When I say that Tim Burton’s quirky neo-noirish Batman is not a good movie, it does not mean that I don’t enjoy it. Despite Burton’s lack of anything that even approaches depth of character or plot coherence (something that plagues all of his films to various degrees, with only a couple of notable exceptions), Batman is a visual triumph that saturates the screen with haunting images and lurid, colorful tableaux played out against a gloomy German expressionistic background and to an astounding Danny Elfman score.
It has been argued that Burton’s take on the Dark Knight was the first to take the source material really seriously, but unfortunately, the exact opposite is true. Like 1966’s Batman: The Movie, which followed after the success of the unfairly-reviled satirical television series, Tim Burton’s Batman revels in the camp absurdity of the characters and their situations. But unlike the ultra-hip tongue-in-cheek Adam West campfest, this film is not dedicated to “crimefighters the world over and to lovers of the ridiculous, lovers of the bizarre and fun lovers everywhere”, but seems instead dedicated to the freaks, the weirdos, the neurotic and the emotionally stunted. You could even argue that the two 1940’s serial cliffhangers that first brought the character to the screen actually take the characters more seriously that Burton does; as for emotional complexity and maturity, we’d have to wait until 2005’s Batman Begins for that. Still, the movie actually holds together pretty well, up until the point that it’s forced to attempt to support something resembling a plot. Our introduction to Batman, first seen as an inky black shape oozing on a gothic balcony attached to a towering spire looming over the nightmarish city, tells us everything we need to know about Burton’s vision of the superhero. Michael Keaton delivers the only performance in the film that aspires to any sort of complexity; his take on Bruce Wayne as perpetually addled and slightly confused is established from his very first line out of the costume, as Vicky, unknowing, asks him, “Do you know which of these guys is Bruce Wayne?” His thoughtfully strange answer: “Well… I’m not sure.”
Jack Nicholson as The Joker certainly doesn’t suffer from any self-doubt or crisis of identity. It is telling that more of the film is devoted to the Joker’s capering than Batman’s crime fighting. Ostensibly, he’s the villain of the piece, but I tend to suspect that Burton sees him more as the perpetually-smiling underdog hero, the only truly free soul in the dark, steamy, oppressive Gotham City. For all the Joker’s murder and mayhem, he is a decidedly non-threatening bad-guy, certainly much more interesting than the titular character, a streak of color and manic energy careening through otherwise bland grey and muted world. In Burton’s world, Bruce Wayne is the neurotic conformist who blends in but secretly wants to be a freak; the Joker is the flamboyant rebel oddball. Naturally, he thinks of himself as ‘an artist’ – and apparently a post-modernist, at that. But the rich kid has that boss car and all the neat stuff in his basement hideaway, that secret place where he can truly be himself. And so it plays out like any other dime-a-dozen overly-emotional oh-so-tragic adolescent romance movie, with the popular but sensitive rich kid, the wild misfit outsider nobody understands, and the hot blonde cheerleader type they’re both trying to win. This isn’t a superhero adventure, at heart — it’s Tim Burton’s idea of a John Hughes teen romance movie.
Given the comic book origins of the material, we can almost forgive some of the more gaping plot holes and glaring logical inconsistencies — after all, a comic-book film doesn’t really have to make sense to be enjoyable — but the sketchy and insubstantial characters that populate the story are unforgivable, especially given the rich material from which the film was drawn. Kim Basinger as photojournalist Vicky Vale is an absolute disaster — who ever heard of a war correspondent who shrieks and screams and faints as much as she does? Basinger’s performance is far and away the worst of the bunch, but the film is otherwise extremely well-cast. With exceptional character actors like Pat Hingle and Michael Gough supporting the action, how can you miss? A scenery-chewing Jack Palance has a brief but memorable role as crime boss Carl Grissom, while a cigar-chomping Billy Dee Williams promises to clean up the city as Harvey Dent and comedian Robert Wuhl lends a bit of everyman geek charm to reporter Alexander Knox. Nobody seems to have much in the way of motivation or logic behind their actions, but these great actors at least give the illusion of depth to the cardboard cut-out characters who watch from the sidelines as the hero and the other hero fight over the girl.
Far from being the masterpiece of the genre that it is hailed to be, Batman is actually a clunky and uneven mess. As a dark superhero adventure story, it doesn’t even come close to Sam Raimi’s Darkman; as a Batman film, it pales in comparison to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Even the animated series that would follow in the wake of the Burton Batman hysteria is better, and it should give one pause to reflect when a half-hour cartoon can be more emotionally resonant than a live-action feature-length film. But this film did pave the way for better written, better cast, better acted and better directed superhero films to follow. It is the ultimate triumph of style over substance, but it is a dazzling style, and after all is said and done, a fun and entertaining film.