This summer, between endless bouts of writing and self-editing, I treated myself to (and, in some cases, tortured myself by) watching all of the appearances of Batman on film. This didn’t come out of any deeply rooted interest in doing something substantial with the project, but instead, was motivated out of curiosity. I had seen the Burton’s two Batman films when I was a kid, but had yet to revisit them since growing up. Although I really wanted to see Batman Forever in theaters, I never did, and deliberately stayed away from Batman and Robin. The only real Batman films I had strong memories of was the original 1966 film with Adam West and the two Christopher Nolan films. What follows is my take on the films and an open-invitation for criticism.
Even though it was before my time, I watched a lot of Batman on TV when I was growing up. Although the campy approach to the caped crusader often draws criticism, I remember liking watching reruns after school. The costumes and props were cheesy, but to me, it felt like a washed-out old comic book. Having little knowledge of what Batman was supposed to be (ie: his origin or his relationships with the other characters and villains), I accepted that I was watching an authentic version of his adventures.
Despite my interest in the small-screen version of Adam West’s droll and deadpan Batman, I pretty much hated the movie. The business with the submarine is largely boring and, despite having four villains, the movie feels flat. Although Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger both run circles around him, Caesar Romero’s Joker is kind of fun to watch. He seems like he legitimacy has a screw loose, which is really all you need. However, the rest of the baddies bring little to the table. Also, there’s only so much camp you can take in one sitting and a feature-length Batman adventure of this kind pushes the limits. However, despite my complaints, I do love the sequence where we learn that “sometimes you just can’t get rid of a bomb.”
Tim Burton deserves all the credit in the world for his amazing reboot of the Batman franchise. The film takes the character out of the muted kaleidoscopic world of the 1960s and transforms Gotham into a dark and dingy place. Michael Keaton is…eh… He basically does a good job by simply not messing the role of Batman up, and by that standard, he succeeds. Very little about him seems authentically Bruce Wayne-like, but people seemed to like him at the time, so maybe there’s something I’m missing.
Jack Nicholson’s Joker is really excellent. Maybe it was just because it was Nicholson, but I loved watching him during his moments of craziness, especially when they were contrast with the really dark moments. However, speaking of darkness, I sort of felt bad for Burton when watching this movie. By 1989’s standards, this movie was considered fairly dark and heavy material for the viewing audiences; however, after Nolan’s films, it occasionally felt cheesy and contrived. I suppose this is the circle of life. While on the topic, those Prince songs thrown into the movie don’t help.
As if his first Batman film wasn’t good enough, Burton completely outdid himself with his second installment in the series. Batman Returns is an amazing spectacle to watch. It’s dark, sexy, and captivating. However, it’s not without it’s flaws. The business with Christopher Walken is largely annoying, but the movie completely makes up for his presence with the casting of Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman. First and foremost, let me say that I will proudly watch any movie that she’s in, including the amazingly boring and pointless What Lies Beneath. The woman can do no wrong and looks amazing in everything she’s put in. She plays off of Danny DeVito’s Penguin wonderfully and, frankly, I think he more than holds his own in the role.
Perhaps what I like best about this film is its story. It seems relatively believable, if you accept the “Oswald Cobblepot living in a sewer taking care of himself for decades” premise, and the character’s decisions all seem authentic. When Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle (Catwoman sans leather suit) realize each other’s true identities, I held my breath. Burton plays the moment wonderfully and, even better yet, moves on to the next beat without a second thought. This film is a real testament to his mastery of his craft.
With Burton relinquishing the directorial duties to Joel Schumacher, Batman Forever ends up being a mixed bag that is occasionally good, often confusing, and usually visually appealing. I know this is one of the Batman movies that I’m supposed to hate, but I didn’t really have that reaction. More often than not, I was sort of confused by the goings-on in Gotham during the two-plus hours of the film’s run time. First and foremost, I loved watching Jim Carrey while I was growing up, and it was fun to see him play the Riddler. However, I hated him as Edward Nigma, his nebbish and awkward real-life identity. Carrey should always be allowed to hide inside of larger-than-life characters and Nigma is not one of them.
