Tim Burton’s Batman Turns 30, Remains ‘Best’ Batman Movie
Tim Burton’s Batman, which turns 30 years old this Sunday, is the best movie ever made featuring the Dark Knight. But, you may ask, what about Christopher Nolan’s films or Ben Affleck’s brutal version of Bats? Or, even, Adam West’s iconic turn as the campy Caped Crusader? Save for West’s turn, all of the Batmen that followed worked from the template laid by Tim Burton’s Batman, both in terms of how the hero looks and behaves. West’s take on the character is also important, because it cast Batman in people’s minds as some goofball in tights. All of these versions of the Masked Manhunter are good enough, enjoyable in their own ways. Yet, Tim Burton’s Batman is the definitive depiction of all sides of this complex character. And, my saying this has nothing to do with the fact that I was nine years old when I first saw the film.
The Camp Crusader
For most people in the 1980s, their image of Batman was the one created by Adam West’s Batman in the television series and single feature film. It was the perfect sort of show for the time. The cartoonish plots and characters riveted children and entertained adults. Yet, in the pages of the comics following the end of West’s run, Batman got a lot darker, even before Frank Miller’s iconic The Dark Knight Returns. Fans loved this turn, but worried when the movie was announced that more camp was in the bat-pipeline. So, Warner Bros. announced Tim Burton—director of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice—as the director, with the latter film’s star Michael Keaton in the title role. Keaton, known only as a comic actor, being cast essentially confirmed that Tim Burton’s Batman would be a camp-fest. How wrong they were.
Keaton took the role very seriously, studying the Dark Knight Returns, The Killing Joke, and deeply thinking about the character. He thought that Batman’s identity would be very easy to figure out, especially since the hero sounded like a famous international playboy. So, he decided that Batman’s voice should be lower and gravely, to hide his identity. This is a hallmark of every on-screen Batman since, save for George Clooney’s. Burton employed the late production designer Anton Furst, who gave Gotham City a kind of antiquated and sinister Art Deco style. The other major change was that rather than the classic blue-and-gray suit, Batman’s uniform was all black and bulletproof. The opening scene is played almost like a horror film, with Batman as the movie monster. In fact, the only character who inserted any “fun” into the movie at all, was its villain: Jack Nicholson’s Joker.
The Joker Wars
The Joker is one of the most adapted characters in Batman’s rogues’ gallery, including the first to get a solo feature film. Bob Kane, who co-created Batman with Bill Finger, had only one actor in mind: Jack Nicholson. For many fans, the late Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the character is considered the definitive one. While excellent, Ledger’s take is informed by what Nicholson did with the character earlier. Nicholson imbued his version of the Joker, a former two-bit mobster named Jack Napier, with equal parts mania and menace. The Joker originally had the same sort of organized crime motivations as Napier, but over the course of the film he becomes the mayhem-loving villain we know. The parade scene, scored to Prince’s “Trust,” is an example. The Joker throws away money only so he can kill the crowd (and his friend) in an elaborate ploy to get Batman’s attention.
Yet, unlike Nolan’s films, Tim Burton’s Batman still maintained an ephemeral “fun,” again epitomized by Nicholson’s Joker. Take the museum scene, scored to Prince’s “Partyman,” in which the Joker dances, destroys art, and tries to seduce Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale. This Joker was funny, so much so that you almost forget he’s a villain. When Nicholson turns on the malice it almost takes you by surprise. In fact, the greatest sin in this film is that Batman lets the Joker die at the end. Though, this was likely because Nicholson demanded $6 million (an eighth of the film’s budget) and points on the back-end. This Joker was very costly, but worth every single penny. Tim Burton’s Batman gives us the best version of the Joker, not by over-emphasizing his brutality. Instead it successful blends the viciousness with humor and, well, jokes.
Tim Burton’s Batman Is the Best Batman Film
As it celebrates its 30th anniversary, Tim Burton’s Batman remains the single best iteration of the character in live-action. It is both sinister and sweet, dark and delightful. A former mobster dressed like a clown and a billionaire dressed like a bat are ridiculous notions. Yet, the film remains somewhat grounded with everyone involved taking it seriously. This allows for the film to occupy a unique space somewhere between the 1960s iteration of the character and the more modern, violent versions of the Dark Knight. Keaton’s Bruce Wayne is quirky and amusing, a testament to his skills as a comic actor, which further separates that identity from his alter ego. Though, Keaton’s Wayne also, sometimes, sleeps hanging upside-down. You know, like a bat? Is this ever explained? No! Nor should it be. Batman is a character of multitudinous mysteries.
Tim Burton’s Batman is the only film, including Burton’s own sequel Batman Returns, that truly captures the character from the comics. He begins as an agent of vengeance, not stopping crime but rather punishing criminals. This ultimately creates his greatest villain, who goes on to terrorize the city for a laugh. Batman is still a vengeful character, especially with the twist that Joker also ‘created’ Batman. Yet the mission shifts from punishing criminals to saving the people of Gotham. This the reason the first film ends with Batman looking up at the Bat-signal. No longer prowling the streets for random skels to punish, he has a city to protect and people to serve. Despite all this heavy darkness, it’s also still a fun movie with gadgets, goofy bad-guy traps, and colorful costumes. Also, as the first modern Bat-movie, it’s pure and was a new take on the character.
Just One Nine-Year-Old’s Opinion
While, I stand by everything I wrote above, I should probably admit that my feelings about Tim Burton’s Batman may have a lot to do with the fact that I was a nine-year-old when it came out. I saw this film as part of a double feature with Lethal Weapon 2 (also my favorite of that series) at a drive-in. Expecting something like the TV show, which I thought was pretty cool, but nothing like the Batman comics I read until the covers fell off. So, when I saw a black-clad Batman dangling a crook off the edge of a rooftop and whisper-growling “I’m Batman,” I fell in love. This was a movie that took comic book stories seriously, but not so seriously that it just became another 1980s action movie. I do believe that this is the purest version of the character on film, but that’s not a critique of the other Batmen.
When Burton gave up control of the Bat-verse to Joel Schumacher, the latter director took the character back to his campy roots. Later, Christopher Nolan went the other direction and tried to make the most realistic version of Batman that could possibly exist. Zach Snyder gave us a version of the Dark Knight Returns version of the character, older, slower, but more brutal. The Matt Reeves, Robert Pattison Batman will give us a new version. All these Batmen are good, and the storytellers get to explore them because Tim Burton’s Batman was so perfect. It can’t be imitated, but it can be built upon and can influence other versions of Batman. Burton’s success built what will be a never-ending franchise.
What do you think? Who’s your pick for best Batman? Tell us in the comments or by sharing the article on social media!
Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.