Volume Eight, Issue Twenty-Five!
Tim Burton’s Batman did a lot of things. It changed the cultural landscape for superhero films, proved that Michael Keaton could be more than Mr. Mom, and kickstarted a whole new generation of comic book movies. It was also one of the first movies I remember watching over and over again, to the point where I almost burnt out the VHS tape it was on. As the movie hits the 30 year mark, I wanted to take a look back at a movie that stands as not only one of my all-time favorites, but one of my first instances of seeing a comic book brought to life as a movie.
It’s easy to overlook Tim Burton’s film now, where we’ve had more Batman actors than presidents since 1989, but Burton’s take on the Dark Knight and his city left a huge imprint on me as a kid. I was four years old when I first saw it, and I was definitely too young for it (Joker electrocuting one of his rival mob bosses scared the ever loving crap out of me), but I was fascinated by it. In fact, the day that my parents found out I had been telling my babysitters that I was allowed to watch it was pretty funny, because by that point it was too late and I had watched it so many times that I could practically quote it from memory. I was obsessed with it, so much so that I played the Game Boy game over and over again just to relive my favorite parts.
As I got older and looked more into the history of the making of the movie, I was surprised to learn not only of the history of Michael Keaton’s career before making Batman, but also the outrage over his casting when it was first announced. But in a lot of ways, he’s the Batman most burned into my brain. He’s not the mega ripped guy from the comics (or even in more recent versions of the character), but Keaton brings a weirdness to Bruce Wayne that works. He’s clearly driven by his mission, and will stop at nothing to keep the memory of his family alive and get vengeance for them, but he’s also a complete Howard Hughes oddball who can’t make lasting connections to save his life (outside of Alfred, of course). It’s an interesting angle on the character that hasn’t been played up on since. Plus, for my money no one can say “I’m Batman” quite like Keaton.
Keaton’s not the only surprising thing about Batman, Tim Burton is too. Up until that point, Burton was known primarily for quirky films like Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, and the strange short film Frankweenie, projects that definitely don’t make him seem like an ideal choice for a big budget blockbuster like Batman. Hell, Burton himself still seems surprised by the whole thing, but looking back on the film, he’s kind of the perfect choice to bring Batman into the mainstream. Batman has a lot of different influences that all come together to make up something truly unique. Just look at the set design for Gotham City in the movie. It’s like nothing in any of of the other takes on Batman, and remains to this day probably my favorite look for the location. It’s so influential that current shows like Gotham take cues from it’s design. Not only that, but it’s insane to me that the first blockbuster film starring Batman didn’t take a cue from Superman: The Movie and devote time to Batman’s origin, instead showing it as a quick flashback before the third act of the film. That’s a rather bold choice when you consider how many times we’ve seen the character’s origin story opening his films, TV Shows, and video games. Batman starts with Bruce Wayne as the Bat, kicking ass and taking names, and expects the audience to pick up on it right away.
Of course, it’s impossible to not talk about the first billed actor on this film, Jack Nicholson. Does Nicholson have the slim build of the Clown Prince of Crime? No. Does it ruin the mystique of the character that we know his origin in this film? Yes. But at the same time, I’ve got that nostalgic feeling for Nicholson’s take on the character, which is a pretty fun one that I feel is a good mix of Heath Ledger’s menace and Cesar Romero’s over the top lunacy. Nicholson is clearly having a good time in the role, something that’s pretty surprising when he could have just phoned it in for the massive payday he got for the movie. His hatred and jealousy of Batman stems from the simple fact that Batman is stealing all of his press, a move that really does sound like something that would bother the Joker when you really think about it.
Like a lot of early comic book films, Batman isn’t perfect. The revelation that The Joker was the one who murdered Bruce Wayne’s parents still drives me nuts, mainly because that kind of ends Batman’s war on crime, and the fact that Keaton can’t move his neck at all sticks out even more than it used to thanks to The Dark Knight and Batman V Superman, which made it a point to make the batsuit functional. But there’s a lot of room in my heart for Batman, and it’s hard not to look at this film as one of the early benchmarks for how the superhero genre got to become the mega success that it is.