Thursday, January 05, 2006

Batman Began

One of the DVDs I got for Christmas was the excellent new 'Batman' disc. I already owned the regular release of it, but wanted the new one for two main reasons: the new transfer with a DTS track (the previous one looked horrible) and that they miraculously included all three of the videos Prince did for his Batman soundtrack songs. The latter reason would have warranted a DVD purchase on its own, two of the videos ('Batdance' and 'Partyman) have to be mentioned among the worst videos of all time. The song 'Batdance' is pretty much soundbites from the movie played over dance beats, the video isn't much better, with Prince dressed as half Batman/half Joker, surrounded by women dressed as Batman, Joker and Vickie Vale, it ends with Batman/Joker forced to pick up a shotgun that was lying on an electric chair, at which point he explodes. Make your own conclusions. The only noteworthy part of the 'Partyman' video (this is the song played as Joker and his goons mess up the museum) is at the beginning when Prince, again dressed as Batman/Joker, enters a party to the introduction of: 'There's a new king in town ... Partyman!'

Horrible 80s videos aside, the point of this post is to take a look at the first modern retelling of Batman, which was a major cultural event when it first came out. Batman was one of the first movies to feature an ends-all marketing campaign, complete with all kinds of product promotions and previews broadcasting all day and night. Of course, like many movies carrying such hype, 'Batman' disappointed most viewers, but not before making tons of money for Warner Bros. Yet for an impressionable 2nd grader, 'Batman' was a watershed moment. After I walked out of Lloyd Cinemas that fateful day, I began measuring my life from that day forward.

I loved the movie, had never seen anything like it, but couldn't believe how little my parents cared for it, as well as most critics. It was only until about five years ago when I first started seeing through my own prejudices to see why 'Batman' was such a failure.

I think the problem a lot of people had with 'Batman' in 1989 was that it was a wasted opportunity, because the Batman story is very film-friendly. His origin is dramatic and well-known, and there are built-in 'hey, cool' props such as the Bat Cave and Batmobile. Tim Burton succeeded on these points, but ultimately fell flat when trying to make the plot as modern as possible, throwing all the typical comic book storylines out the window.

Burton's attempt to portray the Joker as a maniacal artist trying to spread terror and erase vanity by poisoning beauty products doesn't just sound like a bad idea, it falls flat on screen, leading to the point near the climax where you go 'so what?' Maybe it was Burton's intention to go away from a 'can Batman save the world?' type story, but the way he goes about his watered-down plot never infuses any sense of danger, always vital to a comic book story.

Even without the flawed story, there are the scenes that bog down the movie just when it needs to get going. The absolute worst of these is the encounter between Bruce Wayne and Joker at Vickie Vale's apartment. On paper, I'm sure it was supposed to show Wayne as conflicted about his identity, since he wants to defend Vale but cannot reveal who he is. But what it amounts to is a very awkward scene with no real meaning, with lines such as 'You wanna get nuts, come on, let's get nuts!' Does that sound like something Bruce Wayne would say, much less while wielding a fireplace poker? The only memorable part of this awful scene is Kim Basinger's attempt at fainting in the very last shot.

Okay, so the story and some of the direction sucks, but you might be asking yourself at this point: 'Didn't this shlump just say he has TWO DVDs of this movie?' That's right, I do! I see more flaws with 'Batman' every time I see it, but that doesn't mean I don't enjoy it, just that I'm finally coming to terms with why it was so universally trashed in 1989. Danny Elfman's epic score is undoubtedly one of the biggest stars of the movie, same goes for Burton's images of Gotham City, which is just as stone cold and soul-less as Wayne is portrayed.

Christopher Nolan's sequel to Batman Begins is rumored to include the Joker, so it will be interesting to see how he updates the classic villain, compared to Burton's vision of him. Likely, the sequel to 'Begins' will push the 'original' modern retellings of Batman closer and closer to Whocaresville.

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