Following the success of his first feature Pee Wee’s Big Adventure in 1985, Tim Burton was hired by Warner Bros to direct a new Batman feature. Burton, not a particularly big fan of Batman or of comic books in general (this will be important later), displayed a degree of indifference to the first several treatments that were written; one of his main worries was that the studio wanted a movie along the lines of the 60s TV show, which was not one he cared to make.
In 1988 several factors converged: one, Burton’s Beetlejuice, with Michael Keaton as the title role, was released to great success, and two, Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke was released to great acclaim. The Killing Joke followed in the footsteps of Frank Miller’s seminal The Dark Knight Returns, and Burton, reading both books, discovered an angle to Batman that interested him. Coincidentally, Warner Bros saw the success of the comics as an indicator that a movie version could succeed, and greenlit Burton’s movie.
Now, because Burton was neither a writer nor a particularly knowledgeable comics fan, he began working with screenwriter Sam Hamm for no particular reason other than Hamm’s greater comics fandom. To cast his leading man, Burton chose Keaton, which led to outraged reaction from many fans of the comic; Burton dismissed this as the fans assuming that he would be aping the comic tone of the TV show. Whether or not this was the real reason for the outrage, the casting of Michael Keaton would prove to be the second biggest problem with the movie, with the first being Hamm’s script, which featured some of the most embarrassing dialogue ever allowed in a major release.
The shame of those two crippling flaws is that there is so much to love in Burton’s Batman. It is one of the most visually beautiful movies ever made, with Burton and production designer Anton Furst creating a Gotham City like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis as designed by a Gothic monumentalist—creating the sense that the city itself, much like its corrupt institutions, oppresses the citizenry—with cinematographer Roger Pratt shooting it in a manner suggesting film noir, a form built around the very shadows Batman uses to lay in wait for criminals.
Bridging the gap between asset and flaw is the legendary performance by Jack Nicholson as The Joker, one of a handful of performances in the history of cinema that actually became a problem by being too good. This is not Jack’s fault. Never an actor known for his underplaying, Jack pulls out all the stops here, giving a performance so large it has gravitational pull (he is, after all, a star). He is flamboyant, funny, grotesque, and terrifying, often simultaneously, in one of the all-time great villainous performances. The strain on Jack’s psyche was reportedly so great that he (possibly apocryphally) advised Heath Ledger not to take the role as the Joker, but he was well compensated: on top of a salary of $6 million, Jack received a percentage of the gross that was reportedly close to $50 million.
It is the size and power of Jack’s Joker than makes Michael Keaton’s strong-but-wrong choice to portray Bruce Wayne as a dotty eccentric look even weaker. Michael Keaton is a fine actor—his failure in Burton’s Batman pictures is an aberration, the rest of his career features almost exclusively very good work—but a Batman movie is not one where the audience should be rooting for the bad guy, and that is what, by default, the audience ends up doing in Batman.
The fault for this can be laid at Tim Burton’s feet, for as brilliant a job as he did constructing a physical Gotham City, the way in which he populated that city is highly suspect. Burton explicitly stated that he was not interested in making a silly, comedic picture a la the 1966 iteration, which makes it odd to say the least that the cast is populated so heavily with comedians and comic actors. The choice of Jack as the Joker is above reproach, but Michael Keaton’s entire previous body of work was comedic. Robert Wuhl. Kim Basinger (whose acting, by and large, was itself the joke most of her career). Jack Palance, while not usually a comic actor in name, was nonetheless such a ham as to be a de facto comedian. With the exception of the genuinely inspired choice of Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent, the majority of the principal cast of Batman would have been, ironically, more at home in a comedy of the sort Burton professed to not want to make.
It is not just because of the lousy script and weird acting that Batman is the template of the modern blockbuster, though. It has a genuine feeling of excitement, of being an event, that makes it possible, more often than not, to overlook its flaws. Most of the conversations I’ve had in which I’ve advanced the above views have ended with the other person telling me, “Yeah, but it’s Batman.” As irrational an argument as that certainly is, it is nonetheless one for which I have no rebuttal. Warts and all, this is Batman. That means something.
Batman builds on the foundation of The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke to get back to the basics of Batman as a character; whatever Michael Keaton’s portrayal got wrong, the one thing it got absolutely right was the sense of Batman as a loner, someone apart from other people, who relied on intellect and ingenuity rather than superpowers. This is why, though Batman drew its more serious tone from the comics of the past several years, the fact that it reached such a considerably wider audience made it arguably the more important force in getting society at large to take Batman seriously again. And this is why, any flaws aside, Tim Burton’s Batman is such an important entry in the Bat-canon.
Next, Tim Burton negotiates near-complete artistic control and makes Batman Returns.