ekm’s BAT-MANUAL: CHAPTER 3 – BATMAN (1989)
Batman was first introduced in the pages of Detective Comics #27, his being merely one of a series of interconnected crime stories for a medium that had previously neither required, nor desired, continuity. Unlike National’s recent success story, Superman, there was no introductory page that laid the groundwork for this weird and fantastical origin; “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” began with a mythology well underway.
We meet Commissioner Gordon, an elderly fellow enjoying a pipe with bored millionaire socialite Bruce Wayne. It’s an odd pairing.*. Likewise odd is their choice of topic — the so-called “Bat-Man” who has been lately terrorizing the criminal underworld of Gotham City. And wouldn’t you know it? Ring ring goes the phone, at which time Gordon finds himself called away to a crime scene. And wouldn’t you also just know it? Gordon invites Bruce Wayne to tag along, because Screw You, Law. So off they go, whereon they learn the particulars of some gangland-related frame-job, none of which is particularly unique or compelling stuff…until Bat-Man shows up.
Some things might work better in live-action than on the page; even in 2019, I’m still uncertain whether or not Superheroes fall under this category. The Bat-Man is custom-designed for visual pulpiness, with his scalloped cape-wings and demonic horns. Whether or not the implication of vampiric powers including, but not limited to, flight and superhuman strength, was at first intentional seems hardly important; the effect this weird creature has over his allies and enemies alike is what differentiates Bat-Man from Superman (who was, admittedly, something of a thug in those first few appearances). Framed at least within this illustrated reality, it was possible to believe that Bat-Man was a creature of the night to be feared by everyone, Good or Bad. We knew almost nothing about who this monstrous apparition was or why he existed, and even when he unmasked in the final panels, there were only further questions thrown atop the pile. Bat-Man, it seems, was none other than Commissioner Gordon’s layabout playboy friend, Bruce Wayne.
It was what we’d now refer to as a Twist Ending, and one that couldn’t be sustained beyond this first appearance; however, as a self-contained launch for future adventuring, “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” introduced mystery upon mystery. The questionably heroic Bat-Man was the only question mark worth pondering in an otherwise ho-hum adventure story, and learning who — or what — was beneath the cowl served as the primary reason to keep turning the pages. In retrospect, the revelation was telegraphed literally from the very first panel, and the entire premise bore more than a passing resemblance to THE SHADOW. Nonetheless, there was no origin story. We wouldn’t learn of Thomas and Martha Wayne until the following year, or the burning obsession that drove young Bruce to strike fear into the hearts of the criminal underworld. The very absence of clear motivation made the Bat-Man all the more striking, and his a legacy to watch unfold. Once it did, however, the ongoing adventures of the hypen-less character transitioned into routine adventure stories, lacking the sinister qualities that had first defined them.
While much has been written about Tim Burton’s live-action BATMAN, the element least-remembered (and at the time of its 1989 release, most misunderstood) is that the story unpacks in the same fashion as Detective Comic #27, rendering the Dark Knight a mysterious hero about whom the audience gathers information only gradually. If there was a universal complaint during The Summer of the Bat, it was that “Batman isn’t in it enough,” followed by “too much Joker.” In these early days of what we now categorize as Comic Book Movies, the only existing template of note was the one established in Richard Donner’s SUPERMAN, and one that we continue to see dusted off even today. It isn’t too far a stretch to postulate that BATMAN represents the second influential Funnybook adaptation, following its predecessor even as Bat-Man was a response to the Superman of Action Comics, and that in both cases, the establishment of an origin story was handled identically (specifically, in that Batman didn’t have one in the traditional, linear sense). Where Supes went first, Batman would always follow with a large Bat-Middle-Finger held aloft for all to see.
BATMAN is more interesting for this. The non-era-specific nature of Tim Burton’s Gotham City allows for a confusing visual headache of contrasting fashion and architecture, as well as the presence of anachronistic gangsters whose pinstripes and Tommy guns perfectly compliment a nemesis who presents himself as a cross between Dracula and Mothman. The conscious throwback to the character’s pulpier roots is what allows Batman’s gradual revelation of identity to occur in a way that modern films neither attempt, nor seem capable of supporting.** It’s particularly notable that no such attempt has been made with any property since, The Caped Crusader included.
Right from the jump, we meet a Batman who’s already established in Gotham City by way of whispered rumor. The film opens with a fake-out for fans In The Know: a family is held up at gunpoint in a way that intentionally evokes the defining moment in young Bruce Wayne’s life, and one that will reverberate throughout the narrative as backstory is later sketched. The criminals will get away with their stolen goods, this being simply one more incident to presumably go unchecked in a breeding ground of vice and corruption…until they’re cornered on a nearby rooftop by an Urban Legend come to terrifying life. Whatever the cloaked figure is, it’s impervious to bullets. It drinks the blood of its victims, or throws them to their deaths. Who is he? I’m Batman, he hisses menacingly, casually, before stepping off the ledge and vanishing into the night. His prey is left as shaken as the audience.
