Though we’ve been cornered into the opinion that Michael Keaton’s Batman was a departure from the campy Adam West one, he retains certain basic appeals. He always knows what’s going on, always has the right toy for the occasion, and even takes cute reporters up to the mansion once in a while (if you’ll remember, the 60s show might have been campy but West’s Batman was funny only because he was so serious). Tim Burton retains that loveable straight man and casts a comedian for the irony of it. The big change is in Gotham City itself, once a land of cardboard and colorful marquees and now an overgrown fungus of steel girders and sheer glass and steam. The script describes it “as if hell erupted through the sidewalks.” In other words, Batman is no longer a non sequitur in own hometown: he fits in with all the other gargoyles. From the first shot we can see the vision come to life, as in Dark City, to reflect the dynamic within it. In this case, the divide isn’t economic but spiritual: Batman is full of angels and devils, and like the mashed-together buildings, it’s hard to tell them apart sometimes.

What do people do when they’re in hell? The Gothamites all seem terribly unlucky to live here, all prostrate and furious, hunched over their TVs, regretting their desire to be happy, resenting everyone who has parents. They must be terribly unfun to bring to parties. Sam Hamm’s script goes to great lengths to bring us to this place and among these people. It might be a very good question to ask: why? But I don’t pretend to answer it. If you don’t know why you’re in hell on your own, chances are you won’t get anything out of it.

Instead I want to consider his method for guiding us through it. Assuming it’s some advantage that the adventure takes place beneath the scowl of a gargoyle, why does it feel so tenseless? When the Gothamites scurry up to Joker’s parade float I should see a Rubens hellscape, the sinners slithering up to a fiery master. Why do I see a mosh pit around a Rockstar?

Enough rhetorical questions. We will never know why Hamm brings us to hell, only that we presumably wanted him to (Christopher Nolan approved of it, but clearly thought it was too cozy). It feels tenseless because we are never welcomed into its humanity, which cannot be captured in a grand engraving. We can’t connect to characters that speak this highly of themselves. And the Rockstar villain is a problem: his only real crime is stealing the show without investing much in it.

I imagine Burton telling Jack Napier (Nicholson) not to grin too wide, to save the money shot for the transformation into the clown prince of crime. Joker waltzes into the movie as though Nicholson, now licking his chops on command, will automatically make it wonderful. There’s far more dramatic intrigue revealing his face than in revealing Batman’s. Where Batman does get an entrance, walking from the background toward unsuspecting purse snatchers almost slipping off their dutch angle, Joker gets at least three. We climb into Napier’s purple hat, we are drawn to glimpses of him in a back-alley surgeon’s office (“Ze nerves, you see, ver ahl severed,” says a German doctor, chiming into just one more B-movie), and we squint into the shadows at a diabolically long lead-in as he slithers into the light while heckling his former mob boss (Jack Palance). “Call me … Joker,” he coos, as the light falls on him. The audience is drawn into this information with more savor than in Batman’s entire part: the analogous “I’m Batman” is a limp proclamation by comparison.

Compared to Napier, who swerves into every scene as though he’s Jack Nicholson, Bruce Wayne keeps his part to himself. We get the impression that he believes no one will suspect him of being Batman if he acts human enough. But since he doesn’t know what that’s like, he settles for being unseen. Bruce is more reclusive than his alter ego, a man lost in gentle hermitage, coddled by a loyal servant (Michael Gough), a guest at his own parties. A scene of potential character-building involves his idea of a romantic dinner: a quiet soup course at two ends of a monolithic dining table. It’s a safe choice for a kid who grew up so rich that this represents comforting memories. But that was a while ago. Has Alfred been imposing loneliness all this time? Batman is at its best when Bruce’s confinement becomes funny and sad, as in the line, “Did you find the house alright?” The thing is mountainous, with more gates than hell: Bruce is only saying what he’s heard other people say. That’s the closest he’s ever gotten to them.

But reporter Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) can’t help feeling attracted to him (?), sorry for him (?), and pushes him towards awkward normalcy. She sleeps with him in a drunken stupor then acts put out when he doesn’t call (gee, aren’t comic books great?). Joker eyeballs her despite having a perfectly good glitzy blonde of his own to spend his drug money on (she stands around in Gucci eyeliner and sighs a lot -- hardly a romantic beginning for what would become Harley Quinn). Vicki is passed around so often, so bodily, that the two freaks end up playing almost literal hot potato with her. I’ve heard stories about the writer’s strike in ’89, how the Hamm script for Batman never got the punching up it deserved. This makes Bassinger’s use as a soggy plot-device clearer to me, but why did she need so much punching up to begin with? The originally conceived story never touches her.

There are other ways that the script seems like an ambitious draft. In the scene where Vicki discovers that Bruce is Batman after Alfred unceremoniously drives her to the cave (the Batmobile’s fins protrude into the frame: did he drive that up to her, roll down the windows and curtsy with his eyes until she got in?). Basinger and Keaton look at each other and there seems to be no scene intended for this event, like Alfred did this without even asking Burton first. The only mention of it is, “Are you okay with this?” and the reply, “I’m not sure.” This must be the only film in history in which the romantic lead’s secret identity is revealed in an aside.

The city is sparkling grime, every piece arranged into sets that believe that they’re sets: Batman has a theatricality that it doesn’t hide. But it lacks an orator’s charm. Burton is a creature of sketches and mundanities, shadowy flourishes and fingernails. Nicholson’s Joker might be good in a vacuum, but he’s too meaty and high maintenance for Burton’s style (he asked for Brad Dourif instead, not a big enough name to fill Warner Bros.’s wallets, but I can imagine Dennis Hopper as well). Burton can’t direct Nicholson better than a car crash. Batman desperately wants for more oomph in the talking, something chewy for Batman to say to Joker, or some incredible Gothic set-piece that lives up to the shadows in Burton’s brain. I’m imagining a more interesting dinner conversation between Joker and Batman (who barely interact) or something from Batman’s day-to-day life that reminds us that he isn’t really a bat, as the terrified denizens believe. He might as well be, in this script. Doesn’t Bruce get tired living 24 hours of every day awake? We wouldn’t know it. We’re strangers in this town. This isn’t the first comic book movie to make us that way, just the first to make us feel lucky for it.


Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Tim Burton

Sam Hamm (screenplay)

Warren Skaaren (screenplay)

Bob Kane (characters)

Bruce Wayne/Batman Michael Keaton
Jack Napier/Joker Jack Nicholson
Vicki Vale Kim Basinger
Alexander Knox Robert Wuhl
Commissioner James Gordon Pat Hingle
Harvey Dent Billy Dee Williams
Alfred Pennyworth Michael Gough

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