Monday, June 30, 2014

"$uccessfu!" Films: "Batman" (1989)


The conventional view of comic-books, particularly of superheroes, consists of the battle between good and evil, the hero and the villain, the right and the wrong. In the early twentieth century, superheroes (including but not limited to Superman) were seen as mere perfect and extraordinary characters that were too great and too mighty to be taken seriously in the real world (apart from, of course, saving various people in the fantastical adventures that real-world comic-book readers would escape into). 

In the late 1930s, however, graphic artist Bob Kane was inspired to create a superhero that was based in reality. His influences (along with that of uncredited co-creator/writer Bill Finger) consisted of Leonardo Da Vinci's diagram of a flying machine known as the ornithopter, and popular masked characters as Zorro and the Shadow. Thus, the "Bat-man" (and his alter ego Bruce Wayne) was born.

Batman's debut in Detective Comics, Issue No. 27
This year marks the 75th anniversary since the Caped Crusader's first appearance in Detective Comics (a.k.a. DC Comics), and 25 years this month since director Tim Burton's dark and mesmerizing film adaptation was released in theaters.

In recent decades, artists and writers have done more than provide escapism for comic-book readers. They've helped form and develop a modern mythology that consists of fantastical characters dealing with real world situations. Many of today's filmmakers, from Bryan Singer to Sam Raimi to Christopher Nolan, have followed suit. But prior to the late-80s, executive producer Michael E. Uslan had long dreamed of producing a "definitive, dark," and serious Batman film, as Kane had intended from the character's inception.

Following in the footsteps of the comics, the character found his way into serials of the 1930s and 40s. However, his popularity would decline in the mid-1950s, due to the nation’s belief that comic books were brainwashing children. As a result, "Batman" was shifted to lighter, more cheesy, fare in the 1960s with the popular television series starring Adam West and Burt Ward.

Adam West (Batman) and Burt Ward (Robin)
The legacy of DC Comics in film became widely successful with the release of "Superman" in 1978. Directed by Richard Donner and starring an unknown-at-the-time Christopher Reeve, it was the first movie of its kind that gave audiences a glimpse at what a superhero story could be on film. It featured a compelling and captivating story with an A-list cast and enough spectacle and action to spare. Batman was to follow, and it would take ten years to get to him to the big screen. 

Many people, however, still had perceptions of the campy TV show. Frank Miller’s “Batman: Year One” graphic novel of the 1980s, however, harkened back to Kane’s original intention of Batman as a “dark vigilante”. The film project did face some controversy, particularly with the casting of Michael Keaton, who had been known for comedic roles like Mr. Mom and Night Shift. (He would star in Burton's Beetlejuice one year before Batman's release.) There was also some concern from producers, executives, and even theater owners, who wondered if the film was going to be too dark. 

To reduce negative speculation (and to prove that it wasn’t another campy version), a 90-second trailer of the film was shown in theaters, much to the surprise of audiences and fanboys. The advertising campaign (featuring the newly-refined and now-infamous bat symbol) became an phenomenon, as well as an unprecedented marketing connection between the comic-book and film industries.

Keaton's Batman
Nicholson's Joker
Shot in Pinewood Studios in London, Batman was the most expensive movie ever made at the time. The minimal effects and set design, including Gotham City and the Batmobile, by the late Anton Furst echoed back to the classic serials and expressionism of the 30s and 40s. Upon its release in the summer of 1989, the film was a mega hit and helped redefined what a comic-book movie could be. It is dark and brooding, to be sure, and should not be taken lightly. And even though it does spend more time with Jack Nicholson’s unforgettable performance as the Joker, and includes a couple of controversial third-act scenes, it does (more than the other movies in the original series, courtesy Burton and Joel Schumacher) tap into the mystery, trauma and darkness of the character of Batman and Bruce Wayne.

Furthermore, what makes this film a distinct comic-book movie is how it poetically and operatically illustrates how the villain exposes who he is to the public (“Winged freak terrorizes? Wait 'til they get a load of me”), while the hero keeps his identity in the shadows. This even creates debate over which of the two ("hero" or "villain") is more dangerous. 

Vicki Vale: A Lot of people think you're as dangerous as the Joker.
Batman: He's psychotic. 
Vale: Some people say the same thing about you.
Batman: What people?
Vale: I mean, let's face it. You're not exactly...normal.
Batman: It's not a normal world, is it.

These themes make Batman the quintessential comic-book movie that asks the central, thought-provoking question: Does the villain make the hero, or does the hero make the villain?

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