Yesterday afternoon, I bought my ticket for opening night of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES.
I was excited as hell of course – and not just because our IMAX theatre has switched to assigned seating, meaning that we don’t have to show up hours ahead of time to stake out the good seats. No, I was excited because these films that I’ve loved so much for seven years already are coming up on closure (something I don’t think enough film series do). I have no idea what I’ll look forward to after, but for now, I’m like a tea-drinkin’ Canadian Tigger.
Of course, all of these Bat-related thoughts take me back, about 23 years actually. The fever pitch that THE DARK KNIGHT RISES has stoked around itself in some ways pales in comparison to the wild amount of excitement that greeted The Caped Crusader’s second trip to the big screen, Tim Burton’s BATMAN in 1989. That film brought with it a Potter-like level of merchandising…what with fast food tie-in’s, a whole album by Prince, enough toys to stock an F.A.O Schwartz (your truly owned a classic bat tee shirt).
I revisited that pop culture juggernaut eighteen months ago at a Lightbox screening, and while I had my own take on how the film has aged, I wanted to get fresh eyes on the property…and who better to do so than my British podcasting partner, Simon Columb.
So settle in, this conversation goes on a while, but do read on as Mr. Columb talks about breaking his Burton Batman cherry…
Ryan: How had you never seen the film before?
Simon: I am not really a film writer who ‘knows his 80’s’ films am I? I think it just missed my generation. Born in ’84, my older brothers and sisters saw the film, but I was into TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES. I wasn’t a comic-book reader either so, though I recognised the brand, I wasn’t sold on what the brand was. Again, I was into dinosaurs too.
RM: I can promise you the Ninja Turtles movie hasn’t aged well. What were your preconceptions of BATMAN coming in?
SC: I thought the Tim Burton-ness would be front and centre. Gothic-Gotham from the start. Dirty, grimy streets with old churches and a deeply unsettling origin story.
But then – there was no origin story. First scene: Batman kicks ass. Gangsters and guns. Molls and Capone-like villains. Corrupt cops and petty criminals.
I think, watching it now, knowing Chris Nolan’s franchise so well – and knowing the later Joel Schumacher Batman’s too – I simply expected more. I think its clear that Tim Burton must’ve been restrained to some extent.
RM: We’ll come back to Christopher Nolan later on, but I want to stick with Burton’s vision…especially since I’m getting the hunch that you weren’t fussed about this movie!
SC: No – I didn’t think much of it.
Jack Nicholson was very-much Jack Nicholson x 10. You see his crazy-ness in The Shining. You see his smirk and gangster-ness in The Departed. Watching BATMAN now, if anything, shows how much better those other performances are. I think certain sequences (The Batmobile driving back to the Batcave, the church-vertigo finale) have a Tim Burton quality to them. But the city is very much just dirty-New-York. The gangsters with (can you believe it?) Tommy Guns, couldn’t be more cliché.
At the time, it might have gone down a storm – but now, it has dated badly.
RM: “A storm” is putting it well since I have a pretty clear recollection of that summer. People ate up the phenomenon; the logo was everywhere, kids quoted the dialogue, the Prince songs got play. It was a whole new take on Batman that people weren’t used to. Back to Burton’s influence, what did you think of the look of the film? Part of me thought you’d be smitten with the design of it all: It actually won an Oscar for art direction.
SC: I think I expected something more.
There is something very bold about it – almost a sort of confidence that is a little smug. As if to say “Its BATMAN! of course its dark and of course its shady streets, etc”. This film tells you what it is and makes no apologies: you have to believe in it. Again, maybe at the time, it was new. But for me I see what it is doing and I know the reference points.
Cameras-on-an-angle? THE THIRD MAN. Dusty and pipes? FILM NOIR cliché. Even Jack Nicholson was reminiscent of Jimmy Cagney in WHITE HEAT – “Top of the world ma!”. Maybe a better comparison is the first Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN. In both cases, for what they are – comic book films – they do the job. But do they do anything more? I don’t think so.
