Here at Grumpy Guy we don’t rate any of the Batman movies over two and a half Lee Marvin’s. There always seems to be something missing from each of those films. In the case of the Schumacher films it’s cojones. But what’s wrong with the series? How come they never seem to capture the Batman vibe? Grumpy Guy will attempt to break it all down, but first lets review the first five films, including the ’66 version and a look at “The Dark Knight”.
Dir. Leslie H. Martinson
Starring: Adam West – Burt Ward – Cesar Romero – Frank Gorshin – Burgess Meredith
This film isn’t a part of the modern Batman series, but we’re going to include it for the hell of it. Many fans of Miller’s “The Dark Knight” can’t stand the TV series from the 60’s. They can all go to hell. The series was great. Unfortunately the movie that was shot out the ass of ABC to capitalize on the TV phenomenon wasn’t.
What the series did, which the film franchise has been unable to do, was embrace the absurdity of the idea of Batman. An interesting YouTube video has a screen test of Adam West Batman where Bruce Wayne talks about the death of his parents, and why he became Batman. This never ended up in the show. Watch it and you see why. It was laughable. Everything that comes out of Adam West’s mouth when talking to Burt Ward seems to have a homosexual innuendo attached to it.
Bruce Wayne to Dick Grayson:
“When our good house keeper poor Mrs. Cooper finds out what you’ve been doing on these supposed “fishing trips” of ours, I’m afraid the blow will kill her.”
Since the shit was so unintentionally funny, why not just go with it? For what they were trying to do, Batman the TV show worked. The ’66 movie however doesn’t, for the simple fact that the format invented for the show doesn’t work well for a feature length film. Part of my affection for the series is pure nostalgia. When I was a kid, the shit wasn’t campy to me, the shit was real. I took it seriously. So much so, that when I made my sister play and be Robin, I punched her in the stomach for not playing right. Anyway. The series as popular as it was, lost gas fast and was cancelled in 1968, merely two years after it first aired. It would be another twenty years before the caped crusader made it back to the big screen.
Dir. Tim Burton
Starring: Michael Keaton – Jack Nicholson –
I remember seeing the midnight showing of this one when it came out nearly twenty freaking years ago. The buzz was amazing. The opening sequence was promising. The titles with Danny Elfman’s score really got the crowd into the mood. Me loves me a good title sequence and Batman was delivering. Batman appears in the first few minutes, stomping ass on a couple of thugs. Things started out good. Very good. It had intrigue, it had action. Then… nothing. For nearly thirty minutes, we got nothing. We got Vicki Vale. We got that stupid reporter Knox. But there was no Batman after the opening sequence for way too long. Then, when he did finally show up again it was lackluster.
Tim Burton’s Batman had everything going for it. The set design was great. The costumes were great. The casting was good. Although Nicholson’s Joker was not very imaginative, casting Michael Keaton as Batman was. It was controversial at the time. But looking over the years, it’s clear that Keaton’s been the most interesting in the role.
Burton has proven over the years that he’s a genius when it comes fantasy film, but he sucks when it comes to action. Don’t believe us? Check out the “Planet of the Apes” remake. “Pee Wee”, “Edward Scissor Hands”, “Ed Wood”, “Sleepy Hollow”, are basically fantasy films (with the exception of Ed Wood, but even that has elements of fantasy) and they are what Burton is best at. Batman too lends itself to fantasy, right up Burton’s alley, but there has to be an element of action too, and Burton just doesn’t have the imagination for it, not like say John Woo.
Sam Hamm’s script is a thing of legend. Here at Grumpy Guy we consider the script extremely pussyfied. Vicki Vale, the love interest of Wayne and Knox, the reporter chasing the Batman story, are subplots that do nothing but bog the entire movie down. Why Burton and Hamm couldn’t recognize this is beyond us.
Burton’s “Batman” suffers from an identity crisis. By 1989 the comic book world was introduced to Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight” and the world of Batman would never be the same. But there was no way Warner Bros. was going to green light Miller’s adult oriented masterpiece. At the same time, the world had outgrown the campy 60’s TV show. The result was a film caught between two visions of the hero, and unable to come up with a workable vision of its own. Another major problem with Burton’s Batman is that it isn’t about Batman, it’s about Joker. Batman is an origin story about how the Joker came to be, making Batman a guest star in his own movie.
