Nice Outfits & Wonderful Toys: The Immense Legacy Of Tim Burton’s Batman Films

Tony McMillen, from Tony and Daniel: Popping Culture, joined me for a conversation about our mutual love for Tim Burton’s Batman films, Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, and Michael Keaton’s DJ skills.

Daniel: I’m going to start this off with something that I’m missing: a depiction of what it was like to see Tim Burton’s Batman when it was released. I was about two months old at the time, but I know that you, being a little older and wiser, could possibly remember what it was like to see that movie in theaters.

Did you? And if so, how was it? What was the vibe of the audience? I don’t necessarily want your thoughts on the film yet, but what was it like to be alive during the summer of “Batmania?”

Tony: I was 9 years old that summer in ’89 and I remember seeing Batman in the theater and it fucking up my whole little boy world. Few singular things really change a person, that movie changed me. As dorky as that sounds, it’s true. I honestly don’t remember what the audience was like in that theater because I was young enough that when the lights went down, I was totally swallowed up into the dark of Burton’s weird pop goth world. In other words; I was transported. I think that movie was my actual introduction to Batman, I might have seen some of the images at newsstands from comic books but I had no idea what Batman was.

I have this very distinct memory of staring up at that impossibly long rolling shot that goes up past the skyscraper which in turn leads to that last hero shot of the movie and having a 2001: Space Odyssey near psychedelic experience. That’s because time has embellished my memory of the length of that shot so much that to me it was twice as long as the opening Star Destroyer shot in Star Wars. I also remember feeling dizzy in the theater when Batman and Vicki Vale fell from the top of the church tower for what seemed like an eternity, only to be saved by Batman’s ever trusty grappling hook (where does he get those wonderful toys?) That summer, Batman was inescapable.

My Aunt Sue bought me a copy of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (which a nine-year-old really, really shouldn’t read) and my mom got the local theater to give her a movie poster of Michael Keaton in full Bat-regalia. I loved that poster but was also terrified of it. Which accurately mirrors my feelings about Batman from the movie and Frank Miller comic. He seemed like he was basically evil but at the last minute decided to hurt only bad guys. Michael Keaton’s eyes just looked so sinister in that suit, from the poster, which now would hang on my wall, those eyes would follow me around the room. It made it hard for me to calm down and get to sleep. I thought the poster was alive, or haunted by Mr. Mom in bat-drag. I told my mom once that I didn’t want the poster to be up on the wall but as she started taking it down I shouted, “Wait no, don’t.” I had changed my mind. Yes, Batman scared the shit out of me, but I loved him. For me the Summer of Batmania has never ended, it’s an endless summer.

Michael Keaton in Batman

Daniel: I had that same Michael Keaton experience, but with Beetlejuice. There’s something intense about Keaton. He doesn’t need to glare or scowl, but he always has a look like in the back of his head, he’s imagining all the shit that’s about to go down, and most of that shit involves stuff that you couldn’t possibly predict. I dig that, especially in comparison to actors who are like “Intense? Better put on my grump face! Hurm!” We should form some kind of help group, where we offer aid to the people that Michael Keaton scarred in the late 80’s and early 90’s. We’ll call it “W.D.W.T.G.N.A.” (We Don’t Want To Get Nuts Anymore.)

I remember seeing snippets of Batman Returns from a VHS tape that my parents had, but I didn’t watch a full Batman movie until Batman Forever, which, in retrospect, is an upsetting and underwhelming introduction. But at the time, I was enamored. And I didn’t see Batman all the way through until I was in high school. But there was a Jack Nicholson Joker picture in a book that I owned as a little kid. It was a slim hardcover called “ADVENTURE FILMS” and it devoted two whole pages to the superhero genre, and only mentioned Superman and Batman. So I became acquainted with Jack Nicholson’s Joker at a really young age, and for some reason, it always felt like a movie that would be out of my reach. As if Batman was some lost independent film that the sands of time had washed away all traces of.

