It’s fun watching a Batman that is gritty and grounded in bleak 80s aesthetic as a response to the call of Adam West’s Batman. On this revisit, I was surprised how much it felt like the Nolan Batman in places, and less like a Burton project. I always prefer the inquisitive, playful quality to Burton’s early works, but he’s especially sober here to stand apart from the joyful camp of its visual predecessor, and I think it drove Burton toward such interesting choices!
Joker is really the star here. These days we talk more about the character work on Ledger Joker because he’s more in step with contemporary interests, but Nicholson’s got a razor-edged perspective on a Dick Tracy-esque villain that absolute matches Ledger in craft.
I love this decentered Batman who is revealed through Vicki Vale’s investigation. He is often background to Gotham’s crime economy—a reflexive reaction from a sick city, serving to frighten criminals and stymie law enforcement. He is painted in simpler beats than Joker. Bruce Wayne is a boy who lost his parents, but through the loving care of his father-butler, seems to have grown up well adjusted for a rich guy…if you don’t know about the fact he is also Gotham’s immune response to the mafia’s cancer because his grief is so huge, it has become a monster.
This is a marvelous interplay of sick antihero versus sadistic villain inside an institutionally rotten city, which is quintessential Batman, to me. Reeves’s The Batman digs hard into this from a more Bruce Wayne-oriented perspective, but a lot of that scaffolding is owed to Burton’s work here.
It’s easy to see why this hit so hard back in the day.