Someday, in the not too distant future, we’re going to get a raw, documentary-style Batman film, about a regular guy who just so happens to dress up like a bat and get into ugly fist fights with criminals. And when that happens, we’ll turn around and laugh at how cheesy and unrealistic the Christopher Nolan films seem by comparison. Today’s cultural sensation is tomorrow’s hokey relic. So it goes.
But until that happens, it behooves us to look at Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film, which scans as corny and even rudimentary relative to Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, with some perspective. After the semi-grounded approach to the character in recent years, it seems odd in hindsight that Burton’s take on the character was praised for its serious approach to the source material. But contemporary critics were comparing it to William Dozier’s Batman ‘66, the overtly comedic, Adam West incarnation of The Caped Crusader. So, as I discussed with Robbie Dorman on the Serial Fanaticist Podcast, while much of Burton’s tack in the 1989 Batman feels broader and even goofier than the Batman of today, his version fits into a wide spectrum of portrayals of the character, on the page and on the screen, that’s taken shape over the last eighty years.
Even with this approach in mind, it’s hard to reconcile the rational understanding of Batman’s place in the superhero movie pantheon with one’s gut reaction to a movie made nearly three decades ago under very different expectations for comic book films and blockbusters in general. The elements of the film that were groundbreaking in 1989 don’t necessarily hold up in a modern-day viewing.
Some of what dates the film is easily forgivable. The effects are not up to today’s standards – regardless of CGI – with models or miniatures standing out clearly. Details as minor as Batman’s costume contribute to the “just playing dress up” vibe of the picture. Between the two-piece cowl, or the curtain drapery bit Batman tries with his cape in an attempt to create an intimidating silhouette for the criminals he’s attacking, the entire enterprise feels chintzier than the polished (even overly polished) look of today’s cape flicks.
And yet, that contributes to the feel of the film. If there’s one thing about the ‘89 Batman that feels both entirely appropriate to the source material but also makes it harder for a modern day viewer to connect with the film, it’s the overall atmosphere of the movie. Burton embraces the exaggerated, four-color roots of the genre in the visuals and overall tenor of the film, even when it includes more intense elements like gangland hits and dying parents.
Part of that comes from the film’s setting, which takes place in a strange amalgam of the 1940s and the then-current Reagan era. Certain elements of the film – like the cops and robbers motifs and the production design as a whole — place Batman in an old version of New York City, one that only really existed on the silver screen in the first place. But details like Vicky Vale’s glasses, or breaks in the action for The Joker and his goons to dance to Prince songs, or even the particular energy of the Alexander Knox character, root the movie squarely in the late nineteen eighties. It’s a blend that serves to make the film very specific, timeless, and dated all at once.
The setting of the film adds to the same sense of it as a cartoony throwback. It looks like Burton literally shot the movie using oversized play sets, to where everything in Batman feels artificial and larger than life. The world of Gotham is a fantasy land, a theme park, that captures the unreality of Batman’s comic roots while also putting it at a remove from the audience. In effect, these choices make Burton’s Batman feels truest to those roots in general spirit, even as he departs from standard continuity and characterization. While Keaton’s Batman doesn’t feel pulled from the pages of Bill Finger’s Detective Comics, there’s a real sense of Burton taking these toys out of the toy box, moving them around his elegantly constructed play set, with all the bombast and silliness that goes with it.
The problem, then, is that little of it has any weight. Not every superhero movie needs to be a meditation on hope or morality or vigilantism, but Burton’s Batman comes out feeling like empty calories. The Bat himself is the only character with any sort of inner life. There’s fun to be had here – giant balloons and cartoony gadgets — but it doesn’t have the import of Nolan’s films or the joie de vivre of the lighter Marvel films of recent vintage. Instead, Burton’s Batman feels, appropriately enough, like a Saturday morning cartoon come to life, with the same commitment to whiz-bang action but also the same lack of depth.
The irony is that the actual Saturday morning cartoon inspired by Burton’s film, Batman: The Animated Series, distills the character and his world down to a much more coherent and compelling version of the same ideas present here. By contrast, it’s rare that the characters in Burton’s Batman feel like real people rather than four-color abstractions and broadly-sketched archetypes.
