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Old June 2 2012, 06:14 PM   #1
Warped9
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Batman...

I know I'm about to start revisiting the Trek films, but last night I was in the mood for something different. And so I watched Batman from 1989, something I haven't seen for a good many years. I was also thinking about the forthcoming The Dark Knight Rises and reflecting back to when these major feature films began.

I watched some of the special features first and I was reminded of how big a deal this film was back in 1989. Prior to this the only major feature film based on a comics superhero character had been Superman: The Movie in 1978. Prior to this even though Batman had been brought back to a serious minded sensibility in the late '60s and early '70s in the DC comics many more remembered Batman as he had been portrayed in the '60s Adam West TV series. The '89 Batman promised to bring him back to his dark origins. Casting Jack Nicholson as the Joker seemed exactly right, but casting Michael Keaton as Batman/Bruce Wayne was controversial. Nonetheless there was a lot of anticipation for this film.

I was 20 in 1989 and for the most part the film delivered in overall sensibility. Then again what else was there to compare it with? There was Superman: The Movie and the old Batman TV series. And, of course, there was also Batman in the comics of the '70s and '80s.

But how does it stand up now with so many other serious minded superhero films and animated series that we've gotten since then? And quite a few of them have been damn good.

If Batman had been only moderately successful then it might have been only a one-off feature. Superman had also been successful, but the subsequent sequels were evermore silly and the general sensibility seen in the 1978 film lost momentum to be perpetuated. In Batman's case the films also got sillier, but as a counterpoint we also got the very good animated film Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm as the following well-regarded Batman animated series. This seemed to build on the critical works in comics such as Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One.

Superhero movies haven't been the same since. I argue that as a good thing because now it seems filmmakers have learned to generally respect the original source materiel when it comes to superheroes. Generally they've learned to balance the larger-than-life aspects of the genre with some measure of realism.

Now looking back...


Batman (1989) ****

A city, already plagued with crime and corruption, becomes the arena when a maniacal madman challenges a vigilante crime fighter.

This is a very stylish looking film where Gotham City is a weird blend of 1940's metropolis and Gothic architecture. It's quite a surreal place that in some ways is hard to reconcile with our everyday reality. It's something like a dreamworld and doesn't seem much like the Gotham City of the comics either. The setting sets the stage for a rather schizophrenic film.

At times the film feels serious minded and yet at others there's a sense of exaggeration. Although nothing like the '60s era television series there is nonetheless an ever present element of camp to this. Some of the characters can be a bit too broad to be credible. To that end they come across as types rather than distinct characters. As such there are really only two characters in this film and the rest is window dressing.

Jack Nicholson nails it as the Joker. He walks the fine line between maniacal menace and ridiculous clown and makes it work. There seems to be almost a childlike quality to him that can also instantly become homicidal without thought or hesitation. He just makes it feel so natural. Watching Nicholson I think he could have made the Joker work even without the elaborate make-up much like Heath Ledger would twenty years later.

Michael Keaton makes for an interesting Bruce Wayne. In this film Bruce Wayne is the invented identity because he doesn't seem sure of who he is and what he's supposed to do. He is whole only as Batman as if that is who he was always meant to be and Bruce Wayne is a cover, an afterthought. And despite seeming counterintuitive a casting choice Keaton does rather well as Batman. I think it's really in his eyes in telegraphing a convincing sense of determination and conviction. I also like that we saw something of Bruce/Batman as detective as well as crime fighter.

The rest of the characters are barely two dimensional. Even Vicki Vale doesn't really offer up any real substance of why she should get under Bruce's skin other than him finding her attractive. Any pretty girl could have played this role and no one would have noticed the difference. I don't mean this as a criticism of Kim Bassinger, but as a criticism of the character. She doesn't offer up anything of interest. Commissioner Gordon and Harvey Dent are basically nonexistent.

Alfred Pennyworth does marginally better. Here he comes across as a quietly strong yet gentle and caring soul. He is Bruce's surrogate father without being overtly judgemental.

Yes, there is an element of darkness to this film, but it's a matter of interpretation as to whether it resonates with the original subject matter. Looking at it now the degree of camp and cartoon like sensibility tends to undermine the supposed serious mindedness this film was said to have. Despite claiming to want to get away from camp they still succumbed to a measure of it anyway. And so, in that respect, I think it diverges from the original source materiel and isn't a truly definitive Batman film.

In 1989 a lot of us were taken with this film's version of Batman's costume and the Batmobile. In retrospect they don't work as well now. Keaton's Bat costume simply looks too heavy and unwieldy to be credible for someone who has to be able to move and fight quickly and near tirelessly. The Batmobile fits perfectly with the retro/Gothic look of Gotham City, but it's absurd as a believable car.

