It’s clear when re-watching Batman ’89 for its 30th anniversary that it lacks the dimension (and scope) of a modern comic book movie, but there is something to be said for its simplicity. Especially in 2019.
Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren’s script for Tim Burton’s film doesn’t drill down deep into the psychology of either Jack Nicholson’s Joker or Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne/Batman. They are who they are, secure in their actions and shaped by their linked personal histories. But those histories are only lightly explored, with only the weight of relevance assigned to Bruce Wayne’s traumatic youth. No one really cares why The Joker is the way he is, certainly not Burton.
Contrast that with the film’s immediate sequel, Batman Returns, where we’re fed more complex origins for Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman and Danny DeVito’s Penguin. It’s to such an extent that we’re made to feel bad for these lost souls who never feel like pure, irredeemable villains. Not in the way that Nicholson’s Joker did, at least. Now, contrast that with Batman Forever and Jim Carrey’s Riddler and Tommy Lee Jones’ Two-Face. With Burton gone from the director’s chair, Joel Schumacher took over the franchise for the third film and went back in the other direction. He rejected the idea that we should feel for The Riddler and Two-Face and, instead, banked on volume and color to synthesize what Burton got from Nicholson. The result is a loud but pointless neon explosion. It’s a poor imitation, lacking in palpable danger, menace, and most importantly, the inventiveness, quirk, and legitimate zeal that made Nicholson’s portrayal legendary. I don’t even blame Schumacher for trying. Everyone else has with every other villain in every other comic book movie. All with varying degrees of failure, despite how much better and/or layered the story is.