by Todd Alcott
The young people of today can hardly be expected to understand the impact that Tim Burton’s Batman had on movie-goers in the summer of 1989. The general audience of 1989 knew Batman only as the campy, self-conscious, broad-daylight superhero of the Adam West TV show. Nothing in movies prepared viewers for this radical re-thinking of the character, the weird darkness of the themes, the dense, oppressive production design or Jack Nicholson’s performance as The Joker. All of it was alarming, electrifying stuff back then. (Of course, it was all familiar territory for people who had read The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke, but that’s another story.)
I happened to see it at a press screening in New York a week or so before it opened. I knew absolutely nothing about it going in, and let me tell you, it bent my brain. The very concept of the Nicholson Joker, that he wasn’t wearing a mask, that that was his face, and the fact that they got one of the greatest movie stars of all time to look like that, that idea sent a perverse, thrilling chill into the audience of 1989 and still holds considerable power today. I remember walking out into the dense, humid air of the summertime New York night feeling like the city had somehow changed to fit the movie. Although Batman doesn’t treat its subject matter as seriously as 2008’s The Dark Knight, it was seriously freakin’ serious for its day. Thematically strong and narratively weak (like many of Tim Burton’s movies), it still stands as a milestone of Hollywood superhero narrative.
The screenplay has an interesting strategy: it wants to keep its title character mysterious and elusive for as long as possible, in order to increase the viewers interest and awe. Both Batman and his alter-ago Bruce Wayne are presented as cold, remote and unreachable. Female lead Vicki Vale asks “Why won’t you let me in?”, as well she might. Bruce Wayne takes a long time to emerge as a protagonist in Batman, and Batman himself takes even longer. For the longest time, Bruce/Batman is pursued, tangled with and drawn out, and the effect is to turn him into a kind of mythological figure, or even a fetish object. Which is a very interesting turn indeed: the 1966 Batman strained to keep its title character as transparent and uncomplicated as possible.
Since the screenplay takes a long time to develop Batman into a protagonist, it gives us a number of other protagonists to follow while we’re waiting. Act I offers no fewer than four different protagonists, some of whom are more interesting than others.
First we meet Harvey Dent, Gotham City’s new District Attorney, who pledges to clean up Gotham City’s corruption. For a moment it looks like maybe Batman, like The Dark Knight 19 years later, will develop into a Batman/Joker/Two-Face story. But Harvey’s crusade against corruption in Batman barely receives another mention before being swept aside by more colorful, more dynamic forces.
Next, the screenplay offers us Alexander Knox, a reporter who seems to be the only “civilian” in Gotham City concerned about the existence of a vigilante dressed as a bat. Civilians don’t take “the Bat-man” seriously, and the powers that be are unconcerned; it’s only street criminals who fear and mythologize him.
Knox’s interest in Batman draws in Vicki Vale, a serious photojournalist and a knockout bombshell, who is also, we are told, sexually attracted to bats. Once the movie grants us a gorgeous blonde woman who’s sexually attracted to bats, we kind of lose interest in poor Alexander Knox, who continues to hang around the narrative, but is relegated to sidekick and functionary for Vicki.
In addition to these three, we have Jack Napier, a high-ranking gangster in a crime syndicate run by boss Carl Grissom. Jack is a dandy and a thug, not unlike ‘80s then-mobster-of-the-moment John Gotti. Jack is in trouble with Grissom because he’s been making whoopie with Grissom’s moll. Out of all the characters who emerge in Batman’s first act, Jack is by far the most interesting, partly because he’s played by the only bona-fide movie star in the picture, and partly because he’s not particularly interested in Batman. Jack’s problem is Carl Grissom, whose problem is Harvey Dent. Dent and Grissom are unconcerned about the problem Batman presents, but Knox and Vicki are concerned solely about Batman to exclusion of all the other serious problems that seem to plague Gotham City, like pollution and corruption and crime and bleak, oppressive architecture and the lack of municipal services.
As much as Vicki obsesses about Batman, she finds herself also becoming attracted to Bruce Wayne. She does not know that Bruce Wayne is also Batman, but she is attracted to both. Why not? Bruce and Batman have a lot in common: they’re both mysterious, secretive and, well, a little weird. And I like the idea of a romantic triangle between Batman, Bruce Wayne and a female lead.