The peak of this is Jack Nicholson’s Joker. There are hints here and there at a unique conception of the Clown Prince of Crime. The most promising of them is the idea that the Joker is a conceptual artist whose medium of choice is homicide. It’s appropriately out there for the character and accounts for the theatrical flair in his capers. But Burton’s Joker has little true motivation in the film beyond some quickly-completed revenge. There’s reason to give Burton the benefit of the doubt and take his Joker as the result of someone with little empathy or control to begin with going insane, leading to unpredictable, almost random cruelty. But the bumpers of the film’s exaggerated atmosphere keep that idea from landing with any force.
That leaves Batman with a semi-incoherent antagonist, a rushed origin story, and only Jack Nicholson’s charisma to save it all. Nicholson doesn’t just chew the scenery here; he gnaws on it like a dog with a bone. That leads to some enjoyable line reads (“where does he get those wonderful toys” is still a nicely arch delivery from Nicholson) and some amusing dances from the three-time Oscar winner, but mostly leads to the character feeling as though he lacks an anchor or a purpose beyond dutifully moving the conflict along (and, of course, giving Nicholson the space to do a handful of off-the-wall, unconnected comic sketches). Nicholson’s Joker is over the top, as he should be, but also rudderless and showy, undercutting any menace or threat he’s supposed to pose.
That extends to the film’s biggest break with the source material – making the Joker (as a young Jack Napier) the man who killed Bruce Wayne’s parents. It creates a certain poetry and connects the hero and the villain in the way that so many stories, superhero or otherwise, like to do. (See also: the first season of Netflix’s Luke Cage show.) But it doesn’t amount to much beyond changing Batman from a crusader for justice to a bog-standard seeker of revenge.
It’s a shame because Keaton’s Batman, while hamstrung by some of the movie’s shortcomings, makes for an intriguing version of the character. He doesn’t brood exactly, but he seems quietly tortured nonetheless. It’s a choice keeps Keaton’s Batman from the taciturn glumness that overly dark modern adaptations have taken too far, but still portrays him as a man who doesn’t quite feel comfortable with who or what he is. He shuts people out and works through his problems by skulking through the night and protecting other little boys whose parents wander into the wrong alleyways. Beyond the “wanna get nuts” interlude, it’s a nicely understated take on the character that succeeds in ways even Christian Bale struggled with at times.
He also gives the film its only real bit of emotional weight, especially Bruce/Batman’s relationship with Vicky Vale. Kim Basinger’s Vale is a thin, if noble (for the time) attempt to put a female lead with some oomph into the narrative. She shows a modicum of cleverness and resourcefulness during the film, but still devolves into standard damsel-in-distress tropes that make her feel more like a formality than a vital part of the story. Still, the film never feels more human and real than in the moments when Bruce and Vicky are flirting, or worrying about one another, or closing themselves off from one another. Their romance succeeds and fails to varying degrees over the course of the movie, but in the scenes set in and around Wayne Manor in particular, there’s a chemistry between them that buoys the film and adds another layer to Keaton’s Batman as a man who’s only willing to let someone so far into his life.
There are other smaller elements that make the film enjoyable. Danny Elfman’s score is, to borrow the title of this franchise’s scuttled sequel, utterly triumphant, with an operatic bombast that perfectly matches the tone of the movie. Michael Gough brings warmth and kindness to his portrayal of Bruce’s butler and confidant, Alfred Pennyworth, and helps give the movie what little emotional grounding it has. And the film’s palette, which is garish and at times even lurid, is appropriate to the Batman’s newsprint origins, balancing the darkness of the setting with an exaggerated color scheme.
Still, Burton’s Batman can’t help but feel like a half-measure to the modern eye. Halfway between the winking cheekiness of Dozier’s Batman ‘66 and the pot-boiling grit of Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Burton’s Batman doesn’t quite pull off the balance of weight and whimsy that the animated series he inadvertently spawned nearly perfected. Instead, the film is a muddle of Batman’s sensibilities and Burton’s, presenting yet another of Burton’s troubled loners, amid a painted cardboard world and silly figures, that leave the sense of a fingers-crossed adventure where everyone’s just playacting.
Burton’s Batman is not quite a lark, not quite a thrill, and not quite an achievement. It’s a curiosity, an evolutionary step for The Caped Crusader on the silver screen, having not fully shed its previous form, and not yet worked out what the character might become.