The winner is: Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. I’ll get right into it.
For those who remember, the famous tagline for Superman was, "You will believe a man can fly." Many have since lauded Christopher Nolan’s 2005 Batman Begins as the first big screen interpretation that finally made audiences believe that a man would be driven to embody a vigilante bat.
Except, the film does nothing to make me believe such a concept, instead only managing to posture and intellectualize a stuffy thematic through-line. This is the main problem I have with Batman Begins, along with its two sequels: Nolan’s take on the character and his world is boringly literal. Batman is a great work of pop-art psychology, at its best, expressed in broad strokes through mood, imagery and feeling; through darkness and obscurity; on levels both operatic and phantasmagorical. Nolan, however, reduced all of this to an academic thesis, with Bruce Wayne/Batman himself playing not like a real person at all but rather a mere, tediously belabored thesis subject.
The exploration of how Bruce Wayne becomes Batman might be interesting, yes; the themes that define and drive him might fascinate on paper but, unfortunately, on paper is where Nolan keeps them, check-listing scripted content and "big ideas" with endless exposition and spoon-feeding monologues. A laid out origin story that systematically chronicles Bruce Wayne’s path to becoming Batman is for me a fundamentally limp-dick version of the source material precisely when the character himself intellectualizes his own process virtually every step of the way. Platitudes stand in for meaningful exchanges between characters, coming off less dramatically and more didactically, and under the pretense of realism that in turn only amounts to a bland procedural narrative with an equally bland, shoot-one-thing-at-a-time, televisual report. There’s nothing to sense here. It’s all just stuff—premises and theory.
On and on we can go about what Bruce Wayne does in Batman Begins, where he comes from and where he goes and what he learns and why it’s important on a thematic level, but the actual filmgoing experience just doesn’t work for me because it is lastingly, for all intents and purposes, no less literal and expository. It’s all just procedural plot stuff that plays more like an instructional video on how to become Batman. For me it does little to nothing in actually making the character relatable on a gut level. The best moment is Bruce standing in a storm of swirling bats, but even then his reasoning for incorporating said persona feels too cerebral and over-analyzed.
Bale via Nolan’s storytelling/direction never convincingly emotes or inhabits the psyche of a man who might actually do these things. He does them simply by order of the script. Specifically, everything about our titular hero has to be explained and make sense; in turn was Bale’s performance, which was so reasoned and deliberate that his Bruce Wayne treated Batman like a homework assignment. I therefore never really get an emotional sense of who Batman is. The character is simply assayed in blueprint form. It’s all very dry and mechanical. Ironically, the more serious the film takes the idea of an elaborately costumed crime fighter, the less seriously I take the film itself.
In Batman Begins we get...topics. A PowerPoint presentation. It’s a film where any one scene is typically about other scenes -- plotting and exposition -- or themes being matter-of-factored through dialogue. There’s no subtext, just text, which amounts to a very ordinary junket. The 'in-the-moment' moments in Nolan’s world are typically the weakest or most fleeting, either bulldozed over by audit-pacing demands or neutered on the spot by one character or another expounding that which is better left to audience interpretation.
Jim Gordon spoon-feeding us the reason why Batman must become the "Dark Knight" and John Blake explaining to Bruce how he discovered the latter’s secret identity are but two blatant examples of such clunky storytelling. In Batman Begins Bruce literally has to narrate the experiences of his stint as a third-world criminal, thus literalizing its meaning; likewise when explaining the very idea of personifying fear. Such ideas might be interesting in brainstorm form, when conceptualizing the disciplines and psychological factors of Batman, but in the film it’s all more or less exposited in part to compensate for the perfunctory and nondescript nature of the actual narrative proceedings.
Show, don’t tell.
It’s only one of, if not the, most age-old axioms of the cinematic medium. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that all should be slave to such modus. If a filmmaker is truly inspired by the dramatic technique of Shakespearian language and soliloquy, go for it. But this technique by itself is dishwater, especially in cinema. Nolan is hardly writing in verse and, by definition -- the act of speaking alone (in)directly to the audience -- his characters are not soliloquizing, they’re just ham-fistedly narrating story points and/or monologuing themes right off the page.
How about Nolan’s depiction of the character and world as an action spectacle? Well, the best thing I can say about his Batman trilogy in this respect are the vehicular stunt sequences, due mostly to their necessitated scale and how they benefit from today’s seamless visual effects. Otherwise, Nolan shoots action almost as if it’s a distraction, in a constant state of haste and with virtually no grasp of showmanship whatsoever. Somewhere in Bruce Wayne’s escape from the League of Shadows temple was the potential for an impressive set piece, only to be visually reduced by Nolan to mere commotion. Given the mess of fragmented shots that constitutes Batman taking down Falcone’s thugs at a shipyard, I could just as easily NOT be looking at the screen while still getting the point, as is the case with numerous other fights and intended amazing feats that are so haphazard and ineffectively punctuated, they might as well be taken for granted.