And while on the topic of bizarre casting, the person who decided that a) Tommy Lee Jones should be Harvey “Two-Face” Dent and b) that he should be portrayed in that fashion, should be banned from ever working in Hollywood again. The performance is so bad that it’s, literally, almost painful to watch. The best thing about Batman Forever, besides the amazing sets and art direction, is Val Kilmer’s performance. He is the best Batman that has ever been on screen and I loved his acting not only as Batman, but also Bruce Wayne. Also, I thought Chris O’Donnell was good as Robin and his origin story with the Flying Graysons was pretty well-played.
Batman and Robin is as bad as everyone says it is. Actually, if you haven’t seen it, it’s worse than everyone says it is. Because people have a natural inclination to beat up on successful people and properties, I always thought that the criticism leveled against Shumacher’s second Batman film was likely to have been a bunch of fanboys getting up in arms about nothing. I was gravely mistaken. Gov. Arnold does an amazingly bad performance as the one-line spewing Mr. Freeze and Uma Thurman brings nothing to the table as Poison Ivy. I kept thinking her character’s origin story was too similar to The Riddler’s and, given the choice between the two, I’d choose watching Jim Carrey over the future Bill killer.
The subplot that involves Alfred dying is pretty annoying, as is George Clooney’s “what am I doing in a Batman movie” performance. He is the worst Batman ever to have been on screen, which is pretty sad considering his appearance is following Kilmer’s. All of the stuff with bat suit nipples and close-ups of crotches and butts is completely confusing, as is Alicia Silverstone’s forced presence in this movie. All in all, it’s a hot mess.
God bless Christopher Nolan. No, really, God bless him. Not only did take a franchise that was left for dead and reboot it, but he did an amazing job. Bruce Wayne’s ascent from orphaned child to butt-kicking winged shadow-creature feels organic and natural. Although I wasn’t familiar with Scarecrow or Ra’s al Ghul, it was cool to see that Warner Brothers was daring enough to allow Nolan to work these two lesser-known-characters (to non fanboys) into this movie. The darker tone was much appreciated and, as I mentioned before, makes Burton’s films look like cotton candy. I loved the realistic take on Gotham and, for me, this is the definitive start of the Batman saga on screen.
In terms of casting, Christian Bale is pretty alright as Batman. His Bruce Wayne bears a striking resemblance to his American Psycho performance, but I’ll forgive him for that. Say what you will, but I thought Katie Holmes’ Rachel Dawes was pretty good. The casting for this movie was pretty much spot-on throughout and, more importantly, everyone takes their role in a living comic book very seriously and it shows.
There are almost no words for The Dark Knight. I left Batman Begins eagerly awaiting the appearance of The Joker (it was teased at the end of the 2005 film that Joker was coming), but by no means was I prepared for what I saw when I went to the midnight screening of The Dark Knight. First off, the opening sequence, much like The Jokers’ trick involving Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes, is so suspenseful and captivating to watch that it’s impossible to take your eyes off the screen. Again, Nolan creates an amazingly dark and menacing world that needs Batman, but also can’t sustain with him present.
For Heath Ledger’s portrayal, there are few words. I hate to jump on the bandwagon of singing his praises, but his performance alone is worth the price of admission. The Joker is unpredictable, funny, frightening, and charming, all things that you would want him to be, but had yet to be fully achieved on screen prior to Ledger’s performance. Amazingly, the rest of the cast does not allow themselves to be overshadowed by his presence. There are plenty of excellent scenes involving Batman, Bruce Wayne, and the remainder of the “good guys.” I liked the Harvey Dent material much better before he became Two-Face, then it felt sort of liked forced terror. I understand why he’s included in the movie, and think it’s a smart decision, but it always feels like the character is underused in this film. Who knows, maybe he’ll make a triumphant return in the next one…