WHAT I LIKED: Gothic sets and costumed caricatures? You could argue that Tim Burton and Batman were born to be together, and in some ways, his 1989 movie is proof of that. Thanks to the production design alone, the streets of Gotham look tangibly crime-ridden, imposing and corrupted; an environment as all-consuming as those of Ridley Scott's 'Blade Runner,' or Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis.' Then the characters that populate it beam and frown wider than they do on the pages of the comics that inspired them, and deliver more cooky lines backed by ominous music, camera zooms and sound effects, and all of that together creates an utterly perfect environment and a masterful atmosphere which crucially takes its source material seriously in an inventive way.
WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE: The sad thing is that what Burton then does with his world and its caricatures isn't all that interesting or engaging.
For a start, the plot has little drive to it; we're presented with countless players in this crime-ridden city, but they're all playing games of their own and simply coming across each other every now and then. There's the vigilante crime-fighting Batman (Michael Keaton) who terrorises a few criminals and responds to the odd ploy by a crazed crime-lord with his own little sub-plot (Jack Nicholson), Batman's human counterpart Bruce who starts a relationship with a journalist (Kim Basinger), the do-good politician (Billy Dee Williams) making the odd speech in the background, and a bunch of self-serving cops who we see at casinos or being handed money by mobsters.
Sure, there's an inevitability to the fact that all of those moving parts are going to come together at the end, but the reason it never feels engaging is because their parallel/contrasting motivations are all so thinly-drawn. Perhaps that was to be expected with Burton (a filmmaker who often fails to build well-rounded characters) but here it's a huge problem; something furthered by the fact the performances (somewhat aside from Keaton's) are so theatrical. Why does Nicholson's Joker want to cause chaos? Because he falls into a vat of acid. Why does Batman want to scare the city's criminals straight? Beyond the obvious, your guess is as good as mine.
Also, apart from some amusing media reactions to the Joker's chaos, it's not as if the script even engages particularly with this world's potential for social commentary either, as everything is so surface-level. "Some people think the Batman is as evil as the Joker," says Basinger's character at one point for example. In a film more interested in complexity we'd have been given some reasons to actually believe this.
In the end, that lack of engaging characters, plot or themes mean the film sadly winds up being an exercise in style over substance.
VERDICT: Tim Burton's countless comic caricatures fail to populate his fascinating 'Batman,' world with genuinely engaging conflicts or characters.