Returning to Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman in light of Christopher Nolan’s recent, remarkably successful Batman trilogy turns out to be quite a fascinating experience—though, surprisingly, as much for their convergences in vision as for their divergences. Certainly, the stylistic differences are almost blindingly obvious: Burton the playfully macabre merry prankster, Nolan the deeply serious philosopher. And yet, both visions unmistakably flow from the same unsettling bedrocks: a world drowning in moral rot, one in which a self-appointed hero who takes the form of a human bat is, at heart, as deeply disturbed as the more overtly screwed-up villains he takes it upon himself to defeat. It’s just that these two artists view these characters and this physical and emotional world through different lenses.
The contrast is immediately apparent in the music. In stark contrast to James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer’s loudly generic bombast for the Nolan films, Burton opens his Batman with the operatic strains of Danny Elfman’s full-orchestra heroism, slyly suggesting the unabashedly heroic way Batman sees himself. After its opening-credit sequence, during which Roger Pratt’s camera roams around what is eventually revealed to be a metal Bat-Signal, Burton establishes his vision of Gotham City: an unabashedly surreal environment that owes more to the dystopian sci-fi visions of Metropolis and Blade Runner than to any of the notions of noir-ish realism that underpins Nolan’s films. Then there are the differing acting styles, with Burton’s actors generally eschewing the internal brooding that Nolan’s performers exhibit in favor of archetypal broadness. This style doesn’t just extend to Jack Nicholson’s galvanizing hamminess as the Joker, but also trickles down to its supporting players (William Hootkins’s wearily deep-voiced Lt. Eckhardt, Robert Wuhl’s enthusiastically pushy journalist, and so on).
There’s more one can say about the mile-wide stylistic disparities: Burton’s cheeky tributes to films as varied as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Eyes Without a Face, and even Citizen Kane would have no place in Nolan’s comparably straight-laced world. But even the longest laundry list of differences wouldn’t get at the fascinating ways these characteristics add up to visions that don’t so much clash as complement one another.
Both Burton and Nolan, of course, took inspiration not from the proudly campy 1960s TV adaptation of Bob Kane’s DC Comics character, but from Frank Miller’s 1980s graphic-novel reinventions (Batman: Year One, The Dark Knight Returns), which placed an emphasis on gritty realism and psychological plausibility. The more intellectual-leaning Nolan takes great pains to highlight the psychological depths of the stories he tells, forgoing Burton’s expressionistic flourishes in order to more directly mine the disturbing implications of his characters’ actions, often through dialogue rather than images. That’s not to suggest, however, that Burton isn’t concerned about thematic and character depths; it’s just that Burton puts more of a premium on sound and image to suggest these depths than the more prosaic Nolan does.
Take the Joker in Burton’s Batman and Nolan’s The Dark Knight. There’s a telling difference in the way Burton’s Joker describes himself to Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) as an “artist” who deals in anarchy, compared to the “agent of chaos” self-designation of Nolan’s Joker; compared to Nicholson’s lordly lip-smacking (it’s as if the character takes great pleasure in savoring every crime he commits and scheme he plans), Heath Ledger’s demented clown is merely a portrait of crazed hysteria. (Even their villainous makeup reflects this, as Nicholson’s is more immaculate than Ledger’s messier own.) Neither Joker is really imbued with much depth beyond their relation to the hero (though Nolan doesn’t even give his Joker the connection to Bruce Wayne’s early familial trauma that screenwriter Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren did in Burton’s film; Nolan’s Joker remains a glorified philosophical emblem from start to finish). Both, however, hold the same contemptuous view of humanity, and they express it in remarkably similar ways. One could see, say, the climactic two-boat “social experiment” in The Dark Knight as a vastly more sophisticated outgrowth of Joker throwing out wads of money during Gotham’s 250th-birthday celebration in Batman.
And then there’s the central character himself. Granted, by the time Nolan got around to The Dark Knight, he’d already spent a whole previous feature exploring the origins of Bruce Wayne’s decision to become Batman, so he was free to allow his villain to upstage the hero in his second go-round without the similar complaints that have plagued Burton’s two Batman contributions over the years. But the basic outlines of the character are essentially the same in both films: a man whose high-class exterior hides reserves of deep-seated trauma and anguish, which he can only possibly exorcise as a shadowy caped crusader. And, for all the larger stylistic contrasts between Batman and The Dark Knight, the approaches of the respective actors playing them aren’t so strikingly different: Michael Keaton may cut a more overtly awkward behavioral profile than the more suave Christian Bale, but both actors knowingly risk blandness in order to get at the disturbing introversion at the heart of the character.
In fact, it could be said that, in general, when it comes to these more introspective aspects of the Batman mythos, Burton leaves as mere doom-laden suggestions what Nolan would eventually explore to near-obsessive depths in his Batman films. But even if we can’t help but see Batman in the shadow of Nolan’s trilogy these days, it’s still possible to see them as two sides of the same morbid coin—two fascinatingly different interpretations of the same material, drawing strikingly similar conclusions using wholly different means.
Kenji Fujishima is a New York-based writer. Follow him on Twitter at @kenjfuj.