Watch: What Tim Burton Owes to German Expressionist Films

Watch: What Tim Burton Owes to German Expressionist Films

It could easily be said that the best things about Tim Burton’s work come from German Expressionist film: the attentiveness to detail in design, the darkness, the vast, complex sets, the theatricality and over-blown nature of films such as ‘Edward Scissorhands,’ ‘Batman,’ and ‘Sweeney Todd.’ This new video piece by Cinema Sem Lei makes the connection between Burton’s work and such great films as ‘Nosferatu’ or ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ crystal clear. This isn’t to suggest, of course, that Burton doesn’t inject and imbue his films with his own distinctive style. Far from it, in fact! But we are reminded, when watching this video, that the influence of older German filmmakers flows through Burton, empowering him.

Speak, BATMAN: Tim Burton’s Version, 25 Years Later

Speak, BATMAN: Tim Burton’s Version, 25 Years Later

null
In the summer of 1989, I had just completed my first year at
Columbia University, fresh out of the family car from Dallas, Texas. While some might say the winters
in New York have gotten milder, the summers have not changed: it was miserably
hot. I was living in a dorm room in Wien Hall, a block of Soviet-style student
quarters in a tall red brick tower whose most exotic characteristics were its
co-ed bathrooms and the private sink in each room. My diet was terrible: pancakes, hamburgers, coffee, soda, bagels, beer.
I was not in a good place. The academic year had left me spent. I hadn’t slept much,
with all the work, but my grades had nevertheless been poor. Most of my
acquaintances (I had few friends) had left for the summer. The campus was
thoroughly empty. At sunset, the expansive steps of Low Library, full during
the school year, could boast just a few random, out-of-shape young souls
hunched over unusually large slices of pizza (my other choice for dinner). The
view north on Amsterdam Avenue, which seemed like a glittering slope of traffic
lights and taillights leading down into unknown territory from September to May,
now seemed like a shimmering tunnel into a bottomless oven. Dangerous. Out of bounds.
Chaos. I was touchy, every second: the smallest thing could send me into a funk
for days. Love, or anything remotely like it, was very, very far off. My Friday
nights often began and ended with a trip to the Metropolitan Museum, open until
9. That was my life. The city itself wasn’t much better off than I was. The crime
rate, which had been escalating for the past few decades, was at an unusually
high point. That spring, the Central Park Jogger incident had occurred, with
all that event entailed, damage lasting for many years afterwards. The crack
business was thriving: the corner of 94th and West End was known as
“Crack Central.” The homeless population on the Upper West Side was large and
often aggressive. In this climate, along with a bunch of other seemingly harmless
summer movies, Tim Burton’s Batman
opened in 1989, on June 23.

I wasn’t necessarily initially drawn to see the film. As a
high school student, I had watched mainly foreign films—Bergman, Fellini,
Truffaut—or older classics—The Wild One,
Streetcar, Psycho
. In fact, I’d studiously stayed away from anything
that didn’t have a fair amount of cultural intellectual endorsement. Due to the
nurturing influence of a number of friends in high school, I’d cautiously added
certain American directors, most notably Martin Scorsese (whose frequent
lunches in the Columbia student center were a high point of the academic year)
and Woody Allen (ah, the pleasure of seeing Radio
Days
or Hannah and Her Sisters at
the time of their release!). Something, though, got me to the theater, to see
Burton’s film: perhaps it was my love of Beetlejuice,
perhaps it was the concept of casting someone as schlubby as Michael Keaton as
a superhero; maybe it was the heat. But there I was. And, at the time, I
probably found the film quite entertaining, and funny: Michael Keaton was still
a relatively new talent to me. Jack Nicholson retained some of the mystery he
held for me after having starred in The Shining, Prizzi’s Honor, and Terms of
Endearment,
all within one career. And Kim Basinger, was, for most 19-year-old
heterosexual males, still carrying the line of credit for titillation she’d earned in 9½ Weeks, however witheringly wrong-headed
that film might seem at this point. Watching Batman today is a bit like watching the 1970s Star Wars today: the good parts stand out, the bad parts seem
worse. Jack Nicholson’s Joker is a remarkable figure, the work of an actor
pulling out all the stops, enjoying himself, and possibly scaring himself in
the process. Michael Keaton’s self-consciousness is still amusing, his mouthed
“I’m Batman” still an indication that this is, above and beyond its
summer-comic-book-thriller-blockbuster aspirations, a movie about repressions,
and psychological damage. The rest is a bit of a wash: Kim Basinger’s quite
stiff as photographer Vicki Vale, Robert Wuhl is stumble-footed as reporter Alexander
Knox; the other supporting actors deliver their lines with the awkwardness of Law & Order extras. The onrush of
Danny Elfman’s soundtrack sounds dated, as well, almost like soundtracks from
before the first Batman movie, of the
1960s.

A couple of things about the film, though, do endure. One
is, of course, its design. Burton’s Gotham/New York, as Anton Furst created it,
is a dangerous, gritty place, and at the time, it matched New York all too
well. Although, as with all of Burton’s films, you can practically see the
brushstrokes in his urban tableaux, you can still sense a seething energy in
the frame, as the old (the dilapidated look of the buildings, the pedestrians
in fedoras) brushes up against the new (the shiny look of the taxicabs). In
1989, Times Square was still a dangerous, seedy, unpredictable place; the risk
of being mugged there, if you were alone, was considerable. I remember being
palpably nervous when going there in broad daylight to get a fake ID (so I
could see a show at the long-departed King Tut’s Wah-Wah Hut), so nervous, in
fact, that I gave my dormitory address as my home address for my “Official
Identification Card.” Avenue A, bordering Tompkins Square, was not for lone
travelers after dark, and really not much fun during the daytime either.
Williamsburg was barely a place, it was so dangerous. When I looked at the blue-black
hues of Burton’s Gotham, I saw a reflection of the city I both worshipped and,
from a Texan’s perspective, feared.
 

