It has long been my contention that the best film about Batman was Tim Burton’s sequel, Batman Returns, which is a strange argument to make at least in part because I think the original 1989 Batman is straight-up terrible.
I know why the ’89 film was such a monster. No one had really tried a “serious” superhero movie. The genius of Richard Donner’s take on Superman, and the thing that was so hard for people to reproduce after Donner left the series, was that he took a ridiculous movie seriously, but that didn’t mean his first movie wasn’t ridiculous at times. He just played it with a straight face. The first Tim Burton film was an attempt to translate the then-omnipresent tone of grim and gritty comics to the big screen. Frank Miller had created a pop culture moment with his revisionist update of Batman, and Hollywood decided to try to do that with the movies. It was terrifying for them, though, because it ran so counter to the common wisdom about comic-book movies. They were only for children. They were silly. They weren’t A-list movies.
If you watch the full four movies in the original Superman series, it’s a lesson in just how little faith there was in the source material. They were scared to do a straight adaptation of any of the familiar Superman storylines, and film by film by film, they got more preposterous. Superman IV: The Quest For Peace is a goddamn nightmare, start to finish, full of terrible ideas and inept execution. The way the Salkinds treated Richard Donner was a shame, and not just because he deserved better. We deserved better. It would have been nice to have seen Donner take a run at a real series of films, instead of the bizarre behind-the-scenes contractual shenanigans that led to his departure from the second film. That series never really worked as a series, and just looking at what a weird Frankenstein monster of financial partners it took to make the fourth film, it’s shocking. How did Warner Bros. ever get to a place where they were willing to let someone else make Superman movies because they didn’t believe in the concept?
So, sure, the 1989 film gets points for trying to do something new onscreen, and in the build-up to the film’s release, I was 100% onboard. I wanted it to be great. I wanted to believe that Hollywood was going to let this genre grow up. I thought the film looked like a rush job, held together with scotch tape and the general strength of the character. Burton’s style got swallowed by the movie, and there’s a lot of it that is cheap and ugly. I think Nicholson ran Burton over like a snowplow. I don’t think Burton was able to give Nicholson any guidance or sense of boundaries in his performance, and it’s just Jack turning up the Jack to “high.” I don’t think the 1989 Batman adds anything to the long and continuing story of the relationship between Batman and The Joker, and it doesn’t really say anything aside from, “Hey, look, it’s Batman!”
By contrast, I think Batman Returns is one of the clearest explorations of what it feels like to be Batman. The entire film should be viewed as taking place inside the head of Bruce Wayne. Look at how we see him revealed in the film. The Bat-signal goes off, and we see the image reflected along until it illuminates this dark room where Bruce Wayne just… sits… waiting… like a robot that is in “idle” mode. The Bat-signal appears and he switches on. Each of the villains in the film represent a part of the broken person Batman has become. He’s not sure he can be this thing anymore, and he’s wrestling with it. The Penguin is the part of him that feels like a freak, abandoned by his family, alone in the world, determined to do something with his last name. Catwoman is the part of him that loves to dress up in the rubber suit and kick the shit out of people. Bruce can justify his actions all day long, but there is a part of him that just plain craves the release that comes from crippling an entire warehouse full of thugs with his bare hands. And Max Shreck is what Bruce Wayne pretends to be with the face he shows the world, the thing that Bruce is afraid he would be if he had never chosen to become Batman.
Look at the first meeting of the three characters. It’s the middle of the night. Catwoman’s blowing shit up. They meet in the streets in the very center of the city, and there’s no one else around. Sure, it’s late, but no one? Anywhere? Burton’s film isn’t remotely concerned with “the real world,” and it’s better for it. The film builds to a three-way climax in which Bruce has to decide how to handle each of those parts of himself. The Penguin destroys himself, and Catwoman kills Shreck, using up one more of her lives in the process. She wants to be good, but she’s afraid she can’t be, and she slips away into the night, while the end of the film implies that she won’t be very far away if/when he needs her. It felt like Burton was using the entire film to allow Bruce to decide that Batman is something he wants, something he embraces, and he moves forward at the end of the film as a much more integrated, complete person.
If you talk to any fan of the character, you’ll no doubt hear different takes on which is the best adaptation of the character to the screen. I could make a strong case that Paul Dini and Bruce Timm helmed the definitive take on Batman and his full rogue’s gallery with Batman The Animated Series. There are many people who still feel that Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm is the best movie, while others prefer the Batman Beyond: Return Of the Joker film. And there are plenty of people who find the Christopher Nolan trilogy to be their preferred version. We’ve also seen people who are deeply taken with the new version that Zack Snyder introduced and that we’ll see again in Justice League later this year. The reason for all of those different opinions is that the character manages to survive reinterpretation, no matter what the focus from each individual artist. Batman is so elastic as an idea, yet so clearly defined, that much of the response you have to each version is based on how closely it does or doesn’t hew to your personal take on the character.