The other thing that gets me is how small this film feels. I mean in the sense it feels like it was all filmed on a soundstage. It doesn't feel like it's part of a larger world hidden off camera and just beyond the sets.


I can still enjoy watching this film, but it doesn't resonate the way it once did. For me it's more a Tim Burton film than a Batman film.
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Old June 2 2012, 06:34 PM   #2
Greg Cox
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Re: Batman...

As I've mentioned before, I was intrigued by the very different reactions of two sets of friends back in 1989. I first saw the movie with some diehard comic book fans, and we were all blissfully overcome with relief that the movie wasn't as campy as old tv show. But when, a week or so later, I saw the same movie with some "mundane" friends from the office, they were actually a bit confused and disappointed by the movie. They had been expecting something "funnier"--like the old tv show.

That expection, that comic book movies are supposed to be campy spoofs, seems to have largely faded away today, but was pervasive back before the Burton movie. It's hard to overstate the lingering influence of the Adam West series on the popular consciousness. Long after the sixties, you still couldn't read a mainstream article on comic books or comic book movies that didn't begin "ZAP! BAM! POW!" or maybe something like "HOLY COLLECTIBLES, BATMAN!"

Nowadays, those references sound extremely dated.
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Old June 2 2012, 06:45 PM   #3
WalkerBait
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Re: Batman...

You're only 43? I would've pegged you for being a hell of a lot older.
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Old June 2 2012, 07:12 PM   #4
Admiral James Kirk
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Re: Batman...

Warped9 wrote: View Post
At times the film feels serious minded and yet at others there's a sense of exaggeration. Although nothing like the '60s era television series there is nonetheless an ever present element of camp to this.
If something lasts long enough it will eventually be regarded as camp. In 89 the Burton flick certainly wasn't considered camp. now it is. The same thing will happen with the Nolan stuff as well. Age makes things goofy.
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Old June 2 2012, 07:25 PM   #5
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Re: Batman...

Warped9 wrote: View Post
Looking at it now the degree of camp and cartoon like sensibility tends to undermine the supposed serious mindedness this film was said to have. Despite claiming to want to get away from camp they still succumbed to a measure of it anyway. And so, in that respect, I think it diverges from the original source materiel and isn't a truly definitive Batman film.
Yes, I agree. It doesn't really hold up well, and a lot of it is quite ludicrous. ComicsAlliance did a review a few months back that really trashed it (Part One, Part Two), and I largely agree with its assessment. They sum up my opinion perfectly when they say:

This is a pretty good Tim Burton movie. It's an awful Batman movie. It misunderstands basically every aspect of the character.
Basically what Sam Hamm and Tim Burton did was to go back to the very beginnings of the character in 1939 and take him in their own direction from there. So it was very, very far removed from who Batman was in the comics, from the history and legacy of the character. People at the time said it was truer to Batman than the Adam West series and movie were, but the West series was actually an incredibly faithful adaptation of how the Batman comics were actually done in the late '60s, whereas the Burton movie bore virtually no resemblance to the '80s comics except in having a dark(-ish) tone. It was basically a different character with the same name.

I also agree with what they say about the so-called Joker in this movie:

...[T]his isn't the Joker, it's Jack Napier. He never really changes his methods when he becomes the Joker; he laughs a bit more and gets more theatrical, but he's still the crazy guy he was fifteen minutes ago.
I don't think Nicholson was a good Joker at all, because he wasn't playing the Joker, he was playing Jack Nicholson (or rather, his usual screen persona). And I've never seen the appeal of that.


In 1989 a lot of us were taken with this film's version of Batman's costume and the Batmobile. In retrospect they don't work as well now. Keaton's Bat costume simply looks too heavy and unwieldy to be credible for someone who has to be able to move and fight quickly and near tirelessly.
Heck, I felt that way about it in 1989. I always thought it was ridiculous for Batman to be wearing a costume so rigid that he couldn't turn his neck.
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Old June 2 2012, 07:32 PM   #6
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Re: Batman...

I liked Batman (1989) a lot more at the time than I do now. It was before I discovered the Batman comics. Then, after the Schumacher films, this and Batman Returns looked a lot better in comparison.

This film still has a more memorable soundtrack than Batman Begins; and I prefer the 1989 version of the costume.

Michael Keaton made Batman and Bruce Waybe work. Gordon was miscast. The fat/corrupt cop should've been Bullock. Jack Nicholson overpowered the Joker role. Whenever I see him in Batman I think of Jack Nicholson and not the Joker.

