As the dust settles over Christopher Nolan’s Gotham, the ashes hoovered up and the perps locked safely away in Arkham, you now have our permission to be honest with yourselves.
The Burton films were better.
Now, we’re not saying the Nolan films were bad; quite the contrary. They were what Batman needed after 1997’s (actually brilliant in retrospect) Batman & Robin officially shat the bat-bed. It made him relevant to cinema-goers again, as well as a box office force to be reckoned with.
It also made him a bit dull.
Now that the glorious and unintentionally funny mess that is The Dark Knight Rises has been released and likely seen by you, our esteemed audience, it’s time to evaluate why Burton’s movies are still the cinematic high point for the character.
1. Keaton was a better Batman
Christian Bale’s an excellent actor, completely dedicated to his art. Anyone that’s seen his compelling, unhinged turn in The Machinist will know this. He has the perfect look for the playboy billionaire/closet psychopath Bruce Wayne too, so it’s a win win yes? Alas no. He’s predictably suave and self-assured when playing Wayne; after all, he’s basically playing Patrick Bateman again, but when he puts the mask on he adopts a voice that makes him sound like he’s grunting along to Cannibal Corpse albums, albeit in a hushed voice so his mum won’t hear him in the room next door. It put a dampener on the movies for sure, and made any dialogue seem ridiculous (‘SWEEEAAAAR TO MEEEEE’).
Now, Bale’s definitely a lot closer to the comic iteration of the character than Keaton ever was, but that doesn’t make him better, does it? Keaton played Wayne as a clearly uncomfortable man, a mumbling solitary eccentric, ill at ease in his own skin and with other people. In the Batsuit, though, he becomes the beast he really is, an imposing personification of vengeance and fear, despite his slighter frame. There’s something far more sympathetic about Keaton’s Bruce Wayne. Maybe it’s because he was never recorded throwing a wobbler on set.
2. Burton’s Gotham looks better
Batman Begins (The best of the Nolan movies) at least made an attempt to portray Gotham as the sprawl of villainy and corruption it was, but the sequels might as well have been set in New York for all the attempts it made to give the iconic city a life of its own. Even the lurid, neon vomit mess of the Schumacher movies gave more flair and identity to the city than Nolan’s movies.
Burton again comes out on top. Academy Award winning production designer Anton Furst gave Gotham an angular, art deco look that reflected the pulpy, noir roots of the character as well as the cold severity of life in the city. Add some of Burton’s visual preferences into the mix (mainly lots of black and wintery touches), and you’ve got a cityscape that you’d only see in the movies. It inspired the look and tone of Batman: The Animated Series too, which just happens to be the best Batman related thing ever, so more points for our Timbo.
3. Burton never forgot he was making a daft comic-book film
While Tim Burton’s films were pretty dark, and a drastic step away from the groovy camp prevalent in the merry old series of the Sixties, he never forgot what the essence of Batman was; the daft tale of a psychotic billionaire beating down the mentally ill and those less fortunate. He embraced its comic-book roots, and thee movies he directed revelled in being as over the top and theatrical as possible, every scene seemingly made to fit into a panel on a page.
Nolan’s take wasn’t like that. Nolan tried to make everything practical and within the realms of possibility, and in the end it just made his films ridiculous. They were like Michael Mann films with halloween costumes, and as such the contrivances and instances of plot armour stick out more. The Dark Knight Rises proved to be Nolan’s real undoing in this regard. Who knew you could fix an irreparably damaged knee and immediately kick through walls by sticking some sort of brace on it? Do chiropractors kick the ever living piss out of your back to fix it if it’s broken? And just how would an old police commissioner remember vaguely nondescript details about something he’d done 30 years before? Burton got away with great leaps of faith and flights of fancy (like an army of penguins with rockets strapped to their backs), because his movies were so highly stylised and whimsical. Nolan’s were not, and with every unbelievable occurrence they seem dumber because of it.
4. The music was better
Fairly obvious and self-explanatory. Everyone knows Elfman’s theme for Batman, it’s perfect for the character. It’s dramatic, bombastic and tinged with melancholy. The rest of the score was equally stirring, and really helped to heighten the spectacle and theatrical pomp. One memorable scene in Batman Returns sees Batman battling the Penguin’s thugs, interspersed with scenes of Catwoman and the Penguin himself causing their own havoc. Elfman’s saturated score is at the forefront here, each action and event on screen given a comical twinkle or urgent thrum, whilst the characters’ leitmotifs’ engage in aural interplay, reflecting the battle of wits on screen. It’s incredibly dynamic, and gives an operatic flavour to Batman and Batman Returns.
What do you remember about the soundtrack in Nolan’s films? Two notes. Two sodding notes.
5. Burton’s baddies were better
Now we’re in for it. Yes Heath Ledger’s Joker was lightning in a bottle, and has inspired a whole host of internet goons to change their Facebook or Twitter (we’re not sure about the seven bad metalcore bands that still use myspace) statuses to ‘Y SO SERIUS LOL’ ever since. But you know, you never forget your first, and Jack Nicholson was our first Joker. He was basically playing Jack Nicholson, but what the heck, he still gave the character the requisite menace, and by the end of the film you were genuinely glad to see him get his comeuppance. It’s moot anyway though, as Cesar Romero was the best Joker (proof) if you don’t include Mark Hamill.
It’s when we get to the other villains where the gulf widens. Anne Hathaway was great as Catwoman (rather amusingly, certain neckbeardy types complained that she wasn’t sexy enough to pull of Catwoman. Aaaaaaaah hahahaha), but Michelle Pfeiffer knocks her into a cocked hat, proving she’s every bit the deranged equal of Keaton’s Batman. Christopher Walken’s Max Shreck is a great villain too, a loathsome shock haired oligarch, seeking to hold Gotham to ransom through its power supply. Danny DeVito’s Penguin is the clear winner in the despicable stakes though. He manages to make the character of Oswald Cobblepot funny, repulsive and terrifying, often all at the same time. The part where he bites someone’s nose unprompted, jets of blood spewing everywhere, definitely would have caught most by surprise, and said more about his unhinged character in a second than any worthy self-righteous monologue by Ra’s Al Ghul. The Penguin is legitimately a more threatening, imposing entity than Bane from The Dark Knight Rises anyway. In a film that took itself so painfully bloody seriously, Bane was an unintentional highlight, causing giggles of glee in the cinema every time he spoke, that plummy Tim Curry voice plopping out of his goatse-shaped facemask like something out of a wildly sordid episode of Jeeves & Wooster. Entertaining as he was, he missed the intended mark completely. Of couuurse!
There are many more reasons we could argue for Burton’s supremacy, the vehicle design, the direction and the costume design, but we think there’s enough here for you to pore over.
Feel free to correct us or swear at us in the comments below if you disagree.