Director: Tim Burton
By Roderick Heath
Yeah, I can’t believe it’s been 20 years, either. And it’s been at least 15 since I last saw Tim Burton’s grandiose redesign of the classic comic strip and the campy TV show derived from it. I remember the hype around its release exceptionally well, because it was impossible to get away from. In commercial terms, as other writers have noted lately, Batman altered how Hollywood conceived and sold its blockbusters. Whilst ’80s cinema had been replete with sequels and spin-offs, Batman ushered in the carefully maintained, prepackaged franchise. Yet this gamble relied on the antic wit of Tim Burton, then still a kooky outsider, whose ideas provided a template for many an event movie and comic-book-derived series to follow, and its visual and thematic patterns echoed long into the next decade: it’s hard to imagine The Crow (1994), Dark City (1998), The Matrix (1999), Fight Club (1999), or Watchmen (2009) without its influence.
Amongst other things, it made “darkness” the must-have appendage of any new or rebooted franchise spun from fantastical material, most such darkness being a kind of schoolyard Gothicism and affected moral probity, here about vigilantes and scarring traumas. Burton had, of course, been paying attention to the work of Frank Miller and Alan Moore as they introduced rawer violence and more psychologically pungent employment of the comic’s ready metaphors in the past few years. Where Richard Donner had turned Superman into an effective hero for the ’70s with the ironic touch of leaving him unchanged but updating the world around him, Burton went the opposite route. He transformed the jut-jawed, dashing Bruce Wayne into a troubled misfit and his Gotham City into a deliberately unreal, teeming hodgepodge of eras and images.
Even when I was young, I was uneasy with the resulting film, and in revisiting it, much of my unease was confirmed. My admiration of it as a design classic doesn’t elide the flimsy script, and Burton’s alternately scurrilous and disengaged attitude to his nominal hero—much of the result has a disjointed, patchy flavour. Moments of near-genius sit alongside a painfully stillborn romance and half-hearted superhero shenanigans. The movie looks like a rough draft for something Burton would later pursue with more intensity: he’d match up flagrantly styled backgrounds, high adventure, and a wimpy-but-resolute hero with far greater vivacity in Sleepy Hollow (1999), and delve more darkly and deeply into the Pandora’s Box he opened here with his grungier sequel, Batman Returns (1992). And there’s a certain period perversity in the flat comic relief of Robert Wuhl and the attempt to turn Jerry Hall into an actress.
Although Batman instigated a new era in Hollywood screen culture, when I look at it now, it also looks like a curtain call for some aspects of what had once defined that culture, a time when production values were very important, especially in terms of the design. Anton Furst’s great, Oscar-winning sets dominate this film’s imagery, and Batman came right at the end of a high-style period in big-budget film, which, in the decade before, had produced movies like Blade Runner (1982), One from the Heart (1982), and Streets of Fire (1984). Soon, digital effects and kinetic editing would become the recognised signposts of Hollywood product. Batman’s special effects were grand, but also often deliberately ropy, not so far in intent and effect from David Lynch’s even more forcefully unreal efforts with Dune (1984). And yet a lot of the staging, in terms of physical action and pace of editing, looks stodgy and limited now in comparison to more recent product.
Likewise, the colossal sum of money and attention that Jack Nicholson received for his appearance as the Joker was the apotheosis of a star-centred industry that’s been in decline ever since. It was a tactic borrowed from Marlon Brando’s contribution to the hype avalanche of Superman (1978), but where Brando’s short, restrained performance provided a bridging point of credibility between the otherworldly and the familiar, Nicholson was called upon to be the avatar of Batman’s mix of the insane and the inspired.
