The Darker Knight Returns
Tripwire’s contributing writer Laurence Boyce takes a look at DC’s Batman ’89, out now in hardcover…
Writer: Sam Hamm
Artist: Joe Quinones
Colours: Leonardo Ito
Letters: Clayton Cowles
Published by DC Comics
If Richard Donner’s Superman made us believe a man can fly, then Tim Burton’s Batman made us believe a man dressed as a bat could do more than be camp. While much of the world still saw the Caped Crusader as Adam West, it was the inspired (yet hugely controversial at the time) casting of Michael Keaton that partly shifted much of the public perception about the character. With Burton’s unique style just about managing to survive the machinations of studio politics and marketing, his take struck a tone between introspection, oddness and just the right amount of comic book excess. While we are now drowning in movies based on superheroes, both Batman and Batman Returns still reside in the upper pantheon of great comic book movies that are fondly remembered. And with Michael Keaton due back under the cowl in forthcoming DC efforts (assuming they’re not cancelled with little warning) they just might find themselves new audiences.
As with recent release Superman ’78, Batman ’89 partly plays with nostalgia as it utilises and expands the world originally created by Burton and crew. The fact that it’s written by Sam Hamm – the writer behind Burton’s Batman movies – also gives everything a certain air of authenticity. Indeed, it very much feels like the closest we are ever going to get to seeing what would have happened if Burton had taken on the Dark Knight for a third time.
After the events of Batman and Batman Returns, Gotham is in the grip of a new wave of unrest. On the one side, a group of Joker-inspired criminals are terrorising neighbourhoods. On the other, a group of Batman inspired vigilantes are meting out justice, though with much less discretion and stealth than their inspiration. District Attorney Harvey Dent vows to bring down Batman, holding him responsible for this state of affairs.
When someone dies after an attempt to capture Batman goes wrong, Bruce Wayne is distraught and ponders the future of his alter-ego. But an accident will soon turn Dent to the wrong side of the law as Batman is called into action once again. But when an old foe / friend slinks her way back onto the scene, and Dent begins to expose some of the corruption at the heart of Gotham, Batman might not be able to do it alone. Where’s a Robin when you need one?
While the Burton films provided much more psychological insight and intelligence than your average summer blockbuster (especially of the era) they were still at their heart dark fairy tales. Sam Hamm has dialled back some of the fantasy milieu to explore more overtly political material. With Harvey Dent in this world being a person of colour (obviously based on Billy Dee Williams and his performance in the original film), the book explores notions of identity as Dent deals with both an idealism based on his upbringing and a certain of ruthless and selfish pragmatism. This is also true of Drake, the character who will soon become this world’s Robin (based on Marlon Wayans, who was contracted to play the character in a mooted third Burton film which – obviously – never came to fruition) as he explores his identity and morality in trying to become a vigilante. The book also deals with the divide between the rich and the poor as well as ideas of right and wrong with Bruce Wayne’s morality questioned when Selina Kyle comes back into town. Certainly, while ostensibly set in the mid-90s, it feels like a very timely piece of work with some of the subjects it explores. Of course, these ideas of dual identities and ways of life are all linked into the identity of the main villain of the piece, but Hamm manages to do everything with just about enough nuance to make everything interesting as opposed to crashingly obvious.
Certainly the book does go down some dark territory (and there is at least one surprising death of a legacy character) and there’s a certain amount of the dour here. But there’s still enough comic book action (especially when Dent’s transformation is complete) to give Batman ’89 a sense of fun amongst the dark moments.
The interpretation of Wayne filtered through Keaton is spot on here, with his version radiating the insouciant oddness of the character that eschews the gruff darkness favoured by many takes but still hints at the psychological damage at Wayne’s heart. It’s wonderful to see Michael Gough’s likeness as Alfred, reminding us what a great performance his was (and something that transcended the Burton films). Unsurprisingly there are also a few more additions from the comic book universe on offer here. Aside from Dent’s transformation in Two-Face which was promised but never delivered upon on the big screen (well, not unless you’ve seen The Lego Batman movie) there’s a chance to meet both Barbara Gordon (here a police sergeant who is dating Dent, adding an extra level of melodrama) and Harvey Bullock. Even an infamous giant penny makes an appearance.
Joe Quinones’ art obviously keeps a certain amount of fidelity with the Burton universe. Yet the overt Gothicism of Burton is perhaps thinned out slightly for a tad more realism with the colour tone slightly muted. But there is still lots of kinetic and well rendered action amongst the more introspective moments.
Batman ’89 is a tremendously well-realised piece of work, capturing the spirit of its source material but also creating its own unique spin. Those with a soft spot for Burton’s Batman films will not be disappointed, but even those who haven’t seen them will find this an enjoyable different take on Batman.
Batman ‘89 is available now in hardback published by DC Comics
The Darker Knight Returns Tripwire’s contributing writer Laurence Boyce takes a look at DC’s Batman ’89, out now in hardcover… Batman ‘89 Writer: Sam Hamm Artist: Joe Quinones Colours: Leonardo Ito Letters: Clayton Cowles Published by DC Comics If Richard Donner’s Superman made us believe a man can fly, then Tim Burton’s Batman made us
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