by D.W. Lundberg

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


Part Two of our Burton/Schumacher retrospective, in which we take a visual tour of the 1989-97 series' special (and not-so-special) pleasures.

It was the summer of 1989, and the hype was inescapable: backpacks, posters, video games, candy dispensers - you couldn't walk two feet without bumping into Batman paraphernalia of some kind. (According to this report, Batman merchandise earned over $500 million in retail that year.) Little did marketing pundits realize that the Caped Crusader's long-awaited return to theater screens would turn out to be such a pop culture phenomenon; Premiere magazine, in fact, in their annual summer box-office prediction issue, guessed that Batman would place 3rd - after Ghostbusters II and Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, respectfully - in ticket sales from May to August. (Tim Burton's block-busting juggernaut wound up grossing $251.2 million in the U.S. - $54 million more than Crusade, and $138 million more than Ghostbusters.)

Standing outside the Alpine Cinema in Brooklyn with my aunt and uncle, you could feel the anticipation crackling in the air. It was midnight on June 24th (getting tickets on opening day was next to impossible) and I can tell you the crowd wasn't just there to watch a movie - they came to be part of an event, a communal experience unlike anything since the original Star Wars. That same excitement carried into the theater too. New York audiences have always been a little more... rambunctious than other places, but this was something different. They cheered when the lights went down. They cheered when the "Batman" title card came up on the screen. They hooped and hollered at the first appearance of the Batmobile. And they rose to their feet and applauded when the lights came up again.

Needless to say, it blew my little 12-year-old mind. The mood, the action sequences - all combined it made my favorite comic book character officially "cool" again. And, really, who needs pesky stuff like "plot" and "character development" when you're constantly bombarded with imagery like this:

Even today, Batman continues to resonate, if not for story than for pure ocular genius. Credit Burton and cinematographer Roger Pratt, who knew how to mimic a good gothic comic book panel when they saw one.

Again I reiterate my point: Simply talking about the movie is one thing; to discuss it primarily through imagery is another. Say, for example, I pinpoint a particular camera shot, early in the film, after Batman (Michael Keaton) drops gangster Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) into a vat of gooey green whatsit at the Axis Chemical Plant. Batman eludes the police, and stands at the top of the building, the word "AXIS" framed in bold red neon behind him. You can read all kinds of things into this shot, the most obvious of which, AXIS, connects Batman to the totalitarian regimes of World War II. (Indeed, Batman's attempts to "control" the populace will cause an uprising of sorts, as personified by the Joker.)

I tell you this, and yet you're probably thinking, "Ah, you're reading too much into it." You might even forget this conversation the next time you happen to catch the movie on TV. But if I showed you the image in question, POW! The film suddenly takes on an entirely different context:

Batman is chock full of visual splendor but lacks an emotional through line to connect it all together. Nicholson's purple-suited, devil-may-care Joker is given so much screen time, and Keaton's brooding antihero is so monosyllabic, we choose sides almost by default. (In fact, if not for Danny Elfman's triumphant musical score, Batman would barely register at all.)

Sam Hamm's original script, at least, attempts to paint Bruce Wayne in a little harsher light. During one early scene, Vicki Vale catches Bruce singing in the shower; he reacts "as if she's caught him doing something shameful -- exposed him." Later, during the mime attack on Gotham Plaza, Bruce goes into a full-on panic: "In his civvies, he's just another citizen... TOTALLY IMPOTENT." Hardly the Dark Knight we know from the comics.

Burton, of course, drops this psychological bent almost entirely. All that remains are a few choice moments, mostly through dialogue, which tell us that Wayne has the social graces of an emotionally- stunted adolescent. (In response to Alfred the Butler's comments about Vicki, Bruce says: "Alfred, why don't you marry her?") Then there's Bruce and Vicki's first date, in which they're seated at opposite ends of a massive banquet table. It's a great visual joke, like a "kid's idea" of a romantic dinner:

In the end, though, Burton wants desperately to connect Batman and his cackling arch-nemesis as doppelgängers but nothing really comes of it. Like so much else in the movie, it's offered up as simple window dressing - evil begets good begets evil begets... a 50-year-old clown and a bat-suited billionaire duking it out atop a gothic cathedral. (Joker was not originally written as the Waynes' killer, by the way. This was added later by Warren Skaaren during the 1988 Writers' Guild of America strike.) 

