A Filmmaker's Guide: Tim Burton's 'Batman' (1989)
Establishing the Comic-Book Atmosphere
(Note: In order to get the most out of the article, it is recommended that you watch the film in question at least once all the way through. Notes are not required but are encouraged on the topic above).
The beginning of one of the longest reigning comic-book movies of all time, Batman is an icon of the comic book movie and this one here is pretty unmatched if only by Nolan's The Dark Knight. Personally, I find this film more true to comic-book nature than Nolan's trilogy and so, it is ever so slightly better than The Dark Knight (2008), but still has the gripping quality that a psychodrama requires and that Nolan, in 2005-2012, would replicate in his own movie.
In this article we're going to look at exactly how the comic-book atmosphere is established. We're going to look at:
- Colour Scheme
So, let's get stuck into this article and hopefully, even though it is one of my favourite movies of all time, I won't go on forever.
Section 1: Dystopia
There is no doubt about the fact that Gotham City is a dystopia 1984-esque society rife with crime and unhappiness. Gang violence is at an all-time high and bank robbery is a casual Monday. But, what is it that makes it so appealing to watch? Every single director that has tackled this city has made it as dark and dingy as physically possible. But how does Batman (1989) first establish that dystopian society?
Let's take a look at a shot:
Okay, let's just forget that Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson are in the middle of this shot for a second and look at the background surrounding them. What is created here? First of all we have a medium shot, so we get to see an ample amount of background and fogginess. Second of all, we have the fact that it is set at night and so, we get a natural sense of darkness. Third, we have these big brick walls, behind the characters. This makes the scene acquire some sort of shape, we know how deep the scenery is now (in order of how far back it goes). And finally, we have this greyish, stone-like flooring which, only if we have a medium shot, we can see.
Apply the same logic to analysing this shot and see what you get:
Section 2: Colour Scheme
The colour scheme of certain shots in this film are very important. As we know when we read the Batman Comic Books, there are some strange and extreme colour schemes used throughout and so, in order to create a successfully understood Batman based movie, we have to replicate that. Compared to Marvel Characters, Batman is quite a dark character and therefore, the comic is fairly dark as well. But we get these odd extreme moments and that is key to creating a movie that has some interest as well as making a great comic book adaptation.
Let's take a look at the shot:
Okay, so let's take a look at the space around the parade float for the moment. We still have this dark, dystopian atmosphere that is so common of Gotham City that we went through in the previous section. What we have now is the parade float lighting up the scene and lightening up the scene. The Joker obviously stands out against the dreary background through his eccentric colour choices. But the whole point of this scene is to show his efforts through a bigger attempt at expressing himself upon Gotham City. It's a very Joker-esque moment that is replicated by the van scene in Nolan's The Dark Knight (2008) and by the stairs-dancing scene in Todd Phillips' Joker (2019). Both Ledger and Phoenix express this act of making their efforts upon Gotham City known, maybe through different things but following the same basic concept.
Apply the same concept to this shot:
Section 3: Characterisation
Character is very important in a comic book adaptation because it is a character that is based on a very beloved character from source material that people still read. It isn't like Pride and Prejudice where they keep adapting it and whether you read it or not, the adaptation is still going to be exactly the same. There is no other way to tell that story. But, when it comes to comic books, because of the amount of comic books that there are for one hero, there is a ton of source material to work with. What we want to concentrate on is how do we 'see' the character. How does this create some meaning in the film?
Let's take a look a some shots:
Jack Nicholson's portrayal of the Joker has been revered by critics and audiences alike with both Ledger and Phoenix near on copying the performances with Phoenix's dancing and Ledger's psychodrama. What we can agree on though, is that the characterisation of the 1989 Joker was quite possibly the best of the three. Here in this shot we see the characterisation where the Joker asks Batman to hit him with the aircraft (something that would be repeated by Ledger's own 'hit me' scene). What we see is the opposition which is very important. The one side is Batman and the other side is the Joker, and they are placed directly opposite each other not only to show hero and villain, but to establish that yes, this is the final showdown between the two. This marker begins that descent and has been repeated in a lot of comic book movies since. It is stylised by cuts from one to the other and back again, characterisation and the way in which the characters seem to join each other in this fight is the central aspect of the scene.
Now, analyse this scene using the same, or similar technique. How is characterisation established here and how does Nicholson make sure that the main point of the character is known from the first entrance to the end of the scene?
Section 4: Conclusion
Batman (1989) has some sort of hold on the movie history market and is quite possibly one of the greatest films ever made. I wanted to make this article to show you that it is possible to analyse a comic book movie without getting into social commentary. It's a brilliant film and I highly recommend you watch it over and over again, try and find your own meanings and come to your own conclusions as well as this.
Good luck on your next project.