WFTB Score: 12/20
The plot: In a lawless Gotham City, a terrifying apparition known as ‘The Bat’ is making the lives of criminals hell, to the qualified delight of prosecutor Harvey Dent and the keen interest of reporter Alexander Knox and, on a personal level, ace photographer Vicki Vale. But when eccentric hoodlum Jack Napier survives disfigurement and emerges as the unhinged Joker, Gotham faces a crazily unpredictable menace; Bruce Wayne, the man behind the mask, must face up to his past as he prepares to confront him.
Perhaps uniquely amongst people of my age (I must have been playing Sensible Soccer doing valuable work on my Commodore Amiga), I missed Batman on its first trip round the cinemas: and on VHS, and DVD, and – until very recently – on each of its many TV showings in the last twenty years. I am therefore coming at the film from a slightly odd angle, having seen the sequels Batman Returns and Batman and Robin, plus Christopher Nolan’s recent Batman films, before this one. So how does Burton’s movie stack up after all this time?
The first thing you notice is that the film takes you straight into the action, without preamble, background or explanation. Gotham City is plagued by street robbers but a masked man in black, looking like a six-foot bat, regularly swoops down and scares the bejesus out of them. This vigilante is welcomed by the robbers’ would-be victims but the city authorities, most notably Police Commissioner Gordon (Pat Hingle), District Attorney Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams) and the mayor, are not so sure: all they want is safe streets for a carnival to go ahead.
Meanwhile, there is discontent amongst the criminal fraternity as Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) is fooling around with the moll of crime kingpin Carl Grissom (Jack Palance); Grissom tries to get rid of Napier by setting the police up to catch or kill him in a chemical factory, but Batman’s intervention leads to Napier becoming horrifically disfigured with a permanent grin. Napier emerges as ‘The Joker’ and takes his revenge on Grissom before setting out to wreak havoc in Gotham City. His eye is also taken by Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), the beautiful photographer who has been trailing Batman and simultaneously falling in love with Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton), much to the chagrin of wise-cracking reporter Alex Knox (Robert Wuhl). But romance takes a back seat when The Joker’s mad schemes escalate from killing women with make-up to gassing the citizens of Gotham moments after showering them with dollar bills.
Between Wayne’s vacillation over whether to get involved with Ms Vale (his butler Alfred (Michael Gough) quietly suggests he should) and The Joker’s cunning ploys to woo her himself, Kim Basinger gets to be in the picture a lot, almost as much as Jack Nicholson. Nicholson is brilliant, bringing a malicious, manic energy to his role, equally appalling and appealing. Basinger is effective too, in as much as she is pretty enough to have men falling at her feet, though she hardly convinces as a hard-bitten photo-journalist.
Both highlight the main fault with Batman: there isn’t enough Batman. As the film builds to its climactic scenes at The Joker’s lethal carnival, The Bat does make a consistent appearance, but before then it is Bruce Wayne, not his alter ego, who gets all the screen-time; and Keaton’s Wayne is understated, thoughtful and lugubrious – in short, much less interesting than his adversary. Although we do ultimately see a flashback of why Wayne turned to crime-fighting in a flashback of his parents’ murder (also identifying Napier as their murderer), we do not get much of a sense of who Wayne is, why he is so rich, or what drives his quest for justice.
In deliberately playing down the camp elements of previous Batman incarnations, Keaton’s Bat is reduced to a taciturn man with a good punch and (as The Joker says) ‘wonderful toys.’ As a result, Vicki Vale’s infatuation with Wayne is less than convincing, especially as there’s no conflict between her feelings for Wayne and the superhero, or a revelatory moment where Vale realises they are one and the same.
As long as we are happy to accept that the film belongs to The Joker (much like Nolan’s The Dark Knight, oddly enough) there’s little to stop us enjoying it. Burton certainly makes his lavish sets look the part, creating a dark, forbidding atmosphere in the city streets; but as The Joker and his henchmen carry out his murderous schemes with incongruous jollity, the plot appears to have been put together in discrete lumps, failing to build steadily to a climax. So when the Bat-plane, sorry, Batwing appears, we wonder where it has suddenly come from, why it comes equipped with suspiciously useful wire-cutters, and why the Joker’s big pistol can shoot it down so easily.
It is perhaps here that the (overly?) careful plotting of Nolan’s films affects my judgement most, and whilst Burton’s film is both enjoyably cartoonish and a mile away from the silliness of Adam West-era Batman, it asks us to go along unquestioningly with everything that happens. Ad hoc plotting would also explain why characters like the mayor, Harvey Dent and Commissioner Gordon are introduced but virtually ignored – unfortunate when irritating characters such as Knox remain in the picture throughout. It should also be said that the fight scenes, though lacking big ‘Ka-pow!’ captions, hardly get your pulse racing.
For all the criticism, Batman represents a good attempt to bring Bob Kane’s vision of Gotham City’s heroes and villains to the screen. It’s handsome, twisted (on the part of the bad guys) and in Nicholson contains at least one great performance. If Burton and writer Sam Hamm had been able to give Batman the same amount of personality, and the overall story a greater sense of continuity and balance, they could have had come up with something very special. As it is, it was still special enough to come back for three increasingly silly sequels.