Steve Goble

Choose life. (Deuteronomy 30:19)

1989 was the summer of Batman, a season which can only be summed up by its ubiquitous buzz-word of 'Batmania'.

Much was made of how the cool new Bat-movie, directed by Tim Burton, would be returning to the Bat-Man's serious roots, albeit without the original hyphen.

(or any other letters, according to the above poster)

Gotham City had been built from scratch to grant it its own unique look.

The music was going to be done by the artist who everybody called Prince.

In the UK, even the British Board Of Film Classification sat up and created a brand new certificate - the '12' - especially for it.

I guess it was my business to know this stuff, because I was spending my first summer after college working at the local cinema, including handling some of the publicity.

Fig. 1: Michael Keaton drops in to pose with his projectionist and ticket-seller. In the film he looks much taller.

Come the opening night (not a dark one - summer remember), the film finally opened with two hoodlums sitting atop a tall building, tensely discussing this terrifying character they'd heard tell of, known only as… 'the Bat'.

On my stool at the back, I inwardly chuckled in approval - this parody was clever. Clearly the camera was about to pull-back at any moment and reveal this melodramatic scene to be taking place on a TV set, fiendishly poking fun at the lightweight 1960s series that this film was so keen to distance itself from.

Two hours later I was still waiting.

To be honest, the whole serious Batman thing didn't really work for me. Jack Nicholson's Joker (so wrongly getting top billing) just didn't strike me as very funny. Although many audience-members tittered a bit at his scenes, I think they were just trying real hard.

Gotham City turned out to look like any old city - wasted budget there.

And the music by Prince? Has anything ever been a stronger example of a soundtrack album deal resulting in a worse movie? Completely wrong style for the film.

Still, the really good news was that the sales-figures disagreed with me. As the weeks turned into months, I found myself watching this movie again, and again, and again. On one afternoon we actually had the 35mm film stretched-out across the projection-box so that it could run in two adjacent theatres simultaneously, a few seconds out of sync.

Over-familiarity improved the music, but less so some of the model-work. (eg. the Bat-Wing crashing up those tiny steps… and then changing position between shots!)

Those clunky TV news bulletins - has Hollywood ever been able shoot these types of scenes convincingly? When things go wrong during a real live broadcast, most newsreaders coolly soldier on regardless, having at least brushed their hair beforehand, regardless of whether or not it's been washed.

And those lifeless songs, some of which were now even getting played between screenings, causing us to dance as we picked up the rubbish and quote lines of dialogue to it.

Still, it wasn't enough. In protest at the whole travesty, Herschel and I began our own underground 8mm version, pointedly entitled The Reel Batman.

Herschel was going to be playing... guess. Most of the rest of the cast worked at the same cinema (and coincidentally came from Ireland), which made the whole idea seem quite promising:

However, after we tragically lost contact with our lead actor before he had even filmed any of it, several years of development hiatus concluded in 1993 with our shooting plastic figures fighting at about 3 frames per second, quite late at night, on another table in Herschel's gloomy living-room.

Three years after that I even had it processed. Tim Burton may have knocked out a further two sequels by that point, but could he honestly say, hand on heart, that his Batman was darker?


21 years have now passed since that unforgettable summer of Bats, during which time Herschel (characteristically) sold-out and paid even more money to watch Burton's two-hour effort all over again on VHS, where it is now a '15'.

Tonight I too acquiesced, popped it into my VCR, and sat back to find out whether time had in fact been kind to it.

It had!

The Joker may indeed still not seem very funny to me, but I now believe that this was intentional. He is the only character in the film to laugh at any of his material. I guess what we have here is a serious story about a funnyman.

Gotham City still just looks generic though.

Prince's music? It still sounds soulless to me, but then I guess that fits the Joker's inner numbness, so maybe it was a good call after all.

Michael Keaton particularly has an interesting take on the pointy-eared title-character. He's an awkward, shy introvert, and as such something of a non-plussed hero.

Michael Gough's Alfred on the other hand is the opposite, taking such a shine to Kim Basinger's Vicki (Vicky?) Vale after having met her… once.

One moment that I miss about the cinema version is, at the end, the way the beams of Alfred's car's headlamps used to streak off the screen and right over the heads of the audience 3-D style, thanks to the projector illuminating the dust in the air. You can't get that effect off a TV.

Overall this is a curious opening entry into what has proved to be an enduring series. It's something of a runaround without much purpose to it, but the conviction of Burton's direction makes it absorbing throughout. After more than two decades, it also still looks brand new.

I give it six-and-three-quarter bats out of ten, but I still prefer the TV show.

Tomorrow: Batman Returns!

(with thanks to Herschel)

(available here)
Related reviews:
Batman Returns
Batman Forever
Batman & Robin

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