With the distance of time, it’s easy to forget how much of a Dick Tracy, Great Depression-era, wise guys vs. coppers gangster movie 1989’s Batman is. It’s an environment of tommy gun lawlessness and retro noir organized crime. The Joker further connects the film to 1930s culture by crooning lounge songs like “Beautiful Dreamer” and “It’s a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight”. And it’s telling that in the years that followed, we didn’t get Superman, Wonder Woman, and The Flash movies. We got Dick Tracy, The Phantom, and The Shadow.
But beyond these genre trappings, what other nuggets does Tim Burton’s seminal superhero film contain?
Jack Nicholson takes up a lot of the film’s oxygen, but he is fun to watch, whether vandalizing paintings, taking up scrapbooking, or launching a dodgy cosmetics marketing campaign. His deranged dancing is a quality passed on to Joaquin Phoenix’ Joker, although Cesar Romero wasn’t above a soft-shoe here and there. The Joker is a source of color in a grey world, and indeed, in a fairly grey cast of characters. An excessive amount of time is spent following Batman-chasing journalist Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl), who functions as an audience identification character. A strange decision given the copious amount of Joker material, holding court and claiming a huge amount of screentime that goes above and beyond time given to “villain scenes”.
It leads to the seeming conclusion that Burton is much more interested in the villains than in Batman, supported by the evidence of his unfiltered vision in the sequel and its characterization of Catwoman, Penguin, and Max Shreck. Of course, it behooves Batman to heavily feature Nicholson, who had the studio over a barrel with negotiating power. (His star power commanded a lavish salary and a big chunk of the merchandise, a deal he would ultimately try and fail to reprise for Hades in Disney’s Hercules.) And after all, in Superman: The Movie, villain Gene Hackman was also billed above Christopher Reeve.
The romance between Bruce Wayne and Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) is unconvincing. The screenwriters’ weaknesses in this area are laid bare, and their treatment of the relationship is hackwork. We are told they made a deep connection, but are not shown this. Michael Keaton is understated as Bruce Wayne/Batman (with the exception of the “let’s get nuts!” moment). It’s a fairly reserved performance. Famously, Keaton’s casting was a sticking point because he was mainly known as a comedy actor. Burton had worked with him before on Beetlejuice. Its title role is an uninhibited role in gothic makeup that on the face of it lays the pipeline for Keaton’s casting not as Batman but as the Joker. A fascinating road not taken.
Speaking of the road not taken, Billy Dee Williams appears as Harvey Dent, seeding the character for a Two-Face tragedy later on. When Two-Face was used as a villain in Batman Forever, recent Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones jumped the line for the role. But Williams would eventually get his chance, voicing Two-Face in The LEGO Batman Movie.
One foundational change to the mythology is that Jack Napier, the man who will be the Joker, was also the man who killed the Waynes. I can definitely see the logic behind it (think also of the storytelling logic behind the Tobey Maguire Peter Parker’s organic web-shooters). But it is a seismic change; if Batman catches the Joker or he dies (which is exactly what happens to the Clown Prince of Crime), isn’t that game over? Can Bruce not go home with some measure of closure?
With his main theme, Danny Elfman does nothing less than crystallize the Batman sound. Rightfully grabbing all the headlines, the theme feels definitive. Elfman’s Joker theme is a carnival waltz that gains a demented quality when played against the character on screen. See the sequence where it plays as the Joker does that bizarre dance as he shoots crime boss Carl Grissom. There’s quite a lovely and warmly catchy Vicki Vale romance theme as well, adapted from one of the songs Prince contributed to the film.
Elfman has been open with his Bernard Herrmann influences, which are clear in the atmospheric score throughout Batman. There are moments of explicit echoes, and given that Herrmann would sometimes take to plagiarizing himself (he reuses part of his Vertigo score in Jason and the Argonauts), that makes quoting Herrmann something of a tradition.
As the film ends, Batman stands on top of a building gazing at the Bat Signal. Elfman’s final movement washes over the audience, incorporating quotations of various leitmotifs from the film. This explicitly Straussian cacophony climaxes in the shadowy main theme played in a triumphant major key!
The Craft of a Comic Book Movie
Tim Burton and production designer Anton Furst introduce a visually dense Gotham, following on from the level of cinematic detail found in, say, Blade Runner. All smoky matte paintings as far as the eye looks up, the city is a cathedral of industrialism. Even in Vicki Vale’s apartment, there are arches built into the ceiling evocative of urban sprawl and iron rivets. The density of Gotham is a stepping stone on the way to the absolutely wild urban design of the Joel Schumacher Batman movies. Burton and Furst mainly hew to noir influences, and the related framing of German Expressionism, but we get some of Burton’s trademark fairy tale imagery in perhaps the most indelible moment of the movie. Batman and Vicki Vale race to the Batcave in the Batmobile to the strains of Elfman’s “Descent into Mystery” cue, and the effect of passing through an eerily still forest, accomplished with models, comes off as a dark spin on The Wizard of Oz. Anton Furst won an Oscar for his work on Batman, but tragically he committed suicide less than two years later.
There are certain elements of Batman that echo forward in future adaptations, beyond city design. The Joker’s plan to poison the population’s beauty products is idiosyncratic to him, but has clear parallels to Laurel Hedare (Sharon Stone)’s beauty product poison from Catwoman. It’s also in the same ballpark as Ra’s al Ghul’s plan to poison Gotham with Jonathan Crane’s fear toxin in Batman Begins. That movie’s desperate Batmobile ride to take Rachel Dawes into the Batcave has its origin in Vicki Vale’s gothic “descent into mystery”. And what is William Hootkins’ crooked cop Max Eckhardt but a dry run for Gordon’s corrupt partner Flass (Mark Boone Junior)? The oddest future echo of all: the Joker calls Batman “junior Birdman”. 25 years later, Keaton would star in Alejandro Inarritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).
It’s always been the easy armchair contrast: that Tim Burton’s Batman was such a 180-degree change from the 1960s TV show. Which is undeniable. But while certain elements of “The Killing Joke” and other then-contemporary Batman lore are in the stew of the 1989 film, its main move is to draw from the character’s roots in the early days of Batman comics. A time when the character existed in a world of Edward G. Robinson gangster movies. And this is key to the film’s status as a curio now. Batman didn’t use Superman: The Movie as a Rosetta Stone to crack the code of the comic book adaptation. Tim Burton mashed a superhero story into a gangster movie template. The Joker may as well be one of the deformed, larger than life baddies of a Dick Tracy story. And after many subsequent film interpretations, that is what continues to make 1989’s Batman unique.