Batman: Unfinished Business

Tim Burton convincingly turns a swoony comic like Michael Keaton into the night terror known as Batman by retaining appeals of both the camp 60s and the slanted 40s, with all its blackout brutality, in a dark equilibrium. Gotham City’s cardboard facades morph into adult marquees, a colony of steel girders, sheer glass, steam. The rails of bridges web across a sky stabbed by cruel skyscrapers, in a place that has heard of computers yet never forgot its gargoyles. Yet, the interactions have a camp flavor, like everyone only pretends to take their predicaments gravely but has done so long enough to start believing it. Sam Hamm’s script describes the scene “as if hell erupted through the sidewalks,” but he didn’t quite describe how it feels amusing rather than totally grave. It’s like hell erupted through the sidewalks into a theme park. The designer Anton Furst crafts a deco hell; with Burton’s influence, it becomes an inviting sort of darkness that can’t help but feel gleeful (and perverse), as appealing on the screen as it would be menacing in real life. This is the New York City of nightmares but the Gotham City of dreams. As in Metropolis before it and Dark City after, Batman thrives on scenery. Its hero becomes a shadow against the weight of this window-dressing, a loner in his own story. The drama is so relaxed in comparison to the architecture that it tells a tale of angels and devils and sometimes doesn’t seem to care which is which. This might have worked, had it been on purpose.

Born into hell, the Gothamites resort to being hunched and lost, remorseful if they can remember to be, wandering with anonymous displeasure, occasionally buying Christmas gifts. Why should a film subject people to an architectural prison? Is it so Batman is a better fit for them? He’s never been more appropriate for his surroundings than in the Burton films. Steam roars from the vents like the upturned noses of dragons. The citizens (the word “denizen” has never seemed more appropriate) don’t have a status quo for Batman to protect. He’s more like the completing piece of the scenery. He only weakly champions a way of life that clearly no longer exists (he may not even believe it himself) in a city of sulfur and steam. When they scurry to Joker’s parade float, like sinners in one of Ruben’s cautionary paintings slithering to a master, the film seems to have nothing good in it, nothing to protect. Joker is as representative of them as Batman is, probably more. They’re not at the feet of their demon; they’re at the stage of their rockstar. Even he knows the score ("Decent people shouldn't live here. They'd be happier someplace else").

“You made me,” he says to Batman, referring to the earlier scene in which Batman drops the mobster formally known as Jack Napier into a vat of acid, which bleaches his skin clown-white and gives him a bat fetish. “I made you, you made me first,” Batman replies, alluding to one of the script’s trickier decisions, to have Batman’s parents killed in retrospect by Jack. Joker remembers this without remembering it (the line “What are you talking about?” is followed directly by, “I was a kid when I killed your parents,” with no breath in between; the character has no agency in the revelation). The problem with the whole exchange is that Joker doesn’t sell his pain as dramatically worthy of the tradeoff; it’s as obligatory as these lines, written to suggest a dynamic, not develop one. Jack was the Joker in mobster form, both nearly equal in their share of Jack Nicholson’s manic posture, just with one being more refrained. Becoming Joker seems both inevitable and amusing for him, containing none of the torment that the character endured in Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, which was a new book at the time and clearly inspired this origin story in Batman. By omitting the tragic opera that made it meaningful, the character is more of a wardrobe change than a transformation, though half the film is devoted to it. The idea of tragedy turning a normal man to madness would sell that “You made me” line more than someone who seemed halfway to being Joker anyway, who unlike any other cinematic Joker could still be Jack Napier and the situation would be about the same. He’s the same career criminal with the contrast turned up.

As the story’s villain (or “heavy” as they would have said in the films Batman is inspired by), the Joker’s lack of emotional heft wouldn’t matter so much. But he consumes so much of the film that he could be considered the co-protagonist (Batman and Joker have equal screentime, almost down to the second). Developing him as little as you would a heavy becomes a burden for a screenplay that forgets about Batman for long stretches. This is where Hamm's promising first-draft script was let down by the situation, which involved a writer’s strike during the film’s preproduction that prevented the normal punching-up process from getting the screenplay to a finished state. It gives the interactions in Batman an aloof, unfinished feeling that could almost be played up as accidental brilliance, blurring out emotional motives to create an uneasy atmosphere. But in the absence of so many interactions that are not only needed but implied as being there, certain choices, such as the share of screentime between the hero and villain, slog the film down.

Joker gets no fewer than three grand entrances into the film, one in real-time, one in a surgeon’s office in a back-alley, visiting the mad leftovers of a Nazi regime in the shadows of more adventurous movies (“Ze nerves, you see, ver ahl severed”), and lastly in the squinty shadows of a diabolical lead-in in a corporate office. Nicholson slithers into the light while heckling his former mob boss (Jack Palance, the stern Ukrainian-American known for playing out-there tough guys, even playing Dracula at one point). “Call me … Joker,” he coos, as the light falls on him. The name has the sound of a copyright label. It’s a character totally at ease, like the Joker, ten years on, has finally accepted his role as the city’s cruel jester. But it’s the next day, and it can be, because the transformation doesn't cost him anything.

