Gotham is a dark place, which manifests evil in the character of the Joker (Jack Nicholson). Bruce Wayne, Batman, is the force with which evil must reckon. Batman, however, has his own dark side, which is manifest in his costume, his gothic style mansion, and the technology he employs to combat the Joker and other criminal elements.
In this film, Burton needed only a few big name and talented actors -- Jack Nicholson (the Joker), Michael Keaton (Bruce Wayne aka Batman), Billy Dee Williams (Harvey Bent), and Kim Bassinger (Vicky Vale) to attract that audience that might otherwise have opted out of a comic book to film production. Yet the actors in this instance by virtue of their talent need minimal direction, and that allows Burton to focus on the structure of the film. The film is not structured around the actors, but the actors fill the structure of the film, the code that is Burton's own interpretation of the storyline, by bringing to life the characters within that structure. The actor is interpreting the director's coding the darkness of the scenery, the emphasis on the visual elements that suggest this is a cesspool of all that which is deteriorating in humanity and the city, Gotham, is the garbage can into which that deterioration has been tossed.
Burton's genre is a combination of fantasy to facilitate the rationalizing of the reality. Film is Burton's repeated statement that that which is perceived as normal by society can only be so perceived within the framework of that which is abnormal to society. He uses genre, comic book characters in comic book storylines where good prevails over evil, but also where the socially perceived normal is flawed, and that flaw is resolved by that which resides outside of the perceived normal. In Burton's films the perceived normal, which is always flawed, can only be resolved through the joining of forces with the perceived abnormal. It causes the viewer to consider normal vs. abnormal, and to question how society arrives at those definitions. It also causes the viewer to realize that normal and abnormal bring about a balance that is always better than which existed between the two prior to the mergence of the two. It is only through the genre of fantasy inserted into the contemporary setting that allows Burton to accomplish his social statement.
Burton meets the first criteria of film auteur theory, as Caughie interprets it, in that he relies more upon the tools of directing than direction itself (109) as the first step in his filmmaking process. He meets the second step in Caughnie's interpretation of auteur theory, in that he imprints his own distinguishable personality as value on the film. Anyone who has seen Burton in real life with his actress wife, Helena Bonham Carter, can envision them as characters in a Burton film. They are unique personalities, and Burton's uniqueness, his novelty, transcends life and imprints on his film works.
Burton's films are what might be referred to as Gotham (referring to huge success of Burton's Batman films), in that the image is that of the dark lighting, the black and white sense of the screen characters, even when they're in color. Burton's use of this lighting against the urban and suburban setting helps to bring out the sense of social dysfunction, and it is signature of his films, even Ed Woods, which is inspired by the real life of the director of the title, and employs the same lighting, the same sense of fantastical mixed with the reality that the fantastical helps put into perspective.
Winona Ryder, appearing first in Beetlejuice and again in Edward Scissorhands, serves as the character contrast that Burton needs to forefront the overwhelming reality, even suicidal who is pulled from the brink by the fantastical. First, in Beetlejuice by the Maitlands; they save one another in one sense. Then, in Edward Scissorhands, the suburban adolescent who is, again, deeply overwhelmed by the reality of her life, but finds an escape by loving the strange and deformed Edward. In Beetlejuice Ryder is the strange, the Maitlands are the norm in a strange world, and in Beetlejuice she is the norm, compelled by the strange to find the strength to confront the normal on behalf of the strange Edward. In both films, the characters are the director's tool, and it is the image and the symbolism that serves to move the storyline forward, the historic into the contemporary, and that is a Burton signature.
Another component of the Burton is the structure of the film. Structure, Wollen says, is the only thing that is really relevant in analyzing film with the auteur eye (104). All else is irrelevant, and can be discarded (104). Burton's structure is such that it is easily recognizable from work to the next, because it always has that dark element that represents the breeding ground of the nemesis, evil, even when evil, as in Beetlejuice, is comical in its nature it is nonetheless evil, because it is bent on creating chaos. The other wall of Burton's structure is the damaged wall, which represents the susceptible to society's norm. In Beetlejuice that is the Maitlands, who learn that what they perceive as normal can be expanded beyond their own vision, to the vision of the dark, depressed Lydia. In Batman, it is Bruce Wayne who represents the damaged, and in retribution against the injustice he perceives himself as having suffered, he expands his vision into the light of Vicky Vale and the Gotham residents.
All of this requires the auteur theorist to decode and decrypt Burton, and this is perhaps what makes Burton the definition of auteur theory in and of itself; because it is work to decipher, and when an audience has to decipher, then the mainstream producers of film like to toss that work aside because they don't want their audiences to have to work that hard. The audience, according to auteur theory, Kishore Valicha (1999) says, requires the audience to disentangle the peripheral elements of the film, and to discover its latent significance (40). This is what we must do as fans of Tim Burton's films, decode the director in order to come away with what is the latent significance of the film's message. This is Burton's signature, his imprint that we find in each of his works.
Dudley, Andrew (1984). Concepts in Film Theory, Oxford University Press.
Caughie, John (1982). Theories of Authorship: A Reader, Routledge, New York,…