Jack Nicholson’s name appears first in the credits, and for good reason. It may be called Batman, but this is The Joker’s movie.
It’s unsurprising, I suppose, that director Tim Burton, working from a script by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren, would be most interested in the freakiest character from the Bob Kane comic. Considering Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, it makes sense that he would be drawn to the tale’s biggest wacko.
And with Nicholson in the role, why not go in that direction? Not all of the creative choices work – there’s no reason The Joker should be dancing to Prince – yet not for lack of effort on the actor’s part. Nicholson goes for it in Batman, reputation be damned.
His commitment pays off exponentially, as we get BIG, overacting Jack at the start, which sets the stage for the GARGANTUAN Jack we get later, as The Joker travels further and further into the deep end. (Incidentally, I love the early scene in which Jack Palance, as crime boss Carl Grissom, basically does a Nicholson impersonation to Nicholson’s face. And then the way Nicholson himself later calls back to that in an ironically dramatic speech to one of his henchman.) Nicholson isn’t only offering a brilliant bit of self-parody here, he’s doing it in service to the character.
And so Batman is only partly the tale of Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne, a vigilante millionaire scarred from having witnessed his parents’ murders as a child. The movie is mostly the saga of Jack Napier, a lifelong delinquent scarred – psychologically and physically – from being dropped into a vat of gurgling green chemicals. How did Burton get away with this shift in focus? By casting Nicholson, yes, but also by framing Batman as a story of mirror identities. Wayne and Napier are both broken, yet each has responded to that brokenness in a different way. If Napier has embraced the madness to its logical conclusion – chaos – Wayne has attempted to compartmentalize it into an alter ego that’s ostensibly meant to keep chaos at bay.
It’s unsurprising, I suppose, that Burton would be most interested in the freakiest character born of the Bob Kane comic.
All of which means that Keaton is equally crucial. Even given Keaton’s earlier collaboration with Burton on Beetlejuice, he was still an unconventional choice for a superhero action movie. Good thing this isn’t a superhero action movie (in fact, the action is its weak spot) but rather a psychological dark comedy, something at which Keaton excels. There’s a wonderful scene early on, in which Wayne eavesdrops on Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) and Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) as they tour the weapons room of his mansion, making jokes about his collection. Wayne softly chuckles at the jokes too, which suggests he’s a man who’s able to regard himself outside of himself. A man with a split personality.
The scenes with Keaton and Nicholson together, however, are where this identity theme really sings. My favorite confrontation may be the one involving the least amount of gadgets and costumes, in Vicki Vale’s apartment. Wayne is about to reveal his alter ego (he mumbles something about not being a “normal person”) when The Joker barges in. What follows is an escalating verbal game of crazed one-upmanship: “You wanna get crazy? Let’s get crazy!” Wayne threatens. “Have you every danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?” The Joker responds. Yet the most revealing exchange may be a quiet one that comes at the start of the scene, when Wayne leans in to The Joker and whispers, “I know who you are.”
Burton may not bring an eye for action to the movie, but he does have a knack for capturing iconic imagery – which you could argue is even more essential to a comic-book property. The shot of The Joker’s hand reaching up from the chemical waste is vibrantly chilling, an image of devilish, DayGlo glee. Gotham City, meanwhile, has been envisioned as Art Deco gone to seed (Anton Furst is the production designer). Unlike the triumphant 1937 Atlas statue at Rockefeller Center, the stooped, hooded figures in front of Gotham City Hall bear their globes as if they’re on the verge of being crushed by them. The city’s art museum, where The Joker’s unfortunate dance takes place, could be one of the underground, industrial factories in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
There’s another striking homage during the movie’s climax, in which Batman pursues The Joker up a wooden staircase to a bell tower, much like the one Kim Novak and James Stewart climb at the end of Vertigo. Judy/Madeleine and Jack/Joker have been playing dangerous identity games, ones that prove unsustainable in the end. Both reveal their true selves at the end of their respective films, but only as they fall to their deaths.