Last night I watched an old favorite of mine, which I was ecstatic to discover had aged like a fine wine, not like an old can of skunked beer. I hadn’t seen it in probably 15 years and had my doubts. Luckily, it held up just fine, and definitely gave the recent “re-visioning” of the franchise a run for it’s money.
The film I am talking about is Tim Burton’s 1989 classic, Batman.
This film played a huge role in my childhood, like most people my age. The summer of 1989 was filled with Batman comic books, movie posters, Prince songs and desperately trying to get my hands on a Batman t-shirt; something that kept selling out within hours of being stocked at the local clothing stores. I saw it twice in the theaters (which was a lot for me at the time), and on Christmas morning 1989 Santa brought me a brand new VHS copy of the film, which I proceeded to wear out. I learned every sound effect, every frame of that movie, and if that film did anything for my youth, it taught me one of the most important lessons of cinema, it taught me about style.
With the new, updated version of the series from director Christopher Nolan, and with his teaser trailer for the last film in his trilogy being dropped last week, an argument is brought to mind about which film version is better: the new, re-visioned Nolan version, or the Tim Burton vision of the series from 20 years ago?
Well, let’s first discuss the original 1989 film, and what it risked and achieved.
Burton’s iconic movie was significant for many reasons.
Aside from the project that started it all, Richard Donner’s 1978 staple Superman, Tim Burton’s 1989 film redefined an ailing comic book character, who had up to that time become almost a parody and mockery of it’s original concept; and it paved the way for the thriving superhero franchises we see today.
There was a lot riding on the film’s success. Tim Burton, who had only 2 feature length films under his belt (both successes), was certainly a gamble, as was adapting his growing style to a piece like the Dark Knight. An even bigger gamble at the time was the casting of Michael Keaton in the title role of Batman, which was publicly ridiculed by every film publication and even the front page of the Wall Street Journal. Keaton was largely known at the time for comedies like Mr. Mom, Johnny Dangerously, and Beetlejuice, though his performances in dramas like Clean and Sober definitely did lend him the credibility to pull this role off, especially to the young Tim Burton. Once Jack Nicholson was secured to play the Joker, the film was off to the races. Sean Young was even slated to play Vicki Vale, until a horse riding accident just days before shooting forced her to back out and be replaced with Kim Basinger (which is interesting if you then follow Young’s behavior when trying to win the role as Catwoman in Burton’s sequel Batman Returns, which bordered the weird and almost the insane). Jack Palance, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Jerry Hall, William Hootkins, Lee Wallace, Tracey Walter and Robert Wuhl rounded out the superb cast.
Burton went back to the original Bob Kane concept of the character, taking cues from the then-recent Frank Miller graphic novels The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Returns, and Alan Moore’s now legendary installment in the world of Batman, The Killing Joke. Burton infused his signature style we’ve now come to know, and brought in his long-time collaborator Danny Elfman, whose score has now become a classic, almost as iconic as Indiana Jones or the Star Wars themes. The director also hired the late, great genius Anton Furst to oversee the production design, whose vision of Gotham City has now become the bar all aspire to, much like Burton’s vision of Batman himself.
One must remember that prior to the release of this film in the summer of ’89, Batman’s persona had been relegated to the slapstick antics of Adam West in the short-lived 1960s TV show, or the more recent Saturday morning cartoon show of the 1980s, Super Friends, in which his character was more the elder scientist, his costume a light blue and gray, and voiced by the legendary Olan Soule (and later West reprising). When Burton’s version came out, it set the standard for how we now view the character in all its incarnations, be it comics, television, or silver screen. Burton proved what Donner had done 11 years prior, and what we’ve come to see in the successful comic book franchise films of the modern day; if you respect the source material, and you treat it fairly and maturely, like you would any great piece of literature, you can make a gripping, engaging and amazing piece of work that can appeal to the masses.
So which is better? Are the new Christopher Nolan installments better or ‘top’ the older franchise of 20 years ago?
Let’s make a decision right off the bat (no pun intended), that we are only speaking of the 2 Tim Burton films, not the last two by Joel Schumacher, who completely and unapologetically ran his sequels into the ground (another example of straying from the source material).
Let’s start with the obvious hurdle of the past three years: who is a better Joker, Jack Nicholson or Heath Ledger? I look at it as being “six of one, a half dozen of the other”. They are both great in their own ways, and are a great example of two different interpretations of a character. Nicholson’s Joker seems to me to be very loyal to the original comic book character, while Ledger’s seems rooted more in reality and almost taking a page out of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. I think that is a critical essay for a different day.