One thing the TV show accomplished that the films haven’t is that the TV Batman held his own with the villains when it came to personality. Adam West’s Batman and Bruce Wayne were as crazy if not more so than the villains he took on. The Villains in the 60’s show didn’t over shadow Batman, that isn’t true with the modern films. For some reason it’s been a struggle for the directors and writers to make Batman and Bruce Wayne interesting characters. Not being able to, as Hamm and Burton weren’t, they gravitate towards the villains. The result for Batman 1989 was an interesting film to look at, great set design, costumes, art direction, but a mediocre story with a less than interesting hero.
I remember being horribly disappointed in Batman, but that didn’t stop it from becoming a monster hit. At the time it opened with the largest weekend take in history. It had sequel written all over it.
Batman Returns (1992)
Dir. Tim Burton
Starring: Michael Keaton – Michelle Pfiefer – Danny DeVito – Christopher Walken
Tim Burton had a perfect opportunity to correct the failures of the first film, instead he blows it by expanding on them. “Batman Returns” is another origin story, but instead of focusing on one villain, it gets into the stories of two… Cat Woman and Penguin.
To be honest, I can barely remember the plot, which kind of tells me it’s not worth remembering. I do remember that Christopher Walken plays a corporate mogel named Max Shreck (a take on the actor who played Count Orlok in the 1922 “Nosforatu”) who wants to take over the city of Gotham. From Shreck’s evil plot are born Cat Woman and Penguin, while Batman again takes a back seat in his own movie. Like the first film, too many god damn characters rob Batman of his true glory.
DeVito’s turn as the Penguin is interesting, but that doesn’t automatically make it entertaining. His Penguin is an orphaned sewer dwelling freak, and like Shreck, is plotting to take over Gotham. I had a problem with the fact that this Penguin wasn’t too bright, which kind of makes sense since he was raised by penguins, but it doesn’t make for a very intriguing villain.
Michelle Pfeiffer is Cat Woman. She becomes Cat Woman when she stumbles on to Shreck’s plan and he promptly throws her out an office building window. She survives the fall somehow, or becomes a zombie of some sort, urged back to life by a bunch of alley cats, (?), then she makes a suit out of latex and becomes Cat Woman. Or something like that.
Again, the set, costume and art direction is great. Danny Elfman reprises his inspired score for the film. Michael Keaton plays a mysterious Bruce Wayne. BUT. The story and action are tepid, filled with crap about contracts and inheritance and trying to become mayor of Gotham. It’s boring crap, with no intrigue or sense of urgency.
The studio heads grew tired of Burton’s concept of Batman and decided to go in a different direction. The direction they took turned into a horror story for Batman fans all over the world.
Batman Forever (1995)
Dir. Joel Schumacher
Starring: Val Kilmer – Nicole Kidman – Jim Carrey – Tommy Lee Jones – Chris O’Donnell
Where do we begin? How about with the title? Apparently the producers wanted to come up with the gayest title for a Batman movie they could think of. Batman FOREVER! They may as well have called it: Batman: SUPER FABULOUS! Or Batman: There’s a Run In My Tights!
The suits at Warner recognized the shortcoming of the Burton series and decided to overall the franchise. They decided to do this by hiring one the most hackneyed Hollywood directors of all time, Joel Schumacher. At this point in his career, Schumacher had made only one good film, “The Lost Boys”. The rest of his career at that point included crap like “St. Elmo’s Fire”, “Flatliners”, and the somewhat tolerable hits “The Client” and “Falling Down”.
Schumacher had no vision as a filmmaker the way Burton did, and he was proud of it, boasting that he was going to kill the brooding Bruce Wayne once and for all. He did, by having Wayne fall in love with his psychiatrist, played by Nicole Kidman. Wayne is finally able to come to terms with the death of his parents. Good for Schumacher, bad for Batman movie. With “Batman Forever” Schumacher takes the franchise out of “The Dark Knight” era, and back to the campy 60’s. What they ended up was a film even more pussyfied than the Burton films, which is an amazing accomplishment if you think about it.
