This weekend, a new man dons the famous cape and cowl. To mark the occasion, we decided to go back and see how Keaton and Bale, via Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman and Christopher Nolan’s 2005 Batman Begins, held up. Spoiler alert — they hold up really, really well.
Let’s start with Burton. Watching his Batman again, one of the first things that stands out is how many liberties the director and screenwriters Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren take with the source material. In the comics, the Joker doesn’t have anything to do with killing Bruce Wayne’s parents. Here though, he does — and it provides an essential element to this specific story. By linking Batman and Joker through both their respective origins (true to some versions of the comics, this Batman has a hand in “creating” Joker) the film makes the Joker not only an essential adversary, but a crucial piece of understanding Batman as a character.
And that character is revealed in a deliberate, doled-out way. The film starts with a boy and his parents walking through the streets of Gotham. Instinctively now, we sense this is Batman’s origin. But no, it’s another family entirely, and Batman himself punishes their attackers. Beyond that, there’s no pretense or teasing here. In the first scene of the movie, there’s Batman, full suit, kicking arse. We only see the full origin later.
I was also surprised to be reminded that, in this universe, Batman (Michael Keaton) has only been around for about a month. That’s a key piece of information, because it gives you a very specific sense of who Bruce Wayne and Batman are in Burton’s universe. Bruce Wayne, who is so famous in other iterations, isn’t so well known here. He’s a powerful figure, but largely mysterious to the public, and the fact he only recently set out to be Batman gives him a reckless confidence as well as naiveté, which results in a major twist. That twist being how his origin is intertwined with the Joker’s.
And let’s be honest. In all reality, Jack Nicholson’s Joker is the star of this movie. He’s top billed, gets all the good lines, and carries the majority of the movie. This works, because Michael Keaton’s Batman is still growing. His origin and motives are more of a secret than the Joker’s (we don’t see Batman’s actual origin until towards the end of the film) so he’s a bit less complex to start out with. Even his relationships, like the very fast one with Vicky Vale, feel a bit forced. (Alfred brings up marriage after date one. Bruce reveals his biggest secret after like date three.) It isn’t until the end, once all the cards have been dealt, that Batman becomes Joker’s equal in the narrative. And then he triumphs, as Batman should in a Batman movie.
Tonally, Burton’s movie holds a place all its own. It’s fun and frivolous, goofy and irreverent. Prince music blares throughout. It’s a movie made in 1989, for 1989, with a smart undertone that says this is a Batman meant to co-exist with other versions of the character. And yet, this particular Batman can only exist in the world of Tim Burton.
But after watching Christopher Nolan’s 2005 Batman Begins again, there are a lot of similarities to Burton’s movie. How could there not be, when the former was such a huge, culturally influential hit? Both films show Batman as a hero in in his infancy. One a single month in, the other just a day. Nolan’s Gotham feels like Burton’s, several decades removed. Both are Gothic and dark, but Nolan’s is decidedly more lived in. Each film also begins as a smaller story that eventually becomes about saving Gotham City. And that’s where the comparisons end.
As you start Nolan’s film, it’s almost hard to believe this is a movie about the same character. You go from a comic-booky world of heightened reality to a harsh realism. How harsh? Batman Begins takes an hour for you to even get to Batman. This approach feels all too familiar in 2016 — but, in 2005, it was delightfully jarring. You learn how Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) became Batman, piece by piece, and it’s a fascinating way to spend a good chunk of the movie. Nolan and writer David Goyer answer all of these questions you had as a kid, or maybe 15 years earlier from Tim Burton’s movie. How did Bruce Wayne get to be such a great fighter? Where DID he get all those wonderful toys? With Batman Begins, Nolan gives us plausible answers.
It’s also kind of jarring, coming off of Burton, to see a Bruce Wayne who’s not only famous, but scared of it all. This version of Bruce Wayne is defined by his personal struggle, which we get very little of in Burton’s film. Nolan revels in his turmoil though and while that means a lot of the Batman action is back loaded into the movie, it doesn’t matter. The slow burn makes the Batman action much more rewarding — because we’ve been craving it. Plus, once the actions starts it doesn’t stop. Goyer’s script is a long fuse with a huge explosion, complete with call backs, humour and some insanely memorable and emotional moments. Moments like the first reveal of Batman, Batman’s “back up,” the first Tumbler chase, the film’s final line and Batman revealing his identity to Rachel.
Nolan’s handling of Batman’s love life also stands out on a rewatch. Unlike Burton, whose first movie has a better female character but a less realistic relationship, Rachel Dawes and Bruce Wayne have a much better story. There’s some sexual tension to be sure, but everything is rooted in friendship. The literal first scene of the movie is young Bruce and Rachel playing. So as they grow up and the story gets more complex, we believe the turns and betrayals in that friendship. It provides an emotional core that Burton’s film lacks.
But Burton’s film has one big advantage over Nolan: The Joker. Nolan gets there in the sequel, The Dark Knight, and not pitting Batman against a formidable villain in Batman Begins makes sense from a character standpoint. But the combination of Falcone, Scarecrow and Ra’s Al Ghul can’t touch Nicholson. Then, in the end, the tease of the character acts as a catalyst, giving the ending an even more resonant feeling than it already has.
Burton and Nolan’s films were never meant to compliment to each other, but they kind of fit together perfectly. If it wasn’t for the ears and chest piece, each Batman could be a different superhero entirely. They have similar origins, but are from totally different worlds. The one film is more of a popcorn thrill ride, with lots of stupidity and weirdness. The other is a dramatic, emotional action movie. As movies, they’re very different and yet, because of Batman’s adaptability, each movie is equally perfect for the character.