Next, Bruce Wayne. Michael Keaton versus Christian Bale. I think Keaton wins this for many reasons. While I do like Bale’s idea of making Wayne a spoiled brat or aloof—so to appear as bratty rich kid who was born into wealth, so better cover his secret identity—I feel Keaton superbly pulls off the duality of a smart, engaging man and the alter ego Batman; he is confident and has a style about him with his movement and mannerisms that really show he has developed a style and persona as the Caped Crusader, not just someone who makes his voice sound like a hardcore metal singer, like Bale.
Since we are talking about style, how about the costumes themselves. I completely loathe Nolan’s costume, from the ears, that look like they point toward each other, and the cowl itself, which almost looks like a helmet, to the emblem on his chest which you can barely see. I understand that Nolan’s concept is to make it more realistic and functional—like it was developed by a weapons company—but it just doesn’t ring true to the original costume. Burton’s was scary, and looked as if it was designed to be part of the night, to frighten the criminal it confronted. It was functional, but it wasn’t devoid of style, which to me, seems apparent with Nolan’s version.
While on the subject of style and the lack thereof, I feel that the the new Batmobile is horrible compared to Burton’s original. Again, I understand that it wasn’t designed with Batman in mind, and more toward the idea of being conceived as a device for private contractors, but at least by The Dark Knight, I wish Wayne had upgraded to something that looks more toward the Batman persona. Burton’s car was jaw-dropping when first seen in the museum escape—gasps were heard all over the theater—it was the ultimate machine and looked perfectly designed by a wealthy man to use to instill fear and at the same time have the look of brooding darkness and functionality.
Overall, it seems as though Nolan has forsaken style for realism, which as anyone can tell you, I am the first person to usually agree with. I pride myself at liking films that strive to be as real as possible (the films of Michael Mann come to mind, which I love), but in this instance it seems to fall short because, above all, Batman is all about style in looks and execution. That doesn’t seem to fit in the Nolan movies and makes the films lack a certain amount of heart.
How about Gotham City? Anton Furst, Burton’s production designer for the original film, invented the archetype we now see as Gotham City. A pseudo-New York, which blends ’40s art deco with post-modernist neo-noir à la Blade Runner; mixing seedy with functional. It was scary, foreboding, and so alluring—so Gotham City. In the world of DC Comics, if the revitalized Manhattan of the late ’90s and early ’00s was Metropolis, then the raunchy Gotham City of Tim Burton’s version was the rotting, decaying modern day Detroit. Smoke seeping, noir-ish blacks, and shadows that really lend themselves to the world of Batman.
Nolan’s Gotham, seems to be a hodge-podge mish-mash of Chicago, Pittsburgh, and now… New York City? I wish he would at least try to blend them together, and not just boldly show us cutaway shots that are blatantly NYC or Chicago, and not at all trying to mask the fact that they are different cities. It leaves Nolan’s Gotham ill-defined, and at times seems an afterthought.
So in this humble Podwit’s opinion, it’s a bunch of hog-wash.
So what are we left with? Should I bring up the fact that in Nolan’s first film, you couldn’t see a goshdarn thing that was going on in the fight sequences? The cutting was horrible, and from what I’ve been told, intentional! Something about making Batman’s movements look lightning fast, something I think could have been executed a lot better.
But to give it to Nolan, his series of films did get better with the second installment, and with the final one dropping next year, it already looks very juicy and gripping. Burton’s sequel (which he originally did not want to do, but was enticed into it by being able to make Edward Scissorhands), is not as good in my opinion than the first, and I won’t even get into the “plane-hitting-the-mountain” that the last two were, after Burton and Keaton departed the franchise.
All in all, I kinda feel like Burton’s heart was in it more than Nolan’s. Nolan seems to have dropped style for hype. They may be good movies, but I don’t like the stripped-down Batman, sacrificing style for realism. And as I said before, I’m the first one who needs realism in his movies, with the “suspension of disbelief” effectively carried out, but sometimes it hurts the overall universe it is ‘fixing’, as in the Nolan franchise.
So in the end, I am a fan of the Burton film. But let’s not forget Nolan’s one ace in the hole: he had the brilliant idea to hire the legendary, amazingly amazing Gary Oldman.
That can sometimes win any argument.