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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’

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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.

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“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.”

“Batman” is perhaps the most anticipated non-sequel since “Superman” 11 years ago, and the most heavily hyped since “Annie” in 1982. It’s no coincidence that the other two were also adapted from the comics. There is value in the familiarity of venerable comic characters, and in the case of “Annie,” there was the hit Broadway musical. But it’s the merchandising that presents studios with the lure of a massive jackpot, while at the same time exposing them to charges of over-selling.

Nearly 130 Batman licensees are gambling millions of dollars on merchandise ranging from T-shirts and cups emblazoned with Batman insignias to a $150 motorized Batmobile. A $35 Batman coffee table book is en route to stores, as well as a book detailing the rise and fall of the TV series and an autobiography of Batman originator Bob Kane. The film itself is grabbing covers on such diverse magazines as Premiere, Rolling Stone and Cinefantastique, and Kane, who served as a technical consultant for the movie, has more dates with the media than Joan and Jackie Collins.

The studio’s jittery publicists, who have treated “Batman” like a California Condor egg, relaxed briefly when normally reserved exhibitors poured out of their regional screenings earlier this month predicting an Academy Award for Nicholson, and claiming a blockbuster booking for themselves.

Still, there are clouds above the dark alleys of Gotham City created by director Tim Burton, production designer Anton Furst, and cinematographer Roger Pratt. As ebullient as exhibitors were over Nicholson’s performance, they said little to assure prying reporters that Keaton was convincing in the title role, and though Nicholson’s round-the-bend Joker prompted roars of laughter at two subsequent media screenings, the exhibitions ended in near silence.

“I’d say most of us were disappointed,” said an eastern journalist who attended a Warner Bros. press junket Tuesday at the Registry Hotel in Universal City. “The consensus seemed to be that it’s a good movie, but not as good as we expected from all the hype.”

In the current issue of Time magazine, critic Richard Corliss steps forward, in one of the first published reviews of “Batman,” with modest praise for its ambitions and the work of its co-stars, but Warners’ publicists will have to file it in the minus column.

They will also have to file in the minus column an early review from the influential trade paper, Daily Variety, which commends director Tim Burton’s visual style, but complains that the film makers treat their “thin plot too reverentially” and permit Nicholson, as the Joker, to overwhelm the more subdued Keaton as Batman.

There will be some for the plus column, as well. Rolling Stone has a review coming out next week that calls the film “a triumph,” Keaton’s performance “astounding” and Nicholson’s “a classic comic portrait.” Harlan Ellison, who reviews movies for the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, has filed a rave review in which he calls “Batman” “the first E ticket cinematic roller coaster (ride) since ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ and ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit.’ ”

“Remember how you felt the first time you saw ‘Star Wars?’,” Ellison said, in a telephone interview. “It’s that ‘Oh, my gosh, all bets are off’ feeling? Well, that’s what happens when you see this movie.”

Since last fall, when “Batman” went into production in London, the two questions most often raised regarded the budget and the casting. Published estimates have put “Batman’s” cost at $57 million; Peters said it cost about $40 million, including $5 million in interest payments. As for casting, all of the attention has focused on the selection of the slight 5'10" Keaton, an actor known primarily for his comedy performances in such films as “Night Shift,” “Mr. Mom,” and “Beetlejuice.” Batfans were not amused.

The noise they made was so great, it reached the front page of the Wall Street Journal, where a lead feature suggested the worst: that Batman might be a wimp. Soon after, Warner Bros. spent $400,000 on a trailer that it rushed to theaters around the country. Peters said 400 Batfans showed up at the Bruin Theater in Westwood and plunked down $7 for the regular feature just to catch this preview of the upcoming “Batman.”

The studio also sent the genial Kane and marketing consultant Jeff Walker on a damage control mission to fantasy and comic book conventions.

"(Comic book fans) are an extremely important part of the marketing campaign,” said Walker. “They are the primary moviegoers. They’re the ones who will be in line opening day, who pass the word of mouth. They’re also the best consumers of merchandise. They’re very loyal and affluent.”

Had Keaton’s competition simply been the amiably wooden Adam West, it would have been a mismatch. But to Batman fans, especially the current breed devoted to the graphic novels, Batman is a muscular hulk, even under the designer label clothes he wears during the day. He also has an attitude that can boil water, and Keaton’s own fans would have trouble imagining armed hoods taking one look at him and turning tail.

Nevertheless, Keaton is winning over some confessed Batman diehards.

