Part of the appeal of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films is that the basic conceit informing their aesthetic seems so natural. Batman is one of few major superheroes that isn’t actually a super-hero. Batman mythology, then, lends itself to a degree of plausibility more than, say, Superman or Spider-Man, so why not manifest a vision of Batman that embraces this particular aspect that distinguishes this character from most superhero mythologies?
But realism has not been a characteristic that unifies Batman’s many representations in the moving image. Through the eyes of Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher, the Batman of tentpole studio filmmaking has occupied either a world of gothic architecture and shadowy noir, or one of schizophrenic camp. From 1989 to 1997, Batman was interpreted by visionary directors with potent aesthetic approaches, but approaches that did not necessarily aim to root the character within a landscape of exhaustive Nolanesque plausibility.
Burton and Schumacher’s films (which vary in quality) provided a context for which Nolan’s realist aesthetic seems fresh, appealing, and innovative. Sure, Batman (1989) certainly seems more grounded than, say, Batman & Robin (1997), but the fact that big-budget movie iterations of Batman were portrayed with such expressionism is significant not only in creating a precedent for how character has been viewed and understood for the past twenty-plus years, but in the way they established a particular, somewhat unified style that could so successfully be deviated from later. The character that established the modern movie superhero genre, after all, also established the modern franchise reboot.
Here’s a look back at the two directors that took the reigns over Batman before Christopher Nolan…
Tim Burton’s Goth Gotham
Only when one views Batman Returns in juxtaposition with the first Batman does it become clear how muted Tim Burton’s aesthetic was for the 1989 film. Batman was only Burton’s third feature, and his first tentpole release, so it makes sense that Batman doesn’t necessarily feel like a “Tim Burton film” along the lines of Edward Scissorhands or Sweeney Todd. However, the Batman films (and the fact that Edward Scissorhands, easily the most Tim Burton-y of Burton’s films before he reduced his aesthetic into near-self-parody, was released in between) helped cement “Tim Burton” as a reliable brand so that, by 1994, Burton’s name was being used to sell films that he didn’t direct.
But even if Batman today feels like a minor Tim Burton work as it simultaneously stands as a major defining entry in the superhero film genre, the Gotham Burton depicts in this first film is still very interesting. Anton Furst’s production design, complete with gargoyles and skyscrapers that resemble Scottish cathedrals, has a notable Gothic quality to it in combination with the setting’s noirish corners, shadows, and fedoras. In Batman, Gotham gives the impression of a city with a history longer than any actual city in the United States. And with its eternal parade of citywide threats made by super-villains and petty thieves, Gotham’s notable agedness gives the impression of a Rome all too ready to fall. It’s fitting, then, that Batman’s climax ends atop a dilapidated, crumbling cathedral.
Even though Batman was an integral film in the creation of the modern studio (and, especially, superhero) blockbuster, certain aspects of the film make it feel like the Hollywood of old, notably the extravagance of Gotham as manifested through closed-set-filmmaking. Batman was released before CGI took hold as the major draw for Hollywood summer blockbusters, so part of the appeal of the film (besides the action, stars, and the fact that it’s a fucking movie about Batman!) was seeing Gotham City come to life through the delicate fabrications of big-budget filmmaking.
In Nolan’s vision of Gotham, verisimilitude is central to his series’s signature realism: Gotham looks like a real American city because it was made in one (hopefully Nolan’s restrained CGI, anti-3D hook will rub off on Hollywood long after The Dark Knight Rises leaves theaters), thus any extravagances and excesses feel grounded in something resembling reality. Not so in the Burton films, which openly look and feel like they were made through the meticulous process of production design. As in any Batman media worth its weight, Batman‘s Gotham is a full-fledged character, but it’s a character draped in costume similarly to the Caped Crusader and grinning super-criminal that inhabit it.
Batman Returns (1992) is a horse of a different color. With a bigger budget, more creative freedom, and Burton’s stronger association with an exaggerated, cartoonish but dark aesthetic subsequent to Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns is easily one of the strangest mainstream big-budget films to have come out of the studio system in the last few decades. A fascinating, beautiful, and discomfiting hybrid of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Tod Browning’s Freaks, the negative responses by parents to Batman Returns inspired McDonald’s to effectively end their cross-promotional campaign. The expressionistic style present in Batman’s set design is extended in Batman Returns to everything from canted camera angles to elaborate costumes (even of the non-costumed characters like Christopher Walken’s Max Shreck).