In addition, its Black-White-and-Gray Morality Play lasts. I
identified with this aspect of it partially because of my own mental state at
the time. I was blasted out from a year’s worth of reading everything from
classics to Lolita to Mayakovsky to Marquez to Hobbes to Hume, lonely, freaked
out, psychologically tired from combating the regular pressure New York puts on a novice. The world began to seem like one of extremes to me:
either a day was good, or it was terrible. Either I was sated, or I was
starving. Either I was wide awake, or I was collapsing. Similarly, the movie’s
polarities are dramatic: Rich vs. Poor. Innocent vs. Corrupt. Happy vs. Unhappy.
Past vs. Present. (In other words, it’s a movie based on a comic book.) The
movie isn’t necessarily simple-minded—these qualities dance around each other,
and occasionally disguise themselves, in the film, but the manipulation we
witness is writ large. There’s nothing complex about the way the complexity is expressed.
Bruce Wayne is Batman, but he is tormented about it—and then, on the other
hand, he isn’t. All of these sides of his character are openly stated.
Similarly, the Joker’s complicated stance—a crook out-crooked by his more crooked
boss, with a tremendous sense of humor (remember his sparing of the Francis
Bacon grotesques in the museum? Or “I’m no Picasso”? Or “This town needs an
enema”?)—makes him both malevolent and sympathetic, as with all the great
villains of literature and film. His complexities, as with Batman’s, were
broadcast on such a large scale that you would have had to have been asleep or deeply stupid not to have noticed them. So, my younger self, nursing the
dogmatically snotty should-I-be-here feeling only a 19-year-old can pull off,
sat in the theater, surprised at the degree to which I could relate to the film, and to its warped figures.

Things would improve: for Batman retellings, for Gotham, and
for me. It would be hard to deny, in all honesty, that Christopher Nolan’s
Batman films, based as they are on a more nuanced telling of the superhero’s
story, are more subtle, more multi-layered, more deftly filmed, more atmospheric,
and possibly more profound than Burton’s version, or any of its sad successors;
Batman Returns could boast the gifts
of Michelle Pfeiffer and Danny DeVito, but the series did not progress well
after that point (enough said). New York City looked up after 1989 as well; while David
Dinkins’ mayoralty of New York was problematic on many levels, the crime rate
was reduced, and with each successive leader, the metropolis has continued to change. Today, Times Square is a clean, well-maintained tourist
depository; Avenue A is prime real estate territory and a dining destination;
and many parts of Williamsburg resemble a suburb populated by Ivy-League
educated hipsters who like drinking beer out of the can. And me? Well, my days
became more well-rounded, the summers shorter; my sociability intensified; my
mind grew; my urban environment became, rather than a vast zoo in which I was
wandering without defenses, a complex place with which I would develop a relationship,
much like an interpersonal relationship—and a place in which I would build a
life. Nevertheless, I remember Burton’s film as a document of the summer of
1989, of a particularly odd patch in my own life, and as a film with a
tremendous amount of, for lack of a better word, soul, with all of that word’s
glories and imperfections.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

TEN BAT-TAKES: THE TEN BEST INTERPRETATIONS OF BATMAN

TEN BAT-TAKES: THE TEN BEST INTERPRETATIONS OF BATMAN

“That’s what’s fun about doing this kind of work. All [sic] of it is organic. One idea suggests another, and it does grow.” –Denny O’Neil, Amazing Heroes #50

The concept of maintaining continuity in the representation of a character as simultaneously malleable and iconic as Batman seems like a lost cause, but it’s a noble one. No matter how much Bruce Wayne and his alter-ego have changed over the decades, the character’s various incarnations are all related, in a sense. So there’s no point in complaining that Neal Adams’s “photo-realistic” style, to borrow Bat-guru and writer Grant Morrison’s description, has been aped by a neophyte penciler. In that sense, Batman is a great symbol of modern pastiche. His best creators routinely borrow elements from the stories that have preceded them to create something new, or startling, or both. The evolution of Batman as a character is thus dependent on creative incorporation, repetition and re-invention: it only looks improvised if you don’t know your history.

This list of the best interpretations of Batman is intended to reflect that key aspect of the character. I have my personal preferences, just as anyone else does. If a major name or artistic creator is not on this list, their contributions are most likely discussed within the body of the text. So never fear, there’s a good reason why Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns are not prominently displayed on this list. I’ve also agonized over which stories to highlight for certain creators as sometimes it’s impossible to choose a story representative of a writer or artist’s talents at their peak. In these cases, I have chosen stories or collections which best show what makes that creator unique.

In making this list, I’ve found that that the aspects of the character I prefer are the kind that skew more closely to what Morrison identifies in Supergods, a history of comics, as the more surreal, gothic aspects of the character: “convention has it that Batman’s adventures work best when rooted in a basically realistic world of gritty crime violence […] but from the very start of his career, he was drawn into episodes of the supernatural, uncanny and inexplicable.” This aspect reflects what I like about Batman: the sheer weirdness of seeing a noble hero like Batman protect a city as crime-ridden and routinely besieged by pathological freaks and super-powered monsters. Also, did I mention that the said noble hero is a guy who dresses up as a bat to avenge the death of his parents? Modulation of tone and style is key here because, well, these are stories about a rich guy who fights crime because of a vow he made as a child to spend his adult life avenging his dead parents. If you exaggerate one aspect of the character, you can easily lose sight of that character’s greatest attributes.

Many of the comics I’ve chosen try to make use of established notions of who we think Batman is in order to get a better understanding of what he says to us. I hope you enjoy reading this list as much as I enjoyed making it.

null10) “Going Sane,” written by J.M. DeMatteis and Drawn by Joe Staton and Steve Mitchell

J.M. DeMatteis’s superhero comics are atypical in that they question the validity of solving conflicts through violence. In his most famous Spider-Man story, “Kraven’s Last Hunt,” DeMatteis forces Peter Parker through a draining gauntlet that makes him empathize and even go mad from burrowing so deep into the heads of two super-villains, Vermin and Kraven. “Going Sane” achieves a similar affect but through different means. In it, both Batman and the Joker believe that they’ve defeated each other. DeMatteis’s comic thus assumes that, as is shown in the 1989 Batman movie, the Joker was the man whp killed Bruce Wayne’s parents when he was a boy.

