Wes Craven, or Nightmares, Screams, & Mourning
The first time I saw the name Wes Craven, it was in TV Guide, around 1986. It was in the synopsis for A Nightmare on Elm Street, which read something like, “Horror maven Wes Craven’s tale of teenagers terrorized by a killer in their dreams.” The fuckers gave it two stars if I recall. In the following years, his name popped up on TV more, usually for commercials of his follow-up movies: “From the creator of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Wes Craven, comes…” Shocker. The People Under the Stairs. The Serpent and the Rainbow. As I found and read Fangoria, and other stuff about horror, I learned more about him, but it really wasn’t until I was in high school and I saw interviews with Craven that I learned really learned about him.
When I saw the news of his death last night, I was rocked. It came on the night before I was to start a new school year as Mr. Gauthier, so maybe I wasn’t as rocked as I may have been two weeks ago, when I wasn’t as stressed. Still, it was a shock and very, very sad.
I can’t say I’ve seen every Wes Craven movie because I haven’t. I feel like I only saw the original The Last House on the Left in the last eight years. I saw The Hills Have Eyes sometime in the mid-1990s. I saw Shocker and The People Under the Stairs when they first came to cable. I know I saw The Serpent and the Rainbow but can’t remember when, though I think I was in high school. Deadly Friend was viewed not long after seeing A Nightmare on Elm Street the first time, but I didn’t know who Wes Craven was and it was on cable as I was discovering horror. I barely remember any of these movies except the first two. Have I seen Swamp Thing? I don’t know. I’ve definitely seen pieces of it, just as I’ve seen pieces of A Vampire in Brooklyn.
Truth be told, I’m really quite astonished that I haven’t seen more of his movies. I really only know his creating and contributions to the A Nightmare on Elm Street series and directing the Scream movies. This upsets me.
Craven has been someone I would’ve loved to have met. When I found out he bought a house on Martha’s Vineyard, a ferry ride away from where I live, I sometimes thought it might be cool to run into him somewhere, let him know how much he meant to me, and ask if he’d have coffee with me. I know it’s crazy talk, like a deranged stalker or something, but Craven had this feel about him that he was approachable and would sit down for a conversation.
What I think was my favorite aspect of Wes Craven, other than writing and directing my two favorite Nightmares, the original and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, is that he wasn’t just a guy who was into horror for the sake of making money, but that he was actually releasing fears, his own and others. When you look at someone like Sean S. Cunningham, creator of Friday the 13th (and mentor of Craven’s), this is a guy who made horror films for a fast buck. His producing of Craven’s first film, The Last House on the Left, came about because low-budget horror movies were starting to do well. He told Craven, who was itching to direct a movie, that if he wrote a horror movie, Cunningham would let him direct it. What probably wasn’t expected was that Craven would actually make a movie that was almost too dark, too scary, too violent, a movie that became an underground classic almost immediately.
Craven loved cinema and understood how to scare. He saw it as cathartic and necessary. The creation of Fred Krueger is an amazing story of thought, feeling, and psychology. Breaking the mold of having a stunt person play the killer and instead hiring Robert Englund, who knew no boundaries to get the desired effect, Craven revolutionized the horror film bad guy. Suddenly they all had to have personalities, make quips, and find creative, supernatural ways of killing. A range of sharp objects and tools were no longer good enough, they had to have interesting weapons or a cool new way of killing.
Then in 1994, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare just knocked the whole block castle down. It’s a shame it didn’t do better business at the box office, but the movie is, I think, a masterpiece. He asks important questions. Do horror films negatively impact their viewers? What about the people who make them? This line of questioning is woven throughout his Scream movies.
Wes Craven was 76. He was an old man who lived a great life. This doesn’t stop my sadness. A Nightmare on Elm Street is up there with Star Wars as movies that shaped me. Knowing that he will never make another movie, never impart more of his wisdom, and never scare the hell out of me deeply saddens me.
“Some people ask why people would go into a dark room to be scared. I say they are already scared and they need to have that fear manipulated and massaged. I think of horror movies as the disturbed dreams of a society.” — Wes Craven
From Gotham to Gautham: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
With The Dark Knight becoming one of the highest-grossing films of all time, with its critical and fan reaction so positive, it was no surprise that Warner Bros. wanted a sequel. That wasn’t the only thing at play behind the continuation of this Batman’s story, though. See, DC Comics characters had pretty much owned television and film for nearly sixty years. Their characters had been on the Silver Screen since the Fleischer Brothers first brought Superman to theaters in 1941 and included the Superman animated shorts, the Batman serials, the Superman serials, Superman and the Mole Men, Batman: The Movie, the Christopher Reeve Superman series, Burton’s Batman movies, and Schumacher’s Batman movies. On television, Superman and Batman reigned supreme, but was also joined by Lynda Carter in Wonder Woman, as well as all the various animated shows from the 1960s straight through to 2000. Marvel did all right with the cartoons, but their live-action franchises pretty much began and ended with Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno in The Incredible Hulk. There’d been an attempt to bring Spider-Man to the small screen that was mostly a failure. The same with Captain America. The movies that ended up being made after 1989’s Batman was a huge success either were relegated to small screenings and went direct to video (Captain America and The Punisher) or were never released (Roger Corman’s legendary Fantastic Four).
In 2000, with the success of Bryan Singer’s X-Men, Marvel began to have some cinematic street cred. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) re-enforced it. And while the much under-appreciated Hulk was largely seen as a failure, the sequels to X-Men and Spider-Man most assuredly were not. Even the Fantastic Four movies did all right. But the thing that really shook things up, the thing that I think really made DC Comics–and Warner Bros.–begin to worry didn’t happen until 2008, a mere two months before The Dark Knight would change everything.
By all means, Iron Man, starring Robert Downey, Jr., shouldn’t have been a good movie, never mind a huge hit. But it was. And not only that, but the “secret” scene after the end credits where Samuel L. Jackson appears as Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. and talks to Tony Stark about joining the Avengers Initiative sets up what couldn’t possibly come to pass. While The Dark Knight clearly won the box office that summer, there was definitely room enough in geeks’ hearts for both billionaires with a predisposition to gadgets and cool suits who fought bad guys, Iron Man hinted at the possibility of a lively Marvel cinematic event, which only became more real with the following month’s The Incredible Hulk. Regardless of where one stands on this version of the Hulk’s story, Tony Stark’s cameo regarding the Avengers began to cement comic book fans’ hopes. By 2010’s Iron Man 2, it was a done deal. Marvel would be making The Avengers. While the first Iron Man set up the idea, and The Incredible Hulk kept it afloat, Iron Man 2 really started the story. Nick Fury and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and S.H.I.E.L.D. play a huge role, as well as cameos from the other future Avengers in some way or another.
DC needed to respond. Could Christopher Nolan’s Batman films be a part of a new DC Cinematic Universe, or were they too stand-alone? Did Nolan even want to return to make a third Batman? What about the other heroes?
2011’s Green Lantern was met with a lot of excitement but became a let-down. The hopes that DC and Warner Bros. would replicate the success of the growing Marvel Cinematic Universe were destroyed faster than Green Lantern‘s running time. Rumors swirled about a Justice League movie in the works, which would ignore Nolan’s films. DC/Warner Bros. needed something.
Cinematic Universe or no, Christopher Nolan decided to return for a third film in his Dark Knight Trilogy. Again, he met with David S. Goyer for the initial story, which would then be written as a screenplay by him and his brother Jonathan. Nolan decided to stick to his guns and make this film the final act of his story. Warner Bros. and DC were smart to leave him alone.
On July 20th, 2012, The Dark Knight Rises premiered.
By then, things were pretty good for me. I’d been re-married three years and Pamela and I were expecting a baby, a girl. My older daughter was fourteen and just over a month away from starting high school. The year had had some bumpy moments but things were good. And in a summer that had already brought us Marvel’s The Avengers, we truly looked forward to The Dark Knight Rises. I was excited that something similar to the real version of Bane would appear in a movie, and also just to see where we’d be brought this time.
By now, we’d expect that I’d place Christian Bale here, and I will, though nearly by default and also by a hair. Where he lit the screen in Batman Begins and truly became Batman in The Dark Knight, he feels too familiar by now. Still, there are moments that truly show his craft. The scene between him and Michael Caine as Alfred resigns out of fear for Bruce in one. The raw emotion displayed by both actors gave the movie much-needed emotional depth and was a surprise, as well. Also, his fight scene with Bane (Tom Hardy) is also spectacularly acted. This is the Batman we’ve grown to love meeting his match and unable to change course, which leads to his undoing. Bale’s real performance isn’t under the mask, though, but rather as Bruce Wayne comes out of his self-exile and re-emerges to a different world and slowly figures out how to deal with Bane and the crisis in Gotham.
Also, props are given to Gary Oldman, who once again brings Commissioner James Gordon to life with intensity, intelligence, and pathos. That said, like Bale’s entry, he’s here by a hair.
Tom Hardy as Bane is the backbone (not sure if the pun is intended) of this movie. Like Heath Ledger’s turn as The Joker, Hardy’s Bane steals the show. The guy is 5’9″, which while it isn’t short (ahem…thinking of my own height, only I always throw in “and three-quarters” because…well…you know) and he looms over everyone. And I don’t mean the obvious camera tricks, either, though they’re definitely put to good use here, but by his performance. Hardy gives Bane a confidence that borders on arrogance. He doesn’t just walk, he saunters. His soulful eyes also do a phenomenal job in letting the audience grasp his emotion, without ever once seeming to over-play it. And while there’ve been critics about his voice, I liked it. It was silly sometimes, but effective.
And while we’re on Bane, kudos to Nolan, Goyer, and Nolan for bringing to the Silver Screen a Bane who is worthy of an adaptation. He would’ve been the last villain I’d’ve thought they’d go with (well…maybe not the last…) but they utilized the gist of the comic book character who was one of the break-out stars of 1990s comic books.
Also, Anne Hathaway is quite good as Selina Kyle/Catwoman, though she’s never called Catwoman, even once. Hathaway is an actress I enjoy immensely and whom, like Gwyneth Paltrow, I feel gets given a hard time too often. Hathaway is tough and broken, yet she has the ability to change as the world around her changes.
I also rather enjoyed Joseph Gordon-Levitt as John Blake. His role as a police officer-turned-detective-turned-Batman/Robin brings an infusion of new blood to the screen, and helps move the story along. He’s spunky and likable.
Marion Cotillard is, well, beautiful, haunting, and I can watch her all day.
Of course, the rest of the cast is good, too, which we expect by now for not only a Christopher Nolan film, but also for this series of Batman movies.
I loved The Bat. I know that some people thought it was lame, but I’m not one of them. I’d hoped for a return of a Batmobile, but The Bat does the job nicely for me. This machine flying through Gotham makes me happy.
The story is bold, and I like that a lot. After the mega-success and instant-classic status of The Dark Knight, to go back to Batman Begins, yet forward with a story that truly closes the series with little hope for a follow-up in this universe is bold. To tell a story that surpasses The Dark Knight‘s 2hr 30mins by 15 minutes, bringing it close to 3 hrs, is also bold. It would’ve been easy to play it safe at this point and give us a similarly-themed third installment, replacing The Joker with another character. But Nolan decided to go back to the League of Shadows and Ra’s al Ghul and bring the story full circle. Here is a Bruce Wayne who is finally able to hang up the cowl and walk away. Here is a Batman who will sacrifice himself for Gotham…in a sense. Very, very bold.
Also bold is having Gotham be completely hijacked by Bane. This was the tell-tale moment where this movie went from, “Wow!” to “What the fuck are they doing?!” in the best way possible. I admire it.
I also love Batman’s comeback after the Gotham Stock Exchange is held-up. It’s an appropriate re-introduction to the character and means a lot. The fact that the filmmakers decided to keep the same suit is also wonderful. No sudden outfit changes for this Batman!
And Nolan’s direction is, once again, really good. He makes Gotham feel huge and real, while definitely making it known that it doesn’t exist. The action is well done and the overall tone of the movie is right.
I mentioned above that both Christian Bale’s and Gary Oldman’s performances are there by a hair each (maybe even the same hair!). I feel that their performances in this movie are a little uneven compared to the previous movies. Bale underplays Bruce Wayne sometimes while Oldman overplays Gordon at times. Mostly, though, they’re keeping up the status quo, and it’s neither good nor bad.
The “realistic” villains in John Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn) and his assistant (Burn Gorman) are a little too cartoony for Christopher Nolan’s world. Mendelsohn seems to sneer a little too much and comes off more like a Bond villain (says the guy who’s never seen a James Bond movie) than a Dark Knight Trilogy villain. Also, Matthew Modine’s role as…whoever he was, I’m not checking…is a little weak. Even his death is weak.
Marion Cotillard is under-utilized. Her role as Miranda Tate brings some new energy to the movie, but the big reveal that she’s Talia al Ghul, Ra’s al Ghul’s daughter, is a let-down. I was hoping she would be this character as I watched the movie, but by the time she reveals who she really is and takes charge, the movie is almost over and she’s given nothing to do but die, which is a waste of this actress and a waste of this character. I know that Cotillard was pregnant during this time and I’m sure that had something to do with the lack of a Talia al Ghul fighting Batman, but isn’t that what stuntwomen are for?
While each of these movies have some plot holes, The Dark Knight Rises seems to suffer the most from them, and while I’m not so concerned about the plot holes (if I’m entertained, I rarely am) I feel like the pacing of the movie is off. The first part of the movie, where Batman is no more, Bruce is slowly peeking his head out of his exile, and Gordon is having a crisis is great. We meet John Blake, Modine’s character, Selina Kyle, and Bane. We see where things are headed. When Gordon is nearly killed and Bruce decides to return as Batman, the movie hits a strangely bumpy road. Too much is going on in the amount of time it’s happening, making some of the scenes flow into each other so quickly that it’s almost dizzying. Batman returns, Catwoman is watching it as she robs Daggett, she beats him up and escapes, finds Bane’s men, Batman shows up, they fight and escape, and she disappears so he can have a joke. No breathing. Even how quickly he asks her for help and she gives it, only to betray him by giving him to Bane feels too easy, too convenient.
Why isn’t The Joker mentioned? Even once? Harvey Dent is mentioned, his photo is shown, and Gordon has flashbacks. The Joker? The dude who had Gotham on its knees and basically caused the whole Dent thing to go down isn’t mentioned. Where is he? Why isn’t he released when Bane lets the psychopaths out? It’s just strange to me. Was this out of respect to Heath Ledger? It’s damn weird, is all.
