The time has come to accept that Tim Burton’s Batman movies just aren’t very good. As Christopher Nolan’s trilogy has drawn to a close it’s become very clear that the original films are, in fact, a very distant second in terms of quality. There’s no need for a comparison - standing alone they simply do not hold up. Age of course plays a factor, but even upon release Batman had glaring issues and its follow up, Batman Returns, even more so.
I’m not a Tim Burton fan; I find it hard to grasp what people like about his movies. He has his moments: Beetlejuice, Ed Wood, Big Fish are great and the defence could probably make a strong case for Edward Scissorhands. The two Burton Batman movies straddle this quality period of his career. But his adaptations, whether it’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Alice in Wonderland, get so much wrong both in terms of the character they’re portraying and his inability to deviate from his whimsical, dark, and twisted fantasy designs that they bring a unique blandness to what should be something at least visually special. Batman is no different.
Batman as a character was still in the doldrums of 60’s camp and, prior to the release of the 1989 film, many people still regarded Batman as the colourful and corny hero of the TV series. Some would argue that Burton redefined the franchise only for it to be knocked on its arse by Joel Schumacher and his own hack movies. But read that earlier sentence again: colourful and corny. Only one of those words changed when Batman was released in '89 – colourful, as Burton only drained the colour from the '60s TV show but kept the corn. To suggest otherwise is ridiculous when you weigh up the cast Burton assembled.
Burton’s Gotham City is so heavily populated with comedians and comic actors it’s clear a serious take on Batman was never really intended. Everything Michael Keaton had done up to this point was comedic, Jack Nicholson was in the weird comedy phase of his career, and Kim Basinger was always a joke. Returns adds Danny DeVito and Christopher “Can’t Ever Tell If He’s in On the Joke” Walken. Even a supporting cast featuring the likes of Robert Wuhl, Jack Palance and even Paul Reubens was largely comedic.
Erratic comedy performers aside, they were not helped by being fed some of the worst scripts to grace movies ever. The dialogue in these two Batman movies is the reason that over twenty years later we have to accept tripe like Transformers and Battleship. Remember when blockbuster movies promised so much:
“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
“Ray, next time someone asks you if you’re a god, you say YES!”
“Easy, miss. I've got you.” “You... you've got me? Who's got you?”
These are lines that people quote over and over again; Batman and Batman Returns are of such little quality that its lines are aped for fun rather than their quality. (Speaking of Superman, if you’ve ever stumbled across Burton's disastrous ideas for his version of the man of steel you’ll know what I’m talking about.)
However, Keaton’s portrayals of Bruce Wayne/Batman and Nicholson as The Joker have for the most part been met with praise. Keaton puts in a wholly disjointed portrayal that betrays what is meant to be a singularly focused and smart character into one of Tim Burton’s kooky weirdoes normally embodied by Johnny Depp. The fact that the dual-identity hero is the most boring thing in both these movies is a major misstep for Burton and Keaton. Even amongst claims that Batman’s villains are more compelling than the Dark Knight himself, there’s no reason you should just want your hero to fuck off. Speaking of villains, my criticism of Nicholson stems not from a comparison to Heath Ledger but a rather more simple evaluation – very often he’s simply chewing too much scenery. Great moments are ruined by The Joker playing Jack Nicholson and not by Jack Nicholson playing The Joker.
These jarring portrayals are borne out of a mismatch of ideologies; Frank Miller was pushing darker Batman novels in The Dark Knight Returns and Year One. Their success eradicated much of the silliness in favour of a darker Batman universe pushing against Burton’s dark-yet-camp style derived from an older generation’s 60’s Batman. Thus a weird Batman character was born, almost inept at times, spouting pithy one-liners, using guns and explosives but mixed with the dark brooding night stalker that we have come to love in the Nolan Trilogy. This isn’t a comparison either. There doesn’t need to be a comparison. Standing alone, Burton’s Batman films struggle to shine.
Burton himself said recently, "I recall at the time, people worried about our version being too dark. It looks like a light-hearted romp in comparison [to Nolan]. 'Batman on Ice.'" Batman on ice would come later but calling Batman and Batman Returns dark in theme is a strange thought. Simply turning the lights down on a production doesn’t automatically make it dark.
Sure, Gotham was gritty and realised in some gothic splendour but the people inhabiting it were anything but. Add in the Danny Elfman score with Prince’s soundtrack and again these two jarring philosophies bounce off each other to terrible effect. The camp versus the dark. Burton’s “dark” villains spout one-liners and ride in rubber ducks or shoot novelty guns. That anyone thought that could be “too dark” was clearly living in some sort of crazy candy land with rainbows and unicorns. Or perhaps it was simply because everything before had been so different. Batman – and to a lesser extent its sequel – were, for all their flaws, nothing like the blockbusters that came before. But that doesn’t make it a masterpiece and doesn’t give it a free pass.
A lot of blame is heaped on Joel Schumacher for Batman’s death in a hail of day-glow bullets, painful Schwarzenegger puns, and nauseating nipples, but Burton set the precedent. Batman was camp, Batman Returns campier still, and by the time the director’s chair changed occupant, Batman Forever and Batman & Robin were already on a slippery slope towards the arse end of ineptitude. I can hear your gasps of horror as I defend Joel Schumacher at least in part, but those four Batman movies occupy the same world wherein Tim Burton sowed the seeds.
So when you revisit Batman and Batman Returns again. Remember, you don’t have to compare them to Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece trilogy. They were already bad to begin with.