Jameson Dublin International Film Festival
Out of the Past: Batman
Thursday, 23rd February, 6:00pm, Light House
Few icons are as known world wide as Batman, the bat signal itself being a logo that can be found in the most unlikely of corners and a huge part of the ubiquity is down to how the character has been portrayed in various media since his inception.
However the character was nearly overwhelmed by tonal shifts throughout his tenure. Firstly in the 1950s where the grim and Gothic crusader was replaced by a frothy boyscout all silly adventures which took him out of his usual milieu and dumped him into adventures encompassing time travel and cosmic concerns.
The ’60s then brought the smash hit TV show which built on the revised ideal and repositioned the character as a camp ringleader of a truly absurd and lighthearted world. With the humour ramped up the essence of this dark character was being lost. This had to be rectified. While it’s true, the essential elements of Batman lends itself to an endless array of interpretations, it was still decided that as a property it needed to return to its roots. Under the stewardship of writers such as Denny Adams and Frank Miller not to mention the moody art of Neal Adams, the comics began to claw back the angst and twisted sensibilities that first defined the book and it’s this version of the character that Tim Burton, long time fan of dark fairytales would fashion the tone to take Batman onto a wider stage.
With its film noir trappings and exaggerated and askew internal logic the film works in killing off the earlier camp but fails to hang together as a coherent film. A famously chaotic production (the final Batman/Joker confrontation, being written on set, which explains its poor resolution) one gets the feeling that the film had too many cooks. Having to accommodate Jack Nicholson who puts in a towerhouse performance as himself in clown make up, Prince on the soundtrack whose funk stylings clash with everything around it, introducing a hero, his entire raison d’etre and a love interest proves too much for a director who admits narrative is not his strong point. The love story is ridiculous even as these things go, rushed and unconvincing a potentially vital character reduced to a mere damsel in distress.
There’s no throughline to the film to anchor it as its constantly mutating script introduces elements only to discard them like some ‘wonderful toys’ as Joker himself might say. It’s a collection of ideas and tics rather than a proper story. Being too dark for children, whose desire for escapism would not be sated with this dismal and undesirable world and too simplistic for adults, its garish roster of gangsters and shallow characters find no nuance and settles instead for being patronisingly cartoony. Burton should have taken after Richard Donner’s philosophy when making Superman the movie, his notion of verisimilitude, that subject matter like this must be played straight to actually work.
Despite being dissatisfying as a whole there is one thing it gets right. Controversial when announced, the casting of Michael Keaton proved a masterstroke, his Bruce Wayne a nervy counterpoint to the more square jawed archetype of the comics and all the more interesting for that. Bob Kane who lobbied against the decision was forced to concede his mistake when Keaton impressed. The other feature of the film which is perfect is the score provided by Danny Elfmann a stirring piece which became iconic in its own right and endured past the films as the theme of the definitive Batman Animated series of the ’90s.
Simon Terzise gave a talk before the film extoling the virtures of the score remarking on its power and iconic stature. Burton himself did not relish the experience of making the film and his return to the series in ’92 for the very flawed but superior Batman Returns was a way for him to absolve the mistakes of this. It’s easy to see on screen why he felt uneasy about it all but the character has suffered far worse that this over his lengthy career. The movies most famous question, posed nonchalantly by Nicholson was ‘Ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?’ Yes we can answer and a most mediocre experience it was as it turns out.