View Full Version : The Thinking Man's Comic

11-19-2005, 11:30 PM
Batman (1989) directed by Tim Burton

Bob Kane’s original idea born in the late 1930’s brought a sense of down to earth realism to comics that heroes like Superman and Buck Rogers didn’t have; a sense of what was happening on the streets in every city in America. Organized crime was rampant. America needed a sleek dark figure that came in the night and struck fear into the hearts of villains everywhere. Kane’s Batman was that and more. He was a detective, a man who like Sherlock Holmes solved crime by examining clues and evidence; hence the name, Detective Comics.

When I grew up in the 1950’s, Batman and Superman were DC comics’ biggest draw. I had tons of Batman comics. I knew all the villains. I even pictured the life Bruce Wayne led, how the characters sounded, and so on. That is, until television destroyed Batman and turned him into the Lawrence Welk of the comic book heroes. I never liked the television show. It destroyed the whole idea of the comic. Where was the detective, solving the crime, working silently behind the scenes, helping law enforcement? Crime is not comedy. Crime is killing, robbing, and brutality. Otherwise, there’d be no need for someone super to come along to the rescue. Television nearly buried Batman along with any other comic audacious enough to become a big project like a film.

I’ll leave the new 2-disc DVD released this week to explain how the project got started at Warner Brothers and how Tim Burton joined the crew to helm this project. Thank goodness he did. His vision is definitely on that screen. The dark knight, flying through the night sky, saving Gotham City from the scum of the earth is right up there in stark realism.

But Burton was not alone in his vision of how Batman should look. Set designers (Anton Furst) and graphic artists (Snow and Phelps) helped Burton bring Kane’s original concept back to life. And it didn’t stop there.

Jack Nicholson should also receive a lot of the credit for his powerful psychologically twisted Jack Napier/Joker portrayal. “I mean think about it… his name is Joker!” His facial and body movement gave us a sick and distorted individual, bent on destruction, a savage and vicious killer. “I wanted to frighten the kiddies… they like to be frightened… you wouldn’t be a good villain if you didn’t scare them.” He scared me. Jack brought a new depth and level to Joker that not even Burton realized until Nicholson turned him loose on the set. Burton smiled and could barely speak when he considered how much Nicholson meant to this picture. Jack also contributed to the script, going beyond Hamm’s version. (“Did you ever dance with the devil in the pale moon light?” can be attributed to both Burton and Nicholson, as well as the late Warren Skaaren improvised on the set!) He also suggested the end of the film (the tower sequence) along with producer Peter Gruber after the two saw “Phantom” on stage in London the night before. A new ending to the script was suggested and eventually changed.

Nicholson gave up his salary for a percentage of the gross, he was so convinced of Burton’s talent and how the film would turn out; he threw the dice and bet the farm, taking an initial loss by paying for his own expenses. His crapshoot paid off handsomely, as he ended up being richly rewarded for his role. His contribution to the ‘behind-the-scenes’ part on the DVD is also quite wonderful to watch (the entire cast appears!)

Producer Peter Gruber could not believe Burton chose Danny Elfman to write the score for Batman. After all, he’d never written a score for a film this big (Beetlejuice hadn’t been released yet). During their first pre-production meeting, Gruber rolled his eyes during Elfman’s presentation of various musical themes. “I could see him thinking about who else they were going to hire,” Elfman recants. “Then Tim said quietly to me, ‘Play the march.’ I started to play just a few bars when [Gruber] jumped up out of his chair and flew into the air, screaming ‘Wow!’” Indeed, Elfman’s ‘gothic’ score and not Prince’s music (as the Studio heads thought) really made the most powerful emotional impact for the film. Prior to the film’s release, the soundtrack album did not contain one note of Elfman’s score, simply a series of Prince’s songs (only three made it into the final film). Thousands of fans protested after the film was released and Warner Brothers was forced to scramble releasing most of the symphonic score on a new CD which eventually outsold the ‘official soundtrack’ Prince CD. The following March, Danny Elfman was unjustly passed over for a nomination (John Williams got two!). Nominated for three Oscars and seven Grammy’s, he has yet to receive his long overdue recognition by his peers.

The two disc DVD not only has an exceptionally clear and mistake-proof widescreen print of the film, but some very good behind the scenes extras. Unfortunately, there is no gag reel of outtakes or deleted material (I would have loved to see Jack doing schtick on the set). Every single member of the cast and crew living however did contribute in a valuable way, including the great Jack Nicholson. Burton seems reluctant to express his feelings, often expressed by other members of the cast or crew.

For those who feel this was the production that really made the first true adapted comic book come to life, I would suggest you buy it for that reason. However, Batman is more than just a comic brought to life; it’s a damn good movie.