I saw Batman around 2005, and while I didn’t love it then as much as I have come to love it today, I was intrigued by it. What stuck out was the design of Gotham. Anton Furst and Tim Burton gave it this otherworldly atmosphere. It felt like an alternate reality version of White Heat. Do you dig that interpretation of Gotham?

Tony: Big time. Furst’s and Burton’s Gotham is my Gotham. Well, that Gotham along with the extra Dark Deco sheen that Bruce Timm from the Animated Series built on top of and perfected for it. That’s Gotham City to me. Furst is quoted saying that his inspiration for Gotham was “the worst aspects of New York,” and damn did it show. How could one alley in this sprawling NO-ZONE be designated “Crime Alley” when every single street could be dubbed “Illegal Shit BLVD.” And yeah, you mention White Heat and that’s a big part of this Gotham’s charm; it’s like the 30s and the 40s never stopped. And that’s not the same thing as a city that looks like it’s stuck in that time period; it’s more like what if that aesthetic just kept evolving over time. What if, instead of architecture in America going all Googie (think McDonald’s golden arches, fins on everything, basically buildings are built to resembles cars that are actually rocket ships that are actually atomic sex kittens), we had stayed with the elegance of the Deco look? What would a modern city like that look like? Also, its skyline looks like a gigantic graveyard and all the criminals and some of the cops who live there look like junkie vampire orphans. Then again, maybe that’s what would have happened to America if we didn’t start making our buildings less scary. I don’t know?

gotham

But the more phantastic look to Gotham is also what I think is missing from the Nolan Bat movies in a lot of departments. That style. That element of fantasy. Burton’s Batman took place in the real world, but it was also a highly stylized version of the real world. It was a little bit unreal. Which, ironically, helped lend authenticity to Batman himself. Because he didn’t look so out of place dropping down into a smoke-filled alley in this world. There are points in Nolan’s Batman where everything feels so ordinary that when Batman appears he seems ridiculous by contrast. Just like he would in the real world.

I will say that, having recently re-watched both films, my take is that I remember Batman being better than it actually was (I still like it, don’t worry) and Batman Returns is even better than I remembered it. Howzabout you?

Dan: I agree. Gotham, to me, feels like it’s in a modern world, but it’s a city that’s begun to rot. Like, it’s not a period piece, but all of its architecture is very indicative of a time long ago. It just got stuck there, and while Metropolis and other cities advanced, Gotham stayed the same, molding and rusting. It’s the kind of city that would produce “A giant bat, man! A giant bat!” Other cities would create a more solid police force, or a vigilante that wasn’t a manchild billionaire with a winged rodent obsession. Gotham is a sick city. And its hero reflects it.

And while I dig Burton’s Gotham more than Nolan’s, I think there are some parts of The Dark Knight trilogy where having a relatively ordinary looking city getting beset by freaks absolutely works. Like in The Dark Knight, where they encounter that burning fire truck in the road? Haunting stuff, dude. It gives you this great, ominous feeling of “This city is soooo not prepared for whatever’s about to come next.”

Batman has kind of stabilized for me. It’s not as high on the list of “Movies that I will watch forever until I die” as stuff like Robocop and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but it’s up there. Every time I watch it, I’m kind of surprised by how much I like it, which is the same amount of like for it that I had the last time I watched it. It surprises me with its consistency.

By the time I watch Batman Returns for the last time, that movie is going to be alongside The Seventh Seal or Vertigo. It totally gets better every time you watch it. It’s just such a fun, sad little movie about people struggling to connect with each other and form ugly, bizarre relationships, mixed in with Danny DeVito biting noses off. It’s the only Batman film where I enjoy every single character.

penguin

On that note, what’s your favorite character from Burton’s Batman films?