Batman diving out the high-rise window to rescue a falling Rachael Dawes is awkwardly curtailed in such a way that how, exactly, he pulls it off is less convincing than it is assumed, while his and Catwoman’s back-to-back rooftop melee is botched by amateur coverage and lousy choreography. Only the first big match between Batman and Bane actually works. Here, Nolan displays, if only momentarily, at least some refinement in ASL while at the same time his aforesaid visual approach for once actually complements the futility of Batman combating a monstrous adversary. It’s the best the entire trilogy has to offer.
Maybe I’m being a tad harsh here. Christopher Nolan took something with a longstanding history in pop-culture and definitely, passionately made it his own—his own vision, his own voice. His Batman trilogy is nothing if not deeply engaged and thoughtful. Yet, for me, it’s just. not. entertaining.
Enter Burton’s Batman. By no means is it a perfect film. The plot is thin and the narrative crudely truncated, while the comic book mythos has been downsized and further jerry-rigged to serve only the most basic, two hour running-time compatible feature (and the less said about the lame comedic relief that is Robert Wuhl, the better). This not to say the film downright lacks a story, only that the story is simpler, which is not synonymous with being poor or nonexistent.
Bruce Wayne is a reclusive billionaire crime fighter born from childhood tragedy. The Joker begins as a ruthless, ambitious gangster sent for a psychotic loop after being permanently scarred by toxic chemicals. Vicky Vale is an obsessed photojournalist. Hygiene products are poisoned with Smilex Joker venom. There’s your plot. Does it constitute a full-blown dissertation that must be recounted exhaustively through endless exposition and scenes with characters monologuing their motivations, why they did what they just did or what they must do? No, thankfully. It’s a basic outline of the characters; a crude summary of the scripted content. And it’s a script that in full detail does in fact allude to concepts of fear, freaks, fetishes, bats, art, loneliness, duality etc. And, sure, that’s all it really does thematically speaking. Except I don’t judge the worth of cinematic characters by how well I can describe them from scripted narratives alone. And you know why? Because when I go to the cinema, and the lights go down, and the movie starts, what I DON’T see is just a screenplay up close and center frame with the pages turning at reading speed. Weird, right?
Where Nolan’s film(s) postures lofty story concepts and sophisticated modernism, Burton’s 1989 original is bursting at the seams with darkly expressive fantasy. Where Nolan’s characters are placeholders for thesis points, Burton’s characters are instinctive projections ranging from silly-madcap to pensive and lonely. Burton’s world of Batman is far wackier in nature, true, but no less sincere in its rooted psychology; a psychology not stated, but vividly painted. The stylized atmosphere often dismissed as empty is in fact a visual/tonal echo chamber for the very competing psyches between Bruce Wayne and the Joker.
Batman is more inclined to operatic domain of a heightened comic book fantasy and by way of Silent Era film expressionism. To dismiss this as a cheap substitute for drama is to dismiss wholesale different styles and genre-approaches to the very art-form. To dismiss said approaches as a parade of empty aesthetics or mere window dressing that fails to convey characters is to have no real sense or understanding for anything that isn’t explicated solely through dialogue-aided narrative.
In Batman the characters are who they are primarily as they are exaggerated through illustrations, storyboards, art-design, music, stage presentation; through absurd violence and heightened set piece mayhem; through scene stealing and shadow lurking; free rein pantomiming and moody, cryptic behaviorism. And while they’re not as complex in scripted thematic points as the characters in Nolan’s films, they’re also not weighed down by such itinerary to the degree the renders them paper subjects. Instead, they’re genuine comic book characters ...writ live-action and physically embodied by offbeat personalities, inherently more autonomous and let loose in granular but surreal settings.
The film proceeds more from the basic conceit that these characters are pop-art Jungian archetypes for their own sake, and Burton proceeds to examine them in a more expressionistic, art-directorial form, leaving the actors themselves more room to inhabit their roles elementally: Jack Nicholson dialing it up to 10 or trailing off on his own idiosyncratic tangents, momentarily taking the movie with him, and Michael Keaton exhibiting Bruce Wayne’s internalized, contemplative nature matched with Batman’s shadowy lurks and aggression. When treated as archetypes, monsters from the id are very much potent motivations for characters, yet they’re not supposed to be deep on some analytical level, but rather projected vividly on a theatrical one.
So while the actual storyline is rudiment, it is still centrally rooted in the gothic-romantic aspect of Batman and the idea that he, the Joker and even to some degree Vicki Vale are freaks or loners—enough on which Burton could fashion his Silent Era-type interpretation. To reiterate, it doesn’t make much for an involving hard narrative nor do I consider it the quintessential, all-purpose rendition of the Batman mythos. But it is very much alive and stimulated as a movie on its own accord, teeming with all sorts of mood and innate urges.