The pacing is perfect for a short period of time here, where Batman gets beaten and brought to the hole prison place. As Bane methodically traps Gotham PD and takes over the city, the movie feels right. Until Bruce suddenly starts training in the hole. Then it’s choppy again. And slow. Very slow. And then Batman returns again and things feel more on track.
Did I explain it well? I’m not sure. But I think that The Dark Knight Rises is, more than any other thing I’ve seen, a strong argument as to why television is actually better suited for these stories than film. Excuse me while I digress a little….
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s (okay, and 2010s) as superhero movie after superhero movie has come out, I have felt stronger and stronger that the best place for these characters would be television. While movie theaters can offer a big spectacle, the television offers breadth. These characters, by their very nature, are meant to evolve and change over a long period of time. They have secondary and side characters that are colorful and varied and best-suited for the way television works. The Dark Knight Rises would’ve made an excellent season of TV. The build-up of Bruce Wayne’s return as Batman. The way Bane breaks him (mid-season finale) and then takes over Gotham. Batman’s return. The intro of John Blake’s true first name being Robin, thereby setting up the next season! Even Batman Begins and The Dark Knight follow this. That said, I’m not currently watching any of the superhero TV shows (well, I just started watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on Netflix) but I really think this is the way they’d be best. I propose a new cable channel called HERO, where comic books and their other-media-offspring have a place to live. Sign both DC and Marvel and get adaptations of both places’ biggest names. Imagine the possibilities! After 10PM is reserved for The Sandman or whathaveyou. Egads!
Anyway, the movie is uneven at times, and even a little boring at times. A little.
My final real beef with this movie is the ending. No, not Batman “sacrificing” himself, the Robin reveal, or even Alfred finding Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle at some café. My beef is pretty much from the point where Miranda Tate reveals that she’s Talia al Ghul until the moment Batman flies off with the bomb. In other words, the climax. I’ve already mentioned how the Big Reveal is a little lame above, so I’ll skip that and go to Bane and Batman left alone. Talia has given Bane orders to keep Batman alive so he can feel the burn of the nuclear explosion and know that he failed. She leaves and Bane waits a few moments with a gasping, spirit-crushed Batman.
(An aside: The world’s greatest detective has been fooled by Talia al Ghul. All right, I’ll buy that, League of Shadows and all that. But he is so heartbroken. Between the less than subtle stab in the back she gave him and the point after she leaves and–well, I’m about to go there–he is in shambles. Heavy mouth-breathing, eyes wide, unable to figure out what to do or get his footing back against Bane. Yes, he’s in pain. Yes, his feelings are hurt and he feels betrayed, and probably the fool, too. But he’s Batman, fer chrissakes! His last fuckin’ girlfriend was blown up by a clown! He hardly knew this girlfriend and only really had a one night stand with her! All right, diatribe done.)
Bane takes a shotgun, points it at Batman’s face, and basically says that Talia will just have to believe Batman blew up and didn’t have his face shot off, when suddenly–BLAM!–the Catwoman shoots him with the guns on the Batpod. In other words…Batman fails. He got his ass handed to him by Bane halfway through the movie. He gets his spirit back. He gets his body back. He escapes the prison hole that is able to symbolize the well he fell down in the first frames of Batman Begins and how Bruce Wayne has finally grown up and is able to move beyond his childhood trauma. He somehow gets back to Gotham through means we’ll never know (here’s where a TV series would’ve helped). He rounds up everyone he needs to. He beats up Bane, proving that he’s the motherfuckin’ Batman. Yes, Talia threw him off. Yes, he’s upset. But isn’t that how it’s supposed to go? Shouldn’t Batman be the one to take down Bane? Isn’t it the job as the hero of the movie to, I don’t know, take down the villain?
Instead, the Catwoman does it, and adds a one-liner that, while in character, throws away Batman’s beliefs. It’s not like he’s the title character or anything.
Oh, wait, there’s more.
So they leave to stop the bomb. Batman gets Talia to drive off a bridge. I’ll buy Gordon miraculously living through a drop off an overpass as he’s in the back of a truck with a bomb that ways a ton even though the driver of the truck dies. But…the driver dies. Talia, the “true” villain of the movie, is killed in an automobile accident. And her last words are given to Gordon.
Finally, the last thing that annoyed me about this ending is something I’m okay with in theory, but after these two letdowns, it bothered me. Batman lets Gordon know who he is, through his typical cryptic means. And Gordon, who one would think has helped many children in the crime-infested city that is Gotham, knows exactly which child he gave a coat to. It’s a little thing, but this proves that this Batman is hardly a secret to anyone. Not only does Alfred know, but Lucius Fox knows, Rachel Dawes knew, the guy who works at Wayne Enterprises and was going to blackmail him knows, Ra’s al Ghul knows, Selina Kyle knows, Bane knows, Talia al Ghul knows, John Blake–who never met the man–figured it out because he also lost his parents, and, finally, James Gordon knows.
(Another aside. Unless the point of these “faults” was that Batman’s true job wasn’t to take down Bane or Talia, but to only take care of the bomb. But that’s a little weak to me.)
I also think they had a lost opportunity. I kept expecting that Harvey Dent was alive. That he’d never died but was hurt, and that he was holed-up in the prison or in the new Arkham facility, and that he’d pop up at the end to wreak more havoc. It would’ve been great. Who better to be a judge instead of Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow? But, alas, he was dead.
Overall, I think The Dark Knight Rises, much like 2013’s Man of Steel, which was shooting at the same time as Nolan’s movie even though it was released a year later, is a very flawed masterpiece. The size of the movie and the fact that it boldly goes where most of these kinds of movies are afraid to go, to ask questions and not answer them, and to actually give an ending to the story, is an achievement that is rare in this type of movie. If the filmmakers use coincidence a little too much, or allow for the fantasy to seep a little too much into their ultra-realistic storytelling, or sort of botched up the ending, so be it. I’m fascinated by this movie in much the same way I’m fascinated with Man of Steel. Both films have things that strongly bother me (Gordon calling for every police officer to go into the sewers looking for Bane, for instance) but both tell fully-realized stories that I feel I have to watch again and again, like reading a good novel.
I left The Dark Knight Rises the Sunday after it opened unsure of how I felt about it. I loved it and didn’t like it at the same time. I needed to see it again, to experience it again. I’ve seen it, I think, four times now. I really like the movie and am drawn to watch it again. I feel like I’m still missing something. Maybe it’s because there’s not as much there as I’d hoped, or maybe it’s because the movie works on a higher level than most superhero movies. Again, I feel the same way about Man of Steel.
Conclusion to The Dark Knight Trilogy
It looks as though Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy is a look at the modern superhero in modern terms, with terrorism, mass murders, and cynical outlooks all over. This Batman wants to be a symbol, and he is. He gets others to do good just by being. The biggest problem with these movies is that they’re too serious. Sure, they have some humor, here and there, but everything is serious and a little too well-thought-out. Nolan is trying to elevate the superhero movie with these movies, but in so doing, lost one of the things that make Batman and his villains so interesting: they’re pulp fiction history. This Gotham City couldn’t host Man-Bat, or Killer Croc, or many of Batman’s other Rogues Gallery unless they were so adapted that they’d eventually lose their character. And it certainly doesn’t open up the hope that there could be other superheroes.
One of its other major flaws is in allowing Bruce Wayne so much help. The fact that Lucius Fox is either the designer, or part of a team, that has made most of the gadgets and vehicles Batman has, the fact that there are so many people who know who he is and help him in some way may make for a more realistic portrayal of Batman, but it also takes away some of the magic that the character has. One of the fantastic things about the character of Batman is that he’s a genius. He could easily have helped stop crime by following the rules and using his research and technology to help the police do their jobs, but instead uses it himself as a vigilante. By taking away his ability to come up with the tools he uses, Batman and Bruce Wayne become nothing more than a rich dude who wants to kick people’s asses. Sure, he has detective skills, but some of what makes Batman Batman is lost.
While in many ways, The Dark Knight Trilogy is a masterpiece in storytelling, it does fall shy of what Marvel’s movies have been able to achieve: Big screen adaptations of not only the characters, but the universe that was created in the comic books. Nolan isn’t interested in being at the helm of a shared world, he’s interested in being a serious filmmaker. As such, for everything Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises gets right–which is considerable–they miss one major thing that the Marvel movies–whether from 20th Century Fox, Sony, or Paramount/Disney–has: fun.
I went to bed on July 19th bummed that I couldn’t get out to see the midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises. My wife had to work the next day and was pregnant, so sleep was very necessary, and my best friends either lived too far away, were busy with their own lives, or also had to work the next day. Being a teacher, I had the 20th, the film’s opening date, off. But Pamela really wanted to see the movie, too, since she loved the predecessor as much as I did (well…maybe not as much), and would’ve been bummed if I’d gone without her, so I went to bed vowing to stay away from the internet for any possible spoilers between Friday and Sunday.
I awoke the next morning hearing the news from the living room. In my sleepy consciousness, I heard something about a mass shooting. In a movie theater. The Dark Knight Rises was named. Horrified, I slid out of bed and went into the living room.
Colorado. Okay, I thought, no one I know lives out there. That’s the first concern, right? Do I know anyone in one of these places?
The news that a man armed to the teeth began shooting in a crowded movie theater during a midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises, killing 12 people and injuring 70 others struck hard. I remembered the joy and buzz seeing Star Wars: Episode II–Attack of the Clones and Star Wars: Episode III–Revenge of the Sith at midnight screenings, being some of the first people to see a movie you’ve been waiting for. Those are great memories for me. Then, using my keen writer’s imagination, I thought about the impossible happening, the kind of thing that my writer’s imagination sometimes frightened me about. Twelve people–12–dead. A six-year-old was killed.
I wept. As I did for Columbine High School back in 1999. As I would for Sandy Hook Elementary School the following December, holding my one-month-old daughter in my hands as I watched that particular nightmare unfold.
The horrifying incident haunted me then. Pamela and I had planned on rewatching The Dark Knight that Saturday night to prepare for the following day’s trip to the movies. The spectre of the news colored that viewing.
The following day, sitting in a movie theater in Southeastern Massachusetts nearly 2,000 miles away from the tragedy, it was difficult not to keep an eye on the entrance and exits of the theater. My mind is set up to imagine the worst, which is probably why most of my fiction tends to lean toward dark subjects–horror, crime, dark fantasy–so this was a difficult viewing.
Twelve people died due to negligence in taking care of mental health issues as well as availability and access to guns. There are morons who said that if anyone in that theater had had a gun, they could’ve stopped it. Yeah, that would’ve worked out. Either way, this isn’t about a political statement, because I have no answers, but it is about the incident that I truly believed marred this movie’s reception and raises lots of questions.
Was the shooter fantasizing about being a Batman-type villain? Could Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight have acted as an accelerant to someone who was already keyed up to do something horrifying? Could the Dark Knight movies, themselves, have acted as accelerant?
All those people wanted to do was see the new Batman movie. That was it. Twelve of them never went home. Seventy others will never forget that nightmare of that evening.
For me, the incident and the film will always be connected.
From Gotham to Gautham: The Dark Knight (2008)
When Batman Begins ended, with Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Batman (Christian Bale) on the roof of Gordon’s police station after using the Bat-signal for the first time, I was filled with excitement more than should’ve been rational for a nearly-28-year-old. Not only did the scene perfectly show the Gordon-Batman dynamic that I’d loved in the comic books, but it also ended on a teaser for a possible follow-up that probably sent all the nerds in the audience into a frenzy. Gordon talks to Batman about escalation: the cops get something to fight crime, the criminals get something even deadlier. Then he refers to a case he’s working on, with a criminal who “has a taste for the theatrical, like you.” The criminal, who has robbed and murdered someone, has left a calling card.
That Joker card was a shock. Everyone in the theater I was in cheered. Would it work, though?
Between the critical and financial success Warner Bros. had with Batman Begins, it was obvious they wanted a sequel. Not only that, they wanted Christopher Nolan to return along with the rest of the cast. Nolan wasn’t entirely sure he should–or even could–do another Batman. He was happy with the first movie and wasn’t sure if going back would be a worthwhile exercise for him. But David S. Goyer had given Warner Bros. a proposed trilogy that included The Joker and Harvey Dent in the second film, and Nolan became interested in reinventing The Joker…
In 2005, when Batman Begins came out, I was lost. In 2008, when The Dark Knight was released, I’d been found. I’d been with my fiancée for over a year-and-a-half, I had just completed my first (and I daresay, worst) year as a teacher, and I was living in Boston. A major city. A dream come true. My excitement over the imminent release of The Dark Knight was helped along by its massive viral campaign. Hell, I’d even taken part in it when an I Believe In Harvey Dent campaign van drove by me on the streets of Boston after having just seen No Country For Old Men. I chased the van down and got three campaign buttons. The summer of 2008 was like the summer of 1989 in some ways, a Batman movie and an Indiana Jones movie. Who could ask for anything more?!
Christian Bale continues to be a solid Bruce Wayne and Batman. He’s doing the best he can and pushing himself hard and one feels that Bale is doing the same for this role. He doesn’t just want to portray the character, but make the character live. This is a Bruce Wayne who has suffered from his inner demons but has mostly beaten them. The obsession that has fueled him in his crusade against crime seems to have lifted. Wayne talks about being able to hang up the cowl and attempt to live a fully-realized life. And…
Batman’s voice is great! I know that people have been especially hard on his voice in this movie, but I loved it. It’s just how I’d expect Batman to sound. For starters, Bruce Wayne wants to hide his identity, so he’s changing his voice. He also wants to be intimidating, and the growl helps with that. People suggest that it’s a little over the top, which I’d agree with if it weren’t in a movie where a guy in a rubber bat costume is chasing a clown around a city. Bale’s Batman voice is perfect, so fuck off.
Heath Ledger. I know it goes without saying, but his performance is amazing. When it was announced that Ledger would play The Joker in this film, I remember there was a lot of unhappy nerds. Perhaps because I lived through the Michael Keaton-as-Batman fiasco, or perhaps because I understand that actors are supposed to act, I wasn’t worried. Brokeback Mountain had made him and Jake Gyllenhaal critically acclaimed and I suspected that he wouldn’t take a role that wasn’t in some way challenging to him. That and because Batman Begins hit so many of the right notes, I figured Christopher Nolan could be trusted when it came to bringing new citizens to Gotham. What we got was beyond anything I could’ve hoped for. When the first trailer to reveal The Joker–and Ledger’s performance–debuted in December 2007, the hook was in. I was beyond excited to see the new movie. Ledger gave a performance that not only amazed but terrified. As Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson (and Mark Hamill, for that matter) all tapped into The Joker’s zany, terrifying ways, and there was definitely a sinister edge to their characterizations, especially Nicholson’s and Hamill’s, but Ledger pushed the character into the modern world. His Joker is terrifying and insane in a way that makes him fascinating but not fun. You’re not really laughing with (or at) Ledger’s Joker, so much as releasing nervous chuckles. It’s easy to suggest that Ledger not so much embodied The Joker but rather The Joker embodied Ledger in light of his tragic end in January 2008. There’s a sort of romanticism that goes with saying that Ledger may have gotten too into the role, that he’d allowed the character that Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan, and David Goyer envisioned as this incarnation of a beloved evil character to get too deep into his own psyche, but I’m not sure that it’s true. I think what we see in Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker is the perfect mix of a young actor with demons finding a role that appealed to those demons and truly going for it. His performance helped elevate the entire movie, which hardly needed it to begin with.
Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes is great. People have given her a hard time, saying incredibly rude things about this beautiful woman’s looks. The funny thing I noticed while rewatching Batman Begins for these essays, is that Katie Holmes and Maggie Gyllenhaal could almost be sisters. Either way, looks aside, she brings a depth and grown-up feel to the character that Holmes lacked. Gyllenhaal looks like she’s seen some bad shit go down in Gotham City but still remains hopeful. Her death is shocking a brutal.
Gary Oldman’s Gordon remains spectacular. He is mostly understated, saying more with his eyes and mannerisms than with what he says. He shows a warmth and sense of trust to Batman that remains throughout. Even by the end of the movie, when he’s frustrated and nearly crazed by what The Joker has been able to pull off, and he’s ready to shoot Batman for getting in the way, he’s more believable than most actors would be in this situation. Instead of a crazy turnaround of a character, it feels like a natural sense of frenzy, frustration, and fear.
Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent, Michael Caine as Alfred, Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, and everybody else in the film, are all perfectly cast. Nolan even gets Eric Roberts to turn in a great performance.
The new Bat-costume is great. It’s pretty bold to change it so much yet it works perfectly in the world Nolan, et al, has created. The small pieces of armor, the mask as its own thing, all of it, make this the coolest Bat-suit on film. And even better than the look of it? The fact the filmmakers actually show us a transition between costumes. Batman starts the movie in the suit he wore in Batman Begins. We then see Bruce Wayne talk to Lucius Fox about enhancing the suit. There are a few more times Batman in the Begins suit shows up, and then he’s in Tokyo in the new one. No unexplained enhancements or changes between movies. No strangely embellished suit at the end.
The Batpod is an amazing vehicle. The fact that they tied it into the Tumbler is even better. I want it. I want it. So. Bad.
The writing of the movie is great. The pace is perfect. I have heard of people, even people whom I admire like Harlan Ellison and Joe Hill, say this movie is boring. It breaks my heart but I must respectfully disagree. You get two great action pieces, some story, more action, more story, more action…you get it. And the fact that the entire movie hints at what will happen to Harvey Dent in its structure is even better. There are two introductory scenes, two major happenings in the middle, and two endings. Using Gordon’s statement about escalation at the end of Batman Begins as a jumping off point, the cornered mob turns to The Joker but can’t rein him in. He is the genie out of the bottle. One of the best lines in the movie is given to The Joker, “I think you and I are destined to do this forever!” That line always gives me chills. It acknowledges the 70 years of source material in the movie as well as the idea that this movie will live on.
But it’s not just the final showdown between Batman and The Joker that’s great, but every single showdown between the two is like it’s straight out of the comic books I read as a young teenager. The first time they meet face-to-face at Bruce Wayne’s fundraiser for Harvey Dent is chilling and has all the elements one would expect from both characters. And while some nitpickers have gone online to protest that Batman leaping out the window for Rachel Dawes was silly, let me break down a few things. I may be a nerd who’s apologetic for a movie he loves, but this is how I see it as a storyteller and an observational person: 1) Batman’s going on his guts and adrenaline at that moment. While he’s usually calm and collective, we know Bruce Wayne–and therefore Batman–can be impulsive when it comes to his personal feelings. Look at what happened when he lost his parents! So if he’s against the idea of any criminal ever taking someone he loves away from him, and The Joker has possibly done just that, and Batman thinks he can save that person, he will. It may not be the most heroic choice, but it’s in line with the character in these movies. 2) Logic dictates that The Joker will not kill anyone (else) at the fundraiser. The Joker has just thrown a woman–not just any woman, but Harvey Dent’s “main squeeze” out a window, and the one person who he thinks may stop him just leapt out the window to try to save her. The Joker must realize that someone has called the police, or will when the woman and the guy in the bat suit crashes to the ground, so he’s gonna hightail it outta there! As a matter of fact, the safest place in Gotham, at that moment, is probably Wayne’s apartment. 3) Even if The Joker stays, even if he begins slaughtering party guests, the police are on the way and no amount of bribes would keep him safe. Nope, Batman jumping out the window to save Rachel Dawes makes sense to this guy. Now the two of them landing on the cab without injury…well….
And of course, the showdown between Batman and The Joker in the interrogation room at the police station is iconic. Straight out of the comic books, it’s classic Batman and Joker. The Joker is doing his best to get under Batman’s skin, and finally pushes the right button. The rage that Christian Bale exhibits, the beating Heath Ledger takes, is right out of all those classic Batman/Joker showdowns. It is the one scene that constantly makes my heart race and gives me goosebumps. It is perfect.
Nolan’s direction of The Dark Knight is stronger than Batman Begins. His choice of using Chicago for the exteriors as opposed to sets built on soundstages made this Gotham City feel like Metropolis did in Superman: The Movie, huge and real. The use of IMAX cameras also makes for an interesting home experience while watching it on Blu-ray. The IMAX fill up the 16:9 ratio while the regular scenes will have the black bars at the top and bottom.
The music and sound effects are astonishing. That’s not hyperbole, either. I got to see The Dark Knight in the theater twice, once in its standard format, once in IMAX, not to mention the countless times I watched it on DVD, television, and Blu-ray, and I’m constantly amazed at the two audio elements of this movie. In a day and age when one expects the sound effects to be superb, something about the sound in this movie seems to tower over the rest. I’m thinking of two scenes specifically, although they’re all great.
The first scene is the chase through Gotham, where The Joker is trying to get Harvey Dent. Even before Batman shows up, the sound is incredible, but after he shows and gets the Tumbler blown away, the sound kicks into overdrive. As Batman races on the Batpod, shooting through windows, you can hear every little sound of glass tinkling on the ground. The sound the big tires make on the street, the various sounds of the Tumbler releasing the Pod, and The Joker’s post-crash walk, firing a machine gun at cars and at Batman, are all a feast for the ears.
The second scene is when The Joker blows of Gotham General Hospital. Again, it’s not just the explosions, but the sounds of debris falling all around, glass tinkling, that really helps sell the scene.
The sound effects’ biggest frenemy is the music, and Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard is phenomenal. From the very first criminal sliding on a line from a building to the roof across the Gotham skyline to the point when the sad clown reveals himself to be The Joker, the music goes from what we experienced in Batman Begins to a fever pitch that puts you on edge. Throughout the movie, Zimmer and Howard go from the heroic marches one expects for a superhero to a deranged cacophony for the Joker. It contributes to Ledger’s performance because the music is intense and nerve-fraying.
There are a few too many coincidences. I think. Or The Joker is a little too good. There’s a lot that happens in this movie and The Joker seems to be one step ahead of everyone a little too much. For a guy who claims he loves chaos, he’s always at the right place at the right time, and no one ever seems to be able to outsmart him. He knows exactly how every single police officer, how Batman, and how every major and minor character is going to think, behave, and act. Except for the ferries of Gotham citizens and criminals, those people he can’t read worth a damn.
The Nolans come through their characters a little too much. Certain phrases keep popping up, and while I do believe that the characters are reusing key phrases they heard from another character, they sound a little too much like phrases that are popular with the writers at that moment. They’re a little too neat. Nothing wrong with some of that, but when you can easily quote:
“That night is always darkest before the dawn.”
“…played that hand close to the chest…”
“You either die the hero or see yourself live long enough to become the villain.”
You get what I mean. And there are more, I’m sure, but I’m stopping there. If Bruce Wayne tells Lucius Fox that he’s playing something close to the vest, I expect Fox to say it later in the movie, not Harvey Dent commenting on Gordon’s sudden resurrection.
Harvey Dent is under-utilized. This is probably the one point in this essay that I’m going to really sound like a nerdboy, but when you have such a great character, being portrayed so well by Aaron Eckhart, killing him off so quickly is a sin. Apparently, the original treatment that Goyer submitted to Warner Bros. had The Joker helping turn Dent to Two-Face, and then Two-Face would be the main villain of the third movie, but Nolan thought Dent as Two-Face was too good to save so he included him in this story, helping with the notion that this Batman wasn’t interested in being Batman forever but hoped Harvey Dent would be the city’s White Knight and save the day. Dent’s death does help bring Batman back to fugitive status, which is kind of where the hero works best, but still feels a little too soon.
Damn, wasn’t that night really dark for the last few sentences of the last paragraph? Anyway, The Dark Knight, by setting aside Batman from its title, distinguishes itself from all the other movies made thus far, including its direct predecessor, Batman Begins. It brings the superhero movie into the present, with real-world issues, carrying on the question, “What constitutes a superhero in a post-9/11 world?” How can the people, like me, who oppose the wire-tapping dissolution of rights under the Patriot Act be cool with Batman using his cell phone sonar device to catch The Joker? If we say the end justifies the means, then wouldn’t that be an argument against our own beliefs? I think Christopher Nolan likes that. He likes to raise the questions but let you worry about the answers, without ever answering them himself, or having his characters answer for him. One could argue that the destruction of that ability would mean that as long as we go back to how it was before those rights were removed, then it’s all right. But the conflicting argument that comes out of this movie is that once the change starts, it won’t stop. The Joker tells Batman that he’s changed things, and that there’s no going back, and even The Joker doesn’t understand how deep that message has sunk until his ferries don’t blow up.
Either way, The Dark Knight made me break one of my own rules: I never talk about a movie I’ve seen in the theater until I’m in the car and on the way home. I was leaving the theater and turned to Pamela and said, “We need to see this again.”
The film was critically loved and became one of the highest grossing films of all time. It was nominated for Academy Awards and Heath Ledger’s performance won every acting award it was nominated for, including the Academy Award. Surely, with all the hoopla and love for The Dark Knight, it was inevitable that there would be a sequel.
Or was it…?
From Gotham to Gautham: Batman Begins (2005)
With the horrible reviews and fan reaction to Batman & Robin, Warner Bros. considered going ahead with a fifth film in the franchise, already titled Batman Triumphant, which would star the cast of the failed movie and would be directed by Joel Schumacher. Word at the time was a different director might be hired, and names of actors to play Scarecrow and whatever other villain who was being named in the rumor mill, came up every week. But Warner Bros. thought a fresh start would be best. Comic book movies just didn’t seem to be popular at that moment, and they weren’t sure how to continue. Remember, by now, the infamous Superman Lives fiasco that had caught Tim Burton, Nicolas Cage, and Kevin Smith in its web had happened and everything seemed up in the air. Funny enough, it was really Marvel that laid down a blueprint for how to proceed.
In 2000, 20th Century Fox and Marvel Entertainment released X-Men. Directed by Bryan Singer, whose previous credits included the independent films The Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil, Singer seemed like the last choice to direct a huge superhero, special effects movie. With his screenwriters, Tom DeSanto and David Hayter, Singer made a movie that was an instant fan favorite, and which also garnered positive reviews. Honestly, it hadn’t been since Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie in 1978 that a comic book-inspired movie generated so much favorable comment. In 2002, Sony and Marvel Entertainment released Spider-Man, written by David Koepp and directed by Sam Raimi, best known for the Evil Dead movies. Again, Raimi seemed like the last person who should direct a superhero movie, yet Spider-Man worked on every level.
The idea of taking an independent film director, having him/her work with screenwriters they were familiar with (or whom they chose), and then letting them loose on a major superhero movie seemed like a good idea. They were used to making smaller, more character-driven movies, and the superheroes who populated these movies were popular more for their character than because of any particular story they were in. Warner Bros. approached Darren Aronofsky, director of Requiem for a Dream and Pi, to work on a new Batman film. Inspired by Batman: Year One, Aronofsky approached Frank Miller and the two began collaborating on a new Batman movie.
Their ideas weren’t what Warner Bros. was looking for. After a few more false starts, the idea to put Batman and Superman into one movie came to them. Tentatively titled Batman vs. Superman, the movie was announced and writers and directors were spoken to. Warner Bros. was so sure they would make the movie, casting began, a logo was released, and a billboard can be seen in Times Square in the 2004 Warner Bros. release of I Am Legend. The film hit a snag when Warner Bros. approached up-n-coming indie writer/director Christopher Nolan to direct.
After receiving a load of critical acclaim with his film Memento (2000), Nolan directed Oscar winners Al Pacino, Hilary Swank, and Robin Williams in the thriller Insomnia (2002). The movie was critically acclaimed and did well. Warner Bros. approached him with the idea of directing Batman vs. Superman, which Nolan thought about. Finally, he declined to direct the major team-up for the chance to do a movie more in line with Miller’s Year One. After meeting with Blade screenwriter David S. Goyer, Nolan signed on for the new Batman movie.
Unlike previous Batman movies, I wasn’t following much of the story behind Batman Begins. By its release in 2005, I knew that Nolan would direct, that Christian Bale had been cast as Bruce Wayne/Batman, and that it was going back to the beginning. I was busy. I was going through a divorce, finishing college (five years after when I should’ve), following Star Wars: Episode III–Revenge of the Sith, dating (or trying to), being a father, and just basically trying to survive. Word-of-mouth brought me to a nighttime screening with a friend more than anything else. I wasn’t sure what to expect. The last time I’d seen Batman on the big screen, things hadn’t gone so well. I was anxious to see where Batman Begins would bring me.
Christian Bale is amazing as Bruce Wayne and Batman. Bale comes off, to me, as completely bugfuck. He’ll totally change his look and weight for whatever role he’s cast in, he’ll change his accent, and he’ll be so much in character that he’ll scream at lighting people who accidentally cross his line of vision. He is handsome and suave enough (and strangely pampered-looking) to pull off Bruce Wayne, and intense and scary enough, as well as hard-working enough, to play Batman. When I read the Batman comic books between 1990 and 1996-ish (Batman, Detective Comics, Legends of the Dark Knight, Shadow of the Bat, and the many, many one-shots and graphic novels), this is what I envisioned. Someone who would play an arrogant ass, like in the scene when Bruce Wayne shows up to a very upscale restaurant with two dates in his Lamborghini, but who is focused and driven when he’s alone. He could easily trade barbs with Alfred, but he could be relentless, and perpetually pissed-off as Batman. There’s a scene when Batman is interrogating Lt. Gordon’s crooked partner, Flass (played by Mark Boone Junior), that completely encapsulates the Batman I read and loved so much. He makes the character more believable than any of the other actors who played Bruce Wayne/Batman ever has.
