9 Random Thoughts on Tim Burton’s “Batman”

25Sep12

I shouldn’t have to explain WHY I re-watch things like this. I just do, and then I have thoughts about them. Get over it.

1.) The first act is still great. You get a lot of what would come to be classic moments — Batman’s slow descent with extended cape, a Batarang, colorful gangsters, etc. You also get some parts where the movie absolutely nails it, for me anyway. For some reason, I’ve always loved the scenes at the Wayne Manor party, especially the moment in the “arsenal” going into the reveal that the entire place is wired for cameras, followed by Bruce Wayne spying on Commissioner Gordon. Then the Axis Chemicals raid scene — which is not 100% super great, but contains five super great moments, namely:

  1. Batman’s arrival, taking down the gangster with his grapple.
  2. Gordon’s first glimpse of Batman, which I cannot say enough about. The way it’s shot is just about perfect, as is Hingle’s reaction “Oh… my… God…”.
  3. Batman saving Gordon from Napier’s bullet, and Napier’s “Jesus!” when he gets nabbed.
  4. Batman trying to save Napier from falling. I don’t know why, but it has always stayed with me. It’s well edited to motion, which more than compensates for Keaton’s slow-moving Batman. Batman’s lunge to grab Napier’s hand… there’s something perfect about that.
  5. Batman’s exit. The little moment where he turns to the other door but pauses because he sees it’s blocked as well, the smoke bomb, then the ascent where you cannot see the grapple’s line — but we, the audience, know it’s there — these moments are magical. They let us in to a side of Batman that the rest of the characters don’t see, and this, more than anything else in the movie, puts us on Batman’s side.

2.) It’s the second act that really lags.  I wonder how much of that has to do with the Joker, the lack of a STORY story, or just plain missing Batman. ‘Cause when Batman’s on screen, the movie’s great.  Act Two has got some good moments, a couple great moments, but when compared to the first act… maybe it’s just missing the fun of discovering things that the first act possesses.

3.) The film is a crowd-pleaser, not a logic deliverer. There are so many places to nitpick a movie like this: why doesn’t Batman use his ever-present grapple to zoom up the bell tower? Why did Batman wait until the last possible moment to save Vicky from the Joker at the museum? When the Batwing attacks the Joker’s parade, and it rains missiles, why can’t it manage to hit a single man with his arms wide open in the middle of the street? The answer to that last question comes from the bigger picture: the Joker has to live so we can have a big climactic ending. Because THAT’S WHAT PEOPLE WANT. Watching it again, this movie really did deliver on a lot of the big things people want in a Batman movie. I’m not saying* it’s perfect at all, but I can see why it did so well at the box office, and where the sequels did less well. There’s an actual damsel in constant distress in this one. In “Batman Returns,” for example, who is Batman even saving?

4.) The Non-Burton Tim Burton Movie. Hindsight being 20/20, it’s easy to point at “Batman” and say that it is one of the least Tim-Burton movies he has ever directed. The movies immediately preceding (“Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” and “Beetlejuice”) and immediately following (“Edward Scissorhands” and “Batman Returns”) feel more like TIM BURTON MOVIES than this one. Which may explain, again, why “Batman” did so well. It was a product, manufactured by skilled technicians. It was a really well made car. Not saying** this is a bad thing. I think it’s probably my favorite of those five movies. Sometimes you just need a car that feels like it makes sense, not an overly-ambitious experiment that can’t run on the road.

