The newest in a long trickle of good-to-great DC Animated Universe films, Batman: The Killing Joke, is to be released this week, and in theaters no less (the realms of kiddie animation really have grown up). Since the film is based on the most famous Batman vs. Joker comic, one that partially inspired the gothic milieu of one of the most important blockbusters of all time, and because the DCAU itself was so heavily influenced by that blockbuster’s noir-baroque vision, it seems appropriate to take a trip back to the past with a review of the progenitor of this whole 25 year Batman love-affair-cum-epidemic that nerd culture has been afflicted with.
Watching Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman and its disfigured, plastered-on darkness today is largely a quaint experience. What was once a disquietingly serious blockbuster in its day now struggles to escape from underneath its giddy elan. But in 2016, an era of mangled, over-indulged, force-fed blockbusters with a realist, solemn streak a mile wide, it is Batman’s very cartoon zeal that becomes the well from which it draws life. Famously gruesome and gloomy in its day, Burton’s vision of gothic decay is decidedly less rapt with the reality principle than most blockbusters. Without heeding the realm of logic, Burton’s film is able to indulge its less timid, less mediated personal fetishes and massage something decidedly more expressive and visually crazed out of the fibers of the Batman comic than most blockbusters in the ‘10s, so concerned with narrative pretensions, would even know what to do with. Tim Burton’s brand of serious is silly, to say the least, but the mixture has an alchemic chemical allure in 2016 with most blockbusters so stone-faced in their sobriety and most Tim Burton films so manic and spasmodic they lose any sense of their center. Maybe it wasn’t in 1989, but in 2016, Batman feels like the sweet spot.
Flawed though it is – and it is deeply flawed – Tim Burton’s first dip into the cavern of gilded Hollywood excess is a more brazen and more discombobulated film than Christopher Nolan’s brooding modern versions of the same tale. It’s not necessarily better for it, but amidst the morass of sober, battened-down blockbusters released every summer these days, the festive glee and macabre, madcap-ringleader excesses of Burton’s film are undeniably more refreshing. Less a story proper, Burton’s Batman is inscribed with the same implicit moral rot of the Nolan Batman universe, but Burton is less long-winded and Shakespearean in his loony ways, preferring the cinematic bonafides of image and sound to Nolan’s sometimes over-determined mock-poetry.
Primarily, Batman is an excuse for Burton to run amok with Hollywood’s money (a prophecy that would be fulfilled with the sequel, a gallantly ricocheting ball of crazed electrons and a better film to boot). Although this Batman is more a premonition of what Burton could do than the complete package, his Art Deco architecture (well, Anton Furst’s Art Deco architecture, with Furst clearly the dark knight in this film) radiates an unholy charisma. Quoting German masterworks from the ‘20s by the minute, the heavily-lined scrawl of Gotham City – influenced most notably by Metropolis – is the platonic ideal of a dusky, half-remembered nightmare version of a city whose only escape from itself is to pretend it doesn’t exist during the day.
The screenplay is on less stable ground, admittedly, although it only ever dips toward the short end of the stick in a criminally misguided decision to turn abstract-carnival-of-evil The Joker (Jack Nicholson) into a person with a motive and, more heinously, a back-story with Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne/Batman. In this film, it turns out that Jack Napier (the Joker’s pre-dye-job name) was the goon who killed Wayne’s parents, thus tormenting him to a life of inescapable hellish nighttime devil dances. This back story – thankfully dismissed with expediency – reeks of a film school student’s Screenwriting 101 shorthand for “add depth to the characters, make them human”, the kind of over-written inessential that mistakenly feels the need to connect everything in the universe – and thus clarify and ossify that universe – rather than to let the chaos of the narrative, of the Joker, ring outward in bellicose, unholy strokes.
When it does ring out – providing Burton and his band of merry cinematic bards carte blanche to indulge in sequences and scenes without much connective tissue – the film is on significantly less compromised ground. Thankfully sparing us much of a back story for the caped crusader himself, the film begins with Danny Elfman’s sly, insinuating, alarmingly charged score – wonderful in every way, exorcising any of the militaristic bombast of most ‘00s comic scores – as the camera swoops around and investigates abstract metal that soon coalesces as The Bat symbol, and that’s all we need to know. After setting up the Joker’s back story (and the money paid to Nicholson ensures that this is much more his film than Batman’s), we’re in the realm of effective, affectively-charged noir craft and the film is much happier for it, opening up and affording itself room to breathe and dance with Burton’s fetish for artifice (appropriate, considering we’re watching a story about a guy in a bat suit fighting a guy in clown armor).
Even the thematic texture – a cosmetically crazed assault on the cosmetics craze of the late ‘80s – is expressed with baroque, cartoon alacrity, circling around a bewildering blend of ‘50s noir and hyper-saturated pant-suit ‘80s charisma that catalyzes this Batman with an inspired personality (many of Burton’s films, his early ones especially, follow in trying on this faux ‘50s aesthetic so popular in the ‘80s). Everything, including bit parts like Robert Wuhl’s journalist who is grafted directly from a Howard Hawks picture, recalibrates the film toward the Silver Age comic jubilance that epitomized Batman back when it wasn’t so serious.
Certainly, the exultant Nicholson is evidence A for anyone who believes that a blockbuster having a little fun with itself is a crime, but the camera clearly adores him and the film around him keys into his should-be-heretical circus-crazed performance, so it’s the best kind of unholy matrimony (his deeply affected performative ticks also feel like a portal into the character’s madness, since he describes himself primarily as a painter, an artist, and a performer with a self-fulfilling vision of himself he wishes to display to the public). Less ostentatious and more clandestine is Keaton, whose flustered, distanced, anti-social demeanor corroborates the film’s implicit understanding of Batman as a charisma-challenged, confused lone sole whose past traumas have forbidden him from accepting the normative world. In comparison to Christian Bale’s heavily modulated mortal terror, the almost comically minimalist performance on Keaton’s behalf actually insinuates more than we’d expect about the emptiness of the man behind the bat.
At one point he schleps through a self-revealing “I’m Batman” routine with love-interest Kim Basinger (all false notes on her part, and she’s consistently the weak note in a film that really doesn’t have a clue what to do with a love story when the midnight trysts between the dudes are really the focus). Here, Wayne steps all over himself trying to reveal his secret identity, with Burton staging a cheeky near-monologue that recalls other milquetoast types with double-lives throughout history (Burton’s affectionate appreciation of Ed Wood, who directed Glen or Glenda about his own cross-dressing moonlighting career, further corroborates this). Later, a grotesque parade where Batman more or less slides right into the rogues’ gallery of misfits and outcasts extends the director’s interest in celebrating, and not leering at, a world gone mad with decadence and artifice. For Burton, these are merely new, liberated outlets of self-expression, much like his own films were for him.
And express himself he does! Certainly more timidly than he would in any of his films from the ten-year period around Batman, but for a big budget calling card Batman is on the right side of personalized artwork. It would take the rampaging, Godzilla-size box office success of this film to untangle Burton from the Hollywood machine enough to produce the much superior, much more deviant, much more outré experiment in the limits of blockbuster realism Batman Returns, but this first film is more than a successful exercise in dipping his toes in the water. Burton uses the Hollywood machine more or less to his benefit, engaging with the German Expressionist impulses that girdered his beloved Universal Horror and film noir B-picture affections growing up. And, although this film, often considered an inviolable cultural pillar beyond its worth, is insubstantial to the max, there’s enough screwy, palpable glee on Burton’s behalf slipping into (or slathered over) the frame that the production is never less than fitfully amusing, even if it’s often never more.