Gary Oldman as Lt. James Gordon is superb. In the previous adaptations, Gordon was always an old man who looked more akin to desk work than anything else, which is pretty much what Gordon always was, until Frank Miller had his way with him in Batman: Year One. The Gordon I read in the comics was older, sure, with white hair and a mustache, a trenchcoat, and–usually–a smoking habit, but he was also Batman’s friend. The two trusted each other without ever really knowing the other, yet they completely knew each other. Somehow, in just two scenes, Goyer and Nolan, as well as Bale and Oldman, make us believe their relationship is of mutual respect, if not exactly trust…yet…with what only amounts to a few minutes of screen time. A big part of this is through Oldman’s portrayal. His eyes do more speaking than his mouth, and it sells the character completely. He’s uneasy with the corruption all around him but understands that it goes down, even though he won’t take part. With Batman’s arrival, he sees a chance to fix things and feels hope for the first time. And it’s all in Oldman’s performance.
The rest of the cast is excellent as well. Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes, Liam Neeson as Henri Ducard/ Ra’s al Ghul, Michael Caine as Alfred, Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, and Cillian Murphy as Dr. Jonathan Crane/The Scarecrow really bring it. Liam Neeson just about owns the first half of the movie, and his return at the finale, including the big reveal that he is Ra’s al Ghul, is perfect. But everyone in this movie plays it understated and realistic. The theatrics are left to Batman, and even then, there’s a certain amount of realism that makes one believe in the fiction.
The Tumbler, or Bat Tumbler, or the new Batmobile was something that I didn’t like when I saw the first pictures to come out in 2005. By the time Batman is driving across Gotham’s rooftops, I was in love. It’s a fascinating vehicle that you wish were real (yet, would be terrified if it was). It fits the tone of this Batman and this Gotham and is just fun to watch.
The screenplay by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, based on Goyer’s story, is fascinating. People often credit (or blame) Batman Begins with bringing dark, gritty realism to superhero movies. This may be true, but I think it’s more likely Goyer and Nolan looked back at the genre and realized that the best of them followed the mold set up by Richard Donner in 1978’s Superman: The Movie. Donner had a cut-out of Superman with a word bubble that read, “Verisimilitude,” and would hold the sign up whenever he felt everyone needed reminding that in order for people to believe in Superman, they needed to make his world as realistic as possible. The charm of Tim Burton’s Batman films (and even of Joel Schumacher’s films) was in their unreality. They were theatrical and bold, with little use for the real world. Nolan’s and Goyer’s decision to set this Gotham City, this Batman, in the real world would help revitalize him. Telling his origin story on screen for the first time on film would make it something to come to that would be unlike its predecessors. The best part about the story is that it’s actually about storytelling. Bruce Wayne creates the character of Batman step-by-step, using his past, his needs, his fears, and the technology at hand to make a symbol that would leave a mark on the city and, hopefully, its criminals and citizens. The criminals would be afraid of this symbol as the citizens, hopefully, embraced it. This is what every writer of fiction hopes to do, whether it’s prose of screenplays. By using Donner’s formula for Superman and having the audience slowly learn who the man who wears the cape is, they ensure that this Bruce Wayne and this Batman will distinguish themselves from those who came before. While the use of Donner’s basic formula means the title character doesn’t appear until an hour into the movie, the incidents and happenings in Batman Begins are much different, making the movie feel fresh. And while the ending, with Ra’s al Ghul’s scheme, is a little silly, I’m so sold by this Batman and this Gotham that I’d follow him anywhere.
Christopher Nolan’s direction is superb. Again, breaking from the more theatrical styles of Burton and Schumacher, he creates a world that is vast. From the mountains that Bruce Wayne navigates on his trek to meet up with Henri Ducard and the League of Shadows, to the shots of Gotham City. He also gets performances from the actors that are realistic in this otherwise insane world. His shots of Batman on buildings, watching the city, are the splash pages and panels that I grew up reading, captured in their true splendor for the first time.
The ending. Gordon’s first use of the Bat-signal, and the surprise of The Joker’s calling card, nearly made me squeal when I first saw it, and it still does.
Batman’s costume isn’t my favorite. Look, it’s better than those SuperBatman costumes worn by Val Kilmer and George Clooney at the end of their respective movies, and really isn’t all that different from any of the other costumes, but it looks best when shot in the dark. Too close a look and it falls apart. Unlike previous suits, which were made of foam latex rubber, this costume is made of neoprene and just has an odd look about it in the light. Luckily, this Batman isn’t in the light much.
Alfred stops a scene by explaining to Bruce Wayne what the Underground Railroad was. They’re below Wayne Manor, checking out the caves for the possible Batcave, and Alfred shows some hidden underground passages and hideaways. He explains that Bruce’s great-grandfather was part of the Underground Railroad, and then explains what that is. Now granted, Batman Begins doesn’t explain much about Bruce’s schooling except that he’s gotten kicked out of many schools, but surely the man who is, arguably, going to become one of the world’s greatest detectives knows what the Underground Railroad is. My real fear is that Bruce does know. That’s not a typo. I fear Bruce Wayne, aka Batman, knows what the Underground Railroad is because if he doesn’t know, then the dialogue makes sense. If he does know, then the writer, director, and/or studio thinks the audience is stupid. And that‘s a goddamn shame.
Some of the story fits a little too neatly together. But these are parts of the overall silliness that invades the latter half of this story. They’re small stuff that could ruin a lesser movie but is forgivable because of the overall quality of the film.
The title. I’ve never liked the movie’s title, and I wonder what Christopher Nolan, et al, would call it now, considering the success of the successors.
Batman Begins has a lot going for it. When I first saw it, I watched it with a huge grin from beginning to end. It’s the Batman movie I’d always wanted as a fan of the comic books. It took the character and his co-stars seriously, added to the mythos, and brought Batman back to the top of the superhero heap. And with its promise of a probable sequel, I was super excited.
And so was Warner Bros. Garnering good reviews and great box office, Batman Begins restarted the Batman film franchise. It really wasn’t a matter of if but of when there’d be a follow-up.
From Gotham to Gautham: Batman & Robin (1997)
So with Batman Forever being a huge box office hit, and the merchandising selling ridiculously well, it was a no-brainer for Warner Bros. to ask Joel Schumacher to return for a sequel. The thing was, they wanted one quickly. Schumacher went off to direct the adaptation of John Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill, but was still involved in the preproduction for the third Batman sequel. Akiva Goldsman would write the movie, and everyone would return; Pat Hingle as Gordon, Michael Gough as Alfred, Chris O’Donnell as Robin/Dick Grayson, and Val Kilmer as Batman/Bruce Wayne. Except…Val Kilmer quit. Or was fired. Or wasn’t told about the movie and committed to the movie The Saint. Whatever happened, they needed a new Batman. Because Schumacher and Goldsman had decided to use the 1960s TV series as well as the absurd 1950s comic book stories as their inspiration, the director felt an actor who could be lighter in tone than Keaton or Kilmer would be better. Enter George Clooney. Clooney, whose star had risen considerably because of ER, jumped at the role. Working seven days a week for months between ER and Batman & Robin, he took on the dual roles of Batman and Bruce Wayne.
Sticking with Warner Bros.’s wishes to keep the franchise lighter and more family friendly, the fourth movie, Batman & Robin, would be fast-tracked to a 1997 release and star Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze and Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy. It would also feature the first film version of the new comic book villain, Bane, who broke Batman’s back in 1993, played by Jeep Swenson.
In June 1997, my world was turned upside-down. Two months away from my twentieth birthday, I found out I was going to be a father. I was stunned. Sixteen years later, I can’t remember the exact order of events. I can’t remember if I’d told my parents by the time the movie opened on June 20th, or if I told them later. I remember going to my then-girlfriend’s then-stepfather’s family’s cottage on White Horse Beach in Plymouth the weekend we saw the movie (or at least fairly closely afterward) and worrying about the baby there, and her family didn’t know about it at that point. So I guess maybe mine didn’t either…? Anyway, it didn’t stop me from seeing Batman on the big screen.
I remember my feelings as the end credits began to roll almost as intensely as I remember my feelings upon hearing that this kid was gonna be a daddy. They weren’t the same feelings, but they were both intense.
George Clooney as Batman is a no-brainer. He gets a bad rap for this movie, and it’s understandable. When compared to Michael Keaton, and even Val Kilmer, Clooney’s Batman/Bruce Wayne is another creature altogether. Still, there’s a sadness in his puppy-dog eyes that can make me believe that he has suffered. The fact that he made the choice–or Schumacher (or Goldsman) made the choice–to make Bruce Wayne less brooding makes sense. I know that if a person loses his/her parents in childhood, at the age of 8 or 10, it’s likely to haunt them for the rest of their lives. I’m also sure some people will spend the rest of their lives brooding, and maybe even trying to make a difference in some way. But I’m also sure that a part of a healthy person’s life is healing and by his mid-30s, while still hurting deeply, maybe Bruce Wayne has come to terms with his parents’ death. And in relation to Batman Forever‘s storyline, it makes sense that Clooney is less brooding.
The imagination behind this movie, like Batman Forever (and Burton’s Batman movies) is something to behold. It’s a strange, alternate world that shouldn’t exist and is a marvel to the eye.
George Clooney as Batman is very flat. Clooney’s casting is brilliant, but he’s given nothing except a larger codpiece and more defined rubber ass cheeks. Here was a guy who played such depth on TV every week in the highest-rated drama of the time being used as a carbon copy of himself. While it’s fine that Bruce may have moved on from his parents’ murders, there’s very little real emotion for him to work with in this movie. The few moments he’s allowed to actually emote are overshadowed by the silliness of the disease that’s threatening to turn his life upside-down again. Aside from that, he’s mildly more interesting than Adam West was as Batman/Bruce Wayne. Oh, and it seems that every shot of every scene has the Clooney head-bob. I know that he does that, that it’s natural, but he’s like a bobble head toy in this movie, even when he’s in the mask.
Chris O’Donnell would be faintly better in this movie than in Batman Forever if it weren’t for his lame dialogue, I think. He had crappy dialogue during his first go-around as Dick Grayson/Robin, and this time it’s even worse. And while we’re on sidekicks, this movie introduces us to Barbara Wilson, who becomes Batgirl, played by Alicia Silverstone. Silverstone became the infatuation to many adolescent boys in the mid-1990s because of her starring role in several Aerosmith music videos (“Cryin'”, “Amazing,” and “Crazy”) but became a star in her breakout role in Amy Heckerling’s Clueless. In that film, she was sassy, magnetic, and pitch perfect. In Batman & Robin she plays Alfred’s niece (as opposed to Commissioner Gordon’s daughter) in a range that can only be called mildly mentally challenged. She’s terrible. Her dialogue, her acting, her action scenes, everything is terrible.
Arnold Schwarzenegger can be charming, charismatic, funny, and just-plain entertaining. I mean, there was a time that people may have actually been willing to rewrite the Constitution to allow him to become President! In Batman & Robin, he almost pulls off charismatic. In many ways, he’s the best part of this movie, and may have been put in The Day section of this essay if it wasn’t for his makeup, dialogue, costumes, acting, and… It’s bad. He has glowing blue teeth in the costume. I had to add that. The concept of Mr. Freeze isn’t a bad one, and Batman: The Animated Series showed that it can be done well. A scientist who, in trying to save his wife’s life by freezing her until her mysterious disease can be cured, accidentally makes himself unable to live outside the coldest temperatures. The sadness of the idea of this brilliant man longing to save his wife but having to turn to crime is great, worthy of a Batman villain. But the writer and director are spending too much time putting in bad jokes, worse puns, and even worse one-liners to ever really give a shit about something so tiny as character. And with the jokes, quips, puns, and one-liners, Schwarzenegger is right at home. By 1997, his star had begun to fade. One could still expect a Schwarzenegger movie nearly once a year, but the reviews were becoming harsher, the action movie was changing, and people were just ready for something new. What they got in Batman & Robin was akin to a 1960s/1970s TV guest star playing to his typecast. Mr. Freeze adds nothing to the Batman film series, poses no real threat, and has muddled-thinking at best.
Poison Ivy, played by Uma Thurman, on the other hand, makes Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze look like Hamlet. Thurman, who’d rocked the boat playing Mia Wallace in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, hams it up so much as Poison Ivy that I felt like I was watching a bad sitcom performance. Thurman can be an excellent actress, full of swagger or innocence, depending on the role. Yet in Batman & Robin she seems to be acting in a way she believes a comic book would be played. And maybe she’s right. I’m probably just another nerdboy upset by what happened to Batman and his mythos in this movie, but I can’t escape feeling that a better script, better dialogue, and better direction would’ve given us a so much better Poison Ivy.
The inclusion of Bane in this movie should’ve been a high point, but instead is a gross misstep in a movie filled with them. As an ardent Batman comic book reader in the early 1990s, I read first-hand Bane’s introduction and story-arc in 1993’s Knightfall. Bane was an intelligent man who wanted to exact revenge on Batman (I fail to remember why right now) and, unlike most of the villains Batman faces, decides he’s going to run Batman into the ground long before they meet face-to-face. By destroying Arkham Asylum and the prison many of Batman’s greatest foes are in, he releases them all and Batman spends months bringing them to justice. By the time he’s through, he’s exhausted, has hardly slept, and walks into the Batcave to find Bane waiting for him. Bane beats up Batman, ending the fight by snapping Batman over his knee, breaking his back. This was Batman’s editors answer to 1992’s “Death of Superman” storyline.
The Bane that appears in Batman & Robin is pumped full of the mysterious Venom that appears in the comic books, but other than that and the costume, he is a shadow. A large shadow. Played by Jeep Swenson, Bane is nothing but grunts and parrot-like responses. He’s essentially Poison Ivy’s henchman and is hardly a threat. While he may have superhuman strength, he has below-human intellect and could be outsmarted by a slow toddler. While the Bane of the comic books was an instant fan favorite, the Bane of Batman & Robin became how most people knew and stigmatized the character. And not only was the take on the character appalling (and demeaning) but the makeup was atrocious.
