Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Billy Dee Williams
Plot: Gotham is protected at night by masked vigilante, the Batman, unaware that his true identity is the bumbling playboy billionaire, Bruce Wayne (Keaton).
Christopher Nolan may have stolen the Batman thunder, with his near flawless Dark Knight trilogy, yet true Batman movie fans will not have forgotten the much earlier movie adaption of the beloved DC hero, created by Bob Kane. With Tim Burton at the helm, albeit a much more mainstream strain of the famous director, and Michael Keaton as Batman, we could argue that this was one of the first movies to actually get the image of the superhero correct.
Bizarrely, this movie does not start with an elongated origin tale, like Batman Begins. The movie opens with two muggers in the streets of Gotham, terrified that the ‘Batman myth’ is actually real. A few moments later, their horrors are confirmed, when the terrifying Batman swings into full. No slow reveal, no second act appearance: within five minutes, we have Michael Keaton dressed up in the infamous suit and kicking ass. Sure, we have an origin story, but it is shown in short flashbacks, rather than the Nolanesque flaw of drowning us in exposition from the start. If the writers of the next Batman movie are reading, please take a leaf from Burton’s book.
Does Keaton match Bale as the Bat? Well, the important thing to remember here is that there was no competition for the role here. Keaton was given a pretty much blank slate to work with and he does well. Sure, it might seem a little laid-back, compared to Bale’s performance, but it works wonders. Keaton brings the laughs as the dazed playboy billionaire, unleashing his true potential in short bursts. Some argue that it is pretty hard to act to your full extent when behind a Batman cowl for the majority of the film, but Keaton does a commendable enough job, especially once you consider Val Klimer and Clooney later failed to reach Keaton’s success.
Of course, everyone remembers Batman for Jack Nicholson’s show-stealing turn as the Joker. Nicholson was born for the role, allowed to go full crazy. He almost steals the focus away from the Batman himself, as the film works best, when Nicholson is onscreen with the purple suit, white make-up and a number of interesting gadgets and set-pieces. It is the kind of character that sets a foundation for Burton’s later career. If it wasn’t for Heath Ledger, Nicholson could have blown all live action Joker competition out of the water. It is hardly the easiest role to take on.
Some new converts to the world of Batman may find this film underwhelming. Burton shies away from massive amounts of fight sequences. Usually, the bad guys flee from the cops, until Batman spooks them and they usually fall out of the fight. The rest of the film is made up of razor-sharp dialogue, rather than anything action-packed. However, this makes the final fight all the more satisfying, as Batman goes up against the very best of Joker’s thugs. You could argue that the sequence has similarities to Nolan’s final showdown with the Joker, which could have been a clever reference to the film that started it all. Fighting aside there is still stuff to draw in the viewers. Burton’s depiction of Batman’s world is stylish and breath-taking to behold. Visually, this film is a treat.
Sadly, I am unable to find the film perfect, as the Batman purist inside of me fumes. Burton makes some unforgiveable changes to the canon that never fails to shake me. I can live with the fact that the writers wanted Batman’s parents to be killed by the Joker, rather than the two-bit mugger that is barely mentioned in Batman fiction. This is standard blockbuster behaviour, making the battle between Bats and the Joker all the more personal. No, the thing that annoys me is the fact that Burton tries to explain the Joker. Here, we are given a lengthy backstory of Jack White (in the comics, a false name for the Joker, rather than his true identity), a gangster who ends up disfigured in a fight with the Batman. The best thing about the comic book figure is the fact that he is never explained. He just shows up one day and becomes this tyrannical monster. Burton changes that and it stops me from fully slipping into the summer blockbuster mood.
Final verdict: Despite Nolan’s trilogy, Burton’s original remains a classic. Gripping, stylish and boasting a terrific performance from Nicholson, this is a must-see film.