We're largely focused on 30th anniversary retrospectives around here, but today we're going to make an exception. 25 years ago, the world saw the release of Tim Burton's Batman: a multi-jillion-dollar-grossing, product-tie-in-from-hell, every-teenager-in-America's-gotta-see-it monstrosity that swooped down in the summer of 1989 and took all our money with it. While Richard Donner's Superman started the ball rolling a decade earlier, Batman made our current Golden Age of comic book adaptations possible. Without it, there would be no Paul Dini or Bruce Timm, no Sam Raimi or Christopher Nolan. Marvel would still be trapped in direct-to-video purgatory, Iron Man would remain unknown outside of comic book circles, and Hugh Jackman would probably still be doing Oklahoma! on the West End. All of them owe a debt to Burton's creation, and all of their efforts carry at least some of its DNA. In light of the immense cultural impact it made, its fundamentally flawed nature is almost beside the point.
Certainly, the unique sensibilities of the filmmakers contributed a great deal to its success. Burton went from a quirky outsider to Hollywood demigod overnight, a title he hasn't relinquished despite a series of increasingly threadbare efforts. Art director Anton Furst won an Oscar for his amazing work, establishing the premise that comic book movies could really look like their four-color inspirations. Michael Keaton aptly cemented the image of the Caped Crusader as a brooding vigilante – shaking off some serious doubts in the process – while Jack Nicholson enjoyed another career high point with his magnificent portrayal of the Joker. (He subsequently had to share the character with Mark Hamill and Heath Ledger, but I don't think he'd complain.) Beneath it all sat Danny Elfman's score: giving Batman a theme for the ages and moving the composer from Oingo Boingo's front man to the go-to guy for anything quirky and off-beat at the movies.
Their efforts have all since become cliché: so deeply saturated into subsequent films that we hardly remember how different they were at the time. No one had ever seen anything like this, from the impossibly high skyscrapers to the natty 40s fashions. It felt perfect for the figure at its core: dark, dangerous and cloaked in the trappings of a dream. Its vision threw open the doors of what was possible with a superhero story, creating a world no longer bound by the laws of our own.
And yet for all that, Batman lacks a lot of things we tend to associate with quality work. To paraphrase another critic, this movie feels like its own “Art of” book: its impressive imagery and fascinating universe harnessed in the service of a story that just doesn’t get it. Critics have rightfully derided Burton’s extended struggles with narrative, never on more painfully public display than here. For starters, this is a Batman movie that doesn’t seem all that interested in Batman. He becomes a supporting character for much of the time, forced to stay on the sidelines while other characters occupy the spotlight. We could accept that if it were only the Joker, but he too gets knocked to the sidelines. In their place stands Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), an ostensible love interest for Bruce Wayne paired with ace reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) in pursuit of the Batman’s true identity. Their quest forms the crux of the storyline, relegating more interesting material to subplot status and upending the whole movie as a result.
The reasons why are self-apparent. Besides Vale’s stifling blandness and annoying tendency to shriek like a banshee at the first sign of trouble, she (and Knox) are driven by questions that the audience already knows the answers to. Ever read the last three pages to a mystery, then go back and try to work your way through the rest of book? That’s how it feels here. No tension or suspense, no supposition or intrigue. “Who is Batman? We already know! Now let’s see him do stuff!” Instead, we get to watch a dull character we’ve never heard of before convince a barely-canonical Lois Lane clone to uncover a fact we’ve all known since we were five. Batman compounds the error by turning the rivalry between Wayne and the Joker to a love triangle with Vale, a fatal move that still leaves hard-core comics fans sputtering in rage. (Harley Quinn hadn’t been created when this film opened.) Make that the centerpiece of your film, and you’ve got a serious problem on your hands, not matter how handsome the trappings may be.
The worst part is that signs of something far more wonderful crop up in the midst of it all. I defy your heart not to sing at the phrase “gimme a mirror” or Keaton’s menacing first appearance on the rooftops of Gotham. Whatever his flaws, Burton truly understands what it means to be an outsider, and he finds the tragic core to these characters that served subsequent efforts extremely well. That’s not lightly dismissed. Nor is the sense that – for all its flaws – this movie looks like a masterpiece compared to the elephantine monstrosities of Joel Schumacher’s efforts.
It can be hard to recognize such strong material after 25 years of emulation and repetition, as Burton became an institution and we forgot the things that made him so wonderful and unique in the first place. If we look more closely, that influence becomes impossible to deny. But so too is the damaged structure that delivered it, a structure that looks even shoddier with so many better superhero movies to choose from. If you were to rank all of the superhero movies ever made in terms of quality, Batman would lag far behind the elites. These days, we’re much happier reaching for Nolan’s movies when we need a Bat-fix, or Dini’s groundbreaking animated series that just gets better and better as the years roll on.
But both of them owe Burton a serious debt, even as they effortlessly outpace his problematic first steps. Batman carries an undeniable power, and remains one of the few movies out there that genuinely changed the medium. But that came at a heavy price, sabotaging what should have been a masterpiece and leaving a deeply wounded curiosity in its wake. Hardly the legacy one expects from such a cultural milestone: a legacy that endures in spite of its undeniable flaws.