FILMS

SUMMER OF SUPERHEROES

BATMAN AND GHOSTBUSTERS II ARE GLADIATORS BATTLING FOR THE SUMMER BOX OFFICE

Brian D. Johnson June 26 1989
FILMS

SUMMER OF SUPERHEROES

BATMAN AND GHOSTBUSTERS II ARE GLADIATORS BATTLING FOR THE SUMMER BOX OFFICE

Brian D. Johnson June 26 1989

It is the season of superheroes. On movie screens across North America, Hollywood gladiators are battling it out for the summer box office. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the world’s most outgoing archeologist fends off Nazis with a bullwhip and a prayer. In Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Captain Kirk and the crew take yet another spin into unfathomed depths of the galaxy. Ghostbusters II brings back the Bowery Boys of karma control, confronting a fresh infestation of ghosts with smart remarks and special effects. Now, Batman, the one non-sequel among the four big summer releases, brings to life the dark knight of comic-book legend with devastating originality and style.

The season presents an unprecedented display of Hollywood firepower. Each of those four movies is being shown on more than 2,000 screens in North America. Each cost more than $35 million to produce. And studio executives are predicting that summer box-office sales will surpass last season’s record $2 billion. Indiana Jones has already set a blistering pace, earning $125 million in its first three weeks. And with all the buzz surrounding Batman before its June 23 opening, that movie is a formidable contender. The merchandising campaign for Batman spin-offs—from T-shirts to toys—has already become a blockbuster enterprise.

There are other challengers in the action-movie sweepstakes. Bravely nipping the heels of Batman—and opening on the same day—The Karate Kid Part III stretches its featherweight formula to a third round. In July, Lethal Weapon II brings back the glib banter of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover as Los Angeles cops, and Licence to Kill sends James Bond on his 16th big-screen mission. Then, in August, an undersea thriller titled The Abyss—perhaps the biggest gamble in a sequel-saturated summer—takes a $48-million plunge into treacherous waters.

For now, the most interesting box-office showdown is shaping up between Batman and Ghostbusters II. Both are cartoon-like, live-action adventures. Each has a sound track spiked with potential hits—Prince, the caped rocker, recorded four songs for Batman, and the popular rap group RUN-D.M.C. provided a punched-up version of the Ghostbusters theme for the sequel.

Both movies are supported by huge merchandising campaigns. The impending release of Batman, combined with the 50th anniversary of the comic book, has triggered a deluge of bat products since last fall. In Canada, the Montreal-based clothing manufacturer Novel Teez Designs Inc. has already sold more than 200,000 T-shirts emblazoned with the bat symbol—at $16 to $20 apiece retail. Other licensed products include bat shoes, bat toys, bat watches, bat chocolates and even a bat bed. Said Jeanne Danielson, the executive who heads the licensing division of Warner Bros. (Canada) Ltd.: “We’re talking worldwide Batmania.” Ghostbusters has already spawned its own merchandising boom, fulfilling a prophecy made by Bill Murray’s character, Dr. Venkman, in the first movie. As the ghostbusters go into business, he predicts that “the franchise rights alone will make us rich beyond our wildest dreams.” A huge hit, the original movie generated two top-rated TV cartoon series—The Real Ghostbusters and Slimer! and the Real Ghostbusters—and a popular line of toys.

Batman and Ghostbusters II present a study in stark contrasts. One movie embraces Dracula’s nocturnal symbol; the other sports a white cartoon logo reminiscent of Caspar the Friendly Ghost. The Batmobile is sleek, sinister and black, an armored rocket on wheels; the Ectomobile is a clumsy old ambulance, painted white and decked with flashing lights. Batman presents a dark, violent vision—too frightening for the young children who will be playing with toy replicas of its Batmobile. Ghostbusters II is a sweet, cute, self-mocking comedy—it makes the supernatural safe for the whole family. Both movies are set in cities that are aching with moral decay and run by hapless mayors resembling New York City’s Ed Koch. But while Ghostbusters II actually takes place in contemporary New York, Batman creates its own world, a nightmarish caricature of Manhattan known as Gotham City.

