In the 25 years since the Michael Keaton-starring BATMAN came out, comic book movies have taken over. They’re no longer the rare breed they were in the 80s. Now they’re housecats—a standard sometimes-cute sometimes-annoying presence, stationed constantly and arrogantly within our multiplexes. BATMAN didn’t start that though. Even multiple reboots later, this ‘89 entry stands apart from all the other films in the comic book genre. That’s because, first and foremost, this isn’t even a Batman movie. More than anything else, it’s a film by Tim Burton. Yes, it’s about a guy who wears a cape and beats up muggers and fights another guy who dresses like a clown, but it’s still more Burton than Batman. This is the work of a wacko auteur who, in the pages of comic books and in the mythos of cartoons, found a dance partner for his own intensely strange sensibilities.
So what makes a Tim Burton movie, anymore? There’s more than a few links connecting everything that has its name on it, from PEE WEE through DARK SHADOWS. One of those links is charismatic loner weirdo hero protagonists: Burton movies revolve around the type of men who’d be deified on the wall of a Hot Topic store. His Batman absolutely qualifies. Keaton plays him as a man tortured by his own straightness; a stone face who seems to wish he could get in on the Joker’s fun. With his dour demeanor and intentionally-jokey self-serious attitude, Burton and Keaton render their Bruce Wayne as a self-loathing playboy tortured by a crime-fighting lifestyle that demands a lack of close interpersonal connections. This Batman is a loner, Dottie. He’s a grumpy, crime-fighting rebel.
Then there’s Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker, awash in kinky carnal thirst. There’s a decades-long tradition of actors eating up scenery in Burton films—Keaton in BEETLEJUICE, Pee Wee in PEE WEE, Eva Green in DARK SHADOWS, Depp in SCISSORHANDS, Depp in ED WOOD, Depp in…—but none of them chew the way Nicholson chews. His jaw comes unhinged. His cackling, horned-up visage manages to turn murders and art defacing’s into moments of jubilation. Ledger’s Joker seemed driven by philosophy, but Nicholson’s only seems to be in search of serial-killing-fun. The dichotomy between Nicholson’s singular jokesterism and Keaton’s self-serious cool gives us a take on the same theme and thought Burton returns to again and again, too: that outcasts are damned to an existence where they’re forced to be true to themselves. These men can commit mass murder, save lives, and reshape cultures, but they still can’t fit in.
What else makes a Tim Burton movie? How about German Expressionist-style set design, accentuated by shadowy photography and gothically toned shot compositions? That’s something that puts Burton’s BATMAN above its contemporary superhero-movie peers: when we think of it, we think of images and textures—of cinema—more than we think of plotlines and post-credit stingers. We think of the Caped Crusader, arms outstretched, stalking toward burglars in the shadows, his movements creeping slowly like Nosferatu’s. We think of a shot of Batman’s spaceship, floating past the moon, lovingly rendered as if it were an effect in a 1950s sci-fi movie. We think of the expressionist rendering of the city, an entire cityscape resting under artificial skyscrapers and hand-painted skyscapes.
What else does Burton’s art give us? Unpretentious, B-movie-influenced goofy fun is another thing. Here Burton pulls from everything from gothic literature (the fatalistic, flowery dialogue, “dance with the devil in the pale moonlight” and all,) and gory Tales from the Crypt-style comics (Nicholson’s Joker kills one colleague by literally melting off his flesh, in a particularly indelible image) to Saturday morning cartoons. One sequence sees Batman, rushing to his destination via Batmobile, shoot down a garage door that’s come into his path. We see the bullet holes rocket through the door in a straight line, and then the bottom half of the door plops down to the floor. The physics of the act recall Road Runner cartoons as much as DC Comics, and comes off more silly than slick. Such vaudevillian-cum-gothic-cum-Looney Tunes-ian energy drives Burton’s BATMAN from start to finish.
Charismatic loners, attached thematic interests, expressionist set and production design, shot compositions that make the most of them, 50s-style grindhouse goofiness; check, check, check, check, and check. One last question: if BATMAN’s a Tim Burton movie more than anything else, fulfilling all those aforementioned auteurist interests, then what does it tell us about Tim Burton? It does nothing less than show what he’d do with the rest of his career—take hold of franchises and pre-existing properties, only to bend them to his own deeply idiosyncratic, and mostly visual, fetishes. BATMAN shows us who Tim Burton is, as an artist: a man who can brand his own name on top of brand names. Popular American cinema needs more directors like him. If all superhero movies were directed with the same individualist fervor that Burton brought to BATMAN, then we probably wouldn’t be so damn tired of the genre.