With the distance of time, it’s easy to forget how much of a Dick Tracy, Great Depression-era, wise guys vs. coppers gangster movie 1989’s Batman is. It’s an environment of tommy gun lawlessness and retro noir organized crime. The Joker further connects the film to 1930s culture by crooning lounge songs like “Beautiful Dreamer” and “It’s a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight”. And it’s telling that in the years that followed, we didn’t get Superman, Wonder Woman, and The Flash movies. We got Dick Tracy, The Phantom, and The Shadow.
But beyond these genre trappings, what other nuggets does Tim Burton’s seminal superhero film contain?
Jack Nicholson takes up a lot of the film’s oxygen, but he is fun to watch, whether vandalizing paintings, taking up scrapbooking, or launching a dodgy cosmetics marketing campaign. His deranged dancing is a quality passed on to Joaquin Phoenix’ Joker, although Cesar Romero wasn’t above a soft-shoe here and there. The Joker is a source of color in a grey world, and indeed, in a fairly grey cast of characters. An excessive amount of time is spent following Batman-chasing journalist Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl), who functions as an audience identification character. A strange decision given the copious amount of Joker material, holding court and claiming a huge amount of screentime that goes above and beyond time given to “villain scenes”.
It leads to the seeming conclusion that Burton is much more interested in the villains than in Batman, supported by the evidence of his unfiltered vision in the sequel and its characterization of Catwoman, Penguin, and Max Shreck. Of course, it behooves Batman to heavily feature Nicholson, who had the studio over a barrel with negotiating power. (His star power commanded a lavish salary and a big chunk of the merchandise, a deal he would ultimately try and fail to reprise for Hades in Disney’s Hercules.) And after all, in Superman: The Movie, villain Gene Hackman was also billed above Christopher Reeve.
The romance between Bruce Wayne and Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) is unconvincing. The screenwriters’ weaknesses in this area are laid bare, and their treatment of the relationship is hackwork. We are told they made a deep connection, but are not shown this. Michael Keaton is understated as Bruce Wayne/Batman (with the exception of the “let’s get nuts!” moment). It’s a fairly reserved performance. Famously, Keaton’s casting was a sticking point because he was mainly known as a comedy actor. Burton had worked with him before on Beetlejuice. Its title role is an uninhibited role in gothic makeup that on the face of it lays the pipeline for Keaton’s casting not as Batman but as the Joker. A fascinating road not taken.
Speaking of the road not taken, Billy Dee Williams appears as Harvey Dent, seeding the character for a Two-Face tragedy later on. When Two-Face was used as a villain in Batman Forever, recent Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones jumped the line for the role. But Williams would eventually get his chance, voicing Two-Face in The LEGO Batman Movie.
One foundational change to the mythology is that Jack Napier, the man who will be the Joker, was also the man who killed the Waynes. I can definitely see the logic behind it (think also of the storytelling logic behind the Tobey Maguire Peter Parker’s organic web-shooters). But it is a seismic change; if Batman catches the Joker or he dies (which is exactly what happens to the Clown Prince of Crime), isn’t that game over? Can Bruce not go home with some measure of closure?
With his main theme, Danny Elfman does nothing less than crystallize the Batman sound. Rightfully grabbing all the headlines, the theme feels definitive. Elfman’s Joker theme is a carnival waltz that gains a demented quality when played against the character on screen. See the sequence where it plays as the Joker does that bizarre dance as he shoots crime boss Carl Grissom. There’s quite a lovely and warmly catchy Vicki Vale romance theme as well, adapted from one of the songs Prince contributed to the film.
Elfman has been open with his Bernard Herrmann influences, which are clear in the atmospheric score throughout Batman. There are moments of explicit echoes, and given that Herrmann would sometimes take to plagiarizing himself (he reuses part of his Vertigo score in Jason and the Argonauts), that makes quoting Herrmann something of a tradition.
As the film ends, Batman stands on top of a building gazing at the Bat Signal. Elfman’s final movement washes over the audience, incorporating quotations of various leitmotifs from the film. This explicitly Straussian cacophony climaxes in the shadowy main theme played in a triumphant major key!
