You Ever Dance With the Devil in the Pale Moonlight? In Praise of the First Batman Movie

Yes, I know. The first Batman movie came out in 1966, and was filled with moments of epic hilarity such as “Some Days You Just Can’t Get Rid of a Bomb!” I watched it a little while ago with my oldest. It’s grand, campy fun. We all know what I’m talking about, nerds.

Red Letter Media, casting about for horrible movies to mock, as they do, settled upon supplying a commentary track for Batman & Robin, the ne plus ultra of ridiculous cartoony nipples-on-body-armor dreck that sank the franchise like a filagreed Batmobile at the bottom of the harbor until Nolan made art out of it.

And I suppose that said moldy pile of creative leavings deserves the mockery. I say “suppose” because I was wise enough not to see it, having been warned by my brother how bad it was. I wasn’t really that interested anyway. The franchise had been declining since the first sequel. Yeah, I said it. Batman Returns, the one that still had Keaton as Batman and Burton directing, is a confused, sloppy pile of whatever that people got excited about at the time because it had Michelle Pfeiffer in a tight leather suit with a whip (once, in the before time, in the long long ago, that was a thing). It has Penguin as some kind of drooling special-needs freakazoid rather than the most intellectually astute of Gotham’s rogues, and the actual bad-guy is Christopher Walken, as some kind of non-canon business dude. It’s boring, and it’s to Batman what Corpse Bride is to The Nightmare Before Christmas.

And Batman Forever is overwrought and underwritten, with way too many threads in the air and none of them given proper time. The silly Schumakerness of it replacis the Goth-ish Burtonic dread with a weird nod to the 1966-style camp, while trying to make us take it seriously. Only Jim Carrey’s over-the-top rubberface Riddler stands out (which is saying something). So overall, anyone would be better off watching the Nolan series, grim as it may be.

But there was that first movie. A movie that stormed the box office in the summer of ’89, proving that they could be successful. A movie that seems to smell like the 1980’s. A movie that was purple and black and bloody and may still be better than anything that followed it.

The difference is tone. The 1966 movie – and the TV Series it was based on – was kid’s stuff served with a knowing wink. There’s a time when you don’t understand how dumb it is, and there’s a time when you realize it (Bat-Alphabet-Soup-Decoder?), and then there’s a time when you realize it was dumb on purpose, without ruining it for those that liked it on that level, which makes it pretty smart.

But the 1989 film is Batman’s heart made flesh. It doesn’t – like Batman Begins or almost any start to a superhero franchise today – give us an origin story (or at least, not until the story needs it) of the hero. Rather, it gives us an origin story of the villain, and sends the villain on a swirling jaunt of madness until the hero can contain him again. We don’t need to understand why Batman is the way he is. We have sick, absurd, corrupt Gotham City to explain him. In a Gotham that did not have Batman, someone would have to invent him.

In this way, Batman’s mystery is preserved intact. It has long been held that Batman is the only plausible superhero: with enough capital and MMA training, someone could be Batman, or a facsimile thereof. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s still an almost fantastical concept. Someone could do that, true, but for how long? In a comic book, the bad guys never shoot straight (or straight enough for lethality), but in real life, how long would Batman go before someone finished him? He’s not the Guardian Angels.

So I’ve always subscribed to the “less is more” philosophy when it comes to Batman: the less we understand every nook and cranny of his soul, the more interesting he remains. That’s the mistake Batman Forever made with the nightmares and the psychoanalysis (really just an excuse for Nicole Kidman to be Not Vicki Vale): trying to give Batman some kind of “cure” for what ails him would only make him not want to be Batman anymore. He’s heroic precisely because he’s wounded and sick. He represents childhood trauma transmuted into an adult crusade against darkness. Good comes out of evil. To heal the rage at evil is to destroy the desire to do good.

So I like the fact that Keaton’s Batman says little of significance beyond “I’m Batman”, that he’s terse with Alfred and awkward with Vicki. That’s the way someone with the wealth to avoid trouble but the need to seek it anyway should behave: with quiet monomania. Therefore, the film becomes chiefly about how a sneering criminal goon becomes a Clown Prince of Darkness, a giggling monster that (we discover) made Batman and whom Batman made in a perfect duality of fate and of hate. Trauma provokes a focused and tireless quest for justice and security to others in Batman and a whirling kaleidescope of passionate cruelty in the Joker. And there’s no escape for either of them.

In this way, the first movie is a far better cinematic take on the standalone Batman graphic novel The Killing Joke than the actual animated film by that name. The bones of the story – Batman drops some ne’er-do-well into a vat of chemicals, making him the Joker, making him Batman’s eternal responsibility – are the same, and they get at the same idea – that the Joker is Batman’s doppelganger, his shadow. The Dark Knight upends this order, making The Joker just some rando, who slides in out of the shadows and will go back there, unexplained, while Batman struggles to make sense of his role in the world. In TDK, it’s the Joker who has no origin, or one he makes up as he goes along (a riff of a Joker line in The Killing Joke: “sometimes I remember one way, sometimes another. If I must have a past: I prefer it to be multiple choice!”). The Joker is not so much defeated in that film as refuted – when the people of Gotham decline to murder each other at his command – as he must be refuted. Because he is too absurd to be real.

