he's a detective and a martial artist. A "quintessential" Batman story is about him investigating a crime, finding out who did it and how (and usually why) and then beating them up.

Tim Burton's Batman doesn't do either of those things convincingly. The "mystery" of the dead models is handled in the film by having Batman hand Vicki Vale a piece of paper and say, "Here. This is how the Joker is doing it and how to stop it." That should have been the majority of the plot, but you can tell that Tim Burton really isn't interested in having Batman solve crimes. He's interested in Batman's internal psychodrama. That, to me, doesn't work. I know there are people who want to see it, and I won't dispute their right to have a movie that caters to it, but I'm not them.

I agree with you, though, that Ledger isn't a "funny" Joker for the most part. He has his moments (dressing up as a nurse, the little fumble with the detonator, the joke about "no, you get killed by the bus driver") but Nolan's exploring a different aspect of the character.

For a perfect "funny" Joker, you need Mark Hamill's animated Joker. Hamill runs rings around Nicholson at every step of the way, admittedly aided by some brilliant scripts. He is, to my mind, the definitive Joker, and after seeing him in action, it's hard not to see Nicholson as anything other than runner-up.

As for the comics...oh, don't get me started. I'll boil it down to, "You're absolutely right, but just because the comics have fallen so far lately doesn't mean I think they should only aim as high as the '89 Batman." :)

Jared said...

Actually John, the 1990s Dini/Timm cartoon is also my ideal Batman. He makes the occasional mistake, but he's still an extremely capable hero. He's a dark avenger (witness his speech to the Sewer King, when he's desperately trying to avoid ripping the King's head off right then and there) but he's also got a strong sense of compassion and justice, smiling when he sees the victims he saves return to their normal lives.

Mark Hamill's Joker is also the king of the jesters. He's both capable of subtle but hilarious gestures (roasting a weenie on the electric chair that's frying Batman, holding a mock funeral for the Dark Knight while adding a KICK ME sign to the coffin while Harley plays on the kazoo) but he's also capable of bone-chilling deeds, like what he did to Tim Drake.

What I also really enjoyed was how I could follow the detective work. There are no convoluted leaps of logic like there seem to be in the modern comics, and it's fairly easy to follow Batman's train of reasoning as he solves the mystery.

When Sherlock Holmes made complicated deductions or actions, we usually got an explanation that shows exactly what went through his mind and how he did it. Even when we didn't specifically get it, it was still easy to see exactly what he was doing (when he wants to find out who's staying at a hotel, he pretends to be mistake about the person he's interested in, to keep the desk clerk from suspecting anything.)

Grant Morrison, on the other hand, simply seems to take it for granted that, no matter what happens, Batman has already got it covered and it doesn't matter how he did it. That's what eventually made me give up in disgust on R.I.P., in that I just got sick of what seemed to me to be contrived coincidences and convoluted preparations with little explanation. Batman wasn't the only one, either-the way the Black Glove seemed to be manipulating the Club of Heroes was another one of those things that just stretched my suspension of disbelief past the breaking point.

I've used a couple of Xanatos Gambits in my fanfiction, but I at least try to explain to the reader how exactly the villain is pulling it off. If the plan is even more convoluted, I'll even take time to explain the reasoning and all the contingencies behind it.

Justin Garrett Blum said...

I haven't got a lot to add to this conversation. I'm glad that Jared posted, because he said everything I would have, and then some.

I'm a big fan of the 1989 Batman, and a lot of the complaints about it often feel very nit-picky to me. For example, Jack Nicholson being a little pudgy doesn't bother me, because as Jared said, he's darn funny in the role.

I thought Batman Begins was not a very good revamp. Much of this might have had to do with how boring I've found Christian Bale to be in the role, but frankly, I think it also lacked the whimsy that made Burton's Batman so great. The recent incarnations of Batman feel so unrelentingly bleak. I miss Bruce Wayne's humanity.

Getting back to the 1960s television series, I still don't think it was that bad. It was goofy, sure, but it was also, probably, one of my first experiences with Batman as a child, and it got me interested in reading more about him. So that's a good thing.

I think there's room in this world for the campy, tongue-in-cheek Batman and the more serious Batman. Schumaker's films were bad not because they were campy but because they were just terrible films.

Eric Qel-Droma said...

Jared, I think your comments show some of the definite positives of Batman '89. I'd hate to think that anyone would lynch you for such well-thought-out comments.

However, I also have to add that for "not true to the comics," Burton's Batman kills multiple times and without any guilt whatsoever. Unless we've gone back to the 1930's ("a fitting end for his kind," etc.), Batman does not have multiple kills under his belt.

Austin Gorton said...

I adored Burton's Batman as a kid, and thankfully, I can still watch it and remember loving it as a kid, enjoying it as nostalgia.

That said, as I got older, I came to like it less and less. Here are the three main issues I have with it, some of which John has already touched on.

1. For all the praise Nicholson gets, he's basically just doing an R-rated Caesar Romero. And I loved Caesar Romero's Joker, but let's not pretend Nicholson is reinventing the wheel.

2. Batman kills people. Sure, he doesn't pull out a gun and cap the Joker, but he blows up a factory full of goons and tries to machine gun Joker.

I'm not saying I would object to a movie where Batman kills somebody, but damn it, it had better be a big deal, because Batman doesn't kill.

3. He tells Vicky Vale his identity. I'm of the school of thought that Bruce Wayne is the part he plays and Batman is who he really is. I have no problem with love interests, with examining how hard it must be for Batman to honor the promise he made to his parents while also loving someone, but at the end of the day, Batman HAS to let the woman go, and keep being Batman (something Batman Begins got right).

Like I said, I still enjoy the movie, nostalgically if nothing else, but I definitely see flaws now.

It's actually kinda funny how perceptions change with age; as a kid, I HATED the killer penguins in Batman Returns because I thought it undercut the grim reality of the movie; as an adult, Returns is probably my favorite non-Nolan Batfilm, and I love the penguins as a bit of "only in comic books" cheek.

Anonymous said...

Teebore, I share your fondness for Caesar Romero's Joker. If he'd been able to combine his clownishness and energy with the comics' Joker's homicidal streak (restored a few year's later by Denny O'Neil) I think he'd have been amazing.
John, I agree wholeheartedly, particularly about the action scenes. Batman Begins got it right, a guy who flickers in and out and is never where they think he is.
A friend of mine argues that the Batman 60s series (and no, the comics were not "campy" before that, though they were far from the Dark Knight) mucked up super-hero series for years: He figures the fear of being campy is why the Spider-Man TV show from the seventies never had anything but ordinary gangsters (and neither did any of the made-for-TV super-heroes, such as Exoman, Power Within, etc.).