It has been ages since I’ve seen the original Batman. Tim Burton’s vision of Gotham has long been one of the most iconic and especially known for being one of the first movies to bring a darker side to superhero movies and help bring them more into the mainstream, even if the big superhero movies were pretty much limited to Batman until X-Men comes along over 10 years later. It really helped turn Batman into a household name, and Jack Nicholson’s performance as the Joker is one of his most iconic, as well as one of the best performances in a Batman movie period. But watching this movie after seeing what Batman has become in the years since, it’s almost like looking at a shadow of his former self. Now, the Tim Burton movie is almost like a bridge between the pure camp of the Adam West Batman TV series and the extremely dark and realistic Batman of the Nolan trilogy and the DC Animation movies. And as much as I loved both extremes of Batman for very different reasons, this movie is kind of stuck in the middle and falls behind. But Batman is still Batman, and I enjoyed almost every minute of this movie. It’s still a great movie even if it’s lost some of its luster.
One thing that I love about this movie that few others imitate is that it isn’t an origin story. Yes, there is a flashback to the famous scene that’s present in most Batman incarnations with his parent’s death, but it never really feels like an origin story, even with the reporter subplot investigating new reports of a giant Bat creature in Gotahm. Instead, his parent’s death is more of a connection to the Joker, which many people now think was a bad idea. My opinion of it is that it was a good idea if you look at the movie as a stand alone piece. Unfortunately, that’s almost impossible for most people to do nowadays. Now, while I did say it wasn’t an origin story, it does have the origin of the Joker, in this case he was a generic mobster with a vague sense of craziness to him who fell in a vat of acid that turned his skin white and left a permanent grin on his face. Or at least did something to his face that a mob plastic surgeon eased down to a permanent grin.
This movie was really the start of the idea for me that Batman was never the most interesting character in his stories, instead the villains were. Joker is larger than life with crazy gags, giant balloons, and a weird artsy outfit. That is all contrasted by how dark he can go in the movie, killing well over a dozen people leaving their face in a smiling rictus, and implying that he’s killed many people, often prefacing it with the line “Ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?” The Joker has had many various incarnations, and I personally enjoyed both Jack Nicholson’s performance as well as the concept used in this movie. He didn’t just want to see things destroyed for the sake of destruction, which would be closer to the Joker’s goals in the Dark Knight. Instead, he wants to leave his own personal mark on the work with his homicidal art, as well as the occasional high art defacement. While things did go very dark at times, like when he burned one of the other mobsters to a charred corpse with a high voltage hand buzzer, he was still a clown. I think the best way to describe his screen presence is to call it deadly absurdity.
One of the biggest debates when talking about the Batman movies is which actor best played the role. In this movie as well as the next one, he was played by Michael Keaton. At this time, he was most well known for Mr. Mom and Gung Ho, both light comedies. While he never went through any major fight training to prepare for this role, he was still a good fit for the role at the time. His take on Bruce Wayne was an interesting one, even though Bruce Wayne is usually a well known public figure, in this movie he has more of a reclusive presence. The two news reporters covering the initial Batman story don’t even recognize him at first sight. I liked the way he played Bruce Wayne as fairly lighthearted, and even somewhat shy. As Batman, he more often relies on his many gadgets rather than any martial arts skills.
The biggest problem with this movie is the fact that at this point in time you can only look back at it. Christopher Nolan has shown that a filmmaker can take the character of Batman completely seriously, and while Tim Burton took the character much more seriously than the TV show, there’s still a great deal of silly humor in it, as well as moments that just plain aren’t true to the character. I have to bring up the famous scene where Batman has just learned of the connection to the Joker and his parent’s death and goes after him in the Batwing. The Joker is alone, seemingly unarmed, standing still in the middle of the street and Batman fires missile after missile and both Gatling guns at him before being taken down with a single gunshot. Even though this was many years prior to the Dark Knight Rises, Batman’s philosophy had already long been established as “no guns”. There’s also several other moments in the movie where Batman directly or indirectly kills people, such as the explosion in the Ajax building and throwing a random henchmen off the bell tower. But while I watched this movie, I spent much more time just enjoying it rather than criticizing it. It’s harder to go into this movie with an open mind, but if you can look past some of the campiness, it’s a great look at the start of Batman’s transition into what he has become today. And if you want to hear more of my thoughts on this movie, be sure to check out the next episode of the As You Watch Podcast on Tuesday where Batman is our featured film of the episode. Until next time, this has been Bubbawheat for Flights, Tights, and Movie Nights.