ROSS HUGHES TAKES A LOOK BACK AT THE ERA WHEN BURTON HAD HIS HANDS ON THE DARK KNIGHT
Before Begins there was Burton and in the year 1989 there was only film to talk about.
With Adam West nothing but a long memory of sexual campiness, Tim Burton fresh from the success of Beetlejuicewas given the job to bring the Dark Knight to the big screen but this time to make it dark has possible, a trait not yet known to big screen superheroes. Has his long association with Johnny Depp yet to even star its roots, the director made a decision that rocked the Batman industry by turning to Michael Keaton an actor best known for his comic ability. Unknown to fans at the time, another comic star in the shape of Bill Murray turned down the chance to don the suit, which would have caused the same stir that poor Keaton had to endure.
With worries that such casting would cause the film to head down the path of the 1960’s TV series, over 50,0000 letters arrived at the studio demanding that Keaton would be replaced. The actor himself wasted no time in worrying over such backlash and read up on the concept with the classic comic book The Dark Knight Returns. With bizarrely David Bowie considered for the role has arch nemeses The Joker along with Tim Curry, the role was finally given to Jack Nicholson, a huge star at the time who even had his name first in the credits. After the film was finished, Nicholson admitted that he was first offered the role in 1986 when he was shooting The Witches Of Eastwick so those rumours of actors were nothing but that, just rumours.
Having injured herself during filming, Sean Young had to step out from the role has the love interest of Vicky Vale and while Michelle Pfeiffer came dangerously close to stepping in, it finally went to Kim Basinger, a decision that proved right when Pfeiffer took on the memorable role of Catwomanin the sequel. With the fans still in uproar and then with rumours of a sex scene involving Batman and Vale, there was only one thing dominating the film world, if Jaws created the summer blockbuster then make no mistake, Batman took it to a whole new level!
The yellow logo with the Batman sign was everywhere. Even in France where I spent the summer there was a shop opened just for Batman merchandise. Being twelve at the time, there was huge excitement at the arrival of this film, local hairdressers were offering the Batman cut in which the logo was shaved into the back of your hair. Yours truly spent the £5 required to have this look thinking it would go down a storm in school only to turn up on Monday morning and see every other boy with showing off their new style.
When it was released, not even the 15 certificate could stop a bombardment of school children rushing to the local cinema. What they found was everything they had hoped, a movie that tipped the right side of darkness, some killer lines that were instantly quoted in every school yard, and Keaton becoming our generation’s Sean Connery in like his Bond, he will always be the best man that sat in the Bat cave despite the best intentions of Mr Bale.
But how does it fare twenty one years on?
Maybe its the memory of Forever and Robin that has tarnished Batman 1989. Of course it does not help that the gritty real world in which Nolan has created for his Batman vision makes Burton’s seem so shallow. That is maybe quite hard on a film in which its art-deco Gotham City was well received on first watch. I for one was one of the films biggest fans but time as not served this really well.
The flaws are apparent through out. The story in particular does not make much sense to a grown up. The Joker here has no mean meaty plot line and while Nicholson is still wonderful in the iconic role, you just wish he was served better in the film. He has two three storylines, the first in how he changes to the mad manic, his second, falling for the charms of Vicky Vale and finally his campaign to get the residents of the city to trust him, a campaign that makes no sense when he is wanted by the police and there he is out in the open for all the world to see. Vale herself now comes across as a forced first love, her character sleeping with Bruce Wayne on the very first date, and the moment Alfred just lets her in the Batcave goes against everything the relationship stands for between the old man and the orphan son. Also the character of Batman is sidelined by the this smiley evil character, so much that the film should have actually been called Joker with Batman just standing in the shadows.
I know I may be upsetting the fans of this film but if you look past the childhood memories and through the eyes of a grown up then you realise that time has not served this very well. There are some major positives. Keaton is quite wonderful behind the mask. For me, this is the only Batman that you can not tell that its Bruce Wayne behind the mask. He brings a wonderful and much required dark edge to the role. I love the smile he gives to the bad guys in one particular scene that oozes what the character is about. Also lets not forget, in one scene he actually drops a bomb and “kills” a load of Joker’s henchmen which goes to show how far removed this was from the Adam West era. The production value is outstanding, the film glowing with a cartoonish setting with its rich feeling of gloom even though its nowhere near has dark as the more recent adaption’s. The design of the suit and the Batmobileare tremendous which made all fans at the time cherish the respect the work has gone into their long standing franchise. Some of the lines mostly spoken by Nicholson have gone down in cinema lore. “Have you ever danced…..” and “Never rub another man’s Rhubarb” are two in particular that have engraved in the minds of fans everywhere.
Sadly underneath the quality you can not get past the weak plot which shows all style and no substance, especially with the Prince soundtrack that even back in 1989 sounded way out of place. The ending which leads and ends nowhere leaves a bitter after taste especially with the plight of Joker. For this you have to blame the then writers strike which when the required rewrite of the script came to fore, Sam Hamm who came up with the story, was not allowed to go nowhere near it. Originally the climax had a very harsh and angry ending, perfectly suitable for any Dark Knight film. Vicky Vale was to to murdered by the hands of the Joker who then escaped, leaving the caped crusader crushed with feelings of despair and rage, a plot thread that was to be carried over into the already planned sequel. In new hands the script was a struggle to finish, hence the famous moment when Burton was filming the scene where the Joker was leading Vale up the staircase. During the shooting, Nicholson actually stopped, turned to Burton, and asked “where are we heading?” to which Burton replied “we see where we get there!”. Even Burton admits that it was a nightmare and the climax clearly shows because apart from Batman uttering the famous “dance!” line back to the Joker which is still a brilliant moment, the film limps along to a sad Die Hard clone!
