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Burton. Keaton. Nicholson. 1989. Be there. – Batman: The Official Comic Adaptation of the Warner Bros. Motion Picture

March 26, 2015

Batman movie comic

As mentioned recently in our post on the 2002 Spider-Man cards, it was great seeing J.K. Simmons get an Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards. He indeed deserved it for his performance in Whiplash, one of those supporting roles that totally makes the movie that it’s in. But he was no revelation, as he’s been doing solid work for years, everything from psychopaths to comedic foils, from Oz to State Farm commercials. And, of course, J. Jonah Jameson. It’s for that last role that we comic book devotees owe him a special debt of gratitude. It’s rare that a beloved (or hated-beloved) character is recreated so fully in flesh and blood.

Michael Keaton, star of Birdman, was also up for a lead actor award, but alas he didn’t take it home. There were surely many of us out there rooting for him, though, mainly because of his decades ago turn in the role upon which that film was a meta commentary. Today we look back in time at 1989’s runaway blockbuster: Tim Burton’s Batman — and its comic book adaptation.

Every time there’s a casting choice for a revered character that leads to head-scratching, we all harken back to Keaton-as-Caped-Crusader. Lest we forget, there were eyebrows raised when Mr. Mom was announced as the grim avenger of the night (though any consternation in that sepia-toned epoch paled in comparison to the blogosphere firestorms of today). He wasn’t that tall, he wasn’t that big, and he wasn’t all that suave. But Keaton could do the one thing that was most vital: he could believably convey the constrained craziness that would compel a fabulously wealthy man to dress as a winged mammal and wreak terrifying vengeance on Gotham’s criminals. He worked. It worked. (I’ve always felt that one of the great what ifs came and went when Keaton and Christopher Reeve were roughly contemporaneous in their screen portrayals of the World’s Finest duo, and there was no cinematic team-up. How wonderful would that have been?)

And of course there was Jack Nicholson. Heath Ledger’s take on the Clown Prince of Crime has become the 21st century standard for the Joker, but we shouldn’t let that distract from Jack’s contributions in white face paint and green hair. That one of the bigger movie stars ever took the role and made it his own, that he swung for the fences and indeed knocked it out, was and is an enduring delight. This iteration of the purple-suited one wasn’t the murky-origined mastermind that we got twenty years later in The Dark Knight, but he was nevertheless an embodiment, a different facet of a gem. Nicholson’s Joker was funny, nailing all the comedy beats, and was evil without the overblown sadism of the new millennium.

And then there was Burton’s guiding hand. I’m not entirely certain that a perfect Gotham has ever been committed to screen, whether big or small. Perhaps its idealization only exists in our respective imaginations. But Burton’s vision of that city and its denizens was a worthy interpretation, hyper-gothic and filled with buildings that looked to have been built before the Great Depression, just the type of place that would be rife with corruption and ripe for an animal-themed vigilante. And with Burton you never got the impression, like with the Nolan Batmans, that the production thought it was a whole lot smarter than it was. It was straight-forward action, without dopey, obvious philosophizing more appropriate for hazy dorm room debates.

These and other factors must have gelled, because Batman was a roaring hit, one that reeled (no pun) in viewers throughout the summer of ’89. (Seeing it on the big screen its opening weekend was my first experience with a big-crowd blockbuster. Like every other theater in the country, the roof almost blew off the joint when the Batwing was silhouetted by the full moon.) The merchandizing was everywhere: I can still recall the boxes of trading cards on the counters in every gas station and convenience store I walked into. (Yes, someday we’ll get to them in a Trading Card Set of the Week.) The sequels were still running on this smash’s fumes 10 years later, when the unimaginably awful Clooney-Schwarzenegger-infused Batman & Robin drove the final nails into the franchise coffin.

Anyway, the movie was great, people knew it was great, and kids couldn’t get enough of everything that had anything to do with it. Including comics.

There was of course de rigueur comic book adaptation, a bit of marketing that’s often cheap and slapdash. The particular scenario in this instance is also weirdly fraught with peril, i.e. when beloved iconography is at the heart, like it would be adapting the movie versions of the Lord of the Rings back into book form: comic to movie back to comic. Yet here at least the movie involved was of quality and a hit, so the pitfalls of a bomb were avoided — see the Superman III and IV comics for exemplars of comics for comic-movies that make your head hurt. DC veterans Dennis (Denny to his friends) O’Neil, Jerry Ordway and Steve Oliff put it together, ensuring that the transition of movie-Batman to a comic would be a smooth one.

Still, there were odd discordances between the screen and page. Take the following spread, which depicts Batman’s first appearance. What’s one of the big take-away pieces of dialogue from the movie? “Who are you?” “I’m Batman.” Right? Here it changes, and one isn’t sure why — maybe the lines were streamlined during shooting?:

Batman movie first appearance

The likenesses are excellent, which isn’t always the case in these things. While you could never replicate Jack Palance’s breathy “You’re. My number one. Guy.” cadences, you can at least have a character that looks like him. And, of course, the sinister eyebrows of the Nicholson-Joker:

Batman movie Joker first appearance

As if the excising of “I’m Batman” wasn’t enough, the Joker also loses one of his most callously evil — and funny — moments: his “Bob — gun” firing of Bob the Goon after Batman steals his parade balloons:

Batman movie Joker shoots Bob

Towards the end the comic also offers up one of the sequences deleted from the finished product. Audiences would have been forgiven for wondering what Batman’s exit strategy was after his final confrontation with the Joker, when he was left dangling from the side of a skyscraper with Vicki Vale in his arms and roughly 100 police spotlights trained on them. The solution in the comic, which was filmed but cut, was to have Batman and Vicky crash through a window and for Robert Wuhl’s snoopy reporter, Alexander Knox, to help out by masquerading as a fallen Caped Crusader:

Batman movie Knox deleted scene

Despite the disparities, the comic is a nice little artifact of the Bat-Mania of a quarter of a century ago. It has a prestige feel to it (there was also a square-bound copy with a painted cover — for more money, natch) befitting the gilded material, with work from the comic side that at least feels like some effort was put in. Let’s not get crazy — this is still just a dumb movie adaptation. It’s like having your friend describe a movie to you  instead of you seeing it. But O’Neill and Ordway managed to make it something you don’t roll your eyes at.

In March of next year we’ll have our fifth Batman in 27 years, which sure sounds like a lot of cape and cowl fittings. (Or maybe it doesn’t. What do I know.) The casting of Ben Affleck set off a firestorm of consternation, much like Keaton’s so many years ago. If there’s any lesson to be learned here, it’s a simple one: wait for the finished product. You might be pleasantly surprised. And you might have a juggernaut on your hands. Stay tuned for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice: The Official Comic Adaptation of the Warner Bros. Motion Picture, I guess.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. March 27, 2015 3:48 am

    Reblogged this on blacklightmafia.

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