Film Review: Batman
Simply remaking great art doesn’t necessarily lead to an equally great result.
Published: February 26, 2014
Directed by Tim Burton
Plays Feb. 26 at 9 p.m. at MICA’s Brown Center
With Hollywood’s reliance on the reboot/remake cash cow, moviegoers can see the reprisal of favorite characters and ask a question traditionally reserved for the theater crowd: Who played it better? Take for example the two portrayals of the Joker, Batman’s clown-faced nemesis in Tim Burton’s and Christopher Nolan’s film adaptations of the Caped Crusader. There is something of a knee-jerk tendency to say the best is Heath Ledger for his deeply affecting maniacal madman in Nolan’s The Dark Knight. But the terror and mania Ledger conveys should not diminish Jack Nicholson’s performance, laced with charisma and wild-eyed wit, in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. (It’s worth noting that both interpretations can be considered faithful to the comics, depending on which era of Batman you consult.)
The box-office receipts and Academy Awards would also seem to tip the scales for Ledger, whose fatal drug overdose, before The Dark Knight was released, only added to the gravitas of his brilliantly demented performance. But Ledger himself touched on this fallacy in a press-junket interview, presenting a scenario where Burton rang him up to play Joker in a new Batman movie: “What’s the point? [Jack] did it perfectly for what Tim was creating. But when Chris Nolan called me, I’d already seen the world he had created, and it was vastly different to Tim Burton’s, and so therefore I knew that there was an opportunity for a fresh portrayal.”
In Burton’s Batman, there’s a quirky humor and a level of playfulness that just wouldn’t work in Nolan’s world of paranoia—just as The Dark Knight wouldn’t work with a hammy fake grocery commercial for a line of toxic cosmetics made by the Joker. In Nolan’s grim world, we see the Joker filming a terrified hostage/Batman imitator as he slowly toys with him before killing him. In Nolan’s world, there’s no room for Burton’s big birthday-cake float, with Nicholson’s Joker tossing cash to the citizens of Gotham just before trying to poison them; instead, Ledger’s Joker brings the city to its knees by rigging two ferries with explosives and assassinating civic leaders. In Nolan’s world, there couldn’t be a climactic battle scene where the Joker spits out a fake set of chattering teeth after Batman bloodies his mouth. Ledger’s Joker would never pull out a set of spectacles and say, “You wouldn’t hit a guy with glasses, huh? Wouldya?” as Nicholson does.
Burton’s choices just wouldn’t have fit Nolan’s darker, self-serious undertones. Burton’s film indulges in the cornier aspects of comics while also advancing the notion they can be legitimate vehicles for storytelling. For Nicholson, that meant he could perform at his freewheelin’, devilishly humorous best. But he never veers into the campiness that plagued the television series in the ’60s; there’s far more evil and menace at play. The Batman film franchise fell into that trap when Joel Schumacher took the reins after Burton.
What Ledger seemed to acknowledge in his interview is something Hollywood either fails to realize or doesn’t care to address: Simply remaking great art doesn’t necessarily lead to an equally great result. He and Nolan took Nicholson and Burton’s work and pushed it deeper. But you can’t understate the importance of Batman for making that a possibility. Before that, the American public’s perception of the Caped Crusader involved dry dialogue, hokey fight sequences, and cardboard characters. Burton and Nicholson—and let us not forget Michael Keaton, who donned the cape and mask—brought out more dimension, giving the screen a hero with more angst and complexity and a villain more sinister than had previously been seen.
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