As Act I moves forward, Jack comes into clearer focus as a protagonist as he is sent by boss Grissom to go clean out the files of the Axis Chemical Plant, which is one of the businesses Grissom runs, and which is due to be under investigation by new DA Dent. For a little while, Batman seems to be developing into a serious crime drama on the level of The Dark Knight, but it takes a sharp left turn at the 30-minute mark as Jack goes to the Axis plant, finds the safe empty, knows he’s been set up by Grissom, and soon must deal with the police, who are there to arrest him, and also Batman, who makes a surprise visit.
Why does Batman show up at the Axis chemical plant? I know that Batman’s general goal is “to fight crime,” but why does he pick this night, at this juncture, to go to Axis Chemicals and confront Jack Napier? What is Axis, or Jack, to Batman? The first time we meet Batman, he’s beating up petty criminals in an alleyway, and is himself an outlaw. Why does he now take it upon himself to show up at Axis, in the middle of a police action, headed by none other than Commissioner Gordon? What does he hope to achieve?
Whatever Batman’s reason for being at Axis, Jack runs into him during the police raid and remains unimpressed. Batman, for his part, is also unimpressed with Jack. He goes on his merry way, doing what I’m still not sure, and then circles back later to have a separate confrontation with Jack a few minutes later, a confrontation that ends with Jack being mutilated by his own bullet and falling into a tub of goo.
At this point, Batman takes its sharp left turn from “crime drama” to something much stranger and grander, more operatic. Jack snaps into focus as the act drives to its close and Jack emerges from the tub of goo as The Joker. And so we see that all the other plot lines — Batman’s war on crime, Knox’s interest in pursuing Batman as a newspaper story, Vicki’s interest in pursuing Batman as a sex object — are all subservient to the real point of Act I, which is the story of how Jack Napier becomes The Joker.
So, to review:
ACT I (0:00 – 40:00) sets the scene (Gotham City is a squalid, corrupt dystopia), establishes Batman as an element of that scene, and introduces two major protagonists: Jack Napier and Vicki Vale. Vicki Vale pursues the truth about Batman because, well, she has a thing for bats, and Jack Napier finds his world coming unglued. Events conspire to put Jack and Batman in the same room together, the result being that Jack falls into a tub of goo. The tub of goo turns Jack’s skin ghostly white, a plastic surgeon botches Jack’s reconstructive surgery, and Jack emerges as the Joker, a dyed-in-the-wool homicidal maniac, disinterested in profit (it’s unclear how he keeps a staff of goons loyal to his cause) and bent on the destruction of Gotham City. Meanwhile, Vicki Vale, in her pursuit of Batman, gets sidetracked by an attraction to Bruce Wayne. As Jack becomes The Joker, Vicki beds Bruce. As The Joker cements his credentials as an “agent of chaos,” Vicki finds love, or something like it, in the arms of Bruce.
As Act II progresses, Vicki shifts her attention from Batman to Bruce Wayne, and her detective work in pursuit of his mystery drives a good chunk of the act. As the Vicki/Bruce love story develops, Bruce himself slowly comes into focus as a protagonist in his own right and the narrative shifts from her point-of-view to his, a nice narrative sleight-of-hand.
Now then, The Joker. What does The Joker want? At the end of Act I, Jack announces his new persona, kills Grissom and takes over boss Grissom’s crime syndicate. Great! He’s doing what a bad guy should do. He’s got a solid plan and he’s executing it. He kills all the other Gotham crimelords in broad daylight, on the steps of City Hall no less, and that’s all very straightforward.
But as Act II develops, The Joker’s motivations become hazy. Apropos of nothing, he falls in love with Vicki Vale, and the movie spends a little time developing this improbable love story. As he pursues Vicki, he also commits a genuine large-scale crime — he contaminates consumer goods with his deadly Smilex chemical. And he seems intent on killing Batman, his stated reason being that Batman is stealing his publicity. (The Joker dislikes Batman because he represents “decent” Gotham — as much as a masked vigilante dressed as a bat can, I guess — and Jack, before he even changed, has averred that “decent people” shouldn’t live in Gotham.)
