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HOLY CRAP, BATMAN!

 

My nephews are six and nine years old, and when the trailer for Batman & Robin hit the cineplex earlier this year, I promised that I would fly home and see it with them on opening night. After all, the mythos of the Dark Knight has been omnipresent in their lives for as long as they can remember and I share that experience. In the late 70s I hurried home from kindergarten every afternoon to catch the wacky antics of Adam West and Burt Ward in the corn-laden TV series. Super Friends got me out of bed early every Saturday morning, even though the Wonder Twins looked like dweebs and had dumb powers. I raced around the neighborhood imagining I was the Caped Crusader while my best friend played the part of the Boy Wonder. The boys, on the other hand, know Batman almost exclusively from the motion pictures which have been churned out by Warner Bros. every few years since 1989. I wasn't a big fan of Batman Forever but I loved the idea of spending hundreds of dollars for plane fare simply to see a movie with two of the world's coolest kids. So I did it. We saw the movie on opening night. And what happened?

The kids were bored. Daniel, who is six, kept asking to go to the bathroom. Nine-year-old Steven heckled the screen and got more laughs than the highly-paid talent flickering in front of us. And I was left with one thought repeating in my head, over and over:

What have they done to my hero?




I started collecting comic books in my early teens, but Batman was not among the titles I purchased. Marvel Comics ruled in those days; everyone was talking about the Uncanny X-Men and I was now fixated on Spider-Man and Captain America. The better-known characters in DC Comics' stable (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc.) had been so relentlessly marketed to the public over the past fifteen years that they had lost all their bite. No self-respecting kid would be seen reading a Batman comic book. It was all about Wolverine in those days.

That started to change in 1986, when a gifted storyteller by the name of Frank Miller created The Dark Knight Returns, an apocalyptic vision of our old friend that changed everything. In this world, Bruce Wayne was obsessive, brutal and borderline psychotic. Criminals weren't lovable goons that were captured and turned over to the authorities. I won't suggest that Miller made Batman more realistic, but he certainly succeeded at exploring the complexity of the character. After all, we have here a man who responded to the violent death of his parents by choosing to don a rubber suit and pounding the starch out of bad guys. Not exactly normal behavior, even for a traumatized millionaire.

When I heard that Warner Bros. was interested in making a major motion picture about Batman to cash in on the publicity surrounding The Dark Knight Returns, I was extremely skeptical. How could they cast this movie properly? In the Superman films, Christopher Reeve looked the part from the neck up, but his physical presence never worked for me. I wanted Superman to be a huge hulking brute with muscles bulging everywhere. He was more powerful than a locomotive, wasn't he? Reeve didn't look like he could bench-press a piano. I couldn't think of a movie star that could do Batman's character justice. When a studio executive remarked that the project would not get a green light unless Eddie Murphy and Michael J. Fox agreed to play the Dynamic Duo, I was relieved. Frank Miller and others had worked too hard to change the popular view of comic book heroes to have one motion picture tear it all down.

Then it was announced: Michael Keaton would don the cape. What? The wacky star of Mr. Mom was going to portray the hero of countless youngsters, and a great many adults? This would not do. All the Bat-fans I knew were outraged. And who was directing this disaster? Tim Burton, the oddball fellow who filmed comedies like Beetlejuice and Pee-Wee's Big Adventure? Oh, the humanity!

Another announcement came forth: Jack Nicholson as the Joker.

Well, okay.




The word on the street was that this would be a dark, gloomy picture inspired by the themes in Miller's graphic novel, though the story would be original. Comic book fans were thrilled. The excitement was building. The racks of shopping malls were packed with Batman t-shirts, and every kid under eighteen seemed to own one or more. The trailer was an enormous success; I heard anecdotes about moviegoers paying the price of admission, watching the Batman preview and leaving immediately following that three-minute promotional blitz. When the posters went up at the theater under the Coming Attractions banner, the language was minimal: the bat-symbol, the release date, and nothing else. Everybody got the message.