Keep in mind that this was 1989 — just over a decade out from Donner’s SUPERMAN, and twice that since the campy TV show that had defined the character for casual audiences. Both sources painted Superheroes as bright, vivid, and aggressively corny. The average theatergoer (particularly the younger set) wasn’t spun up on the particulars of the source material, and BATMAN ’66 was irrelevant in the post-STAR WARS Pop Culture climate. It’s absolutely possible to postulate that a good portion of Burton’s viewership didn’t know that Bruce Wayne was Batman any more than the criminal underbelly of Gotham City was aware of any such connection; those who might have remembered that particular plot point from television would be less likely to know impetus for so distinctive a modus operandi, to say nothing of his outlier status among the questionably-good citizens he seemed less interested in protecting than to use as justification for his own distinctive brand of physical justice.
Simply put, by the time Bruce Wayne first pops up at the SAVE THE FESTIVAL charity ball he may or may not be hosting simply to covertly gather intel from informed partygoers — including the Mayor, District Attorney, and Police Commissioner — the connection between the millionaire philanthropist who collects pre-Batman armored suits and the vigilante who’s carving out an ample portion of evening gossip, begins to take shape, although via the introduction of vignettes rather than fully-formed backstory. Wayne ducks out of his own event to scrub through videotaped conversations recorded by way of hidden camera; we see that he’s seated before a computer mainframe in some subterranean part of the estate. Wait, so he’s Batman? we are asked to ask. The film isn’t quick to respond. When we see Batman again, moments later, he’s infiltrating Jack Napier’s assault on Axis Chemicals, and it’s not outside the realm of possibility that a viewer might wonder whether he and Bruce Wayne are in fact the same guy — or pose the potentially more probable notion that Batman is in fact an employee of Bruce Wayne, if not a partner. In this way the atypical casting of Michael Keaton works to the benefit of the premise, given the actor’s slight build and his alter-ego’s clearly defined physique. It’s clever misdirection, intentional or otherwise.
The film doesn’t clarify matters following this encounter. Our first clue is Wayne’s habit of sleeping upside down post coitus; the fact that he drops roses on a specific area of sidewalk is another. The millionaire is clearly a man of many secrets, but there seems an unwillingness to give them up, especially to us. On repeat viewings, BATMAN appears to take the audience’s knowledge of the dual identity for granted, but a closer examination reveals that we never once receive onscreen acknowledgement until the top of the Third Act, as we are party to Bruce suiting up for his final confrontation with the Joker. We occasionally see moments in which Wayne is lurking about in the Batcave, engaging in research; at one point, Alfred is closing the standup coffin in which the Batsuit is stored. Nonetheless, there’s never a specific confirmation during these sequences, and it seems equally plausible that the narrative might spring a mysterious new player on us at any moment — the true identity of the man who is making use of the tools Bruce Wayne is financing.
And why would there need to be an accomplice, necessarily? Keaton’s atypical body type aside, there is a conscious decision to obscure the details of Batman’s features. In terms of striking moodiness, as well as painting the believable notion that The Dark Knight would, indeed, be viewed less as a freak in tights than a supernatural manifestation, there has been no better live-action rendition of Batman to date. This has much to do with the transition away from Spandex to fully-functional body armor. Even the padded muscles seem as much Secret ID-influenced misdirection as idealized male perfection. Nonetheless, one need only compare the almost identical costume seen in both BATMAN and BATMAN RETURNS — the only difference being the shape of the iconic chest symbol — and the same actor disguised in the same outfit is strikingly different in terms of presentation. While the sequel would respond to the claims that its predecessor was “too dark” by blasting the proceedings with high-powered fluorescent lighting, BATMAN keeps its hero restricted to artfully-concealing shadow. Rarely is his mouth on display; the lower portions of his head vanish into inky darkness. Only the eyes gleam, and then with fierce, intelligent animal brightness. Batman is choosing not to go unseen, but to use the environment to obscure his identity. Even the voice is quiet, controlled, and minimalist in its delivery. Rather than the ROAR, ME MONSTER MAN vocal pyrotechnics utilized by later actors, Burton gives us a man who sounds as if he’s trying to frighten his prey and throw them off the scent. Isn’t that what Batman would do? So why not do the same to the audience, as well…?