Batman has a complimentary introduction where he announces himself to a sniveling purse-snatcher, (“What are you?” “I’m Batman”). Keaton laid that out in an even tone, almost a whisper, as a declaration of purpose, not a brag. He not only “is” Batman, but has been, and always will be. The script doesn't give Batman a dramatic arc, but the character's dark certainty deflects the need for one. His emotional labor, giving in to a role that is both difficult to maintain but spiritually unavoidable for him, comes out in Bruce. In a film full of iconic character tropes, he's the only human-emotional presence. This is why the evenness of the screentime with Nicholson, who seems to represent the producer’s bankroll more than the film’s emotional drive, gives Batman its unsteady dramatic legs.

All of Joker’s scenes benefit from Nicholson’s experience but none utilize his innate terror or brooding sexuality as much as you might expect, based on the proposition of casting him in such an out-there role. The playfulness seems forced, such as in a scene the film intends to be a showstopper where Joker defiles the Flugelheim art museum to his theme song, “Partyman” by Prince. The idea for the scene is something that Cesar Romero’s Joker would have keeled over in laughter to come up with. But Nicholson trounces ungainly through a movie impression of the gallery (with Degas next to Rembrandt next to Egyptian statuary, all in the cold lobby). His henchmen, undecorated by any Joker-specific fashion beyond a little patch of Joker's face on their chests, unconvincingly join in the fun. The city has the texture and even the cars of a 40s gangster flick, but the Joker's goons are stuck in generic 80s stock fashion. The only moment that works is near the end, where Joker remarks, “I kinda like this one, Bob, leave it,” in reference to Francis Bacon’s Figure with Meat, a painting that is no less than a great artist in torment, painting his soul inside out. Despite his apparent disregard for most art, Joker is at heart a homicidal artist. He’s not really a nihilist – he just has different tastes.

This version of Joker gives the impression that the chaos is an act to hide real intentions that the script didn’t remember to give him. When he swerves through the film’s character dialogue, he has a form of panache, a wicked parody of it, but the situations are not substantial. You keep waiting for a real scene of simmering terror between him and Vicki Vale (Kim Bassinger), without her being sedated or rescued before it gets going. You expect him as the happy angel to finally meet Bruce’s devil, unaware of the connection and armed with wild noirish dialogue like when Bogart confronted Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon or when Nicholson himself had it out over lunch with John Huston in Chinatown. But Batman has a problem with broken promises. The idea that this Joker was created and killed in the span of the film, that this is all there is for that version of the character, is soul-deflating for any comic book reader, especially those who expect the emotional-satirical verve of The Killing Joke or The Dark Knight Returns, an expectation that the film gave them on purpose and could not justify.

The film fares better when it’s about Bruce Wayne, though the same problems exist on a different energy spectrum. Bruce keeps to himself (at his own party, he’s barely a guest). He collects armor (“Because I bought it in Japan”), making Batman more of a boyhood power fantasy than a rational career choice, which fits Burton’s gently terrifying (and brutally comedic) impression of him. Bruce is more reclusive than Batman (Bruce is the disguise), coddled by a loyal servant (Michael Gough). He sleeps dangling from his feet from a chin-up bar, as though he can become Batman in dreams by draining blood into his wings. Keaton perfected the art of attractive solitude in Batman, something he brought to Birdman decades later, ratcheted up to stage theater levels. Though he is monotone in Batman, as though he speaks in only one syllable with the emphasis in slightly different places, and is not a traditionally handsome or heroic presence (Alec Baldwin was reportedly on the shortlist of actors considered, an interesting twist considering he played the straight lead to Keaton's Joker-like persona in Beetlejuice), Keaton has a captivating quietude. Burton (he does it in so many of his films, you could call it his aesthetic) elevates being lonely to the status of a heroic persona. In Keaton's scenes only, the awkwardness of the unfinished script can become a weapon of his allure.

Despite this, some scenes are outright teases, not always in an alluring way. Bruce treats Vicki to his idea of a romantic date: a quiet soup course served from two ends of a monolithic dining table (this is how he remembers his parents eating). The scene is funny-sad because of Bruce’s parentage; his out-of-touchness gives his scenes their boyish charm in the simplest lines (“Did you find the house alright?”). The thing is mountainous; Wayne Manor has more gates than hell. Bruce is just saying what he’s heard other people say, as though that’s the closest he's gotten to them. But in the scene itself, there’s no spark; there’s just two flints that never touch. The setup is there, but Keaton and Bassinger have nothing to work with. The awkward silence should be punctuation. Instead, it's more intriguing than the half-eaten dialogue. If Batman was a radio show like The Shadow, perhaps the original detective comic archetype, you would look forward to dead air.

