The Caped Crusader. The Dark Knight. 50% of the Dynamic Duo. Call him what you will, he’ll always be Batman to us. Like Doctor Who or James Bond, everyone with an interest in pop culture, will have their own definitive Batman. For children who grew up in the 70’s, Adam West will always be their guy. It remains to be seen how Ben Affleck’s latest take on the character will go down with fans, but both Affleck and Christian Bale owe a lot to a Batman that many people have forgotten about. Despite the mantel changing a number of times throughout the franchise, Michael Keaton’s Batman from Tim Burton’s 1989 film of the same name set the dark standard that others have been following ever since.
It’s hard to think of a time without regular Batman movies appearing in the cinema. In recent years we’ve been spoiled thanks to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, but before Michael Keaton donned the cowl, Batman hadn’t seen the inside of a movie cinema since Adam West’s camp hero in 1966; Bat shark-repellant anyone? There had been a few aborted attempts to kick start a new version of Bob Kane’s creation but, for one reason or another, they had all failed to materialise. That was until self-styled ‘Gothic’ director Tim Burton came along. The movie had been drifting through development hell for a number of years until Burton signed on. Once on board, one of his first choices was a controversial one amongst fans. Michael Keaton, up until that point, had been primarily known as a comedic actor so when Burton cast him his Batman, many fans were outraged. If the decision to cast Keaton was causing concern, the casting of Jack Nicholson as the Joker was inspired, not to mention expensive.
For the first time, the distinctive style and architecture of Gotham City of the comics was finally realised on the screen. Using Burton’s flair for the dark and the macabre, the aesthetics of the movie were stunning to behold. From the Batmobile to the buildings through to the dark, shadowy citizens that populate the city, Burton and his team went to town to create a look as far removed from Adam West’s version as possible. With its distinctive look overshadowing everything else, you could argue that the film is style over substance, one of the main criticisms of the film and all of its subsequent sequels. Either way, audiences loved it.
As is the problem with many original stories, Batman the movie struggles to build a film around a linear structure that must include the incident that happens many years before which gives Batman purpose and the creation of its villain. If you can remember the plot of the film you’d be doing well. To recap, Gotham City finds itself in the middle of a crime wave, spearheaded by criminal Jack Napier (Nicholson). Napier and Batman’s alterego Bruce Wayne are both fighting for Gotham. One to destroy it, one to save it. They are also fighting for their shared love interest; Vicky Vale, a newspaper photographer played by Kim Basinger. After an accident at a chemical factory where Batman almost catches him, Napier fall into a vast of acid and is transformed into The Joker. Now a maniacal sociopath but with more make-up, Napier takes control of organised crime from his boss Carl Grissom and sets out to destroy Batman, armed with a toxin to turn the people of Gotham into disfigured freaks, just like him.
As Batman figures out Joker’s plans and attempts to stop him, the question for the people of Gotham becomes one of trust. Do they trust the clown prince of crime or the man in the bat mask. What a choice! They are both victims of what Gotham City has made them. Batman’s mission is to avenge the death of his parents. His links to the past have made him a man out of time. He can’t truly find love or peace in the present, however hard he tries. Napier, as it turns out, was responsible for the death of Wayne’s parents although not directly. The catalyst for the man he must defeat.
Whatever shortcomings the film has, it created a Batworld we now recognise as definitive. It also revolutionised modern movie marketing; the Batman symbol was everywhere and the Prince soundtrack was heard on radio stations around the world. Batman had come of age. The franchise may have skewed away from Burton’s vision and into neon lights and Bat nipples but Keaton was a revelation. There was only one more film with him in the lead role, but he remains the best Batman for many, with or without the mask.