L.A. artist and Batfanatic Phil Savenick said he and his brothers managed to slip into one of the studio’s recent screenings and were surprised by Keaton’s performance.

“I think comic book fans will like it more than they will (be) upset about it,” Savenick said.

Author-critic Ellison found Keaton’s Bruce Wayne reminiscent of “a young Jimmy Stewart.” Said Bruce Schwartz, who runs the Fantasy Kingdom book store in Burbank: “I like the film noir aspect, where Batman is a creature of the night. They really go back to the comic book.”

The first book, in which 38-year-old Batman first appeared, was published in issue 27 of Detective Comics in 1939. Kane, then an 18-year-old DC staff cartoonist, had been asked to come up with another hero to supplement a DC stable led by the Man of Steel, Superman.

Taking his inspiration from a Leonardo da Vinci drawing of a man adorned with bat-like wings, and the silent films “The Mark of Zorro” and “The Bat,” Kane came up with “the Bat-Man.” Unlike Superman and the other comic book heroes, the Bat-Man had no super powers; he depended instead on his physical strength and agility, his native cunning and an arsenal of high-tech gadgets and vehicles.

“I didn’t read any psychological overtones into him,” Kane said of the original Batman this week. “When I created him, I was looking to create another superhero on the heels of Superman. I didn’t want to be accused of copying him, so I didn’t give (him) any super powers.”

The dark overtones were inherent to Batman’s character, however. He had witnessed the murder of his parents by street thugs when he was 10 years old, and was committed to taking revenge against all criminals. Readers were immediately fascinated by the caped vigilante who became a sort of positive menace, the good force who leaped out from the shadows to stop crimes and dispense justice.

“The Batman saga is essentially about the night, and shadows in the night,” said DC Comics’ editor Denny O’Neil. “And the fact that somebody in those shadows is on your side.”

Within a year, Batman had his own comic book, and soon after that a sidekick, the teen-age orphan Dick Grayson, who stayed up past his bedtime as Robin. With Robin, the comic book took on lighter hues for the next 30 years. During the war, the Dynamic Duo fought the Nazis, spies and saboteurs who somehow ended up in Gotham City. In the early ‘50s, they took on some of the same space creatures who were invading movie theaters.

Batman remained popular through the ‘40s, with his own radio show and a pair of matinee serials, but was clobbered in the ‘50s by a backlash to violence in comic books and by the professional opinion in a published book that the comic book--with its two heroes in tights--would “stimulate children to homosexual fantasies.”

When ABC put a campy Batman and Robin on national TV, it created a massive new audience of Batfans and the merchandising spin-off totaled an estimated $150 million. With the success of the TV show, Batman became a little goofy in the comic books, as well, but in the early ‘70s, DC editor Julius Schwartz took Batman back to his roots as the Dark Avenger.

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It was the darker Batman that Peters and Guber found when they began negotiating for the film rights nearly 10 years ago.

Peters said he always intended to be faithful to the more complex psychological Batman, but when the first script was commissioned--from Tom Mankiewicz, who had authored three James Bond movies--most people assumed the movie would be closer to TV’s Batman than DC’s. Mankiewicz said it was neither.

“If anything, I used Superman as the model,” said Mankiewicz, who also worked on the “Superman” script. “At the time, I wanted to do something very dark in tone, but the drafts I did had a lot more fun in them (than I suspect the film) does.”

Mankiewicz doesn’t remember any actors being mentioned for Batman, but he noted that both Ivan Reitman and Joe Dante were attached as directors. Eventually, the directors and the writer went on to other things--Mankiewicz to work on “Ladyhawke,” Reitman to direct “Ghostbusters” and Dante to direct “Gremlins"--while “Batman” languished. Guber and Peters meanwhile sold Polygram and under their new production company, Guber-Peters Productions, produced such major studio movies as “Innerspace,” “The Witches of Eastwick” and “Gorillas in the Mist.”

Writer Steven Englehart, who did a series of Batman stories in Detective Comics, also worked up some movie treatments. In a letter to Comics Buyer’s Guide, he revealed the approach he had in mind, which would have pleased Batfanatics: “My first treatment had Robin getting blown away in the first 90 seconds, so that every reviewer in the country would begin his review with, ‘This sure isn’t the TV show.’ ”

Peters said the story didn’t get “the street feeling” Peters said he wanted until screenwriter Sam Hamm was brought in by Mark Canton, now Warner Bros. president of worldwide theatrical production. Hamm’s only previous screen credit was for the Touchstone wilderness film “Never Cry Wolf,” but he knew what the producers wanted.

