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Looking back at Tim Burton's BATMAN

Tom Pheby goes back to the Summer of 1989 and looks at Tim Burton's Batman.

It was a relief when the president elect of strangeness and abstract film making, Tim Burton, decided to tackle Batman, removing it from the realms of light entertainment television that had engulfed it and stigmatised it since the 1960's. Although I must admit to loving the part in Batman -The Movie (1966) where The Caped Crusader was on a rope ladder with a shark swinging off his leg. The answer to his predicament came from a can of 'shark repellant' produced from his overstocked belt. After a few squirts  the man-eater was rendered completely harmless, without so much as a tear in Batman's tights (got to get one of those belts, just in case of shark attack!). It was harmless and extremely camp, entertaining both little mites and their grown up counterparts, yet Batman had so much untapped potential and demanded an upgrade to give the character credibility it deserved, and Burton set about this task with a certain amount of childish enthusiasm.

Burton's vision for Batman was to be much darker, more in line with the comics that were being published by DC during the 1980s. This was the decade that bought us Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore's The Killing Joke. Batman was no longer light entertainment, but for those who had not read the comics this movie must have been quite a shock. Now the lead character (Michael Keaton) is dysfunctional, angry and vengeful - the antidote to the goody two shoes of old. A troubled, lonely millionaire who had everything and nothing in equal measure. He handed out his own particular brand of justice with unparalleled menace. It made you think on occasion if this guy dressed in black armour was as bad as those he apprehended, or maybe even worse!

The plot couldn't have been further removed from the 'holy hole-in-a-donut' style shenanigans that Adam West and Burt Ward had given us 20 years earlier. In '1989', Gotham City is a corrupt and squalid place, a hot bed of crime and lawlessness that has managed to infiltrate all levels of the social strata, making it a place to avoid rather than live. The district attorney Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams) and Police Commissioner James Gorden (Pat Hingle) declare war on crime, at the top of their hit list is mob boss Carl Grissom (Jack Palance). Just to complicate matters further, Gotham is choking with fear amid reports of a flying vigilante roaming the streets (umm, wonder who that could be?)

Burton also gave us flashbacks to the young Bruce Wayne witnessing his parents being killed by a mindless, opportunist street thug, Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson). Clearly this has an enourmous effect on the young Bruce Wayne, but little did he know that he was destined to cross paths with the the man behind this unprovoked action years later.

Fast forward, we witness a power struggle within the crime syndicate headed by the mechanical Grissom and his aspiring wannabe, Napier. It's ultimately a tale of betrayal and self preservation in criminal circles, Grissom's fear of being ousted ensures that his protege meets with a sticky end - courtesy of the Caped Crusader who decides not to intervene. It's an interesting dilemma and makes Batman seem like damaged goods, or at least working to his own agenda. Nicholson's character survives being immersed in bath of green goo and scurries off for some reconstructive surgery from a back street quack. The results of all this cut price nipping and tucking leaves him with a gigantic complex, a taste for revenge and a grin better suited to a Coco the Clown.

Napier/The Joker embarks on bringing misery to Gotham City, his former boss and of course 'The Bat'. The plot is pretty thin but it's so superbly executed it doesn't really matter. Keaton's Batman providing some deliciously dark and violent moments, but on the other hand his portrayal of Bruce Wayne is a complete washout. A vague watercolour of a troubled and tormented soul who doesn't know his way around his own mansion. You get to a stage where you believe that he couldn't find the loo without his Butler (Michael Gough). No wonder Alfred looks so worn out, chasing between floors handing out pearls of wisdom to the vacuous playboy.

By contrast Nicholson's bubbly performance gives us the brightest and most memorable scene stealing moments. A mixture of the psychotic and comical, seemingly on the verge of hamming it up and tipping it into farce but controlled enough to apply the brakes as required. Then there's Kim Bass-inger or Bas-inger (however you pronounce it) as the air headed Vicky Vale. Apparently she's a well known war photographer! But it's hard to imagine that as she never seems to have a hair out of place, is immaculately made up at all times and flounces about as if treading the air with hover stilettos. She takes screaming to new levels and you suspect when she's not bursting your eardums, she's considering doing so.

Jerry Hall gets a part (but no one knows how) as Grissom and Napier's object of desire, and drones her lines away in a Texan accent. There's a cheery performance by Robert Wuhl as the reporter Knox, whose outlook on life seems to be if he cant have sex, lunch will do - Not a bad philosophy! I must also give a special mention to Tracey Walter for his portrayal of the rotten but likeable Bob The Goon. Behind the scenes the work of costume designer, Bob Ringwood, is magnificent, as is the special effects team, headed by Ron Burton, and the cinematography of Roger Pratt.

It's filmed superbly, the grey gloomy tones give Batman an authentically depressing and grimy atmospheric feel, and the action is plentiful and believable throughout. Something went awry during the sound mixing, because everything seems twenty times louder than normal - perhaps it's all part of the comic reinterpretation, replacing the captions of the 60's series. I guess one complaint I have (and it's not really a complaint, more an observation), is that the Joker seems more defined than the title character, his layers provide more intrigue and interest. Of course Nicholson thrives in these type of roles and doesn't hold back from injecting a little more peculiarity than was necessary, all of which created a degree of confusion for me as I found myself willing him on, I almost cheered for the wrong guy on numerous occasions!

I still enjoy Batman, and it's clear that this was the template for, not just future Batman movies, but comic book adaptations in general. Tim Burton set a perfect tone and style that must have influenced Christopher Nolan when approaching The Dark Knight trilogy - let's not even mention the Joel Schumacher versions!

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