Batman was the summer’s box office sensation. Responses to the film followed the usual pattern: audiences and lowbrow critics loved it; highbrow critics turned up their noses. Pans from serious film critics are the best recommendation a movie can get. Yes, it is a dark and violent movie, and yes, Michael Keaton is a perfectly dreadful actor—Jack Nicholson doesn’t have to steal this one: Keaton gives it to him gratis. And yes, the New York critics hated it because of its all-too-accurate portrayal of life in New York. As David Denby in New York magazine put it: “In this filthy, demoralized, and abandoned city, gangsters run the show and pols are either weak or on the take.” Exactly.
I expected something a little less of a paean than, say, The Muppets Take Manhattan, and I was not disappointed. What I was not prepared for was the deadly serious criticism of radical chic. Gotham is a city paralyzed by fear and corruption, and when the Joker stages his own city festival throwing away money, the degraded mob turns out to cheer.
But the script goes further, inviting us to see the Joker as the typical psychopathic killer who is the victim of circumstances. The most interesting dialogue comes near the very end, as the Joker and Batman wrestle for their lives at the top of a cathedral—significantly abandoned, as if New Yorkers have turned their backs on God. The Joker whines that he is what he is because Batman dumped him into a vat of acid. Now, we already know that this is not so: he was a professional killer before the accident, and it was Batman who tried to save him. But instead of correcting him. Batman accuses his enemy of killing Batman’s parents. Fair enough, the Joker answers: we made each other. An interesting point, but the obvious difference between the two—for all the doppelgänger imagery—is that while one of them has responded to misfortune by turning into the world’s greatest homicidal maniac, the other has created good out of evil by devoting his life to protecting the innocent.
All of this is a wine too strong for the New York palate, but the one unforgivable scene seems to have passed by without significant comment. Leading his merry crew, the Joker prances into a great museum and proceeds to carve up or spray paint the great masterpieces of Western art. His depredations are only halted for a moment when he is confronted with a specimen of modernist art—Rauschenberg? de Kooning? who cares? This I like, he oozes, and spares the painting. Still in the gallery, he explains to Batman’s girlfriend, a photographer, that he too is an artist—a murder artist—and reveals the masterpiece he has etched with acid on his own girlfriend’s face.
Art as destruction, art as a prank, art as a violent statement on a violent society—where have we heard all this before, except in all the catalogues of performance art exhibitions and successful grant applications to the National Endowment for the Arts? If this was the summer of Batman, it was also the season of flag-trampling in Chicago’s Field Museum, of Piss Christ and Mapplethorpe’s homosexual photos brought to the American public as a gift from the tax-supported NEA. If there is a sequel to Batman, the Joker ought to come back as the art critic for The New York Times. (TF)