5.) Murky Clarity. It’s been said, both by me and other people, that the Nolan Batman’s are… shall we say, oddly filmed? They don’t linger on shots or moments for very long. Sometimes to great affect, and other times too much so. I’m thinking especially of “Batman Begins,” where the fight scenes are very choppy and shaky and blurry and you can’t tell what Batman is doing. Some have argued (or convinced themselves) that this was a specific artistic choice, because it helps keep Batman mysterious. Mysterious to his opponents, maybe, but WE don’t need Batman to be mysterious for the whole movie. Contrast this with the 1989 film, where you have precisely filmed and edited shots to tell specific Batman stories and moves. Off the top of my head, I can think of his glove flipping open a Batarang, his hands setting the end of his grapple to a railing after snaring a gangster at Axis chemicals, activating his zipline in the Joker’s face at the museum, and then all the other moments I mentioned in #1. Too be clear, not all of “Batman” is technically “beautiful.” As a friend pointed out, filming things without light does not make your movie dark, it just makes it hard to see what’s going on. And that happens quite a bit, especially in the bell tower fights. But at least they lingered just a moment or two for us to process what was going on. I’ve watched “The Dark Knight” over 10 times, and I still don’t quite understand that hand tool Batman’s using in his first fight with the Scarecrow. They show it to us, but it’s moving and then it’s over. Obviously, those things aren’t 100% important, because “The Dark Knight” beats 1989’s “Batman” in almost every other filmic way possible, but think if they’d nailed those parts, too. And they seem like they’re so easily nailable!

6.) Cape Work. There’s good cape stuff in “Batman,” which may be why I still love it. There’s a moment where Batman and Vicky are running from the Joker’s goons, and they show their feet. It’s a moving shot from the knees down, in motion, and Batman’s cape is just hanging over them as they run. It’s underrated in its beauty.

7.) Batmobile. One of my favorites, and also shows how different a person I am form the Nolan universe. The Tumbler, in a word, sucks. There’s no style to it. I’m not saying*** Batman has to have a kick-ass Corvette hybrid thing, but I do enjoy when things are functional AND beautiful. As always, the Tumbler makes complete sense in the Nolan universe in terms of function. But there’s no way anyone could argue that it’s a cooler car. If someone does want to argue such a case, then I would assume they think driving Hummers is cool. Which it’s not.  If you really need further evidence at which is the better Batmobile, I submit the “fact” that most people don’t even call the Nolan Batmobile “the Batmobile.” Because it’s not.

8.) Comparing Jokers. I don’t know exactly how to do this. They’re completely different, born of totally different mindsets and after a different end. I’m speaking in terms of filmmaking. The 1989 crew hired Jack Nicholson because, well, he’s Jack Nicholson. They wanted a superstar, they got him, he did his job — he was Jack Nicholson X 10. Nicholson’s Joker works because he is funny and threatening. It suits the movie. It’s believable, even when it’s kind of goofy. I’ve recently come across some people complaining about the moment where the Joker shoots down the Batwing with the super (read: “comedically”) long gun. I’ve never had a problem with it. If you buy that this guy can create a chemical compound to poison people in Gotham City, why can’t you buy that he has a gun capable of damaging an experimental jet? Sure, I don’t know where he found the time to have such a weapon made, but that’s the conceit of these types of movies. I do find it interesting that the Ledger Joker has scars as well. I liked how they played with the origin of the scars, and I guess I liked that it made him look even crazier, but I don’t know what you really gain by adding the scars? Or have I answered my own question? Either way, it makes sense why Ledger would have gone in a more disappear-behind-the-character approach. There are only a few people bigger than the Joker.

THE POINT is that to each his own Joker. Playing that role now is a thankless exercise. The Joker is the biggest villain in the solar system, built with great stories and fantastic performances. I can’t imagine the pressure put on the next poor sap who has to try to top it. On that note…

9.) Humor. There’s a lot of it in “Batman,” most of which is appropriate because it’s funny. That seems to be the mitigating factor in whether humor belongs anywhere: if it’s funny, it fits. And most of the humor is funny in “Batman,” even from Batman himself (“You weigh a little more than 108.” “Because I bought it in Japan,” mouthing the words “I’m Batman” to nobody). And most of the Joker’s stuff still works to be both funny and scary. As a friend of mine pointed out after seeing it, you never knew what he was going to do. He might spit out chattering bloody teeth, or he might shoot you in the gut.

 

*I write that a lot.

**See?

***Jeez…

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