As Christopher Nolan’s epic trilogy comes to a close, it dawns on your old pal Max that a generation of Bat-fans will have come up knowing only Mr. Bale as their Batman. While it’s certainly not a bad thing to have weaned yourself on Nolan’s vision of Gotham city, it would be a shame if that’s the only Gotham you ventured into because I truly believe in a great many ways, Burton’s was better.
First let’s start with the unassailable truth. 1989’s Batman was the most important superhero film ever made. While Richard Donner’s Superman before it was indeed a commercial success, Batman proved that a film based on a superhero could become a financial juggernaut. It wasn’t so much about the box office, which was hefty enough for its time, but the sheer cultural impact the film had was staggering. The bat-signal was everywhere that summer and it goes without saying that the film moved a great deal of merchandise off the shelves. This film is the reason why Warner Bros. and every other studio kept returning to the well of superhero filmmaking, albeit with varied degrees of success through the coming decades. Batman proved that if you did it right, there was a rabid fan-base waiting to throw money at you for your efforts.
But why was the film so successful? Simply put, it works. It’s a strange film and in many ways dated, but it manages to impress a feeling upon you that is darkly magical. There is a whimsy infused in the gothic-noir overtones that is richly satisfying. This is not Nolan’s hyper-real “this could actually happen” vision of Batman. This is Batman the superhero. If the Batman from Super-Friends were to represent that character in childhood, then this is Batman in his third year of college, more mature with better taste in music.
Here are some points to mull when considering the merit of Burton’s vision:
- Keaton’s Batman is confident and sure. He lacks the confusion and uncertainty that plagues Bale’s portrayal. Bale would be lost without Lucius Fox, the real superhero of those films, while Keaton is stalking the steamy alleyways of Gotham like a panther.
- The suit design was a revelation. It’s sleek and powerful and made you believe that the guy who played Mr. Mom could kick your ass. Twenty years later and Bale’s first suit was hardly that different.
- No moment in any of these films has yet to surpass the moment when Batman raises the mugger up and tells him “I’m Batman” as Elfman’s score rises and swells.
- Hans Zimmer’s work on the Nolan trilogy has been wonderful. Danny Elfman however created a score that stands alone as one of the greatest character themes of all times.
- Batman actually does some detective work in this film, deducing the identity of the Joker as well as the intent of his scheme.
- The Batcave is on full display and the fact that the mansion is bugged for sound and video is a wonderful touch that shows a great understanding of the character.
- With few careful scenes we are shown that Gotham has become a grimy city on the decline, as opposed to constantly being beat over the head with the fact that Gotham is a city in decay ala Nolan.
- “Where does he get those wonderful toys?”
- Michael Gough’s Alfred is perfection. Though, so is Caine.
- In not being a slave to realism, Burton’s Gotham is permitted to be some ingenious mash-up of art-deco 40’s noir and filthy 70’s crime film, Manhattan.
- When he flies in on that batwing, all is right with this world.
- Nicholson’s Joker is a force in every way Ledger was. Ledger was the boogeyman. He came from nowhere with no discernible motivation beyond chaos. Jack on the other hand, played the mad artist, the sociopath obsessed with the gratification of self who embodied the empty vanity of his time with lethal charm.
- The moment of understanding that passes between Keaton and Nicholson when the Joker fist asks, “Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight” is powerful stuff.
- The unveiling of the Bat-signal at the end is the stuff of fanboy pixie-dust.
What I grudgingly admit does not work:
- Several scenes are basically Prince music videos and on every level that is awful.
- Commissioner Gordon’s role is minimal and Pat Hingle just doesn’t have the chops.
- Vicki Vale is a screaming, whiny annoyance. Also she is an idiot.
- The mayor really wants this festival to happen but he should please stop talking.
- The Joker dresses his gang in nicely coordinated outfits and I am left to wonder how he ordered these accoutrements that even sport a Joker logo. He either made them himself or bought them at the place where little league teams get their jerseys made up.
- Robert Wuhl, Robert Wuhl, Robert Wuhl. His portrayal of Knox the reporter is an open wound in a rainstorm of lemon juice. I like the notion of an investigative reporter tracking the urban legend that is Batman, Wuhl’s Humphrey Bogart meets Jerry Seinfeld approach does not work for me though.
- Bruce Wayne is less a playboy and more a billionaire weirdo who likes to collect armor and trick hot chicks into thinking he isn’t a billionaire. Bruce you have it backwards. We tell them we ARE billionaires then let them find out we are weirdos who collect shit.
- The fact that Bruce Wayne sleeps upside down is a little too on the nose.
- The Joker being his parent’s killer just doesn’t work for me.