by D.W. Lundberg

Monday, October 1, 2012


He is the antithesis of Superman in almost every way: dark, brooding, prone to violence (all in the name of justice), and powered only by his sheer determination and will. He is a detective, a scientist, a master strategist and multiple martial arts expert. And his rogues' gallery - the Joker, the Riddler, Catwoman, Two-Face, Scarecrow, The Penguin, Poison Ivy, Mr. Freeze - is unprecedented among comic book heroes. Yet despite his accomplishments, despite all his formidable skills, Batman's greatest battle has always been with Hollywood itself.

Bruce Wayne and his menacing alter ego were created, in fact, as a blatant attempt to cash in on Superman's success. The brainchild of 24-year- old artist Bob Kane (with an uncredited assist from writer Bill Finger), "The Bat-Man" made his first appearance in Detective Comics #27 during May of 1939, and was an immediate hit. (National Publications - soon to be known as DC Comics - now had two popular comic book characters under their belt, having also published the monthly adventures of the Man of Steel.) A self-titled series debuted in April 1940, followed by a 15-part film serial starring Lewis Wilson in 1943, followed by a second 15-chapter serial in 1949, starring Robert Lowery as Batman and Johnny Duncan as Robin.

Batman's popularity soared during the late 1960s, when Twentieth Century Fox's high-camp Batman television series premiered in January 1966. It was a tongue-in-cheek parody of superhero tropes, produced by William Dozier and starring Adam West and Burt Ward (plus a bevy of 60's stars as "guest" villains), and it's this incarnation - for better or worse - that defined the character for the next twenty years. No longer a lone, mysterious creature of the night, Bob Kane's creation had now been reduced to a figure of fun, dancing the Batusi and POW! BOFF! and ZWAP!-ing his way through Gotham City while a bright-eyed, green-bootied Boy Wonder spouted catchphrases by his side. This reputation had ingrained itself so much into the public consciousness that Hollywood producers were literally dumbstruck at the idea of bringing Batman back to the screen.

All this would change, however, from the mid-1980s onward, when a new breed of comic book - psychological, artistically ambitious, emotionally complex - began to saturate the market. Two Batman titles in particular - Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns (1986), about a middle-aged Batman who returns to action after a self-imposed 10-year exile, and Alan Moore's The Killing Joke (1988), in which the Joker cripples Barbara Gordon/Batgirl to prove a sadistic point - helped restore the Caped Crusader to his darker vigilante impulses. After trying for nearly a decade to get a live-action Batman off the ground, producers Michael Uslan, Benjamin Melniker, Jon Peters and Peter Guber were now given the green light to proceed with a definitive big-screen version of the character.

As with Superman: The Movie (1978), production on Batman was riddled with problems, both on-set and off. Warner Bros hired 29-year-old Tim Burton to direct - a questionable decision, to be sure, since the relatively unproven director had only one low- budget hit to his name. (Perhaps Warner recognized something in Burton which 80's audiences did not; one need only look at his future filmography - Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory - to see that he specializes in characters who operate outside social norms.) A screenplay by Tom Mankiewicz (Superman) was completed as early as 1983, but when Burton came on board, he enlisted writer Sam Hamm to author a new script instead. Hamm's initial draft, dated October 1986, is brisk but strange; it paints Bruce Wayne as a repressed neurotic prone to catatonic fits when he's not dressed in costume. What Burton and Hamm really seemed to nail down, though, was the stark and serious tone of the original comics. (The script was eventually re-worked by Warren Skaaren during the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike.)

Jack Nicholson was cast as the Joker in July of 1988 - a major coup for the producers, which, like Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman before him, gave the project instant credibility and weight. (Nicholson's contract is perhaps the most lucrative in all of Hollywood history. The actor signed on for $6 million upfront, plus a percentage of the film's profits. When all was said and done, Nicholson earned a reported $50 million from Batman alone.) Casting the role of Batman/Bruce Wayne, however, was another matter. To play the part, Burton hired Michael Keaton, best known for his comedic roles in Mr. Mom, Night Shift, and Burton's Beetlejuice. Fans objected, fearing that Warner Bros wasn't treating the character seriously. Burton defended his decision to The New York Times: "I'd considered some very good square-jawed actors [...] but I couldn't see them putting on a Batsuit. You look at Michael and you see all sorts of things going on inside."