Look, the acting in general is horrible in the movie. Michael Gough, in his final turn as Alfred, is, again, great, but even he has to stretch. Of course, he and George Clooney are given the only emotional character-driven scene in the movie. Aside from that, it’s all bad. John Glover, who plays Dr. Woodrue, a mad scientist who is working with Poison Ivy’s alter-ego, Pamela Isley, but secretly using her research to create a super-soldier serum (the aforementioned Venom), said that before each take, Joel Schumacher would shout out, “Remember, everyone, this is a cartoon!” Which leads to the main problem of the entire movie.
The filmmakers responsible for the movie didn’t get it. Akiva Goldsman’s script is terrible. Like Batman Forever, Batman & Robin begins with suiting-up (this time it’s Batman and Robin suiting up), complete with groin and ass shots. Then we go into the new Batcave where Batman and Robin stand dramatically as Robin’s motorcycle and the new Batmobile (which has only one seat and no roof!) comes from the floor. And then it’s one-liners and jokes. Welcome to Batman, kids! And it gets no better. Almost every scene in the movie has bad puns, one-liners, jokes, and dumb dialogue. Bruce and Alfred’s relationship is examined, as is the idea of what makes up family, which is all well and good, but it’s forced in the same way student writing has forced meaning because the kid knows the teacher is looking for X.
The production design is hit or miss. Above I mentioned that the world Schumacher and his team created is something to behold, and I meant it. Gotham City is loud and gaudy and crazed. The thing is, it’s a little too gaudy and crazed. I mentioned in my essay on Batman Forever that there’s way too much neon in the movie. The same can be said for this movie, as well as odd colored spotlights projecting on every surface. It’s like modern Tokyo on a steroid/acid mix. While that could be a thing of personal taste, what isn’t is the cheapness of some of the look. The ice that’s generated by Mr. Freeze wherever he goes looks like sculpted plastic. There are scenes when vehicles get hit by his freeze-ray and when a door opens, you can see the “ice” wobble in the motion, looking like cut velum on the doors. Uma Thurman’s costumes are pretty tame and lame, by most standards. Hell, the behind the scenes featurettes on the Blu-ray have a costume person actually saying that her costumes were incomplete by the time filming came. Even her demise at the end is lame, when a huge rubber plant eats her, á la Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors, it doesn’t look nearly as good as the Frank Oz movie of less than 10 years before.
The look of Mr. Freeze’s henchmen is ridiculous. And the heroes change costumes for the final showdown again. This time, instead of it only being Batman in that bulkier suit he used at the end of Batman Forever, even Robin and Batgirl have new costumes made, with silver highlights. Because if you weren’t convinced that the toy makers had a say in the production design before this, they needed to make sure you knew.
Finally, the directing is off. Schumacher had a vision. He carried out that vision. In that, he was successful. He intended on making a silly comic book/cartoon in live-action and he succeeded. That said, the performances of his actors, and his designers, and his scriptwriter were all awful. And while I understand that he was being rushed by Warner Bros., and being held to a standard that would help sell toys as much as movie tickets, there has to be something somewhere in his head that makes him see just how bad the movie is. It’s not a sin to have made Batman & Robin campy in the way the TV series was, or silly like some of the strange stories out of the 1950s, but if you’re going to invoke the 1960s TV series, at least try to be as cutting edge, biting, and smart as they were in the beginning. Batman & Robin were none of these things. And while his apology on the Blu-ray/DVD interviews done in 2005 are now as legendary as the low quality of this movie, in a large part of the interviews, I saw the same things said over and over that I’ve heard other filmmakers say on other bad sequels (I’m looking at you now Jack Sholder and Rachel Talalay). In essence, “We didn’t know that the movie was going to be as big as it was. We didn’t know the fans wouldn’t like it so much. We were trying to make an entertaining movie, that’s all.” That last was true, I’m sure of it. And maybe even the first sentence might have a grain or two of truth. But if anyone working on Batman & Robin from the start thought that the fans of this PG-13-rated movie were going to love any of it, they had to be out of touch with reality.
Warner Bros. had been happy with what they’d seen during the filming of Batman & Robin enough to hire Joel Schumacher to direct a third Batman movie (fifth in the series) which would be called Batman Triumphant and would feature the Scarecrow, Harley Quinn as the Joker’s daughter, and the Joker, as a fear toxin-induced hallucination. Mark Protosevich had been hired to write the script. Word was the cast of Batman & Robin was signed to return and negotiations with Jack Nicholson had begun.
It wouldn’t come to be. In the end, Batman & Robin had a great opening weekend and then dropped immediately as word-of-mouth began to spread. Where fans can save a movie that has bad reviews (how many Transformers movies are there now?), nobody was saving this movie. Schumacher reportedly pitched an idea to do Batman: Year One, in a grittier way as presented in Frank Miller’s original comic, but Warner declined.
I remember walking out of the movie theater shell-shocked. We’d seen an early-afternoon matinee. My girlfriend said that it was pretty good. I felt like I’d been beaten. Worse than that. I can be over-apologetic to movie franchises if I love the overall series enough, anyone reading these essays have seen that. I hated this movie. I saw it one other time before rewatching it to write this. When it finally came on Cinemax, I watched it, convinced that it couldn’t have been as bad as I’d remembered. I was right. It was worse.
It’s a shame, really. I think George Clooney would’ve made a great Batman. I guess we’ll never know.
From Gotham to Gautham: Batman Forever (1995)
According to Tim Burton, after Batman Returns came out and was a hit, he was willing to go back to Gotham City again. While he may have hesitated going back for the first sequel, being allowed to really let his imagination go within the Batman’s universe must’ve been to his liking. So when he met with Warner Bros. executives, he launched right into his ideas for Batman III. Except, the execs weren’t reacting in a favorable way. Burton began to realize that it wasn’t just his ideas for a Batman sequel they weren’t in favor of, they weren’t really interested in having him return. So Burton bowed out of the movie. The execs, probably realizing that some of the fans of the first two movies might get upset, signed him on as a producer.
The general idea seems to be that Batman Returns was too dark for many people. Children going into the movie were frightened by the Penguin and parents were no doubt horrified by the sexual jokes and innuendo throughout. Warner Bros. wanted to make Batman more family-friendly. Somehow or another, they went to Joel Schumacher, director of such family fair as The Lost Boys, Flatliners, and Falling Down.
Michael Keaton had been asked to reprise his role as Bruce Wayne/Batman, and seemed willing to do so when Tim Burton would possibly direct, but then didn’t seem sure. Schumacher had seen Val Kilmer in the film Tombstone, where he played Doc Holliday, and thought he would make an interesting Bruce Wayne/Batman. Kilmer accepted the role.
The basic feeling, according to the extras on the Batman Anthology Blu-ray, was that Warner Bros. wanted to reinvent the franchise. Schumacher met with Burton several times at the beginning stages of the movie.
Batman Forever came out to more media hoopla than even the first movie. The merchandising of 1989’s Batman seemed almost an afterthought. By Batman Returns, mini-Penguins appeared in McDonald’s Happy Meals. For Batman Forever, everything was marketed.
By now, I was coming to the end of my high school career. Weeks after I graduated elementary school, Batman came out. Weeks after I graduated high school, Batman Forever came out. By now, I was older, hopefully a leeeetle wiser. I didn’t need Dad to take me, I could go myself. I was rather surprised by the movie as a whole (even though I’d read the novelization, written by the great Peter David. If you haven’t read his novel Sir Apropos of Nothing, go do so! Phenomenal work).
The bat costume in this one returns to the muscle sculpt, only more stylistic. And yes, there are nipples on the suit. My reaction then, and now, is: Who cares? Why not? Well, it’s silly. Yes, it is silly to put nipples on a rubber bat suit that will be worn by a grown man in his 30s so he can fight strange people in other silly costumes. Do you get it, yet? The whole thing is silly. Calm down. Drink your juice. Anyway, I like the look of the main bat suit in this movie. It’s sleeker, it looks pretty badass. It’s fine. And Robin’s costume isn’t bad either. Within the realm of this universe, it’s fine.
Jim Carrey as the Riddler kind of steals the show. His manic energy starts at Frank Gorshin’s level, and then goes atomic. Just as Jack Nicholson and Danny DeVito got lost in their roles, nearly stealing their shows, Carrey’s Riddler does the same. That said, I’m going to withhold any more of my comments on Carrey’s performance for later.
The irony. Not within the script or story itself, but that the reason Warner Bros. went with Joel Schumacher is because of how dark in tone Batman Returns was, yet, Batman Forever has moments nearly as dark, if not darker. And it would’ve been even darker if they’d kept the actual characterization and personal journey that Bruce Wayne goes through in this movie. In Peter David’s novelization of the script by Lee Batchler, Janet Scott-Batchler, and Akiva Goldsman, and apparently in earlier cuts of the movie, Bruce Wayne is suffering from nightmares of repressed memories. In a metaphysical/symbolic scene, Bruce eventually faces a giant bat from these nightmares and makes the decision to be Batman…forever. See? For some reason, most of the scenes were cut. Still, the movie is still pretty dark in both tone and actual darkness.
Michael Gough as Alfred still rocks. His care for Bruce is evident, and the way he works with the newly-orphaned Dick Grayson (Chris O’Donnell) is realistic and entertaining.
The attempt to expand Bruce Wayne’s story. Apparently, Joel Schumacher had proposed doing an adaptation of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One. When Warner Bros. declined, insisting on doing a straight sequel, Schumacher had the screenwriters go back to the Waynes’s murder and expand on the story. While much of this material was cut from the final film, what remains has Bruce Wayne choosing to be Batman. The idea is that in the first two movies, and even through much of this one, he felt a need to continue. Now, facing his past and coming to terms with it means that it’s no longer an obsession so much as a job. In many ways, this is actually a good (albeit weird–who wants to dress up as a bat and fight deadly criminals?) thing for the character. It means that Wayne has come to terms with his parents’ deaths and can begin the process of healing. Whether remaining Batman forever will help in this healing is doubtful, but it’s a step to making Bruce Wayne a more fully realized character. And I’m all for that.
The acting is bad. Joel Schumacher gets a bad rap from Batman fans. They’ll call him inept, and silly, and frivolous, and that kind of thing. He’s really a decent director. The Lost Boys should’ve been silly, but it’s an effective horror movie. His John Grisham adaptations, and movies like Falling Down all have characters you care about to some degree, with fairly good acting. But perhaps too much time was spent on costumes, effects, neon, lighting, nipples and bums, neon, Jim Carrey antics, and neon to pay attention to the actors’ performances. Val Kilmer, who can turn in great performances, is horrible as Bruce Wayne and only marginally better as Batman. He’s wooden, stiff, and his voice never emotes. Nicole Kidman, who has pretty good acting chops, gives a performance one expects from a high school production (I’ve actually seen better acting in high school performances, to be fair). Her character, Dr. Chase Meridian, is one of the worst psychiatrists I’ve ever seen, and throws herself at Batman almost immediately.
Some people weren’t thrilled with Robin’s introduction to the Batman movie world, but I was cool with it. Batman had Robin longer than he didn’t. But Chris O’Donnell is pretty bad in this movie. I think he does the best he can with the script, honestly, but the role isn’t great and he’s not great in it. It’s a shame, really. I would’ve loved for Dick Grayson/Robin to have worked.
I gave Jim Carrey some props before, and he does steal the show, but when he’s onscreen, it becomes a Jim Carrey movie. An early-1990s Jim Carrey movie. So we have Batman vs. Ace Venture: Pet Detective/The Mask. (Wait…I need a ticket to Hollywood…I smell a million-billion dollars!). He overacts the entire time he’s onscreen. The subtly of his performances in The Truman Show and Man on the Moon are nowhere to be seen here. And the worst…
It pains me to do this, but Tommy Lee Jones deserves his own paragraph here. His take on Harvey Dent/Two-Face, in this movie called Harvey Two-Face, is horrible. I blame the Akiva Goldsman and Joel Schumacher. Schumacher wanted Jones to play Harvey Two-Face immediately. Jones wasn’t so thrilled. In interviews given at the time, he even says it took him a while to warm up to the idea of playing this character and that it was his son’s enthusiasm for the character and movie that really got him to say yes. There’s no problem so far, because I think Jones would make a great Harvey Dent/Two-Face. Yet, it’s pretty apparent that Goldsman’s rewrite of the Batchlers’ script lightened the tone of the characters, and Schumacher wanted things to be more theatrical. The fact that Jim Carrey’s portrayal of Edward Nygma/the Riddler was allowed to get so out of hand, it almost meant that Tommy Lee Jones had to be large. And a big part of that is…
Your definition of a “comic book” is different than mine. Throughout the documentary features on the Batman Anthology Blu-ray set, Schumacher, Jones, and just about everyone else working behind the scenes keeps referring to Batman Forever as a comic book movie. This is fine. That’s exactly what Batman Forever is. The problem is that the readers of comic books of 1995 and the filmmakers who made Batman Forever based on the Batman comic books they grew up reading were coming from totally different places. Consider this: The two comic book stories that convinced Tim Burton to take on directing Batman were Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke (1988). Both were new stories that came out right around the time Warner Bros. offered the movie to him. His initial reaction to the offer, if I’m not mistaken, was No thanks. It was upon reading those two mid-1980s stories that Burton decided he might be able to make this movie, and signed on. Those are two of the darker stand-alone Batman tales from that time period, and, along with Miller’s Batman: Year One (1986), set the tone for Batman stories for the next thirty years.
In nearly every interview that is on the Batman Forever disc, from actors to director and everyone in between, we hear about their memories of Batman comic books growing up, and how they did everything they could to make the movie like one of those comic books. Schumacher, born three months after Batman’s debut in 1939, would remember him from the 1940s and 1950s, during Batman’s more zany days. Hell, he may have even been one of those kids at the movies watching the Batman serials. Even Chris O’Donnell mentions the TV show as a fond memory, saying in an interview on the disc that he didn’t really like Batman Returns because of how dark it was.
So Warner Bros. gives Schumacher the word to tone down the darkness, and he obliges by making a comic book movie in the style of comic books he grew up reading. The people working on the movie don’t care, because their memories of Batman comic books are from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Maybe some of the 1970s, though by that time, Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams, under the stewardship of Julius Schwartz, was bringing Batman back to his dark roots.
I hate to say it, but Schumacher was doing exactly what he was told to do, in the exact way he felt it should be done. So if the movie looks overproduced, it’s because he’s making a Schumacher comic book movie. And it does look overproduced in strange ways. One last thing, though, I don’t necessarily buy that Schumacher was unaware of what was currently going on in comic books at that time. He seems like he’d have his thumb on pop culture. I’m not sure why, but that’s how it seems to me. Also, if I have the story correct, he originally pitched doing an adaptation of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, which would’ve been more in line with his filmography. Warner Bros. was more interested in doing a third story in the already-existing universe, but lighter.
