Retroactive Continuity 2: Tim Burton’s Batman

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It’s June 23, 1989. The top movie is, well, this; last week it was Ghostbusters II. Also in the top five this weekend are Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Dead Poets Society. The top song this week is Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”; Phil Collins, Linda Ronstadt, Janet Jackson, and Bon Jovi also make it into the top ten.

In the news, the biggest story this month is probably the Tiananmen Square protest and ensuing crackdown by the Chinese government; the famous “Tank Man” photograph is already becoming iconic three weeks later. Between mid-November and the end of the year comes, in rapid succession, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the end of communist regimes (by election or revolution) in LIthuania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Romania. Also interesting for our particular purposes, November also sees the release of The Little Mermaid, usually credited as the beginning of the Disney Renaissance in animated film.

But here in June, we have Tim Burton’s Batman, one of the major influences on Batman the Animated Series. Indeed, according to Paul Dini and Chip Kidd’s Batman Animated, the success of this movie was the primary impetus for Warner Bros to seek the creation of the animated series–so it has a fairly strong claim to being the reason the DCAU exists.

Aesthetically, its influence on BTAS is quite clear. The dark, massive, brutal towers of Burton’s Gotham are reflected in BTAS’, and the dark palette of the film is likewise shared. Much of the music is also adapted directly, most obviously in the main title themes of both film and series. There is a shared and bizarre anachronism, as well; just as BTAS mixes trenchcoats, fedoras, and tommy guns with modern-for-1992 computers and attitudes, so does Burton’s film blend its present with the styles of the past. This is most notable just after the credits, when two parents and their young child, dressed very much in typical mid-20th century styles, walk past a prostitute in bright colors, denim, and perm that practically scream “1989.” The Joker is an old-school, Prohibition-style gangster, yet one of his henchmen carries a boom box. There’s even a point where a mugger quotes a current-for-1989 ad campaign for American Express.

That last cements the anachronisms as being entirely deliberate, as much a part of the film’s aesthetic as its color palette or mix of Gothic and Brutalist architectural influences. They serve as a sort of shorthand, placing the film in the same kind of ever-shifting present as the big superhero franchises, a sort of temporal doublethink–or, rather, triplethink, since it requires believing three contradictory statements simultaneously, for example, “This Superman comic from 30 years ago is canon,” “It is always the case that the “present day” of a comic published today is today,” and “It is always the case that Superman first emerged as a superhero ten years ago.” (Of course, the obvious answer is that it’s fiction and therefore has no requirement of logical consistency, but then what will fans ritualistically fight over in order to establish dominance hierarchies?)

It’s an interesting effect, and helps the movie stand out stylistically, which the movie very much needs as there is little to it beyond style. It is pretty to look at and the anachronism is fun, but the story is fairly straightforwardly based on a shallow reading of The Killing Joke in which the degree to which they define one another is made literal by having Batman not only “create” the Joker in a scene very similar to The Killing Joke (including the disaster at the plant being partially because Napier is betrayed by criminals he trusted), but also making Napier the killer of Batman’s parents. Just in case we missed it, the movie has a scene where Batman and Joker outright discuss the fact that they created one another, which is tantamount to the movie prodding the viewer in the ribs and saying, “See, the hero and villain define one another! Do you get it? Do you?” The characters are extremely flat, and their motivations not explored at all; the plot a straightforward series of action setpieces punctuated by scenes in which Michael Keaton and Kim Basinger demonstrate a complete lack of chemistry. None of which is really a criticism of the film. It wants to be stylish and fun, and it is.

The one choice that stands out in terms of story is the decision to focus on Bruce Wayne rather than Batman. Part of that is probably because the fight sequences look as if Keaton/Keaton’s stunt double can barely move in the suit, but the film also seems to be strongly suggesting that Bruce Wayne is not a superhero who pretends to be an eccentric billionaire, but rather an eccentric billionaire who plays at being a superhero. As a result, despite being called Batman, the film is really Bruce Wayne, Who Is Occasionally Batman. Batman barely appears at all in the middle hour of the movie; even when doing research in the Bat Cave, he stays out of costume. But there is stronger evidence than screentime that the film is more about Wayne than Batman, most notably the performances.

One way to classify performances, you see, is on a spectrum of naturalism versus performativity. These represent two different approaches to what the job of an actor actually is: at the extreme naturalistic end, the actor’s job is to act like the character they portray “actually” would if the story were true, while at the extreme performative end, the actor’s job is to show the audience what the character is currently thinking and feeling. This is, of course, a spectrum, not an either-or, but in general more performative performances are more prone to hamminess and bombast, while more naturalistic performances are more, well, natural-seeming.

Generally, all the performances in the film are more performative than naturalistic, but there is definitely variation in how performative they are, with Basinger the most naturalistic of the major characters and Jack Nicholson by far the most performative. Interestingly, however, Keaton plays Batman in a noticeably more performative way than Bruce Wayne, again in part probably because the costume hides his face and makes movement difficult, so exaggerated body language and inflections are likely the only way he can convey anything at all. The effect, however, is both to play up Batman and the Joker as performances put on by two men in an attempt to distance themselves from their respective bad days, and to suggest that Bruce Wayne is more “real” than Batman. That, in other words, he is a somewhat bumbling and ridiculous, but very wealthy, man, and being Batman is just one of the ridiculous things he does, akin to the eccentricities he displays early on of collecting armor and weapons from different countries, pretending not to know who he is, and giving a grant to a reporter who jokingly asked for one.

This potentially interesting take on the character of Batman, however, is never pursued, because even more than Bruce Wayne, this film is interested in the Joker. One of the advantages of high performativity is that it allows a disconnect between what the character does and how they do it. Here, it allows Nicholson to imbue everything the Joker says and does with intense anger. Even in moments where the script makes clear that the Joker is pretending to be friendly, for example when he first talks to Alicia, Nicholson imbues every line with rage and mockery, so that the audience knows the Joker isn’t sincere. The result is an interesting take on the Joker, one which plays his laughter not as sadistic glee or amusement, but as an additional weapon, a way to frighten and upset the people he wants to hurt.

For all that this film is the reason BTAS exists, for all its influence on the look and music of BTAS, its take on the central characters has surprisingly little impact. We’ve already begun to see that BTAS takes the precisely opposite approach to the Wayne/Batman dyad, focusing mostly on Batman and treating Wayne as the performance. And while the BTAS Joker is most definitely capable of being menacing, as we will soon see he is primarily driven by his sense of humor, not anger.

Ultimately, Batman is a movie that says little or nothing, but says it extremely well. For our purposes, however, that means it is still quite important, because BTAS isn’t interested in what it has to say, only how it says it.

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