I would like to begin, if I could, by restoring to Tim Burton's 1989 adaptation of Batman some of its dignity. Nearly a quarter of a century after it was released to an amount of hype that had not at that point in history been matched by any film without the words "Star Wars" in its title, to a titanic amount of financial success, it is very, very easy to look at it in terms of the cinema environment it created, and not the environment it was born into. Nowadays, of course, superhero movies and comic book adaptations are common to the point of annoyance; but in 1989 this was not so at all - the only A-list comic book movies were Superman and its three increasingly degraded sequels, released from 1978 to 1987, and Batman was the result of a full decade of wrangling and executive fumbling - can we make a Batman movie? Should we make a Batman movie? How do we make a Batman movie? In the event, Batman movies would define the 1990s much as Superman movies had defined the 1980s, and when they finally trickled off into obsolescence, they had normalised the idea of big comic book pictures to the point that using the still relatively-new technology of CGI to make bigger and better superhero flicks was more the logical extension of what had gone before than a crazy gamble. And thus we have the contemporary superhero boom that began in 2000 and is still going strong.

(An aside before moving on: not only did the Batman films cover a rough decade as the Superman films did, they followed the exact same pattern: an original that seemed to be completely unprecedented when it came out, making a huge sum of cash; a sequel that was a bit less successful and has a split base, some who consider it the best of the four, some who consider it a major disappointment because of its shift in tone; a third film that injected a surprising and wholly unwelcome note of dumb humor into the proceedings; a fourth film, nine years later than the first, so idiotic and incompetent as to alienate virtually the entire fanbase for the character and the movies, so bad as to threaten the continued existence not just of the franchise, but of the genre).

The effect of the increasingly realistic, increasingly dark and hard-edged 21st Century comic book movie - especially the new films starring Batman himself, exercises in populist nihilism and the most brutality you can squeeze into a PG-13 big-budget summer film - has been, to some degree, to give the original run of Batman vehicles the reputation of being "unserious", and this does, in fairness, describe the three sequels to a more or less accurate degree. But not the first Batman. On the contrary, the first Batman was, in 1989, shocking and trailblazing in its seriousness. For the vast majority of filmgoers at that time, the only context for Batman was the loopy 1960s camp/parody show, and superhero movies themselves consisted almost solely of breezy, high-energy Superman adventures starring the charming, placid Christopher Reeve. The '89 Batman, with inspiration from the 1986 comic miniseries Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, was shockingly, notable grim and brooding and cruel given that pedigree, even if, since 2008, all we can think about is how much daffier Jack Nicholson's Joker is than Heath Ledger's.

Which is not to say that Batman can be stacked against the savage Nolan pictures and found to be their spiritual kin; that's just ridiculous. The darkness of the contemporary Batman picture, indeed of the contemporary comic book movie in general, comes out of realism; Burton's Batman is least of all realistic. In fact, what it is best known for, above and beyond its performances, certainly beyond its plot (which for most people who haven't seen it recently, or at all, is best remembered as "something something Batman fights the Joker in a bell tower"), even beyond its key role in shaping the promising new director of the ghost comedy Beetlejuice into a major American filmmaker, is Anton Furst's crazed production design, which is about as far from realism as you can get before hitting... well, before hitting this film's very first sequel, which goes even farther, in a similar direction. But let's pretend it's still 1989, and we don't know about that yet.

The production design in Batman is frequently called "Gothic", a word that is typically and inaptly used to describe most of Burton's films, only some of which deserve it. In the case of Batman, the far more appropriate adjective is "Expressionist", as in "German Expressionist", as in, "This film isn't merely influenced by Metropolis, it's an out-and-out copy". And while that is an exaggeration, it's only a little bit of one.

Expressionism, with its severe lines and harsh divisions between light and dark, is an excellent fit for the Batman comics, which were themselves already at least modestly aware of the visual tropes of Expressionism (even the Joker himself was originally inspired by the main character of the post-Expressionist The Man Who Laughs). It was once said that the difference between Superman's Metropolis and Batman's Gotham City was that Metropolis is New York by day, Gotham is New York by night, and there's no style in all of cinema better suited to depicting the smoky, dark corners of a dangerous city as it slumbers fitfully than Expressionism and its snotty American son, film noir. This Batman, above all the other films depicting this character in this city, is extraordinarily good at capturing the sense of a city heightened by night shadows and an omnipresent sense of dread; the Gotham City that is brutal and unpredictable and needs a heartless monster to serve as its hero, since no gentler soul could survive. It is a magnificent visual expression of the idea of a city of your nightmares half-remembered by day, with an attempt to square the darkness and illogic of those dreams with the physicality of an actual place.

Burton, too early in his career to throw his weight around, doesn't necessarily do much to put his own primal stamp on Furst's designs, though there are certainly a great many isolated moments that feel like what the next several years would reveal as Burton's characteristic aesthetic: a forest at nighttime full of spindly trees prefiguring the 1993 The Nightmare Before Christmas, a clown balloon distending and warping grotesquely, the brooding Gothic (there's that word!) shapes of an impossibly tall cathedral. Mostly, though, Burton's task in this film is to bridge Furst's frankly irrational designs with the human beings inside them, as well as, we can imagine, Warner's requirement that the film be at least moderately salable. He does this well; and insofar as the purpose of Batman in his career was to prove that he could handle vast sums of money in a responsible way without sacrificing his own vision, it is a success. That said, the film is only minor Burton, with hindsight on our side, and its chief merits and flaws are as one of the formative texts of superhero cinema.