So, thinking that the personified reason for why they respectively fight and commit crime is gone, the Joker and Batman try to lead “normal” lives. Joker settles down, gets a day job, finds a girlfriend and Batman recuperates from his fight with the Joker upstate with the help of a nurse he falls in love with. Both men try to forget their pasts but suffer from recurring nightmares. Because they can’t forget what they mean to each other, they eventually wind up sparring again.

The sincere belief in reform driving DeMatteis’s exploration of this fundamentally goofy “What if” scenario is what makes it such a winner. It’s uniquely surreal to see someone like the Joker, a man we can’t help but consider a freak because of his white face and green hair, trying to lead a normal domestic life. But “Going Sane” is that much more effective for trying to introduce that level of normalcy into these characters’ lives: what if archetypal arch-enemies designed to hate each other tried to change their established personalities completely and forget that they existed?

Along the same lines, novelist Joe R. Lansdale wrote the teleplay for an episode of Batman: The Animated Series called “Perchance to Dream.” In that episode, the Mad Hatter brainwashes Batman into thinking that he’s living a normal life in which he never became Batman and his parents never died. Lansdale and the episode’s two story-writers, Laren Bright and Michael Reaves, come to the same conclusion that DeMatteis does: despite everything, Wayne would find a way to remember his obligation and would not rest until he could. His obsession is just that all-consuming and character-defining (more on this later).

Another thoughtful story that similarly makes light of Batman’s perhaps-myopic need to fight crime first and protect the citizens of Gotham City second is “The Night of Thanks but No Thanks” (Detective Comics #567), a story written by Harlan Ellison in which Batman constantly misreads situations and tries to give help where it’s neither needed nor wanted. In one scene, an old, handicapped woman beats up a mugger by herself, while in another, a car-jacker turns out to have locked his car keys inside his vehicle. As Batman jokes to Alfred at the end of the story, this is “the worst night of [Batman’s] life.”

null9) Batman as drawn by Gene Colan: “Nightmare in Crimson”

Many pencillers have put a definitive stamp on Batman, the prime example being Neal Adams. Morrison aptly describes Adams’s well-known Batman as “grown-up and contemporary:” “Adams combined slick Madison Avenue photorealism with the power of Jack Kirby in a way that made comic-book characters more naturalistic than before.” This added “naturalism,” which emphasizes dramatic poses and the athletic physique of the character, is what makes Adams probably the most influential artist to draw Batman. But Gene Colan, working with inker Klaus Janson, took the foundation of naturalism that Adams established in key stories like “The Demon Lives Again” (Batman #244), and made Batman look more like a character with one foot in a Gothic horror story and another in a modern-day superhero story.

After hyper-popular comics like Tomb of Dracula helped re-establish the prominence of horror in superhero comics, Gene Colan and writer Gerry Conway re-made Batman as a monster-fighting detective. Colan’s version of the Dark Knight certainly looked like Adams’s iteration of the character, complete with pointier ears and a gymnast’s physique. But Conway, Colan and Janson’s take on the character depended far more on the creatures inhabiting the inky shadows and psychedelic zip-a-tone fog of Gotham City at night. Batman not only fought monsters like the Mole and the Man-Bat, the latter of which was an Adams creation—he also became a vampire himself in stories like “Nightmare in Crimson,” featured in Batman #350 (August 1982).

The blurring of the line between Batman and the monsters he fought to keep Gotham safe is weirdly fitting. Since the character’s inception, Wayne’s always affected the look of a monster in order to frighten the criminal element, which co-creator Bob Kane called a “superstitious, cowardly lot.” Or as Morrison puts it in his description of an early Batman story where he fights the Mad Monk, “It was Batman as Dracula, the vampire as hero, preying on the even more unwholesome creatures of the night.” Conway and Colan’s Batman was still a detective and a physical, martial artist-trained crime-fighter. But while their Bruce Wayne had a well-adjusted aspect of melodrama to his life—more believable love interests, the return of now grown-up ward Dick Grayson—their Batman was now more than ever a creature of the night.

Writers and artists have taken many cues from Conway and Colan’s version of the characters. Writer Doug Moench and penciller Kelley Jones would later write a trilogy of stories set in an alternate reality, in which Batman becomes a vampire, stories that were unquestionably influenced by Conway and Colan’s own Bat-vamp stories (Moench began writing Detective Comics soon after Gerry Conway and even collaborated regularly with Colan). Furthermore, writer/penciller/painter Matt Wagner’s revisionist take on the old Mad Monk story, fittingly titled Batman and the Mad Monk, would almost certainly not exist were it not for Colan’s stylishly moody emphasis on monster-men.

null8) Batman in the Justice League International, written by J.M. DeMatteis and Keith Giffen, drawn by Kevin Maguire

It seems illogical to put Batman, a character who preys on the fear of criminals and is universally understood to be a loner, in a team setting. And yet, opposites frequently attract in Batman stories. Take the World’s Finest title that paired Batman together with Superman. In Amazing Heroes #50, quintessential Bat-writer Denny O’Neil described the pairing shrewdly but imperfectly by saying that Batman is the logical left brain to Superman’s can-do right brain (the right brain typically being defined as the center for creativity). Then again, Batman also has a history of teaming-up with just about every superhero in his The Brave and the Bold title; the series featured many incongruous pairings with the likes of WW2 hero Sgt. Rock, super-sleuth Elastic Man and even the Frankensteinian Brother Power the Geek.