And yet the film is more ambitious than almost every other comic adaptation not made in Japan, and it achieved its core ambition: to turn the aesthetics of the printed page into total cinematic stylisation, and to invoke the broad mythic potential of the comics in addressing more ideas than mere wish-fulfillment. Burton used it as a vehicle to further his pop-art vision of the Gothic subculture to examine the seamier side of the psyche. Many ’80s genre flicks readily played out reactionary fantasies of vigilante and extra-legal justice, but many others gleefully sublimated more critical and satiric perspectives, most easily noticed in works like Paul Verhoeven’s vicious Robocop (1987). Where that film looked acerbically at yuppie and Reaganite culture, Batman is slightly more circumspect in its through-a-glass-darkly portrait of ’80s New York, with a fretting, ineffective Ed Koch-esque mayor (Lee Wallace), and glam high-lifers who ignore the destitute, pony up huge sums of money for pointless parades, and bunker down within citadel-like houses and art galleries whilst ignoring the rot of gangsters who infest and control their city. However, the chief gangster, Grissom (Jack Palance, relishing the too-brief villainy that reenergised his career), wants only the same perks as any other patrician: model girlfriend Alicia (Hall), good scotch, penthouse apartment. When he arranges to have his underling Jack Napier (Nicholson) rubbed out for banging Alicia behind his back, Napier survives a bullet in the face and a douse in a vat of chemicals, in a sequence patterned after White Heat (1949).
Napier returns as the disfigured Joker to kill Grissom and establish himself less as a kingpin than a kind of post-punk performance artist, specialising in mass terror and murder. In the film’s single best sequence, he and his goons invade the city’s hoity art gallery after gassing the patrons, and then to the impudently jaunty strains of Prince, prance about defacing the art works like demonic Duchamps. He announces himself as the “world’s first fully functioning homicidal artist” to Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), a gorgeous photographer who has herself moved from glamour portraits to grotesque accounts of third-world atrocities, and displays an acid-scarred Alicia as his first “sketch” of the new aesthetic. Meanwhile, Burton announces his troubled take on the efficacy of violent repression, portraying his Batman as a sullen, emotionally distant loser who battles an arch enemy locked in a yin-yang balance: just as the young Napier (Hugo E. Black) killed Bruce’s parents, so Batman contributes to turning Napier from regulation mob enforcer into loony terrorist. That Keaton hovers, spare and spry as Wayne, and yet looming menacingly when in his vigilante garb, captures the idea of a man who only finds self-expression in a costume. Batman and the Joker become, in effect, rival artists (“Where does he get those wonderful toys?” the Joker frets) playing for the favour of the crowd, one wearing the trappings of darkness and threat but firmly on the side of good, the other utterly evil, but wearing the perverted garb of a jovial entertainer.
There’s a humour and conceptual depth in all this that’s completely missing from the glumly naturalistic, tediously square Nolan-Bale revivals, but also inconsistently played out. The familiar narrative is an encumbrance, afflicting Wayne with Vale’s insipid romantic interest, not helped by Basinger’s wooden acting (and she gives practically the same performance she got an Oscar for!). The plot is only made to look all the more weak through Burton’s discomfort (then) with action, and disinterest in both story and traditional heroics until the rousing finale, when Batman flies his Batwing jet to save the day when the Joker cynically tries to gas all of Gotham’s citizens by luring them to his parade of poison-filled balloons. The airborne hero soars out of the night as the personification of nocturnal wrath, and rising for a moment to strike a drolly emblematic pose silhouetted against the moon. Much of the film’s dramatic heft comes from Danny Elfman’s great score, still his best film work to date, with its woozy waltzes and mocking carnival themes mingling with vast, sonorous anthems that thoroughly evoke the sepulchral valour at the fantasy’s heart.
Burton’s choice of Michael Keaton as his Bruce Wayne/Batman actually struck me as more inspired than ever. Keaton’s low-key performance, radiating both everyday charm and faintly uneasy energy, his eyebrows hooked in the same demonic angles as Nicholson’s, reflects the doubling that Burton sees at the core of the fantasy. Nicholson’s efforts, on the other hand, so raved about at the time, are as wobbly as the movie, sometimes delicious, sometimes just hammy, certainly in comparison with his far more intricately funny and menacing performances in The Shining (1980) or, in a far worse film, The Witches of Eastwick (1987). It’s a reminder that Nicholson set an example of going broad and big for fellow Method heroes Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. But some of that fault lies in the script, which often locks him in variations on the same scene (e.g., shooting the television twice) and provides little in the way of truly malicious wit for him to wrap his lips around. Calling to mind Keaton’s own grotesque from Burton’s previous Beetlejuice (1987), Nicholson compensates by leaping around like a dirty-minded schoolboy, waggling his butt and forcing the heroine to dance whilst Batman battles sundry assassins, in a wacko conclusion that manages to conflate Vertigo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and King Kong in a heady sequence.
It’s both more and less of a success than it once seemed. A contradiction? Very well, I contradict myself.