Batman: The Motion Picture Anthology 1989-1997
February 13, 2006
Tim Burton, Joel Schumacher,
Starring: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough, Jack Palance, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Val Kilmer, Tommy Lee Jones, Jim Carrey, Nicole Kidman, Chris O'Donnell, Drew Barrymore, Arnold Schwarzenegger, George Clooney, Uma Thurman, Alicia Silverstone,
Most people forget that Batman (1989) was the first quality comic book adaptation since Superman (1978) because nobody had taken them seriously or bothered to be faithful to the original source material for quite some time. At first, when fans heard who was going to make Batman there were howls of protest. The guy who made Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)?! Mr. Mom (1983) Michael Keaton is gonna be Batman?! The only smart choice seemed to be the obvious casting of Jack Nicholson as the Joker.
And then the film came out and all our doubts were gone. Tim Burton and company had returned the Dark Knight to his roots by portraying Gotham City as a gothic nightmare right out of a Fritz Lang movie. The screenplay (by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren) cleverly fused elements from two of the best Batman comic books at the time: Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (for mood and atmosphere) and Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke (for the Joker’s origin). They relied on Bob Kane’s original run for everything else.
Burton does a great job with Batman’s first on-screen appearance that is at once operatic and iconic. He also does a great job with the first reveal of the Joker, using shadows to portray him as a scary psycho and Nicholson is more than up for it in a role that he was born to play. Michael Keaton is a surprisingly good Batman and, more importantly, Bruce Wayne. He brilliantly conveys the rich playboy’s conflicted nature and the scene where he tries to tell Vicki Vale (Basinger) that he’s Batman is one his best moments in the movie.
The film does stumble on a few occasions. Billy Dee Williams is miscast as Harvey Dent (who will later become Two-Face). There are little details, like the Joker being able to shoot down the Batplane with a handgun (?!) that takes the viewer out of the film temporarily. Also, Prince’s music (a real bone of contention among fans at the time) is jarring and sounds quite dated looking back more than 15 years later. It is a testimony to the film as a whole that none of these elements ruin the overall experience which holds up and is still the best one of the series.
With Batman Returns (1992) Burton decided to make an even darker film than the first one by taking an absurd character like the Penguin (DeVito) and making him into a horrible looking, black-bile drooling monster that is a world away from Burgess Meredith’s take on the campy T.V. show.
Rich businessman Max Shreck (Walken) wants to build a massive new power plant in Gotham City and become the next mayor. Selina Kyle (Pfeiffer) is his mousey secretary who is double-crossed and killed for being a little too nosey. She is subsequently resurrected into Catwoman and proves to be the wild card in the battle between Batman and the Penguin.
The opening action sequence where the Penguin’s army terrorizes the citizens of Gotham is beautifully orchestrated and flows more naturally where some of the sequences in Batman felt a little stiff. Burton clearly began to feel more comfortable directing these kinds of sequences with this movie.
While Batman maintained the right balance of screen time between Batman and the Joker, this is upset slightly in Batman Returns because there are too many bad guys vying for time – Shreck, Catwoman and the Penguin. As a result, Batman’s screen time is diminished. This would begin a trend that later films would exploit to a greater degree. However, once Michelle Pfeiffer dons the fetish gear and brandishes a whip as Catwoman, she steals every scene she’s in, creating a one of the most memorable villains in the series.
Batman Forever (1995) is where the franchise took a major hit. If Batman Returns was a conscious move away from the traditional mythology of the comic book then Joel Schumacher deviated even further, heading towards the camp humour of the ‘60s T.V. show. This is painfully evident from the opening exchange between Alfred (Gough) and Batman (Kilmer) who asks the Caped Crusader, “Can I persuade you to take a sandwich with you, sir?” To which he replies, “I’ll get drive-thru.” Oh dear.
This movie turned Batman into a joke and undid everything Burton and company worked so hard to create in the first two movies. Jim Carrey does his usual manic shtick as the Riddler, aping Frank Gorshin’s unforgettable zany turn in the T.V. show. In an effort to compete against Carrey, Tommy Lee Jones chews up any scenery he can find as Two-Face and seems to be channeling his prison warden character from Natural Born Killers (1994). Poor Drew Barrymore and Debi Mazar have little to do as the bad guys’ eye candy and are relegated to the background of most scenes.
Introducing Robin wasn’t a good idea to begin with and casting Chris O’Donnell in the role was an even worse one. Poor Nicole Kidman looks fantastic as the requisite love interest who sexes things up a bit but there is simply no chemistry between her and Val Kilmer. In the final analysis, there are just too many damn characters in this muddled mess of a movie. I won’t even get into the introduction of nipples on the Batsuit (?!).
If Batman Forever did serious damage to the franchise then Batman and Robin (1997) effectively killed it off for eight years. Schumacher and company strayed so far from the comic book that a critical and commercial backlash was inevitable. Kilmer wisely bowed out of this one and in his place stepped in George Clooney, red hot from his stint on E.R. He didn’t fair any better…or worse that matter, doing the best with what he had to work with.
Again, as with Batman Forever, the opening moments act a harbinger for things to come. Yep, the Batnipples are back along with sudden jarring cuts to butt and crotch shots of the bat suit which has to be the ultimate fetishization of said costume. Are we watching outtakes from Showgirls (1995) or is this a Batman movie?
We have to suffer yet again through Akiva Goldsman’s clunky, embarrassingly awful dialogue. Mr. Freeze (Schwarzenegger) gets a seemingly endless supply of gawd-awful puns and cheesy one-liners that manage to surpass the T.V. show in terms of camp factor. The opening battle between Batman and Robin and Mr. Freeze and his minions has a gaudy neon glow straight out of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express as our heroes actually play hockey against the bad guys!
On the plus side (yes, there is one), Alicia Silverstone is a nice addition to the franchise as Batgirl. She brings a lot of youthful charm to the role but ultimately it is too little too late and painful chapter to the franchise was finally closed. Thankfully, the powers that be came to their senses and returned the Dark Knight to his dark, brooding roots with Batman Begins (2005).
Each movie features a wealth of supplemental material including a theatrical trailer, Heroes and Villains mini-profiles (that mix clips from the movie with interview soundbites from cast, crew and pundits) and a multi-part retrospective documentary entitled, “Shadows of the Bat: The Cinematic Saga of the Dark Knight.”
Batman features an excellent audio commentary by Tim Burton who kicks things off by addressing the criticism fans had back in the day that given his background he would make a movie closer to the goofy ‘60s T.V. show. He loved the show but wanted to go back to the original comic book and place an emphasis on the scary psychology of Batman. Burton cast Keaton because he believed that the actor could convey the intensity and darkness of the character. This is a fantastic track with one highlight being an amusing anecdote that Burton recounts of shooting his first scene with Jack Palance and how scared he was of the veteran actor. The filmmaker covers all the bases including the challenges of dealing with the studio, problems with the script and replacing an injured Sean Young with Kim Basinger on short notice.