In the lead up to the release of The Dark Knight Rises I've decided to watch each of the previous Batman films to re-examine how they all approached the franchise in their attempt to do their own thing with it. As anticipation builds for Christopher Nolan's final Batman film I'm taking a look at what made Tim Burton's 1989 film tick
Is this the only case of a superhero movie where the villain gets billed above the hero? It all but says "Jack Nicholson stars in Batman". Unlike every superhero movie since, Tim Burton's Batman isn't an origin story. Bruce Wayne is already Batman at the film's beginning, we only learn of some of his motivations in some small moments during the course of Batman's ongoing battle with the Joker. In fact, as it's the Joker's origin story (something that Christopher Nolan didn't give us in The Dark Knight), and Jack Nicholson gets top billing, it might be more accurate to call this film The Joker.
In Burton's big screen tale of the caped crusader the audience learns about Batman alongside the people of Gotham City... at first he's an urban legend, glimpsed at in shadows. Now he's here, now he's gone, that sort of thing. When a cop during the first big 'action' sequence asks "Who is this guy?", he's mirroring the audience's own questions about Batman at this point. We discover who Bruce Wayne/Batman is alongside the journalist-characters of Knox (Robert Wuhl) and Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), and even by the film's end he still remains a partially unknowable quantity.
Michael Keaton's version of Batman is a bit more sinister than most big screen superheroes. He isn't 'dark' in the gritty "look how cool and edgy we are" way. He's actually a bit odd, and quite callous when it comes to dishing out vigilante justice. It makes me wish Michael Keaton was still playing Batman now. It probably helps that the film isn't without humour, it fits in quite nicely alongside the macabre but colourful humour of Tim Burton's Beetlejuice, and (aside from one moment of black skivvy-wearing) Keaton's portrayal of Bruce Wayne is probably the least silly and most interesting version of the character we've ever been given.
The key to understanding Tim Burton's Batman is in the setting. What era is this film meant to be set in? It feels like a weird hybrid of the '80s and the '30s. Knox's scenes are remniscent of the screwball comedies of the '30s. The glib throwaway dialogue he shares with the confident and friendly Vicki Vale, the way he facetiously baits police officers while chasing his story - it all deliberately points to classic Howard Hawks comedies like His Girl Friday.
Then there's the art deco set design, and the fact that the hoodlums are uniformly either prohibition-styled gangsters or rat-faced '80s junkies. It's fairly clear that Burton isn't setting his film directly in the '30s but rather a parallel universe where he can use the sensibilities of the classic 1930s Detective Comics whilst addressing '80s concerns about cosmetics and vigilante justice. He also uses expressionistic set design to suggest a core theme of fascism that ties together the march of progress from the '30s with a freakshow style of vigilante justice that stems from '80s fears regarding street crime and lawlessness. But back to that in a little bit.
Jack Nicholson's Joker is a self-assured gangster driven over the edge after his nerves get fried in an accident with dangerous chemicals. He's very much an over-the-top pantomime villain, but the joke is that he's also tasteless and casually violent in an 'adults only' way. The character in this film is quite similar to Cesar Romero's cartoonish portrayal from the '60s Batman TV series, only Nicholson's version pushes the standards of '80s censorship as far as Burton can get away with (he stabs people in the throat with metal quills and talks about enemas). Nicholson has some real fun with it, providing a lot of snappy soundbites through his darkly comic delivery of even the most innocuous of lines (as famously evidenced in Prince's tie-in single Batdance).
In regards to the character of the Joker, we know that he's insane from the moment of his conception. He's a symbol of unabashed anarchism but as the film progresses we also begin to get a sense that Batman isn't quite the clean-cut 'Superman' kind of hero. Bruce Wayne has his own neuroses to match the Joker's, and his reliance on technology and a silent might-is-right philosophy is more right wing than most American viewers might like to admit. The revelation that both Batman and the Joker were 'made' by each other links into this idea as well; that fascism and anarchy are both reactions against the other.
I like Tim Burton's Batman because it's just one anti-hero versus one villain, a clear-cut face off that isn't spoiled by extra storylines involving fan-pleasing villains or superfluous sidekicks. Burton is interested in everything... from the setting and the characters to themes and a plot that isn't reliant on set pieces. This is a far cry from some more recent comic book-inspired films where the emphasis is put solely on just the characters and some big action sequences. In Batman Burton puts together a complete stand-alone film that works on every level. It's the success of this film that ensured further Batman films, and without Tim Burton's Batman we might not have even got the Marvel films that have dominated our screens in more recent years.