Picture a pre-pubescent me, acne sprouting up like weeds across the oily plains of his face, visiting his local comic book shop.
His eyes dart across the racks. His heart starts to race. He picks up every Batman comic he can find. Detective Comics, Batman, Legends of the Dark Knight, maybe a miniseries or two. He brings them all home and he devours them, laying on his bed beneath his Batsignal poster, his Bartman poster, and the poster he pulled from an old comic book magazine of Adam West and Burt Ward in their Dynamic Duo garb from the sixties.
Yes, little Mattie had Bat-fever.
I still remember the exact date that Tim Burton’s Batman premiered in theaters: June 23, 1989. I remember it because until that date, I lived to see it. It was the summer after seventh grade, and I absolutely could. Not. Wait. For. This. Movie. The Tuesday after the film premiered, my dad took an afternoon off from work and we saw Batman at the once-beautiful River Oaks Theaters in Calumet City, IL.
I was instantly smitten. My Trapper Keeper the next school year was covered in stickers from the Batman trading cards. My sister and I obsessively collected each and every one to form a complete set. In art class, I devised ways to incorporate the Batman logo into my projects. I owned a trucker-style hat with that very same logo in fluorescent yellow on the front, and I took to decorating it in buttons from the comic book and sci-fi conventions I started to attend in high school. (My favorite? The “Kirk/Spock in ’92” button.)
Tim Burton’s Batman was a neutron bomb in my life. It led me to the Batman comics, which led me to comics in general, and which somehow emboldened me to pay attention to the late Sunday night Star Trek reruns and the films of Steven Spielberg. Out of all the random, strange, brilliant, idiotic things that would consume my time over the years, the first geek obsession I chose was Batman. (Star Wars came before that, but it chose me, as it chose just about every twenty- and thirtysomething human being on the planet.)
Batman turns 25 this year, and today I turn 38. Perhaps it’s the general ennui of mid-summer or my steady advance toward middle age, but I find myself drawn toward introspection. As a birthday present to a near-stranger, I ask your indulgence; I’m sure none of this is what you were hoping to hear in a random think piece about a crappy old superhero movie.
Because Burton’s Batman is pretty crappy. It’s an impressionistic vision of an iconic character, one that earns its status as a “comic book film” not just with its subject, but through favoring powerful visuals over story and character. It may be true that comics have grown far beyond their pulpy, disposable roots into a true art form of their own. That doesn’t make Batman any less a comic book movie. It draws equally from the earliest Batman comics from Bob Kane and Bill Finger, and from German Expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It’s a film of sheen without substance, of splash pages and Ben-Day dots, where you can almost imagine thought bubbles popping up over the heads of Vicki Vale and Bruce Wayne. Except the thought bubbles are empty, because no one bothered to fill them in.
It’s crappy, but it can still draw me in. Is part of that nostalgia? Absolutely. As I age, I settle more and more for pop junk food. I may read about the latest art house flicks and Oscar bait; once a month or so, we may even fire up the Apple TV and rent an honest to goodness real movie from iTunes. But I’m a student of trash, and when I want to engage with film, it’s most often the movies I knew so well growing up, or flicks I missed that fit easily into that scope. I’m finally catching up on The Abominable Dr. Phibes with Vincent Price; it’s not a challenge to my intellect but rather a compelling curiosity, and not that far removed from Burton’s own career focus on the visually stimulating over the emotionally real.
I consume pop junk food and write about it online, but I constantly aspire to better things. I want to be catching up on brilliant films and TV series and the great novels of literature. Instead, I’m seduced by what is cheap and easy–summer blockbusters, reality shows, re-reads of fantasy novels I already love.
Similarly, I toil each day in the coal mines of corporate marketing. I like my job, and I’m thankful to have it. But I aspire toward my own artistic satisfaction–there’s a pile of unfinished novels and short stories mocking me even now in my Dropbox account.
I desire art, but art is hard, so I settle for commerce. That’s me, and that’s Tim Burton’s Batman. It wants to be art; it settles for commerce.
That’s the uneasy tension at the heart of the film, and what makes it both watchable and repulsive today. Production designer Anton Furst creates a Gotham City straight out of the early years of the Batman comics, a twisted nightmare version of New York where every corner seems to end in a dark alley and criminals rule the streets. This art deco grand guginol vision is populated by a sleepy Michael Keaton, an obnoxious Jack Nicholson, and a forgettable Kim Basinger, all of them cast more for their box office impact than their affinity for the material. And let’s not forget the wisecracking Robert Wuhl, the wheezing Jack Palance, or Mick Jagger’s ex Jerry Hall, whose performance and character are just about as substantial as the porcelain mask she wears late in the movie.
Danny Elfman’s score perfectly suits the adventures of a creature of the night, all sinister trumpets and strings that infuse the onscreen action with a fierce energy. Meanwhile, Prince’s “Batdance” is a song from a movie that is ONLY about the movie itself, a pop culture ouroboros.
Just beyond the edge of each frame, you can almost smell the hungry breath of Warner Bros. executives and producer Jon Peters, salivating over the prospect of the piles of money that the film and its hundreds of tie-in products will generate. Whatever Burton’s aspirations as a director, what emerged in theaters in 1989 never stops feeling like a product–art managed to survive somehow in fits and starts, but this is summer movie commerce pure and simple.
In moments, it coalesces. To their credit, screenwriters Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren don’t clutter their film with extraneous villains, and they elect to start the film well past the point of origin for the Caped Crusader, mistakes that many later superhero flicks would make. In Keaton’s eyes you can find the sadness, the anger, and the intellect of Batman escaping in furtive bursts. Beneath Nicholson’s mugging is the amoral disconnect of a true psychopath who values human life not at all, a performance that combines comic relief with chilling terror. Burton and Furst’s Gotham is a city on its last legs where nothing but evil seems to exist in primary colors.
But Batman’s parts are usually greater than its sum. And isn’t that true of this newly-minted 38-year-old manchild at the keyboard? Isn’t it true of us all?
All of this begs the question–is Batman great? To the universe of films at large, or even the pantheon of great summer blockbusters, not so much. But in the simple saga of my own life, it occupies a place of high status. For me, Batman will always remind me of summer afternoons in my bedroom, curled up in the air conditioning with the Dark Knight in front of me and my imagination running wild. As innocent as a mildly horny thirteen-year-old could be, I was as yet ignorant to the manipulations of commerce, and so could focus solely on the moments that sang in harmony with the tune of my own creative soul. I was stupidly happy.
I’m glad those days are over. I miss them all the time.