Published on June 25th, 2014 | by Ian Goodwillie0
Batman v Nostalgia: Dawn of Overstatements
Wired’s Graeme McMillan may be looking at 1989’s Batman movie with rose-coloured Batglasses that cause him to distort history — Ian Goodwillie addresses it all.
If you ignore the loss that fuels him and all the crazies trying to kill him, it’s never been better to be Batman — and 2014 is kind of big year for the Caped Crusader. He’s celebrating 75 years of comic books consistently in print, an impressive achievement by anyone’s standards. Well, maybe not Superman’s since he celebrated his 75th anniversary last year. It’s also the 25th anniversary of one of the best films the Batman has ever been in, Tim Burton’s Batman.
Personally, I love the 1989 Batman film, despite its flaws. With Michael Keaton as the titular character, Jack Nicholson as The Joker, and Tim Burton behind the camera, they nailed the aesthetic of Gotham and the balance between the different aspects of Batman. It was a massive deal when this movie came out as, for many people, the character jumped from the campiness of the Adam West days to the dark and gritty Batman we know and love. But some of us definitely love the film more than others.
Graeme McMillan, a writer for Wired, recently posted a piece to the magazine’s online arm about the 1989 film and its importance. He quite accurately assesses the positives and negatives of the film, bringing in the realities of studio interference in Burton’s vision. Given how inherently awesome/ridiculous the final product is, I have trouble arguing with the results of that fight between the studio and Burton.
Then, McMillan takes a leap in logic when he says, “For all its flaws, Batman was clearly a movie made by someone who wanted to say something about the character — something more than “how much money can we make? It’d be nice if more superhero movies today felt the same.”
Saying that he wishes more modern superhero movies were like the 1989 Batman film is odd considering he just spent 90% of the opinion piece explaining everything wrong with the movie.
First, it’s important to clarify that when McMillan talks about superhero movies, I don’t think he’s referring to all comic book adaptations. There are a variety of stellar comic book adaptations that have nothing to do with superheroes, like The Crow, Sin City, Ghost World, and American Splendor, many of which are far superior films to Batman. What McMillan is talking about are the big budget, summer blockbuster style films that permeate theatres these days. There are several massive comic book hero films all out in 2014, most of them sequels in huge money franchises.
The crux of McMillan’s argument seems to be that Burton’s Batman is responsible for the modern era of superhero films because it was the first to demand that the subject matter be taken seriously. That might actually be true, but if the first of that era of Batman films laid the groundwork for today’s superhero films, the next few Batman films tore all that work up and spit on its grave. (As a quick aside, this is not going to turn into a George Clooney bashing session. I actually quite liked him as Batman. You can’t blame him for the terrible script and concept he was given to work with).
If any film deserves credit for this modern era of superhero films, it’s 1998’s Blade. Here’s a film that took a great, B-level, African American Marvel comic book character and put him right up front in his own film franchise. And the film took that character seriously. That’s something current comic book films seem hesitant to do, outside of War Machine and the recent addition of Falcon as side characters. Seriously. Where’s my Black Panther film? And why wasn’t War Machine in The Avengers? If I’m Tony Stark and I’m heading off to fight an invading army in my kick ass suit of armor, the first person I call is my friend who has combat experience and an even more kick ass suit of armor that has literally been designed for the sole purpose of kicking oh so very much ass.
In aesthetic, style, and marketing, Blade is the starting gun for the modern era of comic book adaptations we are, for better or worse, living through. Some film critics would say the more accurate term is “surviving.” If Batman truly set the groundwork for these films, Blade was the first one to effectively pay off on those efforts and we have continued to build from Blade. But make no mistake in that the success of Blade is the reason any of these other superhero franchises have been so voraciously pursued by studios, not Batman. Superhero films barely survived the 90s Batman franchise. You know what else was out the same year as Batman & Robin, the final installment in that era of Batman films? Steel and Spawn. 1997 was not a good year for superhero films…
For McMillan’s theory about Batman to hold up, you have to wholesale write off Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman film, which McMillan quite thoroughly does; “Compare the self-conscious camp of Christopher Reeves’ Superman movies to the self-conscious sincerity of Man of Steel, and ask yourself whether we could’ve gotten there without Burton’s adherence to the idea that Batman be taken seriously.”
Donner’s 1978 film is definitely showing its age but it was also an attempt to seriously portray the Man of Steel, and successful one given the era. Superman as a character is neither dark nor gritty, and his film portrayal shouldn’t be. That’s one of the big problems with the much more recent Nolan produced Man of Steel. If I have to pick which film shows the better version of Superman, it’s definitely the 1978 Superman. Just because the film was made in the 70s doesn’t automatically define it as camp. After the completion of the Nolan trilogy, which has its own problems, it’s hard not to look at the 1989 Batman and see the camp factor in it. If the term applies to the 1978 Superman film, it certainly applies to the 1989 Batman film. Show someone who has never seen either film Batman Begins or Batman, and they react to Batman like they just saw the ghost of Adam West.
Ultimately, McMillan’s argument is only supported by his naive, nostalgic fanboy crush on the 1989 movie and its director. To even imply that Tim Burton was not concerned about box office dollars when making Batman is outright ridiculous. Any director who jumps onboard a massive blockbuster and says that they don’t care about the box office numbers is either a liar or insane. Tim Burton is neither of those things, nor is every director who is concerned about making money unconcerned about telling a good story.
Such a statement also presupposes the motivations of directors of current films. Jon Favreau obviously had a story he wanted to tell with Iron Man and the movie was quite successful because of it. Joss Whedon has a long history with comic books and a well-documented love affair with geek culture. As result of bringing someone in who cares about the property, The Avengers is a great film and does not come across as one directed by a hired gun who doesn’t give a crap about the subject matter. And, again, Christopher Nolan was definitely a man with a plan and story to tell.
Batman is a classic film, and still reigns as my favourite featuring the Dark Knight. That being said, it isn’t the greatest superhero movie created nor was it birthed by some altruistic desire to tell a brilliant Batman story. If anything, McMillan’s own comments show that studio involvement, which was inevitably motivated by money, helped this film. He says, “the original climax of the movie — the Joker kills Vicki Vale, sending Batman over the edge — was dumped by the studio during filming.” If true, I say great. That’s a terrible ending. Next thing you know, they’ll do a movie where Superman murders General Zod after unintentionally helping him wreck Metropolis.
McMillan needs to take off his rose coloured glasses and recognize that the 1989 Batman film is no more or less artistically valid than any other big budget, superhero blockbuster made today. If you’re looking for that in a comic book film, I’d steer away from the summer superhero popcorn flicks, no matter what year you’re stuck watching movies in.
Nostalgia is a hell of a drug.