Better Remembered: Tim Burton’s Batman

By Steven Moore

Comic book movies have had a hard road to travel. Granted, most of the bumps and potholes along the way were of their own and Joel Schumacher’s making. Often, any step forward brought two steps backward. The recent endeavor by Marvel to create a film universe that parallels the comic universe adds a new level of legitimacy to the comic book genre, but I still don’t expect the Oscars to nominate X-Men: First Class for Best Picture (even though I think it’s deserving). One of the first comic book films to legitimize the genre was Tim Burton’s Batman. Burton took a superhero who had been bastardized into a cartoonish, so-bad-it’s-good schlock-fest, and brought him back to the dirty, gritty slums of Gotham.

Actual photo of Steve riding his bike home after the movie.

Batman holds a special place for me. Being a huge fan of the comics, my friend (who had incidentally never been to a movie before) and I rode our bikes several miles to the theater, through the scorching hills of Mission Viejo. Our parents knew nothing of what we were up to, and after we purchased our tickets with pockets full of change, we walked out of the 95-degree Southern California heat into the cool, stale butter-drenched air of the theater. One hundred and twenty-six minutes later we came bounding out, yelling “I’m Batman” to one another in our uneven attempts at a gravely voice. On our ride home, swooshing down the hills as the salt air screamed past us, we pretended our bikes were the coolest version of the Batmobile we’d ever seen. This film was everything we ever wanted Batman to be.

Watching it again recently with my daughter revealed that perhaps it wasn’t as close to perfection as my 12-year-old mind saw. Robert Wuhl, who plays the pushy Alexander Knox, easily gives the worst performance of the film. His character is supposed to be boyish and charming, but he comes off as an actor who can’t be boyish or charming. He delivers his lines like great lead weights he can’t wait to drop. Knox is a two-dimensional caricature of a reporter that stands out like a bad actor surrounded by well-rounded, interesting people.

Michael Keaton as Batman & Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale

Although the other characters are not immune from the cheese that radiates from Knox, many lines of the film are just plain bad. Vicki Vale, played by Kim Basinger, delivers the worst line in the film when she is coming to terms with her new beau’s hobby: “I just gotta know, are we going to try to love each other?” I can see the screenwriter trying to finish the script, just wanting to be done with it, wincing as he is writing this line, but hoping that it will get fixed somewhere during production. Michael Keaton delivers a few flat lines as well, most notably when he exclaims, “I gotta go to work.” I think this was intended as a cute, audience-cheering moment that might work if the superhero were Green Lantern, where expectations are low; but not Batman.

Many of the sets are clearly models, and in the age before CGI came into its own, it’s obvious that they are working around some scenes so as to avoid having to show Batman moving the way he should move. There are several times throughout the film when you can see the wires on Batman, although it’s almost as though they aren’t even trying to hide it in the museum scene. Overall, the effects, although amazing for the time, haven’t aged well, and an audience used to more sophisticated effects will easily spots the flaws.

Jack Nicholson as The Joker

Nevertheless, this movie has brilliant moments and humanizes Batman (and the Superhero) in a way never fully accomplished before, and it manages to do so while presenting a backdrop of social decay and human decadence. A lot of credit goes to Michael Keaton (who would have ever picked that one?) for playing an incredibly charming Bruce Wayne. The amazing dinner scene where he attempts a formal dinner for the benefit of Vicki Vale but gives up after revealing he usually just hangs out with Alfred in the kitchen could only have been pulled off by someone of Keaton’s acting caliber.

The museum scene, featuring Jack Nicholson’s oft-cited, inspired performance as the Joker, seems to fortell the future of art with a Banksy-esque revision of classic pieces. It’s almost as though Banksy watched this film as a kid and decided to base his entire art career on that one scene. It is a brilliant insight into the Joker, an artistic genius trapped inside the mind of a psychopath.

This film has done so much for comic book films and has shown serious directors that the superhero was a worthy subject. If not for this film, I doubt we would have Spider-Man or Iron Man films that treat their subjects with respect. We certainly wouldn’t have an X-Men movie that could actually be nominated for Best Picture. Batman is a film leaps and bounds above its predecessors. It forced the genre to move forward. Unfortunately, it pushed so hard, it’s fallen behind. In the end, I guess that’s a tribute to the film itself.



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8 thoughts on “Better Remembered: Tim Burton’s Batman

  1. I think the Tumbler introduced in “Batman Begins” is the coolest Batmobile ever, especially with the modifications introduced in “The Dark Knight.” It’s not as sleek and pretty as the 1989 Batmobile, but it looks like it was built for tough situations, and it’s a far more vehicle for a fighter like Batman.

    Also, “X-Men: First Class” has way too many flaws to be one of the best of the year.


  2. It also set the standard for Batmobiles. I personally think it still hasn’t been bested yet in terms of elegance or coolness.

  3. The original Batman also gave us the Batman theme song, which to this day still gives me goosebumps and makes me giggle like a school girl.

    That movie is just so damn awesome.

    And the fight scene in the bell tower? OH YESS!

  4. OK. I see your point now. I think I knew back then that it was cheesey. I loved it anyways. I think that’s why I think it aged well. It was cheesey and goofy at times and when I watch it now, I don’t see it any differently from how I first viewed it. (OK. It’s a LITTLE more cheesey now than even back then) This means for me, it stands the test of time and still has a very progressive feel to it.

  5. I guess what I mean is that it set the bar so high that later superhero films had to innovate and be better. This led to films like Dark Knight, Batman Begins, and, yes, X-Men, where character development and thematic weight are important. What wasn’t cheesy then only seems cheesy now because of what Batman forced later filmmakers to accomplish.

  6. I guess I need further explanation of what you mean by “It pushed so hard it’s fallen behind.” What does that mean, actually?

  7. 1) I said it’s deserving of a nomination, not that it deserves to win.

    2) I think your first point is the entire point of my article.

  8. ‎1) You continue to ruin my childhood. Batman was an awesome movie. Yes, we know that Vicki Vale was kind of lame-o. And yes, the dude she worked with was really lame-o. I knew this as a child but I loved the movie anyways. These things do not take away from it. Batman turned around the franchise and made it respectable again.

    2) I know I haven’t seen X-Men yet, but to say that it deserves an Oscar for best movie is pushing it. You are just being silly now.

    3) You are silly.

    That is all.

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