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“You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?” – The Joker
In 2019, cinema audiences are geared up for the monumental 22nd entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Avengers: Endgame. Back 30 years ago however there was not so much Marvel cinematic epics in the spotlight. Although comic books and animated series thrived, movies were not so plentiful. The closest thing in 1989 to an actual Marvel outing was the spin-off from the Incredible Hulk television series, the full-length made for TV The Trial of the Incredible Hulk. There was also the straight-to-video Dolph Lundgren vehicle The Punisher. Yet, this was so hammered by critics and fans of the vigilante on the trail of revenge, it buried the idea of Marvel movies for years to come.
A shift had happened in audience needs. Super powers were not a necessity. Heroes did not need anything other than their own intelligence and bravery to overcome the odds, instead showing a vulnerability that made them more relatable. This was highlighted by the 80’s classics like the Indiana Jones trilogy, Die Hard, Back To The Future, the Rocky series, and even Ghostbusters. Around the same time, the fourth and final outing of Christopher Reeves’ Superman, 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, was both a commercial and critical failure. The genre of the invincible, super-powered role model was all but dead.
A visionary was needed to revive the failing genre and young director Tim Burton was chosen by Warner Brothers to helm a new era of superhero film. A hero who could scar on both the outside and inside, with emotional wounds to add a realism to proceedings. Hot on the heels of his dark fantasy hit, 1988’s Beetlejuice, Burton was given the task of bringing Batman back to cinema screens to attract new audiences. It had been a long 23 years since the character’s last big screen adventure, when the late Adam West wore the grey tights as the caped crusader in Batman: The Movie. In the hands of Burton however, the film, along with the hero, was going to take a darker journey and stay closer to original vigilante premise.
In the summer of 1989, Batman hit cinema screens to general acclaim. Although questions abounded before its release – like would the casting of comedic actor Michael Keaton as the Dark Knight work? Surprisingly it did, with Keaton keeping the brooding and introverted character true to form. From some quarters, Burton also came under fire for making the movie too dark, too steeped in a gothic existence. Yet, it was always in the shadows where Batman thrived and here was no different.
Jack Nicholson was cast as adversary The Joker, who took a leaf out of the late Marlon Brando’s playbook from the original Superman: The Movie in 1978. Like Brando who had demanded and got 3.7 million, plus a further 11.75 per cent of gross profits for a mere twelve days of work, Nicholson requested and received a 6 million dollar salary along with a cut of box office profits estimated to have been worth between 60 – 90 million dollars. This time all scenes for Nicholson were shot within a three week time slot. One final demand was made and given: top billing. This was one perhaps Burton had no problem with and for good reason.
The stories Burton drew from included various graphic novels of Frank Miller along with Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke. It was within the latter’s pages the origin story for the Joker was found. There, the fractured mind of Batman created another after dropping a small-time criminal into chemical waste from which the psychotic Joker appeared with his bleached white skin and unhinged laugh.
In Burton’s film, however, this unknown criminal was given a name Jack Napier and made into a larger scale gangster responsible for murdering Thomas and Martha Wayne, the parents of Bruce Wayne. Although not faithful to any of the comic books and as such the main cause of outcry from fans, it did not in any way stop the juggernaut hit which Batman became. Plus, this twist was central to harvesting he tension between the two leads, the damaged freaks who would battle it out until the climax.
This origin story that Burton partially created, allowed him to focus on the character of the Joker. This was to such an extent that Nicholson, stealing every scene he was in, became the actual element the film revolved around. Aside from the reconstructed Batmobile and bombastic Batwing, the lavish set designs, and a soundtrack provided by Prince, Nicholson provided the magnetism within the movie to sell it.
Whilst Burton’s Batman became the subject of slight criticism, it provided the basis for a far superior film, 1992’s Batman Returns. The sequel was to be the final time for both Keaton and Burton to dive into the Dark Knight’s world. Joel Schumacher would take the helm on two more sequels, Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. These sequels were immersed in a more cartoonish world and contained little of Burton’s gothic landscape. The latter starring George Clooney currently holds a 10 per cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
A new story of Joker’s origin will arrive later this year with Joker directed by Todd Phillips. It will star Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, a failed comedian who turns to crime. Based loosely on Martin Scorsese’s films Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy and featuring Robert De Niro as a talk show host who assists in the downfall of Fleck, the factors are in place for a killer telling of the most popular villain in the DC universe – one that Burton immortalized, the late Heath Ledger captivated as and unfortunately Jared Leto misunderstood. Whether or not Joker delivers is yet to be seen. In the end though will the joke be on us for hoping it does?