I'll never forget the night I saw Batman (1989). The audience thought they were seeing the Beatles in 1964 -- screaming, hooting, hollering, cheering for every name in the opening credits and jumping up and down when the Batmobile made its first appearance. Considering all the adrenaline pumping in that room, it's amazing that I was able to get a firm grasp of the movie I was watching. Yes, I was cheering too, but I was also noticing how nicely this film had been pieced together. The creative team really wanted break some rules, and they succeeded.

Tim Burton adds to the dreamlike lure of his movies by playing with anachronisms; for example, residents of the 50s-style neighborhood in Edward Scissorhands possess VCRs and CD players. For Batman, Burton recreated the dark and steamy atmosphere of 40s film noir while still setting the action in present day. Gotham City is magnificent, a place with gothic (obviously) architecture and danger lurking around every corner. Batman is allowed the opportunity to kick some ass in the first few minutes of the picture, and in doing so reminds the audience that he is effective because he is deranged and terrifying. Batman has no powers, remember? His greatest weapon as a crimefighter is his vigilante image -- he works outside the law. He's an outsider. That's film noir.

Here's the problem: in film noir there are no heroes. How can Burton make these characters fit his vision? The Joker is a vandal, a thief and a murderer. Batman wants to stop him. Even though the good guy wear black and the bad guy is a circus clown, the line is easily drawn. And when it comes down to it, this is an action flick -- bigger-than-life characters are fighting it out to the death. The visuals provide a lovely frame, but superheroes have no place in noir. What a shame.

Nicholson is an inspired psychotic (I disagree with his interpretation of the Joker, but that's another essay) and gets more screen time than Keaton's Batman and Bruce Wayne characters. The Joker's genesis and demise provide the rising and falling action of the picture and leave little time for us to learn about the supposed star. We all knew that Keaton would be upstaged by Nicholson, but it's disappointing that Batman is left without personality or depth. That's standard for this genre. Regardless, the audience wanted to know more about what makes this guy tick. At least I did.

 

 

Batman became one of the highest-grossing films of all time that summer, which meant a sequel became inescapable. It seems to me that the first film was in and of itself a sequel of sorts -- a continuation of the legend that had come before. From the buzz surrounding the project, they must have known that a second picture would be made -- one more reason to have concentrated more closely on Batman's character at the get-go. Burton and Keaton returned and were joined by Danny DeVito as the Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman. Together, they made my favorite of the Bat-movies to date: Batman Returns (1992).

Burton broke from Hollywood tradition and refused to plug a Roman numeral in the title of his film. He also threw the studio for a loop by delivering a dark and sinister piece of work filled with pain, fear and anger. Most of the action takes place at night, filmed on refrigerated sets. The Penguin is not a silly man with a cigarette but instead a deformed creature with hands like lobster claws abandoned by his parents and adopted by penguins in the sewers (no, I don't understand that either). He is driven with the desire to find out who his parents were and why they were so cruel. Catwoman is a brain-damaged feminist in a skintight costume who seeks revenge against her former boss, nasty industrialist Max Shreck (Christopher Walken). Of the three bad guys, only Shreck is unsympathetic. He's a greedy jerk, while the other two were created by society in striking parallel to Batman. Hey...character development! Who knew?

The best interactions here are between Batman and Catwoman; maybe it helps that Keaton and Pfeiffer were once a couple in real life. It's obvious to the audience that these two characters would make a perfect couple -- if nothing else, they both have a fetish for skintight costumes and jumping from rooftop to rooftop. There's a fantastic moment when Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle (Catwoman's alter ego) realize each other's identity and Selina says, "Do we have to start fighting now?" On the surface level, it's a one-liner. Looking deeper, Catwoman is brutally disappointed that she will not be able to find peace of mind in this relationship. It's not easy to be Batman, and it's even harder to be one of his enemies.

Danny DeVito is almost unrecognizable in his Penguin get-up, and maybe that's why his performance doesn't work so well. He seems to be just treading water, bothered by the extensive make-up and scared to make facial gestures for fear that something might fall off. I don't think the audience needed to be horrified by the Penguin's appearance to sympathize with his plight, and burying the actor was a mistake. The bitter, disfigured Penguin makes a nice dramatic contrast to the gorgeous psycho that is Catwoman, but DeVito is too talented to be upstaged by a costume.

