It’s amazing how seeing a familiar film on the big screen can change your perception of it. I have seen Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman several times on DVD at home, and always found it to be an enjoyable but decidedly style over substance affair. I went to see it at the local movie theater last night and it emerged as a completely different movie, a much better movie. Something clicked for the first time. Perhaps Batman’s almost operatic grandeur is more suited to a larger venue.
The general consensus on Batman is that it’s a film rich in atmosphere and deficient in story, par the course with much of Burton’s oeuvre. Even with a renewed outlook on the film, I would still say that is pretty accurate. The atmosphere is a delicious blend of German expressionism and art deco, almost feeling like a film noir in the early scenes with Jack Napier’s dealings with the Gotham crime lords. Bleak, tyrannical with its imposing architecture, and looking more than a little reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s dystopian Metropolis, Burton’s Gotham is a hybrid world, blending fashions, technology, and architecture of the 1930s and 1940s with the excess of the 1980s. In that respect, it’s a lot like the world of James Whale’s Frankenstein films, which mixed the 19th century with contemporary elements. Danny Elfman’s aggressive and moody score also adds to the character of Gotham City as a whole; this is a setting as distorted as Batman and the Joker themselves, one which reflects their disturbed inner worlds.
But I’ve always adored those aspects of Burton’s Batman; the things that always felt wanting related to the plot, which does take a backseat to the visuals and ambiance. Despite being the titular character, Batman himself is often relegated to the shadows while the Joker takes over the show. One of the most debated aspects of this film is how much more the audience knows about the Joker as compared to the Dark Knight: we get his backstory as the psychotic gangster Jack Napier, origin story as the Joker, and see him engage in all sort of darkly comedic yet chilling acts of villainy. In comparison, we see Bruce/Batman mostly brooding, fumbling in his relationship with Vicki while trying to keep Gotham from being obliterated right off the map. I disliked this Batman-Joker ratio during my first two viewings, but the more I see the movie, the more I think it makes sense. For much of the runtime, Batman remains elusive both to the audience and audience surrogate character Vicki. Michael Keaton’s dual performance as Bruce and Batman benefits from large screen viewing, revealing little gestures and subtle expressions which suggested the tormented and lonely interior life of the character. Though his Bruce is probably a bit too “Clark Kent-ish,” his unassuming nature combined with Keaton’s physical appearance do make him seem like the last person who would be kicking ass in a bat suit at night.
What I find especially interesting about Keaton’s Batman is that his emotional and psychological issues are never resolved by the end credits. Throughout the film, he never truly lets Vicki in, even though she desperately wants to get through to him. We see this from their first date at his house, where the two sit at opposite ends of a long dining table in a sequence obviously referencing a similar scene in Citizen Kane depicting the alienation between Charles Foster Kane and his first wife Emily. And even though he defeats the Joker, saves the love interest, and prevents a large chunk of Gotham’s populace from being gassed to death, the final scene does not show the hero and Vicki together in a lover’s clinch. Instead, we have Vicki going into Bruce’s limousine alone while Batman stands aloof over Gotham City, as emotionally distant as ever. Come Batman Returns, it comes as no surprise that we learn the relationship never works out, killed in its infancy by Bruce’s aforementioned inability to let anyone into his cloistered world.
But the element which came out most of all during my big screen viewing of Batman was how the film took itself seriously without ever forgetting it was a comic book movie. As one of my friends said on the drive home from the theater: “The movie knows it’s a comic book adaptation, but the characters are unaware that they’re living in one.”
Of course, I still think Burton’s Batman is a flawed movie: the relationship between Bruce and Vicki is a little too rushed to be as effective as it could be, the action scenes are pedestrian, characters like Harvey Dent and reporter Knox are brought up and then just left hanging with little to do, there’s a lot of convenience in the plot (the Joker just happens to become obsessed with Vicki out of all the beautiful women in Gotham and the Joker just happens to have been the one to kill Batman’s parents all those years ago), and there are tons of weird little lapses of logic peppered in the script. Why does the Joker show up at Vicki’s apartment only to drop off flowers, shoot Bruce, and then just leave? And for God’s sake, why does Alfred let Vicki into the Batcave without Batman being majorly cheesed off?
Still, the backlash it has gotten in more recent years feels rather petty. Most of it comes from those who prefer the Christopher Nolan take on the mythos or hardcore Batman fans who dislike changes made to the general mythology of the character, like having Batman kill people or making it the Joker who gunned down Thomas and Martha Wayne. I guess I’m just the kind of person who’s a little more lax on adaptations in general; there can be more than one version of something and not all of them need to be the same. Plus when Batman gets something done right it does so brilliantly as a stylish and moody character study. For that reason alone, it seems too harsh to toss it aside like so much cinematic rubbish.