Tim Burton had his work cut out for him when Warner Bros. hired him to bring Batman to the big screen. To most viewers, the Caped Crusader was most famous for the ‘60s Adam West TV series, with the campy tone and the “POW!” sound effects. Burton’s initial 1989 outing was such a tremendous success that superhero movies were solidified as a bankable genre. The studio was quick to get Burton back in the director’s chair for a sequel, and he knocked it out of the park again. So, here are 5 Things Tim Burton’s Batman Movies Got Right (& 5 They Got Wrong).
10 Right: Michael Keaton’s take on Bruce Wayne and Batman
In both of Tim Burton’s Batman movies, Michael Keaton did a terrific job of playing Bruce Wayne as a guy who is sad deep down, despite having everything. He improvised the line, “I don’t think I’ve ever been in this room before,” which speaks volumes about the character. Keaton did a fantastic job of playing Batman, too, with a minimalist performance style. He didn’t do any flashy, theatrical movements (partly because the suit wouldn’t allow it), and he didn’t speak in a growling mumble. Keaton’s Batman was the coolest. Playing both sides of the character well is essential, and Keaton nailed it better than anyone.
9 Wrong: Undercooked character development
While Keaton’s Batman was always great, he was underdeveloped in terms of his character arc. Batman is a very psychological character, so exploring his inner turmoil, his unresolved grief and what drives him to be a hero is key to any on-screen portrait of the character. Christopher Nolan’s films would later nail this, and even Batfleck got it right to an extent, but Burton’s movies gave us an underdeveloped Batman. Keaton’s Bruce Wayne was characterized as a lonely rich guy, and he nailed the Batman voice; it’s just a shame that there was nothing deeper to the character than that.
8 Right: Unforgettable villains
Tim Burton’s Batman movies did a fantastic job of bringing the Caped Crusader’s most iconic foes to the big screen. Jack Nicholson played the Joker the way he wanted to play him — he wasn’t interested in faithfully translating the character from the comics — but since Nicholson is one of the world’s greatest actors, it worked.
In the sequel, Danny DeVito was perfectly cast to play the Penguin. DeVito’s only note from Burton was to go crazier and crazier with it. And Michelle Pfeiffer gave audiences the best on-screen portrayal of Catwoman to date. Now that strong comic book movie villains are rarer than ever, it’s easy to appreciate the villains in Burton’s Batman films.
7 Wrong: Batman using guns and killing people
In almost every incarnation of Batman, the Dark Knight has followed two rules: he doesn’t use guns and he doesn’t kill people. Bruce Wayne is reeling from the trauma of watching his parents get shot dead in an alley, so he’s sworn off guns and killing. The Zack Snyder movies have been controversial for depicting Batman as a shotgun-toting, cold-blooded murderer, but the Tim Burton movies did the same thing. In Burton’s movies, Batman throws a guy off a building, he blows up another building filled with henchmen, he even sometimes just takes up a handgun and shoots somebody — the Bat flagrantly ignores his rules all throughout these two movies.
6 Right: Depiction of Gotham City
The design of Gotham City in Tim Burton’s Batman movies is perfect. The Gothic visuals are sumptuous, the architecture is breathtaking, and the glitz and glamour of the rich people’s district is contrasted spectacularly with the foggy terror of the seedy criminal underworld. Burton was influenced by German Expressionist cinema, and in his depiction of Gotham, he drew on such films as Fritz Lang’s revolutionary sci-fi epic Metropolis. The Dark Knight trilogy used Gotham to study the American city, and this year’s Joker movie also gave us an interesting portrayal of Batman’s hometown, but Burton’s gloomy vision of Gotham is arguably still the greatest.
5 Wrong: Intense weirdness
Tim Burton is renowned as one of the weirdest directors around, and unfortunately, when he made his Batman movies, he indulged that weird sensibility a little too much in spots. This is particularly a problem for Batman Returns. Since it was the sequel to his already-successful movie, Burton was given more creative freedom with it. He used that freedom to include scenes like Selina Kyle getting ravaged by cats. For the most part, Burton’s vision was perfect for a big screen take on the Dark Knight, but there are touches of over-the-top absurdity that detract from the overall enjoyment of the movies.
4 Right: Danny Elfman’s iconic score
Just as John Williams had written a theme that would forever be associated with Superman a decade earlier, Danny Elfman wrote a theme that would be tied to Batman for years to come. Elfman’s theme wouldn’t work for different incarnations of Batman, like Christopher Nolan’s more realistic take on the character, but for Tim Burton’s vision, it was perfect. There’s a foreboding darkness lying under the orchestral tones, but it’s still catchy and enjoyable. Hans Zimmer’s music for The Dark Knight trilogy was grand and beautiful and dramatic, but it’s not hummable. Elfman’s score is all of those things and it’s easy to hum.
3 Wrong: Needlessly excessive violence
Bruce Wayne isn’t the same kind of character as Walter White. He didn’t awaken some sadistic violent tendencies when he took on his alter ego. Bruce’s relationship with violence is less sinister than that. He believes in hurting people to prevent them from hurting other people, but he doesn’t feel particularly great about it.
Tim Burton’s Batman movies use violence to needless excess, with Bruce showing little to no remorse for his ass-kicking lifestyle. Batman is a conflicted guy, who mopes around the Batcave, questioning his life choices as he hangs up the cowl for the night. Burton’s movies didn’t examine this aspect of the character.
2 Right: Dark yet comic book-y tone
Tim Burton nailed the mixture of gloomy, hard-edged darkness and comic book zaniness that Zack Snyder has been trying and failing to attain for years. Christopher Nolan would swoop in with a gritty, realistic portrayal of the Caped Crusader. Everything from the design of the Batmobile to Bruce Wayne’s combat training was depicted with realism in mind in Nolan’s films. Burton unashamedly made a couple of comic book movies. He didn’t care if they were realistic. But he didn’t let the campiness get in the way of the darkness. Burton’s Batman movies are both dark and fun. They have their cake and eat it too. Most superhero movies only choose one.
1 Wrong: Style over substance
One of the most common criticisms of Tim Burton’s Batman movies when they were first released was that they favored style over substance, and this is perhaps the most valid complaint about the films. They’re visually stunning, from the gloomy spectacle of Gotham City to the costume designs for both Batman and his enemies, but the plotting and character development feel a little thin. Whereas Christopher Nolan took his Batman on a traditional “hero’s journey,” and filled his trilogy with deeper philosophical meanings, Burton barely gave his Batman an arc at all. The style is great, but without substance, it feels incomplete.