You know how you discover a great comic book series by picking up a trade paperback which is maybe the third or fourth volume rather than the first? In many ways, Batman is a lot like that. When this movie begins, we're introduced to a fully formed version of the Caped Crusader, and director Tim Burton doesn't spend a lot of time delving into what makes Bruce Wayne tick; arguably important character beats like why he became a superhero and his relationship with Alfred Pennyworth are glossed over or not addressed. One of the best things about this movie, however, is that like that aforementioned great TPB, you don't necessarily need to know what comes before or after this story to appreciate what proves to be a satisfying, exciting standalone adventure.
It's definitely a little rough around the edges (likely a result of a relatively modest budget and the fact it's a product of its time in some ways), and Bruce Wayne sometimes feels like a supporting character in his own movie. Just like The Dark Knight, a film which was released almost twenty years after this one, it's The Joker who proves to be the more interesting of the two as Jack Nicholson chomps through the scenery with his suitably crazy performance. In many ways, Burton's Batman suffers from the same issue comic book movies would face for decades after: a need to over-explain things in order to justify the existence of a character like the Clown Prince of Crime (the fact his face is deformed due to a stray bullet or his random interest in playing cards before being dunked in those chemicals, for example). None of that overshadows Nicholson's work, of course, and while he's not the best Joker, he's certainly one of the most memorable.
Before being cast in Batman, Michael Keaton was best known for his comedic work, and that's fully on display here. His Bruce Wayne is an eccentric, somewhat absurd character who sleeps upside down at night and becomes a bumbling mess talking to a beautiful woman. However, we see a completely different side of Keaton when he dons the cape and cowl, and while his interpretation of the iconic DC Comics hero feels like work in progress in this movie, Batman Returns would ultimately cement the actor as arguably the best big screen Batman.
There are some questionable performances scattered throughout Batman, with actors playing major characters given nowhere near enough to do (Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent) or just not making much on an impact (sorry, Kim Basinger fans). Burton manages to make up for that with his take on Gotham City, though, as this gothic take on the fictional location feels like it's been torn straight out of the pages of the comic books and is a lot of fun to spend time in and explore. The filmmaker delivers some fantastic moments too, with The Joker dancing to Prince's music in the museum an undeniable highlight. It's worth noting that his Batman is a killer, though that has oddly never been as big as a sticking point for fans as it was with Ben Affleck's version of the character in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
With a unique look, sound, and feel, Batman was a game-changer for this character and comic book movies in general. It's not necessarily a masterpiece, but it set the stage for the Caped Crusader to become the box office draw he is today, and Keaton's Bruce Wayne and Jack Nicholson's Joker remain the benchmark for a lot of fans out there. Honestly, it's not hard to see why.
Like Gotham City, Batman is a little rough at times, but Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson's wonderfully weird performances (and Tim Burton's unique vision for the DC Universe) mean it deserves to be remembered as a classic.