A look back at Tim Burton’s Batman

I sat down to work on my novel this morning, ended up watching Batman instead. So it goes.

I haven’t seen Batman all the way through since I saw it in theaters almost three decades ago (holy shit, obligatory “time flies” comment, yatta-yatta-yatta). I thought it was merely okay, but didn’t admit so much to my friends because hey, that’s the kind of the thing that could get your ass kicked back then. Now that I’m older I think I can say how I really felt because I’m reasonably sure I could kick any first grader’s ass.

Here’s what’s wrong with Tim Burton’s Batman: Bruce Wayne is fucking boring. I like Michael Keaton, but his portrayal of Wayne doesn’t make much sense. There’s a scene early in the movie in which Vicki Vale (Kim Bassinger) goes on a “date” with Bruce Wayne. You’d think a guy who’s worth a bazillion dollars could take a lady out on a proper date, preferably in a Lamborghini, but instead they stay home and eat an insufferably boring dinner at a mile-long table. I have a feeling Keaton thought this material was funny enough that he didn’t want to yuck it up with cheapness, but it’s not funny and nothing is more excruciating than a pointless dinner scene except for maybe bamboo torture.

Jack Nicholson is under-utilized, too, in the pre-transformation scenes. I love Nicholson to death, but I almost think Jack Palance would have been a better Joker. He’s certainly the better villain in the earlier scenes and his expressive range is quite impressive to look at. One thing Burton gets right is the look of the film, at least when we’re out and about in Gotham City (the interiors suck; they seem to belong to an entirely different movie). Gotham is justifiably dark yet complimentary to its fantastical elements, but when combined with the cartoonish good guys and villains it simply doesn’t gel.

There are, on the other hand, a lot of memorable lines here. “Honey, you’ll never believe what happened at the office today” is among the best. There’s just something about the way he says it, and the circumstances, that makes that little throwaway one of the better, more subtle parts of the movie. I wish the whole movie was like that. I wish the whole thing was so fun and entertaining, but there’s an awful lot of boring Bruce Wayne stuff you have to slog through.

Consider how big a star Keaton was back then, and yet he takes second billing to Nicholson in the opening credits. Imagine that: the bad guy getting his actor’s name on the film before the hero. It’s as if the filmmakers knew we would like the Joker better than Batman. And if they did, they should have known they failed.

Look, it’s occasionally entertaining at times, but I just don’t give a shit about Batman in this movie. That’s like going to see an Indiana Jones or James Bond movie and everybody roots for the villain instead. Another problem is there just isn’t enough time here to explore the unusual relationship between Joker and Batman (the final panel in Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke may possibly be my favorite moment in comics ever). Even Nolan’s Joker film somewhat failed to capture what the comics had.

The Batman/Joker material would be great for a long television series, a Batman version of Smallville or something. Just call it Gotham. Warner Brothers, just send the check in the mail.

I should probably admit I didn’t finish the movie this time around. In the near future, perhaps I’ll write about not finishing Batman Returns.

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