Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson in Batman
Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson in Batman (Warner Brothers)

25 years ago, the Tim Burton movie Batman was released.  Today, I feel like I’m swimming in all the glowing comments about that movie… to which I always have to respond:

PHA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!

And then I say: “Oh, I’m sorry… you were serious?”

Oh, the things the years do to a pair of rose-colored glasses.

I went to the opening of Batman.  Well… come to think of it, I didn’t go to the opening of Batman.  I went within a week of the opening.  Maybe two.  And when it was over, man, was I glad I didn’t rush into it.

Glad, because Batman was such a disappointing movie, on so many levels, and the opening salvo of what would be the most incredibly disappointing series of movies about one of the most fascinating comic book characters there ever was.

Gawd, where to start?  Well, I guess we have to start with Michael Keaton.  Who, I will say right up front, is an excellent actor and comedian.  I remembered seeing him just before Batman came out, in the movie Clean and Sober, and he did a fantastic job in a wonderful dramatic role.  I knew the guy could do drama.  But y’know what?  He was no Bruce Wayne, the flighty rich playboy philanthropist façade that women were supposed to drool over, and which was supposed to conceal his serious nocturnal activities.  Keaton’s Wayne was quiet, brooding, reserved and distracted; just the kind of personality that leads people to think he must do something really weird when he’s all alone, which must be all the frikkin’ time.

And he was no Batman.  He wasn’t tall, muscular or athletic enough to play what was supposed to be the “epitome of the human ideal.”  And no amount of rubber could make him look the part… especially when it so badly restricted his movements as the suit did.  Keaton as Batman looked like he was trapped in the top of a black statue, with nothing free for expression except his lips (which, because of the mask, looked too full; it gave him a permanent pucker-face).  Keaton’s Batman looked hopeless, every move comical to watch.

But, to be fair, Keaton wasn’t the only person who was so wronged by this movie.  How about THE MAN, Jack Nicholson, considered so important that he was actually given top billing over the hero of an action adventure movie?  (Go ahead and look to see how often that’s ever happened.)  Nicholson is one of the few actors in Hollywood whose own face can be creepy enough to scare the bejeezus out of an audience.  So, naturally, they covered up that wonderfully-emoting actor in the most ridiculous makeup job you’ve ever seen, and took the scare right out of him.

The only other actor I’ll single out here is Kim Basinger, given the possibly juicy role of Bruce Wayne’s love, Vicki Vale… then given nothing to do but scream like the girl we all knew in junior high who would squeak every time someone touched her on the shoulder.  This is a woman who has been nominated for more screen acting awards than I can count, and won Best Actress in a Supporting Role for L.A. Confidential.  I can only hope that when people ask her about Vicki Vale, she says: “Me?  No, that was Goldie Hawn,” and slinks away before they can check IMDB.

So, we come to the man who perpetrated this travesty upon the media-lover: Tim Burton.  Burton’s movie credentials are long and impressive… but when it comes to Batman, there was nothing right about his approach to the characters, or the movies.  He took the “comic book” look of Gotham City and turned it into a deco nightmare, creating a Gotham that only an LSD-popping grade-schooler could appreciate.  Covering Batman, one of the most physically impressive and incredible hand-to-hand combatants of all comic book superheroes, in layers of immovable rubber… then apparently using the same stuff on Nicholson’s face… made both his main characters stiff and ineffectual.  Bruce Wayne was supposed to look serious, even haunted… but not in public.  The bit-players, like Commissioner Gordon, somehow look campy themselves against the cartoonish sets.

There was, of course, no story; only a series of poses designed to emulate decades of comic book scenes.  The Joker was retconned into conveniently being the man who killed Bruce Wayne’s parents… the kind of dumb script cliché that only movies will attempt, and something that audiences didn’t even get to see until halfway through the movie.  (Sure, to an American audience, that’s no big deal—we all know Batman’s backstory—but it left foreign audiences scratching their heads at exactly what was Bruce Wayne’s problem, and never really answered why he thought dressing up as a giant bat was any kind of solution.)  And, to further ruin one of the cardinal rules of comic characters, they allowed the Joker—also one of the great comic villains of all time—to die at the end.  A decades-old classic character, as famous as Batman himself… snuffed in one movie.

Even the Batmobile looked stupid.

In short (yeah, I know, too late), Burton made an indulgent embarrassment of a film.  And when it was released, no one was lauding Batman as the superhero movie we’ve all been waiting for.  No one was celebrating Keaton’s performance, or saying how much Nicholson managed to act past all that lousy makeup.  It was a horrible joke played upon us, its only value coming in how many Happy Meals it could sell.

In fact, most people were saying, “Can’t we just dial back to Superman?”

Trust me.  I was there.

And so, 25 years later, when I actually hear words like “the first movie was the best” or “Keaton was the best Batman ever” coming out of anyone’s mouth, I can taste the touch of vomit at the back of my throat.  Because I remember personally what an incredible waste of celluloid that was.  And how, afterward, they did it again.  Three more times.  And it only got worse with time.  Nipples.  American Express bat credit cards.

There is simply nothing in any way redeeming about the Tim Burton-styled Batman movies.  They should be purged from our collective memories, as soon as possible, lest someone gets the impression that making superhero movies like that is actually a good idea.

Okay.  I lied.  There was actually one thing worth keeping, out of all of that mess.  Danny Elfman gave us a theme for Batman that has never been beat.

But the rest was crap.  I’d dump it into the same hole into which I threw The Wrath of Khan, and bury them both under radioactive elephant dung.

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