“Can somebody tell me what kind of a world we live in, where a man dressed up as a *bat* gets all of my press? This town needs an enema!”
Maybe I decided to write about Batman so I could soapbox about Michael Keaton doing Birdman, a movie I really enjoyed, and then going on to play the Vulture in the new Spiderman, a movie I also really enjoyed, fulfilling an art-imitates-life-imitates-art cycle that can make your head spin if you try to find any meaning from it. I’m not sure if Spiderman now undermines the message of Birdman or reinforces it or if they’re just movies and I should be doing something more productive with my time. Anyway.
To my understanding, Batman was a delight to superhero fans who really didn’t have much going for them in 1989 except a downhill Superman franchise. Maybe this explains the explosion of praise for a movie that feels to me like a genuine mess. This isn’t a long movie, but as the run stretched into its second half, I began to see Batman less as a film and more as a social phenomenon. I remember playing the video game on the NES, and I still see the occasional Burger King memorabilia for this thing in various homes across America. Not that this should have any effect on the movie itself, but it’s something you think about when the story starts to lull and you space out wondering what has and hasn’t changed for the comic book genre.
Thankfully, I think we’ve gotten better at telling these stories. This film concerns Bruce Wayne/Batman already well into his run as a caped crusader. I was glad we didn’t dive into the Bruce Wayne origin story, or so I thought, because I came to find that the movie painfully teases out the origin over the course of the movie with Michael Keaton frequently looking at a newspaper with a conflicted look on his face, coming to find that the Joker is in fact the man who killed his parents. In fact, the movie seems more interested in the Joker than it does in its hero with the two sharing roughly equal screen time, perhaps a testament to Jack Nicholson’s star power or the misguided trust they placed in their vision of the iconic villain.
Maybe my boredom with Batman is more of a “me problem” after seeing 16 near-identical Marvel movies, most of which are pretty entertaining, and having a distorted view of the genre, though I think The Dark Knight topples all of those movies easily so I’m definitely open to experimentation as to what a superhero movie looks like. I’m starting to think I’m over-complicating things and Batman just doesn’t hold up. Superhero movies have gotten better. We’ve learned that we want to laugh at these movies and to carry a sense of wonder and fluidity that a clunky 80s movie can’t faithfully deliver. At least, that’s what I want.
Michael Keaton is fine, though I expected more from him having jumped on his more recent bandwagon. I feel the same way about Nicholson, though I think I knew what I was getting into with a Nicholson joker: a sleazy caricature that shoots for terrifying and comes up short. Neither of these guys are given a great script to work with, but they have their moments and seem faithful enough to the characters, for whatever that’s worth. The rest of the cast seems completely disposable and at times just feels like filler to sell action figures. (All the business with the newspaper and that journalist guy, for instance, has no payoff whatsoever.)
There are a million and one ways this movie is a mess, but I have to give it some credit in that it maintains watchability through some original ideas and clever moments. I’d probably bump the movie up a letter grade simply for the Joker’s “he stole my balloons” line, which made me laugh and rewind the film. I’ve never been a big Tim Burton guy, but the aesthetic is elaborate and consistent throughout the film, with a really great attention to detail that makes the background engaging when the dialogue isn’t.
I don’t think I’ll ever return to this movie because it bored me in a way that doesn’t seem like I missed anything; it’s just not something I want to see again. There are probably a dozen better superhero movies but perhaps a dozen that are worse in its defense, putting it in a unique but deprecated place of being tedious and forgettable (at least for my generation). If you love Batman and just want to see him on screen, this movie might scratch the itch, but there are still better movies for that too. But if you’re a Dark Knight completist or just want to see how far we’ve come, the movie isn’t absolute garbage.
Films Left to Watch: 869