"I don't know if it's art, but I like it!"
For me, those things that remain so vital and and impressive about Burton's Batman are the canny psychological underpinnings. Batman becomes an understandable/relatable personality only because Burton erects the Caped Crusader's universe from the ground-up. In other words, Gotham is indeed the "prime actor" on Batman's psyche, and the very thing responsible for making one man "The Bat" and another The Joker. In focusing on the surrounding universe (rather than merely the people inhabiting it), Burton's Batman more readily functions as an epic fantasy than either its comedic antecedent, the Batman TV series, or Nolan's big-budget pictures, which are basically action-films played straight, with few fantastic or fantasy elements at all.
Burton's Batman also thrives on its two central performances: Michael Keaton as a man dwelling in the past and wholly absent-minded about the details of the present, and Jack Nicholson as a monster who leaves behind day-to-day matters of concern (like his physical appearance) to dwell on a more abstract (if terrifying...) plateau; that of a "fully functional homicidal artist." These men, joined by their twisted "origins" -- or more accurately their twisted resurrections -- fight to control Gotham City, and also the love of a woman, Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger).
"Haven't you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?"
Actually, criminals fear Batman, the alter-ego of millionaire philanthropist Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton), who each night patrols the mean streets of Gotham and recalls (and relives?) the crime that robbed an innocent child of his parents.
You can detect the late-1930s early-1940s touches not merely in the architecture featured in Gotham in Batman, but in the costumes as well. The policemen wear leather jackets, and male citizens are adorned in fedoras and other hats. Also, aspects of the dialogue purposefully play up this era of American history. Knox (Robert Wuhl) talks like he's out of a snappy, 1940s-era Howard Hawks movie (perhaps His Girl Friday ) and Joker's base of operations is called Axis Chemicals. As other critics have rightly pointed out, "Axis" is the name of the military alliance between Germany, Italy and Japan circa 1936 - 1945, and so again, a particular era of world history is alluded to, at least sub textually, in Batman.
Thus, in some sub textual fashion, Batman seems to be about the idea of a "good" world going very, very wrong, taking a nearly fatal wrong turn; of art deco modernity giving way to industrial blues, and the rise of fascism. Incidentally, this is also the very production design pattern that George Lucas utilizes in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999), showcasing in that film how a chrome, Art Deco Republic transforms into a utilitarian, totalitarian state, where the ugliness of the movement is reflected in the ugliness of the new architecture. In both cases, production design and wardrobe represent audience cues to express for us something important about the film's milieu.
Another way to explain this aspect of the Burton Batman: It's as though the film maker's took a snapshot of Batman's world in 1939, on the comic book's very parturition, and expanded that snapshot into a full-length film. Also encoded in that "snapshot" is the idea of one "free" man (Wayne) utilizing his resources and wealth to challenge a system that isn't working. In Gotham, the police are mostly helpless and citizens cower in fear because of the rampant crime. In 1939, as America saw Nazi-ism rise overseas and countenanced the ascent of a more socialist state in America, some people would have viewed a capitalist crusader Batman as the express antidote to both: an entrepreneur using his own resources, by his own will, to restore justice.
Interestingly, both Bruce Wayne and Jack Napier are depicted in Burton's Batman as victims of what Gotham City has become. Even as an adult, Bruce remains obsessed with the death of his parents in Gotham, a result of out-of-control crime and the failure of the establishment. To characterize this on-going obsession, Burton features at least two similarly-staged scenes. In the film's opening scene, Batman arrives (too late) to save a family of movie-goers as they are accosted by criminals. Later, Bruce remembers the death of his parents (in flashback) after a similar night at the movies, and an encounter with young Jack Napier. These scenes are very similar, right down to the single-child nature of the family, and they suggest that Bruce is caught in a kind of endless, obsessive loop, unable to put the past down. His nightly ritual of crime-fighting is in fact an attempt to exorcise the images he can't get out of his head: the death of his parents. A third scene adds meaningfully to this conceit, showcasing Bruce brushing off the optimistic present (a date with Vicki) to return to the alley where his parents tragically died, and lay flowers at the spot where they expired.
This approach is intriguingly contrasted with Bruce Wayne's inability to focus on the details of the present. He can't be bothered to pay attention to a gala being hosted at his house (in support of the 200th anniversary of Gotham City), and is glib about his wealth and belongings, even offering Knox a "grant" for his work, seemingly off-the-cuff. A later scene involving Vicki and Bruce on a date at Wayne Manor, in a vast dining room, purposely seems to reflect a famous scene in Citizen Kane (1941) that -- through the spatial gulf across a colossal dining room table -- expressed the idea of marital alienation between an obscenely wealthy man and his emotionally-desolate wife. Here, the scene reveals the gulf between Bruce and his present. He can't quite reach it; can't quite touch or embrace it. Again, notice how the focus in this Batman is upon the psychological state of the characters; on an expression of their interior dilemmas. And also notice, please, how a visual film allusion to Citizen Kane also functions as a call-back to the time period I mentioned above, say 1936 - 1945.
It all fits together.
