#86: Batman

“Make me laugh, bitch.”

Director: Tim Burton
Year: 1989
Genre: Fantasy/Action

In his many incarnations, Batman has always been the most talked about on-screen superhero; from the camp sensation of the 60’s TV series, to Warner Bros. fantastical film franchise (1989-1997) and exquisite animated TV series (1992-1995), to Christopher Nolan’s current film trilogy (2005-2012). Nolan’s vision seems to have overshadowed previous screen adaptations with its gritty realism, state-of-the-art special effects and complex storylines, which makes a lot of sense post 9/11. People no longer have the stomach for ‘romance’, instead they want their entertainment to be harsh and self aware, and the only way they’ll digest anything the least bit ‘romantic’ is through nostalgia. For me, the definitive Batman film is Tim Burton’s 1989 smash hit, Batman. His follow up, Batman Returns (1992) is a close second, boasting one of the best on-screen super-villains ever, Catwoman as played by Michelle Pfeiffer. However, Burton’s first installment to the Warner Bros. film series is the superior film.

I know I can’t convince everyone that Batman is the better film than The Dark Knight (2008), but I’m going to try!

Batman: Firstly, Batman, as played by Michael Keaton in Burton’s film, is THE shit! His outfit alone has no contest. It’s simple, black, iconic, a little bit sexy and it maintains its aesthetic qualities in most shades of light.

Ooh yeah!

Christian Bale’s outfit, on the other hand, is too complicated with lots of technological details which tarnish its mystique. It also looks like a kids’ costume in highly lit environments.
See for yourself…

2008: “Is that a G.I. Joe outfit? Or are you just happy to see me?”

Burton’s Batman isn’t all just in the costume. Keaton’s performance is to die for. He’ dark, direct, mysterious and he doesn’t need a weird-ass gravely voice to convey it. I’m sure Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale’s decision to make Batman sound like a Scooby Doo villain astounds everyone, including The Dark Knight fans. Even if you choose to ignore Bale’s Batman voice…you can’t! Maybe I’m making too much of a big deal of Bale’s croak-fest, it doesn’t ruin the movie, but unfortunately Batman Bale doesn’t have any stand out qualities to cance(r)l out his throat!
Keaton manages to maintain a satisfying level of comic timing and sex appeal which only makes it easier for us (well, for me at least) to take his character seriously. Whereas Bale is so devoid of humour and sex appeal that you keep waiting for something funny or inappropriate to happen, therefore breaking the spell of any fear, intimidation or wonder he may be casting.
Nolan’s films delve deeper into the idea that Batman must strike fear into the hearts of his enemies, but if an intimidating figure approached me and talked like Batman Bale, I might start laughing, but I certainly would not be scared. The idea of ‘becoming fear’ isn’t even discussed in Burton’s films, yet we clearly get the idea from Keaton’s performance alone. There is a scene in Batman where The Caped Crusader takes Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) to the Batcave and even she, as an ally, is a little frightened of him. Batman doesn’t respond to her petty questions and only speaks when he has important information to pass on to her. The scene is reminiscent of Gothic stories such as The Phantom of the Opera and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and it’s those sorts of mysterious/grandiose elements that I feel Nolan’s films are lacking. Whilst Nolan’s films are undeniably excellent and bring a level of realism to the superhero film genre that had previously not been achieved, the lack of enchantment and excitement (romance) surrounding Batman’s character is a big loss for me.

Bruce Wayne: Keaton’s Batman may shit on Bale’s, but does Keaton’s Bruce outweigh Bale’s Wayne? It is tempting to fall for Christian Bale. He’s a suave motherfucker! How can you resist the yuppie charms of the man who played Patrick Batman in American Psycho (2000)? Bale also has the advantage of being much more physically buff than Keaton; his body is the well oiled machine it needs to be to fight crime. Keaton’s fuzzy hair, turtle-neck skivvies and lean, Jerry Seinfeld physique make him laughably dated but his performance is his saving grace. Michael Keaton is one of those actors who walks into frame and immediately engages you without even having to say anything. His character is also quite funny and is never too shy to make a few quips here and there, which makes him all the more likeable. Bale may have the looks but he ain’t got the touch. Ultimately I sympathise with Keaton’s character more than Bale’s and it’s all due to a sense of humour. I just can’t take people-who-take-themselves-too-seriously, seriously. That there is my main issue with The Dark Knight in a nutshell, and a sentence.

The Joker: Both Heath Ledger’s Joker (The Dark Knight) and Jack Nicholson’s (Batman) are outstanding and I seriously cannot decide which one I prefer. Obviously Nicholson’s is more camp, but that is certainly not a negative quality. The comic and overly joyous nature of Nicholson’s Joker only make his antics all the more disturbing, like a killer clown at a kids’ party, and such qualities provide the perfect contrast to Batman’s dark and brooding heroics. In Burton’s film, Joker begins as Jack Napier, a gangster who is betrayed by his boss and is deformed after falling into a vat of chemicals – hence his new persona as The Joker. Napier’s back-story automatically turns him into an empathetic character, which makes for a more interesting story. We aren’t as cheated in Burton’s film when equal screen time is devoted to both the Batman and the Joker because we sympathise with both of them. I do like the impenetrable mystery of Ledger’s Joker, but I find it quite problematic that we spend as much screen time, if not more, with him as Batman when we aren’t even supposed to root for him. In Nolan’s film, the Joker’s scenes are far more interesting than Batman’s and Aaron Eckhart’s character, Harvey Dent/Two Face, is much more sympathetic. When the protagonist of a superhero film is the least interesting thing about the movie, something’s wrong!