The Craft of a Comic Book Movie
Tim Burton and production designer Anton Furst introduce a visually dense Gotham, following on from the level of cinematic detail found in, say, Blade Runner. All smoky matte paintings as far as the eye looks up, the city is a cathedral of industrialism. Even in Vicki Vale’s apartment, there are arches built into the ceiling evocative of urban sprawl and iron rivets. The density of Gotham is a stepping stone on the way to the absolutely wild urban design of the Joel Schumacher Batman movies. Burton and Furst mainly hew to noir influences, and the related framing of German Expressionism, but we get some of Burton’s trademark fairy tale imagery in perhaps the most indelible moment of the movie. Batman and Vicki Vale race to the Batcave in the Batmobile to the strains of Elfman’s “Descent into Mystery” cue, and the effect of passing through an eerily still forest, accomplished with models, comes off as a dark spin on The Wizard of Oz. Anton Furst won an Oscar for his work on Batman, but tragically he committed suicide less than two years later.
There are certain elements of Batman that echo forward in future adaptations, beyond city design. The Joker’s plan to poison the population’s beauty products is idiosyncratic to him, but has clear parallels to Laurel Hedare (Sharon Stone)’s beauty product poison from Catwoman. It’s also in the same ballpark as Ra’s al Ghul’s plan to poison Gotham with Jonathan Crane’s fear toxin in Batman Begins. That movie’s desperate Batmobile ride to take Rachel Dawes into the Batcave has its origin in Vicki Vale’s gothic “descent into mystery”. And what is William Hootkins’ crooked cop Max Eckhardt but a dry run for Gordon’s corrupt partner Flass (Mark Boone Junior)? The oddest future echo of all: the Joker calls Batman “junior Birdman”. 25 years later, Keaton would star in Alejandro Inarritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).
It’s always been the easy armchair contrast: that Tim Burton’s Batman was such a 180-degree change from the 1960s TV show. Which is undeniable. But while certain elements of “The Killing Joke” and other then-contemporary Batman lore are in the stew of the 1989 film, its main move is to draw from the character’s roots in the early days of Batman comics. A time when the character existed in a world of Edward G. Robinson gangster movies. And this is key to the film’s status as a curio now. Batman didn’t use Superman: The Movie as a Rosetta Stone to crack the code of the comic book adaptation. Tim Burton mashed a superhero story into a gangster movie template. The Joker may as well be one of the deformed, larger than life baddies of a Dick Tracy story. And after many subsequent film interpretations, that is what continues to make 1989’s Batman unique.
It’s been a journey to get to this point, but as I’ve watched all ten Star Wars movies in preparation for The Rise of Skywalker, I have unexpectedly come to the conclusion that Return of the Jedi is the best the original trilogy has to offer. Let’s explore my reasoning and celebrate the first time the world thought the Skywalker saga was wrapped up.
Genuinely funny humor
The entire chunk of the film dedicated to Jabba the Hutt’s chunky villainy is rife with successful comedy. From Salacious B. Crumb’s manic reactions to countless priceless C-3PO moments, the movie’s first act walks a line between silly and serious. There’s humor with a dark streak too. Malakili’s reaction to the Rancor’s death is both amusing and heartbreaking. And the Gonk droid who keeps screaming under torture is hilarious and disturbing at the same time.
The Ewoks, to their credit, are not generally bumbling delivery systems for slapstick, so when Wicket does hit himself in the face with a slingshot, it lands in more ways than one. I also love when an Ewok hugs Han’s legs after hearing about his carbonite experience. But it’s C-3PO who consistently kills it in Return of the Jedi; this is his best showcase as a panicking accidental comedian.
Deep engagement with core Star Wars themes
Not that the previous two chapters don’t possess depth, but Return of the Jedi firmly codifies a lot of the thematic preoccupations of Star Wars. Obi-Wan Kenobi gives his famous speech about “a certain point of view”. The Ewoks’ crucial role in defeating the Empire contrasts the natural world against technology through the lens of warfare, connecting to one of the key conflicts in the entire saga: the natural and flowing vs. the mechanical and rigid.
But it is the Luke Skywalker/Darth Vader/Emperor Palpatine thread that gets to the core of Jedi and Sith philosophy. Building on Yoda’s teachings in The Empire Strikes Back, this sequel makes the lesson tangible: the idea that the Dark Side is not wearing all black and using a red lightsaber, but rather giving into fear, hate, anger, and aggression. And make no mistake, Luke flirts with the Dark Side throughout the entire movie. The first thing we see him do is use Force Choke on two Gamorrean guards. After opening himself up to fear, anger, and hatred at the thought of losing his sister Leia, we see how wild and aggressive his lightsaber strikes against Vader are. That’s not passive defense. It’s passionate attack.
