Film and drama

Screen Themes: Birdman vs Batman

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It’s Keaton vs Keaton as entertainment editor John Turnbull takes a look at the Tim Burton classic Batman and the recently released Oscar contender Birdman.

Batman (1989) — directed by Tim Burton

Before oddball director Tim Burton reinvented Batman for a new generation, the live-action version of the character was defined by 60s TV Batman Adam West. West’s caped crusader was a campy, kid-friendly hero who fought a legion of brightly coloured super-villains, often trapped in Rube Goldberg style death traps that Batman would inevitably beat using on of the multitude of gadgets in his utility belt.

Similarly, before playing Batman, actor Michael Keaton was known primarily as a comedic actor from movies such as Beetlejuice, Night Shift and Mr Mom. Born with the already-in-use name Michael Douglas, Keaton got his start in the TV series Mr Rogers’ Neighbourhood, then slowly built his profile through guest spots on programs like All’s Fair, Working Stiffs and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Casting Keaton as Batman was a risk for Burton and studio Warner Brothers, demonstrated by the fact that the star was actually billed second behind Jack Nicholson, playing the villainous Joker.

The fact Nicholson got paid more than Keaton for the film seems reasonable in retrospect as, without the maniacal Joker, the movie has little to elevate it above genre efforts of the time like Darkman. With the exception of Billy Dee Williams as DA Harvey Dent, the supporting cast act like they’re in a comedy. The female characters are thinly sketched, most notably Kim Basinger’s supposedly talented journalist Vicki Vale, and the script is absolutely awful at times. Worst of all, Burton ignores years of comic book tradition and has Batman kill his enemies, frequently and without remorse.

Compared to the day-glo Sixties version, Burton’s Batman is a dark, dark film. Set mostly at night in a neo-gothic version of Gotham, the film opens with a family of tourists getting mugged. Rather than stop the mugging and save the family, Batman instead chooses to terrorise the criminals as an act of self-promotion. His movements hampered by a thick rubber suit – which is apparently also bulletproof – Batman can’t even turn his head and relies more on swooping out of the darkness in iconic poses than actually fighting crime.

A visually beautiful yet deeply flawed film that hasn’t aged well, Batman nonetheless laid the groundwork for the multitude of comic book adaptations that followed. In the unlikely event that you haven’t seen them, I recommend the recent Chris Nolan take on the character, particularly The Dark Knight where the doomed Heath Ledger gives a breathtaking performance as the Joker that makes Jack Nicholson look like Cesar Romero.

Birdman (2014) — directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Releasing almost exactly 25 years after Keaton’s turn as the Dark Knight, Birdman tells the story of a washed up actor desperate to regain credibility and battling inner demons, which may or may not include mental illness.

Previously known for such "heavy" films as Babel, 21 Grams and Biutiful, director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu was never going to make a traditional superhero film. Despite this, Birdman is a worthy addition to the genre, taking a glimpse into the souls of the actors behind the gaudy costumes.

As a film, Birdman lives or dies on the performance of Michael Keaton. The former Batman plays Riggan Thomson, an actor who made his name playing challenging dramatic roles but was typecast as superhero Birdman, then watched his career fade away as he struggled to find work in an industry that could not see past the mask. Keaton owns the role, bringing a deep sense of pathos to a character that could be deeply unlikable in the hands of a lesser actor.

While this is unmistakably Keaton’s film, the supporting cast is strong, particularly Emma Stone as Riggan’s damaged daughter Sam, Naomi Watts as desperate-for-a-break starlet Lesley and Hangover star Zach Galifianakis playing against type as Riggan’s accountant Jake. Playing an amped-up version of himself, Edward Norton is superb as arrogant yet talented Mike, challenging Riggan to rise to the occasion but stealing his publicity as soon as he gets the chance.

At its heart, Birdman is a film about ego. Riggan’s attempt to re-launch his career is driven by the desire for recognition, yet almost derailed by the rampaging egos of his co-stars and theatre critics determined to derail his comeback before it even begins. Riggan’s fragile ego takes the form of a disembodied voice that speaks to him from an old Birdman poster, encouraging him to give up his dreams of credibility and slip back into the role that made him famous.

Aside from the talking poster, there is a strong sense of unreality to Birdman, as Riggan seemingly uses psychic powers to destroy his dressing room and even takes flight when the mood seizes him. Whether these powers are real or a figment of the actor’s troubled mind is left to the interpretation of the viewer, a conceit that will intrigue some viewers and probably annoy others.

The Verdict

Both Batman and Birdman deal in the realms of fantasy, featuring a lead character who is deeply emotionally scarred and searching for redemption.

Despite this similarity, they are two very different films, inextricably linked by the presence of Michael Keaton. Batman was a blockbuster, while Birdman could fairly be classified as an arthouse film, albeit one that has received a significant amount of mainstream attention.

Birdman could not exist without Batman, as it relies on the personal journey that Keaton travelled after he turned down second sequel Batman Forever and was replaced by Val Kilmer. While Keaton was able to find work in the ensuing years, and did a couple of decent films like Multiplicity and Jackie Brown, he was often reduced to supporting roles and dross like Jack Frost and Herbie: Fully Loaded.

Fortunately, Birdman is a stunning return to form for the talented actor and will hopefully lead to a career renaissance. Not necessarily an easy film to watch, but more than worth the effort for people who appreciate quality movies.

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