Tony: That there is a tough damn cookie. I kind of love Christopher Walken’s Max Shreck from Batman Returns. Basically just because he’s Christopher Walken hanging out in Gotham City with amazing white hair. I found out that Shreck’s role in the movie in an early draft was supposed to be Harvey Dent and that the explosion at the end of the movie with Catwoman was supposed to scar his face and lead him to become Two-Face for the third movie.

max

But actually, despite my aforementioned love for Walken’s weird business tycoon, I think the best character in Burton’s movies is actually Catwoman/Selina Kyle, as portrayed by Michelle Pfeiffer. There’s a lot going on there, lots of depths to the character, she’s funny, vicious, tragic, righteous, kinky, and even sort of supernatural at times. The scenes of her becoming Catwoman, waking up from the fall, her eyes rolling back in her head while the cats nip at her fingers (I know, it sounds ridiculous), but the way Pfeiffer plays it and the way Burton frames it, it’s actually a little otherworldly. It stays with you. This is my favorite version of the Catwoman character.  I think part of that is thanks to screenwriter Daniel Waters, the dude who wrote the teenage death comedy masterpiece Heathers. You put it perfectly earlier, “It’s just such a fun, sad little movie about people struggling to connect with each other and form ugly, bizarre relationships.” The same could be said of Heathers, so I think a lot of that in Batman Returns comes from Waters.

But who’s your favorite character in the Burtonverse? And who do you wish he would have tackled if they made that third movie?

Daniel: I also have to go with Catwoman. She’s such a great mix of power and femininity and flaws and wit. I really wish that we’d gotten that Catwoman spin off movie where she goes to a “Las Vegas of super villains.” That sounds nuts, and I’m getting sad just writing about it. But I like the fact that she’s kind of flaunting her sexuality around all of these sexually stunted or sexually perverted guys. The Penguin probably wants to show her his “French flipper trick” and is gross, awful and obsessive because he thinks he can handle her, Batman is entirely unsure of what to make of her or how to react every time she hints that he’s cute, and Max Shreck is this megalomaniac that acts tough until she’s got him backed up against a corner and is making out with him while jamming a taser into his face. She’s awesome.

catwoman

Batman is actually a close second, though. Dude actually looks like he’s spent years with “I’m Batman. I’m Batman. I’m Batman” lording over his every thought. He’s not an especially great fighter, but when he smiles at the giant clown as he attaches a bomb to him, man, you can really tell that’s he’s getting a kick out of all of this. It’s a release for him. The whole “avenging his parents” thing is akin to Walter White saying that he cooked meth just to provide for his family.

“I liked it.”

When Wayne dropped Joker off a ledge with a gargoyle attached to Joker’s foot, he avenged his parents. Their death will always haunt him, but if he was just doing it to get even, he would’ve stopped at the end of Batman.

I would’ve loved to have seen a Billy Dee Williams Two Face. God, Billy Dee has so much swagger and class. The fact that we’ll never see him hold a gun to Michael Keaton’s Batman and say, in that Colt 45 infused harmony that is his voice, “Heads, you win. Tails, you die, Batman” makes me almost as sad as the Catwoman thing.

Now, before we go on to more Batman specific stuff, how do you feel about Tim Burton’s career in relation to his Batman work? I think that both of his Batman films are definitely in the top 5-

“Tell us the top 5, Daniel!” – Someone.

Well, okay!

  1. Batman Returns
  2. Edward Scissorhands
  3. Beetlejuice
  4. Batman
  5. Ed Wood

What about you?

Tony: I think people don’t give him enough credit for imbuing the Bat mythos with his distinct style and sense of theatrics. A lot of people who straight up love Batman The Animated Series say they don’t have any affinity for Burton’s Bat. Yes, he killed people, yes, there’s no Joe Chill. Yes, he made Bruce Wayne scratch that damn CD like a DJ in Batman Returns in what is almost as embarrassing as a white parent character rapping in a Disney show; all of that is true, but dammit, did he nail a tone that screamed Batman. And he provided the template, along with the old Fleischer Superman cartoons for what became the Batman Animated Series. I think the Batman movies Burton made are great but they also fucked up his career. They sent him on a path where he could only make bigger and bigger franchise type movies (the exception being Ed Wood, which is great.) I think in an alternative universe there’s a Burton who never made Batman and either went on making really idiosyncratic, original,  mid-level pictures like Beetlejuice, and maybe, just maybe, still made Mars Attacks but avoided the CGI that tanked that otherwise super fun movie).

