Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure in the History of Comic Book Superhero Movies
Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985) is your usual love story of boy has bike, boy loses bike, boy regains bike and lives happily ever after. Its director Tim Burton was an ex-animator who had made a few shorts but had never directed a feature-length film. Four years later, he directed the Warner Bros. summer tent-pole picture Batman (1989). Warner Bros. considered two other men for Batman, the directors of two of the highest-grossing films of 1984: Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters, 1984) and Joe Dante (Gremlins, 1984). Had Warner Bros. only been interested in possible return on investment, they would likely have chosen either Reitman or Dante. Ghostbusters was, at the time, one of the 10 highest grossing films ever and Gremlins made almost $150 million on a budget of around $11 million. But Reitman's Ghostbusters especially, and Dante's Gremlins to a degree, do not have distinct visual styles so much as clear tones. Pee-Wee's Big Adventure was also a Warner Bros. film, which meant the studio knew Burton could deliver a profitable film on time and on budget. As Burton recalls, "After Pee-Wee, they asked me if I was interested in directing Batman, and I was. But they didn't give the okay officially until after the first weekend grosses from Beetlejuice came in. . . . They were just waiting to see how Beetlejuice did. They didn't want to give me that movie unless Beetlejuice was going to be okay."1 One scene – one pair of images – explains Burton's suitability to make Batman: the scene introduces the main conflict in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure.
After a morning of running errands, Pee-Wee returns to a motorised waving clown statue where he had locked up "the best bike in the whole world." A five-second tracking shot follows Pee-Wee's feet, accompanied only by the sound of his shoes clacking against the pavement. Pee-Wee stops in front of a half-dozen pieces of broken chain, and the image stays static as violins come up on the soundtrack and Pee-Wee draws a sharp, panicked breath. Burton cuts from the shot of Pee-Wee's feet to a medium shot of Pee-Wee, slightly off-centre and at a severely canted angle. In this shot, Pee-Wee's body is at a 45-degree angle to the bottom of the frame, his head pointing up to the top right. Burton slowly zooms in on Pee-Wee's face while moving closer to him and twisting the camera to tilt the image in the other direction, until Pee-Wee's head points to the top left of the image at about 30 degrees, relative to the bottom of the frame. An eyeline match cut shows what Pee-Wee fearfully beholds: the clown statue where he had locked his bike. An evil cackling laugh comes up on the soundtrack and the clown turns to face the camera, its arm sweeping past the camera lens. The clown's arm moves out of the image to reveal that someone has painted menacingly arched eyebrows on the clown's face.
Like most canted shots in Hollywood cinema, the post-bike-theft shot suggests how the film's narrative world has jumped off its rails. Being the first canted shot in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, the disruption it signals registers as even more jarring. On the one hand, the scene piles on horror film conventions: shrieking violins in a minor key, sharp intakes of breath, scary laughter, a clown, and zooming and twisting low-angle camera work at canted angles. On the other hand, the scene's lighting, colour palette and setting push against that horror: high-key lighting of a mostly pastel palette in a Santa Monica pedestrian mall in the middle of the day. This slightly off-kilter use of Classical Hollywood film grammar has become one of Burton's signatures: suburban gothic.
The importance of colour to Burton's direction in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure reveals itself in the aftermath of the bike theft. The next four sequences – in the bike shop, on the pedestrian mall, at Francis Buxton's house and back on the pedestrian mall – all use high-key lighting and bright colours, only now as an ironic accent on Pee-Wee's pain. Only after Pee-Wee exhausts legitimate means of finding his bike does the film's visual style change. His presentation to his friends stands out in its changed lighting style. For the first time in the film, shadows – heavy, noir shadows – appear in Pee-Wee's world. His trip to the fortune teller continues his descent into the shadows, but as soon as Pee-Wee hits the road, the film returns to a bright and uniformly lit world. When Pee-Wee faces scary night-time moments, they do not greatly change the film's look: his car crash is preceded by gag street signs and his dreams retain the circus-kitsch aesthetic of his house. Pee-Wee's bright, high-key-lit world goes away when he first enters someone else's environment, like the truck stop and the biker bar. The roadside dinosaur park combines pools of darkness with splashes of bright colour, much like the dreams that reveal the darkness lurking in Pee-Wee himself.
Thematically and visually, Pee-Wee/Pee-Wee greatly resemble Batman/Batman. Pee-Wee, the character, is a mentally unstable man-child who lives alone, distrusts the company of women, dresses up in a funny outfit, rides around on tricked-out customised vehicles and rights wrongs. The Pee-Wee and Batman character templates resemble each other, while Batman's visual style inverts Pee-Wee's Big Adventure's. A few moments of Pee-Wee's madness appear in a horror-noir style that erupts from the film's colourful high-key style (and Pee-Wee's psyche). In Batman, Joker's madness frequently appears as high-key lit bright colours and Pee-Wee-like gag props, as in the museum scene with Vicky Vale, a contrasting approach to the film's predominantly noir style. Pee-Wee's world is bright and colourful, with infrequent intrusions of a darkness (both thematic and visual) linked to clowns. Batman, for its part, takes place in a black and grey Gotham that Joker's clowning and clownish brightness intrudes upon.
The theft of his bike drives Pee-Wee to temporary madness, a psychological shift Burton registers as a brief switch from generic comedy lighting and bright colours to a more low-key, noir approach. Similarly, the Joker briefly changes Batman's crime-ridden Gotham from a noir city of black and grey into a city with splashes of vivid colour. Curiously, many of the Batman-focused scenes – in particular the scenes that introduce his crime-fighting exploits – use canted-angle shots. On the one hand, this approach registers Batman's status as a 1980s action film; Tony Scott movies, for example, use such shots frequently. On the other hand, the preponderance of canted-angle shots for Batman's appearances, as opposed to the level images associated with Joker's re-imagining of art and his self-produced infomercial, might curiously suggest that the vigilante Batman unbalances Gotham more than the arch-criminal Joker.
Beyond the aesthetic and themes found in Batman, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure is the starting point for the comic book superhero film adaptation more broadly. Batman Returns stages this genealogy in its casting: Paul Reubens and Diane Salinger – the actors who play Pee-Wee and Simone – appear in the pre-credit sequence to Batman Returns as the Cobblepots, parents of a deformed baby whom they throw into a river. The Cobblepots – recognizable as Pee-Wee and Simone – create the Penguin. Seen in the light of Batman and all the Batmans that followed, the rotating clown statue in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure is the essential image, the place to begin when contending with the superhero film. Batman was not a sure thing for Warner Bros.; likewise, Tim Burton was not a guaranteed or known quantity. A comic book adaptation like Batman was a similar proposition to Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, appealing to a niche audience, with a potentially large crossover (Pee-Wee's Playhouse, the only live-action Saturday-morning show, was a television hit). Before Christopher Nolan added "naturalism" to Batman, making it more reputable, Tim Burton showed what would basically appeal about the superhero film in the figure of Pee-Wee. The low-angle shot of the rotating clown statue in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure shows that Tim Burton knew how to tell a story from the edges of "mainstream" society in the film language of Hollywood cinema. This image informs the widespread box office success and cultural capital of Batman, comic book superhero film adaptations, to say nothing of Tim Burton's directorial career.