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Batman, the Gamble : Warner Bros. is betting big money that a 50-year-old comic book vigilante will be a 'hero for our times'

June 18, 1989|Jack Mathews | Written by Jack Mathews from reporting by Nina J. Easton, Pat H. Broeske, Daniel Cerone and Stacy Jenel Smith. and

He is a lone figure standing under a street lamp amid the debris of a decaying inner city neighborhood, a boozy, depressed middle-aged man remembering the days here in Gotham City when he acted on that ceaseless ache for vengeance--that creature, he called it, that writhed in his gut.

Now, he's back, brought back by a pain that can only be relieved by striking out at evil, and as he stands there, two knife-wielding punks slip out of the shadows to accommodate him.

"Come on, honey, slice and dice," says one punk, as they circle the tall, broad-shouldered Bruce Wayne.

"I don't know, man, he's awful big," says the other.

The first punk again orders the attack, but by now, his partner has seen the look on their prey's face--a look of hatred, confidence and anticipation scrambled together in a Pit Bull's snarl--and he wants nothing to do with it.

"I don't know, man, look at him, he's into it," the second punk says, dashing back into the shadows. "Can't do murders when they're into it ... "

--An early incident in Frank Miller's graphic novel "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns."

"To the cave, Dick, this is a job for Batman and Robin."

--From almost any episode of the 1966-68 "Batman" TV series.

When producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber bought the movie rights to DC Comics' Batman in 1979, there were two dramatically different models of Batman to consider: the wealthy bachelor driven by the memory of his murdered parents to moonlight as a gracefully lethal vigilante in the comic books; and the wooden lummox who camped up the screen in the pop TV series in the mid-'60s.

Which Batman would we see menacing criminals in Gotham City--the one who can't remember where he left the keys to his Batmobile, or the one who lurks in the shadows, ready to stamp out evil?

It was not a typical film maker's dilemma. Whichever direction they chose, there was the risk of offending or disappointing crucial blocks of moviegoers. Fans faithful to the real Batman don't take well to parodies. The larger group of people who know the character only from the TV series, and like him, may be put off by a hero who is obsessive, melancholy and often merciless.

Eventually, the producers tilted toward the dark side with a script influenced by Frank Miller's 1986 graphic novel, "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns," a morosely dark and violent story told from the point of view of a depressed 55-year-old Bruce Wayne, a.k.a. Batman. The 200-page story from DC Comics revived and darkened the original spirit of Batman. In doing so, DC Comics helped reverse the sagging popularity of the man that kids, in a more innocent time, called the Caped Crusader.

The PG-13 "Batman" that opens in theaters across the country Friday is nowhere near as violent as "The Dark Knight," but its tone and look is more reminiscent of Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" than any previous comic book adaptation. Much of the movie takes place in the shadows, in the streets and on the rooftops of Gotham (call it "Gothic") City, in refineries and warehouses, in Bruce Wayne's Batcave hideaway.

Against this smoky slate-gray backdrop are the garish colors of Jack Nicholson's Joker character, with his Howdy Doody wardrobe, pink and white clown face and his Kool-Aid green hair. In this setting Nicholson demonstrates even more control over events than he normally has. The same contrast occurs whenever the Joker, played like a five-on-one fast break by Nicholson, and the black-clad Batman, portrayed with Herculean restraint by Michael Keaton, share the screen.

You're into a different kind of comic when the hero cooly drops a criminal into a vat of acid, pulls an all-nighter with the sleek blond photojournalist (Kim Basinger) on their first date, and occasionally wallows in self-doubt. And you're into a different kind of major studio movie.

In going for the authentic look of "Batman's" dreary, crime-infested Gotham City, the producers and Warner Bros. have challenged the conventional wisdom that says dark doesn't sell, and the studio, which will have spent perhaps $60 million on the film by opening day, has taken the summer's biggest gamble.

For the record, Warners and the film makers are glowing with confidence. Studio marketing executives claim that their audience research reveals awareness and want-to-see factors that are "off the charts" (literally, according to one effusive publicist, who put the awareness factor at "100%, or more").

Furthermore, they believe they've got the Batman for our times.

"The overwhelming wallop we feel is that this is a new form of hero, a more realistic hero than what we've been seeing," said Peters. "My instinct is that everyone will see it once, then lots of people will see it over and over."

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