'BATMAN'

Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Billy Dee Williams. Directed by

Tim Burton. 1989. Rated PG-13. (Warner cassette, 126 mins., Hi-Fi stereo, DS, $24.98)

Idon't have to recommend that you check out "Batman" at your nearest video store. It will be all I can do to get out of the way of the expected stampede to the counter.

Inasmuch as "Batman" grossed more than $240 million in its theatrical release, it is difficult to recall all the doubts and misgivings published about the production before it opened. The numerous and highly articulate admirers of the Bob Kane comic books condemned the casting of a comic actor such as Keaton as Batman. At early screenings, the industry's wise guys with the big cigars spread fear stories about the movie being too arty, too dark and too downbeat for the feel-good kiddie trade. So what happened? Obviously, a great many things.

The media packaging of the event fully exploited the brilliant production design of Anton Furst. People were ready and eager for the sleek lines of the jet-black, high-tech Batmobile as it came careening through Gotham City. And the Halloween transvestism of the Batman costume appealed to the bit of camp in all of us. More to the immediate point, if you loved the movie, you are bound to love the videocassette. Mostly enclosed within the artificial studio setting, "Batman" does not have its style cramped on a small screen. Director Burton has availed himself of both the dynamic expressionism of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" and the morbid futurism of Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner."

But there are problems with this "Batman." The tension slackens too often for the sake of uneasily satiric humor and an indulgence of Nicholson's wildest flights of villainous fancy. Who could have ever imagined back in the late '30s when "Batman" was born graphically that the day would come when the Joker (Nicholson) would get top billing over Batman himself (Keaton)? For a cranky old moralist like me, the celebration of homicidal evil on a mass scale is too typical of the decadent and depraved age in which we live. Nicholson's Joker kills off dozens of Gothamites as part of his Felliniesque circus act, and Keaton's Batman does not redress the moral balance by acting to avenge the wrongs inflicted on his fellow citizens. Least of all is he concerned with upholding law and order. What motivates him most strongly are his own personal furies, unleashed when his parents were murdered in cold blood by a younger Joker.

Still, it was wise to keep Keaton's Batman comparatively quiet and secretive next to Nicholson's Crazy Eddie-style Joker. It was wiser still to give the movie a serious, grown-up gloss with Danny Elfman's quasi-Wagnerian score, and thus win over enough of the critics to give a classy reputation to what is, after all, an adaptation of a comic book.

Basinger is adequate as the girl, but there are no sparks ignited between Keaton and her. Yet '80s women can put up with Keaton's Batman because he is more nervously vulnerable than confidently macho. As for the background songs of Prince, they serve mainly to augment the nervy impudence of Nicholson, who remains our favorite satanic hellraiser.

All in all, you could do a lot worse than this "Batman" -- even though you could certainly do a lot better, too.