Another problem with the film is Jim Carrey. Carrey, who plays Riddler, at the time was the biggest star in Hollywood. His controversial payday of 20 million dollars for the “Cable Guy” a year after making “Batman Forever” sent shock waves through the industry. Like Jack Nicholson before him, Jim Carrey wouldn’t necessarily steal the show, but instead demand attention from the real hero of the story, and not necessarily for the benefit of the movie. If you’ve seen “Ace Ventura” or “The Mask” then you’ve seen Carrey as the Riddler.
Tommy Lee Jones is Two Face. And like Carrey, Jones was now a big star, having won an Oscar for his role in “The Fugitive” a couple of years before. He too hams it up, demanding time and attention from Batman.
Yet another mistake was the addition of Robin. Sam Hamm’s original script for “Batman” had Robin written in, but then smartly removed. Robin (the boy wonder) is even a more ridiculous character than Batman and even harder to contemplate realistically in the “The Dark Knight” era. The comic books tried to rectify this by having Robin grow up and become “Nightwing”, as well as being killed and taking on several other alter egos. The truth is, neither the modern comic book or film world of Batman knows what to do with the character. You bring Robin into the picture, you might as well bring in Bat-Mite or The Great Gazoo. It simply doesn’t work.
“Batman Forever” was an attempt to make the series more family friendly. As a result, Schumacher chopped off the faint resemblance of balls that Burton gave the first two films, and promptly sent them through a meat grinder and fed them to his pet poodle, which regurgitated them and created the bases for the next film in the series.
Batman and Robin (1995)
Dir. Joel Schumacher
Starring: George Clooney – Chris O’Donnell – Alicia Silverstone – Arnold Schwarzenegger – Uma Thurman
This is the one that nearly sunk the franchise. Reportedly, George Clooney was paid 28 million dollars for signing to play Batman in three films. He never made another Batman movie.
Having introduced Robin in “Batman Forever” Schumacher goes a step further by adding Batgirl to the mix, played by Alicia Silverstone. Bat-Mite would have been better.
The only good thing that can be said about the movie is that Warner had no choice now but to kick Schumacher to the curb and abandon the whole campy, family friendly, concept of Batman. Whatever was going to happen next with the franchise, if anything, would have to be something completely different.
Batman Begins (2005)
Dir. Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale – Michael Cain – Liam Neeson – Katie Holmes – Gary Oldman – Morgan Freeman – Rutgar Hauer – Cillian Murphey – Tom Wilkinson – Ken Watanabe
With “Batman Begins”, director Christopher Nolan (Memento) and writer David S. Goyer (Blade) asked a simple question: what if Batman really existed? Under what circumstances would he actually exist? What purpose would his costume serve? His cape? His bat ears? The Batmobile? The answer to those questions make for a mixed bag of a movie. On the one hand, it suffers from some of the same problems the Burton films do, at the same time, “Batman Begins” takes us closer to what Frank Miller was able to do with the character in “The Dark Knight”.
Unlike the previous films, “Batman Begins” is an origin story, but when all is said and done, the film is less about Batman and more about Bruce Wayne. And like the filmmakers before him, Nolan still isn’t able to make Bruce Wayne a very interesting character. Unable to do this, Nolan and Goyer fall into the trap of adding too many characters, diluting the presence of Batman, just like the films before it.
Christian Bale is Bruce Wayne this time around. After he fails to kill the man who killed his parents, Wayne goes on a personal journey. In an attempt to figure out how the criminal mind works, Wayne becomes a criminal, traveling to far off lands, struggling in desolate prisons. He eventually makes it to a hidden mountain fortress controlled by a secret sect run by Ra’s Al Ghul. Here Wayne learns the way of the sect, similar to Ninjas in their fighting and battle techniques. When Wayne finds out Ghul isn’t exactly what he thought he was, he makes his way back to Gotham city, determined to rid the city of gangs and criminals.
What works for the film are the same things that work for Burton’s film. The art direction, the costumes, the sets, the overall design. But the concept of bringing Batman into the everyday world, out of the world of fantasy, doesn’t completely work.
