Thursday, October 11, 2012

Tim Burton Tribute: Batman with Mr. Smooth

With the huge financial success of Pee-wee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, Tim Burton was able to get his next directional movie greenlit. A movie that would revolutionize a genre in a time in which they were presented in a colorful, campy way. This innovated, dark, and serious movie was the superhero classic Batman which debuted on June 23, 1989.

While not a comic book fan, Burton knew he wanted to do a dark telling of the cape crusader himself. Inspired by Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, Burton hired Sam Hamm, a screenwriter/comic book fan, and Warren Skaaren, the co-writer of Beetlejuice, to write down the script after reading the first draft written by Tom Mankiewicz and saying it was too campy. With a quick rewrite and the creator of the Batman comics himself Bob Kane as the creative consultant, Burton released his 3rd movie to a very skeptical audience. More on that later. 

Patricia- With me today is the coolest, smoothest member of Manic Expression. The man behind the blog channel "Mr. Smooth's Smoothatorium", Mr. Smooth. Thank you so much for joining me.

Mr. Smooth- Thank you for having me.

Patricia- Did you get introduced to Batman through the movie? If so, what was your impression on it?

Mr. Smooth- I was actually introduced to Batman through watching the animated series when I was a younger lad, although that show did clearly drew a lot of inspiration from the Tim Burton films, both in terms of the atmosphere and the character interpretation. In fact, the first Batman film I saw in the cinema was Batman & Robin, but the less I talk about that the better. I didn’t seethe film until I was much older, mainly because this film isn’t particularly child-friendly (then again, I saw Batman Returns before this film, so I think my parents may have their moral values all wrong) but this is still a great film with a lot of rewatch value.

Patricia- A great way to be introduced to the Dark Knight. I was also introduced to Batman with the animated series as well. It was one of my favorite shows to watch as a kid and my first movie that I saw in theaters was Batman Forever. I thought it was a slight downward approach to the Batman that I already knew about, but I didn't know about the 60's Batman TV series at the time. But I'll discuss about Batman Forever another time. So does this movie still keep us a dark, unique atmosphere or does its age keep the bat a bit rusty? This is Batman. 

Our story begins with Bruce Wayne's (played by Michael Keaton) backstory. As a child, his parents were murdered by a criminal and he spends the rest of his life trying to avenge their death by fighting crime as the cape crusader Batman. The only person who knows of Batman's identity is Bruce's own butler Alfred Pennyworth (played by Michael Gough). Years later, Bruce Wayne runs Wayne Enterprises, a huge company at Gotham City, and becomes a millionaire. While he runs the company during the day, he's a very mysterious, intelligent, smooth talking gentleman. Nothing about him seems suspicious among his co-workers. While Batman tries to keep Gotham City safe, the Gotham City commissioner James Gordon (played by Pat Hingle) and district attorney Harvey Dent (played by Billy Dee Williams) do so as well. However, the entire city is still corrupted due to the works of Carl Grissom (played by Jack Palance). All of these actors do a good job portraying these characters, but I think that Michael Keaton does a great job portraying as Batman. What do you think, Mr. Smooth?

Mr. Smooth- What’s strange about this film is that Batman is something of a secondary character in this film, especially in the first half of the film,where he appears maybe twice in costume and only a few more times as Bruce Wayne, where he doesn’t really contribute much to the plot over than romancing Vicki Vale and kind of being there when The Joker kills that guy with a giant quill. But that’s not to say Michael Keaton is a bad Batman. He is probably the first actor to have different portrayals of Bruce Wayne and Batman. If you were a passing bystander, you probably couldn’t tell that Bruce Wayne is Batman, which is what I think Tim Burton is going for. And given that Michael Keaton was before this time mainly known as a comic actor (granted, I haven’t seen Mr. Mom or Beetlejuice, but I did enjoy his appearance on Frasier), this does speak a lot for his skill as an actor. Batman is probably more intimidating in this film than he is in any other films, given that he is so rarely seen and that when he does appear, it’s usually to dispense fistfuls of justice. Even the way he slowly walks towards criminals is kind of scary, which calls back to the whole point of dressing as a giant bat was to intimidate criminals.

Patricia- Agreed. When people found out that Michael Keaton was going to be Batman, there were a lot of petitions of not wanting him to be the character. People such as Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner, Tom Selleck, and Charlie Sheen were considered to be Batman, but Burton wanted to go an entirely different direction. He had worked with Keaton in Beetlejuice, so he knew he was perfect for Batman/Bruce Wayne. There's just a mysterious and badass quality that Keaton does to Batman at a time in which it was played for laughs like Adam West's portrayal of Bruce Wayne/Batman. It was a breath of fresh air to see this brilliant performance and I still regard Keaton's portrayal as one of my favorite Batmans.

