A dark and refreshing interpretation of one of comic kingdom’s most beloved characters, Tim Burton’s Batman successfully wiped away the memory of the camp 1960s television show, and pressed the charge that –if in the right hands – comic book to film adaptations can be highly entertaining viewing.
Much like Richard Donner’s Superman, Batman succeeds due to the creative passion invested in it. But unlike Superman, Batman does not play slave to its dense comic book mythology. Rather, it took the raw elements from Batman creator Bob Kane’s original interpretation of the character and –for better or worse - reshaped its mythology.
From the film’s opening credits, it is evident that this Batman is not the kapow! spandex incarnation many have lived with for too long. Paying tribute to the shadows in which the Dark Knight inhabits, Burton’s gothic vision gives way to a decaying Gotham City, weathered by corrupt officials and treacherous criminals. Designed by Anton Furst and Peter Young, the city comes off as a living, breathing entity that bears witness to a twisted three way relationship between a vengeful hero dressed like a bat; a homicidal clown bent for destruction; and a female photojournalist stuck in the middle of their dangerous dance.
With his choice of who will play his masked vigilante, Burton dropped the gauntlet by casting Michael Keaton, the star of comedy hits Mr. Mom and Beetle Juice. Fan outrage towards the controversial decision was enormous: tens of thousands of letters poured into the offices of Warner Bros. Studios, with even Bob Kane and screenwriter Sam Hamm questioning Burton’s decision.
It was a risky move, but one that paid off big time. Having worked with him on Beetle Juice, Burton sensed the darkness within Keaton, who disarmingly portrays the duality, anger and shattered psyche which is Bruce Wayne/Batman. Keaton successfully dials down his natural ability to steal a scene, but does not undercut his strong screen presence while doing so: if Beetle Juice was a great example of how to play over the top, than Batman is a demonstration of how to portray brooding and intensity, all while wearing a rubber suit.
With Batman all mood, it is natural that his arch-nemesis The Joker be the opposite, and with such a larger than like character a larger than life actor was needed, and they do not get much bigger than Jack Nicholson.
Working upon a large canvas, Nicholson naturally steals every scene. Distorting his already animated features –trademark grin, eyebrows, and cheekbones are permanently plastered into a grotesque version of himself – Nicholson shamelessly hams it up as only he could, delivering a performance with such exhilarating energy, that it is hard not to be infected by its fervour.
As the third party in this freakish triangle, Kim Basinger plays the part of Vicki Vale, a journalist on the trail of the Bat while falling in love –and obsession - with the man behind the mask. She unfortunately also envokes the attention of the Joker, who hilariously declares to all other potential suitors to “Never mess with another man’s rhubarb!”
A scene where the Joker attempts to “seduce” Vale sets the stage for the first showdown between him and the Batman. Set in a museum –recently defaced by Joker and his men - it gives way to the films stellar prop designs, with Batman’s arsenal of gadgets enough to make James Bond weep and prompt the Joker to ask: “Where does he get those wonderful toys!?”
Among them is the ultimate big boy toy in the sleek and jet black Batmobile, and its aerial counterpart the Batwing, which Burton spectacularly introduces piercing the murky Gotham night sky in one of the films few exciting action sequences.
For all of its innovation and spirit, there are many flaws to be found. Poor casting decisions of key supporting roles such as Commissioner Gordon (a bland Patt Hingle) and Harvey Dent (a slick but not very convincing Billy Dee Williams) will not make many Batman enthusiasts happy, nor will Burton’s controversial edits of crucial moments in Batman’s history; as an action film it fails to deliver with its poorly choreographed fight scenes; and its use of songs written and performed by Prince –the campiest of pop stars – does not suit its dark tone.
Thankfully, its look, themes, and performances are able to counter its faults.