So when J.M. DeMatteis and Keith Giffen had Batman lead the newly reformed Justice League in 1987, Batman was already traditionally a team-player. The writing duo’s (now famous) irreverent take on DC’s biggest superhero team franchise made good use of Batman: he was both the voice of experience and pathological reason for the group and the hall monitor for the team’s mix of unruly newbies and aimless veterans. So on the one hand, Batman lead the group in order to keep loose cannons like Guy Gardner, a raging narcissist, and Green Lantern, too, in line, but also to make sure the team functioned as a group until they could find a good leader.

Still, DeMatteis and Giffen were both clever enough to know that Batman is a counter-intuitive choice to lead such a high-profile team. He routinely barks at Guy, and the first time he makes a joke, the Blue Beetle is so shocked that he has to ask his fellow team-mates if they heard it, too. Batman is the group’s stop-gap solution, a character who takes the role as leader until he can appoint someone who’s not only more comfortable in a position of power but also a good fit for this particular team to lead. Martian Manhunter soon took Batman’s place as the group’s leader but for a little while, Batman remained with the group, helping them as best as such an authoritative outlier could. This would not however be the first or last time Batman would lead a team: Mike Barr, the writer who conducted the aforementioned interview with O’Neil in Amazing Heroes #50, gave the Caped Crusader his own team to lead in Batman and the Outsiders.

null7) Tim Burton and Batman Returns

One of the most refreshing things about the two Batman movies that Tim Burton directed is the fact that he was not, before helming either film, a fan of the character or of comics in general. That lack of familiarity gave Burton the confidence he needed to futz around with the character and remake him using Burton’s idiosyncratically macabre sense of humor. Though Burton would become frustrated with mandates imposed on him by studio execs during the making of Batman Returns—he has said many times that he was unhappy with being forced to make the characters more accessory-friendly and thus more marketable for kids’ Happy Meal toys—his second attempt is much more tonally consistent and uniformly brazen in its take on the character.

Which is somewhat ironic, considering that Batman (Michael Keaton) is barely present in Batman Returns. Though he has some compelling scenes where he confronts both the Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), he’s only vestigially important to the film’s plot. This is mostly because Batman is, both thematically and narratively, caught in between these two characters, one an outsider who has fooled himself into thinking he wants to be an insider (Penguin runs for Mayor of Gotham City but winds up trying to blow the city up) and the other disgusted with anything vaguely associated with the city’s patriarchial hierarchy.

When the film was initially released, many critics complained about Batman’s reduced status. But that’s part of what makes Batman Returns so exciting: it’s every bit the movie its (then) outré filmmaker wanted to make. It also doesn’t hold uninitiated viewers’ hands too much. Batman Returns is a film whose interests and sense of humor are hyper-specific to its creators: who else would have DeVito bite a man’s nose until he bleeds or have Catwoman grope Batman’s crotch while purring about how his penis is what really defines him? It’s too bad that Burton didn’t get to make a third Bat-film. It seems like both Burton and the Warner Brothers execs were sick of each other by the time it came to realize Burton’s tentatively planned third film. With Batman Returns, it looked like he had really hit his stride and was onto something.

null6) Batman: Year One, written by Frank Miller and Drawn by Dave Mazzuchelli

Batman: Year One’s biggest triumph is establishing the importance of Commissioner James Gordon, then only a Lieutenant—this development is part of what made it a milestone comic book, and one of the major influences on Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. In Miller and Mazzuchelli’s comic, Gordon, a tough, aspiring cop who refuses to be bribed by Gotham City’s corrupt politicians or their hirelings, helps to establish a much-missed human element in Batman’s story. Gordon’s obsession with protecting his pregnant wife Barbara and raising his unborn child in a crime-infested city makes him the personification of what Bruce Wayne returned to Gotham City to. He’s the core of humanity amidst so much squalor, characterized in Year One by pimps, mobsters, bent elected officials and crooked cops. 

Miller and Mazzuchelli’s greatest innovation was establishing Gotham City as being more than just a dense labyrinth for Batman to run around in. That approach would rub off on creators like John Ostrander and Mary Mitchell in Gotham Nights or Paul Dini and Dustin Nguyen in Streets of Gotham, two short-lived titles focusing on the various different people living in Gotham, from rival superheroes to citizen shop-keepers. And it’s telling that “Gotham Noir,” the only time to date that writer/artist duo Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have put their film-noir-influenced spin on Batman and his world, centers on Commissioner Gordon. Also, Gotham Central, one of the best Batman-related comics in recent memory, follows the misadventures of a group of cops that just happen to work in the same city as the shadowy Batman.

null5) Grant Morrison and The Return of Bruce Wayne

I’ve singled out The Return of Bruce Wayne as Morrison’s best story so far because it’s simultaneously his most ambitious and accomplished work. In the six-issue mini-series, Morrison has Bruce Wayne re-incarnated six times before he returns to his life in the present-day. Stories like the one where Batman, as a pirate or a witch-hunting pilgrim or even a caveman, retains his moral compass and learns more about himself in the process are inspiring for their simultaneously bugfuck crazy and gratifyingly character-driven spirit. Oh, and did I mention that Batman’s friends are trying to find a way to stop him from being reborn in the present, as he’s been implanted with a futuristic bomb that will blow up when he is reborn one more time? Return really does have something for everyone: romance, time travel and Batman dressed as a Blackbeard-style pirate, complete with fire in his beard.

