Tim Burton and Michael Keaton always seemed like an unlikely duo to make a Batman film, and to this day the results of their collaboration remain a little odd.
Burton’s 1989 blockbuster remains beloved by many critics and fans, and for strange reasons. While the film definitely was a darker turn for the Dark Knight than the campy 1960s’ television series starring Adam West, Burton’s film was nowhere near as serious or complex as its contemporary Batman comics like The Dark Knight Returns or The Killing Joke. Genuinely dark the film is not. What it is is a showcase of mood and art direction.
For all my gripes about Burton’s Gothic grotesquery, Batman is a gorgeous film. At the time Burton was still inventive in his visuals. Gotham City is a fantastic creation, a mix of 1930s’ Chicago with Fritz Lang’sMetropolis. Burton had no intention to link Gotham City to the real world like Christopher Nolan would do inBatman Begins. His Gotham City is a fantastical realm come to life. Danny Elfman’s score sets the mood perfectly for this Gothic metropolis. It’s the definitive Batman music.
Batman’s story is forgettable, or at least, weak in comparison to the visuals and the music. The narrative is too strained between Batman, the Joker and Vicky Vale. Bruce Wayne begins the film as Batman, and the truth of his origin is teased throughout the film. This may seem like a neat storytelling trick, but looking back, this reveal has no weight. Everyone nowadays is fully aware of the details of Batman’s origins. To treat such a well-known fact as the emotional revelation of the film is unwise in retrospect.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the film is that Burton doesn’t seem that interested with Batman as a character. Michael Keaton is surprisingly good as Batman, and even his Bruce Wayne has his lame charms, but Burton keeps Batman away from the centre of the film. His name may give the film its title, but a more apt title would’ve been Joker. Burton never adequately explores what motivates Batman, who he is and how the double identity tortures the man underneath the mask.
In fact, he doesn’t even seem to get Batman that well, i.e. his cavalier approach to Batman’s killing people. It’s very obvious he’s far more invested in Jack Nicholson’s psychotic, campy Joker.
He may be nothing like the character from the comics, but Nicholson’s Joker is deliciously campy. It’s rare for an actor to blow up his performance to such preposterous levels and for the result to work within the structure of the film, but such is the case with Nicholson. He’s the most enjoyable element of the film.
Burton’s 1989 Batman is not the definitive Batman film, but it’s an enjoyable, moody film nonetheless.
When Batman returned three years later, the results were even more recognizably Burton and even less recognizably Batman. And as hard as it is for me to admit, this makes for a better movie.
Again the art direction and atmosphere of the film is astounding. Christmastime Gotham City looks gorgeous. There is something strangely fitting about the Dark Knight gliding through falling snow.
But beyond the film’s visual sensibilities, the story actually makes sense. This had little to do with Burton and more to do with the undeniable superiority of Daniel Waters (who scripted this film) to Sam Hamm (who penned the original). The superfluous scenes are gone. The villains actually have motivations that are clearly defined and explored. Even Batman was given more to do this time around. The narrative moves with a clear, simple logic that was lacking the first time around.
While Batman plays into the film’s themes of duality, Burton again shortchanges him to focus on the villains. Bruce Wayne doesn’t even show up for 13 minutes, and then it takes another ten minutes for Batman to appear.
The reasons for this are clear for Burton most comes through is in the characters of the Penguin and Max Shreck. The Penguin was a disgusting, grotesque creation, with flippered hands and a round little body teetering on miniature legs. The Penguin matches Burton’s sensibilities better than the Joker, and perhaps because of this, the Penguin is a more fully drawn character. He is even able to evoke a modicum of sympathy from the viewer, something the Joker never manages.
Max Shreck, on the other hand, is a pure Burton creation, a classic Burton antihero inserted into a fictional property where he doesn’t belong. However much I enjoy Christopher Walken in the role, the character steals far too much screen time, and clearly enjoys the director’s favour over the costumed hero.
Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman will always remain a fan favourite, mainly for how she oozes sex in her dominatrix-inspired black leather jumpsuit, twirling her whip and purring her lines like she gets physical pleasure from their being said. The supernatural aspects of her character are bothersome, but at least she proves to be an alluring, sexy, feminine counterpart to Keaton’s Batman. And there is really no more iconic character in the film than hers.
Curiously, for being less a Batman film and more a Burton film, Batman Returns is a very solid film. It looks good, its story plays well, and its characters are memorable. It again may not deliver the exploration of Batman that is necessary in a film about the Dark Knight, but at least its interests seem more clearly defined than last time around.
Burton’s motivations for making the Batman movies seemed to be Batman’s potential for the Gothic and the fantastic — for the sheer absurdity of a grown man who dresses up as a bat and fights crime. He had little interest in or respect for the source material, and the psychological truths that drive the man Bruce Wayne. The result is two films that are quite good, but that merely bear the superficial footprint of the Batman mythos. You never get the sense that Burton actually understood who Batman is, and for that, these films’ success will always be limited.
At least these movies spawned Batman: The Animated Series, arguably the definitive take on Batman, which Anders will tackle tomorrow.
Directed by Tim Burton; written by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren based on a story by Sam Hamm; starring Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, and Jack Palance.
6 out of 10
Batman Returns (1992)
Directed by Tim Burton; written by Daniel Waters based on a story by Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm; starring Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle, and Michael Murphy.
7 out of 10