At a time when the default way of putting comics on screen is to 'go dark', it's easy to forget how radical Tim Burton's Batman would have seemed to 1980s audiences. The only previous attempt at a 'serious' superhero movie had been Richard Donner's Superman, which in itself was compromised by its heavy-handed producers. More than 20 years on, Batman remains an ambitious and entertaining attempt to bring Bob Kane's vision to the big screen, and while not all of it works, there is much to enjoy and appreciate.
Both at the time and in light of his subsequent output, Burton was an interesting choice to direct. He admitted to having little interest in the comics before he was offered the project - a revelation that led to a clash with Kevin Smith in the late-1990s when both were developing a Superman project. On the other hand, Burton's background in animation gave him an understanding of characters' physicality, and of the way in which their surroundings could be employed to reflect or express their emotions in a fantastical away.
Burton's vision for Gotham City stems from the expressionist traditions of German cinema. The architecture, with its dizzying skyscrapers and bustling streets, tips its hat lovingly to Metropolis and thereafter to Blade Runner. The latter is particularly evident in the rooftop scenes, where Burton contrasts light and shadow very effectively to show the fractured nature of both heroes and villains. This and the recurring image of smoke rising from the streets give things a film noir feel which plays into the hands of the source material.
Whereas Christopher Nolan's 'Gotham trilogy' is set in an alternative version of the present, Burton's vision finds the 1940s and the 1980s living side by side, like a lighter version of Blade Runner's retrofitted future. This hybrid reflects the comics' desire to stay with the times while keeping the characters timeless, and can be seen in every aspect of the art direction. Robert Wuhl's reporter is a 1940s flatfoot with a contemporary tape recorder, and at every press conference there is a mixture of old and new microphones. All the men wear classic suits while Jerry Hall and Kim Basinger flaunt the height of 1980s fashion. Even the Batmobile is part of this admixture, mixing fastback and hot-rod styling under a Chevrolet soundtrack.
But although the film captures the marriage of old and new reflected in the comics, there is a conflict between Burton's imagination and the extent to which this can be conveyed through the special effects. Even if we make allowances for model shots and moving backdrops (like the dated sequence of Batman and Vicki Vale falling off the cathedral), some of the action sequences look as though they were constrained, not for budgetary but for creative reasons. In his later films Burton would bring more of his vision to the screen thanks to carefully controlled digital effects, but no matter how many effects there are on the Batmobile, only a small amount ends up in plain sight.
Burton's interest in the characters lies less in what the comics lay out as to the split personalities and motivations of Batman and the Joker. Batman examines the psychology of individuals who choose to live separate lives and hold separate identities, whether out of moral conviction or because of some hideous accident. In the climactic "duel of the freaks" in the cathedral belfry, Batman and the Joker emerge as being formed from both aspects, with their worldviews being shaped by their attitudes to the accidents. The murder of Bruce Wayne's parents leads him to strive for justice, while Jack Napier's cruel accident drives him to revenge through creating chaos.
Confrontations like this exist outside Batman's relationship with the Joker, and tie in with Burton's running theme of outsiders. Michael Keaton plays Bruce Wayne as the awkward billionaire who has everything he wants but yearns to be accepted rather than just admired. He is torn between his desire for a normal life, embodied by his relationship with Vicki Vale, and his urge to fight injustice by becoming a monster. As in the sequel, some of the best moments in Batman find Keaton struggling over whether or not he should reveal his true identity to the woman he loves.
Because of the balance between Batman and the Joker in terms of character study, the Joker is naturally on screen for a large amount of time. But Jack Nicholson, who is clearly having fun, almost walks off with the whole film, leaving just the awkward silences between the two lovers and the bluster of Robert Wuhl to fill in the time. Ever since The Shining, Nicholson had been playing the over-the-top card to his advantage, and had been rewarded in this field with an Oscar for Terms of Endearment.
There have been many comparisons made between Nicholson's Joker and Heath Ledger's, with fanboys seething long into the night over which version is best. Suffice to say, they're two completely different styles, for completely different stories, in completely different universes. But if one were to draw a comparison, we could say there has been a steady progression from light to dark, beginning with Cesar Romero, moving through Nicholson and Mark Hamill and finishing with Ledger.
Much of Nicholson's performance finds him clowning around, with most of the Joker's stuff being more funny than scary. This is not entirely a bad thing; the Joker wouldn't be the Joker without a sense of humour, however dark. In certain sections the balance of humour and horror is well-judged, like the Joker electrocuting a rival gangster while dancing around, saying he's "got a live one here". But after a while Nicholson's shtick begins to get tiresome and you yearn for the straight-ahead sliminess that he exhibited as Jack Napier.
Character development is one of the big problems with Batman, with Sam Hamm's script making a number of odd detours and U-turns which jar with its opening act. Vicki Vale begins as a resourceful photojournalist straight out of the present day - but somehow, about halfway through, she turns into a damsel in distress, frequently screaming and having to be rescued. Jerry Hall exists only to swoon and pose on cue - although considering her background in modelling, this is arguably perfect casting. The peripheral characters come and go with little new to stimulate them, with Billy Dee Williams being very underused as Harvey Dent.
The story of Batman itself is much of a muchness. It takes a good 15 minutes to separately introduce us to all the different groups, before we get to Axis Chemicals and the origins of the Joker. When you get down to it, the plot is just about enough to fill an episode of the TV series - the Joker taints make-up products, Batman stops him, and they have a big showdown. Burton was still developing his craft as a storyteller and would not reach a good balance until Edward Scissorhands a year later.
There are also a number of incongruent elements which keep tripping the film up. The Prince songs in the soundtrack don't work; in fact the whole art gallery scene brings the film to a grinding halt, so Jack can show off and the studio can flog records. An earlier sequence, of the Joker cutting up photos in his lair, is never incorporated meaningfully into the plot. And then there are the usual contrivances surrounding gadgets - not only does Batman always have the gizmo he needs, but he can blow up an entire factory without leaving so much as a scratch on his car.
Batman is a flawed but thoroughly entertaining attempt to put the comic books on the big screen. Burton was still finding his feet as a director, and his work on Edward Scissorhands would ensure that the sequel was more focussed and substantial. Whole sections of Batman feel out of place, or ill-disciplined, or just plain odd. But in the end the whole just about works, and as a piece of entertainment it still holds up.