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We open on a decrepit part of town...hooker and hoodlums populate the street. Director Tim Burton is trying early on to paint a picture of the darker side of Gotham, the side Frank Miller (writer of the now-legendary "The Dark Knight Returns" comic miniseries) would demand if he made the movie. A couple and their little boy walk out of a theater. Failing to get a cab, they walk right into the Bad Part of Town (although, it doesn't look they were ever in a particularly nice area to begin with). Could this be Mr. and Mrs. Wayne with their boy Bruce? Nope. A few subtle hints indicate otherwise. But soon enough, they're mugged. As the goons divy up the cash, a man in black rubber (whatever happened to good ol' spandex?) swoops in and deals out a heap of justice. One of the felons, while receiving his whuppin' sputters "What are you?" The black-clad avenger brings the crook right to his face and snarls, "I'm BATMAN."
Thus, we get a great set-up for a costumed hero movie...a set-up that never quite delivers. A telltale hint of trouble ahead is that Jack Nicholson (as main heavy The Joker) is billed above Bat-actor Michael Keaton. It would seem like a star thing, but the weight of the flick falls the order of the cast. The Joker get way more screen time than Batman and his alter-ego Bruce Wayne. We get to understand (as much as a comic adaptation allows for, barring stuff like Ghost World) just how insane this clownish nutcase is, but we never once get in the head of the Bat, the title character and supposedly the focus of the film.
The lack of proper balance between the two main characters is one of the big problems in the script by Sam Hamm and Walter Skaaren (the former is mainly responsible for a lot of comic book adaptations and the latter didn't really work again after this one). Another one is the romance between photographer Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) and Bruce Wayne. Not at any point in the film does it really feel necessary (which is a damn shame, because some of Keaton's and Basinger's scenes together are really good). The same goes for Robert Wuhl as reporter Alexander Knox. I really hate to say this, but halfway through the film I started thinking about how nice it was in Batman Forever where everything seemed to fit right into the (admittedly cheesy as hell) plot.
Obviously, we're not looking at a doomed film, though. When your script isn't great, you have to rely on the director, the actors, the music, and the production design to pull everything together. Typically, this would result in the kind of style-heavy action flick that John Woo and Michael Bay would later specialize in. Under the deft leadership of Tim Burton, style is definitely still in, but the film instead feels like a Modern Gothic drama with explosions. He brings in his own vision of Gotham while still remaining true to the original... He even includes one shot that is a subtle homage to the cornball 1960s television series without actually ever (and I mean EVER) descending to that show's level of camp. He makes the whole movie grand without hitting grandiose.
And holy Great Peformances, Batman, the actors are great. Michael Keaton does a great job being a badass protector of the night and his Bruce Wayne, although a little off-putting on occasion, has some great underplayed comic moments. Early in the film, I wondered if Jack Nicholson was the right choice to play the Joker, but he quickly grew on me... This guy was madcap while still retaining a homicidal edge (while Jim Carrey was great as the Riddler in Forever, I never believed he'd be able to kill somebody). The supporting cast (Basinger, Wuhl, Michael Gough as faithful butler) all do equally capable work. Even Billy Dee Williams is good.
Completing the package are Danny Elfman's score and the Oscar-winning production design by the late Anton Furst. Elfman perfectly captures the darkly heroic nature of Batman, and the sets in the film are as succesful in their understanding of what Gotham City is. The city is as bleak a metropolis as, say, Detroit. The setting for the big climax, a massive cathedral, is the only set that wholly screams of Burton's touch, but that's alright. It works for the high crescendo the movie had achieved by that point.
Much like the Dark Knight, Batman the movie doesn't always achieve its goals, but it strives forward anyway, doggedly trying to do its job. To say this crusade isn't entertaining would be a fallacy. While Burton's infinitely more wintry and Gothic sequel, Batman Returns, has a better Caped Crusader/villain balance, this is probably not a film that comic book fans should miss. The DVD is fairly cheap, but the transfer is middling and there aren't any features. You may just want to rent this until something better comes along.