If nothing else, we can thank Tim Burton‘s 1989 film for the explosion of the Bat-franchise. Even if you hate the flick (and I understand there are some that do), we all owe it something. Without it, we don’t get the brilliant animated series that kept much of its tone (and Danny Elfman‘s glorious score), we don’t get nearly as many Batman action figures and t-shirts. Sure, someone would have made a Batman film eventually, even if this one never got off the ground. But it did, and thus it’s the launch pad not just for the Batman franchise, but for the modern age of superhero cinema.
Gotham City: So many of the best Batman storytellers have focused on the power of making Gotham City a character unto itself, and though Burton doesn’t give much energy to its portrayal other than in a visual sense, he does manage to show us a city that seems alive and shadowy and ready to envelop us. It’s important that the very first shot in the film after the opening titles is a broad Gotham cityscape, showing us a place enveloped in the haze of industrialization but still alive with a kind of mismatched architectural magic. Unlike Christopher Nolan, who’s always seemed determined to show us a modern, recognizable metropolis, Burton seems content to show us what looks more like Gotham in a dream. It’s a comic book Gotham, a conceptual artist’s playground version of Gotham. Huge stone faces stare out from Gothic skyscrapers alongside over-industrialized tangles of rusted pipe that snake through the city. Axis Chemicals is an industrial behemoth that somehow still maintains its whimsy. We see the contrast between elegance and ugliness, and somehow they both come together. As a result, there are shots in Batman where I look more at the background than at the characters, which may not be good for the characters, but is definitely a testament to Burton’s visual gifts.
Wayne Manor: My image of “stately Wayne Manor” was always informed by this flick. I love it. I love how big it feels, how gloomy, how dark and suffocating save for the warming presence of Alfred (Michael Gough). I love the expanse of the Batcave beneath it, which (while not entirely realistic) is truly an iconic version of the Batman’s lair. It’s another instance of a place where you might be more interested in the scenery than what’s going on in the scene.
Michael Keaton: There are people who still can’t get over the sting of Michael Keaton’s casting as Bruce Wayne. “How in hell do you take an actor largely known for his comedy and make him into handsome, debonair Bruce Wayne, and by extension capable, intimidating Batman by night? It’s blasphemy!” The truth is the reason Keaton’s performance works is that he’s never trying to be the debonair billionaire with the dark secret. His Bruce Wayne is awkward, stammering, withdrawn, reliant on Alfred not just to run the household, but often to remind him when he needs to go be Batman. This is a Bruce Wayne who’s still trying to figure out how to lead this insane double life, but never really quite figured out how to lead just one life in the first place. In so many Batman stories the public image of Bruce Wayne is that of the carefree, make-it-rain billionaire playboy. No one would suspect Bruce Wayne is Batman, because Bruce Wayne doesn’t care about anything but fast cars, women and champagne. Keaton’s Bruce Wayne is different. He takes the damage that comes from Bruce’s loss of his parents and transforms it into social awkwardness. After all, how many people can really identify with him? How many people could a guy who’s possibly the world’s only billionaire orphan turn to? He’s got Alfred, but he’s otherwise often left with very little in the way of support. The result is a Bruce Wayne who seems frail and aloof, and no one would suspect that he’s Batman. It works even while being an unconventional portrayal, and it reveals the depth of Keaton’s talent. As for his portrayal as Batman, he doesn’t really get to do much in terms of acting. This is a largely silent Batman, but what little work he does get to do always worked for me.
The Score: Yes, the Prince tracks do date this movie a bit (and I’m someone who loves Prince), but Danny Elfman’s sweeping, whimsical score is part of what makes the flick. Admit it, you still get chills whenever you hear that theme.
The Batgear: Here’s another bit of iconic work that came out of this flick. The Batsuit, the Batmobile, the Batjet, that slick black design with hints of gold. It might not exactly be realistic or practical (more of Nolan’s department), but damn does it look cool.
Jack Nicholson: This is a tricky one, because there are things inherently wrong with the Joker throughout this flick, but Nicholson isn’t one of them. He’s a masterful actor, of course, and such a big personality that you’re not really getting Joker. You’re getting Jack Nicholson in Joker makeup. But even with that, he manages to throw himself full-bore at the role, giving even the moments that don’t quite work (usually when the character’s angry) a certain charm.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK
Vicki Vale: No, I’m not about to blast Kim Basinger the actress. She’s great so often that it seems both mean and futile to do that. Nor I am going to blast the necessity of including her in a flick like this. A love interest of some kind is part of the formula for superhero flicks, whether we like it or not. No, I’m here to to complain about Vicki Vale. She’s more of a set piece than a person. The film’s script uses her to give us a kind of firsthand, innocent view of the Batman mythos, but honestly we don’t need that. It’s not that Vicki doesn’t deserve a place in this movie. It’s that the place she does have – the apparently capable and strong photojournalist that becomes suddenly incapable and weak at random moments – isn’t a place that works.
The Prince songs: I’m a Prince fan, OK? I love Prince. I love the Prince songs for this flick. I love “Batdance.” But these tunes shouldn’t be in the movie. I know it was a tactic the producers used to make the flick “fun for the kids” or something, and I know Burton himself wasn’t a big fan, and while I can understand all of that, I still want them gone.
The Joker’s Origin: Batman has been criticized before for Burton’s greater interest in the Joker’s character than in Batman’s. That wouldn’t be a problem for me, except that Burton really doesn’t seem to understand how to best use the character. At the center of these missteps is his reliance on a Joker origin story to make up much of the film’s first act. That’s a problem, because apart from the very nonspecific one Alan Moore crafted in his iconic graphic novel The Killing Joke, I’m of the mind that Joker shouldn’t ever have an origin story. It takes away his mystique, and it takes away the central power of the Batman/Joker dynamic. Much of the Batman mythos is a freakshow. Batman himself is a victim of tragedy who then used that tragedy as a motivating force for good, while each of his villains was a victim of some transformative tragedy that they then used as motivation for evil. In a sense, every other Batman villain can be “solved” somehow, and there’s an inherent sensitivity in their origins because we know that they were once a person with feelings and hopes and responsibilities. Jack Napier wasn’t exactly a very “human” person to begin with, but making him into the Joker takes away the power of the character’s unsolvable element. He works best as more of a force than a person (as we’ll soon see), and here he’s just too easy to dismiss as a psych case with some bad chemical burns.
The Joker Killed the Waynes: And now we come to the most glaring problem of Batman, and though it’s often been said that it’s only a problem for the nerds, it’s really not. I’m not a fan of identifying the killer of Bruce Wayne’s parents at all, though I do still allow for the naming of a common thug as the culprit in some stories, because that doesn’t take too much away from the impact of the act on Bruce. But making the future Joker the culprit (and giving him a stupid, stupid line to say just before the kill), turns Batman from a good-intentioned vigilante to a simple Boogeyman hunter out to avenge his parents. The film’s last act is deeply diminished by this, and it makes us question so much about why Batman does what he does. It’s the biggest stain on an otherwise entertaining hero vs. villain story.
Though it’s not a masterpiece, Batman does have enough going for it to make it an entertaining, highly re-watchable piece of superhero cinema with enough iconic imagery to make up for its often sloppy storytelling. Plus, it gave us a starting point for some great things that lie ahead.