I’ve been familiar with this movie all my life, and it’s still slippery. At the time of its release, it was greeted as the first cinematic adaptation of Batman to match the darkness of the comics. Batman was finally being taken seriously. In light of the Christopher Nolan films that followed, that assessment doesn’t entirely hold up. Traces of the 1960s Batman series are very much evident in both the visual style and some of the humor of the 1989 film. Nor can it be said that this film is a pure synthesis of the two approaches. It takes inspiration from multiple sources, but it is stubbornly its own thing. While the film helped usher in a new era of superhero blockbusters, it is best approached today not as any kind of template but as the personal vision of director Tim Burton, created at the moment of his greatest creative fecundity.
In addition to selecting from among the many interpretations of Batman, Burton’s first order of business was to distinguish his project from Richard Donner’s Superman. For this reason, an extended look at the hero’s origin story was rejected, even though Batman’s origins had never been explored on film before. The Donner film unmistakably placed Superman in 1970s New York by another name. Burton’s Gotham City, by contrast, would have to look like no real place on earth, with the story unfolding in no distinct time period. The film was shot on sound stages, with legendary production design by Anton Furst. The gray industrial hell of Furst’s design is the backbone of the whole project. It’s a conscious rejection of realism in favor of a grim fantasy born from film history.
It sounds cool to say that Burton’s Batman is an homage to film noir, but that isn’t quite accurate. This movie goes all the way back to the source of noir, German expressionism. That’s how Burton got away with all the Dutch angles without calling that 1960s series to mind. Without all the Pop Art playfulness, those same angles can be made to communicate psychological turmoil. The world that Burton and Furst conjured is relentlessly dreamlike, complete with a dark forest straight out of The Wizard of Oz. The villains are old-school gangsters, and the hero is a crimefighter masquerading as a supernatural being. Superman stands still while the bullets bounce off him; Batman falls when he gets shot but immediately rises back up like the undead. Cinematographer Roger Pratt even shines penlights on his eyes like Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. The “antihero” status of Batman is well-established, but it’s striking how little effort Burton put into giving the hero the moral high ground. Batman and the Joker are both on quests of vengeance in this film, with the former incurring a little less collateral damage than the latter.
Inspired by Alan Moore’s speculations on the Joker’s origins in the graphic novel The Killing Joke, Burton tells the story of criminal enforcer Jack Napier, played, of course, by Jack Nicholson. Call me crazy, but I would argue that Nicholson’s character, and the way he plays him, doesn’t fundamentally change after the accident that turns him into the Joker. The flamboyance, not far removed from Cesar Romero but with an additional Method sense of motivation, is merely the product of throwing caution to the wind. This man was already tired of being Boss Grissom’s lieutenant before an argument over a woman made them enemies. The Joker emerges out of Grissom’s shadow and strong-arms his way to dominance in Gotham. He does everything his way and it all works, to his considerable glee. Nicholson’s performance is legendary but not altogether consistent. His approach veers from rude physical comedy to dry sarcasm to exaggerated impressions. It should be said that Michael Keaton, who expertly separates Batman and Bruce Wayne without exploring either persona too deeply, would have made a better Joker. That’s just one of the things that makes this movie fascinating. Burton’s worldview looks favorably on each character’s outsider status and dwells on their similarities. They created each other, as the script puts it in so many words.
Batman recognizes the past, in the form of its cinematic antecedents, and the present, in its nods to contemporary comic book interpretations and the distinctive voice of Tim Burton behind it all. One way the film looks to the future is in the editing style of Ray Lovejoy. Compared to the deliberate rhythms of the earlier Superman films, Batman has a ferocious punch, accentuating the tactile quality of the hero bursting through a skylight or racing in the Batmobile. My favorite editing sequence comes when the Joker finishes off a rival gangster with a lethal joy buzzer. The charred skeleton falls into the chair; Joker blows on his weapon like a gun barrel; goons burst through the doors. Boom-boom-boom. Decades later, it’s strange to think of a time before superheroes and the modern action movie were kith and kin, but the classicism of the Superman films is far removed from this. After 1989, superhero movies were expected to be violent.
Today, the superhero movie industry allows little room for distinct personalities among its directors. The machine-tooled quality of latter-day comic book films is mostly the result of Marvel forming its own studio and folding itself into the Disney empire, where every single bean is counted. Tim Burton wouldn’t be allowed to do what he wanted with such a valuable property as Batman if he tried again today. In this regard, Batman is so forward-looking that Hollywood still hasn’t caught up with it. Recent social justice controversies are preemptively addressed in the film. The casting of an African-American man as Harvey Dent would surely incur the wrath of self-styled purists today. Bryce Dallas Howard’s high heels in Jurassic World were a point of contention; here, Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale matter-of-factly tosses her shoes before leaving the Batmobile to escape on foot. Now, to be fair, Vale in this film is a damsel in distress who screams constantly. It’s 2016; who still expects progress to be linear?
All told, Burton would take a more confident approach in his second Batman film. He allows the outsize personality of Nicholson to overwhelm the film at times, and Danny Elfman’s incredible score makes a rough fit with some of the wackier songs in Prince’s catalogue. But this risky, historically-minded and individualistic take on Batman is one of the most notable successes of Hollywood filmmaking. For all the years of sniping that Batman is just a supporting player in his own movie, the film is bookended by some of the Dark Knight’s most iconic images. First is the slow descent upon hapless criminals, cape outstretched — a night wraith silently appearing. Then there’s the shot of Batman and Vale dangling by grappling hook off the side of a vertiginous gothic cathedral. It’s romantic in the Phantom of the Opera sense. These moments, at least, as well as Furst’s design for the Batmobile, are unsurpassable.