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“… You Wanna Get Nuts?” The Unique Legacy of Tim Burton’s “Batman”…

Tim Burton’s Batman is thirty years old this year, having opened in Irish cinemas thirty years ago this weekend. It leaves a complicated and underappreciated legacy.

To be fair, at least part of that is down to how the series ended. Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever and Batman and Robin count among the worst blockbusters of the nineties and the worst comic book movies ever made. Taken together, they were responsible for killing not only that iteration of the cinematic Batman franchise, but also for effectively killing the superhero as a blockbuster genre until the triple whammy of Blade, X-Men and Spider-Man kick-started it again at the turn of the millennium.

However, even judged on its own merits and without considering what followed, Tim Burton’s Batman is a strange beast. From a modern perspective, particularly one shaped by trends in the superhero genre over the past decade, Batman doesn’t look or feel like a comic book adaptation. It has its own distinctive style, its own distinctive sensibility, one largely missing even from the more overtly stylised and auteur superhero films like Logan or Black Panther. It is largely disinterested in being a faithful translation of its comic book source material to the big screen.

There are obvious comics influences on the film. The murder of the Wayne family is obviously drawn from Frank Miller’s portrayal of the crime in The Dark Knight Returns, right down to the shattered pearls. Tim Burton cites The Killing Joke as a major creative influence, and it certainly informs aspects of Jack Napier’s transformation into the Joker; most notably, the encounter with Batman at the chemical plant. (Although, that said, writer Alan Moore had himself lifted that from an early fifties comic, The Man Behind the Red Hood!)

Batman makes a variety of changes to the established character’s mythology, both large and small. The Joker now has a name, Jack Napier. Vicki Vale was a blonde rather than a redhead. Batman is (at best) indifferent to any casualties that he might inflict. Gotham City does not so much resemble “Manhattan below Fourteenth street at eleven minutes past midnight on the coldest night in November” as a nightmare of German expressionist cinema brought to life. Gotham is not a place that could ever really exist, outside of nightmares or idle day dreams.

Perhaps the biggest change to the mythology is the reveal that the Joker (as Jack Napier) was responsible for murdering the Wayne family. This lends a sense of clumsy symmetry to Batman’s presence at the birth of the Joker, with the latter even acknowledging the cliché at the climax, “I say you made me, you say I made you. How childish can you get?” It is notable that – in an era where cinematic adaptations had an outsized influence on the comics that spawned them – this was never adapted into the comic book mythology.

These sorts of changes are surreal in an era where film and television adaptations of comic books go out of their way to stress their fidelity to the source material, staking a great deal of credibility on how closely they can recreate panels or quote lines of dialogue. (It is notable that Batman vs. Superman was announced at Comic Con by having Harry Lennix read a monologue from The Dark Knight Returns.) Often, as with releases like The Lion King, it seems that it does not matter whether adaptations are good, only faithful.

In hindsight, what is striking about Batman is how much it feels like a film of itself. All of the changes to the source material were made in the process of adaptation, to structure a cinematic story within the narrative conventions of contemporary cinema. Batman’s casual brutality is much more in keeping with the aesthetic of late eighties action movies than his comic book counterpart. The twinning of the Joker with Batman makes sense as part of an effort to build an emotional connection between the two for a one-and-done blockbuster narrative rather than as an on-going antagonism.

Most specifically, Batman feels like a Tim Burton film. Though Burton’s stylistic sensibility would come out even stronger in Batman Returns, the first film in the franchise reflects his own interests and preoccupations. Bruce Wayne is very much a Tim Burton protagonist, something reinforced by the controversial casting of Michael Keaton in the role. Keaton and Burton frame Wayne as a weirdo. In one of the film’s most infamous choices, Wayne even sleeps upside down. (Like a bat. Get it?)

Ironically, the film exerted an influence on the comics that followed. The movie’s aesthetic bled into nineties comic books. Artist Kelley Jones infused an exaggerated retro-horror sensibility into his collaborations with Doug Moench on the main Batman title. Production designer Anton Furst’s influence was keenly felt on both Batman: The Animated Series and later in 90s comic books; Furst himself helped design the architecture of the comic book city in 1991, with DC explaining the city’s redesign with a story centring reconstruction after a series of attacks by a mad bomber.

