I still personally find that Tim Burton's first Batman film captured the dark, Gothic and operatic nature of the character the best,to a extent at least. While the Nolan movies defiantly brought a more real and at times politically relevant portrayal of the character to the table, Burton's Batman has always come across like a brooding and silently tragic interpretation. Batman was more a visual idea than a fully fleshed out one in his films. The image of Batman said more for his psyche than simply focusing in great detail on his origins, and that's what still appeals to me now.
I really like Batman Begins, but for some reason the mystery of Batman always seemed more fascinating to me. Do we really need to see his training? or where the suit comes from or how his cape works?. Batman in the Burton films came across like a silent force more than anything, stoic and oppressive. He was developed more as Bruce Wayne, sharing brief looks into his social attitudes and his own perception over his actions.
A scene that I always liked was when he is talking to vicki Vale in the Batcave the first time he takes her there, and she says to him "you're not exactly..normal, are you" to which he replies "its not a exactly a normal world is it"
There is a subtle acknowledgement of his trauma in that exchange of dialogue that always interested me. A complaint people had with the film was that it was all style over substance, I always found the problem was that the style overshadows the substance. It went unnoticed I feel, with many great scenes of interaction and character motivations being looked past.
For example this is something that was very controversial, but I found to be appropriate. Alfred lets Vicki Vale into the Batcave and basically shows her that Bruce Wayne is Batman. People were angry with this, saying Alfred would never do this. They are right, he wouldn't, unless he has a reason to do so that is. He was trying to stop Bruce from being Batman, and this was his way to do it. Its his way of saying to Bruce through actions rather than words that he doesn't want him to use his life to be Batman, but to live.
This comes into play also in The Dark Knight Rises, with Alfred saying to Bruce about how he doesn't want him to take on the mantle of Batman again. Its a great moment and helped show something I felt was lacking in the other 2 Nolan films. Alfred seemed very eager to just let Bruce dress up as a bat and fight crime, especially in Batman Begins.
In the first Burton Batman Alfred seemed somewhat distant from Bruce's actions as Batman, and instead seemed to bring up Vicki Vale a lot, which makes sense since he is trying to shift Bruce's life focus on something other than beating people up at night.
I even feel the Joker is great in this film as well. Health Ledger is arguably superior to many people, and while I also feel this is the case, that's not to say Jack Nicholson s portrayal should be written off. Its a different take, and one that works in the context of the film. The film has this element of people using their trauma for a purpose, and using that purpose to become different people. Bruce becomes Batman after the Joker kills his parents, and Jack Napier becomes the Joker after Batman basically damages his face and causes him to fall in a vat of chemicals. So they are responsible for each others creation in a way. It creates a nice parallel between the two of them, the idea that they are both born from some kind of tragedy or madness.
The joker is basically played as a eccentric artist, like he was Salvador Dali crossed with Ed Gein. He even brands himself as "the worlds first homicidal artist". So while Ledgers Joker was about chaos to prove a point, Nicholson s character see's it as literally being some kind of new art form. He likes pictures of corpses, turns his girlfriend into a disfigured "living work of art" and even ruins painting in a museum, except this one by Francis Bacon of course.
The films visuals were with out a doubt a major focus in the movie, and it set the tone and almost told the story itself. You got all kinds of vibes from the visuals, with its dark shadows, architecture that evoked a sense of 1930's nostalgia mixed with 1980's grime, and a sense that the city was large and tall to where it felt like it was engulfing the people that inhabited it. The cathedral scene at the end was certainly a appropriate place to show a guy dressed as a bat knocking over pews, coming some stairs, and then dodging a giant falling bell.
It sounds strange, but it works, and Danny Elfman's score comes across as relentlessly Gothic and brooding in this scene. Never before has watching someone dressed as a bat walk around a cathedral seemed so good.
Overall while the film has problems, I feel the visually driven and operatic qualities made it interesting. Batman is a character who while in silhouette always seemed to project more interest for me. The pain of the character was inside, and was conveyed visually rather than directly though words. Many scenes could lose dialogue entirely and still work based purely on the imagery and the music. The scene where Bruce put roses on the site of his parents murder was a example of this. No dialogue, no big dramatic out bursts, just the image and the music.
Its not a perfect movie by any means, But I still find it to be a powerful one in its own special way.