LEAD: ''Batman'' begins with a lot of promise: the camera pans across dark, lowering clouds as we hear music so doomy you might think it to be Mahler, though it's really Prince in a cosmic mode. Gotham City swims slowly into focus. It's a production designer's coup de cinema, a nightmare version of megalopolis, an urban landscape without sun, seen through a smog of pollutants and despair.
''Batman'' begins with a lot of promise: the camera pans across dark, lowering clouds as we hear music so doomy you might think it to be Mahler, though it's really Prince in a cosmic mode. Gotham City swims slowly into focus. It's a production designer's coup de cinema, a nightmare version of megalopolis, an urban landscape without sun, seen through a smog of pollutants and despair. Everything seems foreshortened, squeezed, angry and rotten.
If, like Dorian Gray, Manhattan has a portrait stashed away in an attic, this is how it would look. Every crime from purse-snatching to multi-million-dollar payoffs is recorded in this mess of out-of-date facades, hideous bunkerlike new buildings, exposed girders and disintegrating brick.
Anton Furst's production design is so evocative that one expects to meet a fiend on the order of Dr. Mabuse, Fritz Lang's master criminal, rather than D.C. Comics' Joker, who, though brilliantly played by Jack Nicholson, simply isn't up to the apocalyptic grandeur of the decor.
This is also pretty much the problem of ''Batman,'' which opens today at the Cinema 1 and other theaters. Don't be conned by the film's funny, breathlessly paced trailer that's been showing for the last few months. The feature is something else.
It's an elaborate, shapeless, big-screen reincarnation of the 50-year-old comic-book character. Bruce Wayne is, by day, Gotham City's enigmatic millionaire-about-town. By night, done up in the drag of someone with a possibly dangerous leather fetish, he is the mysterious Batman, defender of the righteous and implacable foe of all evil.
Jon Peters and Peter Guber, the producers, and their army of employees, including Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren, who wrote the screenplay, and Tim Burton, the director, have elected to avoid the camp style that made the ''Batman'' television series so popular 20 years ago. Instead, they treat the material with a kind of Langian intensity that has no point. It's just there.
Thanks to the work of Mr. Furst, ''Batman'' is fun to look at, at least for a while. Not since Lang's ''Dr. Mabuse: the Gambler'' (1922), ''Metropolis'' (1926) and ''The Last Will of Dr. Mabuse'' (1933) have so much talent and money gone into the creation of an expressionistic world so determinedly corrupt.
Yet nothing in the movie sustains this vision. The wit is all pictorial. The film meanders mindlessly from one image to the next, as does a comic book. It doesn't help that the title character remains such a wimp even when played by Michael Keaton. Nobody could do anything with this ridiculous conceit, but asking Mr. Keaton, one of our most volatile actors, to play Bruce Wayne/Batman is like asking him to put on an ape suit and play the title role in ''King Kong.''
Most of the time all we can see of him behind his bat mask are his eyes, the tip of his nose and his chin. Everything else is encased in the kind of outfit one might rent for a Halloween party. As Bruce Wayne, Mr. Keaton is modest and straight-faced, as any number of other actors might be given the circumstances and the paycheck.
Mr. Nicholson has more fun as the wicked Joker. He is a small-time thief who becomes Gotham City's star criminal after falling into a vat of terrible goo that leaves his face clown-white, his mouth lifted up into a permanent clown-grin. Mr. Nicholson pops his eyes, sneers, laughs maniacally and, in the film's liveliest sequence, sings and dances his way through the Gotham City museum of art, happily defacing the paintings.
He also has the film's only funny lines (''I'm the world's first fully functional homicidal artist''), and often sounds more than a little like Liberace.
The only other members of the cast to make any impression are Michael Gough, who plays Jeeves to Bruce Wayne's pallid Bertie Wooster, and Kim Basinger, who adds a little welcome heat to the movie as the photographer with whom Bruce spends one night of love.
Comic ideas waft through the movie like phantoms hoping to take shape. The writers introduce the idea that Gotham City has run out of money with which to celebrate its bicentennial, the result of terrible fiscal mismanagement, but nothing is really made of it. At one point the Joker turns Gotham City into ''a shopper's nightmare'' by randomly poisoning cosmetics. Victims die a ghastly death with the Joker's grin affixed to their faces.
Mostly, though, ''Batman'' is a movie without any dominant tone or style other than that provided by Mr. Furst. It's neither funny nor solemn. It has the personality not of a particular movie but of a product, of something arrived at by corporate decision.
''Batman,'' which has been rated PG-13 (''Special Parental Guidance Suggested for Those Younger Than 13''), has some scenes of violence. GOINGS-ON IN GOTHAM - BATMAN, directed by Tim Burton; screenplay by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren, story by Mr. Hamm, based on Batman characters created by Bob Kane and published by D.C. Comics; director of photography, Roger Pratt; edited by Ray Lovejoy; music by Danny Elfman; production design by Anton Furst; produced by Jon Peters and Peter Guber; released by Warner Brothers. At Criterion, Broadway and 45th St.; Loews 84th St. Six, at Broadway and other theaters. Running time: 124 minutes. This film is rated PG. Batman/Bruce Wayne...Michael Keaton The Joker/Jack Napier...Jack Nicholson Vicki Vale...Kim Basinger Alexander Knox...Robert Wuhl Commissioner Gordon...Pat Hingle Harvey Dent...Billy Dee Williams Alfred...Michael Gough Grissom...Jack Palance Alicia...Jerry Hall Bob the Goon...Tracey Walter