Tim Burton’s first vision of Batman was beautifully dark, thematic and borderline crazy. He creates a world where steam rises up from the grimy streets of a Gotham City that looks like New York City on meth, protected by a nut-job billionaire (or millionaire I think in the first one) who creeps around in the shadows punching gangsters and staring intensely at nothing and everything all at once. It’s a movie that doesn’t make sense because it’s not supposed to. Burton has always claimed that Batman himself doesn’t make much sense, which is what intrigued him. Even though there is a very special place in my heart for this movie (I don’t remember a time in my life where I could not recite every line of it) I think it is impossible to review this movie without noticing its glaring flaws. Nonetheless, it’s still one of the most important and iconic versions of Batman ever put on film.
Its strengths lie completely in the film’s aesthetic. Burton is such a masterfully visionary director (at least he was before he began relying too heavily on CGI effects. See Alice and Wonderland for an example of Butonesque terribleness) that his version still contains some of the most iconic shots of The Caped Crusader. So many wonderful moments are burned in my memory, moments that can make any bat-fan’s nerdy salivary glands run wild. It’s the grimmest Gotham, the loneliest Batman, and the coolest Batmobile. Burton embraces all the weirdness, even the fact that Michael Keaton was unable to turn his head in costume was turned by Burton into an iconic visual element of the film. His visuals mixed with Danny Elfman’s music has certainly flavored my cinematic palet for the better, there is no doubt about that.
Though not as memorable as their surroundings, the performances are something to note as well. Jack Nicholson as the Joker still holds up fantastically. Though I am willing to admit I prefer Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, it is not difficult to argue that Nicholson’s Joker is much closer to the version seen in the comics, or at least the version portrayed up to that point. While Ledger’s Joker seemed to have more psychologically honest and ideologically driven motives, Nicholson’s treatment was simply a brain damaged man who thought killing people was entertaining, just like the comics. It’s still a dynamic performance, and an important one for Bat-fans.
Keaton’s batman is a perfect foil for Nicholson’s Joker, and a more than sensible fit for Burton’s Gotham City. While the Joker is prancing around in a purple suite and a perma-smile, Batman lounges alone in his Batcave wearing a black turtleneck, tight Jeans and a perma-scowl. Because Keaton doesn’t look anything like we would imagine Batman/Bruce Wayne to be, he does an interesting job making up for it with intensity. It’s unfortunate that Burton decided that Batman only makes sense if he is an obsessive neurotic personality whose motives don’t entirely add up, because the most disappointing aspect of this movie is that Batman, well, doesn’t make much sense.
Keaton’s Batman seems to be a very passive one. In the comics Batman functions as a constant night prowler, which is how he figures out when something bad is going down. He doesn’t seem terribly pro-active in this incarnation, mostly just sitting in the Batcave waiting for one of his security cameras to point out that there is mischief in on the streets. Burton and Keaton’s Batman is supposed to be someone who is so obsessive that he doesn’t even function properly when he is not fighting crime and yet we only get one scene depicting him on the streets of Gotham actually looking for wrong doing. The rest of the time he sits and waits for bad news to come to him.
The scene depicting the death of Wayne’s parents is the best of any of the movies, but they completely fracked everything up by making The Joker the killer. Not only is that point executed as an odd afterthought to be referenced only in passing during the climax, but it also is a huge betrayal to the source material. Comic book fans look for two things in an adaptation: is it true to the source material, and if not does the change make sense? Making The Joker the killer of Batman’s parents fails on both accounts.
Don’t get me wrong, Michael Keaton is one of my all-time favorite actors. I don’t think I have ever been uninterested in a character he was portraying. The problem here is not that Keaton isn’t good at being a brooding obsessed millionaire who uses his money to buy crazy cars and black body armor. In fact quite the contrary. Keaton’s eyes are so intense in this movie I think the Academy should have given them a special Oscar for excellence. His eyebrows alone could scare any street thug into thinking twice about his life’s choices (the only other actor with more intense brows is Jack Nicholson. This movie was basically the first and only eyebrow action film). The problem with the character is simply that he isn’t anything like Batman. He’s small, neurotic, and he walks everywhere. If it wasn’t for these problems I would certainly rate Keaton as the best Batman ever, but with such frustrating inconsistencies with how I understand the character to be, I simply can’t.
The climactic scene in the upper bell tower of the Gotham Cathedral is probably the most perfect example of what is so right, and what is so wrong about the movie. It looks great, but none of it makes sense or matters. There is no real reson why they go in the cathedral, they just kinda do. The Joker goes up with only Vicky Vale, but somehow when Batman gets there he has a few thugs waiting to beat on him. It is the most Batman-y moment in the whole movie – exciting hand to hand fights, Batman getting beat up, looking dusty and hard-core – but that doesn’t change the fact that it makes no friggin sense. The whole time it is impossible to stop thinking “why are they even in the cathedral?” There are plenty of other odd inconsistencies – such as why would Batman make the Batmobile bulletproof and virtually indestructible but build the batwing so it could be destroyed by 1 bullet? – but those don’t bother me as much. Every movie is allowed little inconsistencies. It’s only when things get so derailed that you can’t help but wish someone had just paid more attention.One minute Batman is cracking the Joker’s chemical code of evil cosmetics, and the next Vicky Vale is in the Batcave, the Joker is dancing in the street throwing money, and climbing up cathedrals.
Which brings me to my overall conclusion of the film; even though it is a fascinating portrayal that I think every fan of the characters should respect and periodically re-watch, I cannot in good conscience say that it is a great movie. Is it a good movie? Yes, because of its tone and style. Is is a great movie? Unfortunately not. Now, having said that, I know that the 14 year old me would not only disagree, but would likely disregard my opinions on movies from now on. This will always be one of my favorite movies, but the 24 year old me is more ready to admit that it holds that place because of nostalgia, not because of quality.
Movie Grade: B-
Bat Grade: B
Grading Key: F– There is nothing reedemable about this movie : D – Don’t waste your time, maybe if it’s free: C – Nothing special, way too much wrong with it to call it good, not enough wrong with it to hate it. General indifference: B – Good movie. Some things don’t quite get there, but it’s still special. Certainly worth a watch at least once: A – Great movie. There is no good excuse not to see it.