So in Act II The Joker has three goals: he wants to contaminate consumer goods, he wants to woo Vicki Vale, and he wants to kill Batman. Coincidentally, these goals turn out to be related. It’s Bad-Guy Plots like this that give rise to Bad-Guy Plot Rules: one Bad Guy with one goal is best, one Bad Guy with two goals is weaker, two Bad Guys with one goal can work but is often problematic, two Bad Guys with two goals is weaker still, and so on. Here you have one Bad Guy with no fewer than three separate goals (contaminate consumer goods, woo the girl, kill Batman) and they don’t fit together well. And it’s only Act II, The Joker will change his goals yet again before the movie is over. If a screenwriter wishes to have a bad guy pursue a number of different goals, it’s best to make all the different goals part of One Grand Scheme.
(Not that any of that is easy! Having worked on many different superhero-related screenplays in my own career, I can tell you, it’s the hardest goddamned thing in the world, which is why so many superhero movies have such severe logic problems. When I see a superhero movie that manages to simply get all of its plot right, I forgive it a lot, because the plots of these things are so goddamned hard, even with everyone on the project working to have it make sense.)
The Joker sees a photograph of Vicki and instantly decides that he’s in love with her and must pursue her. He goes to great lengths to set up a date with her at an art museum, then arrives with his goons, destroys all the art (except for the Francis Bacon), kills all the museum patrons, then proceeds to pitch his brand of woo to Vicki.
Batman arrives, grabs Vicki — and leaves, taking her with him back to the Batcave. Why? What does Batman want? The Joker has just destroyed a museum of priceless art and killed dozens of people, and Batman’s sole concern is to grab the dame and high-tail it out of there, leaving the Joker to do whatever he feels like doing?
Thematically, we could say that Bruce/Batman rescues Vicki and leaves the Joker as an dramatization of the protagonist’s inner conflict — he wants to fight crime, but he also wants to experience a healthy love-life (just as The Joker wants to commit crime, but also wants to experience an unhealthy love-life). But then we find out that, after Batman has grabbed Vicki, driven her out of town and taken her to the Batcave, all he does is give her the evidence she needs to solve the Joker’s Smilex crimes, and then steal the film of some pictures she’s taken of Batman’s identity being revealed. Did he need to take her all the way to the Batcave to do that? Why couldn’t he have rescued her, gotten her to safety, then dealt with the Joker then and there?
And what does the Joker want with Vicki anyway? Why her? She’s beautiful, okay, and we see that he likes to destroy beauty, so she fulfills that impulse. But why her? I mean, narratively speaking, why her, except that it is convenient to the narrative? She is connected to Batman/Bruce, but the Joker doesn’t know that — when he shows up in her apartment late in Act II and finds Bruce there, he’s totally surprised. His attraction to Vicki is coincidental to his conflict with Batman.
Even stranger than Batman snatching Vicki away from the art museum without dealing with The Joker, The Joker comes to Vicki’s apartment, finds Bruce Wayne there, shoots him, and then leaves without taking Vicki with him. He murders a squadron of ganglords on the steps of City Hall in broad daylight, he destroys an art museum and kills dozens of art-lovers without suffering the slightest repercussion, why does he flee the scene of a murder without taking the thing he came to get?
(As you might have noticed by now, the problems of the Batman screenplay all swarm around its second act, when the plot tries to get too much out of its characters and motivations become blurry.)
What is the Joker’s goal, really? His Smilex plan, to contaminate thousands of consumer goods in a way that will kill millions is evil enough, but it’s unclear what it has to do, specifically, with Gotham City — it seems to me like it would be a national, or even an international, problem. Are we to believe that Gotham City has an entire host of local consumer goods — makeup, soap, eye shadow, hairspray, etc? And if his plot is not specifically against the citizens of Gotham City, why should we care about it? The world of Batman concerns Gotham City, not “the world.”
So The Joker hates Batman, Vicki loves Batman, The Joker loves Vicki (although I kind of have to take his word on that, I’m not sure I buy this movie as a tale of the eternal triangle). It would be nice if the Joker knew that Vicki loved Batman, but all he knows is that Vicki has a relationship with Bruce — whom the Joker kills, or thinks he does, late in Act II.
But Bruce is not dead, and he silently flees Vicki’s apartment (as is his wont), and it falls to Bruce’s butler Alfred to do the thing that Bruce cannot — tell Vicki that Bruce Wayne is Batman.
