It’s kind of funny how we think Batman is so well defined. We always have this idea of Batman being this dark, tortured, lonely soul with a strict code of ethics, but he hasn’t always been like that. In 1940 he was happy and colorful. By the ‘60s he was far from lonely, with Batgirl as well as Robin at his side, and in the ‘80s he was very nearly murderous, almost driven mad by the death of the second Robin, Jason Todd. It has been in recent history that we’ve known him as being this dark character.
Batman has been interpreted many different ways by many different people. When it comes to Tim Burton’s Batman starring Michael Keaton, he takes an interesting approach. The film begins with Batman already in his role as the Caped Crusader. For a first movie there really isn’t much an origin story here. There is, however, Vicki Vale.
Avid Batfans will know that Vicki Vale is a reporter in the Batman comics. Here, she becomes Bruce Wayne’s primary love interest. In fact, that’s how we get our first glimpses at Bruce Wayne. He’s this oddball of a millionaire (very different from the playboy picture that Bale portrays in Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy) that keeps weird sculptures and lives in a huge (mostly) empty mansion. That’s a side of Bruce that we don’t usually see, and with good reason. That’s an interpretation that is pretty unique to Tim Burton.
So while the film begins with Batman stopping some general crime fighting, we get to Jack. Jack is a wannabe top dog in the gangster community, and the boss sends him on a mission that’s doomed to fail, hoping he’ll end up dead. Batman gets in their way, but Jack, despite Batman’s best efforts to save him, falls into a batch of chemicals. Thus the Joker is born, and he then starts poisoning the city with his “joker venom,” a throwback to the Joker’s weapon of choice from the very early issues of the comic book.
And thus begins a struggle between Batman and Joker, the dark, tortured son of the night, and Joker, the light, laughing agent of chaos. That contrast is exactly why this is the best of the original Batman film series (starting with this film and ending with Schumaker’s nightmare Batman & Robin). I don’t like knowing who Joker is, since his identity is one of the great mysteries of the DC universe, but Jack Nicholson is brilliant. His maniacal laughing as he slays innocent lives, along with all of the corny jokes (“Got a live one here!” as he electrocutes a man) is exactly why Nicholson was one of the best casting jobs in comic book movies to date. And I will never forget the best line in the movie, and perhaps even the series: “Where does he get those wonderful toys?”
This contrast becomes even more clear when Vicki learns the truth about Batman’s identity (come on, we all know Bruce can’t keep a secret, least of all from a woman). Bruce’s melancholy temperament and his defensive nature of his work shows Keaton’s talent and why he made a terrific Batman. Between the trouble he has telling his secret to Vicki and the determination and drive you can see in his eyes, Keaton sells the part like a pro.
And, of course, we can’t forget the beauty of Michael Gough’s performance as Alfred. He was the only actor to survive the rotation of all four films, and with good reason. He fits the part of gentle correcting Alfred seamlessly.
In short, it’s a fantastic film. And it works because of the contrast between Batman and Joker. So then the question becomes less about the film’s quality and more about its worldview. Where does Batman’s worldview fit into this?
This question is best answered by Batman himself. Vicki says to Batman plainly at one point, “A lot of people think you’re as dangerous as The Joker.” Batman instantly responds, “He’s psychotic,” to which Vicki replies “Some people say the same thing about you.” So is Batman psychotic? Is he just adding to the chaos with his cape and crusade? Is it really about revenge, just fuel adding to the fire?
I don’t think so.
Let’s take the beginning of the film. He doesn’t kill the baddie that he’s captured. Instead he says “Tell your friends about me.” This isn’t about revenge. It’s about keeping what happened to him from happening to other people. In the memorable scene in the Batcave when Bruce is being honest with Vicki, he tells her he does it because he has to. Because nobody else will. Because it’s not a perfect world. In a way, Bruce saw the truth of Psalm 94:6.
“They kill the widow and the sojourner, and murder the fatherless”
God, many times in scripture, calls out His people for not defending the defenseless. That’s what Bruce saw. And he decided to do something about it. If nothing else, that should be a lesson for us. To stand up when other people won’t, even and especially to those bigger and scarier than ourselves. So when the police department is full of dirty cops, and the mob is running the city, Batman steps up to defend the defenseless. That’s a hero if I’ve ever seen one.
This review was also posted on Let There Be Movies.