Also, one hardly requires arcane knowledge in, say, the actual techniques of German Expressionism or any academic degree in Jungian concepts -- or even awareness of such things, really -- to simply experience and further appreciate their combined effect. Whatever the applied film theory need not be at the forefront of audience understanding in order for it to blowup big and accentuate what are universal forms of the collective conscious; for Batman and the Joker to be powerful, affecting characters in how they invoke such things. Centrally, that is was Burton aimed to do and, in my opinion, that is where he succeeded quite marvelously.
Was Batman in many ways a mere vehicle showpiece for Jack Nicholson’s stunt-casting as the Joker? Perhaps. But considering the very conceit of the character as a stage-hogging showman, I think appropriate the carte blanche Nicholson was afforded to not only commit grand theft movie, but to ham up said crime considerably as well. The best aspects about The Dark Knight Joker (and The Dark Knight overall, really) was Heath Ledger’s own seemingly impromptu touches and mannerism, as if he was getting away with his very own performance art inside a Hollywood blockbuster.
Ledger fared the best in this respect (and maybe Hardy as well, to a somewhat lesser degree) in that his acting manages to rise above much of the pedantry, but scripting him with more paramount and clarified motivations only really goes so far to give his character a more defined plot purpose. It doesn’t necessarily mean I’m more compelled by who he is, and he’s really the most compelling that Nolan’s trilogy has to offer, more so for the actor’s aforesaid rock star commitment than anything else. But the violent display of his character was ultimately laden with Nolan’s morbid nihilism, whereas Burton/Nicholson’s Joker reveled in morbid absurdism: homicidally terrifying but also goofy fun. A Joker who was actually a joker.
I agree it’s a Joker lacking the kind of sophisticated realism and functionality that moves grand story-points into play, but that’s not the intention of his character either, of any character from Batman, or even the nature of Burton’s storytelling. Here, the Joker and Batman are mesmeric personifications to be entertained, not studied; each respectively a part-and-parcel to Burton’s theatrical stage-world. Deconstructing Batman for motivating ideas is to objectify him, which, frankly, is kind of dull for me as a filmgoing experience.
For all the spotlight Nicholson received in his role, more crucially for me was the realization of Batman. I’ve always said that any live-action depiction of this particular DC character requires some conveyance of the mental bent that would allow a man to dress as a bat and go running the rooftops at night. In short, I always thought Batman needs to be just a little bit crazy to be credible. And in Burton’s film all bets are off when, in the opening scene, Michael Keaton tells a dangling hoodlum with muted intensity, "I’m Batman!" right away, I believe that guy. Right away am I convinced of this anti-social weirdo who is disordered enough to mask himself as some creature-thing that terrorizes criminals before casually walking off building ledges into nowhere.
And no perfunctory back-story or character development was necessary. Instead, Burton contextualizes Batman in one swoop using an origin comparable, back-alley mugging answered first with heightened images of black-cape silhouettes and then with a near-primal act of crime fighting enforcement. Perhaps it’s not any kind of groundbreaking character introduction, but it is fully enlivened filmmaking on the director’s part that employs action/visuals first-and-foremost to create an effective impression of what Batman does, how he does it with such intimidation and, in essence, why.
Furthermore was the inspired casting of a contemporary, small-in-stature Keaton who lends the character of Bruce Wayne a façade of unassuming normalcy, but where Keaton’s persona houses all kinds of low-key nuances that suggest a haunted and dangerous Batman lurking within. Unlike Bale, there’s nothing in Keaton’s performance that suffers from histrionics. He simply, naturally even quietly inhabits the role of a billionaire recluse whose alter-ego is practically a walking id. From his very casting to his casual demeanor, subtle internalization and unburdened inhabitance of Bruce Wayne, Keaton very much made me feel as if his character was an accessible human being, and furthermore precisely because he was guarded and enigmatic, as opposed to the tediously itemized, walking open book of lecture points that was Bale’s character.
Another point of criticism I never had much problem with concerns the scenes between Bruce and Vicki Vale. Theirs is a relationship predicated more on casual interludes and quirky irregularities. Moreover, there is something to be said about Kim Basinger’s inclusion. I find it odd how Nolan’s Batman world is so completely sexless. I can almost give Batman Begins a free pass for being the first of a reboot series that maybe aimed to distance itself from the obligatory damsel romance subplots of every previous film. But even by the time we get to Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan still has no real grasp of the eroticism inherent in the source material. Anne Hathaway is of course beautiful and does her damndest to vamp up the role, but it all goes to waste under Nolan’s aforementioned sterile direction.