I thought this film would be ground-breaking for comic book films. I thought this film would blend Burton and Batman magically. It didn’t.
RM: Y’know, it’s funny because even though we aren’t very far apart in age, in this instance the six year gap in age is making a big difference on how we see the film. I do get where you’re coming from though, since subsequent viewings have shown me that BATMAN hasn’t aged well.
Let’ talk context a sec: Have you ever seen any episodes of the campy 1960’s TV show starring Adam West, because at the time that was the yardstick for this film and one of the reasons it was so successful. The idea that “Holy shit, The Joker is a psycho killer” snuck up on a lot of people used to Caeser Romero mugging.
SC: Yeah but… Alan Moore and Frank Miller were in business at the time. It couldn’t have been a huge leap from Watchmen and Sin City to a gothic Batman film. I’m sure the Batman artists themselves – creating storyboards – were used to such a tone. The dark-stories were the ‘thing’ in 80’s comic books no?
RM: Well, sure. In fact “The Killing Joke”, a Batman graphic novel written by Alan Moore served as the genesis for certain storylines the film explores. You have to remember though, comic books were just starting to crest again in terms of their popularity – they weren’t as omnipresent in pop culture as they are now. So while readers were braced for the violence and darkness that was coming, the general masses were not. They only really about the TV show.
SC: POW! BAM! Monotone Adam West!
(Do I know anything other than the obvious references I just made? no.)
RM: Swell, I now feel that much older. Remind me start these discussions again? So let’s talk characters. Nicholson got a lot of praise at the time for his Joker, but given what you said earlier, I’m guessing it didn’t do much for you.
SC: Nicholson is Nicholson. In clown make-up. as a character. He’s a gangster like James Cagney…nothing more really. There’s no strange background or weird subtext about him. He’s just a freak – nowhere near as complicated and interesting as Heath Ledgers performance.
RM: But I don’t think that was unique to Ledger. Your point about Nicholson’s Joker having no strange background…no weird subtext…that’s not this film’s spin on the character, that’s the character. Over time there’s been a moment or two where someone has tried to give him a history and a motivation, but what has always made The Joker so darned scary as a villain is that there’s no understanding why he is so insane.
Ledger’s Joker had that too.
SC: But you know, and you feel that there is more to Ledgers Joker. He even plays with the possible scenarios that made him so screwed up.
Nicholson was a small-time gangster … then became a bigger gangster who was arrogant and Jack-Nicholson-y. Then he turns into a joker by falling into a vat of acid and his lips look strange for the rest of the film?? What are his ambitions – to be a bigger celeb than Batman? To take down Grissom’s empire? To kill Batman? All rather simplistic.
Ledger was chaos – he was random, and clearly got a buzz out of his random acts. Nicholson, with his gangster roots, are wooden and boring.
Nicholson is great, but i don’t think he is stretching himself. We’ve seen him play crazy many times before. Maybe that’s the problem – there is a vague backstory: he was a gangster, etc. In terms on subtext – i think terrorism is the subtext to the dark knight. 30’s gangsters in 80’s Gotham is a little out of date.
RM: Well we know where you stand on the villains, let’s talk heroes. What’d you make of Keaton’s Batman and Basinger’s Vicki Vale?
SC: Keaton is alright, but since when is Bruce supposed to be bumbling and likable? When he is trying to tell her he is Batman, you get this strange shy version of Bruce Wayne. Considering how rich he is, isn’t it ridiculous he would lack confidence? Theres no sense of vocational investment: Why is he Batman? Why is he rich? There’s no depth, no meaning: He just is.
In a way, it’s befitting the time period – an era where everyone was getting rich. Here is a ridiculously wealthy man who doesn’t even need to explain himself.
