This thought occurred to me while watching Batman, that of the Tim Burton variety, for the first time. Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker is very famous, yet he’s got this ultra-freaky-cool-guy persona that’s followed him around for decades, since most of his characters fall into the ultra-freaky-cool-guy category. (See: Jake from Chinatown, McMurphy in Cuckoo’s Nest, Jack in The Shining, Frank in The Departed, the Lakers’ most devoted courtside fan.)
He’s always intense, but he’s always in control. Most of his acting is done behind his eyes, leaving you to wonder what’s going on inside of his head to make his eyes look that way. But the Joker is pure camp, pure spectacle, pure mania. Pure theater kid fun. Nicholson carries himself completely differently as the Joker — he’s very significantly a clown, tragedy and all, but he’s also a rich bastard whose wealth completely defines him. I suppose you could define the Joker as another ultra-freaky-cool-guy, but the guys I was referring to before don’t even exist in the world of Joker or Batman or Tim Burton. Each component of that description means something else entirely in this universe.
Burton isn’t about nuance — also the sky is blue — but that’s fine. His aesthetic is perfect for Batman (as is Christopher Nolan’s; apples and oranges) because it makes the comics themselves jump to life. The brightness of the colors, the harshness of the lighting, the heightened emotions, the absurdity of the props (see below) — it’s a stage play with an extreme noir bent. And Burton isn’t about nuance only in the visual sense; the characters in his movies are also very straightforward, even if they have layers or alter-egos. Batman and the Joker are two interpretations of Robin Hood, plain and simple. It’s hard to find nuance in a story we already know so well, but again, that’s totally fine. America likes to repeat things it likes. (Go figure.)
Batman is far from a perfect movie — Prince’s song did not sit well with me, nor did the romance between Bruce Wayne (Michael Freakin’ Keaton) and Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), which jumped from boning to basically betrothal in what seemed like seconds. (That’s the movies, I know.) I really loved Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent. I wanted more of him, in fact, but he was perhaps the most serious, subdued and nuanced part of the film — and thus the least seen. But Keaton and Basinger themselves were/still are divine, and watching this movie almost 30 years since it was made enhances that statement. Due to my inverted way of familiarizing myself with popular culture, Keaton was Birdman to me long before he was Batman. I’m envious of everyone who knew him as the Dark Knight first.
Insert bat signal here. I’m ready for the next one.