Jack Nicholson plays a mobster who falls into a chemical vat and emerges with white skin, green hair, and a rictus grin. Renaming himself Joker, he sets out to remake Gotham City in his image, but encounters resistance from Batman, played by Michael Keaton.
I remember seeing director Tim Burton’s film in theaters opening weekend. I was young enough to clap with the crowd in glee at scenes like Batman’s plane breaking the clouds to hang mid-air against the full moon and form a bat symbol. But my adolescent self also appreciated the adult tones inherit in a story built around corruption and mass murder. I thought it miles removed from Adam West’s 1966 television show—which still played in afternoon reruns.
Burton’s Batman was dark and brooding and cool, like he was in the comics. The world went Bat-crazy that summer; me included. I remember thinking it the greatest movie ever made.
Years and sequels came, diminishing the original film’s shine. Joel Schumacher replaced Burton and ran the franchise into the ground. By the time George Clooney pulled out his Bat credit-card, I’d dismissed the whole franchise as campy and “not the real Batman.”
More years passed and Chris Nolan brought us The Dark Knight. This film also told a Batman and Joker story but ground it in a recognizable Gotham, and used the characters as archetypes to explore bigger themes of order, chaos, trust, identity and truth. Burton’s hyper-stylized film looked childish in comparison.
But time brings perspective, and I’ve come to appreciate Burton’s film as its own definitive cinematic interpretation. Not of the comic book Batman, but the Batman of an imaginary Fleischer Studios production.
Max Fleischer’s animated Superman serves as Burton and production designer Anton Furst’s inspiration for the film’s art déco world and stylized characters. Burton’s background as an animator shows through in the film’s sleek veneer and penchant for visual flair. See the aforementioned shot involving Batman’s plane.
That said, Nicholson makes the movie. When it debuted, I remember much commentary about how his performance diverted from Cesar Romero’s portrayal of the character on the Adam West series. Romero himself derided the picture as too violent.1
But compared to Heath Ledger’s and Jared Leto’s later turns, Nicholson’s performance hews closer to Romero’s. Nicholson retains Romero’s laugh and manic energy, but adds an edge and menace reminiscent of his turns in The Shining and The Witches of Eastwick, all while ripping off one quotable line after another. His “hard to stay in the lines,” comment between heavy breaths while snipping Kim Basinger out of a photo might apply to his own performance. But it works.
Even then-suspect decisions have borne out well, like choosing Prince for the soundtrack. Prince’s early passing cemented his legendary status and his off-beat funk sound proves the perfect complement to Nicholson’s grandiose performance. Combined with Danny Elfman’s score, the film’s music has become iconic.
Another odd choice that’s aged well is Keaton’s performance. His Bruce Wayne seems harebrained, with Alfred hovering around to catch an ill-set glass or retrieve a fountain pen planted in a houseplant, but there’s more going on than comic relief.
Burton and Keaton paint Wayne as a man of incredible, singular focus. When shooting erupts at a press conference, Keaton seems unaware, laser-focused on the dawning realization of the Joker’s identity. Extrapolating this, Keaton’s Batman operates with a myopic focus that excludes anything else, even fear. He’s not brave, he’s neuroatypical.
Granted, such a personality doesn’t lend itself to romance, and the relationship with Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale still feels as forced as it did during my first viewing, but it’s a small blemish. Like how Basinger’s Georgia accent creeps into some scenes and vanishes in others.
So, I’ve come almost full circle on Batman. It’s not as resonant as Nolan’s or as true to the comics as one might hope, but as a tribute to classic animation and superhero adventure, it shines. Watching it thirty-five years later, the scene where Batman crashes through the glass ceiling still elicits a thrilling shiver down my spine. Where does he get those wonderful toys?
- Bruce Bigelow, “Cesar Romero Thinks ‘Batman’ Is a Joke,” AP News, June 22, 1989. https://apnews.com/article/32a989bf36bf446b1183432f8e95844b (accessed May 5, 2023)↩