1989, Batman, Beetlejuice, Bob Kane, Christopher Nolan, Comic Book movies, Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller, Michael Keaton, Pee Wees Big Adventure, Tim Burton, Tim Burtonj, Uncategorized, Warner Brothers
When? Why? How? Where? Who cares? You delusional fool!!? Let me backtrack a moment. My life as Batman never existed of course. It mostly took place in my over active pre-pubescent 11-year-old imagination stirred by the absurd amount of pre-release hype around the release of Tim Burton‘s Batman in the summer of 1989. Yes, the power of marketing and branding shaped my adolescent dreams which seems quite depressing now but hang on a moment…
Comic books, super heroes and cartoons were a major presence and influence on my young mind and the campy, often hilarious 60’s Television version of the Caped Crusader was a regular watch in my household and in that of my pip squeak mates but the word in comic nerd circles at the time and the media pre-Internet was of an unusual redesign of this iconic Bob Kane creation.
Tim Burton’s first couple of films, Pee Wees Big Adventure and Beetlejuice were again were major events in our young lives; bizarre, off kilter visions with a dark and mischievous sensibility. And Beetlejuice in particular looked like nothing else to these young eyes so his version of Batman with Michael Keaton in the lead and the great Jack Nicholson as the Joker promised something special. This would be the first blockbuster comic book event movie since 1978’s Superman and in theory a dark, twisted, more adult Batman inspired by the late 80’s success of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight comic book series.
Why did the idea of a new Batman movie captivate me so? The promise of darkness, the violence, the idea of being this super cool, mysterious night-time figure with nifty gadgets and unlimited funds? That and the wish fulfilment of being a seemingly reticent, complex hero figure who could kick everyone’s ass, especially my playground/neighbourhood tormentors; to become a figure of fear and desire.
Of course, not a very realistic goal at the time but I was young and naïve and inspired by this slightly fucked up masked vigilante in spandex, so naive in fact that the idea of being my neighbourhood version of Batman actually came to pass.
Myself and my close friend and next door neighbour were sick of being pushed around and intimidated by the local goons who possessed only a small amount of our intelligence so after seeing the 1989 version of Batman, we sprang into action armed with only our weakling adolescent bodies, delusions of grandeur and nerves of steel. We planned to clean up the neighbourhood or our own street at least so together, we used our competent art and crafts skills to design our own costumes and masks to hide our identities.
We would use the dark streets and cunning strategies of surprise to dispense extreme justice armed with our puny fists, no weapons and the ability to cover a few hundred metres by foot at a fair pace, jump off three-foot high foot garden walls and generally intimidate the intimidators with our sub Blue Peter outfits and limited fighting skills. Alas, it was a romantic idea but doomed to failure due to our school/homework schedules, pathetic costumes, lack of money and lack of superhero athleticism/ muscle definition.
In recent years as comic book movies have become a consistent ingredient in the pop culture diet, the idea of ordinary people attaining superpowers or becoming masked avengers explored in films such as Kick-Ass and Chronicle to television series such as Heroes and Misfits is now familiar to audiences.
So maybe I should have applied to my then fertile teenage imagination to writing a script rather than dressing up like a prat. I could have been ahead of the curve. Oh well.
Now back to the Batcave. My viewing of Tim Burton’s Batman left me so awestruck and I’ve felt compelled to rediscover that feeling with each subsequent Batman movie. Or maybe the Warner Brothers marketing team and fiendishly indoctrinated millions of us all twenty-three years ago with their use of the famous yellow and black Batman symbol which adorned every known product known to man for two to three years and so we feel a burning need to view every new Batman adventure regardless of quality.
Despite Joel Schumacher‘s garish one-two punch of 1995 Batman Forever and 1997’s Batman & Robin, I was genuinely as excited as a child in a candy/puppy dog store before seeing both and wanted so desperately to forgive Arnie’s shite punning, Clooney’s head bobbing and the overall camp aesthetic of the latter but ultimately it left me sad and bereft of the ecstatic, vicarious high of Burtons’s two expressionistic,oddball entries. Moody, gothic atmosphere now replaced with neon discotheque overkill.
Eight years passed and the mass public seemed to have forgotten about Batman. Lucrative fantasy franchises had become all the rage. Comic book adaptations were ten and penny and varied wildly quality wise so the news of Warner Brothers reviving one of their key properties met with a muted reponse until the key personnel involved became known, primarily the appointment of emerging talent Christopher Nolan as director and brooding Welshman Christian Bale being cast as the Caped Crusader.
Nolan had come off directing the impressive Insomnia with Al Pacino and made his mark with the startling Memento in 2000, a puzzlebox mystery noir starring Guy Pearce as a detective with short-term memory loss. Both films were films aimed at an intelligent, grown-up audience and explored the idea of memory and guilt in interesting ways. So how would Nolan apply this sensibility to a comic book film intended for consumption by a mainstream audience and more importantly would he be allowed to express a distinct, creative vision within those constraints?
As 2005’s Batman Begins proved, those pressing questions were answered upon entering an Edinburgh cinema in that summer and well Holy Shit Batman!! This was deadly serious stuff, intense without being explicitly violent and the most realistic or at least movie realistic vision of Batman yet brought to the screen. Bruce Wayne was a psychologically tortured figure but more vulnerable and human than we had seen before.
This was a world away from the stagebound fantasia of the previous films and the epic realization of Batman’s origin story gave the enterprise a gravity and scale that it had previously lacked.
That Nolan and his co-screenwriter Johnathan Nolan seemed to believe that an audience were intelligent enough to intuitively follow a non-linear editing style in the manner of a Nicolas Roeg in a mainstream big budget product was astonishing in itself.
Batman Begins was a moderate commercial success but a huge critical favourite, it’s follow-up The Dark Knight became a cultural phenomenon and we now find ourselves at the destination of Nolan’s Batman, The Dark Knight Rises; a seriously impressive finale to this series. Not perfect by any means (what is?) but smart, intelligent, exciting, escapist fare for a broad audience.
The question is now after Nolan’s redefinition of Batman and the comic book movie, where can another creative team go with this character? Maybe nowhere as hinted by the films climactic scenes.
Are these films faithful to their comic book source? I’m not a scholar in that realm but for myself and I feel that along with the millions who have viewed these movies, Nolan has come closest to capturing the dangerous allure of this character and how we have collectively imagined this dark figure.
He resides within ourselves. Maybe not in our adult selves as we are too aware of the vagaries and problems of everyday life, the struggle and everyday practicalities, responsibilities etc to lose ourselves in such a fantasy but deep within the yearning hearts of troubled, confused youth.
Will I continue to seek out comic book movies and the latest version of Batman as I grow older? Do such films have longevity and will they ever feature in a Sight and Sound Top 100 Films Poll in the future? Who knows? These movies are designed to be of the moment, to quickly attract a large, excited audience seeking thrills and an escape from everyday worries.
That some of them including the Dark Knight Rises contain artistic merit is a bonus but they fundamentally remain the property of a multinational business entity who are legally entitled to use said properties in any which way it can to make profits.
In that sense, although the Batman films are populist films and as such for the people they never truly belong to the people and as such there is arguably a narrower scope for interpretation whereas a great, lasting work of cinematic art can evolve or change over the course of time and viewed in many different ways when filtered hearts and minds of the individual who views it.