Below: Never let it be said that Batman doesn’t stay in touch. A typically lame scene from Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman.”
In spite of the overestimated creativity of production designer Anton Furst, this scene’s set — like almost all of them throughout the picture — feels small and television-like, as if the camera could swing abruptly to the left and catch the crew just beyond the edges of the extras playing Gothamites. It just feels fake, like a stage play put on by a cash-rich but not entirely competent high school drama class. To make matters worse, the district attorney, gamely played by Billy Dee Williams, starts reading a letter from Batman. A letter from Batman! As if alighting rooftops by night dressed like a huge bat would ever put you in the frame of mind where you’d want to sit down with a quill pen and dash off a few paragraphs like Mr. Belvedere at the end of another zany episode.
There’s almost nothing in this scene, or many of the scenes that preceded it, that would have been out of place in an episode of the Adam West “Batman.” (To be fair, I retain a tremendous fondness for that show, and I still maintain that it was the most exuberantly uninhibited expression of comic book whimsy Hollywood has ever produced.) Aside from the half-inspired casting of Michael Keaton as the hero, Burton gets almost none of the Batman mythology right, and while he was at it, he didn’t even bother to make a particularly engaging movie, either. As super-hero adaptations go, Richard Donner’s 1978 “Superman: The Movie” was equally imperfect but blessed with about a hundred times the heart of Burton’s “Batman” — and as a result, that movie rewards repeated viewings. Burton’s does not.
Burton’s movie laid the groundwork, too, for an abysmal franchise that, when it finally crash landed, could be conveniently blamed on the hackery of his successor. Joel Schumacher has taken a terrible beating for the admittedly terrible work he did on “Batman Forever” and “Batman and Robin,” but I just want to try and set the record straight here: those two entries were not appreciably worse than the two that Burton turned in beforehand, in my opinion. All four movies, in spite of momentary flashes of interest, are off-putting and unenjoyable, frenzied attempts at creating marvelous spectacles that turned out to be tedious exercises in movie star-fueled boredom.
Clearly, the character had never been done properly, something the new movie’s leading man, Christian Bale, has attested to many times. Burton’s Batman was fierce but he was rarely menacing; moreover, he was never subtle or capable of being thrilling. He occupied a fantasia of inconsequence, where nothing felt particularly frightening or meaningful. None of that is true in Nolan’s new movie which, for the first time, offers not only a faithful reading of the Batman mythology, but fulfills the character’s dramatic potential, too. His Batman is full of fear and anger and he exudes the uncanny sense of being, if not real, then somehow possible. I’ve never watched a comic book movie like it before, and I found it completely satisfying. Finally.