And the truth is, as a superhero movie and even more so as a Batman film, Batman is a mixed bag. It does not help that Burton and his star, Michael Keaton, were both avowedly unfamiliar with the source material, and while I do not know that scenarist and co-writer Sam Hamm has ever spoken out on the subject, it's powerfully clear that he doesn't particularly understand or respect the character of Batman, the character of the Joker even less - whatever good he does (and there is plenty that is at least good), for giving the Joker a specific, concrete origin story, and for unforgivably making the Joker's previous identity, mob enforcer Jack Napier, the man who killed young Bruce Wayne's parents and thus sending the poor little rich orphan on his path to becoming the masked vigilante we know and love, Hamm will never be forgiven by fans of the literary Batman. Though it is possibly the best Batman film of its series, it is still not a tremendously good Batman film, in this regard.

But for all that, it's still a largely satisfying screen depiction of one of the most iconic of all superheroes; for one thing, unlike nearly every other first entry in a superhero franchise you can name, it's not really an origin story, though it takes place very early in Batman's career, and implies enough about where he came from that no newbies are likely to end up confused. All respects to Batman Begins, which is at any rate the better film, but that's tremendously satisfying. Even the most casual observer is going to know, in general, who Batman is; that he and Bruce Wayne are one and the same (saving the film from making that clear until well into its running time); that his greatest nemesis is the mad agent of chaos, the Joker; and surfeited as we are with comic book movies that retell in exhausting detail stories we already know, stories that are just not as fun to watch as the sight of e.g. Spider-Man fighting the Lizard without having to establish his quite-familiar backstory first, I appreciate at least that Hamm gives us credit for knowing why we came to the theater in the first place.

Certainly, Keaton and Nicholson are a well-matched pair of antagonists: I have spend two decades now never quite deciding whether or not I admire Keaton's Bruce Wayne for being so distant and unformed, or if that's a failure of acting, but his Batman is still a fantastic take on the character, unrelenting and intelligent, and when he speaks in a deep voice, it doesn't sound silly. Nicholson's Joker, meanwhile, is fucking great, disappointing only in comparison to Ledger's incomprehensible psychopath - and Nicholson's character is anyway closer to the one in the comics, absent his daft backstory. Certainly the smug, "I am a charismatic bastard and I see no reason to refine that, restrain it, or hamper it with obvious acting choices" shtick that sometimes works for Nicholson and frequently does not has rarely been better suited to any role he's played than the Joker; other than the second half of The Shining, there might not be a better fit for his acting at its most unfocused and uncontained (and in both cases, he's playing a character named "Jack").

They're so good together, that upon reflection it's easy to think there's more of them than is actually the case; in fact, the movie splits into two rather disparate parts, the getting-things-in-place half, and the comic-book-mayhem half. The second of these is almost uniformly excellent, certainly not surpassed until the 2000s. The first of these is a crushing bore: worn down by too much emphasis on Kim Basinger's Vicki Vale, a wet noodle who can't stand up to either of her co-leads and whose flirtations with Michael Keaton are singularly unpersuasive; stretched out by the need to establish the Joker rather than just drop him into our laps as a fully-formed monster, ready and able to fight Batman simply because he doesn't like rules. There's a subplot about Gotham's bicentennial that is only barely held together by Billy Dee Williams's undervalued performance as Harvey Dent (a small role that he took for the promise of eventually playing Two-Face; a story for another time), but otherwise just takes away energy from what we came to see.

If anything keeps the film together through this rocky first part, besides the raw appeal of Furst's production design and the fact that, in 1989, just the notion of seeing Batman on the big screen was pretty damn cool, it's Danny Elfman's outstanding score, from that early period in his career when he was still interesting in exploring what film music could do (we owe the twinkling music-box tunes of Edward Scissorhands, his masterpiece, to this same era). Speaking personally, I regard his theme for Batman to be one of the great hero's motives in film scoring, every inch as iconic as John Williams's Indiana Jones march or the Superman theme; even now, the piece has so thoroughly colonised my brain that I can't think of the character, whether in Nolan's films or on the page or even just as a concept, with Elfman's dark, roaring music playing in my head. The whole score isn't at that level, but it is certainly one of his better pieces overall, one of the few blockbuster scores that creates distinct, hummable melodies without having to steal from Williams (a trap Elfman would never fall into, exactly; mostly he'd just end up cranking out bland "it's a fight, ta-rum ta-rum" boilerplate in things like Spider-Man).

And while I cannot say anything really nice about the first half beyond praising its style, at least it has style; besides, when the second half rolls around, with the Batmobile and Batwing and the Joker finally coming into his own, and Keaton's blank slate Wayne ceding more and more screentime to his snarling Batman, the film becomes all the things that 50 years worth of twelve-year-old boys would want it to be: a grim but not too grim action fantasy that looks and sounds like the most awesome thing on the block in 1989 - not for nothing did Batman win the box office for that summer, famously one of the most crowded and competitive in the history of tentpole movies. It has its flaws, and they are impossible to overlook or square away; but it also has a whole lot of personality and all these years later, still feels fresher and more self-assured than the vast majority of the films to have followed. And it does this in part by managing something that its 21st Century kin, too obsessed with "grittiness", rarely or never manage: it balances darkness with actual, unbridled fun; a mixture of grown-up gravity and seriousness with a gung-ho enthusiasm about badass cars and utility belt gadgets and the like. It is a film for adults who want to feel like preteens, a far cry from the films that want to make preteen diversions seem adult, and for that reason it will still be with us long after so many shinier, newer superhero movies have been forgotten.

Reviews in this series
Batman (Burton, 1989)
Batman Returns (Burton, 1992)
Batman Forever (Schumacher, 1995)
Batman & Robin (Schumacher, 1997)