#10 in my ranking of theatrically released Batman films.
I used to know the story behind the making of this film, but it’s been so long that I had to do a quick survey of the Internet to come up with the confirmation to my own theory as I watched Tim Burton’s take on the Dark Knight, that it is the product of about 1,000 different drafts smooshed together. I cannot remember when I didn’t have a muted reaction to this film, feeling that it might look good but I just cared so little about what actually happens. Now, with a bit more knowledge about how I process stories, I think I have the answer: the movie is a mess.
Tim Burton, fresh off his success Beetlejuice, brought his own artistic sensibilities, merged them with 40s serials and gothic art design to make a comic book come to life. From beginning to end, Batman looks fantastic. There’s a certain timeless feel to the mixture of design choices from the wide-brimmed hats for the men to the elegant fashion of the women to the technology that Batman uses in his fantastical Batcave. I love simply looking at this film, especially in motion. Digging deep into Burton’s own influences all the way back to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis through to the more recent Blade Runner by Ridley Scott, he used Warner Brothers’ money wisely and well. This feels like Burton unplugged, and it reminds me of when Burton was making interesting looking films.
And then the story…I kind of wish this movie was just its production design and Jack Nicholson’s performance. Outside of those two things, this is a confusing, poorly built film without anything like a center that introduces elements late that try to add emotional resonance where none was earned.
Gotham City is a cesspool of crime, and a legend is being born on the rooftops of the seediest parts of town. There is a man-sized bat terrorizing the criminals of the city. At the same time, Carl Grissom (Jack Palance), one of the crime bosses of the city, is being dogged by the new district attorney Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams). He sends his right hand man Jack Napier (Nicholson) to one of his holding companies, Axis Chemicals, to mimic industrial espionage to steal all of the files while betraying him because Napier is sleeping with his girl. At a charity ball, Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) overhears news of a raid on Axis from Commissioner Gordon (Pat Hingle), and heads over as Batman. The confrontation goes all wrong, and Napier ends up falling into a vat of chemicals, coming out as the Joker.
Amidst all this is Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger). I have nothing against Kim Basinger, and I really don’t have anything against Vale herself as presented in this story. However, Vicky Vale seems to provide nothing to the story overall. She seems mainly there to be firstly Wayne’s love interest (I imagine this is a four quadrant demand from the studio to some degree) and to give Wayne some kind of outlet to talk about what it means to be Batman, except he never does. He gets close a couple of times, and then Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Gough), Wayne’s butler, lets Vicky into the Batcave for no reason and Wayne has to immediately leave to deal with the Joker. She feels like her involvement was inelegantly dropped in from another draft. She’s nominally there to be a photographer, helping the reporter Knox (Robert Wuhl) in his stories of the Batman, but she ends up little more than a damsel in distress.
The Joker doesn’t really seem to have much of a plan. He takes over Grissom’s crime syndicate by force. He then has Axis Chemicals taint some base materials in hygiene products that causes people to die with pronounced smiles on their faces when used in particular combinations. Batman figures out the combinations (entirely offscreen), and the Joker then decides to throw a parade that the city can’t and gas everyone to death. This all feels kind of random, and it doesn’t help that I think some of the sequences were moved around in editing. For instance, Batman’s attack on Axis Chemicals (where he kills dozens of people in an explosion) immediately precedes the Joker’s parade, but it doesn’t really follow like the chemical factory scene was supposed to be earlier.
The individual sequences, though, are fun. The Joker’s attack on the museum where he and his men improve the art, set to music by Prince, is engaging, colorful in a punk sort of way, and really well filmed. It’s nice to see Burton back when he seemed to understand shot composition and artistry before he simply gave up and started chasing paychecks for stuff like Alice in Wonderland. The entire finale that starts in the parade and ends at the top of the cathedral is amusing (though where the goons came from at the top of the cathedral I don’t know).
Burton really showed off his eye, as well. It’s hard to think of a film that better captures the look and feel of an exaggerated comic book world than what Burton did here. Long shadows, fitting well with the noir aesthetic, and harsh, single point lighting really make the images quite memorable.
But in the end, there’s that script. Nicholson got paid a buttload of money, and he put everything he could into making the Joker memorable, succeeding wildly. The rest of the cast is good, though they’re always playing second fiddle to Nicholson’s performance, and no one else has a whole lot to work with. It’s just that the script feels really cobbled together, a bunch of half-formed ideas appearing and disappearing, inelegantly pasted together in order to make studio bosses happy who didn’t really know what they want. Burton, through his efforts on the physical production side of things, made the film watchable and memorable, though.