The historical importance of the first modern Batman film is well understood. After the Superman
Batman was the pop culture event of 1989.
The artistic successes of this film have been just as widely expounded-upon, so here too I'm not sure I'm going to be able to add anything. But I'll write what I think anyway.
Side note: as I've mentioned before, I first arrived in Japan during the Uno administration (and how many of us can claim that?), which happened to be the height of Batmania in Japan. I'd left an America where that fucking logo was everywhere, where that Prince non-soundtrack was everywhere, and arrived in a Japan where everything was exactly the same. I mean, I had no problem finding Exotic Olde Japan if I looked for it, but even there, there was the Bat. A few days after we arrived we went to a neighborhood festival in the upscale Azabu Jūban neighborhood of Minato-ku (lots of expats like us), and somebody was handing out fans with that fucking logo on it. My first lesson in globalization.
So, yeah, it was real easy to recognize that this was a hype machine in overdrive, and that there were millions upon millions of people getting excited about something that had precious little to do with anything more than bangs and bucks. And that, of course, has been the story of every superhero movie since then (I'm too young to remember if Superman was similarly ubiquitous, but it probably was). So I can understand the resistance many feel toward these things. My own feelings about pop culture are nothing if not self-contradictory, though, so in I plunge.
I thought at the time, and still think, that Burton's greatest achievement in this film is Gotham City itself. And here's where, despite all the obvious major-studio marketing, I'm going to insist on an auteurist reading of this film. Without Tim Burton, there's no way Gotham City looks like it does in this film. Sure, another director might have made it dark and foreboding, but nobody else would have made it feel as malevolently baroque, as exaggeratedly malevolent, as Burton. It's comic-book-y in the absolute best possible sense: a creative deformation of reality. A reflection in a fun-house mirror.
And this is something that's particularly right, not just for Batman, but for the DC Comics world he comes from. Famously - i.e., it's something that even a non-superhero-comics-reading dilettante like myself knows - DC comics take place in made-up allegorically-named cities in a made-up version of America, while Marvel comics take place in real-life, real-named cities. Superman lives in Metropolis, while Spiderman lives in New York. This means that the very settings of DC comics are commentaries on America in a way that is not true in Marvel comics (although you could say the exact opposite and it would be true, too).
But the first Superman franchise basically ignored that. It paid lip service to the idea of Metropolis, but it was a Metropolis with a Times Square and a Statue of Liberty. They weren't really trying. They didn't really know what to do with it. But Burton did. His Gotham City is not New York, not Chicago, but every decaying late-20th century American city. It makes the film more universal as well as more fantastic. His successors wouldn't get this. (Nolan tries in his first Batman film, but goes the opposite direction in his last two.)
I'm not going to talk about what a skilfully made movie this is, how it confirms Burton's abilities as a storyteller, abilities that tend to get overshadowed by his brilliance in atmosphere and design. (Yes, I'm a fanboy.) I'll just note that in my mind this film always looms as the definitive superhero origin-story movie. So much so that watching it again I'm always astounded at how little time Burton spends on that. The movie starts in medias res, with Batman already doing his thing, and we only learn how he got that way gradually, in passing, while we're following other action. And yet it's all made clear in the viewer's mind. That's some careful storytelling.
Michael Keaton is the one caveat I've always had about this film. I'm one of those who was never totally convinced by him. Not that his performance is bad. Rather, I think he's probably doing exactly what Burton cast him to do. So I guess what I'm saying is that the whole thing adds up to a perfect artistic whole that is, in its entire effect, still slightly disturbing to me.
Superman has all the powers. That's his gig. Batman has no powers. That's his gig. He's just a rich guy who's gone vigilante, who can buy the gadgets he needs to make him look like a superhero. But he's no superhero. And that's what Burton realized, I think. And so he casts Keaton, and has Keaton act, not larger than life, but smaller than life. He shrinks before our eyes. He's not quite a nebbish, but he's an underwhelming, almost anticharismatic presence for most of the film. And when he puts on the suit it's obvious that it's body armor: not muscle. So he looks fake. Because he is fake: that's the essence of Tim Burton's Batman.
And on one level it's brilliant, because it forces us to turn our attention to the guy who's doing all this fake stuff. Why would Bruce Wayne act like this? Isn't there something a little off about a guy who'd choose to dress in tights and live in a cave and spy on his guests and jump off rooftops? A lot of what I love about Nolan's series is that it takes these questions and follows them to their logical conclusions: isn't Batman just as problematic as any of the villains he fights? Burton doesn't go quite that far; he's content for us to realize that, essentially, Wayne's a weirdo.
But of course he's a weirdo paired up with the Joker, who's also a weirdo. But, partly because of the way the character is written and partly because of who's playing him, the Joker in this film is a hypercharismatic weirdo. Jack Nicholson is larger than life. And so the Joker dominates this film. This much was obvious at the time, and that's what's always made it faintly disturbing to me. Everybody watching this film loved the Joker better than Batman, and not in the love-to-hate-him way people loved Darth Vader. I always got the feeling that people were more or less rooting for the Joker. Hell, I wanted to root for him. He was having more fun. He was Partyman: Prince knew what this movie was about.
It was about daring to suggest (recognize?) that the supervillains were more glamorous, more charismatic, than the superheroes. That evil is more fun than good. Which fits in perfectly with Burton's ouevre. But as a Burton fan I have to admit that it's one thing to suggest (recognize?) that within the safe confines of a hermetic fandom, where we're all adults and literate and versed in irony. When it spills out into the world of invincible corporate logos and becomes a truly mass phenomenon, it makes me nervous. Millions upon millions of people grooving on the exploits of a gleeful, fun-loving mass murderer: this is not just a little creepy?
And so began the 1990s.