October Issue 2018

By | Here and Now | Published 6 years ago


When Warner Brothers released Batman, a film directed by Tim Burton, in 1989, it had been 23 years since the DC Comics superhero was last seen on the screen. In 1966, Adam West donned the cape and mask in a portrayal of a knight who was anything but dark. For generations of curious comic book fans seeking a lifelike depiction of their favourite fictional character, this all-American, happy-go-lucky Batman was the only reference point.

In 1989, this changed.

Tim Burton created a prototype for a Batman that other directors, from Joel Schumacher to Christopher Nolan, would build on and borrow from. The profile was that of a darker, more brooding character closer to the comic book. Yet none captured the allegorical element quite the way Burton did. Casting Michael Keaton as billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne – the epitome of all that was ‘popular’ and sought after in American society – came with its own set of implications. Keaton, who had in the previous year been cast as a ghost in Burton’s other production, Beetlejuice, was fresh in moviegoers’ memories as a weirdo. His Bruce Wayne is an anti-hero with a troubled past, uncomfortable in his own skin and something of an outsider. A man of a few words, he has little time for press conferences and posturing alongside Gotham City’s mayor, Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams), as we learn at the start of the film, preferring instead to take matters into his own hands.

Casting Jack Nicholson as Charles Napier, a gangster who transforms into the Joker, drew a mature audience to the film and gave the antagonist a weight that the protagonist lacked – almost as a deliberate snub to Keaton’s loner. Meanwhile, the choice of Jack Palance as kingpin Carl Grissom added to the mix a sense of hierarchy. Palance, an old school Hollywood villain, famous for his role as the deadly gunfighter Jack Wilson, in Shane (1953), is Napier’s boss. It is almost as if the rights of passage of classic villainy are being handed down from Palance to Nicholson in the film. The fact that Napier, after turning into the Joker, confronts Grissom and kills him, gives both character and actor a sinister edge and an elevation in this hierarchy. Nicholson has ‘overthrown’ Palance: out with the old, in with the new.

Burton toys with the concept of identity in the film. During a charity ball at Wayne Manor, when reporter Vicki Vale (Kim Bassinger), who has not yet been introduced to the millionaire, taps on the shoulder of the stranger (who happens to be the man himself) and asks, “Could you tell me which of these guys is Bruce Wayne?” he replies, true to his shy, awkward nature, “Well, I’m not sure.” Later in the evening, he runs into her again while she is having a look at his collection of costume decoration pieces on display – including the armour of medieval knights – and introduces himself. After the brief meeting, Vicki’s colleague remarks, “The rich! You know why they’re so odd? Because they can afford to be.” Wayne is most comfortable in the bat-suit, while the persona of the bachelor business tycoon Bruce Wayne, is the ‘mask,’ or the ‘costume’ he wears to fit into society.

The writer is a staffer at Newsline Magazine. His website is at: www.alibhutto.com