Mr. Smooth- Alfred doesn’t really do much in this film, and neither does Commissioner Gordon, which is a shame given that they are two very important characters in the Batman mythos, but at least Gordon was slightly more useful than he was in the later films. This is one of the few aspects about the Nolan Batman films that I prefer to the Burton films,but I’ll get to that later. I did like the minor characters of Grissom, seeing as he was played by Jack Palance and gave us the“Number 1 guy” line, and Bob, because he is Bob.

Patricia- Ah yes, Bob. Who can forget about Bob? 

Meanwhile, a young woman named Vicki Vale (played by Kim Basinger) and reporter Alexander Knox (played by Robert Wohl) are investigating the mysterious vigilante behind the bat costume fighting crime. While attending a party at Wayne Manor, Vicki meets up with Bruce and they begin to get to know each other more. Throughout the rest of the movie, Bruce and Vicki begin to have a relationship with each other. 

Mr. Smooth- Vicki Vale isn’t a particularly memorable character, as she is basically in this film just so that Bruce Wayne has a love interest. It doesn’t help that her whole “I want to photograph Batman”subplot isn’t very interesting to be perfectly honest.

Patricia- Yeah, I didn't think it was interesting either. I also found Vicki to be a bit flat as well. But that would eventually be changed throughout the other Batman movies.

But the next character introduction will be better. Meanwhile at the Axis Chemicals factory, Jack Napier (played by Jack Nicholson), Grissom's second in command, is on a mission to raid the place. However, he finds that the police are there to arrest him. He later finds out that Grissom had set him up when he began having an affair with Grissom's mistress. When Napier tries to escape, Batman fights off against Napier's henchmen. It's a really well done fight! No "pow", "bam", and "whack" effects included. 

Finally, Batman accidentally shoots one of his ricochet bullets which causes Napier to fall into a vat of acid turning him into The Joker. 

Mr. Smooth- Let’s be honest, most of the second half is stolen completely by Jack Nicholson’s performance as The Joker. Nicholson seems to be having the time of his life in this film, and it is pure enjoyment to see someone having so much fun in a role. There’s no wonder that this is probably the most memorable aspect of the film. His portrayal actually starts off as quite dark and sinister but then he gets dropped into that vat of chemicals and becomes a pure scenery-chewing, hammy machine. So many quotable lines, so much wonderment. So yeah, he is probably the best character in this film.

Patricia- Agreed. It's so hard to choose between Nicholoson's Joker or Heath Ledger's Joker. Both of them are so memorable in different ways and both steal the movies they're portrayed in. While I haven't decided on who's the better one yet, I have to say that Nicholoson's Joker was a combination of the comics and TV show Joker while having something original and unique as well. Whether you like Nicholoson's Joker or not, you have to admit that he is quite a crazy nut that you cannot soon forget once you see him.

As the movie progresses, The Joker kills Grissom for revenge and ends up taking over Gotham City. He begins to create hygiene products that causes people to laugh nonstop. The Joker then decides to throw a parade while giving them loads of money to earn their trust. But what they don't know is he's intending on releasing a toxic gas killing the citizens. As Batman tracks down The Joker, he foils his plan and they begin to have an all-out battle. Batman then learns that The Joker was the man who killed his parents. Batman fights him off, but has to be careful since The Joker kidnapped Vicki and is holding her hostage. But with quick and decisive thinking, Batman saves Vicki and kills The Joker by falling to his death. 

The movie concludes with Commissioner Gordon unveiling the Bat-Signal and finding a note from the Dark Knight saying that he will continue to protect Gotham City. 

Overall, I have to say that this movie was absolutely great! The style, soundtrack, performance, the look of Gotham City, and story were portrayed as campy, dark, serious, goofy, funny, and epic. Tim Burton's style mixed with the world of Batman was a great combination that paved the way to what a superhero movie could be. Also it influenced one of the greatest animated series of all time: Batman: The Animated Series. That cartoon paved the way for other dark, serious well written shows like X:Men: The Animated Series and Gargoyles. What do you think, Mr. Smooth?