No comics writer has approached the character of Batman with as much ambition as Grant Morrison. Morrison’s often-psychedelic takes on the character prove just how deeply invested in the character and the world he is: he views Batman as a heroic archetype unto himself. No matter the form, Morrison’s comics insist that Batman will always be a heroic presence. In “Batman R.I.P.,” Morrison creates a villainous group that nearly destroys Batman, causing him to revert to a back-up personality that he created years ago just in case his psyche was ever destroyed by a villain (in these cases, Batman becomes “the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh,” a purple, yellow and red-costumed hero that Morrison repurposed from Silver Age comics where Batman inexplicably visits the alien planet of Zur-En-Arrh). In Batman and Robin, Morrison and penciller Frank Quitely did a nightmarish riff on the Adam West-era Batman stories but, as filtered through, as Morrison put it, a David Lynch-style sensibility. And in Batman Inc., Batman unites with the various different countries’ answers to Batman, including England’s Knight, and Argentina’s El Gaucho.

null4) Bruce Timm’s Batman: Batman: The Animated Series and Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

People often take for granted just how much Bruce Timm, along with his stable of voice actors and writers, did to modernize the character of Batman, as we know him today.Both the multiple Emmy-Award-winning Batman: The Animated Series and its one theatrical incarnation, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, achieved a tonal balance with the character that no live-action film has ever been able to beat. With show-writers like Alan Burnett and Paul Dini and voice talent like Kevin Conroy (Batman) and Mark Hammill (the Joker), animator and director Bruce Timm found a great middle ground in appeasing both child and adult audiences looking for a good Bat-story. The stories were consistently well-told, juggling Bruce Wayne and Batman’s various and sometimes contradictory character traits. He’s a womanizer, a detective, an athlete, a symbol, and yes, a cartoon character that does things no human man could ever do. Mask of the Phantasm, a film Timm co-directed and co-scripted, is probably the best Batman film to date: its narrative juggles two villains and features a strong love interest for Bruce without ever seeming over-burdened.

Batman creators owe an untold debt to Timm and company for modernizing the Batman and making him both more believable and kid-friendly. He turned a goofy villains like Mr. Freeze into a credible, sympathetic character by giving him a backstory (Freeze now commits crimes to find a cure for his wife, who suffers from a mysterious illness) and modernizing the character’s look. In that way, he also helped to expand the cast of characters that Batman fans would associate with the character to the point where they could not only easily identify a vast “rogues gallery” unique to Batman, but also a regular roster of sidekicks and allies, including two different incarnations of Robin. If any one creator can be credited with helping to build the foundation that has made Batman the most popular superhero film franchise to date, it’s Bruce Timm.

null3) Denny O’Neil and “Venom”

Comics writer Denny O’Neil is probably the most influential writer to ever take on the character. Stories like the now-canonical re-imagining of Batman’s origin story, “There is No Hope in Crime Alley,” and the formally innovative prose story “Death Strikes at Midnight and Three” set the pace for what scads of writers and artists felt they could do with the character. O’Neil’s take was grounded in Wayne’s obsessive nature. Romance, like the one Wayne briefly shares with Talia Al Ghul, was marginal in O’Neil’s Bat-stories because of the character was so mission-oriented. His most formative Bat-stories were written, as O’Neil described them in Amazing Heroes #50, as “pure comic books:” “It never occurred to me to plot social issues into these stories.”

At the same time, O’Neil’s take on Batman was semi-realistic, making his teaming with penciller Neal Adams a good fit. O’Neil treated the character as a real, psychologically understandable character, someone whose actions and world could make sense within a quasi-realistic context. His villains were not as flamboyant as the ones featured in the campy Adam West TV show from the ‘60s, a conscious decision that O’Neil has since expressed regret about (“I think it was also, however, a mistake on my part not to put more colorful, flamboyant villains in more of the stories.”). This is striking since Christopher Nolan similarly was hired to take on the Bat-film franchise because his take stridently opposed everything the two West-era-inspired Joel Schumacher-directed films offered viewers.

 “Venom,” a relatively recent Batman story by O’Neil, is a very good example of what O’Neil could do with the character. In it, O’Neil takes the social-issues-centric, anti-drugs stance that he famously pursued in his Green Lantern/Green Arrow team-up comics and applies them to a rather moving Batman story. After he’s incapable of lifting a piece of debris trapping a small child, Batman resorts to experimental steroids to help make him as physically capable as he is mentally adept. The way O’Neill merges his psychologically rich understanding of the character, as shown in Wayne’s daily setting of the grandfather clock leading to the Bat-Cave to the time of his parents’ death, is remarkable. And more importantly, the plot, which takes Batman to the fictional South American island of Santa Prisca (the island where, in the comics, The Dark Knight Rises’ villain Bane originated), is a good mix of detective story and action-adventure.

null2) The Killing Joke

With The Killing Joke, British New Wave writer Alan Moore and 2000 A.D. artist Brian Bolland put a definitive spin on the Joker as Batman’s mirror image in a story that’s still considered one of Moore’s best stories. Like “Going Sane,” Moore and Bolland’s story starts from the premise that Joker and the Batman can’t stop the cycle of violence that keeps them at each others’ throats. But unlike that later story, The Killing Joke really drives home the psychological violence that drove the Joker to drop out from society and turn to crime. “One bad day,” as the Joker puts it, is all it took to push an otherwise sane man over the edge, turning him into a monster.

Normally, the idea of giving a villain like the Joker a specific origin (in this case, the Joker is a failed comedian who gets involved with gangsters in order to help buy a better life for his pregnant wife) seems tacky. But that’s the crux of what makes Moore and Bolland’s Joker so sympathetic: his madness is a product of his refusal or perhaps inability to stomach the random injustices of life, the kind that made his life determined by a series of circumstances that were well beyond his control. What makes The Killing Joke a great Batman story is its taking advantage of the notion that Batman’s villains are just reflections of his personality, versions of what might have been, had Bruce Wayne’s life been determined by completely different forces.

null1) Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers’ Batman

No one take on the Batman character and his development as a modern hero is as influential as Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers’ eight-issue run. The pair left their indelible mark on the character in mystery-oriented stories like “The Laughing Fish,” a story that was the loose basis for Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie, and with villains like Hugo Strange, a psychologist who became obsessed with revealing Batman’s identity after trying to recreate the conditions that made Bruce Wayne Batman. With Silver St. Cloud, Englehart and Rogers were the first team to give Batman a memorable independent love interest. And the pair’s treatment of the Joker is equally crucial to the character’s development as a lethal psychopath and the most dangerous of Batman’s villains.

