Despite being the biggest Batman fan that I know, I find it ironic that the Batman movie I’ve probably seen the least is the original Tim Burton film from 1989. This movie is considered by many to be a classic, with some (mostly people who grew up in the 80s) believing that it is still the definitive live-action version of the caped crusader. I had always enjoyed the film, but I hadn’t seen it in its entirety since a few weeks after “The Dark Knight” came out in the Summer of 2008. So I went to Hulu the other night and watched this movie for the first time in nearly a decade and a half. The results were mixed.
Tim Burton’s “Batman” is not a bad film. On a technical level, it’s marvelous. The set design is incredible. The look of Gotham City is claustrophobic and unique. Danny Elfman’s orchestral score, while a bit overrated, is excellent. All of Batman’s gadgets and tech look slick. This version of the Batmobile and Bat plane still holds up today. When Michael Keaton is in the batsuit, he’s fantastic. It was clear his mobility while in the suit was limited, but they do everything they can to make you forget that. For the most part, This Batman movie gets the Batman stuff right.
While I don’t love this movie, I sure as hell appreciate it. “Batman” was the first time the character had truly been taken seriously in live-action. It paved the way for so many other (and superior) versions of the character. Had I been of sound mind and body in 1989, I bet this would’ve blown me away. So I appreciate what it did for comic book cinema.
But I still don’t like it very much.
When I think of this movie, the word that comes to mind is “awkward.” Something about it constantly feels off. The performances are inconsistent. The pacing is poor. It’s a two-hour movie that feels like it’s three hours. The characters are just bizarre and off-beat. That comes with the territory with Tim Burton. He’s been open about wanting to be a director who speaks for the misfits, but….you don’t do that with Batman. That schtick works with Pee-Wee Herman but not Batman. And while I like Michael Keaton a lot as Batman, I don’t care for his Bruce Wayne. I don’t blame Keaton for that, who does the best with the material, but I’ll go as far as to say the issues with Bruce Wayne in this movie indicate the problem that plagues most of this movie, and that’s that it’s inconsistently written. It’s sometimes goofy when it needs to be dark and sometimes dark when it needs to be goofy. Also, while I know Prince is a legend who put out almost exclusively bangers, having essentially two full Prince music videos in the middle of this film dates it significantly.
Over the last 15 years, we’ve seen two men win Academy Awards for playing The Joker. He’s a character that can be interpreted in so many different ways, and while I don’t believe anyone will ever truly top Heath Ledger’s iconic performance, I am looking forward to future versions of The Joker. With that said, I don’t this Jack Nicholson is very good as The Joker. Don’t get me wrong, Jack Nicholson gives a good performance. It’s Jack doing his best Jack impression, and perhaps the biggest movie star of all time playing an exaggerated version of himself is always fun, but… he’s not really The Joker. You never feel like he gets lost in the role. It’s just Jack Nicholson with face paint on, which for 1989 was probably awesome. But watching it in the modern time feels unsatisfying.
But my biggest issue with this film, and it’s an issue that plagued so many of the early Batman films before Christopher Nolan came along, is that you never really get a good sense of the character’s motivations. Michael Keaton talked about this on Marc Maron’s podcast a few years ago. He never had the opportunity to make a movie in which they delve into why Batman is Batman. The movie spends little time addressing Bruce’s trauma and why he does what he does. And in those seldom scenes moments in which it tries to deal with those issues, it comes across as disingenuous and lacking the emotional weight that made the Nolan films so successful.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think “Batman Forever”, while by not means is a better film than “Batman”, might be a better Batman movie than the Burton film. “Batman Forever” has some HORRIBLE shit in it. There are 4 or 5 scenes that fall into the category of “maximum cringe,” and Tommy Lee Jones is awful as Two-Face, but at least that movie had the guts to give us an honest-to-God sense of pathos regarding Bruce Wayne’s psyche.
And I don’t think “Forever” is a very good movie either. It’s like a 6 out of 10, but I think it understands Bruce Wayne more than this movie. I just could’ve done without the neon.
The villain’s motivations are never properly clear in Burton’s original interpretation. “The Dark Knight” is a movie that intentionally goes out of its way not to explain The Joker’s backstory, but there are multiple scenes in which he explains what motivates him. I watched Tim Burton’s “Batman” yesterday, and I’m still trying to figure out what inspired Jack Napier to do what he did. He starts the movie as a gangster, then he’s jealous because Batman gets more attention, and then he goes crazy and tries to infect the whole city with Smylex, then it turns out he’s just in love with Vicki Vale, and then Batman gets mad because Joker killed his parents (I could write an entire blog just about that.) Then they show the Bat-signal, and the movie ends.
I’m not trying to convince people who love this movie that they shouldn’t love it. That’s a waste of time. But as someone who has a soft spot for all live-action versions of the caped crusader (even the really, REALLY bad ones), this is the least memorable to me. Is it the worst? No way! NOOOOOO WAY! You could even argue that it’s the best Batman film to exist before Christopher Nolan (not including animated films), but I find it so hollow. If you grew up on it and love it, that’s great. It’s just not the Batman I vibe with.