The film is hypocritical. After Two-Face–sorry–Harvey Two-Face–kills Dick Grayson’s entire family (for some reason, they give him a brother, because losing your parents isn’t enough), Bruce Wayne takes the young man in. Now, Chris O’Donnell looks too old to be taken in by Bruce Wayne. Dick Grayson was originally supposed to be around 12 when Wayne took him in back in 1940. O’Donnell looks like he’s in his early 20s. So there’s that bit of miscasting I failed to mention above. Anyway, once Dick finds out Bruce is Batman, he wants to join him as a partner. His main goal: to kill Harvey Two-Face. Bruce tells him that killing Harvey won’t do any good. That he’ll be empty inside and still grieving. Now, this is touching. We know that Batman has killed his parents’ murderer (the Joker, in the first movie) and didn’t stop being Batman. He’s still solemn, dark, and brooding. And now suffers from nightmares. He’s also killed the Penguin and a whole bunch of henchmen along the way. Who knows who he’s killed between movies? And now, he doesn’t want to kill anymore. All right, I’ll buy that. Yet, guess what happens at the end of the movie? Yeah. Harvey Two-Face Dent dies. Batman does something that eventually leads to Two-Face falling to a rather gruesome (off-camera) death. And Robin is obviously satisfied. And that is the message we’re delivering to little kids.
The CGI is horrible in the movie. I know it was toward the beginning of CGI work, but you had pretty good looking dinosaurs roaming around two years prior in Jurassic Park, and Forrest Gump running through CGI work the prior year, so your Gotham City computer landscapes, and vehicles, should probably look better than they do.
The story is really pretty bad, and I think it’s the deletion of Bruce Wayne’s dark psychological problem with nightmares. It was the glue that held the story together and by getting rid of it, you lose the emotional thrust of the movie. And in an attempt to lighten the mood, the movie resorts to bad one-liners. The movie opens (after a lame CGI credit sequence that feels more like amateur filmmaking than major Hollywood movie) in the Batcave. Batman quickly suits up (nipples!) and we find the new Batmobile coming up from the floor. Batman walks dramatically, theatrically to his mark, where he stands beside the Batmobile, a perfect stop for movie stills in magazines. Cut to: Alfred standing nearby, holding a tray of food. “Can I persuade you to take a sandwich with you, sir?” Batman replies, “I’ll get drive-thru.” That’s our introduction to Batman in this movie. His first line. “I’ll get drive-thru.” It’s not like they’d planned on using footage for McDonald’s commercials. Oh…
The Batmobile is horrible! It looks like…well…a toy car! The glowing lights in the wheels? And what is it with all the strange lights, anyway? Neon and projected lights and lasers everywhere!
Batman has two costumes. This is in line with the comic books, to a degree. Especially in the 1940s and 1950s. There is a prototype costume that Bruce Wayne wears after the Riddler has destroyed the Batcave and his costumes. It’s a bigger costume that’s supposed to have some extra features, though there don’t seem to be many. It makes Batman look bigger, and Val Kilmer look silly. At least it allows him a second suit-up (butt cheeks!), just in time for the final act of the movie, when he’s about to go get the bad guys.
Overall, the movie fails not because of the nipples or ass crack on the bat suit, not because of the bad acting, not even because of Schumacher’s overproduced, overly-theatrical ways. The movie fails because the emotional core of the movie is gone. The concern is more for action figures and merchandising than on telling a good story. Even Dick Grayson’s story, which should make us care, has no real emotion to it. He’s angry and wants revenge. Who are the Grayson’s? Why should we care?
On June 16th, 1995, opening night, I saw the movie with a friend. The 10 PM showing. I remember liking it more back then than I do now. Who knows why? I certainly don’t. But I liked it enough to watch it a few times after it came out on video. Still, I didn’t watch nearly as much as the two Burton movies, so that’s probably telling.
Anyway, Batman Forever did quite well at the box office. It was a no-brainer for Warner Bros. There would be a fourth Batman, and Joel Schumacher would direct. The possibilities were endless. What could possibly go wrong?
From Gotham to Gautham: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
While Batman may not have graced the silver screen between the 1966 and 1989 films, his presence was certainly available on television. In 1968, Filmation put out The Batman/Superman Hour, which featured The Adventures of Batman, an animated series that captured the tone of the TV series, yet still felt like the comic books. Olan Soule provided the voice of Batman, and Casey Kasem provided the voice for Robin. The show lasted one season. Batman and Robin made their next animated appearance in the classic 2-part story on The New Scooby-Doo Movies in 1972. The following year, Hanna-Barbera debuted Super Friends, an animated version of the Justice League, which brought some of DC Comic’s most famous superheroes (and a few created just the show) to the small screen. It was the place to get your Batman and Superman fix for a generation, and lasted in some incarnation for more than a decade. Soule and Kasem provided the voices for the Dynamic Duo for these shows. Funnily enough, Filmation put out The New Adventures of Batman in 1977, starring the voices of Adam West and Burt Ward. Like its predecessor, this show lasted one season. Except for reruns of the 1966-1968 TV series and the Filmation cartoons, Super Friends, and it’s 1984-1986 Super Powers spin-off (which was really a tie-in for the superlative Kenner action figure line), Batman was getting no love. (I will ignore the 1979 TV specials Legends of the Superheroes, in which Adam West and Burt Ward reprise their roles, which were shot on videotape with a laugh track. I haven’t seen them…yet).
When Batman was released in 1989, and became a huge hit, not only was Warner Bros. eager for a sequel, but they thought that the time was right for new animated adventures. Enter Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski. Together, they began work on what would become a series that changed animated action television. Going for a stylized look that was at the same time simple and complicated, and taking the tone from the Tim Burton films, the complicated characters from the comic books, and the excellence in animation from the Fleischer Superman cartoons, Timm and Radomski got to put the closest thing to the Batman comic books the screen has ever seen.
Debuting in September 1992, three months after Batman Returns premiered, Batman: The Animated Series became one of the Fox Network’s big afternoon hits. The show was so popular that the decision was made to produce a direct-to-video movie. Written by Alan Burnett and Michael Reaves, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm went into production. Warner Bros. executives were so impressed with what they saw, they decided to release the movie in theaters. So in December 1993, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm came out.
By December 1993, I was well into my junior year of high school. While I looked very much forward to the third Batman movie, and was a fan of the animated TV series, I didn’t get to see the movie. I wanted to, it just didn’t happen. As a matter of fact, I didn’t get to see the movie until I needed to write this. So with 21 years between its theatrical release and my first viewing, let’s get to it.
There’s a reason why Kevin Conroy has been cast as Batman so often in animation and videogames. Like Bud Collyer did for Superman on the radio and in cartoons, Conroy managed to change his voice in a believable way to distinguish Bruce Wayne and Batman. His performance his excellent.
Mark Hamill as the Joker is as legendary as Conroy as Batman. When geeks fight over who has done the best performance of the Joker, Hamill’s name is often cited. Hamill, a long-time comic book fan, truly got into the Joker’s derangement and deadliness. While his lines are sometimes far from great, he performs the role with such relish that one cannot help but be moved.
The courage it took to make the main “villain” a completely new character with the surprise ending that the Phantasm (who was a cross between Darth Vader, the Grim Reaper, and a comic book character called The Reaper, featured in Batman: Year Two) is actually Bruce Wayne’s love interest, Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delaney). It also rewrites Bruce Wayne’s history a little, having him actually propose to Beaumont. Her sudden departure helps him fully decide to become Batman.
The animation is pretty good, as is the background art. The creators went for an Art Deco feel to Gotham City that captured the feel of Tim Burton’s Gotham City while being distinctly its own.
The music is great. It’s based on Danny Elfman’s score from the films and is appropriate for the series, as well as the movie.
In the hour-and-15-minutes the movie lasts, I found myself bored at times. The movie goes back-and-forth in time, from the present to the time just before Bruce Wayne decides to be Batman. We see him try to take on criminals wearing a regular mask and getting his ass kicked (something that has become common since Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One). We see him meet Andrea Beaumont, fall in love with her, propose, realize her father is in with the mob, and lose her throughout the movie’s many flashbacks, all done with the cheesy wavy transitions that I thought had stopped being used sometime in 1983. Maybe it’s because I was chasing after a 20-month-old (who was super-excited to see Baa-Bah! on TV), but if I was bored with it, I imagine the original target audience of children may be, too. Maybe not, just my guess.
I love animation but there seems to be something with a lot of these modern superhero animated shows/movies in the sound quality. The voices of the actors are clear and concise, but they’re too clear and concise. It doesn’t sound like the characters are in a world consisting of life. And when background sound effects are added, they also tend to fall flat. Maybe it’s just me.
The Phantasm is a little lame. For a movie called Mask of the Phantasm, I expected more Phantasm. I understand that there was supposed to be the mystery of who the Phantasm was, but when he shows up, he’s really bad at what he sets out to do, and he really is no match for Batman, the Joker, or just about any mobster he comes into contact with.
Overall, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is an enjoyable enough movie, which I’m sure fits right in with the TV series (I haven’t watched the show for a long time), but I seem to remember that the series was more interesting overall.
Still, the movie did well enough that Warner Bros. made two more animated movies, though both were strictly direct-to-video, so we’ll skip over them. It certainly was a good enough placeholder, as was the overall television series, until the next Batman movie came out.
From Gotham to Gautham: Batman Returns (1992)
With Batman‘s huge success, Warner Bros. obviously wanted another movie, and obviously wanted Tim Burton to direct it. However, Burton wasn’t sure he wanted to direct it, and had a story of his own he was passionate about. That movie, Edward Scissorhands, became the film that is probably most quintessentially Tim Burton. Release by 20th Century Fox in 1990, it was a modern fairy tale that utilized many of Burton’s already-known quirky styling and enhanced them. It was a hit.
Eventually, Burton went back to Warner Bros. and agreed to do the next Batman. The biggest thing he wanted, though, was the kind of control he’d had over Edward Scissorhands. As such, producers Jon Peter and Peter Gubers became executive producers while Burton and longtime collaborator Denise DiNovi became producers. A script by Batman writer Sam Hamm was rewritten by Daniel Waters (as well as a ghost-rewrite by Wesley Strick) and eventually passed muster. With Burton on board, Michael Keaton agreed to resume the roles of Bruce Wayne and Batman.
When Batman came out in 1989, I was fresh out of elementary school having just finished 6th grade (in these parts, 5th grade now constitutes the end of elementary school). Junior high school (7th-8th grade, as opposed to today’s middle school, 6th-8th) was pretty bad. Some of the worst years of my life. My freshman year of high school was only marginally better. I transferred schools after 2 months, not happy with the original high school I’d attended and opting for the area’s vocational-technical high school to do art. The two things I looked forward to for the 1991-1992 school year were Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare and Batman Returns. At least one of them delivered.
The cast is quite good. Keaton’s second go-around as Batman and Bruce Wayne is more interesting than the first. Maybe it’s the redesigned suit, which features a thinner mask/cowl than its predecessor and torso armor that looks more like armor than the 1989’s sculpted muscles. Maybe Keaton just grew more comfortable moving around as the character. Either way, his Bruce Wayne is more interesting, willing to smile and actually try to be a part of his world, while his Batman kicks a little more ass, and is even more like the Batman from the comic books from that time period.
Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle/Catwoman starts off a little rocky, my guess is mostly due to the script, but quickly becomes a scene stealer. Pfeiffer is confident, sexy, and smart and it comes through. As the movie progresses, her character is more and more interesting and her performance gets better and better, no easy feat considering movies shoot scenes out of order. She is a great foil to Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne/Batman. The scene at Max Shreck’s masquerade ball is easily their best together without the masks. In masks, all their scenes together are great.
Danny DeVito’s Penguin is ridiculously over-the-top and hilariously evil. It shouldn’t work. Upon rewatching the movie for this essay, I didn’t think it would work now that I’m an adult. But I couldn’t help but laugh at the double- and triple-entendres I missed as a 14-year-old high school kid. The movie is wildly inappropriate yet most kids wouldn’t know it because the humor is above them. I found myself quite mesmerized by the character this go-round.
Christopher Walken’s Max Shreck is the true villain of the piece. A corporate do-nasty, he has plans for Gotham City and uses the Penguin as a means for more control. When Batman foils the plan to get Penguin elected mayor of Gotham, Shreck disassociates himself with the deformed man, leaving the Penguin to fend for himself, which sets up the last act of the movie. Walken plays Shreck in a way that is subtle but scary. While DeVito is chewing the scenery and give a broad performance, Walken pulls it in and allows his eyes and increasingly wild white hair to do the work.
There’s better pacing this time around. Maybe because there are so many characters that the audience has to keep track of, maybe the filmmakers took a cue from some of the negative comments about Batman, but there’s more action in this movie, and more interesting things happening. It’s actually quite insane. The costumes and shenanigans of the Penguin’s Red Circus Gang are ridiculous, but create a world that one almost wishes existed. If these were the villains we had to deal with, life may be crazier, but maybe we’d be safer in the long run.
The movie is actually quite funny in places, and appropriately so. Unlike the campy satire of the 1966-1968 Batman, Batman Returns has the aforementioned risqué humor from the Penguin, as well as cute scenes, like the one involving Bruce, Alfred, and Selina. Bruce and Selina are on a date (that in itself is funny, since a heavy make-out session–that was about to go farther–had to be stopped since they both suffered from wounds they gave each other the night before in their alternate personas) when trouble happens. Bruce, scatterbrained as usual, tries to get Alfred to tell Selina a lie so he can run off and be Batman. The moment Bruce leaves, Selina comes in and does essentially the same thing.
Another great moment comes later on and also concerns Alfred. The Batmobile has been compromised and needs repairs. As Bruce Wayne is accessing a secret way into the Batcave, via an iron maiden, Alfred reminds him that they can’t just send the Batmobile to any old repair shop.
“Hey,” Bruce says. “Who let Vicki Vale into the Batcave? I’m sitting there working and it’s like, ‘Oh. Hi, Vicki. How are you?'”
It’s a great moment acknowledging the outcry the fans made over Vickie Vale entering the Batcave and the interaction between Michael Keaton and Michael Gough helps show Bruce and Alfred’s relationship.
Which is why I’m going to give Michael Gough more accolades here. While Gough gave Batman some much-needed humanity, here he reinforces the humanity of others. Whether it’s the playful interplay between him and Keaton, or him and Pfeiffer, or it’s him alone discovering something or working some sort of Bat-equipment, Gough is phenomenal. He manages to make Alfred seem both put-upon and fatherly simultaneously.