Though O’Neil readily admitted that there are similiarites between Englehart’s and his own vision of the character, he also correctly identified what separated his Batman from Englehart’s: Wayne was a more emotionally well-balanced character under Englehart and Rogers’s stewardship. He was more understandable, too, perhaps because he had functional social relationships and could still be defined by his extra-curricular obsessions as a super-rich, tights-clad vigilante. Here was a recognizably human Batman, one that should be looked on as the Platonic ideal whenever superhero skeptics wonder how a superhero comic can be simultaneously pulpy, thoughtful and character-driven.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

VIDEO ESSAY: CRUEL SUMMER: BATMAN (1989)

VIDEO ESSAY: CRUEL SUMMER: BATMAN (1989)

The "Cruel Summer" series of articles examines influential movies from the summers of the 1980s. The previous entries in the series have covered THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980), STRIPES (1981), ROCKY III (1982), WARGAMES (1983), PURPLE RAIN (1984), PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE (1985), TOP GUN (1986), ROBOCOP (1987), and DIE HARD (1988).

Tim Burton’s Batman was a game-changer for summer blockbusters. It closed out a decade marked by light and sunny escapist entertainment by applying a more serious, atmospheric attitude, both dark and thrilling. It also ushered in a new level of hype that became an integral part of the movie-going experience. And it pointed the way for comic-book movies to become the dominant vehicle for summer entertainment.

Before Batman, Hollywood had created comic-book movies as silly, second-tier product. With the exception of the first Superman movie, comic-book movies lacked high production values and fidelity to their source material.

Things began to change when comic-book artists like Frank Miller and Alan Moore offered their takes on the superhero genre. Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns brought a new level of psychological depth and graphic sophistication to comics.

Meanwhile, Hollywood was searching for the new Steven Spielberg or George Lucas, another prodigy with a childlike sense of wonder to dazzle audiences. Enter Tim Burton, who scored two hits, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, before turning 30. The surprise success of these dark, anarchic films marked Burton as having the ability to be edgy and still appeal to mass audiences. The execs at Warner Brothers could sense that audiences’ tastes were changing and a risk-taker like Burton might be necessary for Batman.

Batman arrived at the end of a decade where greed ran rampant, recession was imminent and people sensed things were getting worse, not better. Burton’s vision of Batman matched his audience’s feelings of restlessness and unease.

Every aspect of the movie was infused with Burton’s desire to present the world of Batman as a reflection of modern dystopia. Anton Furst’s groundbreaking production design took elements of Metropolis, Blade Runner and Depression-era Art Deco Manhattan, heaping layers of urban squalor upon itself.

But if there’s one image that defines the bold new vision of Burton’s Batman, it’s the Batsuit. Designer Bob Ringwood totally rejected the gray and blue image from the camp TV series. Ringwood’s design is a suit that contains drama in itself, something powerful but unwieldy, something closer to Robocop than Adam West. The Batsuit is a vision of man made superior by advanced technology, but also encased and imprisoned by it. It’s a 21st-century suit of armor for a Dark Knight, and it is still the template for how we see Batman today.

At the same time, the new Batman’s rigidness made him a foil for the film’s true protagonist. The Joker, with his anarchic wit and irreverent gags, is the heir to Beetlejuice. the charismatic anti-hero and master of ceremonies of Burton’s funhouse. At the same time, he was the comic alibi that could make Burton’s seriousness acceptable, breathing life and energy into his arty aspirations.

The Joker may have overwhelmed Batman in this film, but looking at the superhero movies that followed, we see the real winner, in a legacy of dark, disturbed protagonists whose vulnerabilities reflect the anxieties of our era. At the same time, Batman’s demons yielded a new dimension of interior drama and fragility that feels real—something that modern-day superheroes with their unlimited CGI powers can’t compensate for.

With its groundbreaking character types and radical visuals, Batman provided a new template for blockbuster storytelling, one that could even overcome its greatest weakness: its script. The plot of Batman may dip into incoherence, revolving around the Joker’s wanting to become some kind of homicidal artist by poisoning the citizens of Gotham until they die with a smile on their face.

Then again, the plot holes didn’t seem to matter to audiences. What mattered was the vision, the mood, the experience of a live-action comic-book movie that treated its source material seriously. Burton’s Batman provided the signal for a new comic-book movie whose ambitions often surpassed its abilities to deliver. These films are often incoherent or overloaded, but at their best, they come through with unforgettable images and moments. The Joker’s master plan has come to fruition. For better or worse, we exit the theater with a smile on our face.

San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host ofBack at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.

VIDEO ESSAY: Depp Shadows: Tim Burton’s Cinema

VIDEO ESSAY: Depp Shadows: Tim Burton’s Cinema

“Basically Johnny Depp is playing Tim Burton in all his movies.” – Scott Rudin (Producer of Sleepy Hollow)

This ubiquitous quote by Rudin is often the throwaway summation found in most writings on, and dissections of, the cinematic works of Tim Burton with Johnny Depp. Which is a shame, really. The quote is not only too broad—it’s blazingly deceptive. Unlike other repeated director-actor pairings (from Martin Scorsese-Robert De Niro to Pedro Almodovar-Penelope Cruz), each succeeding film in the Burton-Depp canon actually becomes less about “digging” into an unknown abyss (e.g. as Scorsese faced male insecurity in Raging Bull and Almodovar celebrated female power over male dominance in Volver) than about the overall art direction of each film. Even though Burton’s prolific filmography boasts its share of critically (Big Fish) and financial successful (Planet of the Apes) non-Depp-starring movies, it’s worth studying the pattern behind those eight Burton-Depp projects. All together, those eight films have broken numerous box office records and have catapulted Burton into a tier of top-dollar directors. Currently, Burton is one of the few directors who could harness a towering financial investment from a studio in order to bring to any stylized, eye-pleasing idea he has to life.  In fact, if one were to examine the Burton-Depp filmography from top to bottom, it’s quite easy to see the shift from the personal to the pizzazz-filled.