“Batman is a street hero, a romantic hero,” said Canton. “I have a sense that if the movie is of its time, people will very much be there (with it) and they’ll go back many times.”

Hamm, who acknowledges the influence of Frank Miller’s 1986 novel, got the script far enough along for Guber-Peters to shop around for a director. They settled quickly on Tim Burton, a former Disney animator with just two features behind him--the sleeper 1985 hit “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure,” a $7 million off-beat comedy that grossed $40 million, and last summer’s hit “Beetlejuice,” a $13 million effects-laden horror-comedy that grossed $80 million.

The 30-year-old Burton said he grew up on the TV version of Batman and wasn’t as enamored of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight as everyone else. So, he had two more screenwriters--"Beetlejuice” co-writer Warren Skaaren and “Brazil” co-writer Charles McKeown--do further work on it.

“I have real trouble with vigilantism, it’s a very tricky subject,” said Burton, acknowledging that Batman is indeed a vigilante who enjoys administering on-the-scene justice. “I tried to make him as human as possible, a person who has problems . . . I wanted to show the fact that he is psychotic, but that he is good. If this guy had gotten therapy, he wouldn’t have needed to put on a bat suit.”

Although Nicholson was not approached until the script was ready, Peters and Canton said he was always in their mind as the Joker. When Mankiewicz wrote the first draft, he said he thought of no one other than Nicholson as the character. “There’s something so wonderfully diabolical about him,” Mankiewicz said.

In the film, Nicholson portrays a hood who, in a fight with Batman, is pushed into a vat of toxic waste. The acid bath and the subsequent back-alley face lift leaves him with a fixed grin, a wicked cackle and a thirst for vengeance that rivals Batman’s.

Batman and the Joker are opposite sides of the same coin, two obsessive personalities driven by personal tragedies toward an ultimate showdown. The question from the beginning was: Who could stand up to Jack Nicholson--even in an ominous black cape and under pointy bat ears--and not get blown off the screen?

Among the actors under consideration before Keaton were Charlie Sheen, Pierce Brosnan, Bill Murray, and Mel Gibson, who is even shorter than Keaton. The 60-year-old Adam West, of course, was always there, ready to step back into the lavender leotards he wore on TV.

Canton said Peters was the first to suggest Michael Keaton, and the idea took some getting used to.

“I stood back a little and thought about it, thought about ‘Beetlejuice’ and decided it would be better not to have a square-jawed guy,” Canton said. “The movie would be over. You needed someone more complex, and more accessible. Someone you could relate to in street clothes.”

Burton, who directed Keaton in “Beetlejuice,” had to think about it, too.

“I was taken aback for a second,” said Burton, “Then it started to make sense. Here you have a movie that needs to get across the psychological side (of the character) without saying it. I could see Michael putting on a Batman suit, and you could see in his eyes the turmoil. There’s stuff going on in there.”

Keaton said he is fascinated by the controversy over his selection, but he sounds more irritated. “I didn’t realize it could be such an issue. I mean, we’re talking about Batman. Grow up!”

No, there were no lifts in his Batshoes, he said. No, the references to his physique don’t get under his Batskin.

“What’s nice about Batman is that he’s not strictly a physical force, he’s essentially a cerebral force,” Keaton said, calmly. “He doesn’t just go out and kick ass.”

When the early photos of Keaton in costume began circulating, fans groaned over what appeared to be a prosthetic washboard torso, instant Hulk. It was, but it’s a plot device--a bullet proof vest--dreamed up by Burton to give some credibility to mortal Batman’s ability to survive machine gun fire.

Anyway, Keaton got the job, and increased Warner Bros.’ gamble two ways. They now had a star who was bringing comedic baggage to a serious role in a comic book movie, and they were adding another star salary to the budget. Peters acknowledged that Nicholson received $6 million to play the Joker. Industry sources put Keaton’s current fee at between $2 million and $3 million per picture. Add in the salaries of the director, Basinger and the other key cast members, the costs of film rights and script development fees, and Warner Bros. had committed an estimated $14 million before the first elaborate set was built.

Even if the comic book faithful buy into Keaton and accept the creative license the film’s plot takes with the DC backgrounds of Batman and the Joker, the fate of Warner Bros.’ gamble rests with the “other audience,” the mainstream moviegoers. For them, the question is, will the movie live up to the hype?

“My major concern is that there is so much awareness and hype,” said Tim Burton. “I keep thinking, ‘I hope there’s a movie attached to all of this.”’ "


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