Although Ghostbusters II may have wider appeal, Batman has provoked a greater surge of anticipation than any other Hollywood offering this year. The movie lives up to the hype—but also shatters expectations. Audiences looking for the sort of straightforward escape provided by most big-budget action pictures are in for a shock. Batman goes beyond good and evil. Black-humored, beautiful and scary, it is powered by an operatic sense of malevolence—a sickle-winged esthetic that cuts through everything from the forbidding architecture of the sets to the gothic melodrama of the sound track.

For the past year, comic-book fans have complained that soft-jawed Michael Keaton had no business portraying the macho character of Batman. But Keaton’s offbeat casting is just one element of a vision that plays havoc with Hollywood formula. As the archvillain who calls himself the Joker, Jack Nicholson outdoes himself with a brilliantly outrageous performance. He plays a cackling psychopath, a self-proclaimed “homicidal artist” with a passion for mass murder. But Nicholson portrays him with such delirious glee that he often seems more sympathetic than Batman. The devil has never looked so good. And he gets all of the best lines. “Can somebody tell me,” asks the Joker, “what kind of world we live in where a man dressed up as a bat gets all my press—this town needs an enema.”

Although Nicholson steals the show, Keaton is powerfully understated as Bruce Wayne, the troubled millionaire who leads another life as Batman. Haunted by the murder of his parents, who were gunned down in front of him when he was a boy, he is an avenger with a disturbing streak of cruelty. In a Maclean’s interview last week, Keaton said, “I see Batman as dark, depressed, angry—sleepy because he is up all night—intelligent, and almost funny in spite of himself.” The movie takes place at the start of the hero’s career. As the story begins, Batman is just a mysterious vigilante swooping down into the dark corners of a corrupt city. And the Joker is just a prominent gangster named Jack. But in his first battle with Batman, Jack’s face is horribly disfigured. Decorating the damage with white makeup, scarlet lipstick and green hair, he re-emerges like the Phantom of the Opera on a lunatic mission. A sophisticated terrorist, the Joker sneaks chemicals into cosmetic products that cause people to die laughing. He hijacks the airwaves, interrupting TV newscasts with his own image. And in the movie’s most iconoclastic scene, he and his harlequin thugs dance through an art gallery defacing priceless paintings to the brass-knuckled beat of a Prince song playing on an oversized cassette deck.

Mixing romance with nihilism, the Joker craves a female prey. He ditches his girlfriend, a dozy blonde played by Mick Jagger’s companion, Jerry Hall, and then sets his sights on Vicki Vale, a slightly less dozy blonde played by Kim Basinger. A photojournalist desperate to get pictures of Batman in action, Vale tumbles into bed with Wayne before discovering his secret identity. Lacking the spunk of Superman’s Lois Lane, Vale is a bland bore—a helpless career woman clinging to her hero’s utility belt. Apparently, Gotham City is no fun for blondes. And Batman is even less of a woman’s movie than it is a children’s movie. Vale’s romance with Wayne is the one area where the movie gets stalled by the cheap convenience of Hollywood cliché. But at least Vale raises an interesting suspicion—that her boyfriend may be just as demented as the Joker.

Batman’s style—basic black and bulletproof—mirrors the forbidding, neofascist architecture of Gotham City. It is a compressed Manhattan of skyscraper canyons, a webbed city of gargoyles and flying buttresses. And it provides an extraordinary playground for the hero and his expressionist armor—his costume, car, Batcave and Batwing. The movie is a carnival of anachronisms, with fashions and technology ranging from the 1930s to the 1990s. Newsmen wear fedoras and carry cameras with fat flashbulbs, but their world includes color TVs and telephone answering machines. Built at Pinewood Studios in London, Gotham is the biggest outdoor movie set erected in Europe since Cleopatra was filmed in the early 1960s. Explaining his concept of Gotham, British production designer Anton Furst says he imagined that “hell had erupted through the pavement and kept on growing.”

