The sad fact is, DC comics has only one truly popular film character, and it’s Batman. This is not to say that recent efforts involving Superman or Green Lantern weren’t fun or enjoyable. It’s just that Batman consistently sets the bar high, despite a few stumbles. So let’s talk about the Batman films, not so much a review as just a “what worked and didn’t” look. And for clarification, I’m only doing the only-theatrical movies, so no films of the series, nor the animated series film (I already covered that one).
This was it, the first big blockbuster of a comic hero since Richard Donner’s Superman came out. Starring Michael Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson as the Joker, with Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale. Heavily influenced by the Strange Apparitions story arc from the comics, as well as recent mature titles like The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke, this film came about because of the dream of producer Michael Uslan (who has produced every Batman movie since this one) to make a serious Batman movie that brought back to the public that Batman is a dark and cool hero, not a campy goofball. And it worked. This movie actually influenced both comics and animation to create a gothic atmosphere that persisted for over 10 years. That’s not to say it’s perfect. Tim Burton is a good director, but he’s not a Batman fan, and it shows. Keaton’s Batman is cool, but his Bruce Wayne is just too obvious for me. I mean, if you saw his Bruce Wayne, you’d never think “This guy is a rich idiot with no sense and cannot be Batman”. The other big issue I have with this is Batman’s utter disregard for life. I mean, he uses the Batmobile to blow up a factory filled with thugs. Still, it has a good atmosphere and a great soundtrack, and Nicholson is a fun lunatic as Joker.
Batman Returns (1992)
And here we get to the oddity of the franchise. While not a bad movie, it’s not what I consider a great Batman movie. Keaton returns as Batman, with Michelle Pheiffer as Catwoman and Danny DeVito as Penguin (with Christopher Walken as business mogul/villain Max Shreck). This was darker and weirder than the previous film, and that was one thing that hurt it. Producers were concerned with how creepy it was since giving more freedom to Burton, and honestly it’s justified. Penguin’s reinterpreted as a deformed man, Catwoman dies before becoming Catwoman, there’s creepy clowns, a freaky circus, a plot involving child murder as a massive scale, and Batman still going around not caring if he kills or maims his enemies (something Burton does not seem to understand is a big deal to fans like me). To summarize the flaw in this one compared with the last film: the last one was a Batman movie that happened to be directed by Tim Burton. This is a Tim Burton film that happens to have Batman in it.
Batman Forever (1995)
If you want a blueprint for what movie executives considered a perfect superhero movie in the 90’s, this was it. See, back then they had it in their head that superhero movies were just an excuse to sell toys and endorsements, so all they needed was a lot of big stars, tons of actions and cool stuff without as much thought put into story or staying close to the source material. And this was the movie that proved that thought right due to being a huge success financially. In this more family friendly film, Joel Schumacher took over directing, taking the books less in the Denny O’Neil, Steve Englehart direction and more towards the Dick Sprang stories of the Silver age with the ridiculously over-the-top sets with just a hint of gothic mixed with neon. Val Kilmer takes over wearing the Batsuit (he’s possibly the only actor who looks like an eligible rich playboy), with Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones bringing Riddler and Two-Face to the silver screen. Chris O’Donnell as Robin and Nicole Kidman as new character Chase Meridian rounds out the cast. This is so weird to talk about. It’s not an intelligent film in any regard, but it’s actually entertaining. The fight scenes are fun, Robin is actually brought to the big screen with a bit of dignity (seriously, I dare you to make that Robin costume in live-action look better), and there is an interesting question about whether Batman is just a way for Bruce to punish himself for his parents’ deaths or something more. That said, Jim Carrey hams it up way too much as Riddler, Two-Face is just stupid, the overall plot sounds like something a child would come up during a sugar high, and the design of everything from Gotham to the Batcave to the vehicles is garish to the point of blinding. In the end, it was the movie executives wanted, something safe and commercially profitable. And then it went to hell from there.
Batman and Robin (1997)
Let’s get one thing out of the way. This is what killed comic book movies in the 90’s. This was such a colossal failure that it took until 1999 when Marvel put Blade on the big screen for people to realize comics could still be done as films. It’s also a massive embarrassment for everyone involved (George Clooney has been quoted as saying that he will reimburse anyone who tells him they saw this in theaters). I’m not even going to waste space about the casting, just to talk about what was wrong with it. Remember how I said Burton wasn’t a fan of the comics? Neither was Schumacher, and when they gave him free reign to do whatever, he basically did a high budget neon version of the 60’s show. All the bad jokes, ridiculous situations, all of it is just as campy as what these movies started out trying to get away from. This was essentially a giant toy commercial with no plot. AND HOW DARE THEY TURN BANE INTO THE HULK IN A LUCHADOR MASK!? Still, this is an important piece of comic book movie history. This was the film that taught them that if you don’t respect the source material and the fans, and put thought into the story, no budget, star or special effects is going to make a superhero film a success. And while Marvel learned and applied this to a lot of their film properties, Batman would go into hiatus from the big screen. But damn, when he made a comeback…
Batman Begins (2005)
This is one of my favorite movies of all time. The story is great, realizing that the focus has to be on Batman himself and what makes him tick. The nature of fear, hope and justice are all explored, and I love it. Christian Bale is the only actor that made me believe he was Batman, not just by growling when he talks in the suit (yes, people laugh but I think it helps) but actually making sure Bruce Wayne comes off as a moron in public and a smart and decent person in front of Alfred. Point is, Christopher Nolan is a fan of Batman, understands what makes him both awesome and a hero, and had an original take on him, being that of making everything Batman wears and uses have a real logic and function to it. The only downside to this film really is Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes. I mean, my God, they couldn’t get a better actress? Well, they did, and they also blew our minds in the same film.
The Dark Knight (2008)
This is that rare sequel that is actually better than the previous one (although they are both tied as my favorites from this list). I don’t even feel like I need to explain how big this was. Critically and commercially successful, an Oscar win for Heath Ledger after his tragic death, but the truth is this: a good Joker story is a good Batman story, because it shows how Batman will not break even in the face of utter madness. The big thing of this is emphasizing that Batman does not kill because just wanton murder isn’t true justice, and Nolan got that. This right now is the film all superhero movies will measure themselves by. And here’s hoping that when The Dark Knight Rises comes out, it will match up with the rest of the trilogy, and not fall like the last of the previous series of films.
We only have time for one last article in Batman-Month, so keep your eyes peeled.