In the end, however, Luke remains a hero. When he refuses to kill his father, throws away his lightsaber, and leaves himself vulnerable to Palpatine, it’s a stunning act. He is willing to sacrifice his life to force Anakin Skywalker to redeem himself. It’s a defining moment for Luke; you can draw a straight line from this almost Biblical sacrifice play to his epic pacifist heroism on Crait in The Last Jedi.
The sail barge sequence
The sail barge sequence is the best pure action setpiece in the original trilogy. It’s a thrilling ride, from R2-D2’s iconic lightsaber delivery, to Leia choking Jabba, to Lando’s amusing scream when the Sarlacc’s tentacle ensnares him, to the triumphant score when the skirmish is won. It doesn’t matter that you can see a stuntman’s alien headpiece fall off as he rolls into the Sarlacc Pit, nor that Boba Fett’s death is celebrated with an ignominious burp. Nor that Luke cutting down henchmen has the imprecise choreography of an impromptu schoolyard play-adventure – and maybe that’s part of the point. Perhaps the charm of the sequence comes from that childlike enthusiasm. “What if Luke walked the plank, but then jumped up and got his lightsaber, and slashed all the bad guys?” If Luke swings his lightsaber haphazardly in the general direction of a stuntman, and they perform a stagey fall, we can fill in the blanks. Whether with crayons or ball-point pens, we can fill in the blanks.
The war, the lore, and the score
The theory goes that there are three major elements of Star Wars. The military conflict aspect: the war. The Force/destiny aspect: the lore. And the crime/heist/underworld aspect: for the sake of preserving the rhyme, the score. Return of the Jedi brilliantly serves all three masters. All the Jabba stuff is a hugely enjoyable dive into the criminal underworld. The seduction of Luke and redemption of Anakin is iconic lore material. And the two-pronged Battle of Endor is the war on a big canvas. Structurally, the film is an odd beast. As opposed to the straightforward chase framework of The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi leads with what could be its own mini-movie, fully develops it, and then widens the scope to round out the galactic picture. It has a clear serialized feel that is core to Star Wars.
Demerits and conclusion
I do take issue with some aspects of Return of the Jedi, which should be addressed. The edge is almost totally taken off the Han Solo and Lando Calrissian characters. Maybe Han’s carbon sickness lasts the whole movie, or maybe Harrison Ford didn’t necessarily want to be there, but Han is a goofy figure by and large. Lando is an appealing presence, but that’s all he is here: the square-jawed hero. The screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan and George Lucas can skew somewhat hacky, repeating phrases and ideas. And regarding the remastered edition changes, Vader’s “Nooooooooo” when killing Palpatine probably should’ve stayed internal.
However, the film benefits from the deepest emotional complexity of the original trilogy. The reveal that Darth Vader is Luke’s father in The Empire Strikes Back is a truly horrific spectacle. We sympathize with Luke’s pain and, indeed, revulsion; the Darth Vader character has been a monolithic force of evil. It is Return of the Jedi’s innovation to take that dark reveal, and find hope in it. To apply, I’ll say it, a Star Trekkian level of humanism to this Dark Lord of the Sith. Vader/Anakin’s moment of sacrifice in betraying Palpatine rightly gets the headlines, but observe the earlier scene where our heroes try to get clearance for their stolen Imperial shuttle Tydirium to land on Endor. Vader senses Luke’s presence; this is the enemy, ready to sabotage the deflector shield. But Vader lets the shuttle land. Is this a moment of sentiment?
A New Hope’s simplicity is its greatest strength and greatest weakness. The Empire Strikes Back, while deepening Jedi philosophy and the visual texture of the series, has an insular quality and its chase structure makes for a slightly fallow middle third. Return of the Jedi features the most impressive action in the trilogy in the form of the sail barge skirmish and the Battle of Endor (including the speeder bike chase), the most amusing humor, and in the Luke/Vader storyline, it writes a humanistic thesis of Star Wars. (Plus there’s the joy of Ian McDiarmid’s scenery-chewing as Palpatine.) There are moments watching Hope and Empire when I think all they have over certain other Star Wars movies is a high level of craftsmanship. To watch Return of the Jedi is to eat a full Star Wars meal. The show’s not over ‘til the fat Ewok dances.