Vicki Vale though is merely a romantic interest. Again, no questions about his wealth (guess it says something about her taste in men). Come to think of it, her big glasses are what truly continues the dated-feel of the film. Basically Vicki is just nothingness.
RM: Besides Vicki’s glasses, does anything else really date the film?
SC: Even the Batman outfit is dated! The leather looks too heavy, the ears too high. Joker seems a bit simple – such a simplistic design. The journalist-edge comes across more like the Daily Planet or Daily Bugle, less like a Batman story. I wouldn’t be surprised if that direction was completely in imitation of SUPERMAN. The whole journalist craze was in full swing back in the eighties too I guess.
RM: While I’ll openly admit the film isn’t as good as I remember it being, this is all really starting to bum me out. Surely something about the film has stood the test of 23 years.
SC: For me, only the gothic stuff really stands – the church, the trees and the city itself. I guess a city at night only changes so much. All the Caspar David Friedrich touches are timeless and romantic in their nature.
RM: So if we look at this movie through a Film Locker lens, how does it place in Tim Burton’s overall canon?
SC: This is Tim Burton dipping his toe into blockbuster territory. Clearly, it was worth it for the studios … but let’s be honest, we all prefer the smaller-scale stuff: EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, BEETLEJUICE, etc. HIs art has been compromised and, its possible, you could blame it on this.
RM: Really? You didn’t see it as a way that Burton could graft his own vision on to a known property? Think about the parade balloons, the killer mimes, the final showdown on the spire…all very Burton-esque, no?
SC: Oh, I completely see the Burton-esque elements. I think he was chosen for that reason! But, it feels like Burton has been watered down. Not to jump ahead, but compare the film to BATMAN RETURNS. Everything in BATMAN RETURNS is gothic.
Here though, you have the gangster element mixed into the gothic-ness. Almost as if the gothic thing could only be squeezed in every now and then into something that was much more a gangster film than anything else with Batman as the detective. Does Burton ‘do’ gangster films? No. Is Batman a ‘gangster’ property? I didn’t think so.
Maybe I’m wrong on the second count – but I wonder why Warner hired Tim Burton at all?
RM: Again though, I think you’re short-selling the shift from WHIZ! BANG! campiness, to the grime Burton brought to the property. So two questions about things happening outside of the screen. First of all, Batman is a property that is often embraced by children (certainly in its comic book and cartoon form). Do you think that this film, with all its darkness and violence, is something for kids?
SC: I don’t think so. From Nicholson and DeVito through to Heath Ledger and Cillian Murphy…all of them are incredibly dark. Actually, I’ve never seen it any other way. I think teenagers from 14+ will like Batman, and if that counts as children then so be it. But I would never show any BATMAN film to a child under 10: The Joker alone could give the kid nightmares.
RM: And now for the elephant in the room – how does this film stack up to the Christopher Nolan films?
SC: The current trilogy, as a whole, feels like it’s about the divide in social class (though Burton touches upon this – more so in BATMAN RETURNS.) But as separate films, THE DARK NIGHT was released in the wake of terrorism and there is a real fear when you see the mangled videotape made by The Joker (echoing what we imagine the videotapes showing decapitations would sound like). Burton fantasized about Gotham; Nolan seems to create a city we know.
Nicholson is a film stereotype – the scarred gangster. His make-up is obvious and borders on comical, while his acting makes things sinister. Heath Ledger made The Joker real. His attacks on society that leaves no one unharmed: hospitals, boats, etc. We can relate to that – we see it on the news all the time. Part of The Joker is mocking the arrogance of western society.
There is nothing as profound as this in Burton’s film. In the eighties – a time of excess – this was a film which simply played with genre and feels like a film ‘for fun’ more than a film that asks questions – and turns the mirror onto us.
RM: Wow. Well, my eleven-year-old self is crying in the corner, and my thirty-four-year-old self is almost afraid to ask, but how would you score this film on a scale of 1 to 10?
SC: A solid 6.