The Joker and Batman, twisted products of each other’s vengeful obsessions, are ultimately both overshadowed by Gotham City—and by the dramatic vision of the movie’s gifted young director, Tim Burton. A 30-year-old American who once worked as an animator for Walt Disney Studios, Burton specializes in making the unbelievable look real: he won acclaim for creating dream worlds in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) and in Beetlejuice (1988), which starred Keaton as a comic demon. But with Batman, he is operating in another league. “I have never been involved in something on this scale before,” Burton told Maclean’s in a Los Angeles interview. “And it makes me feel quite uncomfortable.”

With black, tousled hair and a punk-thin frame, clad in black jeans and a black sweatshirt, Burton looked more like a rock musician than the director of a megabudget movie. And he seemed unnerved by the blitz of Batman publicity. “With so much hype, there is always the danger of a backlash,” he said. “With this kind of big-style movie, I don’t know what people expect, if they expect to see that clear-cut good-versus-evil thing you get in blockbusters.” He added, “I find it more interesting to leave things open to interpretation.” Controversy over Batman’s character swirled around the production right from the start. The director says that he has always seen Batman as “a screwed-up guy” rather than a straightforward hero. Said Burton: “I have tried to jumble people’s expectations.”

While Batman’s flesh-and-blood hero was inspired by a cartoon, the reverse process has taken place with Ghostbusters. The original instalment—the top-grossing movie comedy in history—was based on a blueprint by its exuberant Canadian star, Dan Aykroyd (page 54). After its release in 1984, it generated the two TV cartoon spin-offs, which in turn have created a new generation of Ghostbusters fans. Canadian producer-director Ivan Reitman calls the sequel “your classical family-audience picture—we know that five-year-olds are going to see it and that adults are going to see it.”

Although it seems commercially infallible, the sequel cannot be expected to recapture the magic and innocence of the original. Ghostbusters was a success story about a gang of lovable misfits who have the nerve to sell themselves as supernatural pest-control experts. The sequel, taking place five years later, is a comeback story. After reducing parts of Manhattan to rubble in the first movie, the ghostbusters have been ordered by the courts to abandon their profession. Smooth-talking Dr. Venkman has become the host of a cable TV show about psychic phenomena. Egon (Harold Ramis) has disappeared into research science. Ray (Aykroyd) and Winston (Ernie Hudson) still wear the Ghostbuster uniforms, but use them to entertain children at birthday parties.

The team gets back together after receiving a distress call from Dana (Sigourney Weaver) complaining of renewed harassment by the forces of darkness. The culprit turns out to be the demonic ghost of a 16th-century tyrant, lurking in a painting at the art museum where she works. With a possessed curator as his go-between, the ghost has evil designs on Dana’s baby. And his emergence is connected to a Stygian river of supernatural slime that is swelling beneath Manhattan. Oozing up through the pavement, the slime feeds off the nastiness of New Yorkers—and serves as the main metaphor in a parable of peace and love.

The first movie worked its charm with shameless mugging, cheesy special effects and a great sense of novelty. Like the original, the sequel neatly combines self-promotion with self-parody. It is a package that offers more ghosts, richer special effects, a funnier Bill Murray and a sexier Sigourney Weaver. The characters all come into closer focus. And, as if to compensate for the loss of innocence, a scene-stealing eight-month-old baby named Oscar figures prominently in the plot. But despite some hilarious scenes, the sequel seems too carefully contrived, celebrating the ghostbusters’ populist appeal with the drumming insistence of a homecoming parade.

The film-makers hesitated before committing themselves to a sequel. Producer-director Reitman had never made one before, although studio executives have requested sequels for every one of the five hit comedies that he has produced or directed, from National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) to Twins (1988). “I have purposely stayed away from sequels,” he said. “But with Ghostbusters, we thought the story could go further, and the more we talked about it, we just started giggling.” Added Reitman: “My greatest concern is that the element of surprise is gone.”