If this seems improbable in 2019, then it’s because thirty years of Comic Book Movies have softened the blow. SPIDER-MAN was the most successful film to appropriate the Donner mold, and nearly every movie that’s followed has utilized a near-identical format. Only BATMAN made a point to retain some air of mystery throughout the unspooling of its plot. By the time Vicki Vale has infiltrated the Batcave and (presumably) watched Bruce strip down and then squeeze himself into the rubber costume, the audience has long since reached the conclusion that the oddball philanthropist and Gotham’s Flying Mouse Detective are one in the same — the act of watching him dress is only to punctuate Bruce’s previous attempt to confess to Vicki the nature of his double life at her apartment. Any attempt at misdirection is tenuous, and could very well be as much a consequence of the production’s frantic rewrites, as there are many instances that would support the notion of ambiguity as simply another word for narrative sloppiness. Indeed, the middle section of the picture feels curiously ramshackle, but this doesn’t prohibit alternative readings of the primary text. It’s the only BATMAN film this can be said of.
The plot nonetheless enjoys a level of suspense that has less to do with the Joker’s narcissistic chemical warfare than with keeping the protagonist a question mark. Whether or not the audiences of 1989 ever had reason to doubt that Bruce Wayne and Batman were one in the same, the mechanisms that drove both sides of the character were intentionally obscured until the revelation that The Dark Knight was born on Park Row, one night in the distant past, as he watched his parents die before his young eyes. In these naive, pre-franchise days (at least insofar as Comic Book Characters were concerned), the decision to replace Joe Chill with a LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS-era Jack Nicholson lookalike made perfect sense***; anyone anticipating a sequel when the first film was already the victim of negative Fanboy letter-writing campaigns was drinkin’ Drano. This particular plot contrivance might have signaled a theoretical end to the more obvious aspects of the crimefighter’s campaign against Evil, but it’s the final underscoring of who Batman is, and more important why Batman is. It’s safe to say that both the murder of the Waynes, as well as the identity of the killer, succeeded in shocking audiences who associated The Caped Crusader with Adam West’s perfunctory heroics. Preserving it so long allows us to rally behind Batman as he prepares for the Big Duke-a-Roo at Gotham Cathedral.
We are nonetheless left with questions as credits roll. Where does he get those wonderful toys? How did he construct a Batcave without an army of contractors? What about the Batmobile? The Batwing? And for the matter, how does the Joker shoot the latter down with nothing more than a pistol? Where and when did Bruce learn to deflect bullets, and acquire the speed and agility to take down armies of thugs twice his size, all with three times the neck mobility? This is left for sequels…or left unanswered. It would be more than fifteen years before BATMAN BEGINS would endeavor to shape a proper origin story, and while it’s largely successful in its aims, it’s less so in terms of capturing the weird nature of those first few comics. Sometimes, the answers are far less intriguing than the questions, and speculation can result in adventures far more intriguing than that which can be effectively dramatized.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Tim Burton’s BATMAN.**** As Bruce Wayne tells Vicki Vale, his life is really complex; that complexity is best communicated via the jigsaw puzzle-like dissemination of his character’s life and pre-history. The folks who were complaining that BATMAN didn’t have enough Batman were perhaps right, but for all the wrong reasons.
*Only in retrospect can the presence of the Paris Hilton of his age become understood, at least from the younger man’s side of things; Gordon’s choice of evening callers, however, seems intriguing, at best. This wouldn’t be the last time that questions of age appropriateness and intent would be hurled at these stories, but the answer (“Because Plot”) rarely made it all seem less homoerotic. As such, it’s an interesting start to the Batman mythology, right there on Page 1.
**Spider-Man offers a perfect example, as his Widescreen introduction has been attempted three times, in three different ways: 1) as a lovingly faithful adaptation of the source material; 2) as an unnecessary reimagining involving Chocolate Milk; and 3) via Guest Star status in a film that functions as a Backdoor Pilot for his ongoing adventures. Batman, too, has been introduced as many times and in as many ways, and while Burton and Nolan go for an atypical and traditional model, respectively, Snyder dispenses with any such formalities and incorrectly assumes that audiences have read The Dark Knight Returns, but with the incongruous belief that the murder of Thomas and Martha Waynes requires yet another onscreen depiction — no less than twice in a single film.
***A similar tidying of character and plot would occur two years later in ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES, in which we learn that 1) Will Scarlett and Robin of Locksley are in fact half-brothers; and 2) that it’s possible for Christian Slater’s faux-British accent to sound somehow worse than Kevin Costner’s decision not to attempt one at all.
****And those God-damned STAR WARS prequels; but that’s another series altogether.
Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)