Anyways, since you mentioned lists, let’s list:

Top 5 Burton Joints, ho.

1.Edward Scissorhands

  1. Beetlejuice

3.Batman Returns

  1. Pee Wee’s Big Adventure
  2. Batman/Ed Wood

Daniel: Maybe it’s because I’m a Michael Keaton Apologist, but if I was his Bruce Wayne, I’d totally be scratching CDs. That dude has to be picked up by Alfred and fed by Alfred and even shown how to properly interact with girls by Alfred. The whole time he was sitting there, he was probably thinking “Man, how cool would it be to scratch these CDs and just DROP THIS BEAT.” He has the mentality of a twelve-year-old. Of course he’s going to choose the most embarrassing option possible.

bat scratch

Do you think there’s anything missing from the Burton Batman films? I’m doing another one of these about some of the Spider-Man movies, and I remarked that a great thing about Tim Burton’s Batman universe and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man universe is that they both feel full. They feel like worlds that you get to experience, rather than some narrative that’s taking place in some half formed representation of a major city. For all of their faults, they’re unique places, and because of that, you never have to question the reality of them, because there’s no outstanding disruption of their internal logic. How do you feel about that? Are there any pieces missing from Burton’s Batman films that you feel is super integral?

Tony: That explanation for the Bat Scratch actually makes complete sense. A mentally twelve-year-old Bruce Wayne is basically the only option to explain how the hell a grown man continues to be Batman after the initial impetus at age nine fades. I don’t care how angry you are, maybe you’ll go around killing crooks but dressing up like a creature of the night to do so usually loses its appeal after age thirteen and ambition nullifying hormones set it.

My first thought for something essential that’s missing in these movies is Gordon. Burton really did a disservice to the Gordon character and his relationship with Batman. That’s one area in which Nolan handily snatches away the Bat-crown off of Burton’s disheveled Goth-lite locks. I also wish there was some more connective tissue through the two films. I didn’t necessarily want Vicki Vale returning or anything but it would have been cool to hear mention of the Joker’s motorcade or something in Returns. And of course, the big missed opportunity was not having Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent come back and become Lando Two-Face. Twice as crazy, twice as smooth.

Have you seen Birdman? I was floored by how good Michael Keaton was in that film. That might be my favorite performance of his. And without the Burton Bat stuff Keaton would never have been part of this film. So it got me thinking, would it be cool or a huge mistake to have Keaton and Burton re-team for a live action The Dark Knight Returns? Would it work? Should they sever it from the Burton Bat continuity so they have the Joker reappear? Finally have Nick Cage as Supes in it?  Actually, this might be a tremendously bad idea. But then again… I dunno? What do you think?

Daniel: Man, I would love a Keaton/Burton Dark Knight Returns, but they’d have to do it in the next few years. As much as I love the idea, I know that I’d hate it if the guy playing Batman had knees that barely worked, or was just too old to be believable. And I know that an old Michael Keaton Bruce Wayne coming back to fight crime is pretty unbelievable in itself, but I at least need to feel like Batman could punch a guy and the guy wouldn’t immediately stand back up and say “Okay. Let’s beat this old man to death now.”

I totally think it could work without the Joker. Hell, I think it could work without Superman. I honestly don’t know what my requirements for a Tim Burton-helmed Dark Knight Returns would be, but I can only imagine what the natural progression of Gothic Gotham would be after Batman Returns. The transition from Batman to Batman Returns was massive. Batman Returns (Returns) would just be Nightmare Before Christmas with a Batmobile.

I have seen Birdman, and though I’m not crazy about it, I also thought that Michael Keaton did a wonderful job in it.