Burton was outspoken about the fact that he (like Michael Keaton) wasn’t a longtime Batman fan, and was only convinced to return to the series after The Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) proved to provide an interesting story to tell alongside the film’s opportunities for striking visuals. Thus, Burton’s obsessions are available in full-force. He’s far more concerned with the tragic origins and unique coping mechanisms of freaks and social outcasts like The Penguin and Catwoman instead of investigating the complex psychology of Batman/Bruce Wayne (Keaton, amazingly, doesn’t have a line of dialogue until over a half hour into the film). Like Jack Nicholson’s top billing credit above the actor who actually played Batman, Batman Returns is far more inspired by the potential of its villains (and their embodiments by notable movie stars) than the layers of its central hero, perhaps emboldened by the reduction of Batman’s origins to a direct revenge story in the first film.
Michael Keaton was a fine Batman, but by 1992, the star of the franchise was not the Dark Knight, but Burton.
Joel Schumacher’s Candy-Coated Caped Crusader
Just like Schumacher’s unholy mess that is Batman & Robin laid the groundwork for a completely new approach in Batman Begins, Schumacher would not have had a swing at the Dark Knight had the brilliant Batman Returns not alienated the fast food audience. With the introduction of Robin (Chris O’Donnell), the neon-rainbow aesthetic, the over-calculated humor, and everybody in close range taking their performances to 11 and beyond (Tommy Lee Jones is in Natural Born Killers mode here, but with far less to do), Batman Forever (1995) is clearly channels the ‘60s Batman TV series instead of continuing Burton’s noir/goth vein.
Schumacher’s Batman films are exhausting pieces of pop synergy, but they’re also unapologetic, almost Warholian pieces of pop synergy. Gotham is no longer occupied by cathedrals and men with fedoras, but is instead stuffed with hyperkinetic spotlights, hoodlums dressed in neon war paint, and envisioned with all the accoutrements of a netherworld Las Vegas (how Bruce Wayne can see the bat signal in this overstimulated metropolis is beyond me). Schumacher’s Batman films are everything your sixty-something uncle thinks a comic book movie to be. And yet they’re so much more.
Joel Schumacher isn’t the only openly gay filmmaker to take on a big studio superhero franchise. While Bryan Singer found apropos allegorical potential in the “outing” and “otherness” themes of the X-Men, Schumacher approaches his two Batman films with a camp sensibility, complete with the homoerotic subtext that will forever accompany the Batman/Robin relationship. Schumacher’s Batman entries are not good films, but their camp approach, rooted in Batman’s televised representation, did have a more extensive precedent than Nolan’s realist take in Batman’s moving image legacy. Moreover, their self-conscious cheap humor, ADD aesthetic, and buns-and-nipples objectification of the batsuit makes for two Hollywood films that come fascinatingly close to outright subversiveness, even contemptuousness of Hollywood as an institution. Now that fans have enjoyed the Batman films they’ve ostensibly always wanted since 2005, Schumacher’s work is, in retrospect, a fascinating curiosity.
Beside their notable aesthetic differences, there is a surprising amount of continuity between Burton and Schumacher’s Batman films, films that otherwise seem to care little for telling a story in which events past directly determine the present. Besides Michael Gough and Pat Hingle’s continued presence as Alfred and Cmr. Gordon, respectively, the logic of the villains’ origins remain consistent across all films. While the inception of The Riddler (Jim Carrey) comes across as more absurd under Schumacher’s eye, its no less so than The Joker’s fall into a chemical vat or Catwoman’s accumulation of stray cats’ extra lives. But by the time Arnold Schwarzenegger fell into a vat of cold stuff and became Mr. Freeze – all conveniently captured on camera – the whole endeavor felt like a bit too far-fetched to believe…or care about.
As evidenced by Joss Whedon’s approach to The Avengers and Mark Webb’s the-old-is-new iteration of The Amazing Spider-Man, studios today seem to prefer talented directors with recognizable names, but who aren’t powerful enough to assert an autuerist vision.
Which makes the Batman films a different category entirely. These are films that have not only attracted filmmakers with a specialized and assertive approach to the character and his mythology. Batman has provided a unique space for filmmakers to explore their excesses, for better or worse, whether that be the pitch-black fairytale of Batman Returns, the candy-colored camptopia of Batman & Robin, or the rooted grandiosity of the Nolan films. So while Nolan’s Gothamverse might be appealing in part because of his films’ distinct differences from Burton and Schumacher’s approaches, the fact that Warner Bros.‘ Batman has been a series that embraces (an occasionally overwhelming) artistic vision unites and distinguishes these films from your everyday cinematic superhero.
Correction: In the original version of this article and its headline, we mistakenly identified Burger King as the fast food chain that broke ties with Batman when it was actually McDonald’s. (Sorry about that, Ronald.)