What is it about Tim Burton’s “Batman” that we love so much as Bat-fans? So many things. The cast is a good place to start. Michael Keaton in the title role as Bruce Wayne/Batman. His take on the Dark Knight is subtle, and for anyone who’s viewed the special features on the 2009 two-disc special edition will also tell you, Keaton cut many of the lines from the original script.
He believed Batman’s presence as a creature in the shadows would be better represented by this. I can’t argue with this. Keaton’s presence in the bat-suit is impressive. When he first holds up one of the two thugs that mug an unsuspecting family in the opening sequence, and says, “I’m Batman,” you believe him. Yet as Executive Producer Michael Uslan pointed out, both on the DVD and in person a few years ago when I had the pleasure of seeing him speak, he explained that anyone can be Batman. It is who is chosen to play Bruce Wayne that a person must take into consideration when casting the role. Keaton again shines wonderfully. His ability to look so uncomfortable in his own skin is something that is evident throughout the film. The scene where he’s trying to tell Vicki Vale that he’s Batman is so difficult for Keaton’s Bruce, that he’s stumbling over his explanations of how to tell her. Brilliant.
Jack Nicholson. Well… right there you have a huge talent. And thankfully, he was a fan of Burton, and hopped on board at the first chance during the casting. Nicholson said that in many roles he would hear that he needed to pull back his humor, depending on the role I’m sure. With the Joker, he said, “This guy found things funny that no one did.” He electrocuted and incinerated a man with a hand buzzer; defaced priceless works of art; threw a pen into a man’s neck and cracked a joke about how the pen is mightier than the sword. This is something at the core of the Joker: the world is just for his amusement. Clearly, Nicholson had a blast and gave us the first real psychotic version of the character we were always meant to see.
Kim Basinger played opposite Keaton and Nicholson very well. As the only female lead, she doesn’t let their characters overpower the personality of her own. Rather than fade away into the darkness, she is the shining light of the film, and one of the only sane main characters. Much of the film is seen through her eyes, so that we the audience might better examine how a man like Bruce Wayne can become and be Batman. It is Vicki that first makes Bruce Wayne realize that, in his insanity and in his manifestation of this in Batman, he can also have a normal life in addition to his life as the Dark Knight detective. Nods go of course to Michael Gough, who played Alfred through four films starting with this one. His unique poise as the butler and the quiet stoicism is something that is needed when serving and raising a man like Bruce Wayne. Also much respect to Pat Hingle, who also played Commissioner Gordon through four films, and also began that role in this film.
The director, Tim Burton, saw a unique vision of Batman, the Joker, and Gotham City. Luckily for us, Michael Uslan liked and desperately wanted to put this vision on the screen. This was because Batman had yet to be associated with the dark, looming figure we know him to be today. We have Executive Producer Michael Uslan to thank for this. It was his love for Batman that brought us this interpretation and incredible film to our theaters. Thank you, Mr. Uslan. And Gotham City has never quite been what it was when Tim was in charge. The dark, gothic architecture and eerie streets are what we think of when we hear Gotham City leave someone’s lips. Tim Burton created a Gotham that exists in our minds and within the realm of the comic book world that Batman has resided in since Bob Kane first put him into his first issue so long ago. It is this idea of Gotham that helped to forge the Batman: The Animated Series look, while still creating its own unique vision of Gotham, as well. The smoky rooftops; the dark alleyways; the tough characters lurking behind the corners. This is Gotham City as it was always meant to be.
This film will always remain the first of a new generation of superhero film that referenced the comics as well as delving deeply into the psyche of the title’s character. All Batman films that have come and will be made still will always be compared to this film. Batman and Bruce Wayne are equally explored in this film, as well as Jack’s Joker. The essence of each character is definitely there. But we see elements of other things, too. The Killing Joke’s origin of the Joker is there, in essence that is, though the actual falling into the vat of chemicals is as close as they wish to remain to this material. Keaton’s Batman kills criminals as well as apprehends them, very reminiscent of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Granted, both comics came out around the time Batman was in its developmental stages. Good for Bat-fans. Good for film-goers, too.
Reviewed by Chris Gering