Burton’s first two films with Depp are still his strongest and best works because each film subtly emoted shades of its creator: the shy, social outcast in Edward Scissorhands and the ambitious young filmmaker in Ed Wood. Even with impressive set pieces and dazzling costume design, both films were dominated by Johnny Depp’s carefully nuanced performances. It was the perfect marriage between Burton’s striking, visual storytelling and Depp’s risk-taking performance-art-style acting. Even though most films employ such marriages of talents, Scissorhands and Wood are unique in that they operate on two levels: the surface level looks and sounds like big budget Hollywood but (after repeated viewings) the pulse and internal workings of those films speak to more personal truths (i.e. the anxieties of the outcast), largely because Depp and Burton channeled one another’s sensibilities toward the material, thus giving those films a palpable vitality.

But then something happened. On their third collaboration, Sleepy Hollow, signs of a new Burton cinema began to emerge. This new Tim Burton cinema canon was more concerned with pushing the boundaries of its production design. In Sleepy Hollow, Depp’s (oft-underappreciated) turn as a morbidly grossed-out Ichabod Crane takes a backseat to the moody set pieces and strong work by the FX team. Gone were the quirky tableside manners of Scissorhands or cross-dressing revelations of Wood; in their place were the technically accomplished renderings of ghouls and the gothic. And Burton’s next two live-action films, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Sweeney Todd (both remakes), pushed the eye-candy envelope even further. Chocolate Factory basically forced Depp to become a peripheral player in the Burton blueprint of euphoric, candy-centric visualizations. Although Depp scored a Best Actor nomination for Sweeney Todd, his performance—which largely depended on Depp’s ability to always look sullen—is hardly a return to his intimate, versatile turns in Burton’s earlier works. Todd was based on a revered musical, and Depp rose to the occasion with singing chops; Burton turned in some strong visionary work once again (the bloody and bestial barbershop is a beaut), winning Burton the Best Director prize from the National Board of Review. So there’s that.

The real abomination came after the pair’s animated stint in Corpse Bride (which rehashed the stop-motion gothic fare of the Burton-produced Nightmare Before Christmas) and ironically enough became their biggest commercial success: Alice In Wonderland. A mammoth at the box office but overall critical dud, what Wonderland proved was that the new Burton-Depp formula had reached an apex. Early Burton films like Scissorhands had embedded themselves in pop culture to the point where audiences were simply content with knowing that Johnny Depp would be playing an unusual Burton-esque character in an unusual Burton-esque universe (a world somewhere between a Halloween-themed prom and alternate dimension “Saturn” from Beetlejuice). And it’s not that Burton doesn’t know how to make a surefire blockbuster that is also his own singular work of art (see Batman). In the end, the massively financially successful groove that Burton and Depp are in is probably the natural progression that some artists can make after churning out those intimate stories about dying (Beetlejuice), isolation (Edward Scissorhands) and finding your bicycle (Pee-wee’s Big Adventure). So if the latest Burton-Depp vehicle, Dark Shadows, is not a return to earlier form for the pair, at least it will deliver unmatched art direction and unrivaled commercial success. And if that’s the case, maybe Depp really is playing Burton in all of his movies; only now Burton isn’t the isolated, hungry filmmaker he once was.

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW which boasts the tagline: "Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System."

VIDEO ESSAY: BLACK SUNDAY: Three Reasons for Criterion Consideration

VIDEO ESSAY: Burton versus Bava

Just as people ultimately judge a book by its cover, many of us are quick to judge a film by its trailer.  When I was asked to set my sights on Tim Burton's upcoming Dark Shadows, a movie based on the cult TV show of the late 1960s, as my next entry point for Criterion Consideration, I immediately knew where my judgment would most likely fall. I might find it hard to veil my contempt for Burton's recent work. His early films had a profound impact on my childhood and may very well be responsible for who I am today, but as I became an adult Burton began rewriting the rest of my childhood in ways that make me confused and horrified. Remaking the classic films from my youth, Burton has me questioning my admiration. Also, with the upcoming release of his animated Frankenweenie, Burton has begun remaking himself. We could list his later films and describe how the themes and storylines are still consistent with his earlier work, so maybe I just grew out of him. Now, every time I see one of his films, I end up screaming at the screen, vowing never to see the next Tim Burton film. Still, I cannot deny that his films are intriguing, innovative, and entertaining, if not infuriating. In his collaborations with Johnny Depp, Burton has given us classics likeEdward Scissorhands and Ed Wood, capturing some of the finest performances from Depp in eight films thus far, but I wish that Johnny would begin to show more discretion. Shilling for Burton in promotional videos, Johnny admits to instigating him to collaborate on "a vampire film," citing the classics of German Expressionism, Universal Horror films from the 1930s, and the Hammer Studio films as an influence for this new adaptation. Thankfully all those classics of cinema are thrown into the meaningless mess of Dark Shadows. Sporting the worst make-up job since Alice in Wonderland, Depp's Barnabas Collins struts in front of the living legends of horror cinema, including a direct (slap in the) face-to-face cameo with Jonathan Frid (who played the original character on the TV show). Even before I saw the trailer for Dark Shadows, I knew there would most likely be a nod to Mario Bava's first film, Black Sunday (or The Mask of Satan from its original title La maschera del demonio). Burton has been vocal about Bava's influence, and over a decade ago there were rumors that he would remake Black Sunday. That never exactly came to be, but Burton did evoke a lot from the film for his adaptation of Sleepy Hollow, which unmistakably borrows Bava's visual style. 

