This was a movie some comic book fans were dreading. Just as the campy reputation of the character from the 1960s Adam West series was dying down and being replaced by a darker interpretation in the comics, Tim Burton was announced as director with Michael Keaton as star -both known for comedic and (in the case of Burton) just plain strange films. But Batman managed to surprise, being a hit, possibly one to overtake the reigning champion of Superman!
Though it’s not a traditional superhero origin story, Batman tells the story of its main hero and villain really well. Gotham City is being protected by a mysterious vigilante called Batman who stalks criminals and brings them to justice. Vicki Vale a photographer with the Gotham Times investigates Batman while beginning a romance with billionaire industrialist Bruce Wayne. On the opposite side of the law a mob boss sets up an associate Jack Napier to be murdered for having an affair with his lover. However due to interference by Batman, Napier isn’t murdered; rather he falls into a vat of chemicals to emerge disfigured, take over the criminal organization, and terrorize Gotham as the Joker.
The production design on this movie is fantastic! Everything from the grimy streets to the faded skyscrapers is ripped right from a Batman comic. The filmmakers really wanted to give Gotham City some character, hell make the city itself a character and it works wonderfully! And while there are definitely characteristics of a modern city particularly in the technology, the art deco architecture and fashions of the citizens (often favouring hats and long coats) makes it feel like the 40’s. This combination of old and new amounts to a unique environment. And it creates an atmosphere that’s very film noir inspired in addition to Burton’s usual Gothic. Danny Elfman’s score is amazing and engaging, really wrapping you up in the world and the action, and perfectly complementing the tone. The tone in general is Gothic and dark but yet it also feels like a comic book movie. It doesn’t go nearly as far or deranged as Batman Returns for instance, keeping itself very accessible. There’s some very traditional campiness especially around how the Joker came to be and in a couple of Batman’s action sequences, but it’s still really taking itself seriously and excelling in that regard. The story is well-written and executed really succeeding at stepping everything up from what regular moviegoers thought they knew about Batman. Batman’s origin isn’t revealed until late in the movie which I think is a great move. Though the audience knows his secret identity from the start it allows for some ambiguity as to how and why he dons the Batsuit. It manages to really keep your interest, building tension and thrills throughout its two hours.
It also helps to have a great Batman, and this incarnation may be the best. Every time he’s on screen Batman has an indomitable presence that is both respectable and fearful. Michael Keaton who the year before proved he could just as easily play the Joker with Beetlejuice, plays Batman with a mystery and eeriness from whom you don’t know what to expect. Bruce Wayne on the other hand he plays pretty subtly. In neither persona does he have a lot to say, but the physical acting speaks volumes. Where Christian Bale would later play Bruce Wayne closer to a normal person, his identity as Batman being more out of duty and a sense of justice, Keaton portrays a figure who’s only a few steps away from being as a crazy as his enemies. He is a man who dresses as a bat after all to fight crime. There’s clearly a damaged person underneath his charming playboy persona who comes out as Batman. The psychological effects of his parents’ death is so much more apparent in his introverted behaviour and conflicting sense of identity than I’ve seen in just about any other version of Bruce Wayne. He’s relatable enough but also distant enough to be an anomaly, and it attracts the audience to the character. And for Keaton who had been mostly known for basic comedic roles (and again, Beetlejuice!) this transformation is just as remarkable as Heath Ledger’s as the Joker nineteen years later.
But this version of the Joker is not one to be trifled with either. Of course Jack Nicholson had been playing the Joker for years before being cast in this movie, as proven by the fact his character’s given the name Jack (as many of Nicholson’s are it seems). And like any good Joker he’s delightfully psychotic with a disturbing sense of humour who can also be creepy as hell. Some of the best shots in the movie are of the Joker in shadows mulling over his deformation at the hands of Batman. The combination of moments like this with Nicholson’s distinctive voice and a daunting silhouette make him one of the best iterations of a comic book villain. He seems like the perfect logical next step as a darker character from his original comic counterpart. Admittedly in retrospect, Nicholson’s only the second best Joker to Heath Ledger’s chilling and disturbing maniac, but it’s still a performance worth remembering. Though his dialogue and psychotic behaviour isn’t as good as that later performance, he still gets some decent memorable lines and exchanges. His “have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?” is somewhat haunting, as is his own self-evaluation to Vicki Vale. My only problem is that I don’t like that the film gave him an origin story. Aspects of that story are okay, it’s a good set-up to his murderous streak for him to kill Jack Palance’s Grissom. But the Joker I think works best when he’s an enigma; when you know nothing about where he came from, only what he is now and what he’s capable of. It makes the character that much more terrifying and is another reason why Ledger’s incarnation is better. And by giving him an origin story it makes the character inconsistent. We should at least see Jack Napier behave like the Joker, with the twisted sense of humour and crazed intentions, but we don’t. Did the chemical waste he fell in alter his personality too?
While Batman and Joker steal the show there are a few other characters of note. Kim Basinger is perfectly fine as Vicki Vale, but for a character with as big of a part as Vicki, she’s not very interesting. She’s there to be Bruce Wayne’s love interest and act as an audience surrogate to a lot of the action, but I just wish she left more of an impression. At times she’s very much just a traditional damsel. Michael Gough doesn’t do much but makes for a good Alfred. Same can be said for Pat Hingle, who’s pretty good as Commissioner Gordon (though no Gary Oldman obviously). Robert Wuhl is even blander than Basinger as a reporter called Knox. But Palance is fine, as is William Hootkins; Tracey Walter has a funny part as a random goon called Bob. And let’s not forget Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent who I really wish had gotten to play the character as Two-Face! He certainly would have made Batman Forever better.
With all this considered, how does Batman fare up to its superhero predecessor, Superman? Well, while Superman stands as a good film that’s just overshadowed by what came because of it, Batman is still one of the genre’s absolute best! Superman is a good role model, but Batman is a far more interesting character. He has no super powers nor do most of his enemies (Batman has the best collection of villains perhaps of all time) making his world grittier and real. Superman I might argue was surpassed by its own sequel, while Batman certainly wasn’t (though Batman Returns is still really good, even if it is insane; hell I might like IT more than either Superman movie). To Superman, Lex Luthor is just a bad guy, but to Batman the Joker is a parallel, scarred and disturbed as he is, only taken to a homicidal extreme. And it’s these themes and darker but potent ideas, as well as developed timeless characters and an environment rich in personality, all on display in this film, that remind me why I enjoyed Batman as a kid when no other superhero interested me.
Superman and Batman’s initial franchises eerily parallel each other. In that the first film is fantastic and regarded as a classic of the genre, the second one pretty good if weird at times (especially Batman Returns!), the third one pretty awful, and the fourth an embarrassment to cinema that killed the genre for a time. There’s always been a closeness and competitiveness between their characters and the films representing them. I don’t know whose side I’m on when B v. S comes out, but if I were to base it on which of their inaugural films won me over, I’d be shining the Bat signal for sure.