What’s your favorite moment from the series? Mine is when unmasked Batman hears Penguin about to pull a trick umbrella on him, and the camera zooms in on Batman turning around. I’m convinced that the Penguin wasn’t killed from his fall, but Keaton’s glance alone caused his heart to stop.

Tony: Absolutely correct. Frank Reynolds Cobblepot saw that shit and was like, “No, I’m out, no, for real, I’m fucking dead. Michael Keaton, your eyebrows are like scary McDonald’s arches, they’re the scary fucking arches, … welp, nice fucking model, honk, honk…dead.”

That look is EVERYTHING.

EVERYTHING.

keaton

With the music swelling behind him, Keaton is fiercer than fucking Sasha.

So, outside of that exemplary display of eyebrow game and Keatonesque fierceness, I’ll go with the “I’m Batman” scene from the beginning of Batman. It just sets up everything in that world you need to know; who the Batman is, how he operates, how he turns meth-mouthed hooligans into slack-jawed pants-shitters nearly instantly and finally, how he uses fear as his greatest weapon. And that voice, that voice is everything you want from a Batman. Sorry, Conroy.

What moment is your least favorite from the series? (Beyond the aforementioned Bat-Scratch, which you’ve sorta redeemed for me.)

Daniel: I think Alfred inviting Vicki Vale into the Bat Cave might as well have just been replaced by a producer walking on screen and shrugging. It’s nonsense.

You?

Tony: I was never that miffed at the Vale thing, as it was dumb but forgivably dumb in context. What I never cared for was Joker being a sexual predator toward Vale. Not just because it’s creepy but because to me, the Joker is best when he’s asexual. Like, not only would he not stoop to something as pedestrian evil as rape or sexual assault, but he’s not even really interested in consensual sex either. He’s beyond that. He’s basically a supernatural manifestation of evil and I don’t want to see said manifestation getting all date rapey and creepball towards anyone. Joker is in love with Batman, no one else, and it’s far past anything sexual. Even with Harley Quinn, I don’t even think they have intercourse. It’s all fucked up mind games and physical torture. Like Candy Crush Saga. So that part of Nicholson’s deal always irked me.

Daniel: Yeah, it is a little weird. On one hand, I kind of feel like he just wants to do to Vicki what he did his moll Alicia and make her into an artistic “masterpiece.” Like, when Joker asks Vicki in the museum “Have a whiff of my posey,” and then sprays the acid at her? I never realized it before, but that’s probably the same thing he asked Alicia, only Alicia didn’t manage to duck out of the way. Damn.

But on the other hand, there are moments where you can tell that someone in power read a draft of the script and was like “They’re not going to understand that he’s a bad guy unless he hits on her. He’s got to be IN LOVE with her, for some reason. Trust me, audiences will dig it. WHERE IS MY FUCKING LATTE?”

joker

To wrap this thing up, do you have any closing remarks that sum up your feelings on these two wondrous movies? For me, they’re almost like good Elseworlds comic stories. “What if BATMAN was directed by TIM BURTON?” It’s a concept that seems almost inconceivable today, considering Burton’s current reputation and the direction that they’re taking Batman in, but I’m so glad that they exist. You?

Tony: I like this idea of Joker just wanting to remake Vicki into another piece of art. That works with his whole “world’s first, fully functionalhomicidal artist” modus operandi.

My final thoughts on Burton’s Bat is that even if I remove the fact that they birthed the modern superhero movie, the ripples of which are still being felt today, even without that and my heavy weight of nostalgia, they’re two really well-made movies. And I think a big reason why they still work is because they’re Tim Burton movies and not just Batman movies. A lot of the Marvel movies which I have enjoyed seem pretty forgettable and part of that is because they’re bland. There isn’t a lot of flavor. Or maybe they just all have the same flavor? Burton’s Bat was just that, Burton’s.

bat symbol

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2 responses to “Nice Outfits & Wonderful Toys: The Immense Legacy Of Tim Burton’s Batman Films

  1. Pingback: Watch Michael Keaton Rip McDonald’s From People’s Hands | Daniel is funny·

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