In 1988, Walt Disney Productions rolled the dice on a project whose budget had ballooned and post-production protracted to more than a year. But this lengthened production time was in service of a groundbreaking mix of live-action and animated elements. True, Disney films such as Song of the South and Mary Poppins from decades earlier had dabbled in this technique, but Who Framed Roger Rabbit took the concept to a scale never seen before. What’s more, both Disney icons and Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes would cameo in the film, which takes us to an alternative 1947. In Hollywood and Toontown, humans and toons live together, and human P.I. Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) is tasked with investigating the possible extramarital affair that’s got premier marquis toon actor and concerned spouse Roger Rabbit down in the dumps.
The film commits to a noir atmosphere that permeates everything from the production design to Alan Silvestri’s restrained and sultry score. The film refuses to be a mess; it decides on a focus and sticks to it. It’s easy to imagine a version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit that would give new meaning to self-indulgence, but everything remains on point: that being a sometimes silly, sometimes striking story of toon antics and anti-toon acid, all grounded beautifully by an engaging central performance by Bob Hoskins.
Hoskins’ brooding gumshoe is the necessary counterbalance to the wackiness going on around him, and of course he is given a basic but effective arc to play over the course of the film. His reason for giving toons the cold shoulder is given in dialogue early on. “A toon killed his brother…” Oh jeez, this is really heavy. “… dropped a piano on his head.” Hahahaha! This single line stands in for the delicate balance that the film strikes. The film asks what would happen if over-the-top cartoon antics were naturalized into a realistic setting, and the answer as shown here is what it should be: equal parts dark, joyful, and bizarre. It’s not any one thing, it’s all of them, and the film understands this well. And who better to bring the intricately looney results to life than Robert Zemeckis, hot off of directing Back to the Future, perhaps the most satisfyingly detailed film of all time? That attention to detail is what makes Who Framed Roger Rabbit great entertainment, as while the main plot is a necessary backbone, it is the insanity surrounding it, spicing up the proceedings, that makes a world of difference.
One insane but slightly understated aspect of the film is its villain, Christopher Lloyd as Judge Doom. He seems to be a Nazi-esque character; he’s dressed all in black with unsettling spectacles, and he even says, “You lack vision!” with a Teutonic accent! Balancing his relatively restrained persona are a pack of weasel henchmen, on loan from Winky in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Judge Doom is very much a standard capitalistic villain, but his villainy goes a little deeper than that. He means to destroy Toontown and transform the area for sterile profit; by doing so he’s declaring war on art itself, as the madness of Toontown, while impossible to contain, is a hub of creativity and good humor. So he’s a fitting villain from where I stand, and come the end of the climax he’s guaranteed to freak the audience out on a whole other level as well.
Some of the crossover elements in the film seem like the stuff of childhood fever dreams. Here, Donald Duck and Daffy Duck find a venue to exercise their competitive streaks, and marquis mascots Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny share a quick and exhilarating scene. Funny, then, that the film is so inappropriate for kids! You have a hard-drinking and cigarette-bumming hero, sexual jokes that are barely veiled at all (the most blatant of which is the only line reproduced from source novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit? by Gary Wolf), and topping it all off is the outrageously sexualized Jessica Rabbit, human wife to Roger. Then again, “questionable” material was no stranger to Zemeckis, as Back to the Future milked the icky topic of incest brilliantly. All this and more probably just added exponentially to the appeal for many kids, I would imagine. It’s a testament to Disney’s confidence in the film that it would only pull so many punches in bringing the story to life.
The visual appeal of the film is undimmed after all these years; the blue screen work for the Toontown sequence still inspires a sense of wonder, such as in Eddie’s wonderful descent down the skyscraper. It’s fitting that Judge Doom references The Wizard of Oz, as both that film and Who Framed Roger Rabbit pushed the boundaries of what a film could look like, and what strange alchemy could come together to conjure these moving pictures. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a great technical achievement, being a great feather in the cap of Robert Zemeckis; the animation landmark here foreshadows his forays into CGI fantasias in the first decade of the 21st Century, such as The Polar Express and Beowulf. But the film is also a broader achievement, endowed as it is with great humor, heart and boundless creativity. Pretty much a triumph. 10/10.