Saturday, December 22, 2007

I can remember as a kid that Batman was supposedly going to traumatise an entire generation of children. It was going to be so dark, so scary and so downright evil that youngsters nationwide were going to shit themselves in unison. Hell, the BBFC even came up with a 12 rating to keep the little blighters out of cinemas. But when you look at it now, and when you compare it to Batman Begins where characters trip their tits off on hallucinogenic drugs and see all kinds of fucked up things, it seems rather tame.

One of the offending scenes was when we see the scarring on Jerry Hall's face. According to newspaper reports and playground rumour, the sight was going to be so terrifying that your heart was going to spontaneously explode in your chest. But in reality it just looks like she's been lying on a pillow for forty-eight hours and her face has got marked from excessive snoozing. The other scene that was supposedly going to leave skidmarks was when the Joker fries a man with an electric buzzer. This was going to be so hardcore that you'd run from the cinema and seek out that lovely Gary Glitter chap for protection and support. But instead it's just funny. I imagine that kids, little bastards that they are, loved it. Man gets burnt to a crisp? Wicked! And anyway, as far scaring the bejesus out of children, Batman can't really compare to Raiders of the Lost Ark. Melting faces and snakes crawling out of the mouths of skeletons? Mummy, I need a change of underwear! (And that got a PG rating. Go figure.)

But how does the film hold up eighteen years on? Pretty well, actually. Although I do have to say that it pales in comparison to Batman Begins. This Batman lacks any real depth and none of the characters have more than two dimensions. This Batman is all about surfaces. But what surfaces they are. Burton's Gotham is a weird and wonderful place. It's like an unholy ménage-a-trois between the 40s, the 80s and German Expressionism. You've got to love that.

The best piece of production design in the film has to be the cathedral. Architecturally it makes no sense whatsoever – it looks more like a skyscraper than a place of worship – but who cares? It looks absolutely stunning. And I also love the Axis Chemical Factory. It's as beautifully ugly as a factory should be.

I also love the atmosphere of the film. The woods, in particular, when Batman is taking Vicki Vale to the Bat Cave, look great. They look genuinely creepy. And I love the way that Batman is introduced. Two criminals mug a family and then as they're counting their spoils you see Batman descend in the distance. It's a wonderful visual. And Keaton's "I'm Batman" moment is even better than Bale's. Sure Bale's got that cool growl, but Keaton gets to dangle a criminal off the edge of a building while staring with those manic eyes of his. He really does look psychotic.

But unfortunately the film never really delves into Wayne's character. You get brief flashes of his madness, his social unease and you get a flashback explaining his parents' death, but it's rather tokenistic. I mean, Jack Napier is made his parents killer just so that the final confrontation can be made personal. And Wayne's relationship with Vicki Vale is also uninteresting. They get drunk, have sex and fall out. Plus she screams a lot - a whole fucking lot. However, her character is redeemed in one act. Near the end, in a cunning ruse, she distracts the Joker from Batman by kissing him. Then she slowly goes downstairs. Of course Batman pops up before anything happens, but you've got to like a woman with a mind like that.

But of course it's the Joker that makes the film so much fun. With his arched eyebrows and manic grin, Nicholson was born to play the part. One of my favourite bits has to be when he invades the art gallery and swats a bronze statue away with his hand. The joy on his face is priceless and I love that it doesn't cause him serious pain. And the Joker commercial, the hand buzzer killing and the Grissom murder are wonderful too. But he's also great as Jack Napier. I love the little scene with Jerry Hall: "You look fine." "I didn't ask." And he looks utterly deranged in his scenes with Eckhardt. If anything, Nicholson is more threatening as Napier.

But what also makes the film is the music. It's a fantastic score. I especially like the title march and the cues in the woods and the piece just before Napier shoots Eckhardt. It's just a bit of a shame then that you also have Prince music in the film. But it's not too objectionable, I guess. And it's appropriately used.

A few more observations about the film: Michael Gough is great as Alfred (although it causes me physical pain to remember him in Batman & Robin), the Mayor bears an uncanny resemblance to Ken Livingstone, I can remember the script almost word for word because I've seen it so many times ("He hung up!"..."Bob, gun."..."This is Renee on the newsfloor."..."Never rub another man's rhubarb!"), I fancied the pants off Kim Basinger as a kid (even if all that hair was a little intimidating) and flimsy pieces of tin apparently can stop bullets. But here's something else I noticed. The Joker is poisoning products, so people stop using anything that might have been contaminated – cosmetics, health and hygiene products etc. As a result everyone looks like crap – especially the news reporters. However, in the next scene you cut to Harvey Dent, played by Billy Dee Williams. Billy Dee looks like a million bucks. He's groomed within an inch of his life. No damn Joker is going to stop Lando Calrissian from looking fine.

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