Again, Tim Burton and his production designers, costumers, make-up artists, and prop people create a world unto itself. Gotham City in Batman Returns feels as though it belongs in the world set up in the first movie but takes it in different directions. The former amusement park where the Penguin has lived (and retreats to), Shreck’s Department Store and its offices, the rooftops of Gotham, and Gotham Square are all familiar and alien at the same time. Again, it’s hard to pin down the era in which the movie takes place, though it does feel more of its time (1992) than its predecessor, much of the costuming has a 1940s/1950s feel, except for Bruce Wayne, Batman, and eventually Selina Kyle/Catwoman.
Danny Elfman’s score was great in the first movie and is even better here. Maybe in the three years between movies he grew more as a composer? Maybe he’s more comfortable with the subject? Either way, his score in this movie builds from Batman’s theme and goes way, way beyond. And without Prince’s crappy music to force into the movie, the music really soars. (And before you leave angry comments about me calling Prince’s music crappy, let me say that I don’t think all of his music is crappy. I actually like a lot of it. But his music for Batman was just bad, man.)
No Harvey Dent. Apparently, he was in some of the earlier drafts of the movie but was eventually deleted because they had too many characters. Even Commissioner Gordon’s role was diminished in this movie. While Pat Hingle isn’t my favorite James Gordon, Gordon is such a huge part of the Batman mythos that hardly seeing him onscreen is a little disconcerting. I think Dent’s character growing through the movie, even if it was only a few short scenes, would’ve been pretty cool. Yeah, that’s more of me as a fan-geek than as a serious critic, but that’s how I see it. Besides, I’m hardly a serious critic.
The film is a little too…theatrical? Is that the right word? One of the things that Tim Burton is known for is his distinct style. There were glimpses of it in his first three movies (Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, and Batman) but it really took shape in Edward Scissorhands. His movies are very stylized and have a specific look to them, from the use of the camera, the use of miniature sets, to the way characters enter and exit a scene. It’s all very theatrical, which isn’t a terrible thing, and is arguably one of the things that makes his movies (well, most of them) fun to watch. Here it’s a little silly sometimes. Two examples I remember from when I was 14 and noticed (and made me smile) now have to do with Michael Keaton.
In these early Batman movies (and many other action movies of the 1980s into the early-1990s), there is a scene when the hero suits up. Whether it’s John Rambo in Rambo: First Blood Part II, or Schwarzenegger in one of his movies, or Batman, there is a scene when the hero goes from being…well…the hero to the, um, hero. In this move, Bruce Wayne goes to the Batcave for the final act’s suit up. He goes into the new vault where all the Batman costumes are located (he must’ve renovated the cave since the first movie). There’s a drawbridge that leads right up to the first costume, which takes up the doorway. It’s quite apparent that you can’t go into the room with the costume where it is, yet Michael Keaton walks right up the small drawbridge and into the room–and obviously nose-to-nose against the first costume. I know what they were going for, and it would’ve been a great shot. Except that you can see at the last minute Keaton has to stop and stand awkwardly, trying not to dump that first costume.
The second moment comes closer to the end. Batman is in his new vehicle, called the Batskiboat, and rushing toward the Penguin’s lair in the abandoned amusement park. He has used a frequency changer (with the help of Alfred) to save Gotham from the Penguin’s penguins and has redirected them to the amusement park. The Penguin, quite angry, rides his motorized duck car to the surface and the Batskiboat follows, crashing from a tunnel and on top of the duck, crushing it. The lid of the Batskiboat slides open and Batman is obviously bent over, squished inside so he can stand up and get out of the vehicle. In other words, the life-size one they built for this scene was too small to fit Michael Keaton. I know I’m nitpicking, but I remember that it bothered me at 14. And that’s the thing with those small, stylistic things, as an adult I find them almost charming, but as a kid, they took me out of the story.
Gotham City feels smaller in this movie. Batman was shot in England, at the legendary Pinewood Studios, where a huge chunk of Gotham City was built. Pinewood Studios is also where portions of Superman and Superman II were shot on the famous 007 Stage. On the backlot, portions of New York City streets were recreated for the infamous fight between Superman and General Zod and his crew. In Batman, Gotham feels like a city. In Batman Returns, which was filmed at Warner Bros. Studios in Los Angeles, even though the sets were huge, it looks (and feels) like less of Gotham was built. And it’s pretty obvious that certain sets were re-used, albeit decorated differently (the exterior of Shreck’s Dept Store and the exterior of Gotham City Hall of Records). Even with the matte paintings of Gotham’s skylines, and chases on the rooftops, Gotham feels small.
Batman the murderer is on the loose. Seriously, Burton’s Batman is a killer in the same way that every action movie star of the 1980s-1990s are, and it’s disappointing. In an interview for one of the behind-the-scene documentaries on Warner Bros.’s superb Batman Anthology DVD/Blu-ray set, I believe it was Daniel Waters who said that while fans complained that Batman killed in these movies, they felt they needed to make him more modern, and in modern movies, the action heroes often kill indiscriminately. To which I say: Bullshit. Why the need to make Batman like every other action star of that time period? Batman purposely uses the Batmobile to set someone on fire, and purposely attaches a bomb to another criminal, blowing him to hell. (How many people will come to my website by searching Batman blowing? We’ll find out! Whee!). And for all intents and purposes, he kills the Penguin as well. Yet, he stands down in the Penguin’s lair, trying to convince Selina Kyle not to kill Max Shreck. He argues that they’re not like Shreck, which I read as, “We’re not killers like he is.” Except…he’s killed all those goons that worked with the Joker, the Joker, several of Penguin’s goons, and, at this point, possibly the Penguin…twice. The way I see it, if Selina Kyle/Catwoman kills Shreck, she’s doing something Batman most likely would’ve done anyway. The argument is, of course, he had no choice but to kill these people. Maybe, maybe not. But the thing that makes the comic book Batman so interesting is that he is unwilling to kill, and when he does, it messes him up.
The black gunk that comes from the Penguin’s mouth. It’s just weird. Blech.
Like Burton’s initial foray into Gotham City, Batman Returns is a tour-de-force of imaginative filmmaking. Nitpicking aside, not only do I enjoy the movie, but I like it even more than its predecessor. It’s faster paced, has more humor, and is just more fun. I saw it twice in the theaters when it came out (and still have the ticket stubs) and multiple times in the year or two that followed, once I got the videotape for Christmas.
Batman Returns was a financial hit, though the reviews were mixed. While Burton’s vision and unique storytelling prowess were often cited as plusses, they were also parts of the criticism that the movie, which was rated PG-13 (like its predecessor), was too dark and too scary. Still, it seemed inevitable that Warner Bros. would want a third adventure. And I knew, that summer in which I turned 15, that I couldn’t wait for a third movie!
A possible piece of trivia: I’ve kept movie stubs for every movie I’ve seen since June 1992. The first stub is for Batman Returns. So is the second stub, seen a month later.
From Gotham to Gautham: Batman (1989)
1989 was a big year for Batman. It was his 50th birthday and it was the year he would appear in a major motion picture for the first time in 23 years.
Beginning in the early 1970s, Batman (and comic book) fan Michael Uslan tried getting Hollywood interested in bringing Batman back to the big screen. After pitching his idea to producer Benjamin Melniker, the two went from one studio to the next, eventually winning over the producing team of Jon Peters and Peter Guber. Still, there was little interest. Until the end of 1978.
With the success of Superman: The Movie, Warner Bros. wanted to do what DC Comics itself had done 40 years prior and follow the film up with a new superhero movie. They brought the property back to Warner Bros. (who owns DC Comics) and began the task of bringing Batman to the big screen again. However, nothing seemed to work. Treatment after treatment was pitched to Warner Bros., which would agree, and then change their minds. Tom Mankiewicz, who’d ghostwritten revisions to Mario Puzo’s script for Superman and Superman II when Richard Donner was on both projects (and given the onscreen credit of Creative Consultant), even wrote a treatment. Getting the right director was difficult and pinning down the tone of the movie, and character, was also difficult.
After his success with the Warner Bros. release of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), Tim Burton was asked to direct. Not a comic book fan himself, he was intrigued by the imagery of Batman and the Joker. More treatments were written and things weren’t official until Burton’s next movie, Beetlejuice (1988), was successful. Warner Bros. officially greenlit Batman and the stage was set for one of the biggest film franchises of all time.
I knew none of the above. I was a kid, fer chrissakes! What I did know was that in December of 1988, Entertainment Tonight promised a first look at the new Batman movie and I was intrigued. They showed a part of the trailer and I was blown away. I distinctly remember Batman turning around to face the camera, bloodied, his mask dark rubber, ears tall like they were in the comic books. I’d already heard that Michael Keaton–whom I knew from Mr. Mom, Gung Ho, Johnny Dangerously (I love this movie!), Beetlejuice, and a movie I loved called The Dream Team (I haven’t seen it since about 1990, so forgive me if it’s bad)–would play Batman, and I wondered how that would be. I didn’t understand, at that time, the controversy of the decision other than he was known as a comedic actor and Batman was an action/adventure role. I didn’t really know that Batman was supposed to be dark because, even though I had a bunch of Batman comic books from the early-1980s, I hadn’t really read them. I was too young when they came into the house. I still had them and would go back and reread them, but at this point, that was still months away. Seeing that first glimpse of Keaton as Batman got me excited, but I was still a little confused. To me, Adam West was still Batman. I was 11 years old, give me a break.
Sometime around March the marketing machine really started and Batman tee shirts, posters, lunchboxes…the list goes on…started popping up. I remember walking through JC Penney at the local mall and seeing a bunch of Batman tee shirts, for someone my size! At this time, superhero clothing was still for little kids. I was in sixth grade (my last year of elementary school, back then). Also, I was a “husky” 11-year-old.
Batman was everywhere. One of the first adult novels I ever read on my own was the paperback novelization of the movie, written by Craig Shaw Gardner.
1989 was a big year for movies, and that summer was particularly good. It featured not only Batman, but also Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ghostbusters II, Lethal Weapon 2, and A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child. I got to see Batman, Indiana Jones, and Freddy Krueger in the movies that summer. The other two I saw on VHS when they came out. Either way, it was a good summer.
We went to see Batman a week or two after its release and there was still lines going around the building. We saw Honey, I Shrunk the Kids instead. Finally, my father took me one Saturday afternoon to see it. By now, I’d read the novelization and had read a behind-the-scenes magazine. The movie still left a big mark on me.
Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman. Last year, when it was announced that Ben Affleck would play Batman and geeks cried out in a rage, I laughed at them. Maybe they were too young to remember, but I do remember the Michael Keaton fiasco. His Bruce Wayne stands apart from any that had come before or since. He is seemingly a normal guy, looks completely normal. He certainly does not look like someone who dresses like a bat and fights crime at night. Yet, it totally works because of this. As Wayne, he is scattered and scarred, trying to find some sort of normalcy but having trouble. When we meet him at a charity benefit being held at Wayne Manor to help save Gotham’s bicentennial festival, Vicki Vale (played by Kim Basinger) taps him on the shoulder and asks if he knows who Bruce Wayne is. He says no, she thanks him and walks away, and he stands there with a pen he’d been using to sign something with. He realizes he has the pen and doesn’t know what to do with it. He stabs the soil of a huge potted plant with the pen, leaving it there, to be instantaneously retrieved by Alfred (Michael Gough), who also saves a champagne flute. It’s the perfect introduction to a man who continues being the child he was when his parents were murdered in front of him. It’s only after a strange conversation with Vicki Vale and reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) that we see him in his true self, looking at a bank of monitors in the Batcave.
His acting as Batman is somewhat stilted and emotionless, but this makes sense for someone trying to conceal his identity. The costume itself provided lots of limitations. In trying to achieve accuracy between the comic books and the movie, the costume designers chose to make the mask and cowl go right down to the cape. Unfortunately, the latex foam rubber used to make the mask meant that Keaton couldn’t turn his head without ripping the cowl from the neck. Also, with the thickness of the mask near his eyes and around his head, he had trouble seeing and hearing. Taking all this into consideration, Keaton did a helluva job. Even without it, his tone was correct for the movie overall.
Jack Nicholson obviously needs to be mentioned, though I almost ask myself Why bother? Everyone knows he did an excellent job as the Joker. Yes, he may have hammed it up some, but the character hams it up. He had the energy that Cesar Romero brought to the role (mustache and all) in 1966-1968, but was sinister and deadly. And as much as I’m a Robin Williams fan and truly think he would’ve been great in the role, Jack Nicholson as the Joker seemed like destiny. Not only that, but he brought a certain amount of respect to the movie.
The production design is pretty amazing. The idea of making a wholly original city that looks like a nightmare come to life is inspired. Taking the idea that Gotham City is a tortured, sickly, corrupt city and then making it look that way in an outward manifestation was bold. Anton Furst’s designs are nightmarish and effective. Compared to the studio backlots used in the serials as well as the 1966 TV series, or the Los Angeles skyline and surrounding country roads, and unlike Superman: The Movie (and Superman II), which used New York City as its Metropolis, this film had Gotham City as its own thing, unlike any other city. It was a place you’d barely want to walk in the afternoon, never mind after dark.
The Batmobile. How do you top the 1960’s iconic Batmobile? Well, here you go. It’s sleek, sinister, and not at all kitschy. It’s a more realistic Batmobile, to be sure. Where the 1966 Batmobile (as well as most of the comic book versions before and after) were gaudy and seemed to almost be an advertisement to the city of Gotham that Batman had arrived, this Batmobile is scary.
Michael Gough as Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne’s butler (and surrogate father) is amazing. Understated, elegant, and fatherly, he is the heart of the movie. In the scene where Bruce Wayne and Vicki Vale have their first date in Wayne Manor and end up eating with him, he turns a clichéd scene into something real. Throughout the movie, he is truly the one Bruce Wayne listens to. You get the idea that while he goes along with Wayne’s idea to dress up like a bat to kick some criminal ass, he doesn’t completely agree with it. As such, one of the movie’s most controversial scenes makes sense. More on this later.
The introduction to District Attorney Harvey Dent is a great thing, and the fact that they cast a black man, Billy Dee Williams, to the part is even better. It meant that there was the idea that a sequel could be made and that one could see Dent’s transformation into Two-Face. Because of knowing for this movie, it would make the tragedy of his story that much stronger. Williams turns in a solid performance, too, though he’s not given the screen time he should be.
Danny Elfman’s score is top-notch. The opening titles music alone (a slow reveal of the bat symbol) is as good as John Williams’s Superman theme (or his Star Wars or Indiana Jones themes, for that matter). Where Williams’s Superman theme was bold and hopeful, heroic, Elfman’s Batman theme is heroic, sure, but also dark and mysterious. The rest of his music is every bit as quirky as director Tim Burton is, and bold as the hero Batman is.
