Batman Unmasked

At Doc Films, a history of the Dark Knight

On Friday night, Doc Films, in collaboration with First Aid Comics, celebrated the evolution of one of our most beloved comic book heroes with a special screening of Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman.” A pop-up comic shop before the movie, and a Q&A with the original screenwriter afterwards, drew many eager fans to Ida Noyes.

Almost everyone in the UofC’s Max Palevsky Cinema had seen “Batman” before. The crowd was enthusiastic and loud, letting out a round of applause when the Batmobile first appeared on screen. Michael Keaton, originally a comic actor, elicited quite a few laughs with his exaggerated and dramatic portrayal of the costumed crusader, while Jack Nicholson’s plastic Joker grin was more sinister than many expected. By today’s standards, the film would be classified as campy, but when it was originally released, it actually pioneered the portrayal of a more sinister Batman.

In the Q&A session, screenwriter Sam Hamm said, “The public image of Batman at that point was still colored by the [Adam West] television show. It was a camp phenomenon.” But because of this, “the TV show was rejected by Batman purists.” They demanded a more serious treatment. The comics themselves show a reaction to the aesthetic of the television show, growing darker and more serious during the sixties and seventies, as a way to protest the show’s treatment of the character.

“Batman” breaks out of the mold of many superhero movies by not starting with the story of his origin. For Hamm, the question should not be how Batman started dressing up as a bat and saving people, but rather, “What does he want to accomplish by doing what he does?” Indeed, the story of Batman’s origins would be rather hard to explain. After all, he’s a rich philanthropist who runs around Gotham City in a cape, armed with unique gadgets and piloting high-tech machines. “If you don’t show the stuff as already existing, you raise a lot of questions,” said Hamm. Instead, his transformation into this hooded vigilante can be explained by the fact that “he has a wound he cannot heal.” For Hamm, Batman’s rationale is focused on an inner struggle rather than a materialistic evolution.

Hamm wrote the original screenplay for the movie but was not able to take part in the writing process during filming because of the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike. Rewrites thus had to be done by a slew of uncredited writers. Hamm spoke of some of his disappointments in the movie as a result of this disjointed treatment of the screenplay. For instance, the character of Robin was initially written into the story but was cut at the last minute due to budget concerns. Hamm’s biggest qualm, however, was the fact that Albert, Batman’s butler and confidant, let leading lady Vicky Vale into the Batcave, an action that Hamm says would have most certainly led to Albert’s firing, as Bruce Wayne would have seen it as a fundamental betrayal of secrecy and trust.

But despite the tweaks that were made to his screenplay, Hamm remained positive about the movie. DC Comics was supportive of “Batman’s” new take on the franchise: “They wanted to go beyond the original fan base of the comics,” said Hamm. And not only does the film still have a huge cult fan base, it also marks a turning point for the Batman franchise. For the first time on screen, the superhero moved from a campy to a more nuanced, troubled figure, mimicking the new, darker Batman of the comics. “When I was a kid I loved the TV series,” said Hamm. But the television show had run its course, with “Batman” paving the way for a new era in the portrayal of the beloved superhero. Finally, the caped crusader received a much-needed, darker makeover on the silver screen.

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