Directed by Tim Burton, U.S., 1989
I recently revisited 1989’s “Batman,” the film that arguably changed how Hollywood makes movies. Sure the Spielberg and Lucas films earlier in the decade and in the late 1970’s started the idea of the summer blockbuster, and there had already been several Christopher Reeve Superman films, but Batman seemed to make Hollywood understand that summer + taking an established property seriously = $$$$$$$.
Tim Burton’s Batman films are often placed behind Christopher Nolan’s in quality, and with good reason. The Dark Knight (2008) is not only the best Batman film, it may be the finest super hero film period. Still, I’m not so hasty to rank Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) ahead of Tim Burton’s efforts.
All four movies have problems when compared to The Dark Knight (let’s not even get into the other two Batman “movies”). Batman Returns (1992) has too many characters crammed into too short a run-time. The Dark Knight Rises has the opposite problem in that it feels about an hour too long. Batman Begins suffers from Christopher Nolan’s weakness for repetitive dialogue (we get it – he needs to be more than just a man).
Batman compares more favorably to The Dark Knight. It is certainly a Tim Burton movie in that it joyfully indulges in the Gothic and grotesque, and Burton was clearly more interested in the early Batman comics than the more recent adaptation of the story. The modern Batman of the Dark Knight Detective comic book era pretends to be a ridiculous playboy during the day, will not kill his enemies no matter how heinous they are, and at least has some logical basis for owning his collection of bat-toys. The original Batman from the 1939 comic book was an aloof, mysterious millionaire, who had no problem dispensing fatal vigilante justice and seemed to pull expensive vehicles and gadgets out of the ether. Burton’s Batman is far less logical and, to the extent that Batman can be realistic, less plausible.
Another key difference is that the first Batman movie could just as easily been entitled “Joker.” Jack Nicholson’s Joker gets more screentime than Batman, better lines than Batman, and a more extensive backstory than Batman. It is also the only Batman film where Batman faces only one adversary.
I remember when Heath Ledger was first cast as the Joker there was an uproar. People wanted Nolan to cast Nicholson again, or at least his modern equivalent. Interestingly enough, when the character is inevitably played again, that actor will immediately be unfavorably compared to Ledger.
Nicholson and Ledger give different interpretations of the same character, and it is up to the audience to decide which one they prefer. Ledger’s Joker is more outwardly psychotic and has no backstory, making him a gleeful agent of chaos. He’s dangerous because he’s unpredictable and he lacks any motive beyond the creation of mayhem.
Nicholson’s Joker is more calculating and has clearer motivations. He’s no less dangerous, and just as much in love with destruction. But his goal behind the destruction is to instill fear and gain recognition, whereas Ledger’s Joker is only interested in laughing while he watches the world burn to the ground.
Finally, Batman is a lot shorter than today’s superhero blockbusters. Coming in at a little under two hours, it’s 40 minutes shorter than Nolan’s bloated “The Dark Knight Rises.” Longer doesn’t always mean better or more entertaining.
As the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, there will be more Batman on film. In two years we’ll get “Batman v. Superman: the Dawn of Justice.” After that the inevitable stand-alone Batman movie. It will be interesting to see where the adaptations are going next, and how they differ from the Burton and Nolan versions of the story.
(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe