After reading Glen Weldon's book The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture, I decided to add my second encounter with the Dark Knight to our Netflix queue. What I knew of Batman as a kid came from the Adam West t.v. serial. Seeing Tim Burton's Batman was a revelation. It cemented my love of the character for years to come. I think it's been well over a decade since I last watched the film, so it was with not a little trepidation that I popped the DVD into our home computer this past weekend. I'm glad to say that after all these years the 1989 Batman is still a treat.
The first thing that struck me was the art direction. Gotham looks like New York felt before Giuliani cleaned it up. There's that run-down Art Deco aesthetic crushed under the weight of steel girders and Brutalism all covered over with a thick patina of filth. We can feel the weight of urban decay. The helplessness of Gotham's dedicated civic leaders, the Mayor, Harvey Dent, and Commissioner Gordon accentuates the setting as do Danny Elfman's haunting score and Prince's decadent vibes.
The story in Batman often gets panned as loose and thin, but my wife and I were actually struck by the tightness of the writing. Every action the hero or villain takes finds itself mirrored in the other and wrapped around the axis of Vickie Vale. Watch the scene where hero and villain each try to woo Vale: both bring flowers, both fixate on themselves, and both use violence in an attempt to force Vickie to listen. We are asked again and again what the real difference is between Batman and the Joker. Both are obviously insane, both are have a flair for the dramatic and an ego the size of Gotham, and each created the other in a toxic codependent cycle of pain. In the end, the answer seems to be that Batman channels his pain into a desire to protect others while the Joker wants everyone to feel his hurt. It's a message that comes up repeatedly in Burton's gothy oeuvre.
I also have to say that I enjoyed Keaton's take on Batman. In the limited space he has to work with, the comic actor succeeds in creating a multi-faceted character that has all the labyrinthine twists and turns of the opening credits. We feel the fracturedness of his personality and understand why he keeps the Batman costume locked and bolted behind foot-thick steel. Jack Nicholson's Joker is a work of art in itself and still stands strong after the brilliant work Heath Ledger did in re-inventing the character for The Dark Night. I was left feeling that the two principle characters perfectly balanced and complimented one another -two halves of the same flawed coin.
Finally, it was wonderful to see a lushly imagined movie with no CG. CG is amazing, but there's still no hiding the intangibility of it. Models and mat paintings may lack polish, but the sense of weight they provide is priceless.