One of the most important directors in the horror genre, Mario Bava began his career as a cinematographer for Roberto Rossellini during the Italian Neo-Realist movement.  He first learned the tools of the trade from his father Eugenio Bava, who was an expert on special effects and also a cameraman.  Mario then was contracted by Galatea Studios, where his skills as a photographer, as well as his ability to work quickly and efficiently, would bring many of the studio’s films to life with stunning chiaroscuro. His films always show a deep understanding of the history of the horror genre, with its strange settings and eerie environments, and a weird and wonderful worldview that would become Bava's trademark style. That style would later influence many notable directors, such as Ridley Scott (Alien), Joe Dante (The Howling), and Burton himself, in Sleepy Hollow. In the late 50s, Bava would have to complete principle photography for Riccardo Freda, who abandoned his directorial duties on I Vampiri (Lust of the Vampire) because of the tight shooting schedule. Bava would do the same thing again with Freda's Caltiki, The Immortal Monster in 1959. To show his gratitude, Galatea's producer, Lionello Santi, allowed Bava to choose his (official) directorial debut, which was the adaptation of Nikolai Gogol's short story The Vij. While evoking the traditional story of witchcraft and vampirism at the heart of Gogol’s tale, Bava simultaneously paid his respect to the classic Universal Studios' horror films and the (then) contemporary Hammer Horror films with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.   Black Sunday relies heavily on the pantheon of 1930's horror, while including the eroticism and gimmicky gore of the new horror wave, creating one of the most beautiful and disturbing horror films of all time.

The film begins with a prologue, describing the superstitious tradition that one day in every century, Satan is allowed to walk the Earth, and his evil disciples can haunt and torment their descendants.  We are introduced to Princess Asa (Barbara Steele, a dead-ringer for Tim Burton's old muse, Lisa Marie) and her lover Javutich (Arturo Dominici) while they are standing trial by the Inquisition for acts of Satan worship and witchcraft.  Asa is branded with the mark of a witch, before having the iron mask of Satan nailed to her face.  Such a gruesome beginning was a standard shock tactic of the time, to keep audiences hooked from the start, but this particular opening was considered so shocking that the British Film Board banned the film for seven years after its release.  Before Princess Asa is put to rest, she vows to return from beyond the grave to seek revenge on her family for condemning her to the Inquisition.  Two centuries later, doctors Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and Gorobek (John Richardson) are traveling to Moscow when their carriage conveniently breaks down next to Asa's tomb.  After a slight scuffle with an enormous (and barely visible) bat, Dr. Kruvajan accidentally breaks open her coffin, allowing Princess Asa to return from the grave to torment and acquire the body from her living-image descendant Katia Vajda (also played by Steele).  Her father, Prince Vajda (Ivo Garrani), is the only member who still believes the family's sordid history, and he becomes instantly aware that Asa has returned when he sees the ghostly vision of her mask in his evening cup of tea.  Once Asa summons Javutich from his grave, she hypnotizes Kruvajan to help her exact revenge and take over Katia's body.

nullFilming in gorgeous black and white, Mario Bava was both the cinematographer and the director for Black Sunday, which has proven to be more than just a meaningless homage to the Universal visual standard.  In the decades before Bava’s film, horror had become the subject of parody and pastiche.  Classic monster figures suddenly had brides, reverted back to teenagers, and had mutated into radioactive amalgamations, thanks to a wave of low-budget science-y gimmicks. Bava's chiaroscuro masterpiece harkened back to a simpler time, when horror relied on tense atmospheric emotions, technical skills and claustrophobic mise-en-scene and blocking.  Bava was able to accomplish this entirely on the Galatea backlot, utilizing the masters’ techniques with a distinctively innovative approach.  Keeping his camera on a dolly at all times, the film moves with restless fluidity, creating an ambience unmatched in its time.  When Kruvajan first arrives at Vajda Castle, the camera tracks through endless corridors and secret-passageways before leading him to Asa's tomb.  It's sometimes hard to believe that Bava was able to create such a genuinely creepy atmosphere entirely on set, but his technical background elevated all the tired horror tropes to engaging new levels.  Bava also found an excellent leading lady in Barbara Steele, who would later become the scream queen of Italian horror because of Black Sunday.  Notoriously difficult to work with, Steele created problems for Bava in every regard.  Costumes had to be changed or altered, false vampire teeth had to be remolded (then only to be removed from the film completely), and once Steele refused to come on set because she was convinced the Italians had developed a camera that could shoot through clothing.  But even she remembered fondly Bava's ability as a director and as a cameraman.  Somewhat shy about her status as a horror icon, she attributes her standing to Bava and what he was able to accomplish with Black Sunday.

Bava's magnificently malicious worldview still stands the test of time and hasn't aged a day in light of recent splatter-filled gore-fests currently pass as cinema.  Perhaps it is because Bava's films helped usher in subsequent movements in the horror genre that Black Sunday remains untarnished and undated.  His later film Black Sabbath (with horror legend Boris Karloff) is credited with starting the Italian giallo films and the American slasher movement.  With so many directors indebted to Bava's films, it’s no surprise that a director like Tim Burton would return to Bava again and again for inspiration.  Whether Burton will decide to remake Black Sunday remains to be seen, but if that should ever happen it will only allow the next generation of filmmakers to fully embrace Mario Bava's original film.  Naturally, I would never want Burton to actually reboot Bava's film, since he would most likely set the film in the American 1960s, needlessly inserting some appalling 80s-style comedy.   Maybe before Burton's Dark Shadows is released on DVD, Criterion will seize the chance to bring Black Sunday to Blu-Ray, a format in which it so desperately needs to be seen.  If Criterion chooses the film, it would categorize Black Sunday as a superior work, allowing all of us film hipsters to say, "I told you so" and put directors like Tim Burton in their place.  In the meantime, if you're looking to avoid the long lines at the cinema for Dark Shadows, I highly recommend watching Black Sunday first.  It will not disappoint.

Robert Nishimura is a Japan-based filmmaker, artist, and freelance designer. His designs can be found at Primolandia Productions. You can follow him on Twitter here.