The Strange Hero’s Journey of Tim Burton’s “Batman”

Everybody on the internet seems to agree that Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” is the best Batman movie ever made. There is an almost religious following devoting an immense amount of energy dissecting its greatness – or at least, what was right about it.

By contrast, there is very little inquiry into the art of Tim Burton’s “Batman” (1989), which is also an excellent movie. It has received a little more attention since the opening of Michael Keaton’s “Birdman“, but even then, little attention has been paid to how it is constructed. Burton’s “Batman” was controversial when it opened. It was substantially darker in tone than any previous comic book movie. It starred Keaton, who was nobody’s idea of a hunk or a suave millionaire. It came off the heels of “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” (1987) which was the disastrous ending to Christopher Reeve’s Superman franchise which left studios and audiences wondering if the world really needed another superhero movie.

Tim Burton’s take on Batman has since influenced the art and texture of animated, live action, and comic book incarnations that followed to such an extent that, seen through today’s perspective, there does not seem to be anything revolutionary or inventive about the way the movie was made. But at the time, everything about it was very original.

When it opened, it was criticized for, among other things, being more concerned with projecting strangeness and artistic texture than a story with an actual plot. In fact “plot-less” has become the term associated with the movie. Every critic seems to use it. But is “Batman” really plot-less? We were certainly captivated by Keaton’s performance as an unconventionally awkward Bruce Wayne and Jack Nicholson’s performance as the Joker. Our eyes were mesmerized by the noir-cum-steampunk design of Gotham city. We are so consumed by the performances and the aesthetics that we forget what the story was about.

But is there really no plot? Let’s look at how the movie is constructed. The movie opens with the robbery of a tourist family trying to find their way back to their hotel through the streets of Gotham city. The robbers get away with the loot, but they are scared, not of getting caught by the police, but of the rumors of a ghostly bat creature that is said to deliver vigilante justice to street criminals. Soon enough, the bat creature walks out of the shadows and beats the crap out of the robbers. “Do me a favor,” says the bat creature to the robber. “Tell your friends about me. I’m Batman.” Neither the tourist family nor the robbers are ever seen again. Where is the inciting incident? Where is the entry into the hero’s journey?

Enter Knox, a comical newspaper reporter (played brilliantly by Robert Wuhl), who is following the rumors of the vigilante bat, a story that nobody seems to believe. He pesters and annoys corrupt cop Lt. Eckhardt, the mayor, the police commissioner James Gordon, and the district attorney Harvey Dent asking around about the bat, to which nobody gives a straight answer. He meets with Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger) a beautiful photographer also interested in the bat story. Still no inciting incident and no sign of the protagonist Bruce Wayne. (A seat marked “Bruce Wayne” at a function honoring the new district attorney is conspicuously empty.)

Harvey Dent pledges to destroy the gangster organization, which upsets the Carl Grissom (Jack Palance), the kingpin of the underworld. Jack Napier (Nicholson), Grissom’s right hand man, is an obnoxiously confident man who is secretly sleeping with Grissom’s mistress. In an exchange with Eckhardt, it is revealed that he considers himself the rightful successor to Grissom’s empire. Eckhardt rats on Napier about his affair to Grissom. Jealous Grissom sends Napier to a chemical plant ostensibly to destroy evidence of his money laundering scheme, but actually to set him up to be killed by the police. Batman appears in the scene, fights Napier, and Napier drops into a vat of acid, completely altering his outward appearance.

Does that sound a little convoluted for a first act? Let’s compare this to the cleaner structure of Star Wars: Episode IV. The story opens with an Imperial Cruiser chasing after a diplomatic ship. After a brief action sequence, Darth Vader walks out of the mist and sets the premise of the story. This is a scary world for the supporters of the Republic. Dark forces are on the march. The fate of the galaxy is in the hands of a pair of comical androids who literally fall out of the sky and appear in front of a lonely boy dreaming of adventure. That is the clear and obvious inciting incident. After a series of events, Luke Skywalker decides to leave his desert planet and go save the galaxy. End of Act One.

In Star Wars, it is Darth Vader who is making the world scary for the rebellion. In Batman, it is the Dark Knight who is making the world scary for the gangsters. In Star Wars, Luke is an orphan whose future looks bleak. In Batman, Jack Napier is a mobster whose future seems assured. The appearance of the androids is Luke’s inciting incident. The appointment of Harvey Dent is Napier’s inciting incident. Luke accepts Obi Wan’s invitation to adventure in the “break” into the Second Act of Star Wars. Napier accepts his deformed face and endorses his new identity as the Joker in the “break” into the Second Act of Batman.

There is no inciting incident for Bruce Wayne in this movie. He does not make the choice that takes us into the Second Act. He does not suffer setbacks. He is merely the Joker’s roadblock to his ambitions. It is Napier who transforms into the Joker, makes plans to take over the city, meets obstacles, suffers setbacks, tries again, suffers more setbacks, and tries again. It is Napier/Joker who makes the transformation from an overconfident henchman working in a criminal organization to “the world’s first homicidal artist”. The protagonist of the story is the Joker. Bruce Wayne is, in conventional parlance, the villain.

Just as Star Wars ends with Luke and Han Solo getting shiny blings hung over their necks, Batman ends with the city of Gotham given the Bat Signal. And yet, since the villain wins in this movie, Batman is a tragedy. But whose tragedy is it? As Batman stands atop a building admiring his Bat Signal, Vicki Vale, his very special love interest (who does not appear in the next movie) drives off in the Wayne limo alone, smiling sadly as she says that she is not at all surprised to hear that Bruce will be late in joining her. She is like Diane Keaton in the end of The Godfather, silently absorbing the voices christening Al Pacino, her husband, “Don Corleone” in the next room.

Michael Corleone in The Godfather starts from being a moral son who did not want to be a part of the family business and turns into a ruthless guardian of the organization, losing his humanity in the process. But Bruce Wayne is already nearly there at the beginning of the film. Vicki Vale almost touches what little is left of his human side, then lets it slip through her fingers. Bruce Wayne irreversibly becomes Batman. We the audience fall into the illusion that this was the story arc we had been watching. Yet the real story arc is that by destroying the Joker, Batman finally becomes truly alone.

If this movie had been released in 2017 instead of 1989, the utter devastation of the final scene might have been made more obvious. But since this was a “kid’s movie” riding on the coat tails of the last Superman installment, the ending is sugarcoated to look like a triumph of the good guy over the criminal. A closer look at the story structure, however, tells us that this is a tragedy for the Joker, for the humanity of Bruce Wayne, and for the sheeple of Gotham who, ostensibly freed from proactive wolves, are now under the protection of a heartless creature of the night.

What can us writers learn from Tim Burton’s creation? Burton takes the standard hero’s journey template and turns it on its head. That is actually a clever innovation, but it is not the thing about the movie that engages us. Unlike Star Wars, it was not the progression of story beats that suck us in. We get sucked in mostly thanks to the visuals and to the acting. A story telling innovation can become the major appeal of the movie. Memento did that. (It told the story backwards in order to let the audience experience the confusion of short-term memory loss.) But Burton’s innovation did not make the movie more memorable. The movie is memorable in spite of the creative story structure.

Perhaps, the take home lesson from Burton’s Batman is “don’t hold back”. If you have a theme to deliver, deliver it without sugar coating and without conforming to the conventions of the genre. Otherwise, people will see your story as “plot-less”.

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