Tim Burton’s Batman is responsible for a lot of what is associated and iconic about the character today. Before Burton, the on-screen persona was a lighthearted, camper version but Burton returns the Caped Crusader to his darker roots. Burton also creates a Gotham which is Gothic and a character in itself. Danny Elfman presents a score which would be only recently matched by Hans Zimmer and Jack Nicholson delivers the scariest Joker until Heath Ledger would don the make-up.
In fact, Jack Nicholson is the best aspect of the movie. You would be mistaken for thinking this film was called “The Joker” because Nicholson’s Crown Prince of Crime is on-screen more than Batman is. It isn’t too much of a complaint though, Nicholson creates a Joker which is scary, grotesque and has a dark sense of humour which gives the audience a guilty pleasure in laughing at his antics. His laugh is also perfect, capturing the scary and infectious in one chuckle.
Unfortunately, because Nicholson’s Joker is such a great character, the others pale in comparison. Kim Basinger is the love interest and damsel-in-distress and plays that one-dimensional part very well, while Pat Hingle’s version of Commissioner Gordon is nothing more than an inept cop rather than supporting player for Batman.
This lack of punch in the characters also extends to Batman as well. This isn’t a shadow stalking, almost mythical version of the character that Christopher Nolan would give us (and to some extent Ben Affleck’s new version too). This is a fallible Batman, who makes mistakes, can be caught and beaten and feels much more “human.” It isn’t quite the almost unstoppable force that Batman is associated with in the movies today.
What Burton’s Batman does well is the Bruce Wayne side of the story. Michael Keaton is a convincing Batman but a much better Bruce Wayne. This is a Wayne who isn’t obsessed with his “mission” and finds time to romance Basinger’s Vicki Vale. It is a character who is troubled and struggling to balance both lives, even contemplating sharing his secret with his very short-term girlfriend.
Batman shouldn’t be a love story though. This should be a film with action, kick-ass moments and some cool caped-scenes. Luckily Burton does deliver this. There is a great finale involving the “Bat-Plane” while a confrontation in a museum/art gallery manages to capture both the manic nature of Nicholson’s Joker and the cool heroics of Keaton’s Batman. It is just a shame that there is much more emphasis on character-driven plots that superhero-style action.
Overall, Batman is a great template and starting-point for the modern day superhero movies. It creates a darker, mature Batman and kills the camp Adam West version. Most of this is down to the brilliantly scary and darkly comic Jack Nicholson as The Joker, so much so that he manages to steal the show and highlight some of the weaknesses of the other characters.
Rating – 4
(1 – Awful, 2 – Average, 3 – Good, 4 – Great, 5! – Must See)