Tim Burton's glowering gothic melodrama came on the back of a Batman print resurgence, namely Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Year One (1987), and Alan Moore's The Killing Joke (1988), which, unlike various writers and artists in the 1970s, successfully banished the spectre of camp that haunted Bruce Wayne's world since the 1960s TV series. Burton and screenwriter Sam Hamm helped thrust Batman into the public consciousness so firmly that he's been there since, surviving a mauling from Joel Schumacher, whose nipple-oriented efforts looked set to hurl this particular corner of the DC universe back into the garish ages, and recently boosted by Christopher Nolan's thunderously popular trilogy.
Showing his unique talent for blending comedy, horror and oddball characterisation in Beetlejuice (a Michael Keaton character who couldn't be further from Batman), it was a no-brainer to bring Batman to the big screen at the time - and it remains so. At his best Burton paints the most beautiful nightmares in cinema. Schumacher's misguided Batman Forever and his execrable Batman & Robin took the camp to Adam West extremes; Nolan has since driven into the darkest recesses of the soul. Burton finds the best balance: a glorious gothic theatrescape populated by timeless archetypes and amusing caricatures, with a simple and convincing love story at its centre. It's tempting to snigger when we look back and consider that Burton's vision was considered "too dark" at the time, given the sombreness of Nolan's work. But bear in mind that the 1989 Batman and its sequel Batman Returns are both 15 certificate movies to Nolan's 12A. Simply, Burton's Batman is a killer (as he was in the early comics).
Some fans continue to weep over Burton's liberty-taking in the re-imagining of the Wayne parents' killer, or Vicki Vale's (Kim Basinger) admittance to the Batcave, or the fact that Keaton is the wrong side of six-foot and built more like a tennis player than an American footballer. But I'm a fan also and I don't weep for such things. Gotham City and its inhabitants and histories comprise a constantly evolving and devolving universe; a series of parallel time-lines co-existing and occasionally converging, but always connected by the non-super, very human hero at its heart: Batman, wearing the mask of Bruce Wayne, made helpless by a nightmare memory. As such, so long as the character's essence remains, there is no point in making claim to the "true" Batman because no one vision is "truer" than the next.
The fact that Burton himself found the film "boring" makes it all the more strange that so many elements in his gloom-drenched fantasy work so well: Anton Furst's astonishing production design; Danny Elfman's timeless score; Michael Keaton's complex Batman and Jack Nicholson's definitive Joker. Other elements aren't quite so successful. Prince's soundtrack makes for a reasonable album in its own right, but it feels fairly incongruous in the context of the movie. And the "pale moonlight" repetition, though lyrical, removes the intriguing possibility that Batman may be retrospectively adding a face to his parent's murderer, not out of genuine recollection but because of a single-minded desire for vengeance...
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