But despite all that, Batman in the year of 1989 was a landmark event. You could not ignore it even if you tried. Even the impending Indy film could not derail the steam train that was heading towards cinema. It set the bar in which all big franchise should be set. The marketing was superb and the toy range and accessories were big money spinners, some thing that Jurassic Park itself learnt and copied from a few years later. Its amazing that a film that started a new craze of Film to Toys not seen since Star Wars would then actually kill it. The third sequel Batman and Robin was virtually a showcase of toy marketing that killed the franchise and set off the new vision of the bat world from Christopher Nolan!
But despite the new thoughts on this Batman it did lead to two things that all Bat fans rejoiced in. The quite splendid Batman cartoon that is very much universally loved right up to this very day and also it lead to the much superior and still a movie classic in its own right and that was the 1992 sequel Batman Returns…..
Batman was a huge success way back in 1989 so of course a sequel was green lit and both Keaton and Burton returned to the franchise. At first though it was touch and go if good old Tim was going to return to the director’s chair. The man was totally unhappy with how Batman ended up, the constant rewrites and the final product not being “how it should be!”, there was a moment in the pre-production when Burton actually was not involved.
After the critical hit of the first film, Burton went on record and said “”I will return if the sequel offers something new and exciting”, otherwise it’s a most-dumbfounded idea!”. Those words made many believe he would not return but it was the arrival of Daniel Waters who gained massive praise from his work on Heathers that made Burton come back to the franchise. Originally, Batman Returns had Catwoman and The Penguin going after treasure while the franchise added the figure of Robin for the first time. Waters came in and changed the entire notion of the plot by taking inspiration from the 60’s TV show and the episodes “Hizzoner the Penguin” and “Dizzoner the Penguin”, which had Penguin running for office. Waters only had one thing in mind when he took on the writing duties, ” “I wanted to show that the true villains of our world don’t necessarily wear costumes” and so with that the thrust of the plot line was born.
There were many changes still to made though to and production was not the most easiest the writers and Burton had to deal with. Annette Bening was cast in the role of Catwoman which she then had to drop out due to pregnancy and while the likes of Cher, Madonna and Susan Sarandon were all considered, the role finally went to Michelle Pfeiffer which eventually led to an everlasting accalim. “”Sam Hamm went back to the way comic books in general treat women” explained Waters, “like fetishy sexual fantasy. I wanted to start off just at the lowest point in society, a very beaten down secretary”
Not many people know but not only was Marlon Wayans cast in the role for Robin, but also signed up for the already planned next sequel. His Robin was going to be a boy who worked in a garage, but even though Wayans was fitted for wardrobe, a last minute change of mind meant that the character would appear in the third film alongside Harvey “Two Faced” Dent who was originally wrote into this film!
The casting of Christopher Walken as Max Shreck was the final addition. Originally signed up to be the brother of Danny De Vito’s Penguin, but like much what happened with each written draft. that was changed at the last minute and with that, Burton had the film he finally wanted, the script was in place and filming was due to start, but could the written script actually transfer to the big screen and make a Batman film that would stand the test of time?………
Well the answer is an overwhelming “yes!”.
It would be foolish to compare this film to The Dark Knight. They are different in style and context but both films are wonderfully dark, a problem way back in 1992 that had the fast food chain McDonalds pull out from advertising the film and an eventual backlash that had Warner Bros remove Burton from the franchise, even though he and Keaton were very keen of doing the third film. The dark that surrounds this film is so delicious that its a joy to watch. This is Burton doing Batman and it matches all his quality work alongside Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands.
The central trio characters are all twisted in their own right and the plot sparkles with bad taste that only a grown up watching it now can enjoy the bitter aftertaste you get when the credits roll at the end! Its with great delight for me personally when even Bob Kane, yes the man who created The Dark Knight commented on just how “too dark” this film was for a Batman tale! The difference between Burton’s world and that of Nolan is that the new franchise at the box-office is played in the real word and is what I would call “gritty!”. Here in 1992, the franchise was just a tale to fill the darkest hearts full of joy. It is no surprise to me that even now this film has such a huge cult following, if The Dark Knight can gain these massive five star reviews, then Returns is just as equal.
Any film in which the chief villain plans to kill every first born child in Gotham, deserves the praise it gets and it helps that Burton somehow managed to pull of a massive great casting coup! Despite the character being totally different from the Burgess Meredith portrayal we all known and loved, Danny Di Vito brought a whole new Penguin to the table, a totally grotesque character who lived in the sewers and raised by penguins and filled full of rage and hatred, who wants revenge on those living up in the city.
Joining his side is that of Michelle Pfieffer who despite not seeing it yet (sorry Anne Hathaway) will also be the “true” Catwoman in my eyes! We see her at first as a nerdy secretary to that of Max Schreck who thanks to the old saying “curiosity killed the cat!” is pushed out of a top tower block window to her death. Its here that the weird but brilliant mind of Burton is at his best best, will a surreal sequence of cats bringing her back to life to be be born again as Catwoman. Like Heath Ledger many years later, Pfieffer nailed an iconic Batman role! Her Catwoman was dangerous but also sexy and the moment she licks the Bat mask when sitting on the man himself is a brilliant display of sexual chemistry between the two!
Typical of the legacy of a Burton/Batman film, the caped crusader is left in the shadows by the new arrivals but when called into action, Keaton once again shows why many consider him as the best Batman of all time! He plays the duo role to perfection and can also handle the action scenes with ease.
Batman Returns looks good and the music by Danny Elfman like Superman before it, is part of its legacy and despite the controversial headlines that hit the press after the release, the film had so much potential for a worthy third in this universe but sadly we the fans never got to see it. Instead we have two films to look back on with huge fondness, love and affection because lets face it, would even Nolan be brave enough to film a scene in where parents throw their unwanted child into a river?