Joe continues our stay in Gotham with Tim Burton’s first stab at the Dark Knight legend.
Who made it?: Tim Burton (Director), Sam Hamm, Warren Skaaren (Writers), Jon Peters, Peter Guber, Chris Kenny (Producers), Warner Bros. Pictures.
Who’s in it?: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough.
IMDb rating: 7.6/10.
It’s not difficult to spot what attracted director Tim Burton to Warner Brothers’ five-year-old Batman project in 1986. Whilst developing the film, Burton would establish his trademark Gothic style with Beetlejuice (1988). And the tale of a city draped in everlasting darkness, ruled by a human-creature hybrid that stalks criminals in the shadows, fitted his dark aesthetic perfectly. Burton later admitted: “I was never a giant comic book fan,” but “the image of Batman and the Joker” proved irresistible to the former animation artist. The only filmic reference point Burton would have had when getting to grips with the character, was the loveable but camp sixties television series and film. Luckily, by 1988 Batman was firmly back in fashion, after The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke had reincarnated the character as a much darker figure.
The edgier tone of these comics had struck a chord with audiences, and Sam Hamm evidently had this in mind whilst writing the bulk of the film’s script. The Killing Joke, on which Hamm’s Batman story is loosely based, is heralded by Burton as “the first comic [he] ever loved.” Basing his script on Alan Moore’s classic meant that Hamm’s plot opens with Bruce Wayne already in his crime-fighting years. The film therefore shies away from telling an origin story, preferring instead to depict the infamous murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne via flashback, allowing Hamm to add an intriguing twist to the central myth of the comic.
Unsurprisingly, the role of Batman became the Holy Grail of Hollywood. According to Burton, “a zillion people” wanted it. In an inspired piece of casting, Burton unexpectedly gave the role to his leading man from Beetlejuice – Michael Keaton. It was a heavily criticised decision; both fans and critics were sceptical of everything from Keaton’s appearance to his then comedy-heavy filmography. On the subject of appearance, it is true that the 5 ft. 10 Keaton did not quite suggest the bone-crunching brute that is Batman. Critic Mark Kermode also perhaps unfairly remarked that: “what’s the one thing everyone knows about Michael Keaton? He has no chin. What’s the one thing you need to be able to play Batman? Chin.” Still, Keaton proved he had the acting chops to pull off the twisted psyche of the man torn between Bruce Wayne and the Bat. I would even go as far as to say that Keaton, dare I say it, is the best Batman of all. His extremely focused, yet slightly unhinged performance as the Caped Crusader gives the film its psychological depth.
When it came to casting Batman’s arch-nemesis, Burton plumped for what seemed to be a more obvious choice. Jack Nicholson has built a career out of playing crazies, and so he seemed a perfect match for the Joker. There are many sides to the character, and therefore many ways of playing him. But for me, the best Jokers are the ones who are first and foremost genuinely frightening (i.e. Heath Ledger, Mark Hamill), as opposed to a goofy comedy villain. Nicholson’s Clown Prince of Crime plays more towards the latter, and only evokes the horror of the character in small doses. He may not capture the Joker’s menace, but he certainly captures his magnetism, with a larger-than-life performance.
Again paying homage to The Killing Joke, the film attempts to pinpoint the Joker’s origins. In the beginning of the film he is Jack Napier, a malicious gangster who meets with an unfortunate accident by way of Batman’s involvement. A job gone wrong down at the Ace Chemicals plant sees Napier fall into a vat of the green stuff. He then ceases to be Napier the gangster and transforms into a homicidal clown. The genius of The Killing Joke is that the details of the Joker’s beginnings are eventually so fractured that the event becomes just one possibility of how Joker became Joker. Giving the audience a definitive account of this transformative event, as is done in Batman, takes away the mystery of the character. The Joker himself is so void of any humanity that it is almost impossible to visualise him has being anything but a psychotic monster. Sure Napier is bad, but he is nowhere near as demonic as Joker. Nevertheless, gangster becomes clown and hatches a dastardly plan to chemically alter everyday hygiene products, causing consumers to laugh themselves to death. Batman must find the method behind the madness, and stop the evil genius before it is too late. Eventually, the unstoppable force goes toe-to-toe with the immovable object, in a winner-takes-all showdown atop Gotham’s derelict clock tower. Batman must “dance with the devil in the pale moonlight,” if he wishes to save the people of Gotham. The two fight it out to Danny Elfman’s instantly recognisable score, in a signature Burton setting. Indeed, almost all of the film’s production design is given the Burton treatment. From Gotham’s smoke-filled streets to its towering skyscrapers, straight out of German expressionist cinema of the 20’s, Burton’s influence is transparent.
The extravagant visuals may not cover for the baggy final-third, but the performances are strong enough to ensure that the rest of the film is not pulled down with it. Nicholson exudes the charisma needed to pull off his comedic Joker and is mesmerising in every scene. Keaton also delivers a captivating performance as our protagonist who struggles to lead a normal life, burdened by the consequences of adopting his extreme vigilante persona. Kim Basinger is brilliant as feisty reporter Vicki Vale, who becomes the winner’s prize in a tug-of-war between the two freaks of the night. The ensemble is topped off by Michael Gough, who is perfectly cast as posh English butler Alfred, in what is the most understated and underrated performance of the whole film.
Batman’s influence on re-introducing the Dark Knight to a mass audience cannot be underestimated. It re-ignited the phenomenon for both older and younger generations, as demonstrated by soaring merchandise sales despite the film’s 15-certificate. Its success then allowed Burton to direct a superior sequel, which established Bats’ monumental impact on blockbuster cinema in the 90s.
The first reveal of Nicholson as the Joker. He arrives at former boss Grissom’s penthouse for a hostile takeover of the criminal organisation. His smiling white face lurks in the darkness, hidden by shadow, before he steps forth and announces himself to the world – “you can call me Joker.”
- The casting of Michael Keaton caused 50,000 protest letters to be sent to Warner Bros. offices by fans. Batman creator Bob Kane, writer Sam Hamm and executive producer Michael E. Ulsan were also opposed to the decision.
- Alec Baldwin, Jeff Bridges, Emilio Estevez, Matthew Broderick, Kevin Costner, Tom Cruise, Michael J. Fox, Harrison Ford, Robert Downey Jr., Kevin Spacey, Patrick Swayze, Dennis Quaid, Kurt Russell, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mel Gibson, Charlie Sheen, Bill Murray, Pierce Brosnan, Tom Selleck, Daniel Day-Lewis, Tom Hanks, Kevin Kline and Bruce Willis were considered for the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman.
- Sean Young was originally cast as Vicki Vale, but broke her collarbone whilst filming. Tim Burton initially suggested Michelle Pfeiffer as a replacement, who would go on to play Catwoman in the sequel.
- Robin Williams, Willem Dafoe, David Bowie, John Lithgow, Tim Curry, and James Woods was considered for the role of The Joker.
- Burton cast Michael Gough as Alfred Pennyworth, due to Burton being a fan of Gough’s work in various Hammer horror films.
- In the original script, the paper Knox and Vicki worked for was the Gotham Gazette, not the Gotham Globe.
- The Batmobile was built on the chassis of a Chevy Impala.
- When the production design team arrived at Pinewood Studios in England to build the sets, they discovered the atmosphere processor set from Aliens in one of the sound stages, with most of the aliens’ nest and eggs still intact.
- The film was released the year of Batman’s 50th birthday.