Nicholson’s Joker, by contrast, is very real. He remains a man, who lusts and seeks to dominate, who if anything becomes better at being a criminal capo than he already was (and it’s implied he was already good at it). He is not seemingly everywhere at once, two steps ahead of the opposition, like Ledger’s Joker. He’s often surprised (“Why didn’t someone tell me he had one of those…things?”) and he has no larger philosophical point to make. He does not murder because of some nihilistic reckoning to be made with creation but out of an infantile self-absorption, a refusal to accept that anything else has a greater claim than him on the world. When he wants Gotham dead, he kills them himself. Until Batman stops him.

And it’s Batman that does it, and the method is interesting. Whereas TDK ends with Batman fleeing from the police, taking the sins of Gotham and Harvey Dent and the Joker onto himself, Batman has the Joker weighed down, literally, by apiece of the cathedral he absurdly dragged Batman and Vicki Vale to the top of, and intended them (or him at any rate) to fall from. It’s a natural, forseeable result of climbing to the top of a tall thing, and it’s a lovely moment of comeuppance for someone who’s spend the movie doing senseless things for no better reason than because he can, and who’s been getting away with it entirely too long. Not just order but basic sanity is restored thereby.

A moment on Vicki Vale. As a character who is fought over as much as fights, she probably resonates to modern eyes wrong, as a Generic Love Interest. But she feels far more like a real person than any like her in any Batman film since. I’ve mentioned BDSM Catwoman and Kidman’s forgettable psychologist before, but I’m including Rachel Dawes the Crusading DA from the Nolan Series as well, who regardless of what actress portrays her does nothing but declaim Goodness and Right (or be Harvey Dent’s Buttress). She’s less a character than a cause, and I’ve never found her interesting. Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman, who’s barely in The Dark Knight Returns, comes across better.

What do we know about Vicki Vale? We know she’s a photographer, and a successful and well-known one. We know that she does the fashion stuff to pay the bills (and probably likes it – she dresses to impress), but loves to put her camera at man’s inhumanity to man (an award-winning set of pictures of a fictional civil war is mentioned early on, and gushed over by the Joker). She’s intrigued by horror and by oddness, but sees that flickering light of humanity in Bruce Wayne, and prefers that to the Joker’s murderous absurdity (no Harley Quinn, she). She wants to see the bad things, but she doesn’t want the bad things to win. More or less like everyone who watches a Batman movie that way. What do you see when you point the camera?

And Kim Basinger’s performance of her gives her lovely moments of realism amid all the damsel-in-distress histrionics. One of my favorites is when – having been taken back to the Batcave to explain how the Joker is murdering fashion models and TV journalists with makeup (notice how this is far cleverer than any of the beauty angst surrounding Catwoman in Batman Returns) – suddenly wakes up back in her apartment and immediately reaches for camera film (back in the day kids, you had to develop the film after you took the picture, so there was several day’s lag-time between taking a picture and seeing it) containing pictures of Batman secreted in her dress. But Batman had slipped her a micky of some kind (!) and filched it. “Oh, he took the film”, Vicki says, with that sleepy annoyance that always comes out when you suddenly remember something that went wrong when you wake up. She feels like a real person, whom one could walk by in the street, which makes the struggle to own/save her that bit more meaningful. In one respect she’s like Han Solo – not an ordained savior or a princess or a mystic hermit, just someone trying to make a way in the world – standing in for the rest of us.

I also like it when she’s distracting the Joker by pretending to be into him and kissing all over his suit and she gets a piece of fuzzy lint in her mouth and has to awkwardly spit it out without giving the game away. For some reason that amuses me.

And yes, I know she screams like a damsel a good bit, and she doesn’t do a whole lot to affect her own outcome or assert her own agency or other things that women would like to see women in movies do more. That’s fine. But she still feels more like a real character having real interactions in real life than any of her successors. She’s not Wonder Woman, but she’s memorable. That means something.

A final thought: the 1989 Batman has Billy Dee Williams playing Harvey Dent, as a brash DA going after the mob. He’s not Two-Face (yet) but he’s Harvey Dent, and he’s fun to watch as such. Wouldn’t it have been so much better to have Billy Dee Williams play Two-Face in a Burton-directed film? Wouldn’t Batman Returns have been better with that, instead of the It’s Never Sunny On the Cobblepot Estate we got, or Tommie Lee Jones in Batman Forever phoning in his Two-Face from orbit? Hell, I’d rather watch the imaginary Billy Dee Williams Two-Face I’m imagining in my head right now than the world-historical one from The Dark Knight. Missed opportunities.

In conclusion: the old 80’s Batman got made fun for Jack Nicholson chewing the scenery, and it definitely reflects its era. But it has a realism beneath its operaticism that the DC Universe has lost, and that Marvel has never even tried to have. If you’ve never seen it, it’s worth checking out.

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