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Empire List #458: Batman

Batman. The one superhero I could always count on for entertainment as I was growing up. When I was living in Newfoundland in the mid-90s I used to watch re-runs of that cheesy Batman TV show with Adam West. “Will our heroes survive this dastardly trap? Tune in next time! Same bat-time! Same bat-channel!” My English wasn’t so good back then, but the plotlines were so ridiculous it may as well have been in Punjabi. Actually, that would probably be twice as hilarious.

Around 1996 my family and I moved to Santiago, Chile. It was then that I started watching “Batman: The Animated Series”. During the first few years it only played in Spanish, but that was O.K. It’s an entertaining way to learn a new language. Beats the hell out of taking notes in a classroom.

Then finally one day, Tim Burton’s “Batman” played on TV. Again, in Spanish but I didn’t care. I had wanted to watch that movie for years and finally I could see that cool Batmobile on screen. Before then I had only seen it in a toy catalogue, right next to the Beetlejuice figurines.

Burton’s version of Batman is definitely not the best in the series. When Christopher Nolan took over in 2005 he did a great job with Batman’s origin and placed Bruce Wayne front and centre. He set the stage for “The Dark Knight” one of the best comic book movies ever made.

Still, you have to give Tim Burton credit for being the first one to bring Batman to the big screen. Unlike the Adam West series, his Batman is dark and violent. Gotham City is dirty, filled with corruption, dark alleys where muggers lurk, and is populated with men who wear fedora hats.

In this version Batman is an urban legend ignored by the police. When we first see him, he is just a dark silhouette about to beat two hoodlums who have mugged a couple and their young son. A reporter at the scene later asks a crooked cop if there is a six-foot bat in Gotham City. “They slipped on a banana peel”, he tells him.

This cop walks deeper into the dark alley and is given an envelope of money by Jack Nappier (Jack Nicholson) the second-in-command of crime boss Carl Grissom (Jack Palance). A fight at a chemical factory between Batman and Napier will turn him into the Joker, Batman’s most famous and dangerous nemesis. After falling into a vat of toxic chemicals and having his face repaired by a second-rate plastic surgeon, Jack has a more positive outlook on life. In fact, he wants the whole world to laugh to death with him.

What a perfect villain for a masked hero who wears an all black suit. Batman is sombre and frightening to criminals. He hides in the shadows and attacks using stealth. The Joker attacks in broad daylight while wearing a purple suit.

While the casting of Michael Keaton as Batman was not well received by comic book fans back in the late 80s, the casting of Jack Nicholson as the Joker was a no-brainer. A movie legend then and now, Nicholson had no difficulty playing a boisterous villain. His character takes so much room he has top billing.

That is the problem with the Joker: he is so eccentric he overshadows Batman. A good scene example of this is when the Joker is reading the headline of a newspaper: “Winged Freak Terrorizes…Wait till they get a load of me.” He wants to make sure he will make the next headline.

Of course, nowadays it is impossible to talk about Jack Nicholson’s Joker without mentioning the Joker in 2008’s “The Dark Knight” as portrayed by the late great Heath Ledger. They are similar, no question about that. Both characters wish to bring chaos to Gotham City. They both wish to destroy Batman while still admiring him.

They differ in how menacing they are. The Joker in “Batman” kills people with laughing gas and electric buzzers. The Joker in “The Dark Knight” chops people up with knives and places a bomb inside a man just to create a distraction. Nicholson’s Joker is cartoonish in an evil kind of way, while Ledger plays him as full on psychopath who wants to see the world burn.

But back to Tim Burton’s “Batman”. Like all of Tim Burton’s movies, it is a work of art in terms of visuals. The Gotham City in his movie stands next to films like “Blade Runner” and “The Crow” as an example of a bleak metropolis. Burton has always been a very visual director, which is probably why the movie’s plot is a little thin. Unlike in “Batman Begins” it is never explained how Bruce Wayne managed to buy such a cool vehicle as the Batmobile and where he learned how to fight five men at a time.

That didn’t matter to me the first time I watched “Batman”. I was too busy enjoying plenty of memorable moments such as Batman crashing through a glass ceiling, the Joker first appearing out of the shadows, the fight at the top of a church, and the Joker burning a man with an electric buzzer.

I might have been a bit too young to be enjoying that last moment. Seeing Nicholson talking to a charred corpse while laughing maniacally was a new experience for me as a ten-year-old. They didn’t have that on Adam West’s show.


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