Today I watched Tim Burton’s Batman (1989)
This week I take a look at Batman, one of the most popular and iconic superheroes of all time and his live action film appearances from Burton to Nolan. In many ways these films are very representative of the evolution of Hollywood films during the transition into the 21st century and it all begins here, with Burton’s iconic take on the character. Burton’s Batman comes on the coat tails of a renaissance the character had in the late eighties, with comics like The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke having helped the character shed the camp veneer he had developed in the sixties and seventies. This film served to reintroduce this new, grim, dark knight back to the public with renewed vigour and served to cement the idea of Batman as a moody, gothic, and emotionally complex hero into our consciousness. The story taps into the most popular narrative of Batman’s, his struggle with a maniacal super criminal known as The Joker. Here Batman is played by Michael Keaton opposite Jack Nicholson’s Joker who plans to ruin everyone’s day through a series of chemical attacks.
I brush over the story because it is probably the least important element of this film, being a Tim Burton work it is much more consumed with aesthetic and thematic ideas instead of narrative ones. This works perfectly though, a Batman story really doesn’t have much to it, there is a bad guy, Batman beats them up, simple, effective. What the film fills the void with is that classic Batman theme that people keep talking about as if it were new, it is the theme of Batman, representative of absolute order, and The Joker, representative of pure chaos and the strange co-dependant relationship they have with one another. This does raise one issue that I have with many Batman stories, while artists, Burton included, can see the totalitarian problems of Batman, he still has to be the hero. So you have an argument between two straw men, Batman the fascist and Joker the anarchist and pretty much every artist ever has sided with the fascist. Now, at least Burton has the good sense to paint both of them as fascinating outsiders, but that problem has always bothered me with Batman, especially since I am someone far more likely to side with anarchy.
We will get more into the moral themes of Batman as we go on as it certainly mutates in some weird ways. Instead I will finish off by talking about how great this film’s sense of style is. Tim Burton re-invented Gotham City with this film, by tapping into his own interests in film noir, german expressionism, and classic horror to inform the design of this place. He makes the city into a character all it’s own, one that actually gets much more development than our titular hero even, it’s a living, breathing world filled with all the comic darkness that justifies the existence of the Batman. It is also really interesting looking back at this film with a perspective informed by modern superhero franchise films, there are details here which would be clues to future events in a modern film that are just one off setting affectations here. For instance Billy Dee Williams plays Harvey Dent, a public prosecutor who, if you know your Batman, you will know becomes Two-Face, but we will never get to see that. I for one would love to see the world where Billy Dee Williams plays Two-Face, that guy is incredibly underrated. Anyways, I think this is a really fascinating movie, a blend of many genre styles that forms a rough blueprint for the era of superhero films that will slowly follow. 5/5