Tim Burton’s Visions of Batman
Last night we watched Tim Burton’s “Batman Returns” with Rayna. It was fun to watch the 20 year old film after having recently just watched the final chapter of Christopher Nolan’s Batman, in “The Dark Knight Rises.” While I think that Mr. Nolan’s vision of the Dark Knight are both better films and will have a longer lasting effect on popular culture, I think it is worth remembering Mr. Burton’s take on the iconic super hero in his two films.
The word the describes everything that Tim Burton does is “grotesque” but not in the synonymous with “gross” way (while sometimes it is) but more in the sense of how it was used in the 18th and 19th century, meaning things that are strange, unpleasant, unnatural, absurd, etc. It is an element that is present in all of Mr. Burton’s works, and his two Batman films are no exception. This aspect of Burton’s work has been successful in some movies (“Edward Scissorhands” I think being an icon of his best efforts) and less so in others (“Planet of the Apes” and “Charlie and the Chocolate” factory in this grouping. Not “bad” per se, just not as effective). In regards to successful use of this grotesque qualities, I think that Batman stories loan themselves perfectly ( I mean, for crying out loud, they deal with an arguably unhinged dude running around dressed like a bat beating up bad guys).
Whereas Mr. Nolan’s recent portrayals have a rough and hard gritty realism (while obviously not believable, but still, portrayed in a world that is roughly realistic), Mr. Burton’s “Batman” and “Batman Returns” is perfectly in the style of a comic book. Neither of of Burton’s Batman’s films are supposed to come across as believable, because they exist in a world where it is believable that people will dress up in costumes to fight crime, that gangs of demented clowns will terrorize cities, and that super villains named The Joker and The Penguin exist. This is not our world, but instead some kind of demented other places where things are all screwed-up and exaggerated. The whims and fancies of evil itself are hard to fathom. Burton’s villains are villains solely for the sake of villainy and Batman is a hero simply because he must be a hero.
I love tim Burton’s visions of the classic comic book hero. I also greatly enjoy Christopher Nolan’s versions. But in many ways the two are opposites. Nolan’s world is, if somewhat unlikely, defined by a realistic sense of possibility and a cold kind of driving purpose (watch them and just think about how purposeful all the character’s are. Even the Joker in “The Dark Knight” the most chaotic character, admits to the purpose of chaos itself). But Burton’s portrayal is a world of arbitrary and exaggerated whim and nonsense. While characters may claim a goal, these tend to be simply means to “legitimize” their actions, and are not really even all that necessary. If Burton’s joker just starts killing people with a bunch of laughing gas, then who cares, that is what he is supposed to do. Likewise, if the Penguin orchestrates his street gangs to fuck up the town, well, he’s just doing what is within his nature. Even Batman himself doesn’t seem to have a real higher calling beyond stopping bad guys when bad guys are doing bad guy things.
We’re lucky for the contrast. If there is one thing that I am sad about is that Tim Burton only created two of his Batman films, seeing as those that directly followed his were decidedly sub-par. When Nolan released “Batman Begins” it was a needed revitalization of a franchise whose movie portrayals had grown stale. But we are remiss to forget that at one point, with Tim Burton at the helm, they had been superbly envisioned and delivered works of the macabre and grotesque.