Directed by: Tim Burton
Written by: Sam Hamm & Warren Skaaren
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle
The character of Batman has grown such notoriety over the years that Warner Bros cannot help but continue to reboot him over and over again. On the live-action feature film side, this iteration serves as the first major appearance by the caped crusader. Looking back on it now may seem like the oddest pairing of talent to bring this hero to the big screen, but it worked in a way that serves as a capsule for a different time.
Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) lives his billionaire lifestyle during the day and puts on his suit and fights crime during the night as Batman in Gotham City. While trying to manage his affection and the weight of his identity with Vicki Vale (Kim Bassinger), he must contend with the emergence of the devious Joker (Jack Nicholson), who seeks to wreak havoc as the city celebrates its bicentennial.
Superman: The Movie showed everyone that they could dream to fly like Christopher Reeve. As a result, the uplifting films of the Kryptonian served as a beacon of hope, which indicated the success of seeing these comic book heroes on screen. The next major attempt arrived in the form of Batman and with it came a tremendous cast. It’s funny to think that Michael Keaton went from Beetlejuice to this film, which only goes to show his incredible range. The man can truly do it all. He has persisted as what many feel like is the true Batman, as he brought the character’s seriousness, but also the charm that makes him appealing. I did not grow up with Keaton being my first Batman so I always find him an interesting choice for this role. His iteration of Bruce Wayne feels like the most interesting of all others, especially when he drops the “let’s get nuts.” I mean not many others could do that if we’re being honest.
Receiving top billing, Jack Nicholson portrayed the Joker and brought a cool but frightening demeanor to the role. With everything the Joker has become since Nicholson’s performance, the impact can be felt when discussions arrive of who portrayed the clown prince of crime the best. Initially known as Jack Napier, Nicholson provides a backstory for a character famously known for being incredibly mysterious and ambiguous. The hero/villain combination of Keaton and Nicholson displayed not only good character work but also a great sparring session between two phenomenal actors.
You cannot confuse the aesthetic of this film with any other and it shows in an era where director Tim Burton truly brought something special with each feature. The Gothic architecture and overall mood created a Gotham like no other, which makes all of the events feel scary in a way. Whether it be Joker’s unsettling smile or the instruments of destruction he wants to bring to the people of Gotham. This iteration of Gotham has incredible texture as it feels lived in by the characters and becomes a good backdrop for the battles that will occur.
At times the story does feel cartoonish, especially when considering the installments made by Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder. Joker’s plot revolves around releasing a tear gas that will kill all of Gotham. Nicholson does not have the sophistication of Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight but it fits the tone set by Tim Burton throughout the entirety of the film. That ultimately indicates why this film successfully brings together a Batman story. It knows its tone and the type of characters that inhabit its world. The zaniness and the kookiness that occurs feels natural because that’s what you come to expect when you have a Bruce Wayne that says “Let’s get nuts.” It all seamlessly works together. Batman feels like a movie from the 80s that happens to have Batman running around and this distinct style allows him to stand out amongst what seems like hundreds of versions of this character. From the Batmobile to the ridiculous parade that occurs, and how Batman’s suit allows for limited neck movement.
An aesthetic that rules in its own way and a great collaboration between great talent, Batman remains a treasure in the superhero genre. It shows the great strides that have been achieved while also showing how it’s okay to have fun with these characters. I enjoy a serious tone but we have a man dressed as a bat running around and punching petty criminals. It’s okay to enjoy this set up for all the weirdness it had, which Tim Burton knows how to do more than anyone else it seems.