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EMPIRE ESSAY: Batman Review

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After a young boy witnesses his parents' murder on the streets of Gotham City, he grows up to become the Batman - a mysterious figure in the eyes of Gotham's citizens - who takes crime-fighting into his own hands. He first emerges out of the shadows when the Joker appears - a horribly disfigured individual who is out for revenge on his former employer and generally likes to have a good time - but the identity of the `bat' is unknown. Perhaps millionaire Bruce Wayne and photographer Vicki Vale ha

★★★★

The Batman, night-time identity of orphaned billionaire Bruce Wayne, made his debut in Detective Comics in 1939, the creation of artist Bob Kane and often-unrecognised writer Bill Finger. Along with Superman and Wonder Woman, he is at the heart of DC's superhero empire, not to mention the Justice League Of America, and appears in more comics now than he ever did before. There were a couple of baggy-tights Batman and Robin serials in the 1940s, with sped-up scraps sending slouch-hatted stuntmen flying, but for decades the Dark Knight was literally in the shadow of the Man of Steel, never quite becoming the American icon that the red-caped Superman was.

When that finally happened, the craze for Batmania almost killed off the character — Batman really took off because of the camp 1960s TV show with square-jawed-but-podgy Adam West in the cowl and a succession of flamboyant guest star baddies. DC abandoned the "holy radioactive shark!" business soon after the show's three-year run, and spent 20 years trying to take the Bat seriously again, with a great, gothic 70s run from artist Neal Adams and some inspired writing in the 1980s from artist-scripter Frank Miller Jr. (whose Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One completely rebuilt the character and Gotham City) and Alan Moore (whose major contribution, Batman: The Killing Joke, did the same for Bruce's arch-nemesis the Joker, and incidentally put Batgirl in a wheelchair for life).

Ever since the big-screen success of the Superman movies from 1978, a big-budget Batman was in development. When Tim Burton was first approached, his reaction was "I used to love that show", doubtless remembering longtime idol Vincent Price's role as Egghead, but a look at how far the comics had come since helicopter umbrellas and "same bat-time, same bat-channel" persuaded him to take a darker, more Miller-influenced approach. Comics fans were at first appalled at the casting of Michael Keaton, then best-known as a comedian, as Batman, reasoning that his wobbly jaw would look silly under the mask and dreading the return of Adam West's Bat-buffoon. And you didn't even have to be a comics fan to think the idea of sticking in a soundtrack album's worth of songs from Prince was a desperate idea — in the event, Burton did his best to bury them in the aural background and rely on a suitably shivery, dark-heroic score from Danny Elfman.

What Burton and scripter Sam Hamm did was start all over again, with a fantastical Gotham City of art-deco skyscrapers, an abandoned cathedral (think about it), cavernous mansions and caves, and crime-blighted alleyways. Even the regular citizens wear modified 1940s clothes, and everyone else is ready for a dangerous costume party. In the comics, Bruce Wayne's parents were gunned down by a petty hood named Joe Chill, but the script opts for plot symmetry by making the murderer who sets Bruce on the path to become a masked vigilante the young Jack Napier. Batman later semi-accidentally knocks him into a vat of chemicals that bleach his skin, turn his hair green and fix a facial bullet wound into an eternal grin.

Thus, Michael Keaton's Batman and Jack Nicholson's Joker have created each other, and the film follows their nightmare pas de deux as they struggle over various prizes, from newsgirl Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) to the admiration of the whole city (the Joker gives away free money). The top-billed Nicholson is perilously close to Cesar Romero or Frank Gorshin in the 60s, but retains a monstrous/pathetic core that would be the mainstay of Burton's Bats. This would be even more impressive in Batman Returns, with Danny DeVito as the Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman — and be junked entirely by the Bat's real archenemy, the Schumacher, in Batman Forever and Batman And Robin — essentially homoerotic reruns of the Adam West show.

Oddly, the aspect Burton is least comfortable with is the action. Much of it was staged by second-unit man Peter MacDonald (Rambo III), and includes the expected aerial acrobatics, Bat-gadgets and punch-ups (without those ZAP! and KA-BOOMM! signs). But what Burton does best is to brood on fractured identities — his Bruce Wayne is as much Citizen Kane or Jay Gatsby, a host unnoticed at his own party (when Vicki asks him if he knows who Bruce Wayne is, he honestly responds, "I really don't"), and his Joker is the fiend that was always inside Jack Nicholson, exploding as the, "First fully-functional homicidal artist" (he kills his best friend).

A huge hit, the movie spun off Batman: The Animated Series and a cartoon feature Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm, which have done some extraordinary things with the characters. And Burton went darker still with Batman Returns, a family event movie that opens with Pee-Wee Herman celebrating Christmas by letting his deformed baby float away into a sewer.

Burton's Batman was dark, immensely stylish and a was a huge hit. In contrast, Schumacher's first Batman opens with a tie-in plug for McDonald's. Splat!