Midway through the film I was trying to figure out what “Batman Begins” reminded me of. Then it hit me: “James Bond”. This Bruce Wayne was just like James Bond. He wore a tux. He’s a playboy. He spies on people. He has a lot of gadgets, most of them given to him buy Morgan Freeman, who resembles Q in the James Bond movies. “Batman Begins” is a James Bond movie. You’re not going to find a bigger James Bond fan on the planet than Grumpy Guy. The problem with that is that James Bond is played out. Been there done that.
Nolan and Goyer struggle so hard to explain Batman’s existence, they have trouble actually embracing the character full on. There aren’t too many long shots involving Batman. The first time he appears, its merely in shadow as he takes down a bunch of thugs in a cargo yard. The argument could be made that that is how Batman would really take them down, without being seen. Fine. But this is a movie. As a fan, I want to see Batman kick some ass. My impression was, that despite all the explanations of why someone would wear a Bat costume to fight crime, the director still didn’t have much faith in their concept, and therefore weren’t willing to show Batman full on kicking ass as Batman. Why? Because Batman is ridiculous no matter what concept you put him into. That’s the biggest hurdle filmmakers face with the character. So far, only the TV show has been able to create a world where Batman feels comfortable in his own skin. “Batman Begins” was well received by fans and critics alike. It’s a decent movie, different than Burton’s film, but no better.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Dir. Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale – Heath Ledger – Michael Cain – Gary Oldman – Morgan Freeman – Aaron Eckhart – Maggie Gyllenhaal
“The Dark Knight” hasn’t been released yet, but a few leaks about the plot as well as a teaser and full trailer give a few things away. From the looks of it, Nolan and Goyer are getting even more extreme in their realistic approach to the character. Heath Ledger’s Joker looks truly frightening, and bares no resemblance to Nicholson’s Joker or the comic book version. Again, the creators seem to be asking: what if Batman really existed. What if Joker really existed? The concept didn’t work for me in “Batman Begins”, but maybe they’ve retooled some things to make it work this time around.
As I understand it, this could be an origin story involving the character Two Face played by Aaron Eckhart. Some sites revealed that the main gist of the plot involves psychopath Joker robbing the mob off of its entire cash deposits held in secret mob banks. The people over at Empire got a first look at the opening sequence where Joker does exactly that. In return for the loot, Joker demands to know the identity of Batman. The mob sets out, by all means necessary to, to get Batman. This leads to mistaken identity involving Batman imposters, extreme violence, riots, and tragic results for D.A. Harvey Dent.
Batman/Wayne feels personally responsible for the violence that erupts from Joker’s plot. At the same time, the city of Gotham turns against Batman, including commissioner Gordon. This sends Wayne into a funky identity crisis, questioning the morals of becoming Batman. When he finally comes out of it with the help of Alfred his man servant, Wayne dons his costume once again and does battle with Joker to end all the bullshit.
Or something like that.
The character of Batman has a few handicaps going for it that other superheroes don’t. He’s not like Superman or Spiderman. He doesn’t have supernatural powers, which automatically can transcend an audience to a fantasy concept. He’s just some guy that wears a costume and fights crime. Superman and Spiderman don’t have to spend a lot of time explaining their powers, being born near a red sun, or being bitten by a radio active spider suffices. And despite all the action and adventure, Superman and Spiderman (the movies) are basically like every other movie that’s made… they’re simple love stories. Clark Kent loves Lois Lane. Peter Parker loves Mary Jane Watson. In X-Men, Rogue falls in love with Wolverine. Even the most hard edged action films are really love stories. In “The Road Warrior”, the Ferrell Kid falls in love with Mad Max. In “Reservoir Dogs” Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) falls in love with Mr. Orange (Tim Roth). When all is said and done, it’s really those relationships that hold those movies together.
For some reason, the Batman filmmakers have not been able to find that simple story that makes for a good film. I suppose the love story in Batman could be Bruce Wayne’s love with revenge, but if that’s the case, it hasn’t been articulated in the series. I’m not saying Batman has to be a love story in order to be any good, but somehow the filmmakers need to find that simple foundation that makes a superhero movie work. They haven’t been able to do it yet.