After all these years, it’s safe to say that Tim Burton’s entrance in to the pantheon of Batman films is an admirable effort, but one that doesn’t really master the lore or the character. “Batman” is a very fine film. It’s watchable and occasionally entertaining, but there just isn’t too much fodder for the more conscious batman fan in the end. Burton does strive to set up parallels and subtext, but much of it is sadly never touched upon or explored. The psyche of Bruce Wayne is a corner of the Batverse that is never given a spotlight in “Batman,” and while Burton does enter in to corners of his life, there’s not a lot of warmth or interest in what makes him tick. He has a gallery of various armored bodies from around the world, but there isn’t a lot of reason as to why.
How did the armor influence him? Did they influence him? There’s never an indication as to why Bruce is tortured, if he is tortured, and Bruce’s life is depicted by Burton as often very cold and closed off from the world. Rather than the Joker, Bruce becomes the target of inadvertent comedy while Joker’s journey is more menacing and complex. There’s an odd scene of Bruce hanging upside down while sleeping for no particular reason, and in one instance Bruce’s date with Vicky Vale begins with the two sharing a dinner of soup far apart on a dinner table so long they can barely converse with one another. Bruce is of course oblivious to her desire to talk on what is obviously a date. Burton doesn’t often seem very empathic toward Bruce’s life and misses chances to provide insight in to what he’s all about and what makes him function as Batman.
In the prologue there’s a fascinating parallel to Bruce’s fate where we meet two parents and their son trying to catch a cab in Gotham to no avail. Anxious to find transportation they enter in to an alleyway where they’re held at gunpoint by thugs who almost kill the parents. It’s never pointed out how this comes close to Bruce’s own fate, and the poetry of the situation is avoided. Sadly, even with his masterful comedy chops, Michael Keaton can’t keep up with Jack Nicholson for most of the film, and Burton is aware of that, handing the film over to Nicholson for a good portion of the film. Surprisingly, Bruce and the Joker rarely share screen time with one another, so their war for Gotham feels detached and impersonal at times.
The journey of both characters feel like two very different films. The Joker is more centered on revenge while Bruce is more prone to trying to find his place in the world. The Joker views Batman as insignificant and holds no real concern for him, while Bruce doesn’t seem to understand how menacing Joker is until the climax in the city with the giant float. Only in the very final scenes do Batman and Joker duke it out and even then it’s very brief and abrupt. It’s a shame since Keaton is a very powerful actor in his own right while Nicholson can play well off of anyone. In spite of the film’s inherent flaws, “Batman” is still a rather entertaining fantasy action film with Michael Keaton doing quite well in the chair of Bruce Wayne.
His performance is restrained and layered, and Keaton is able to make due with what Burton gives to him. Nicholson has a blast in the role of the Joker and he really does manage to give the character a horrific personality paired with his trademark demented sense of humor. Burton provides a beautiful Gotham that seems boundless in its darkness and skyscrapers. It often feels like a limitless dimension rather than a city, and Burton excels at set pieces and moody locales. “Batman” is an interesting start in to a complicated and varied franchise. Ultimately, “Batman” is not a perfect film as it tends to rely on delivering two separate narratives involving Batman and the Joker rather than connecting them and intertwining their universes as much as possible. While one is a force of justice, and the other is a force for evil, they never quite affect each other’s world until the final moments of the film. While Keaton and Nicholson are dazzling in their roles, Burton never quite finds much to explore with Bruce Wayne, and that’s wasted potential.