Batman Returns, on the other hand, is pretty much all window dressing. It's fascinating nonetheless, and steeped even further in rich, iconic imagery:

I really do agree that most of the sequel seems to take place inside Batman's warped head - that each villain represents some particular facet of Bruce Wayne's dark and tortured psyche. That's a bitter pill for any audience to swallow, though, especially during the summer movie season, where "small brains, bigger explosions" tends to be the norm. I remember riding my bike down to the local theater to see the movie on opening day, and by the time the end credits rolled, it's safe to say I was blindsided by it. I rode home and tried to make sense of it, and convinced just a few hours later that I'd seen something great, I jumped back on my bike and saw it again. The experience has yet to be repeated.

Further readings. Take this series of shots, which starts approximately 14:50 into the movie proper. It's your classic "hero shot" - any camera angle or dramatic composition designed to make a character look especially heroic. (Hint: every shot in a Michael Bay film is technically a hero shot.) Here, Bruce Wayne (Keaton again) sits in his study, clouded in shadow - contemplating what, we can only guess. Note the angle of the camera, pointed downward at its subject (or straight at him, it's hard to tell), meant to diminish the character or make us feel "superior" to him in stature:

Then, in a second shot, the Bat-signal blares into the night sky, alerting Wayne Manor that the Red Triangle Circus Gang has begun its assault on Gotham City:

A bat-themed spotlight shines into the room where Bruce is sitting, and he rises to his feet, his purpose fulfilled. Now the camera looks up at him from a low angle - he is now authoritative and powerful:

But wait! It turns out that Burton and his cinematographer, Stefan Czapsky, aren't done with us yet. Now follows this shot, seen from beneath a sewer grate where the Penguin (a hitherto unseen Danny DeVito) supposedly watches:

The final script draft by Daniel Waters and Wesley Strick includes this line from the Penguin, to accompany the image: "Ooh, Batman... You gonna piss on my parade?" Burton cuts it from the movie entirely, with the implication that - perhaps? - Batman's true calling is also his prison. (This, at least, segues along nicely with Returns' villain-as-fractured-psyche metaphor.)

I also like how the Penguin's arc comes full circle, his feathered "family" ushering him out of life the same way they ushered him in. (Also note the obvious parallels between baby Cobblepot and the baby Moses, reiterated again during the climax, when Penguin orders the kidnapping of Gotham's first born.)

Selina Kyle/Catwoman's arc can be traced visually too. See how she spends her early scenes kowtowing to authority figures (although, by movie's end, the balance has definitely shifted):

Or, during Selina's "transformation" sequence, trashing every square-shaped thing in her apartment - the square being, of course, a symbol for natural (structured) order in the universe:

Batman Returns also marks the point where the series took a turn toward the fanciful, as evidenced by the movie's bevy of bats, cadre of cats, and posse of penguins:

Call it the 2001 of comic book movies: the Hollywood blockbuster as art form. Yes, much of the Penguin's dialogue should never, ever be uttered within earshot of children, and the four-pronged tragic climax is the last thing you'd expect from a film with the word "Batman" in its title. Say what you will, Batman Returns is the only chapter in this $1.2 billion-grossing franchise that doesn't come off like a raging corporate product.


Speaking of corporate product: Next up, we tackle Joel Schumacher's turn at the Bat, and all the visual splendor that lies within. Should be a short post, no? For Part One of our retrospective, click here. And for the Franchise Face-Off which kickstarted it all, click here. Be sure to tune in again, folks! Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!

1 comment:

  1. It has been a long time since I have seen either of these movies, but I like seeing it through a different set of eyes.