The casting of Basinger, however, all but implicitly harkens her Mickey Rourke-rendered sexpot from 9 ½ Weeks, tagging Vicki Vale with a fascination for the macabre and a fetish for bats that in turn anchors the film with a kinky and seductive subtext (to say nothing of the outright S&M that permeates Batman Returns). It is this underlying carnal factor that spurs both the hero and the villain respectively, thus adding to the film’s lot of instinctive vibes, whereas Nolan’s world is utterly devoid of any such kink, further adding to what I consider a ho-hum cerebral tone.
The character of Vale is not brilliantly written and her discovering Batman’s true identity off-camera was no doubt a wasted opportunity (yet another note to the sequel to which Burton consciously responded) but she succeeds as the film’s object of erotic innuendo: one scene deviously suggests her ravishing or in some way debasement by Batman while a later moment insinuates her blowing the Joker. As this sexual focal point Basinger herself did well enough to service the role with her natural naiveté. In any event, compared to the agamous wet blankets that were Katie Holmes and Maggie Gyllenhaal...
I’ve never considered Tim Burton an exemplary action filmmaker or Batman a premier work of action filmmaking. Burton’s art-director sensibility indeed leaves set pieces a bit on the static side where, for example, the Axis Chemical plant shootout has all the composure of a 1930s 'cops and gangsters' flick. But at least it’s composed. If the set pieces are perhaps too stagey, at least they’re stage-like, clear and presentable, and further fashioned with a style of production design and scaled-models meant to invoke heightened artifice.
Anyhow, I’m inclined to attribute the film’s high points to the sharp, editorial punch of Ray Lovejoy (who cut The Shinning and Aliens) coupled with 2nd unit-lead Peter MacDonald (with previous experience in The Empire Strikes Back and the Rambo series) who zeroes-in with tight camera control on Batman crashing through a skylight and zip-lining away with Vale, when clashing against a swordfighter or during his brawl with a super-thug, all of which feature stunts and choreography that can genuinely be appreciated.
Burton is at his most concentrated, though, when reigning the all the grandiosity of the film’s third-act climax into a single bell tower amphitheater event. This is Batman in its purest concert form, with our hero squaring off against henchmen as the Joker waltzes Vale dementedly around the exterior. It’s a farce that soon gives way to some legitimate dramatic confrontation between two men who figuratively created each other—a duality that must be resolved before Batman’s story (for this film, anyway) can be concluded, and a duality placed right when-and-where it belongs: at the precipice.
By this point the film has already narratively revealed how these two characters were cross-influenced to become duel rivals, establishing the idea through action and imagery. It didn’t need to alternately philosophize about it as well. There was no need for Alfred to lecture Bruce (or vice versa) about the fatalism in question, or for any prior scenes with Batman and Joker themselves butting heads on the matter. It is a simple yet core theme saved for the end where it then unfolds in a way that is refreshingly no-nonsense. It is a moment where all the mayhem and theatrics winds down to just two guys with a bone to pick; ironically, more raw and real than any showdown of declarations in Nolan’s films, where even the Joker briefly drops his act in an instant of pithy self-realization:
"You IDIOT! You MADE me! Remember? You dropped me into that vat of chemicals. That wasn't easy to get over, and don't think that I didn't try."
In response: "You killed my parents! ...I made you, you made me first!"
Such is not the most level-headed version of the Caped Crusader. Per contra, I find this novel grain of schoolyard temper appropriate to Keaton’s edgier embodiment.
Outside and perhaps equal to the comics, The Animated Series will always be my ideal Batman, but also one limited to its inherently two-dimensional, abstract form. Tim Burton’s live-action incarnation is rife with signature Tim Burton eccentricities, as the film altogether is rife with dopey shit like toy helicopters, a Prince pop-song montage, the Joker shooting down the Batwing with a gag pistol etc. Yet I also consider it an uncanny and deeply imaginative work.
Again, it’s hardly perfect but it is strange, sexy, impulsive, introverted, off-kilter and even perverse. I dig how Anton Furst’s stagey artifice accentuated by Rodger Pratt’s canvased, open matte framing yields a fittingly heightened, pulp reality, how Pratt somehow invokes the feeling of what color looks like in a Silent Era, black-n-white world and I easily prefer Danny Elfman’s part Wagnerian part Herrmann-esque score (with memorable themes equal to Williams’ Superman) over Zimmer’s joyless and obnoxious bombast.
This film sports the meanest looking Batmobile that still looks like a Batmobile ...Nicholson gets away with antics and one-liners that borders on parody ...Batman’s fight with a sword-wielding henchman is rad ...even when wearing jeans, a turtleneck and reading glasses while sitting in the Batcave, Keaton still makes it look cool. I would argue that, even when hit-and-miss, Batman still pulls off substance through style. At the very least, it offers ample personality and is hugely entertaining.