Mr. Batmom Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Tim Burton Batman Movies
Keaton is my Batman. Don’t get me wrong, the Christopher Nolan movies were all great but the two Tim Burton ones have a mystique that’s hard to deny, even though for a long time I tried.
When Batman was first released in 1989 I was only 5 years old but it wasn’t just a movie, it seemed like a cultural event. A gluttony of Batman related merchandise was released, suddenly people were wearing Batman shirts and you could buy toys! I was too young to see in the theatre, but when it was released for video rental my 40 year old parents decided it would be perfect for family movie night. Secretly, they had wanted to see it for themselves since the hype surrounding it didn’t seem to go away. I didn’t remember much just that it was a dark movie…visually. It was never day time in Gotham and the Joker freaked me the hell out, yet was somehow genuinely comical. That wasn’t a movie we ended up owning, but Christmas 1989 was full of Batman toys. Toys that didn’t look anything like their counterparts, I kid you not they even made an action figure for Joker’s henchman, Bob! The crown jewel of my collection was the beautiful looking Batmobile.
My interest in the caped crusader would peak with the release of Batman Returns in 1992, I honestly can’t recall if I saw it in a theatre. I just know that I owned the VHS when it was released and I watched it relentlessly. I remember a friend of mine had a birthday party based around it being our entertainment for the evening. I kept telling him how much he was going to love it and forced him to put it on the minute we got off the school bus. It was a darker, bleaker, and creepier movie than the original but I couldn’t get enough of it.
Batman fell off my radar as I got older and drifted away from comic books and super hero movies especially in the dry spell that was most of the 1990’s before Hollywood really starting trying again in the early 2000’s. Yes, I saw Batman: Forever, I liked it well enough for the time but shortly afterward was pretty indifferent to it. I had so gotten away from any of that stuff by the time I was in college and afterward that I didn’t see or care about Batman Begins when it came out. I watched it on DVD a year or two afterward and liked it well enough but it made me want to go back and revisit the original Burton flick. After a harrowing attempt to find it at a time when video rental stores were closing up shop and online streaming services had yet to take off, I was able to secure it. I literally had to sign up for a new membership at a video rental chain that was planning to close their doors in a few months. It didn’t matter though, because it was in my hands. After immediately going home to watch it, I ended up being profoundly let down.
How could this have happened?
For one, it seemed so much campier than I remembered it being. Unlike the Batman ’66 show this camp seemed unintentional. As a kid watching the ’89 movie with the ’66 Batman as my only point of reference it seemed excessively dark by comparison. The special effects were dated and sometimes that can be part of the charm of that era if you lived through it, but for whatever reason they weren’t doing it for me. Everything looked and seemed laughable and the story itself wasn’t captivating. After the movie finished, I returned it sad that a small piece of my childhood couldn’t brave the storm into adulthood.
I didn’t give the movie another thought until 7 years later when my local theatre re-ran Beetlejuice. Caught up in its dark magic it made me want to go back and revisit Batman. Something changed in those years because this time around when I reached the credits I was exhilarated. Sure there were a few things that stood out to me that could be changed but ultimately it was a satisfying experience.
Say what you will about Tim Burton but he is very good at creating atmosphere and Batman (especially Batman Returns) is no exception. It may not have that lived in real world feel that the Nolan series did but Gotham under his eye was dark and creepy as fuck. I would have never realized it at the time but this movie was probably very early exposure to me of some of the elements that make up film noir. Wisely, Burton chose to make the time period a classic more timeless one with guys wearing fedora’s and ties and women wearing dresses. This works in the scope of things given the art deco architecture that pervades Gotham.
I will defend Michael Keaton as Batman, as soon as you see him with the cowl on his face it’s like he’s transformed. There is no way to identify the man underneath. He and Burton get a lot of things “right” when it comes to Batman or at least my interpretation of him. One of the big things is that he barely talks as Batman in that movie. To me, the less said the better. He should always be a silent terrifying figure. This is emphasized via his cape as well. They overdo it a bit in Batman Returns but in the first film it’s used as part of his descension a lot which helps add to the Bat mystique (unlike Batman ’66 where the cape was just kind of there for show). One of the other things that I love is Batman’s staccato movements and fighting style. It makes it feel like that master tactician inside has pin pointed the precise correct blow to place on his enemies that will offer up the most damage. It’s something I never noticed when I was a kid, but I can’t help but focus on as an adult.
Now as great as I may think Keaton is as Batman, his Bruce Wayne is another story. Keaton’s face becomes bold and stone like under the cowl, but without it he’s a little on the goofy side. He just doesn’t exude a coolness that I associate with playboy billionaire. Not to mention his hair is right on the cusp of becoming a mullet. It’s all a little too 80’s for me. Even as a kid, I didn’t particularly care for him as Bruce.
A lot has already been said about Nicholson’s performance in this movie and how in a way it’s really his film with Batman costarring it. So I won’t say much, but watching it this time around I can’t remember laughing so hard. Nicholson’s Joker is manically unhinged and exhilarating with some fantastic dialogue and one liners.
Is it a perfect movie? Far from it. Both Batman and Batman Returns definitely have a lot things wrong with it, but it’s these two movies along with the Animated Series that really formed the core of how I defined what Batman was and what he did. I’m sure a generation of people who grew up with the Nolan films might not give these a lot of thought or credibility. I’m just happy these exist and that I could be reacquainted with them and accept them back into my life. It may not be often I decide to watch them, but if I do it’s good to know that Michael Keaton will be there for me.
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