Unlike Superman: The Movie and, indeed, the vast majority of other superhero films that have followed it in the years since, Batman doesn’t dwell on the origins of how its title character came to be, film fans would have to wait another 16 years for Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins to explore that side of the Dark Knight. Only a brief flashback to the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne at the hands of – somewhat controversially for many fans – Jack Napier rather than Joe Chill, and Vicki Vale’s subsequent discovery of that tragic event gives any indication of Batman’s motivations. Instead, the film concentrates more on the creation of Batman’s greatest nemesis – at the vigilante’s own hand, no less – and the symbiotic relationship between the pair, culminating in the battle for control of Gotham City.
The result is a movie that increases the myth and mystery of its protagonist by effectively pushing the character into the background; director Tim Burton was clearly more fascinated by his colourful villain than by Batman himself. And with good reason – Jack Nicholson steals every scene he’s in, bringing an undeniable presence to the role and imbuing his version of the Joker with a malevolence often lacking in some of the character’s more campy interpretations. In taking on the role, Nicholson demanded – and was given – top billing ahead of the actor who would actually play the Dark Knight.
In comparison to Nicholson’s casting, the news that Michael Keaton was to play Batman proved to be a particularly controversial move, so much so that Warner’s share price actually dropped when it was first announced. For many, Keaton lacked the necessary size and physical attributes to take on the role, but upon seeing the film all concerns quickly evaporate: what Keaton’s Batman lacks in stature he more than makes up for with an intensity and grim determination that is worlds away from the more comedic roles the actor was best known for at the time.
But it’s not just the casting that impresses; despite calling the experience of working on his first big-budget studio movie “the worst period of my life,” Batman is unmistakably a Tim Burton film. From the gothic design flourishes evident in almost every scene to the dark humour that abounds throughout, Burton succeeded in giving what could have been nothing more than a generic action film under a lesser director the same unique and distinctive artistic touches that have been indicative of his work throughout his career.
In doing so, he jettisoned the overly camp tone of the sixties television series – which until that point was unquestionably the most familiar version of the character to the public at large – in favour of one more in keeping with the earliest comic books, as well as Frank Miller’s Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, and Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. The cartoony ‘BOOM!’ and ‘THWACK!’ sound effects of the sixties show are replaced by the unflinchingly grisly and realistic sounds of cracking bones and gunshots, all of which led to the film receiving the first ever 12 certificate in the UK – thus denying it to hordes of pre-teen fans clad in their Batman t-shirts and baseball caps.
Burton’s aesthetics were brought to life by the incredible work of the late Anton Furst who succeeded in giving Gotham a menacing, almost timeless look that effortlessly weaves the director’s gothic sensibilities with the notion of a sprawling metropolis in severe economic decline. Mixing different architectural styles with an atmospheric palette of drab greys and blacks ensured that Burton’s directive to imagine the city as if “Hell had broken through the sidewalks of Manhattan and kept on growing” was brought to life in a grotesque and somewhat terrifying manner. Such amazing design work, combined with beautiful matte paintings that extended the Gotham skyline, give the film a scope and realism that subsequent movies in the franchise all too obviously lacked.
Another of Furst’s successes was the design of the new Batmobile. Replacing the iconic vehicle of the sixties television show was never going to be an easy task; that he succeeded in creating a design that has itself become an icon – and arguably one of, if not the most popular incarnation of Batman’s car – is nothing short of a miracle. Furst, along with set decorator Peter Young, was rewarded with an Academy Award for his work on Batman.
Equally impressive is the movie’s score by Burton’s frequent collaborator Danny Elfman. Producer John Peters was initially hesitant about hiring the composer, but was swiftly convinced by Elfman’s memorably bombastic Batman theme, which remains as fresh today as it did when it was first heard back in ’89.
Flaws? Sure, there are a few. Kim Basinger doesn’t always convince as Vicki Vale, a photographic journalist who, we’re led to believe, has spent considerable time witnessing the horrors of war zones, yet unleashes a shrill scream at the mere hint of danger in the urban jungle that is Gotham. Put it down, perhaps, to the fact that she was cast at the last-minute to replace Sean Young who was injured early on in filming; either way, it’s not the finest hour for an actress who is so clearly capable of more. Elsewhere, there’s some all-too-convenient scenes used to quickly advance the plot (Alfred merrily revealing his employer’s dark secret by escorting Vale into the Batcave, for example), and some of the model effects work hasn’t aged terribly well, most notably those scenes showing the crash of the Batwing.
Yet for all its faults Burton’s Batman – which the director himself once remarked as being “more a cultural phenomenon than a great movie” – remains a hugely enjoyable film, and a landmark in cinema history that continues to influence comic book movies to this day.