Despite the controversy, cast and crew soldiered on. Filming began in October 1988 at Pinewood Studios near London, England. Massive sets were constructed, filling 18 different soundstages and stretching across the entire 95-acre lot. Location shooting was kept to a minimum, mostly to keep spy pics from leaking to the press. While filming a horse-riding sequence with Michael Keaton, actress Sean Young (originally cast as Vicki Vale) fell and broke her collarbone, and was replaced with Kim Basinger instead. Jon Peters and Peter Guber were a constant thorn in Burton's side, demanding round-the-clock script revisions and forcing the inexperienced director to add more romance and action to the plot. (The budget eventually ballooned from $30 million to $48 million.) Still, everyone worked hard to maintain the integrity of the character.

Hoping to quash the negative hoopla surrounding the production, Peters rushed a 90-second teaser trailer into theaters in December 1988. This trailer showcased the movie's dark, gothic tone and helped to drum up intense anticipation for its upcoming June 23rd release date. And so began Warner's aggressive marketing push for the film: t- shirts, toys, trading cards, calendars, collectible cups, Diet Coke commercials - everywhere you looked, Batmania was in full swing. The movie's original teaser poster, famously conceived by production designer Anton Furst to show only the familiar Bat-logo, were stolen regularly from bus shelters and sold as high-priced collector's items. Warner Bros released two official soundtracks for the movie (unprecedented for its time), one with songs by Prince, and the other with Danny Elfman's legendary music score. The hype was so strong that fans began camping outside theaters a full five days before Batman's official premiere.

Tim Burton's Batman earned generally favorable reviews and $43.6 million during its opening three- day weekend. It became the first film to gross $100 million in 10 days of release, and amassed a total $411,348,924 worldwide (or roughly $497,316,106 when adjusted for inflation). Later, it would also set the standard for sell-through VHS releases, premiering on video just five months after its theatrical debut for $24.98 retail (at a time when most VHS titles sold for $90-$100 apiece). Hailed mostly for its towering, German Expressionist set design and moody visuals, Batman was the Event Movie to end all Event Movies, in which the hype mattered as much as the film itself. (In essence, the hype was the movie.) Warner Bros now had a full-fledged superhero franchise on their hands, their first since Superman.

If only they'd had a firmer belief in the character himself. Burton returned for Batman Returns in 1992, and freed from the influence of Guber-Peters, delivered a sequel which many regarded as overly dark and gloomy, with sexual overtones (personified by Danny DeVito's perverted Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer's kinky Catwoman) that were unsettling to younger viewers. The film grossed a disappointing $266 million worldwide (at least compared to the original's take), and faced fierce backlash from parents and tie-in companies alike, so the studio decided to lighten the tone considerably for their next go-round. They "promoted" Burton to producer status and hired Joel Schumacher to direct Batman Forever (1995), replacing Michael Keaton with Val Kilmer and starring (then up-and-coming) Jim Carrey for maximum box office impact. The hype helped propel Forever to a stellar $336 million globally, which put a fourth Batman on the fast-track for summer 1997. And the rest, as they say, is history.

So now we come full circle. When Batman & Robin opened in theaters on June 20th, 1997, it single-handedly reduced the Caped Crusader to his campier, comic book-ier qualities - a reputation the makers of Batman '89 had struggled so hard to avoid. Bad puns, brightly-colored sets, hammy "guest star" villains - for many fans, it was like reliving the 1960s all over again. Warner Bros - for the time being at least - had officially run their once- beloved franchise into the ground.

Still, it's hard to deny Batman's impact on mainstream Hollywood. It redefined the modern-day blockbuster - not as a movie but as a box office-busting pop-cultural experience. It taught studio executives the power of synergy - how to mass market their product to audiences on all fronts, months in advance, from merchandising to the media. And it reminded everyone that comic book movies didn't all have to be bouncy and bright - they could be dark, they could be brooding, and they could be taken seriously as art.


The Original: Batman (Tim Burton, 1989)

Cast: Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Jack Palance, Tracey Walter, Jerry Hall

Plot: An orphan who witnesses his parents' murder as a child grows up to become the Batman, a masked vigilante who wages war on crime in Gotham City and battles his arch-enemy the Joker.