Trekker4747 wrote: View Post
You're only 43? I would've pegged you for being a hell of a lot older.
I know, I thought he was born in 1959 and exactly 20 years older than us. I figured it's a typo and wasn't going to say anything.
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Old June 2 2012, 07:47 PM   #7
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Re: Batman...

The way he lauds TOS and so decries the other Trek series I would figured he was a kid when TOS first aired, not only saw it syndication decades later.

But that's neither here nor there. I re-watched Batman '89 recently myself and... Meh.

I remember having a much higher opinion of this movie when I was younger but on a re-watch it missed a certain "spark." Maybe the movie hadn't aged well, maybe the delicious taste of the Nolan films was still in my mouth and the horrible taste of the Schumacher films still in my throat or the usual tropes common to Burton anymore stood out more. (Though they weren't around as much in Batman as they'd later become.)

First of all, I agree with everyone above that the costume doesn't work. It's obviously very restrictive which just stands out. It's pretty much impossible for me to buy Michael Freaking Keaton as a badass crimefighter AND as a billionaire playboy hunk.

The movie does have good production values but as Warped said many scenes do feel claustrophobic like they were obviously done on a sound stage instead of outside and Nicholson's Joker is just absurd as also has been said it's not Nicholson playing The Joker it's Nicholson playing Jack Nicholson.
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Old June 2 2012, 08:07 PM   #8
Warped9
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Re: Batman...

Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm (1993) *****

A mysterious phantom is killing off old criminals and is somehow connected to Bruce Wayne's past.

This film is based on the excellent 1992 animated television series. And it's almost note perfect.

Maybe animation serves the world of Batman best because larger-than-life elements don't seem so out of place. But what is really striking in this movie is how good the story is and how well its written. I haven't seen this in many, many years and yet it remains just as good as when I first saw it. In some ways it's darker than the 1989 live-action film and in many ways it's much more respectful of the original source materiel. It's also quite adult and serious minded, far above practically anything being done in animation of the time and it still works today. I'd also argue it's a better story overall than the '89 film. It also reminds me of one of the comics' stories, "Night Of The Reaper" or something like that.

Another thing that strikes me here is how the main characters are more fleshed out than the '89 film. We come into this story some years after Batman has already emerged into Gotham City. There's no flashback to the death of Bruce's parents. There's no flashback to the origins of the Joker. We all know who these characters are and they're simply there without further explanation.

I think Alfred comes off well. Unlike his live-action predecessor this Alfred has an edge and seems more like the Alfred we'll get later in the Chris Nolan films.

This film also doesn't feel small. It does take a stylistic cue of sorts from the '89 film, but it forgoes the Gothic elements. Here it's not just Gotham City, but the whole setting is a mixture of the contemporary stylized with an 1940's Art Deco aesthetic. This might have been weird as live-action, but it works well enough in animation.

I could argue that the story didn't really need the Joker, but he doesn't steal the show here. And thats part of the interesting wrinkle. I said the '89 movie was as much a Tim Burtonesque film as much as a Batman film. Mask Of The Phantasm is unquestionable a Batman film.

And a damned good one at that.
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Old June 2 2012, 08:46 PM   #9
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Re: Batman...

Warped9 wrote: View Post
Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm (1993) *****

...In some ways it's darker than the 1989 live-action film and in many ways it's much much respectful of the original source materiel.
In just about every way, I'd say.

I'd also argue it's a better story overall than the '89 film.
A very easy bar to hurdle. Whatever strengths the '89 film had, story was not one of them.


It also reminds me of one of the comics' stories, "Night Of The Reaper" or something like that.
It's actually kind of a loose adaptation of Mike Barr's Batman: Year Two, which introduced the villain known as the Reaper.


There's no flashback to the death of Bruce's parents.
Which always struck me as surprising. Batman: The Animated Series was unable to show the murder of the Waynes due to FOX Kids's strict censorship on violence, so all they could do was allude to it through the occasional dream, hallucination, or news clipping. So I would've expected that the greater freedom they had in Mask of the Phantasm would've allowed them to dramatize it at last, but they didn't take the opportunity. (Then again, the film's co-writer/producer Alan Burnett had already penned the first animated adaptation of Batman's origin story eight years earlier in the Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians episode "The Fear," which remains one of the only times the scene has ever been portrayed in animation.)

There's no flashback to the origins of the Joker.
That was eventually covered in the New Batman Adventures episode "Beware the Creeper" some four years later.
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Old June 2 2012, 08:54 PM   #10
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Re: Batman...

I was surprised by Michael Keaton being cast. At the time, he was an outrageous long-haired comedian. He wasn't what you'd think of when you thought of Batman. I thought they were going for comedy when the news broke. When my dad saw the movie, I pointed out that he was the same guy who did Beetlejuice. He was totally shocked and got a kick out of it.