Mr. Smooth- If I was going to compare the look of Gotham City in this film, I would probably compare it to the look of Chicago from The Untouchables (another favourite film of mine), which is kind of weird that this film has something of a 1930’s urban metropolis feel given that it is set in the 80’s. But I do like the look of Gotham, although it isn’t that memorable, as I say, it is not too dissimilar from the cities in Blade Runner, and as said earlier, The Untouchables.

I do love the Elfman score, definitely one of my favorite soundtracks in any film. However, I’m not really a big fan of Prince, so I’m not a big fan of the incidental music, which makes it a bit jarring when this grandiose orchestral score turns into some kind of R & B influenced pop music. But Elfman’s music is great and it’s no wonder that it continued to be used throughout the rest of the Batman film series, as well as the animated series.

Patricia- I have to agree. I love Danny Elfman's soundtrack, but I wasn't too crazy about Prince's "The Future" either. 

So, what was your favorite scene in the movie?

Mr. Smooth- My favorite scene in the film is the art gallery scene. Just watch it, it’s absolutely brilliant, mainly for the sheercomedy of it all, and it shows the best aspects of Jack Nicholson’s Joker performance, both being hilarious and also quite sinister. God, I love every scene with Jack Nicholson in this film. 

Speaking of least favorite scenes, I refer back to the scene where it is revealed that The Joker killed BruceWayne’s parents, although I do like the line “Ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight”.

Patricia- Was the story well put together?

Mr. Smooth- You know, I’m not really sure was The Joker’s plan was in this film. To kill lots of people? Because he’s crazy? Yeah, I kind of prefer it when my villains have better plans than that. Although I do like the fact that this isn’t a bland sort of superhero origin story. Instead, here we have Batman already being an established hero, fighting crime more at street level, with the Joker becoming his first real super villain threat, which is a bit more interesting.

Patricia- Yes, I agree. While some people have their complaints that they should have established more of Bruce Wayne's backstory, I felt like I already knew Batman quite well when watching this movie. According to Sam Hamm, he preferred that Batman's backstory was better shown in flashbacks than taking up to 30 to 45 minutes explaining his origins. "You totally destroy your credibility if you show the literal process by which Bruce Wayne becomes Batman", he claimed. 

Besides, we already have an entire movie dedicated to that, thank you.

Speaking of which, do you prefer the Burton Batman movies or the Nolan Batman movies?

Mr. Smooth- To be honest, I think that the Burton films are a lot better than the Nolan films. Not to say that I dislike the Nolan ones, but I just prefer the Burton ones. People always wax lyrical over the fact that the Nolan films are so dark and what not, but the Burton films were doing that way before they came out. Yes, Heath Ledger was a good Joker, but Jack Nicholson was better! He did the whole, scary but funny thing way before then but for some people, that just got forgotten when The Dark Knight came out, even though I like Nicholson better. Maybe people thought he was a bit too cartoony, but didn’t that make it scarier when he joy-buzzed someone to death? But as I say, the Nolan films did do the secondary characters a lot better, by giving them a more active role in the plot, which is good given that Commissioner Gordon and Alfred are very interesting characters, who sadly aren’t utilized that well in this film. Also, I know that I bashed this film's plot, but at least it was coherent enough. Take that, Dark Knight Rises.

Patricia- As for me, I feel the same way. I mean, don't get me wrong, I love Nolan's Batman movies as well. I just felt that it was more of a crime thriller with Batman thrown on it than a real Batman movie. While there were things that they included that were just as good or even superior to Burton's Batman movies, at least they were a good mix of action and fun. Do you recommend the Burton Batman to the viewers? 

Mr. Smooth- Of course. This film is dark, atmospheric with memorable characters and on a whole is a pretty great film and probably the best iteration of Batman on the big screen (except for Mask of the Phantasm) and that is in no small part due to the great direction of Tim Burton, who was clearly on his way to being a great director, as well as two great leading actors in Michael Keaton and that other guy, his name escapes me.

Patricia- I don't remember. Hmm, it's on the tip of my tongue. Give me a second. 

Anyway, for those who think that Christopher Nolan "invented" the dark Batman, he didn't. Bob Kane created the comics, Frank Miller and Alan Moore resurrected his dark origins in the 80's, and Tim Burton directed the movie that paved the way for dark, edgy superhero movies and the correct way to portray Batman. I highly recommend that you check it out. Mr. Smooth, thank you so much for joining me.

Mr. Smooth- Sure thing. It was fun.

That's all for now. Tune in next time as we see the debut of one of Tim Burton's collaborative actors in Edward Scissorhands.

Hope to see you around Old School Lane soon. Thanks for reading.

-Patricia and Mr. Smooth

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