Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne, Jack Nicholson as The Joker
Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne, Jack Nicholson as The Joker

The camera drops in leathery glide, swoops over a wall, dips again, and coasts deeper into night. What is this place, these dim abutments and empty, roofed streets (canals?), a coliseum undiscovered in the desert? Credits play. The camera continues its winged prowl. At last it rises, circles, and looks down at where it's been: inside the intaglio of a great bat, the one salient feature in a world of darkness. The design may be as big as a temple roof or as tiny as a signet ring. Whichever, inside it's where we have been, too.

This privileged fly-through of the Batman logo evokes the primal interiority of all legend and cues an artier, more introspective approach to pop myth than we are wont to expect from $35 million blockbusters. Let it be insisted, as the monstrous merchandising of Batmania engulfs Western civilization, that the 50-years-young Batman looms as a remarkably fresh and fecund pop myth. Teenage illustrator Bob Kane and DC Comics may have plundered Superman (which bowed a year earlier) and a host of movie prototypes (The Bat, Zorro, Gothic fantasias from Phantom of the Opera to The Hunchback of Notre Dame) to flesh out the Caped Crusader and his eerie nightworld. That matters less than Kane's triumph in giving the mélange a compelling imaginative existence of its own. Better still, Batman is the more resonant for its omnivorous appropriation of material. Galvanized by Kane's spooky, epic style, the comic strip developed a bracing synergy, stirring tremors of not-quite-recognition in popular culture's approximation of the racial unconscious.

Clearly none of this was lost on screenwriters Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren, and especially director Tim Burton and his production designer Anton Furst. Utterly ignoring the dumb, campy, BIFF! BAM! POW! TV series and movie spinoff of the Sixties, Burton and company have addressed the myth with the grandeur and seriousness (if scarcely solemnity) it deserves. They've treated Batman as a legend in its own time, and for this time. People say things like "You're full of shit," and when broodingly attractive, fabulously wealthy playboy Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) and glamorous photojournalist Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) take a shine to each other, they go to bed on the first date. (No soulmate Robin to inject homoerotic complications in this version.)

Yet despite such topical references as urban muggings, product tampering, and an Ed Koch lookalike for mayor of Gotham City, Burton's Batman also looks back, ahead, and sideways in time. The hoods are garish Fifties projections of Thirties mobsters, the city room where Vicki Vale and reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) pool notes harks back to the smoky, globe-lit milieu of The Front Page, and there's nary a Minicam amid the press corps who cluster, pads and pencils at the ready, whenever news is about to be made. Gotham City, a creation of the man who built Vietnam on the Thames for Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, suggests Manhattan as it might have evolved from a medieval town, Fritz Lang's Metropolis modified for David Lynch.

Lang, whose Doktor Mabuse crime movies of the Twenties were "pictures of their time," is a touchstone in more ways than one. Bruce Wayne/Batman, solid citizen by day, obsessive dark angel of retribution by night, is the sort of divided, deeply troubled hero Lang himself created in most of his films. The character has yet another doppelganger in his archnemesis, Jack Napier/the Joker—a demonic evildoer (Jack Nicholson, splendidly over the top and flying) more physically grotesque and destructive, yet arguably no more bizarre than Wayne/Batman.

The backstory of Kane's original had the youthful Napier murderingWayne's parents and setting him on his course as haunted loner and righteous avenger.Hammand Skaaren open the present Batman with what initially seems to be a flashback to this event but proves to be another, similar mugging involving an anonymous tourist family in the present day. This scriptoral gambit lends the movie a nice reflexivity at the outset (and elicits the audience's participation in the mythmaking process), but the film never does develop the kind of distorting-mirror kinship between its hero and villain that a full-fledged Langian epic of Good and Evil entails. At the skyline-high finale, the Joker will say Batman made him what he is and Batman will respond, "I made you, but you made me first." Their mutual recriminations ought to echo down the ages. They have the dramatic conviction of good intentions jotted down on a 3-by-5 card.

A more satisfying rejoinder for the Batguy might have been "I know you are, but what am I?" Irreverent as it sounds, Batman might have been more consistently lively, and balanced its moody, slow-stewing protagonist more effectively against the careening zaniness of Nicholson's Joker, if the director of Pee-wee's Big Adventure had gone for broke and played Batman as more of a deadpan variant on his first screen hero, Pee-wee Herman (Batcave/Pee-wee's Playhouse, Batmobile/lion's-head bike, "There's a lot of things about me you wouldn't understand..."). Burton did have the moxie to cast his Beetlejuice, Michael Keaton, in a role that seems to cry out for a more conventionally heroic actor, and Keaton (who, at odd moments, looks startlingly like Robert Stack in his Written on the Wind prime) gets more mystery and strangeness out of Bruce Wayne than the script indicates. Batman is already crazier, blacker, and more original than any megabucks major-studio release should be expected to be. A little crazier still, and it might have been a great film.

As it stands, it contains plenty of great moments—none more gratifying, perhaps, than the Batmobile's late-in-the-day assault on the chemical plant from which the Joker aims to poison GothamCity. In terms of what happens, it's standard hi-tech action stuff: Batmobile chops its way through the warehouse door with its machine guns, Joker's minions rain it with gunfire, Batbombs set off fountains of fiery explosions, Batmobile escapes unscathed. It's over in less than a minute. Yet the images, their extravagance, the vaulting angularity with which they are presented, and the blunt, comic-strip-panel abruptness with which they are edited, directly translate the vibrant art of the comic book illustrator into kinetic cinema. BIFF! BAM! POW! indeed. This is what comics-into-the-movies is supposed to look and feel like, and never has.

7 Days, July 12, 1989