Among the cast, there was uneven enthusiasm for a sequel. Its biggest star, Bill Murray, was the one most reluctant to get back into ghost-fighting gear. “I thought it would too easily appear that we were doing it for the money,” he told Maclean’s on the Los Angeles set last February. “But we really do have fun working together.” Aykroyd, meanwhile, seems happy to continue busting ghosts. “I don’t see a limit to it,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, if everyone wanted to get together and do this again next year, we would figure out a story and do it.” For his part, Ramis takes a neutral stance. “The concept is bigger than we are now,” he said. “And there is a great familiarity in putting on the uniforms—I’ve often felt like one of the Star Trek crew.”

The oldest gang of heroes returning to the screen this summer is, in fact, the crew of the starship U.S.S. Enterprise. Starring the original cast of the widely syndicated 1960s TV series, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier turns the galaxy into a rest home for tired space cadets. Montreal-born actor William Shatner, 58, is back at the helm as Captain Kirk, and Leonard Nimoy, also 58, repeats his role as the inscrutable Vulcan Mr. Spock. DeForest Kelley (Bones) is 69, as is Vancouver-born James Doohan (Scotty). With the latest sequel, the Star Trek legend itself slips from eccentricity into senility. The movie marks the directing debut of Shatner, who also co-wrote the script. But it falls light-years short of the standard that Nimoy set in directing Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. That 1986 movie, which brought the Enterprise crew down to Earth and into the 20th century, achieved a comic irony that even non-Trekkies could appreciate. It also earned $132 million at the box office, more than any other Star Trek movie.

The Final Frontier returns to the barren reaches of space, where only the sturdiest of clichés thrive. Unlike The Voyage Home, which explored the coast of contemporary California, it was filmed in deserts passed off as remote planets. As the story begins, the crew is on shore leave. Defying gravity and age, Kirk goes rock-climbing in Yosemite National Park. And, around a campfire, he tries to teach Spock to sing Row, Row, Row Your Boat. But the comedy goes up in smoke as the crew races off to rescue hostages on a frontier planet. There, the Enterprise is hijacked by an evangelical terrorist on a collision course with God, who apparently lives on the other side of the Great Barrier in the heart of the galaxy. God turns out to be a shabby special effect. And with Shatner in command behind the camera as well as in front of it, Star Trek finally seems to have run aground.

A more experienced Canadian director, James Cameron—who made the hit space movie Aliens (1986)—is now putting the finishing touches to his briny thriller, The Abyss. Based on a short story that he wrote as a high-school student in Niagara Falls, Ont., it was filmed last year in an abandoned nuclear power plant in North Carolina—converted to the largest underwater movie set ever constructed. Cameron has an excellent track record. But executives at 20th Century Fox have reason to be nervous. Earlier this year, two other underwater thrillers, Leviathan and Deepstar Six, sank without a trace. Fox said that it had planned on a July release but postponed it to August because the special effects were not ready. But, in a rare move, the studio showed a half-hour extract to critics in early June—a bid for attention in a crowded market.

Overshadowed by the heavyweight action movies, a few other films are vying for the box office. Great Balls of Fire chronicles the life of a dubious hero, rock ’n’ roller Jerry Lee Lewis. And Canada’s Rick Moranis, who plays the phantom-fighters’ lawyer in Ghostbusters II, stars in the comedy Honey I Shrunk the Kids. But in the Hollywood Summer Olympics, the favored contenders are the sequels. Competing for the hearts of moviegoers, their superheroes seem eager to show their vulnerability. Indiana Jones fends off the German army but trembles before his father. A ghostbuster gets dewy-eyed over a baby. And the Star Trek crew indulges in group therapy. Traditionally, the Hollywood hero is an ordinary mortal exalted by extraordinary circumstances. Batman, however, is out of the ordinary. He is strange and severe. Deflecting the audience’s desire to identify, he displays less wit and passion than the villain he is destined to subdue. Hollywood has produced a royal flush of superheroes, but there is a Joker in the pack. And he may have the last laugh.