Batman Returns approaches the level of opera at many moments, and that's how I think it should be. Do we need to see hundreds of computer-generated penguins with missiles strapped to their backs? Of course not. But these elements only add to Burton's operatic vision of Batman's world. Love! Action! Tragedy! It's all here, and while it's not necessarily a euphoric roller coaster ride like one of the Indiana Jones pictures, it's an enduring work.

 

 

Of course, the opinions of a half-wit like myself don't matter a whole heck of a lot to bean-counters in Hollywood. While still a success, Batman Returns didn't make the box office killing that executives had expected. Warner Bros. got cold feet and ended Burton's association with the Batman franchise, spooked by his depressing themes and mean-spirited characters. The baton was passed to Joel Schumacher, a more audience-friendly director, in hopes that he could turn things around. Around that time, Keaton bailed from the project. The reasons for his departure are hazy: some sources says he had tired of being upstaged by his villains, while others believe that he wouldn't do the picture without Burton at the helm. This left Schumacher without a star.

The first movie had two names above the title; the second had three. This time, five talents were brought in to breathe life into the series. Val Kilmer inherited the utility belt. Red-hot Jim Carrey was given the true "starring role" as the Riddler, while Tommy Lee Jones (Two-Face), Nicole Kidman (Dr. Chase Meridian), and Chris O'Donnell (Robin) came along for the ride. Boy, is that marquee getting crowded. With so many focal points, could this be anything but an overblown mess? The answer is no.

Batman Forever (1995) is a great title, but a frustrating experience for a fan of the first two pictures or The Dark Knight Returns. The film noir influence is gone. Schumacher edges back into the campy territory of the 60s TV series while including enough tortured soul-searching to keep the transition from being too jarring. Batman/Bruce Wayne remains a wooden character, even when tackled by Kilmer, one of the finest young actors we have. Kidman portrays a psychologist who attempts to deal with Batman's identity crisis, which should be a lot more interesting than it is. O'Donnell brings a lot of energy into his role as Robin but not much intelligence. Why would the Darknight Detective want a hot-heated assistant like this?

The villains don't fare much better. Two-Face is supposed to be a dope, which renders it impossible for us to accept Tommy Lee Jones in the role. We know from previous appearances that Jones is the thinking man's bad guy, and it's painful to watch him laugh like a psychotic and overact like...well, like Jim Carrey. The Riddler he creates is an interesting lunatic, and makes me wish that he had been around when the first film was being cast -- can you imagine Jim Carrey as the Joker? Carrey's over-the-top performance is consistent with his career up to that date, with one exception: he doesn't have anything funny to say. He is left high and dry with nothing to support him but a few thousand explosions and some pretty special effects. The Riddler's scheme is weird (he wants to suck the brain waves out of all the residents of Gotham City and add them to his own) and his motivation is hard to accept (he despises Bruce Wayne for cutting off his funding) and in the end, these movies succeed or fail on the strength of the evil characters. Nicholson carried Batman; the Batman/Catwoman dynamic made Batman Returns sizzle. This movie delivers nothing but spectacle, and while it's a better diversion for the kids than any of the films to date, there's nothing else to recommend it. Except one thing: Gotham City still looks cool.

 

 

Kilmer was set to wear the Bat-suit again (after a short two-year break, as opposed to the standard three) until one week before Schumacher started shooting the fourth Batman film. Then Paramount Pictures gave the go-ahead to production on The Saint, a project with which Kilmer had a long-standing commitment. Schedules conflicted, and Kilmer chose the job that presented the greater challenge. That would be The Saint, of course. He had learned that the real star of these pictures is not the actor who got the paycheck, but the suit itself. The success of Batman Forever had nothing to do with Kilmer (he could have been asleep the whole time) and everything to do with Batman.

