I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen Tim Burton’s Batman. Around the time Batman Forever came out on video, my parents gave me a box set with the three Batman movies that had been released at the time. I want to say that back then I preferred the flashy camp aesthetic of Batman Forever (though I wasn’t aware that was what Joel Schumacher was specifically going for), but I did have a bit of love for the two Tim Burton Batman movies as well, which I thought of as much darker and more serious than what came after (or before, if we want to talk about 1966’s Batman: The Movie).
Then I saw Batman again as an adult, and, being more cognizant of Burton’s particular aesthetic, I realized that his films are just as goofy as every other pre-Christopher Nolan live action adaptation; he just hides the goofiness behind a patina of gothic sensibility. You see a distinctly greater willingness to display the grotesque aspects of Batman villains as truly horrific in the Burton movies (Joker’s disfigurement inside Axis Chemical is one of the more disturbing parts of the move, while Two Face’s scars in Batman Forever are designed using a garish color palette that keeps the effect thoroughly grounded in a traditional comic book visual style). Beyond that, Burton does a great job of presenting the world of Gotham City as a brooding place that’s perpetually caught between 1989 and the 1940s. All the proceedings of the plot feel like they should have more of a noir quality about them simply because Burton’s visual language is so adept at conveying that message.
It’s a useful trick, especially when you break down the details and see where the film comes up short as an action movie. While part of Batman’s appeal, when he’s in his grim mode, is that he’s a hero that’s supposed to be a little bit more cerebral than the punchy-punchy that Superman does (there’s a reason one of the longest running Superman books is still called Action Comics and one of the longest running Batman books is Detective Comics), the Burton movie had the unenviable task of translating the character to a format built on visually exciting conflict while still hewing close to what makes Batman who he is. Burton’s movie popularized the black cape and cowl over black bodysuit look and established a visual signature that easily communicated broodiness, but also had the drawback of being poorly designed for action scenes. It’s a pretty famous running joke that none of the Batman costumes of the ’90s were ever designed so that the actor could turn his head, and this problem persisted into the Nolan trilogy when Bruce Wayne complains to Lucius Fox about this very problem. In Burton’s film, Batman plods through the shot no matter what his objective for the scene is. If he’s fighting a mugger, he plods; if he’s sneaking through the chemical plant, he plods; if he’s pursuing the Joker after he’s kidnapped Vicki Vale, he plods. Batman is unable to move dynamically in any of the movie’s action scenes, which conveys two contradictory messages about the character: first, he’s pretty confident in his ability to handle a situation since he maintains the same outward coolness no matter what challenge he’s facing, and second, if not for the dark lighting, he simply wouldn’t be a particularly imposing adversary. Given the significant emphasis put on the physical training that Bruce Wayne undergoes to be Batman, it feels like a flaw in the adaptation that the costume always makes him appear less than threatening.
Of course, that’s not to say that Burton’s version of Batman isn’t a threat. To make up for the lack of physicality in portraying the character, there’s a lot of emphasis in the movie on Batman’s toolbox of gadgets, and for the most part these are pretty fun and believable within the world of the film. Batman doesn’t need to be able to chase you down, because he has a grappling gun that he can fire to trip you up, or a remote controlled car that will back him up if he’s stuck in a corner. Of course, that back up might come in the form of a particularly lethal gadget, which is epitomized by the loadout on this version of the Batmobile.
There’s been a lot written recently about Arkham Knight maintaining the premise that Batman always uses nonlethal force despite the ridiculous violence of the game’s Batmobile segments, and I think it’s important to keep in mind here that this game is not the first time that Batman has had a deadly arsenal installed on his car. Burton’s Batman features a Batmobile with mounted miniguns and high power explosives which Batman employs against the Joker’s henchmen with no qualms (the Batmobile’s big action scene in the movie revolves around Batman sending it into Axis Chemical under heavy enemy fire and having it drop a bomb that destroys the entire plant along with all the guys who were inside it). This may simply be an artifact of the time when Batman was made, but in this story the hero doesn’t worry about killing criminals (he even explicitly says that he’s going to kill the Joker when he realizes that it was the Joker who murdered his parents, and then he follows through with it), and it’s not remarked upon as a particular moral failing (that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a moral failing, but it’s at least not hypocritical like the Arkham series). The juxtaposition between the two adaptations, with Burton’s sense of grim whimsy (grimsy?) and Arkham‘s grittiness, makes the fact that the earlier, less serious story, doesn’t worry about making a point that Batman doesn’t kill particularly notable, and leaves me wondering exactly how recently popular culture decided that not killing was an immutable part of Batman’s character.
Beyond those quibbles and observations, Batman is still an incredibly enjoyable movie in its own right. It’s certainly a little dated, and it’s much harder to treat it like a really heavy Batman story twenty-five years later, but for what it is, it’s really fun.