Vintage Shelf: Revisiting Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’

Vintage Shelf: Revisiting Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’

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06.01.2019 :: 10:00AM EDT
06.01.2019

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Michael Keaton in Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’ (1989). (Photo Credit: Warner Bros.)

You’re on a geeky pop culture site so you’re already familiar with Batman and you’re almost definitely familiar with his blockbuster debut (save for the serials and the Adam West movie), starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson. It’d be a waste of my time and yours to rehash the plot of the movie (Batman does Batman stuff, fights Joker, there’s Prince music, etc.) and writers way smarter than me have already talked about what Burton brought to the directorial role and the effect it had on Batman’s trajectory as a cultural force in the coming decades. So what is there to talk about?

I’ve been thinking about archetypes lately, specifically in relation to Batman and Superman (the back-to-back releases of Shazam and Brightburn, both of which play on the Superman archetype to some extent, are largely what’s prompted this). Superman hit the big 8-0 last year and his cranky best pal is joining the club in 2019. Eighty years is a long, long time for a couple of buff dudes in tights to stick around in the public mind. But it’s 80 years later and they’re more prominent than ever. Need proof? Just look at how Twitter reacted the day that it leaked that it was relatively likely that Robert Pattinson would be playing Batman in the next live-action movie.

(Photo Credit: Warner Bros.)

Revisiting Burton’s Batman provides a unique perspective on the character’s longevity and the reason we still care about him all these years later. The reason it does so might surprise you, though. See, Burton’s Batman isn’t eternal in the slightest. More than any MCU movie, more than Superman: The Movie, and maybe even more than The Dark Knight, Batman feels like a product of its time. This doesn’t apply solely to performance or production design or the film’s photography so much as it does the way it interprets the mythos of Batman.

Think about the typical interpretation of Batman today, the one present in everything from writer Scott Snyder’s lengthy comic run with the character to Ben Affleck’s portrayal of him in BvS. He’s mostly seen as an uber-prepared physical specimen who has already thought out and prepared for every single series of events possible; a cold, calculating crime-busting machine. I’m not sure when this became the consensus take on the character but I know that it’s largely a reaction to the character’s appearances in The Dark Knight and back to back runs by writers Grant Morrison and Scott Snyder that furthered this interpretation.

That’s why it’s so weird to revisit Batman ‘89 — the character was in such a different place in the public consciousness then and Burton and Keaton’s take on the character reflects this much. In Keaton’s Bruce Wayne we see a far more human man behind the mask. In his Batman we see the human behind the iconography — and this is a movie very heavy on iconography, so that’s saying something. Burton and Keaton craft a far more human, restrained Batman than we’ve seen in a while — likely because Batman wasn’t the might-as-well-be-superhuman character he so often is today back then.

Full disclosure though, I wasn’t alive in ‘89 so I can’t speak to specifics. I’m sure plenty of y’all weren’t either. But that’s part of what’s so fun about watching this movie today — it’s so easy to glean from it how fans saw the character at the time. While I’ve read enough Batman comics of the era to know that the character wasn’t exactly the Gothic icon Burton makes him into in the movie, there are elements of the design and interpretation of the character that feel ripped from the pages of those comics — most notably the film’s interest in Bruce Wayne over Batman. When Keaton suits up he’s awesome as the legendary Caped Crusader but it’s out of costume that he really shines. It feels like a great deal of Batman discourse over the last decade or so has focused on the idea that Bruce Wayne doesn’t really exist — that the identity of Batman is all that exists anymore and Bruce Wayne is simply a mask he wears in public.

Michael Keaton and Kim Basinger in ‘Batman.’ (Photo Credit: Warner Bros.)

Aside from how boring and defeatist a take this has become (the idea of the clash between a superhero identity and a secret identity is half the fun of the genre!) it doesn’t allow writers or actors to explore how interesting a character Bruce Wayne is. That Keaton is given the space to make Bruce feel like a character in his own right — and an interesting one at that as Keaton is on the record as saying is take is that Bruce is a traumatized weirdo — feels revelatory today.

Here’s the thing, though: I can’t say that I hope Matt Reeves or future directors take inspiration from Burton’s Batman. The character has evolved and shifted in the public consciousness since then and any interpretation of him in the future should reflect that. Batman is an archetype but an ever-changing one, a character that you can’t really break through experimentation. He’s inherently malleable and that’s why he has the longevity he does. Robert Pattinson’s rumored casting in the role seems like a bit of a curveball considering the last few men who have donned the cape and cowl but that’s probably a good thing — it means we might be in for something new, something modern. We might be getting the next Michael Keaton as Batman, which isn’t to say that the performance will resemble Keaton’s, but rather that 30 years from now it will feel distinctly of its time — in the best way.

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