Near the end of Act II Bruce figures out that the Joker is the guy who killed his parents in that long-ago dark alleyway. This plot-point, which is kind of important in the scheme of things, is handled rather gracelessly (Batman, the World’s Greatest Detective, should really need something a little less obvious than a bad-guy’s catchphrase as a clue, especially since the bad guy only uses the phrase twice in the movie, and for absolutely no reason whatsoever — honestly it feels like some studio person pitched it in the room as “the bad version” — “How shall we establish that the Joker killed Bruce’s parents?” “Well, here’s the bad version — he’s got a unique catchphrase that he recites every time he kills someone.” “Like what?” “Like anything, it doesn’t have to make sense, it could be ‘Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?’” “Really? You think people will fall for that? It’s really fake and contrived.” “Well, like I say, that’s the bad version, we’ll think of something better later.”)
So, again, to review:
ACT II (40:00 – 1:27:00) The Joker murders all of the crimelords in Gotham, and investigates whatever Batman is, and sets into motion his fiendish plot to contaminate consumer goods with Smilex, and pursues a romantic liason with Vicki. That’s a whole bunch of agendas for a bad guy to have, and the movie will squeeze in one more by the time the Act III rolls around. A bad guy with four agendas in one act is a lot for any narrative to include, but Act II of Batman also pursues Vicki’s agenda of getting to know Bruce Wayne.
As Act III begins, as Batman finally comes into focus as a protagonist, Vicki is demoted from Protagonist to Damsel, and Alexander Knox is demoted from Protagonist to Clerk, a sap whose job is to do Vicki’s research for her. All of which is perfectly okay with the viewer, since Batman is a far more interesting character than Vicki, and about a billion times more interesting than Knox.
ACT III (1:27:00 – 2:03:00) His Smilex plot foiled, the Joker launches into a new plot, to present himself as the true leader of Gotham City — not the mayor, not Harvey Dent, not Batman, but himself. The city fathers, who have been planning a bicentennial festival since the beginning of the movie, have been greatly discouraged by the whole murderous crime-wave thing, and have cancelled said festival. The Joker, steamed from the ruin of his Smilex plot, announces that he will stage his own festival, one with balloons and parades and jarring, out-of-place funk music. At this festival, he will give away millions of dollars, take his place as the true leader of Gotham City, then kill everyone in the area.
His third-act plot proceeds just fine, Batman shows up to foil it, which causes the Joker to abscond with Vicki to the World’s Tallest Bell Tower to make his escape. This all works just fine (although I’m a little shocked to see Batman, who has a gadget for everything, sigh and trudge up the stairs of the bell tower in pursuit of the Joker — where’s his grapple-gun when he needs it?). It almost feels like maybe we didn’t need all that back-and-forth in Act II. It’s a pity that Vicki slides from Major Protagonist to Damsel in Distress, but then nobody showed up to see a movie called Vicki Vale. There’s a big climactic fight at the top of the bell tower (where the Joker’s goons come from is a mystery to me), The Joker does his best to try to kill Batman and Vicki, and Batman turns the tables on the Joker at the last moment, sending him plunging to his death.
All of which, as I’ve said, was absolutely mind-blowing in 1989. Since then, we’ve seen superheroes be given screenplays containing much more logic and narrative cohesion. Batman, like many of director Tim Burton’s movies, works best as a kind of “lives of the artists” drama — the Joker even calls himself an artist at one point. Burton is interested in the Outsider, the bent individual who cannot fit into society and is thus feared and reviled. The Joker, a homicidal maniac, is “created” by Batman, whom he sees as a symbol of “decent” society, and thus must pursue his revenge upon decency. What he doesn’t know (or maybe he does) is that Batman is also an outsider, “created” by Jack years ago when Jack killed his parents. At the apex of this triangle is Vicki, yet another artist (a photojournalist) who passes for straight in the public eye but who is secretly obsessed with darkness and, well, bats. Vicki has a mask of beauty, Batman has a rubber mask, Bruce Wayne has a mask of impersonality (there’s no indication that Bruce is “playing” at being preoccupied, he’s genuinely preoccupied). It’s fitting that, in this iteration of the Joker story, he’s the only character without a mask — he must put on a mask of makeup when he wants to appear slightly less freakish to the public. Burton seems to be saying that, without a mask, Bruce Wayne, or Vicki, or any of us, would devolve into the homicidal maniac that is the Joker.
Text © 2010 Todd Alcott. All rights reserved.