Why one movie catches on and another doesn't eludes easy analysis. If the salient factor were quality, then Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, a mediocre comedy designed for the mentality of a 13-year-old, wouldn't have emerged as one of the megahits of this past summer while finer items floated off into the mists of fuzzy memory, leaving only frustrated studio accountants and irritated critics. If straightforward heroics were what counted, then the third Superman would have been a tremendous hit, and it wasn't. If fond cultish nostalgia alone did the trick, then the fifth Star Trek would have been one of the 1989 summer blockbusters, and it was less than that.
Come across the winning formula, and your place in Hollywood, doing lunch with the bigshots, is assured. To date, nobody's done it.
Why, then, has Batman already entered the record books as one of the handful of most successful, adored, repeat-visited movies of all time? If the American people resonated to Randian notions, the film would have died on the vine, presenting as it does a hero who is "himself" only when he's not himself and a villain who is despicable but oddly endearing.
But alas, things don't go according to any simple plan, however sensible. Batman triumphed for none of the reasons that usually augur well for a movie: Its hero is strangely deficient, its villain is a complex case instead of merely a wretch, its setting is more alarming than enticing, and its basic premise lacks the clear polarities of good and evil that are especially heartwarming in a society, like ours, that pretends to ennoble virtue and disdain vice.
Batman exemplifies not our vaunted ideals but our harrowing recognition of reality (albeit in a cartoonish film), a reality of exaggeration and sometimes comic craziness. Urban America, except for the favored few who can use The City as a small collection of protected environments—one's well-guarded condominium, one's spiffy, off-limits-to-hoi-polloi restaurants, one's security-obsessed workplace—has become a terror. The City is increasingly expensive and decreasingly efficient. The promise of the melting pot has fizzled into accelerated racial polarization. The crime rate soars as the literacy rate declines. The portrait is depressing, demeaning, despairing—and can be well recognized by almost anybody who lives within urban America.
Batman's Gotham City is the urban Twilight Zone writ large. "Nightmare" comes to mind but is best rejected as the metaphor because this is not the near-total hideousness of, say, Blade Runner, with which Gotham City's physical setting has been compared. Nor is it enticing, however dehumanizing, as is the city in Fritz Lang's Metropolis, another movie frequently mentioned in comparison when Batman appeared early this past summer.
Gotham City is in the twilight because one can live there but one really rather would not—again excepting only those who live in splendor, like Bruce Wayne (who is Batman when the occasion demands) and the criminal element, whose playpen the city has become. Gotham City, whose mayor bears a sneaking similarity to the present mayor of New York City, works, but barely. It's not even a nice place to visit.
American moviegoers resonated to Batman's Gotham City not because we want to live there, but because we already do.
The movie's hero and villain are likewise neither paradigmatic nor wholly fanciful. Consider Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton), who just misses nebbishness by an inch or two. He is isolated, attended only by his faithful, wise old servant Alfred (Michael Gough). He can barely bring himself, when he finally falls in love, to tell his new lady friend (Kim Basinger) who, by night, he is.
Bruce Wayne is not a Clark Kent, an alien with magic powers; rather, he is adept at athletic trickery, rich enough to surround himself with wonderful gimcracks—the Joker remarks on these toys with amazement and quite plausible envy—and haunted by the childhood memory of his parents being slaughtered by the creature who becomes the Joker. He is driven by that memory to become an urban avenger, a careerist Bernhard Goetz with a better tailor.
America wonders about its alleged heroes. Oliver North didn't quite pan out, even for the redhots. Our politicians, when they're not headed for jail or their latest love object, disappoint both left and right. Our sports heroes appear to be gamblers or fools; our movie cuties stupidly put their sexual romps on videotapes and then wind up in the gossip columns and sometimes in court. Our masterful entrepreneurs name airlines and the like after themselves and live in vulgar overluxuriousness.
I could go on, but there's no need. We see around us "heroes" who are not paragons of anything but self-promotion. So a fellow like Bruce Wayne is attractive not only because he's pleasant looking but because he's rich, very uncertain of himself when not in "uniform," and very driven by private demons. Clarity is wholly lacking in Bruce Wayne-Batman; ambiguity reigns—ambiguity and obsession.
Which leads to the Joker (Jack Nicholson), your ordinary garden-variety second-banana criminal until, cascaded into a vat of toxic waste and disfigured gruesomely, he becomes on the surface what his twisted soul has always been within. But he is a playful villain. He delights in jokes like an eternal child and is drawn to destroying culture like the barbarians who trash art everywhere and who, more horrifyingly, make art…or at least what passes as art among the trendy.
When the Joker enters the museum and defaces the collected masterpieces of the human genius, sparing only one monstrous picture because it reflects his own monstrousness, he is challenging not merely authority but culture itself. He is mauling beauty and spiritual greatness as so much of our own society's degraded culture mauls that which is beautiful and sensible in order to pander to the squalidness of our age.
No, I'm not saying that the Joker is we, or that we have come quite to that point. But after a certain middling level of venality, certain villains ascend to a summit of awfulness and we rather cherish them for their audacity. The real Ivan Boesky became Wall Street's Gordon Gekko, and it was touch-and-go among audiences whether to admire or recoil from him.
Likewise, the Joker is a summa: He turns the grinning morons of the TV anchor desk into permanently grinning (and dead) morons. He elaborates the inanity of the smiley face button or "Don't Worry, Be Happy" puerility into a death mask of grinning stupidity. He is the master not just of inventive horror but of near-justifiable vengeance. And because we as a society are so at sea about our values and so unsure of what we really mean by anything that we say, the Joker filters straight into our psyches and becomes, as it were, our evil twin.
The Joker recognizes the greediness of mankind in the simplest way: He showers the tawdry masses with dollar bills, the better to set them up for gassing them into the tight little chamber that is eternal rest. He is Death in a format that is only somewhat (but not much) removed from the deathly vacuousness that is American civilization nowadays.
Not to mention, not to forget, that Batman is beautifully acted, lots of fun, cleverly written, spiffy in its every building, costume, vehicle, and gadget. The movie is both delightful to experience and ghastly to contemplate. It's about as close to a satisfactory balance between wish and reality as we're likely to get until, if ever, our society begins to mean something by what we preach.
Contributing Editor David Brudnoy, whose column will appear monthly in this space, is WBZ Radio's late-night talk host and a film critic in Boston.