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In Gotham City, crime is growing out of control and the city’s new District Attorney, Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams) and Commissioner Gordon (Pat Hingle) pledge to increase police presence, especially as the city’s bicentennial approaches and plans for a citywide celebration are in the works. They announce they will target crime syndicates fronting as businesses and put an end to the corruption and violence plaguing the good people of the city. Meanwhile, rumors of a “Batman” taking down petty thieves on the rooftops have crooks on the lookout, which piques the curiosity of intrepid reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) and photojournalist Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger). As they take up the investigation, local crime boss Carl Grissom (Jack Palance) learns that his number two man Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson), is secretly having an affair with Grissom’s mistress. As payback, he secretly arranges to have Napier ambushed and killed in a chemical factory but when Batman shows up, Napier falls into a giant vat of chemical waste and is presumed dead. In actuality, he survives and emerges as a disfigured maniac with a permanent smile after a backstreet surgeon can’t repair the damage. The Joker is born and begins a reign of terror that starts with the murder of Grissom and escalates to chemical terrorism by lacing hygiene products with “Smilex” a deadly toxin that causes victims to literally laugh themselves to death. With the police helpless to stop him, it’s up to the mysterious Caped Crusader to try and hunt down a madman and keep him from killing innocent lives.
Directed by Tim Burton, Batman does what fans had long wanted, provide a more serious take on the famous comic book character without the campiness that came to define the superhero after the short-lived television series of the mid-1960s. Burton, hot off the success of his quirky fantasy film Beetlejuice, was given his first big budget to bring the Dark Knight to theaters. His first order of business, and one that caused a firestorm of anger from fans, was the casting of Michael Keaton to play the Batman/Bruce Wayne role, who to that point was best known for comedic films, such as Night Shift (1982), Mr. Mom (1983), and Johnny Dangerously (1984). He proved naysayers wrong with his brooding, darkly personal approach, something helped considerably by the magnificent Academy Award winning art design and Danny Elfman‘s rousing, moody score. Fans quickly changed their minds and Keaton came to embody the figure to the point where replacing him was, and has been, always a source of contention.
This film itself is a wonder to look at, with sets that are comic book-inspired but grimly realized. Gothic influences and a bit of steam punk, the city of Gotham is as much a character as any of the leads. Much like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, the environments in which these heroes and villains play is as well attended to as any of the actors, if not more. There is a marvelous attention to detail that fills every square inch of the film with a believable, admittedly silly, universe that is populated with purposefully designed grotesque structures and ugly architecture that are meant to feel like a hell on earth.
So powerful is the atmosphere though, that it often overshadows the plot, which is decidedly thin. While the film has many memorable moments between the show’s good and bad guys, the spectacle of it all far outweighs the intrigue or lack there of. The origin of The Joker is interesting but once in power, seems to lose all the menace he had beforehand when he was a thug. Portrayed by Nicholson with a zany madcap insanity, he, as an actor, brings credibility to the role though not the fearsome unpredictability that his comic book counterpart is famous for. That has a lot to do with him dancing to a Prince song while riding atop a parade float. Still, both Batman and The Joker do look great, if impractical, and they engage is some fun dialogue that is sharp. A solid supporting cast really helps as well, with both Alfred (Michael Gough) and Vicki Vale (Basinger) offering some touching moments. Never quite gritty enough for adults and not quite cartoonish enough for children, the film succeeds mostly from how it looks and sounds with a few shining moments between a mysterious costumed crime fighter and a demented cackling madman.
Scene Set-Up: There are two key moments leading up to an important revelation. The first comes when Vicki, having spent the night in Bruce Wayne’s bed, follows the wealthy but reclusive philanthropist into the city where he makes his was to a back ally Hotel entrance and lays two red roses on the concrete. What does it mean? Second, after Batman rescues Vickie from The Joker and brings her to his secret Batcave to show her the information he’s gathered on the deadly Smilex chemical, Bruce, the next day, goes to her apartment to confess his dual identities. It is there that The Joker returns, and holding Wayne at gunpoint, asks, “Have you ever danced with the devil by the pale moonlight?” It triggers something in Wayne. The Joker fires and then escapes.
The Scene (Timestamp 01:26:55): Bruce survives of course, having anticipated The Joker by armoring his chest with a pewter serving tray under his jacket before revealing himself to be in the apartment. Once back in the Batcave, he calls upon Alfred to retrieve the files concerning his parents, who were both murdered when he was a child. With the documents in hand, he sits at his large monitoring station and watches the array as the mayor begins a press conference postponing the bicentennial celebration. The Joker intervenes, cutting into the signal and broadcasting his own speech. He promises that the celebration will go on and in fact, will dump $20 million on the crowd at midnight. He also wants to face the Batman, and challenges him to come forth, mask off, mano y mano.
Wayne watches carefully and freeze frames The Jokers face, an insidious smile captured on screen. He opens the file on his parents and begins to read but is soon lost in an emerging memory, a vision of his last walk with his parents. We cut to a flashback and see a couple and their young son exit a theater and walk along a darkened sidewalk where two men begin to follow. Moments later, in front of a back alley Hotel entrance, the men attack and one of them shoots, killing the parents. He then levels his gun at the boy, asking, “You ever danced with the devil by the pale moonlight?” but doesn’t fire, only smiles as the other thief calls him “Jack” while they run off. The memory is sharp and it jolts Wayne upright. The Joker killed his parents. It was Jack all along.
The moment is pivotal in that it creates a history, a long dark line between the two that has connected them for years. The death of his parents, and his inability to stop it was haunted Bruce since the day it happened, altering the veery path he was on as a rich child. What’s more, it establishes a circle where Jack, as a thug, by murdering the boy’s parents, incidentally created the Batman, his own greatest nemesis. And Batman, by causing Napier to fall into the chemicals at the factory, incidentally created The Joker, his greatest nemesis. Wayne sees this now and understands that they must face each other. One exists because of the other and so too shall one find their end. This fight isn’t just for Gotham. Now it’s personal.