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).