Burton aims for something more. While showing us the monolithic shape of dread and making us touch that grody texture of corruption, he means to amuse us with the insight that do-gooders are pessimistic because their job is never done and that evildoers are optimistic because there's so much bad left to be done. His is a refreshing slant on that old good-versus-evil balance.
Though Burton falters along the way, he falters at a higher level (in a belfry, in fact) than most filmmakers ever aim. For the most part, Batman soars. The caped one is the most compelling of the summer's assortment of screen crusaders.
As he demonstrated in Pee-wee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, Burton is a postliterate who cares very little about script and very much about visual expressionism. Everything intelligible about Batman is in its acting and design; there's virtually no exposition in the dialogue. This can be a minus, as it takes virtually the entire movie to figure out who is a city official and who is a mobster, but then again, it might be precisely Burton's point. And this can be a plus, as he tells the story in unforgettable images.
The face-off between Batman and the Joker is one of conflicting personal aesthetics. Moreover, it's a parable of the 20th century expressed in terms of art and architecture styles. Batman wears subdued black and resembles an art- deco hood ornament. His subterranean batcave exposes the foundations of Gotham City's streamlined architecture. All is solidity and order. As is Michael Keaton's performance. With all his usual hard edges rounded smooth, he is decorative as the rippling muscles embossed on Batman's leatherlike breastplate. In this you-are-what-you-wear movie, Batman is something of a fetishist.
By contrast, the Joker is (literally) wild, a zoot-suiter sporting a garish purple cutaway worn over reet-pleated plum-and-orange trousers. In the film's funniest line, the murderous Joker announces that he is the city's most prolific conceptualist, "the first fully functioning homicide artist." He really is a collagist, appropriating a jumble of styles in his post-modernist pad. If Batman represents 1930s order, the Joker exemplifies 1990s disorder.
In terms of acting - which is even more superlative, if possible, than the art direction - Batman is a movie about eyebrows. While Batman's forehead is quizzical with its horizontal question marks, the Joker's brow teems with killer caterpillars. It's a hilarious, graphic touch. Burton has an eye for this kind of physiognomic joke. One of the funniest moments in the film delights in the jigsaw profiles of Jack Palance (as mobster Carl Grissom) and Jack Nicholson (before his character falls into a vat of toxic waste and has his face rebuilt as the Joker).
The film belongs to Nicholson, whose Joker is the culmination of his evolving diabolism in The Shining and The Witches of Eastwick. He plays the Joker, chalk-white face fixed in a permanent leer, like a Kabuki Richard Nixon - at the same time carefully controlled and recklessly out-of-control. He is hilarious and scarifying and absolutely defies all laws of gravity and acting. Nicholson is sole owner of the film's few decent lines, which, like his
''He-e-e-re's Johnny!" in The Shining, seem ad-libbed and are destined to be classics.
Michael Keaton's Batman/Bruce Wayne is, as it should be, the exact opposite of the Joker: introverted, introspective. This is a stretch for the typically hyperkinetic Keaton (it reminds you of Jerry Lewis' subdued performance in King of Comedy). This is a man who doesn't want to be a hero and is melancholic because he lacks the imagination to be a villain. It is a curious
interpretation if not a compelling one, and it produces the perhaps intentional effect of Batman's being the Joker's foil instead of the other way around.
Kim Basinger is lovely as Vicki Vale, the golden fluff desired by the two men, though she doesn't do much but change coifs and clothes as frequently as possible.
In its look, Batman's art direction is staggering, ranking with Metropolis, Blade Runner and Brazil in terms of sheer imagination. Designer Anton Furst's Gotham City looks like a subversive plan by Nazi architect Albert Speer to make Manhattan even more unlivable. It is a city of shadow, a city of anxious skyscrapers about to crash down on the populace or in its scum-clogged gutters.
In terms of its mise en scene, well, let's just say that as an action director, Burton has lead in his lens. He's not good at movement, whether in camera locomotion or in the rhythm of his editing (odd for a director who trained as an animator). He relies on Nicholson's expressionism and on Furst's expressionistic sets to create energy within the frame.
Nor is Burton any good at making us familiar with the arsenal of killer gadgets used by his combatants (the batarang, Chinese stars) or giving us the rules by which Batman and the Joker move. Successful movie confrontations should have the tension of chess games. The final conflict in Batman is like a game of checkers in which one anarchistic player shoves the pieces off the board.
It's an unforgivably flat ending for a movie of such astonishing contours. But its first two-thirds - which should be called The Joker's Big Misadventure - is probably the best film of the year.
BATMAN * * *
Produced by Jon Peters and Peter Guber; directed by Tim Burton; written by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren; photography by Roger Pratt; production designed by Anton Furst; music by Danny Elfman; songs by Prince; distributed by Warner Bros.
Running time: 2 hours.
The Joker/Jack Napier - Jack Nicholson
Batman/Bruce Wayne - Michael Keaton
Vicki Vale - Kim Basinger
Harvey Dent - Billy Dee Williams
Carl Grissom - Jack Palance
Alicia - Jerry Hall
Parent's guide: PG-13 (profanity, violence, villainy).
Showing at: area theaters.