In Burton's Batman, Bruce as he appears now was "created" in the crucible of his parent's death, and has never been able to step outside that person. He can't live in the present. He can only live obsessively in the past; the past that Gotham City made for him. In fact, Bruce has used all his considerable resources to trap himself in a cage, a technological cage in which he becomes a strange alter-ego; one who is always seeking to avenge the one act he cannot undo. He can't quite reach across that dining room table to Vicki, even though a part of him desires that outcome. "Are we at least going to try to love each other?" Vicki asks Bruce at one point, and his answer is determinedly a "no." He's got work to do; a job to do. Avenging the past.
By contrast, the Joker is cannot live in the past. After being dropped into toxic chemicals and suffering botched plastic surgery (in a very dark, very creepy scene...), the present doesn't interest the Joker. What interests him, instead, is the very act of creation, or perhaps, more accurately, of transformation. He focuses on what he can make of himself, the world, and other people around him, like his unfortunate girlfriend. The Joker realizes that he can be an artist: skilled at the very activity (with some sensitivity and imagination) of destroying and resurrecting lives. The past is dead to the Joker, and he is characterized in the film by his need to "re-paint" or tarnish the present, which we see during his efforts at the museum. The Joker survives his pain -- like a true artist -- by making the world share it with him.
For this reason alone, I must confess that I prefer Nicholson's Joker to Heath Ledger's in The Dark Knight. Nicholson's Joker is engaged in the act of becoming; of transforming the world into a nightmare reflecting his own point-of-view (again, remember the fascism/Nazi subtext I noted above). By contrast, Ledger's Joker seems more like a force of pure chaos; one whose only purpose is to have no express purpose; destruction for the sake of destruction.
Both performances are powerful, but for me, Nicholson is both funny and terrifying, whereas Ledger was merely terrifying. The powerful idea underlining a villain like the Joker is that he both attracts and repels; he's both charismatic and totally untrustworthy. You can readily believe that Nicholson's "showman" Joker would inspire followers and "believers," whereas that's not exactly the case with the character in The Dark Knight. Also, Burton expresses the hows and whys of the Joker's parturition in this Batman, granting the character a distinctive world view as a "homicidal artist." The character in The Dark Knight, in my opinion, remains a bit charmless and opaque, if undeniably menacing. Again, people of good will shall differ on favorites, and perhaps the bottom line is that Nicholson's Joker can exist only in Burton's vision for the mythos, just as Ledger is appropriate to Nolan's vision.
The idea or resurrection looms large in Burton's Batman. The once beautiful Gotham City has been resurrected as an industrial nightmare of out-of-control crime, Bruce has taken his obsession with is parents' death and resurrected himself as Batman, and out of the battle at Axis Chemicals Jack has been resurrected as that homicidal artist, the Joker. Each character suggests what happens when a trauma isn't diagnosed or handled, but merely scabbed or built over. The results, in all cases aren't "exactly normal" to quote Vicki's description of Batman. The intertwining of Joker/Batman and Gotham is made explicit in the Batman screenplay as Joker and Batman fight atop Gotham's abandoned cathedral and argue "I made you?" "You made me."
Batman premiered near the end of the pre-CGI age in terms of special effects, when miniatures, animation and other older creative tools were still widely in use. For some audiences, the effects will seem dated, but for others, they will feel appropriately more tactile and bizarre, in some fashion, than what we have grown accustomed to in the digital era. Like so many Burton films, this is a messy, organic effort. We see acid burned on human faces, the bloody instruments from a botched plastic surgery, sweat-drenched criminals and other distinctive horrors. There's always very much a feeling here that these horrendous events are real and happening, not fleshless, gravity-less affectations superimposed after the characters were actually there. This fits into the psychological underpinnings of the film, the idea of people living in a nightmare state, in a nightmare city. You can't achieve that effect that so easily with green screens, or CGI blood spurts. This movie is about making us feel we live in Batman's world, and for that reason, it's very successful as a work of art.
Back in 1989, I had a high-school friend whom I absolutely loved, named Amy, who described Burton's Batman -- humorously -- as "pretty darn plotless," and perhaps there's some truth to that complaint. The film is about a lengthy grudge match between two men in a place "synonymous with crime." The narrative details are less crucial than the expression of the locations, and the emotional, psychological particulars of the two combatants. Danny Elfman's magnificent score adds to the aura of a moody, introspective rumination, one overcrowded with ideas, and in some cases, authentic horrors.
I realize that Batman is far from Burton's favorite film, and yet it does, quite readily, reflect much of his nature as an artist, stressing visuals as psychological symbols of fractured and damaged mental states. The film also diagrams the story of misfits and outsiders, a frequent Burton leitmotif. As Bruce Wayne might characterize Batman in terms of Burton, "some of it is very much me," and "some of it is not." Though there's much of the film's director personal taste evident in the mix, Batman Returns (1992), in some ways, is an even more perfect representation of the director's aesthetic. It's weirder and wilder, even, than the gruesome sights on display here. That film, in my opinion, is some kind of twisted Christmas, Burton high-point, a second run at the Batman legend that improves on the expressive, psychologically-adroit ruminations of this admirable 1989 effort.