Tim Burton’s direction is brilliant at times. His quirky storytelling ability that led him to direct Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice (which was originally going to be directed by Wes Craven, with a darker, meaner script) and made them instant classics doesn’t seem right for Batman, yet he does a great job with the piece. The movie could move a little faster, and the dialogue could be better, but overall Burton’s vision of the characters–and of the nightmare that was Gotham City–made the movie unique and made it a movie unlike many other superhero movies, before or since. It’s set in a time unto itself. It could be the 1940s, except the TVs are all in color, and Vicki Vale’s wardrobe and car are definitely 1980s (so is Bruce Wayne’s wardrobe). I wonder if this is his way of saying that Vicki Vale is more progressive and ahead of the curve than those around her, or if it means that Gotham is behind the times. After all, she’s a visitor. Batman’s gear could be from the future. Burton’s vision is complete and the world he provides for us is complete.
Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale is all right most of the time, and terrible at others. Of course, how she got the part has become part of the legend of this movie, but I’ll repeat it for those who may not know (which is a Good Thing, it means you have a life!). Originally, Sean Young had been hired to play the part of Vicki Vale, photojournalist. Part of Bruce and Vicki’s date was supposed to have them horseback riding on the Wayne Manor grounds. About a week before shooting, Young was getting acquainted with the horse she was supposed to ride and she fell off, breaking her arm. The producers decided to recast the part since it was so physical. The list of actresses available in such short notice, with the talent they were looking for, was short. Basinger was on the list and she could drop everything and move to England for three-to-four months, so she was hired. Again, she’s not terrible, but maybe a little more time, a better script, something would’ve helped. In scenes with Robert Wuhl’s Alexander Knox, she goes from friendly to sharp instantly. Her delivery of some of the lines is almost as though she’s practicing them. I also think the script and/or directing has her screaming too damn much. She just came back from a war, according to the story, and now she’s screaming the classic scream queen scream in every other scene? Once or twice? Yes. But….
I’m not a fan of Alexander Knox. Robert Wuhl is a gifted comedian. His HBO specials Assume the Position with Mr. Wuhl and its follow-up are brilliant, but I can’t stand Alexander Knox. I couldn’t when I was 11/12, I can’t now. He’s supposed to provide comic relief, which I’m fine with, and he’s supposed to be the audience’s point-of-view, but I find him taking away too much screen time that I would’ve loved to have seen go to Bruce Wayne, Batman, or even Vicki Vale.
The writing and pacing are a little off. Part of this, no doubt, has to do with the 1988 Writers Guild strike, which affected many movies and TV shows that year (it’s mentioned in my essay on A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master). The dialogue in places is spot-on and perfect (the Joker’s dialogue, Alfred’s dialogue), other times it’s pretty bad (most of Vicki Vale’s lines, many of Bruce Wayne’s). As far as pacing, there are some cool action pieces throughout the movie, but there are times when it’s dull and boring. I also have to wonder if getting Jack Nicholson actually hurt the movie. He was billed before Michael Keaton, who played the title role! His fee and demands are stuff of legend, as is his earning on the back end (which is quite common now), but I wonder if having spent so much on Nicholson made the movie more about the Joker. Of course, one plot point that gets fans angered is Alfred letting Vicki Vale into the Batcave, something that co-screenwriter (and writer of the original story) Sam Hamm says he had nothing to do with, pinning it all on co-screenwriter, the late Warren Skaaren. While many have been very upset with this it does fall within the realm of possibility for this movie’s Alfred. There are certainly enough hints from Alfred that he wishes Bruce would lead a more normal life, and that Vicki might be a way to that life. So I’m not mentioning that as a bad part of this movie. Because the real thing, I think, is–
Batman kills everyone. In the comic books, the one thing that separates Batman’s style of vigilantism from that of, say, Charles Bronson’s Death Wish character is that Batman will not kill. Batman will break every law in the book if it means getting the culprit, except for killing. In the stories when he’s had to kill, it often leads to follow-up stories where he’s dealing with the killing. In 1989’s Batman, though, Batman is like Rambo. Off the top of my head, Batman kills: Jack Napier (accidentally, though Jack actually survives both the fall into and the submergence in a vat of green chemicals, Batman doesn’t know that until the Joker appears); Joker’s thugs when the Batmobile drops bombs in Axis Chemicals in an attempt to kill the Joker; in Gotham Cathedral, at the end, one of the Joker’s goons leaps from a high place and falls through the floor (while Batman didn’t kill him, he didn’t try to help him, either, which I think comic book Batman would have); and another of the Joker’s goons gets dropped down the length of the cathedral when Batman swings up, grabs him with his calves, and drops him to his death; and, of course, there’s the Joker, who Batman uses the Batbolo (?!) to tie to a gargoyle as the Joker’s helicopter is trying to lift him away. Killing the Joker was a huge mistake because it meant that he couldn’t appear in any sequels. Of course, I’m sure that movie magic would’ve brought him back, as so often happens in comic books, but it would’ve been weak.
When the box office receipts cleared the air, Batman did several things: It revitalized interest in Batman in a mass way that hadn’t been there (except when news got out that Robin would be killed off in the comic books in 1988); it started a huge movie franchise for Warner Bros., who’d sold the film rights to Superman after Superman III; it gave DC Comics a popular film franchise character to capitalize on, something that hadn’t happened since around Superman III (because 1988’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was a turkey in every way); and it gave Tim Burton a shot at the big leagues. Up until this movie, Burton was the quirky director of quirky films that turned in a profit. After this movie, he was Tim Burton, the director of Batman. It allowed him to make what could arguably be called his most important movie, Edward Scissorhands.
The even bigger side effect, I think, is that the success of Batman brought a generation of kids to comic books that might have neglected them beforehand. Sure, the mid-to-late-1980s are filled with important comic books that showed the artform as something more than just throwaway entertainment. Names like Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and Neil Gaiman became household names for people who read a lot. If you were a reader, chances are you saw articles about Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen and V for Vendetta, Batman: Arkham Asylum, and The Sandman and may have been interested in them. But the huge success of the movie Batman brought kids like me into comic book shops for the first time to not only buy the various (and plentiful) Batman comics that existed, but got them interested in other titles. It even made comic books seem like a possible career path. I think that without Batman, I might not be writing this. Batman got me to look at comics again, to read them again, to go to the local comic book shop every Saturday, to want to draw and write them. This eventually got me into the local Waldenbooks, which eventually led me to buy The Shining by Stephen King, which made me want to ditch the art thing and just write.
With Batman, Warner Bros. had a new hit that could become a franchise. So of course, it wasn’t long before they approached Tim Burton about a sequel. And fresh off the success of Edward Scissorhands, he said yes.
From Gotham to Gautham: Batman: The Movie (1966)
Twenty-seven years after Batman first appeared on the comic book page and seventeen years after he last appeared on the silver screen, 20th Century Fox released Batman to theaters. Of course, this wasn’t a new Batman on film, but rather a spin-off movie of the popular television series, the first season of which had aired between January and June of 1966. The loud colors, tongue-in-cheek humor, and satire made teenagers and young adults dig the show, while the same colors, action, and cool gadgets made younger viewers rediscover Batman.
The popularity of the TV series, which only lasted three seasons between January 1966 and June 1968, kept it in reruns and was my first live-action Batman in the late-1970s/early-1980s. The show aired nearly every day and like The Adventures of Superman starring George Reeves, in this time before cable television had taken a grasp on the world, it was common for these holdover shows to air a lot. To me, Adam West’s Batman and Burt Ward’s Robin were Batman and Robin for a great many years. When my father brought home Batman comic books, I couldn’t understand why Batman’s ears were so long and I couldn’t see his eyes. So I drew the eyes in. I remember playing with my Mego Pocket Superheroes Batman and Robin and mimicking the horns that played every time Batman or Robin punched someone in their brawls.
Batman: The Movie seemed to air on Sundays. Not every Sunday, but once or twice a year, usually on channel 56, out of Boston. It was cause célèbre. It had four of the best Batman villains, the Batmobile, Batboat, Batcycle, and Batcopter, and an exploding shark! And don’t even get me started on the bomb!
And I sometimes wonder why I didn’t have more friends when I was a little kid.
The cast is pretty good. Adam West and Burt Ward look like Batman and Robin and Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson. Granted, West may have been able to work out a little for the role, but overall, his jaw is pretty Batmanish and he looks physically able to do some stuff. Burt Ward looked young enough to be, if not a boy, definitely a teenager. They also seem to really enjoy being these heroes. They relish the dialogue and silliness of it, but never give in to it. They play it absolutely straight.
Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, Lee Meriwether, and Frank Gorshin play the Joker, the Penguin, Catwoman, and the Riddler in a delightfully frantic way. They seem to understand what the show was about and seem to enjoy their roles, chewing up the scenery as they go. Romero as the Joker, even though he wouldn’t shave his mustache, is perfect. He represents the Joker’s lighter days from the 1950s and into the 1960s, when the Comics Code Authority were at their height. Meredith as the Penguin is phenomenal. He is the leader of the group of villains and is somehow simultaneously mean and hilarious. As the Penguin, there’s a gleam in his eye and you both fear and love him. Lee Meriwether stands in for Julie Newmar, who had prior obligations and couldn’t reprise her television role for the movie. Meriwether is excellent as Catwoman. She slinks across the screen, playing verbal ping-pong with Adam West. The Catwoman is pretending to be a Russian reporter and Bruce Wayne definitely has a thing for her. It’s great.
I actually want to single out Frank Gorshin as The Riddler. He’s the best of the villains in this movie, though he’s not given as much to do as The Penguin or Catwoman. He’s off-the-wall one moment and then very dark, even scary, the next, only to return to his hyperactive ways. Of all the villains, Gorshin makes the Riddler seem the scariest. His face can go from dead serious one moment, to insane laughter and glee. Perfection.
In terms of capturing what the TV show was about, the movie succeeds quite well. Shot at the very end of the first season, and released during the summer between the first and second seasons, it is an epic story that could easily have been several episodes, but uses the big screen to open things up. There are shots of Wayne Manor that one doesn’t see in the series, for instance. Also, the movie introduces three new vehicles in this Batman’s world: the Batcycle (with sidecar), the Batcopter, and the Batboat. Shots of the Batcopter flying over 1966 L.A. are priceless.
The small political statement that’s woven into all the silliness is also pretty cool. The writer, Lorenzo Semple, Jr., who was the head writer of the series, interjects some politics into the movie. The villains decide to kidnap the United World Orginization’s Security Council (a play on the United Nation’s Security Council), whose members spend all their time bickering and not getting much done. They argue so much, they never see the colorful villains in the room with them (see the above group shot of the villains) or realize they’ve been dehydrated into multi-colored dust and then rehydrated back to themselves, almost. There’s also a jab at then-president Lyndon Johnson, as well as the government selling old military vehicles.
The satire and parody of 1950s Batman comic books as well as the movie serials is pretty good, as well as the way comic books had to be watered down after Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent nearly destroyed the American comic book industry. Having Batman and Robin be deputies of the law, saying things like they are pro-police, and even having the police take their hats off to them as they fly by in the Batcopter, is all amusing.
I couldn’t possibly mention this movie, or the TV series, without giving some love to the Batmobile. For a generation, this was the real Batmobile. Last year I went to the Rhode Island Comic Con and saw the Tim Burton Batmobile, it was cool. But not as cool as seeing this Batmobile would’ve been. From its exterior to its interior, this car is a beauty. Love it.
For a big screen foray of an adventure series, it still feels an awful lot like the TV show. Perhaps the budget they were given for the movie wasn’t as large as it could’ve been. Maybe I’m writing this from the viewpoint of having seen Superman and General Zod destroy a huge amount of Metropolis. Whatever the reason, it’s not as big as it could be.
Some of the jokes fall flat. After recently watching the IFC marathon of the series, the movie feels watered-down. The jokes aren’t as sharp. The shark? It’s ridiculous, and I guess that’s what they were going for, but doesn’t feel very pop art funny.
The real darkness of not just the movie, but of the entire run of Batman, was its lasting impact. In the early 1960s, in response to the popularity of new comic book heroes like The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and, generally, all of the new Marvel characters at that time, DC decided to try to breathe new life into their comics. By recreating the 1940s character The Flash as a hip, young man with no ties to the original, DC spawned the Silver Age. One of the things they decided to do was to bring Batman back to his more serious roots, while changing the costume up and making him seem cooler to the kids of the time. Carmine Infantino is the artist credited with giving Batman the yellow oval.
Just as the new Batman was debuting in comic books, ABC aired Batman and the decision was made to make the comic book more like the TV series. By the early-1970s, with the show dead by a few years, editor Julius Schwatrz wanted to bring a more serious tone to DC overall, making it even more like Marvel. He experimented with Green Lantern and Green Arrow, two heroes that were not selling very well. When they succeeded, he moved the creative team from that book to Batman. The team, writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams, brought Batman into the 1970s by updating him and his cast. Robin was now off at college, appearing when needed. Bruce Wayne left the huge Wayne Manor and moved into a penthouse apartment at the top of Wayne Foundation, which was run by Lucius Fox. The Joker became a killer again.
Here’s the thing, though, unless you actively read the comics–and there weren’t many who did–nobody knew of these changes. Mention comic books, and it’s Biff! Pow! Whammo! Sound effects that hardly ever made their way into the actual comic books before the TV series, never mind after! Batman and Robin were planted deeply in the mind of the general audience as Adam West and Burt Ward, sliding down Batpoles, using Bat-Shark Repellent, and serving public service announcements within dialogue. The damage done to the comic book industry as a result of the constant reruns of Batman almost killed it many times over. And even as Richard Donner’s 1978 masterpiece Superman: The Movie made people aware that comic books could be brought into modern times and be relevant, one can’t help but wonder if the relationship between Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) and his sidekicks Otis (Ned Beatty) and Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine) would’ve been different without the Batman TV show still so planted in the minds of viewers. And even now, in 2014, when comic books and comic book characters have become huge business, there are still articles and news stories that insist on using silly sound effects as a lead-in or in the title.
Serious comic book fans like to bash the Batman TV series and 1966 movie (the entire Adam West/Burt Ward series/movie has come to be referred to as either Batman 1966 or Batman ’66) for its silly take on the characters but the series and the movie are fun to watch. If you were born in the 1970s, you saw the show and movie on TV all the time and Adam West was your Batman. Hell, when I was younger, I dismissed the series as silly and insulting. Of course, this happened right around 1989, the year I turned 12, and that’s a tough age anyway.
For better or worse, Adam West left his mark on the character of Batman, a mark that wouldn’t be removed until 21 years after the cancellation of his TV series.