Monday, February 27, 2012

Starting The Modern Batman Cinematic Saga Off Well, Batman Still Ages Poorly.

The Good: Moments of humor, Moments of action, Moments of performance, General character elements
The Bad: Not as intense as it ought to be for the character.
The Basics: While ambitious, fun and good, Batman did not age nearly as well as some of the other cinematic superhero films.

Last night, as part of our pre-Oscars celebration, my wife and I decided to order a pizza. Unwilling to break our diet for a random pizza and snacks, but unwilling to wait for the actual Oscars to begin, we decided to watch a movie neither of us had seen in years: Batman. I recall seeing Batman theatrically, but I remember having much more personal and enjoyable memories of seeing Batman Returns (reviewed here!). My wife and I have become so used to watching Heath Ledger’s performance of the Joker in The Dark Knight (reviewed here!), that we thought it would be enjoyable to watch Batman together and make an event out of watching the supposedly-great film right before watching the 84th Annual Academy Awards. Ultimately, we were glad we did; both of us were disappointed when The Artist won Best Picture.

But we were also not as taken with Batman as we expected to be. For sure, it is a cool, fun, all-around decent movie. But Batman is hardly flawless and there are some real detractions to the movie that once dazzled us. My wife, for example, found herself laughing at how cheesy many of the miniature shots and special effects were (though she still jumped when Vicki Vale opened the Joker’s gift box! She was preoccupied with the ridiculous sense of style, which it was hard to blame her about; the 1980s were not the most impressive from a fashion sense. But what I found interesting about watching Batman now was how it lacked a certain intensity that I have come to expect from both the film-franchise and the result of reading many graphic novels in which Bruce Wayne’s Batman is an integral character.

Gotham City is dark and plagued by crime, but the criminals in the city are running scared. Their fear and caution comes from the rumors that criminals are being stalked at night by a giant creature who may be a large bat creature. While they attribute supernatural qualities to him, he is a man with advanced technology – like body armor and grappling guns – who has the will to fight evildoers and an understanding of psychology to keep some on the streets to spread fear. The Gotham City police force and newly-elected District Attorney Harvey Dent officially deny the existence of Batman, though the police force is corrupted by officers on the mob’s payroll. One mobster, Jack Napier, is sleeping with the wife of the lead mobster and Grissom decides to have Jack snuffed out.

While hosting a charity event to raise money for Gotham City’s bicentennial celebration festival, billionaire Bruce Wayne, who is hounded by reporter Alexander Knox and photographer Vicki Vale, is alerted that the police commissioner has been called away. Converging at Axis Chemicals, the police corner Napier’s squad and in a desperate battle, Batman drops Napier into a vat of chemicals. The Joker is thus born. Sewn back together, his face twisted into a constant smile, Napier as the Joker begins cleaning up loose ends from his prior life, essentially taking control of the mob. As Bruce Wayne falls in love with Vicki Vale, the Joker begins a killing spree involving chemical tampering of health and beauty products. When the Joker discovers (and covets) Vicki Vale, Batman must stop the villain once and for all!

Batman is fun, there is no denying that. But Batman is also a lot more cluttered than I recall it being and by that I mean there are a lot of unnecessary elements in Batman that fill the movie up without adding anything truly significant. Perhaps I am just jaded; Gotham City is dirty, on the verge of bankrupt and under the fist of local mobs. But it has a vigilante, who is not excessively cruel and an engaged media and political machine that seems ot be making an effort. The whole festival plot seems thrown in as a plot point, as opposed to an actual organic event. Of course, it becomes the backdrop for the film’s climax, but it seems somehow more contrived than I remember it being as a kid.

What really stuck out for me about Batman, though, was how Bruce Wayne had a strange lack of intensity. I like Michael Keaton. I like Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman - Batman Returns is in my permanent collection and remains my favorite Christmas movie of all time (seriously!). But in Batman, he does not seem all that intense. Instead, Bruce Wayne is characterized as an absent-minded billionaire who is motivated by a strong sense of loss. In Batman, Michael Keaton captures the loss well when Bruce Wayne is shown mourning the anniversary of his parents’ murder. But there is a strange disconnect then with his ruthless efficiency in trying to clean up Gotham City’s streets. Perhaps that is part of the problem; while Batman is characterized as a vigilante, he does not seem ruthless. At several opportunities, Batman flees to keep his identity safe as opposed to actually stopping criminals. In other words, I think of Batman as something of an absolutist, almost like Rorschach from Watchmen (reviewed here!). This incarnation of Batman lacks the full intensity of the character. He is flighty as opposed to determined, cautious as opposed to confident and expresses loss and hurt more than Bruce Wayne ever seems to in the comic books. While that might make him a more human character, which I like in my movies, it makes his place as Batman a little more uncertain. In other words, this version of Bruce Wayne seems less like he would actually dress up and go out as a vigilante than the Christian Bale or Val Kilmer versions of Batman.

So, Batman ends up being a much more compelling story about the Joker. Jack Napier is smart, which works out nicely because it explains how – even in his demented Joker state – he could create the complicated killing mechanism that he does. He is played with great intensity by Jack Nicholson, who proves to be far more than thhe sum of the catch-phrase lines and make-up. In fact, the only problem with Nicholson’s execution of the Joker comes when he is playing Jack Napier. As Napier, Nicholson has the chance to show the character before the accident, before he was turned into anything inhuman. Unfortunately, Nicholson misses the opportunity. In scenes where Jack Napier and his mistress, Grissom’s wife (or girlfriend) Alicia, interact before the accident, Nicholson never seems passionate or happy. The viewer is compelled to believe that Napier will risk everything for one woman, but he never seems all that into her.

Outside that, Nicholson’s performance, like that of Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger (Vicki Vale), Robert Wuhl (Knox), Michael Gough (Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s butler) and Billy Dee Williams, who plays Harvey Dent with enough presence to figure that he was trying to set up the role for one of the sequels where he could play Dent as Two-Face. Obviously, that never materialized, but Williams has a memorable outing at Harvey Dent. The extras in Batman, though, do rob the film of any real consideration that Batman possesses perfect acting. There are unfortunate bit roles where the lesser-known actors seem especially lifeless or problematically unreal. Tracey Walter, who plays Bob the goon (there was even an action figure made of the character!), stood out for me as a guy who never seemed to be truly comfortable on camera in the movie.

On DVD, Batman comes in a two-disc edition with enough bonus features to thrill fans (and even address some of my issues with the movie!). While I kept considering Batman about a 7/10, the deluxe edition DVD set truly does give viewers enough to really fall in love with the experience of making the movie. With detailed looks at the minitatures and props, the DVD and Blu-Ray version of Batman is well worth watching, if not adding to one’s permanent collection.

For other live-action DC superhero films, please check out my reviews of:
Superman Returns
Batman Begins
Green Lantern
Jonah Hex


For other movie reviews, please be sure to visit my Movie Review Index Page for a complete list of films I have reviewed!

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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