Gotham City: The city of Gotham is probably the most iconic fictional city in the superhero genre and creating fictitious worlds is what Burton does best. Gotham City, as realised by Production Designer Anton Furst in Burton’s films, is Gothic and hyper-real. The mixture of decadent, old, scary buildings and modern day New York inspired streets and alleyways vividly capture the world of the comics. Landmarks such as Gotham City Hall and the massive Gothic Cathedral are as real to me as the landmarks of our world. Nolan’s films take a much more contemporary approach, which is just as well because no one wants to see the same thing twice! However, as beautifully realised Nolan’s city of Gotham may be, it’s CGI infused, industrial Super City is insignificant next to the power of Burton’s world.

Music: Batman boasts one of the greatest film scores of all time. Even in the reign of Nolan’s trilogy, Danny Elfman’s score for Burton’s films rules triumphant as the definitive Batman theme music. The Dark Knight score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard is beautifully effective but much like the film it sings for, it lacks the grandiose majesty that superhero films should have.

If you haven’t seen Batman since childhood, I hope you feel inspired to give it a second chance, and if you’ve not seen it at all, get on that shit! Get RIGHT on it.

#98: Big Trouble in Little China

Somethin’s goin’ down in Chinatown…

Director: John Carpenter
Year: 1986
Genre: Fantasy/Action/Comedy

This movie is pretty fuckin’ silly, and I might be just as silly for listing it as my favourite John Carpenter film, but if you’ve seen Big Trouble in Little China and you don’t like it, then perhaps you’re missing some funny bones.
I’m not talking about a film that’s so bad it’s good, Big Trouble in Little China is by no means ‘bad’, it’s tongue-in-cheek and packed full of self-aware cheesiness. Here’s a film that takes a typical action/fantasy yarn, which there were an abundance of in the 80’s, and puts a spin on its usual tropes by putting the ‘sidekick’ character in the lead; imagine Star Wars with Han Solo as the primary hero but much less capable. Jack Burton, Kurt Russell in top form, one of my all-time movie heroes, is a wise-crackin’ truck-driver who underestimates the world and thinks the world of himself. Jack Burton’s no Jedi, he’s just an everyday man cruisin’ through life on the Pork Chop Express (that’s his truck). Aside from the comical elements, the beauty of putting the incapable sidekick in the lead is that the risk of failure is higher and the character is more relatable.

If your heroes are of the likes of Han Solo, Ash (The Evil Dead trilogy) or Indiana Jones and you’re partial to a bit of martial arts and ancient Chinese magic, then you tell those suckers at the video store that, “the cheque is in the mail.”

To give you an idea of what you’re in for in Big Trouble in Little China, and if you’ve never had the pleasure of hearing John Carpenter sing, check out the hilarious music video written and performed by Carpenter himself… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D03E9kUTTtQ

#91: Edward Scissorhands

Welcome to a world of pure imagination…

Director: Tim Burton
Year: 1990
Genre: Fantasy

If you have not seen a Tim Burton film, or if you have been dispirited by his later works, watch Edward Scissorhands. Burton’s signature film is a modern fairy tale and a cinema classic.

Edward Scissorhands can be described as Frankenstein for a contemporary audience. The Victorian setting we are used to seeing in Mary Shelley’s story is swapped for modern day suburbia. Instead of a reanimated man made up of dead body parts, we have an emo with scissors for hands. Thematically, Frankenstein explores the consequences of ‘playing god’, whereas Burton’s film is more concerned with how the individual fits into society. The combination of familiar storytelling and modern themes makes this film universal, that is, anyone and everyone can enjoy this movie, unless you’re too cool for school.

There are obvious reasons to watch/appreciate Edward Scissorhands, such as Burton’s astounding visual style, young Johnny Depp, young Winona Ryder, and SCISSOR-HANDS; but what makes this film so special is that it’s timeless. A timeless movie pretty much stands the test of time, usually due to avoiding current issues or settings which may date depending on the world’s progress. The timelessness of this film can be boiled down to three crucial factors… 1. There is no CGI, most of what you see in the frame was physically there on set, which means that visually the film will not age due to the limitations of special effects. 2. It is emotionally engaging thanks to a universal story, interesting characters and a simple plot. 3. IT IS ORIGINAL. Unlike Burton’s later works, Edward Scissorhands is not a remake and remarkably it’s not even a book adaptation. Of course it has its similarities to other old horror stories but most good stories thrive on putting unique spins on old yarns. Burton created an iconic character, beautifully portrayed by Depp, and an unforgettable world; a colourful neighbourhood and its disturbingly identical houses contrasted by a Gothic mansion and its fantastical garden.

If you haven’t seen Edward Scissorhands, chances are you’ll like it, even if you’re not into fantasy. There are no big sweaty men on quests to find a magic relic before evil takes a giant shit on them. If you’re looking for action and adventure, I’m afraid you’ll be gravely disappointed. But if you wanna laugh, if you wanna cry and if you wanna meet an emo who never whinges, open your heart to Edward Scissorhands.