In the light of Christopher Nolan’s ‘real world’ take on Batman, Tim Burton’s first foray into dark knight territory seems rather cartoony and, yes, a teensy weensy bit camp. That said, Burton’s vision of Batman is perhaps the closest screen approximation of Bob Kane’s original comics, which were essentially outlandish detective stories. Kane himself said that the film was his original vision of Gotham come to life.
The rights to Batman had been bought in 1979 by Michael Uslan and Benjamin Melniker. Making the rounds in Hollywood, they were turned down by ever studio on the grounds that the material couldn’t be taken seriously. The pair hired Tom Mankiewicz to write a screenplay, an origin story featuring the Joker, the Penguin and a brief appearance by Robin.
Peter Guber and Jon Peters took over production duties and eventually Warner Brothers took an interest, spurred on by the success of dark graphic novels The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke (both a big influence on the finished film). Burton, who was asked to direct after completing Pee Wee’s Big Adventure in 1985, was interested in the project but wasn’t keen on the current screenplay, and subsequently brought aboard screenwriter and comic fan Sam Hamm to have another crack at the whip. Despite the new script’s positive reception, Warner were slow to give the film the go-ahead.
“They didn’t give me the OK officially until after the first weekend’s grosses from Beetlejuice came in,” said Burton. “It was kind of charming in a way, because Sam and I would meet on weekends to discuss the early writing stages and we had a great script, but they kept saying there were other things involved.”
Ironically, particularly given his previous life as a cartoonist, Burton was never a big fan of comic books. However, the characters of Batman and the Joker appealed to him: “The reason I’ve never been a comic book fan – and I think it started when I was a child – is because I could never tell which box I was supposed to read. That’s why I loved the Killing Joke, because for the first time I could tell which one to read….It’s the first comic I’ve ever loved. And the success of those graphic novels made our ideas more acceptable.”
Batman was not without its controversies during production, with the announcement of Michael Keaton as Batman in particular causing thousands of comic fans to write letters of complaint to Warner Brothers. Burton’s reasoning was simple enough: why would a big, macho guy feel the need to dress up as a bat?
Hamm also had some objections to certain elements of the script, namely the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents at the hands of Jack Napier (who becomes the Joker) and Alfred’s reveal of Batman’s identity to Vicki Vale (“Fans were ticked off with that, and I agree. That would have been Alfred's last day of employment at Wayne Manor."). These final changes were made by Warren Skaaren, Hamm having left the project due to a WGA strike.
Yet The controversy was smothered by hype as the film’s release date approached, building into a summer frenzy that the film broke sales records; the first to earn $100 million in the first ten days of its release. Although some of the film’s perceived grit has diminished in the intervening years, Batman still has a lot going for it. It’s comic book styling is laced with elements of noir and Hitchcock style suspense thriller (the ending even mirrors Hitchcock’s Vertigo). It can also be commended for not taking the obvious route through the story.
Considering that every super hero gets an origin story these days, it’s surprising that Batman isn’t really an origin story, or at least not entirely. He is already fighting crime as we come into the story, and bar one flashback to the death of his parents, we never get the full story as to why he decided to become Batman, or how he kitted himself out with all his gadgets.
The film of course, very much a Joker origin story, and it’s Jack Nicholson’s character that dominates much of the film. It is understandable – the Joker’s sense of psychotic mischief would sit more comfortably within Burton’s own characters and creations. Nicholson’s Joker is manic in the extreme, chewing all of his scenes to pieces. The character’s psychotic tendencies are very much in evidence, but the Joker is an entertaining rather than sinister presence, particularly in comparison to Heath Ledger’s creepy psychopath.
Having moved away from the classic origin story, Burton and Hamm use Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) and to a lesser extent, Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) as the audience’s surrogates,, leading viewers by the hand into the world in which Batman operates. The caped crusader himself is a shady presence for much if the film’s first half,dashing in to punch a few thugs before disappearing back into the shadows. We don’t get a glimpse of the Batmobile until well over an hour into the film.
The plot is a little muddy in places as the Joker goes from scheme to scheme, but the film’s sense of anarchic fun allows you to forgive its faults. The biggest and most distracting problem has is Prince’s contributions to the soundtrack, which, while perfectly fine as songs in themselves, seem to have been written for a different film.
It’s strange to think, more than 20 years after its release, that Batman is a lighter film incarnation of the dark knight, particularly considering the perception of the film at the time of its release. But Burton’s take on Batman got the ball slowly rolling for superhero films, culminating in the comic-saturated market that we have today.