Director: Tim Burton
In his many incarnations, Batman has always been the most talked about on-screen superhero; from the camp sensation of the 60’s TV series, to Warner Bros. fantastical film franchise (1989-1997) and exquisite animated TV series (1992-1995), to Christopher Nolan’s current film trilogy (2005-2012). Nolan’s vision seems to have overshadowed previous screen adaptations with its gritty realism, state-of-the-art special effects and complex storylines, which makes a lot of sense post 9/11. People no longer have the stomach for ‘romance’, instead they want their entertainment to be harsh and self aware, and the only way they’ll digest anything the least bit ‘romantic’ is through nostalgia. For me, the definitive Batman film is Tim Burton’s 1989 smash hit, Batman. His follow up, Batman Returns (1992) is a close second, boasting one of the best on-screen super-villains ever, Catwoman as played by Michelle Pfeiffer. However, Burton’s first installment to the Warner Bros. film series is the superior film.
I know I can’t convince everyone that Batman is the better film than The Dark Knight (2008), but I’m going to try!
Batman: Firstly, Batman, as played by Michael Keaton in Burton’s film, is THE shit! His outfit alone has no contest. It’s simple, black, iconic, a little bit sexy and it maintains its aesthetic qualities in most shades of light.
Christian Bale’s outfit, on the other hand, is too complicated with lots of technological details which tarnish its mystique. It also looks like a kids’ costume in highly lit environments.
See for yourself…
Burton’s Batman isn’t all just in the costume. Keaton’s performance is to die for. He’ dark, direct, mysterious and he doesn’t need a weird-ass gravely voice to convey it. I’m sure Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale’s decision to make Batman sound like a Scooby Doo villain astounds everyone, including The Dark Knight fans. Even if you choose to ignore Bale’s Batman voice…you can’t! Maybe I’m making too much of a big deal of Bale’s croak-fest, it doesn’t ruin the movie, but unfortunately Batman Bale doesn’t have any stand out qualities to cance(r)l out his throat!
Keaton manages to maintain a satisfying level of comic timing and sex appeal which only makes it easier for us (well, for me at least) to take his character seriously. Whereas Bale is so devoid of humour and sex appeal that you keep waiting for something funny or inappropriate to happen, therefore breaking the spell of any fear, intimidation or wonder he may be casting.
Nolan’s films delve deeper into the idea that Batman must strike fear into the hearts of his enemies, but if an intimidating figure approached me and talked like Batman Bale, I might start laughing, but I certainly would not be scared. The idea of ‘becoming fear’ isn’t even discussed in Burton’s films, yet we clearly get the idea from Keaton’s performance alone. There is a scene in Batman where The Caped Crusader takes Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) to the Batcave and even she, as an ally, is a little frightened of him. Batman doesn’t respond to her petty questions and only speaks when he has important information to pass on to her. The scene is reminiscent of Gothic stories such as The Phantom of the Opera and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and it’s those sorts of mysterious/grandiose elements that I feel Nolan’s films are lacking. Whilst Nolan’s films are undeniably excellent and bring a level of realism to the superhero film genre that had previously not been achieved, the lack of enchantment and excitement (romance) surrounding Batman’s character is a big loss for me.
Bruce Wayne: Keaton’s Batman may shit on Bale’s, but does Keaton’s Bruce outweigh Bale’s Wayne? It is tempting to fall for Christian Bale. He’s a suave motherfucker! How can you resist the yuppie charms of the man who played Patrick Batman in American Psycho (2000)? Bale also has the advantage of being much more physically buff than Keaton; his body is the well oiled machine it needs to be to fight crime. Keaton’s fuzzy hair, turtle-neck skivvies and lean, Jerry Seinfeld physique make him laughably dated but his performance is his saving grace. Michael Keaton is one of those actors who walks into frame and immediately engages you without even having to say anything. His character is also quite funny and is never too shy to make a few quips here and there, which makes him all the more likeable. Bale may have the looks but he ain’t got the touch. Ultimately I sympathise with Keaton’s character more than Bale’s and it’s all due to a sense of humour. I just can’t take people-who-take-themselves-too-seriously, seriously. That there is my main issue with The Dark Knight in a nutshell, and a sentence.
The Joker: Both Heath Ledger’s Joker (The Dark Knight) and Jack Nicholson’s (Batman) are outstanding and I seriously cannot decide which one I prefer. Obviously Nicholson’s is more camp, but that is certainly not a negative quality. The comic and overly joyous nature of Nicholson’s Joker only make his antics all the more disturbing, like a killer clown at a kids’ party, and such qualities provide the perfect contrast to Batman’s dark and brooding heroics. In Burton’s film, Joker begins as Jack Napier, a gangster who is betrayed by his boss and is deformed after falling into a vat of chemicals – hence his new persona as The Joker. Napier’s back-story automatically turns him into an empathetic character, which makes for a more interesting story. We aren’t as cheated in Burton’s film when equal screen time is devoted to both the Batman and the Joker because we sympathise with both of them. I do like the impenetrable mystery of Ledger’s Joker, but I find it quite problematic that we spend as much screen time, if not more, with him as Batman when we aren’t even supposed to root for him. In Nolan’s film, the Joker’s scenes are far more interesting than Batman’s and Aaron Eckhart’s character, Harvey Dent/Two Face, is much more sympathetic. When the protagonist of a superhero film is the least interesting thing about the movie, something’s wrong!
Gotham City: The city of Gotham is probably the most iconic fictional city in the superhero genre and creating fictitious worlds is what Burton does best. Gotham City, as realised by Production Designer Anton Furst in Burton’s films, is Gothic and hyper-real. The mixture of decadent, old, scary buildings and modern day New York inspired streets and alleyways vividly capture the world of the comics. Landmarks such as Gotham City Hall and the massive Gothic Cathedral are as real to me as the landmarks of our world. Nolan’s films take a much more contemporary approach, which is just as well because no one wants to see the same thing twice! However, as beautifully realised Nolan’s city of Gotham may be, it’s CGI infused, industrial Super City is insignificant next to the power of Burton’s world.
Music: Batman boasts one of the greatest film scores of all time. Even in the reign of Nolan’s trilogy, Danny Elfman’s score for Burton’s films rules triumphant as the definitive Batman theme music. The Dark Knight score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard is beautifully effective but much like the film it sings for, it lacks the grandiose majesty that superhero films should have.
If you haven’t seen Batman since childhood, I hope you feel inspired to give it a second chance, and if you’ve not seen it at all, get on that shit! Get RIGHT on it.