BY BILAL LATIF, ART BY JASON DAVIS
Stone walls drift past, yellow titles glowing in the shadows that lick their surfaces. We plunge deeper into the labyrinth, lulled by a memorable orchestral theme that is at once heroic and menacing.
We half expect bats to swarm from the night sky, or a supercharged black vehicle to rocket out of the darkness. But as we progress through the maze we notice the occasional unnaturally sharp edge jutting from its otherwise curved surfaces. We rise. The shadows distort. The walls shrink away. We expected a Bat cave, but instead see a Bat symbol.
In just over two minutes, director Tim Burton and his creative team set a tone, achieve a look, and provide an antidote to the kitsch of the 1960s Batman television series with which the character was popularly defined. It can be difficult to appreciate such a transition today, when the Dark Knight has dwelled in the shadows since Joel Shumacher’s disastrous attempt to return him to gaudy light. In 1989, however, millions of Bat-Maniacs worldwide were ready for a darker, less flippant cinematic interpretation of the Caped Crusader.
Which is certainly what they got. The premise contains the requisite elements of a classic Batman tale: the Joker (Jack Nicholson) hatches a scheme to poison the citizens of Gotham, while Batman (Michael Keaton) strives to stop him with Batmobile, Batwing and Batarangs. The dark twistedness? Well, for starters, Joker and Batman are both attracted to photographer Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), one of various hints that masked hero and disfigured villain are two sides of the same coin; the city of Gotham is a corrupt, nightmarish shithole; and Batman himself is a vengeful killer.
It is easy to forget this film was heavily marketed at children, who could squirt water from the orchid on the plastic lapel of their Joker action figure. In the movie, the liquid the flower squirts is acid, a stream of which is directed at Vicki Vale’s face (apparently that was acceptable in the Eighties). That decade influences Joker’s portrayal in this film, what with the Clown Prince of Crime mocking Gotham’s greed by luring crowds to the kill with the promise of free money. It is a shame the final movie does not follow-through and clarify that this cash is worthless due to the fact that the Joker has, per his words during his homicidal first date with Vale, printed his face on the dollar bill (although Dennis O’Neil’s comic adaptation is well worth a look, especially for this scene).
Though the Eighties zeitgeist informs the Joker in this movie, what really defines him is Jack Nicholson’s performance. Or rather, his lack of inhibition. Pre-chemical dip, Nicholson understates with undercurrents of vicious intelligence. Once the Joker is born in all his flamboyant, mob-boss-murdering glory, Nicholson basically plays himself as if social conventions no longer applied. The results are thoroughly entertaining – he becomes a whirling, purple dervish of wit and psychosis, who, as a bonus, uses nothing more than his trademark grin and outrageous body language to convince us that the Joker is a fan of Prince. Insanity has never been so fun to watch.
The craziness does not stop with the Joker. In line with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (and arguably Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s early comics in which Batman killed criminals without remorse), Batman himself is portrayed as disturbed, admitting that such an extremely destabilized mind is necessary for someone to become a crime-fighting bat in the first place. As he tells Vale, ‘It’s not exactly a normal world’.
Keaton is excellent in the role, piercing blue eyes delightfully intimidating from behind the mask, voice a harsh rasp whispering of unspoken, bubbling rage that erupts when he picks up a poker and threatens the Joker. This scene, when Joker interrupts Bruce Wayne’s intended revelation to Vale, marks one of the few places where the Wayne and Batman personas intersect in public, the other occasion being Wayne’s bullet-dodging determination during the Joker’s cheerfully literal demonstration of the pen’s might over the sword. Wayne’s behaviour in these scene contrasts starkly with Keaton’s amusingly scatter-brained Billionaire Bruce, a version of the character that benefits from Keaton’s comedic background.
Basinger performs the role of Vicki Vale as written, but it is unfortunate that the character ultimately has little to do except scream and pursue Bruce Wayne. It is also odd that the creative team chose to make her simply a photographer as opposed to the journalist she was in Kane and Finger’s original comics. Perhaps if Basinger’s role was conflated with that of Robert Wuhl’s funny but inconsequential reporter Alexander Knox, Vale would become more three-dimensional – a photojournalist needs a sharp eye and a sharp mind. The decisions as to Vale’s profession and general characterisation seem only to have been made in order to avoid superficial similarities with Lois Lane. Unfortunately, Vale has very little character as a result, with Wayne and Vale’s romance seeming obligatory rather than convincing.
More believable is the paternal relationship between Wayne and his loyal butler Alfred Pennyworth (the late Michael Gough), mostly because the script allows the character to open up, specifically in his dinnertime anecdote of giving young Bruce riding lessons. Gough’s portrayal is warm, funny and poignant, and with mere minutes of screen time he makes such an impression on both audience and filmmakers that, along with Pat Hingle’s Commissioner Gordon, he became one of the movie series’ mainstays, right through Shumacher’s tenure (in which Billy Dee Williams’ characteristically suave District Attorney Harvey Dent was replaced with an inexplicably mugging Tommy Lee Jones).
Visually, the film is as fantastic as all of Burton’s, and is at its strongest when direction, performance, cinematography and score coalesce into impressionistic glory. Witness for example the Joker’s birth in a dingy, backstreet plastic surgery, with its simultaneous references to silent classics such as The Man Who Laughs, Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligary; or the perfect tone poems that are Joker and Vale’s waltz, and Batman and Vale’s journey to the Bat cave, both sequences facilitated by Ray Lovejoy’s editing and Danny Elfman’s brilliant score.
Special mention must go to the production design of Anton Furst, whose team successfully portray a gothic, menacing industrial nightmare-vision of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, which, as per Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren’s screenplay, looks as if ‘hell had erupted through the sidewalks’. Batman himself is magnificently imposing in black body armour designed by Bob Ringwood. The look proved so effective that its influence can be seen through all subsequent Batman movies, including Christopher Nolan’s hyper-realist Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.
For purists, all the visual splendour in the world fails to address the elephant in the room: in this film, the man who would become the Joker murdered Thomas and Martha Wayne. While this is undoubtedly a lack of fidelity to the source material in which the Waynes were killed by a common thief named Joe Chill, it is not in and of itself disrespectful, as it enhances and streamlines the story, achieving narrative unity. Besides, without it, how could we have the wonderfully twisted concept of the hero and villain’s responsibility for each other’s creation? It is telling that even today debate rages as to whether Batman reflexively dropped Jack Napier into the chemical vat due to subconscious recognition of the murderer of Wayne’s parents.
Regardless of the source material, the film contains various inspired touches implying that Joker and Batman are flipsides of the same coin. Both interrupt each other’s meetings with Vale (even making identical compliments about her home having ‘lots of space’); both are portrayed as intellectually gifted if somewhat insane; both have a knack for the theatrical; and both use the appearance of a normal face to hide their true selves, be the true face a bat mask or a chemically bleached grin.
Such subtext is clearly where Burton’s interest lies. While the action and spectacle is undoubtedly entertaining, especially in the Cathedral climax, Burton tends to subvert it with surreal ridiculousness such as comically overinflating, gas-leaking balloons, stupid goons pouncing for Batman and instead splintering through brittle wooden floorboards, or the Joker shooting down the Batwing with a four-foot long revolver pulled from his trousers.
Still, this quirky humour oddly befits Batman and Joker’s first major motion picture, and the laughter it elicits was surely comic relief of the most literal kind after all the anticipation the film received before release. It proved that Batman could work as well in the shadows as the light, and that the shadows aren’t as dark as you fear they might be.
The movie remains a dazzling, triumphant and uplifting tribute to the Dark Knight.