Spunky reporter Vicki Vale is the character least finished in a film that never stops feeling under construction. She’s clearly attracted to Bruce, sorry for him, pushed towards normal feelings about an abnormal guy, self-doubting – there are whispers of feelings, but nothing concrete. No scene in the film has the remotest sensual or definitive romantic energy. The worst is the scene in which Alfred takes her to the Batcave; Bruce swivels in his chair and she sees that he’s Batman for the first time. But she doesn’t react. The scene is just missing. Instead, she takes the scene to soap opera levels, saying, “I just gotta know. Are we gonna try to love each other.” She doesn’t say it with a question mark. This must be the only film in history in which the romantic lead’s secret identity is revealed in an aside. His lover responds with the tone of a wife who stayed up late to question him when he came home, already knowing the answer. In comparison, the scene in which Batman drives her to the Batcave for the first time, in silence, is more successful since only Burton, Furst, and Robert Pratt are responsible for the feeling (his cinematography gave Gilliam films like Brazil and The Fisher King their grounded yet unhinged grime). Danny Elfman, who is now inseparable from Burton himself, scores the scene like a Goth spiritual.

The Joker also has a dissuasively non-sensual relationship with the character that Paul Dini would harness and jolt to life as Harley Quinn in the animated series. Her name is Alicia, played by Jerry Hall, the 6-foot-tall supermodel (she’s taller than both Batman and Joker, without heels), but for this nothing part they could have cast anyone. She accepts Jack as Joker after one scene of making a fuss about it (which in 40s films means fainting). She's content so long as she can keep buying Gucci bags and sighing. A later scene implies that she’s in spiritual bondage to Joker, like an automaton to its creator, as she reveals her face beneath a porcelain mask, scarred by acid (her height might have come in handy there, like Joker was a wicked Dr. Frankenstein with a towering henchwoman under his thumb). There’s something there, but it’s not set up or punched up like it deserved to be.

Joker has more of a thing for Vicki, no doubt because Batman does – the two freaks end up playing hot potato with her (hot tomato?), but it’s all for the sake of a soggy plot device to get them to the final punching match. It gets them to the showdown, but there were a dozen more inviting routes along the way (all with “under construction” signs). The characters arrive to finish business they don't even know about yet, with a final conclusion as unsatisfying as imaginable for two icons locked in allegedly symbolic combat. Even the fight itself has no beauty, even Gothic beauty. Compared to any shot of the Batcave or city streets, the epic confrontation feels like a tiny set, with dust thrown down off-screen by hurried stagehands, the actors helplessly wielding unfinished lines like toy guns until someone tells them who wins.

Yet, the film is bigger than its conclusion, or even its characters. The city is sparkling grime, a set that believed it was real. It has a breathless, demonic energy, heavy and molten, intricately dark like expressionism but crash-landed in an industrial future. Gotham is all factories and department stores and back alleys; it’s a brutal façade, with the addicting watchability of any of the pulp fantasies. But the story lacks the inner charm that would make it worth it to really go there. Beyond enjoying the shadowy flourishes on their own merits (and there’s a lot to enjoy), the film is a broken promise. A Joker performer who's too meaty and high-maintenance for Burton doesn’t help (he asked for Brad Dourif, who I can imagine being more appropriate for his post-Caligari craziness, but Warner Bros. told him, like a mob boss owed a favor, that if they let him have Keaton, he had to let them have Nicholson). Ultimately, Burton directs him like someone doing damage control, like coordinating a crash. Batman, the part that interested him, is a piece of architecture, never quite breathed to life in any of the film’s half-hearted scenes. A little more spark of his day-to-day doings (does he still go to the office?) or a real scene of chewy dialogue between him and his alleged lover would have gone a long way.

The audience is kept at wing's length from the hero, like strangers. But maybe that’s part of the film’s spiritual action, why Batman is still often considered the character’s cinematic benchmark. The unfinishedness gives it a campy heart, a naughty-chaotic feeling of walking through a construction site. The characters haven’t been trimmed and developed properly, but this gives them awkward life at times, like teetering on steel beams with darkness below. Even knowing this, the film might have benefited from fewer Joker scenes (or more emotional ones) and a closer view of Batman’s daily life to harness the emotional core in Keaton's eyes. The plot often freewheels in the wrong direction, taking pride in Nicholson’s wacked-out cruelty when Keaton’s calmer presence is all that gives the film’s vicious geometry its soul. Batman is high-minded malice, both for the people in it and the people subjected to it. Being kept at a distance at a certain point feels less like a criticism than a luxury.

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Warner Bros.

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