Hollywood's marketing strategies had been shifting over the years, perhaps starting with the release of the very first Batman movie and its staggering first-weekend gross. The quality of the product proved to be unimportant -- none of those moviegoers could have heard positive word of mouth, and it's unlikely that anyone bothered to read a review before they got in line for tickets. The crowds came out because the picture was an event. Hollywood started to grease the machine so that first weekend could be as lucrative as possible. It was once unthinkable to open a picture on 1000 screens. Now it could be done on 2000! 3000! 4000! By the time negative word of mouth spread, the film would be a bona fide blockbuster, regardless of its quality. All the marketing geniuses had to do was scare the public into thinking that they had to see the movie...or else.

The cast of Batman & Robin (1997) must have looked good on paper. Arnold Schwarzenegger, often described as the biggest movie star on the planet, was brought in to play a lesser-known villain from the Batman pantheon named Mr. Freeze. George Clooney was quickly recruited from the set of ER to be the third Batman in four films. O'Donnell was back to play Robin, and sexual tension was added to the mix by the inclusion of Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy and Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl. I was interested to see Arnold play a bad guy again (it's been too long) and wondered what those gifted ladies could add to their roles. Maybe that's why I made that promise to my nephews. Maybe that's why I bought that plane ticket. I had an undying hope that this would be the great Batman movie we've all been waiting for -- one containing an actual story with a beginning, a middle and an end. This movie could finally be the one that explores the bizarre characters inhabiting this visually striking environment. I should have known better.

Batman Forever had its faults, but Batman & Robin makes it look good by comparison. Clooney doesn't seem to realize that he's out of the emergency room, while Schwarzenegger looks annoyed and uncomfortable in nearly every shot (you would too, imprisoned in that Mr. Freeze costume and glazed with sparkly makeup). None of Batman's movie villains had been blessed with superhuman powers before now, and the filmmakers forget to tell us the details of those powers, or indeed, what they are. Does Poison Ivy really have sap for blood? Where does her magical dust come from? Did Mr. Freeze get his massive strength when he was frozen, or does his suit enhance his natural abilities? The action sequences are uninteresting and hard to follow, especially the boring motorcycle chase which could have been present in any action movie ever filmed. The gospel of Batman is altered in strange ways, too: Batgirl is now the niece of Bruce Wayne's butler rather than Commissioner Gordon's daughter. Why? To make it easier to get her a costume? The obligatory love interest character (Elle MacPherson) is only present for ten seconds, and we wonder why she's there at all. To prove that Batman and Robin aren't a couple, maybe?

The script is pathetic. Mr. Freeze is a constant source of stupid one-liners involving ice. The lame puns are everywhere, just like the 60s TV show, except nothing is funny. In one stupid plot device remniscent of the TV show, Bruce Wayne organizes a benefit auction with Batman and Robin as featured guests, hoping that Mr. Freeze will bust down the walls and steal a huge diamond. Of course, this plan puts dozens of innocent guests in the line of fire, but no one thinks of that. It's clear that Schumacher lives in a world where The Dark Knight Returns was never published and gifted artists never thought about the intriguing complexity of Batman.

I'll give credit to the beautiful Uma Thurman as the only one here who appears to be acting (and the one with the least labor-intensive costume -- is there a connection?). The art direction is once again suburb: statues the size of skyscrapers are peppered throughout Gotham City, and there are elevated highways twenty stories up. Unrealistic, of course, but interesting to see. Maybe I would have enjoyed watching this movie if I were deaf and no subtitles were provided. But probably not.




With all those big names on the marquee and the public relations machine running at full throttle, Batman & Robin still did well at the box office. There will probably be demand for a fifth installment, but I hope it ends here. I can't imagine why Clooney would choose to embarrass himself again, especially when he is earning good notices in his other projects. Schwarzenegger is king of the hill and nobody in their right mind would want to follow his act, no matter how lame his performance turned out. The first two Batman projects worked because Burton and his stars were going against the grain and thumbing their noses at Hollywood convention. Ever since this franchise jumped on the money train, it has gotten bloated beyond belief and should be put out of its misery. I'm done throwing my money at Batman.

But my nephews still want the action figures. I guess I could make an exception....




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