I loved the 1989 movie when it came out. I became a big Batman nut that summer, collecting books, comics, posters, action figures, toys and even tried to make a bat kite out of a black garbage bag. It was shaped like the bat symbol, but I couldn't build it right. I also got to see the batmobile at a car show. I was surprised to see that it was actually dark blue.

Anyway, the movie does look campier now thanks to the Nolan films and modern sensibilities in general. The fond memories are still there though. And yes, that suit did look pretty stiff. Apparently Keaton's puckered lips were due to the cowl hugging his face.

Greg Cox wrote: View Post
But when, a week or so later, I saw the same movie with some "mundane" friends from the office, they were actually a bit confused and disappointed by the movie. They had been expecting something "funnier"--like the old tv show.

That expection, that comic book movies are supposed to be campy spoofs, seems to have largely faded away today, but was pervasive back before the Burton movie. It's hard to overstate the lingering influence of the Adam West series on the popular consciousness. Long after the sixties, you still couldn't read a mainstream article on comic books or comic book movies that didn't begin "ZAP! BAM! POW!" or maybe something like "HOLY COLLECTIBLES, BATMAN!"
The same thing happened when Batman Begins came out. The biggest complaint I saw was that Batman wasn't supposed to be this serious.
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Old June 2 2012, 09:12 PM   #11
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Re: Batman...

1989's "Batman" is all about style over substance and yeah, it hasn't aged so well. Still, I liked that Burton's Batman would kill when necessary. Nolan's "comic book realism" approach suffers from keeping the whole "vigilante who DOESN'T carry a gun has a no kill rule."

Nicholson's Joker is just Nicholson doing his thing.
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Old June 2 2012, 10:04 PM   #12
jefferiestubes8
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1989 and style

sonak wrote: View Post
1989's "Batman" is all about style over substance and yeah, it hasn't aged so well.
Disclaimer: I've not read Batman comic books or watched any of the Batman animated TV series. I watched the 1960s live-action TV show reruns while growing up.
-----------------------------------------
I think I saw it in 1989 or on video in 1990. It was dark but then they hired Tim Burton who directed Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice as only two feature films up until that point. Both of those films were full of style.
It's been years since I've seen most of the film but yes the Batsuit was thick rubber. The car was very styled.
The merchandise and box office success really blew up the Batman franchise into 1990. That Batman logo was everywhere.
The following year another comic book franchise property was made into a feature film and Dick Tracy (1990) came out that was also very stylized similar to Batman (1989).
I believe it was Batman Returns (1992) that was still very stylized but even darker.

I've seen the The Dark Knight (2008) but not the sequel. It was well done and dark and very stylized as well.
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Old June 2 2012, 10:17 PM   #13
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Re: 1989 and style

Mask of the Phantasm is my favorite Batman movie. Period.

jefferiestubes8 wrote: View Post
I've seen the The Dark Knight (2008) but not the sequel. It was well done and dark and very stylized as well.
No one has seen the sequel to The Dark Knight.
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Old June 2 2012, 11:14 PM   #14
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Re: Batman...

Is it generally a given that Burton's two films and Shoe-mockers (doesn't deserve the effort to spell it right) are sort of in the same continuity?

Batman was huge when it came out for me, in 1989. I has a paper route and channeled all of my loot into those collectible movie cards, the action figures, and the awesome Batmobile with the shitty plastic bubble defense shields. The cards make the movie seem exciting, though I do agree with the OP... the movie seems very small and slow moving compared to today's standards.

In some ways, the sequel Batman Returns was a bit more polished. Catwoman (MP) stole the show. Every scene she was in was purr-fect. I wonder how The Devil Wears Prada will compare to her?

It's interesting to see all the comments in this thread so far. Reflecting on it I guess I'd agree that Burton didn't understand the Batman character well enough and that the original 1989 film missed the mark on some Batman fundamentals.... I guess the Prince soundtrack sort of makes up for it (?)
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Old June 2 2012, 11:25 PM   #15
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Re: Batman...

billcosby wrote: View Post
Is it generally a given that Burton's two films and Shoe-mockers (doesn't deserve the effort to spell it right) are sort of in the same continuity?
In theory, yes, they were meant to be. They share Michael Gough's Alfred and Pat Hingle's Commissioner Gordon. And Forever had an indirect reference to Catwoman in dialogue. Burton was originally going to direct the third film, and he did produce it. But when Schumacher took over, he did a wholesale revamp on the series, so it has a different feel and sensibility despite being nominally in continuity.
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