Back in the 1980s, there was no notion of a Marvel or DC Cinematic Universe. The Hulk, Spiderman, and Wonder Woman had made an impact on the small screen during the previous decade and in 1978, Richard Donner’s Superman was a critical and commercial success. However, that franchise’s fourth iteration, Superman: the Quest for Peace, threatened to bring an end to superheroes on screen. The world needed another saviour and thanks to Tim Burton and his success with Beetlejuice, Warner Bros green-lighted Batman, a new and darker take on the DC character.
It wasn’t the first time Batman had been seen on the big screen. In 1966 a Batman movie was released based on the colorful and goofy Adam West television series. Burton wanted to move away from the live-action cartoon feel of that world. Impressed by the dark tone of recent Batman graphic novels, The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke, he brought his own weird and dark sensibilities to the character. Gone was the grey spandex, this Batman was clad in black fetishistic rubber. Despite being a figure for good, this incarnation of the character had a blurred morality with no hesitation in killing a Gotham criminal. His childhood trauma, seeing his parents murdered in front of his eyes, could have easily turned him into one of Gotham’s villains.
Michel Keaton’s Batman is serious and brooding, internally tortured in trying to do the right thing for Gotham. The city, full of oppressive and decaying architecture thanks to Anton Furst’s Oscar-winning production design, is a character unto itself, seething with darkness and corruption. Jack Nicholson’s over-the-top performance as the Joker is fitting, a wildly unpredictable and evil villain, far removed from the comical look of the 60’s television series.
Thematically, Burton is interested in the duality of Batman. As Bruce Wayne attempts a romance with Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale, an opportunity to be ‘normal,’ the character struggles with his life as a millionaire playboy and his alternate superhero lifestyle. Burton himself is a self-declared outsider and his characters, from Batman to Edward Scissorhands, showcase this.
The duality theme is explored further when Bruce seeks justice for his parent’s murder. He discovers it was Jack Napier, a high-ranking gangster not too far removed from somebody James Cagney may have played in the 1940s. When the two confront each other at the Axis Chemical Plant, Napier falls into a vat of green goo and emerges as the Joker, ghoulishly white-faced and absolutely insane. Bruce Wayne has created the Joker just as Jack Napier created the Batman after shooting his parents. They are two sides of the same coin, both scarred and violent, though Batman is the order against the Joker’s chaos.
This is probably not the best Batman movie on screen but it certainly raised the profile on the genre again. Burton returned with a sequel in 1992, another success, but the studio then moved back into more colorful, family-friendly territory with the next two films in the series, and the genre was threatened with decline again. Thankfully, it was the turn of Marvel to steer the way forward, and following Blade, the X-Men were about to take the superhero movie to a whole new level.
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