Although Batman was a massive commercial success at the time, hindsight bristles at the liberties that Burton took with the source material. The film is often overlooked in discussions of the character’s history. There is no small irony in this, that Burton’s Batman should end up treated as much of an aberration as the campy 60s series that its dark and gothic sensibility reacted against. (Burton’s Batman is just as camp as the late 60s series, just in its own unique way; it favours leather fetishism over go-go dancing.)

The dismissive attitude that a lot of fans adopt towards Batman does the film a disservice. Burton’s Batman is a beautiful production, its design and its storytelling feeling like an extension of the sort of films that originally influenced the Caped Crusader. After all, Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson and Bob Kane had in part been inspired by thirties German cinema (specifically Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs) in creating the Joker. There are any number of clever ideas simmering through the narrative, such as the Joker branding himself “the world’s first fully functioning homicidal artist.”

To a certain extent, this approach to the Joker feels ahead of its time. The version of the Joker presented in Batman feels like a satire of the sort of performance and modern artists that really entered the public consciousness in the decade that followed, notably Damien Hirst or even Banksy. He is a man making very abstract statements through his work, blurring the boundaries that exist between his art and the world in which he exists. He boasts, “I now do what other people only dream. I make art… until someone dies.” (This would be the central premise of David Bowie’s concept album 1.outside, almost a decade later.)

More than that, Burton brings his own unique perspective to Bruce Wayne. It is too often argued that Keaton’s Bruce Wayne is boring or uninteresting, especially compared to the more flamboyant villains of the films. Burton imagines Bruce as an inverse of his stereotypical eccentric or outsider characters. Unlike most Burton protagonists, Bruce could pass as a normal guy. He’s bumbling, but he’s charming. He’s insecure, but he’s sweet. He can date beautiful women, and looks good enough in a tuxedo. He has enough money that he can throw galas. Nobody recognises him, but he blends in.

However, despite this appearance of normality, Burton argues that Bruce longs to be weird and eccentric. Bruce uses his family’s money to build a costume and persona to express the inner freak inside himself. Batman Returns explicitly parallels Bruce with the genuine freak Oswald Copplepot, repeatedly suggesting that Bruce is resentful of Cobblepot’s bona fides freakiness. “Must you be the only lonely man-beast in town?” Alfred goads. In one small revealing moment in Batman Returns, the Penguin charges, “You’re just jealous because I’m a genuine freak and you have to wear a mask.” Bruce replies, “You might be right.”

It’s an intriguing take on the Caped Crusader, taking a lot of the character’s core attributes – his wealth, his gimmick, his isolation, his trauma – and filtering it through a unique prism. It says something interesting about the character, using the character to say something interesting in turn. It offers a novel approach to a character who had been in constant publication for half a century to that point. It doesn’t just reiterate what the comic books (or earlier adaptations) had established about the character and his world. It finds a unique angle on it. It is sadly impossible to imagine a modern adaptation being so bold.

It could fairly be argued that one of the great strengths of Batman as a concept is his versatility.  This may be part of what gives the character an advantage over Superman, who has struggled to maintain the same level of culture cachet in recent decades. Whereas Superman has struggled to escape the iconic mould cast by Richard Donner and Christopher Reeves, Batman welcomes reinvention and innovation. The character works as pulp action hero, a respected detective, a gothic protagonist, a weird loner, a campy law enforcement official in a cowl, or an expression of anxieties about the War on Terror.

All of these iterations of the character are Batman, and many more beyond. There is no singular right way to approach the character of Batman. More than that, there are still many different ways of approaching the character that have yet to be explored, mapped and signposted. In the modern era, where adaptations of these characters are often appraised by their faithfulness to already determined interpretations and approaches, this is refreshing. Thirty years after its release, it is hard to imagine a major studio green lighting a comic book adaptation as weird and esoteric as Batman. That is a great shame.

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4 Responses

  1. I wonder if one reason that the Burton films are underappreciated is because they ran at the same time as the Batman: the Animated Series, so for many kids in the 90s, the “true” Batman portrayal was the Saturday morning version. Plus the Burton films are jumbled together in the public consciousness with the Schumaker ones.

    If you’re interested in a deeply weird but goofily fun superhero film, I’d suggest Takashi Miike’s “Zebraman.”

  2. Jack Nicholson killed it in this movie.

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