How It Set The Tone: Bob Kane's dark, iconic comic book creation is reborn on the big screen, after years of camp and corniness did their best to sully the character. It actually follows the format of the original comics: During his first year, Batman worked alone (so no Robin), took special pleasure in beating criminals to a pulp or causing their (inadvertent) deaths, and his origin wasn't revealed until months after his initial debut. Then-29-year-old Tim Burton absolutely nails down the tone (you wouldn't think the director of Pee- Wee's Big Adventure had it in him to pull off a film of this scale, but he does), and Jack Nicholson's preening, over-the-top performance as the Joker helped set the tone for all scene-stealing screen villainy to come. But it's the towering German Expressionist set design (which won an Oscar) and Danny Elfman's robust Wagnerian music score (the best of its kind since Superman) that sticks with you the longest.

Room For Improvement: It's less like a movie than a corporate product - and the first in a long line of would-be blockbusters in which the hype mattered more than the movie itself. From the awkwardly-placed Prince songs on the soundtrack (the better to sell records) to the tacked-on cathedral climax (added at the insistence of Guber-Peters), the entire project feels pre-packaged and pre-sold, with almost none of Burton's oddball signature touches (some call that a good thing, but this is an impersonal picture at best). Every scene seems to take place on a different set, and despite the spiky psychology between characters, any attempt to connect Batman and the Joker as doppelgängers is mostly given lip service ("I made you, but you made me first"). Michael Keaton makes a fine Batman/ Bruce Wayne; physically, he might not fit the part, but there's an anger bubbling beneath the surface that makes it all plausible once he puts on the suit. The problem is, we're kept in the dark about him for so long, it's hard to connect with him personally. There are no heroes here, just madness and misery and murk.

Grade: B-

Sequel: Batman Returns (Tim Burton, 1992)

Returning Cast: Michael Keaton, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle

New Cast: Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Vincent Schiavelli, Michael Murphy, Paul Reubens, Diane Salinger

Plot: The Caped Crusader defends Gotham City against Catwoman and the Penguin.

How It Compares: After finding his mojo with Edward Scissorhands (1990), Tim Burton returned to the Batman franchise on the condition he be allowed to make the sequel his way. Warners relented, and the result is both a curse and a blessing: As a "Batman movie," it couldn't be further from the canon - the characterizations are all Burton's, with zero basis in the comics – and the psychosexual overtones are downright disturbing for the kiddies. But as a full-on expression of the director's art, it's funky, flawed, and fascinating. Drew McWeeny astutely says here that Returns' three main villains are extensions of Bruce Wayne's fractured psyche - the Penguin (Danny DeVito) is the angry abandoned orphan who's felt like a freak all his life, Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) is the nighttime avenger who likes to get dolled up in costume and beat up on criminals, and Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) is the emotionally callous businessman Bruce is supposed to be playing in public. Add to that some heavy-handed Biblical parallels, animal motifs, and clever word play ("You know what, I mistook me for somebody else") and it's no wonder the movie went over so many heads. Casual viewers are likely to walk away depressed, or slightly befuddled as to how a Comic Book Movie could treat them so off-handedly.

Grade: B

Sequel: Batman Forever (Joel Schumacher, 1995)

Returning Cast: Michael Gough, Pat Hingle

New Cast: Val Kilmer, Tommy Lee Jones, Jim Carrey, Nicole Kidman, Chris O'Donnell, Drew Barrymore, Debi Mazar, Rene Auberjonois, Ed Begley Jr.

Plot: Batman fights Two-Face and the Riddler with the help of an orphaned acrobat turned fellow crimefighter.

How It Compares: "Can I persuade you to take a sandwich with you, sir?" "I'll get drive-thru." And with that, the stage is set for Batman's second sequel - new cast, new crew, new attitude... and all it really wants is to sell Happy Meals! Joel Schumacher directs, under mandate from Warner Bros to brighten up the franchise, and for the most part he succeeds - taking all the psychology and resonance of Tim Burton's previous efforts and turning them to cotton candy instead. Everything gets a makeover: the costumes, the sets, the soundtrack, even Batman himself gets a much-needed personality switch. As the new Caped Crusader, Val Kilmer is physically a better fit for the part than Michael Keaton ever was, and he speaks in a flat, cartoon monotone that's perfectly suited to the action. The character's actually written as a hero this time, and his budding byplay with Chris O'Donnell's hunky, heartthrob-y Robin (Holy homoeroticism, Batman!) is the classiest stuff in the movie. Too bad they're upstaged at every turn by the villains (Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones), who've taken a page from Nicholson's Ham-Acting Handbook for Dummies but none of DeVito/Pfeiffer's subtlety or wit. Like everything else in Forever, they are simply sensation for sensation's sake.

Grade: C+

Sequel: Batman & Robin (Joel Schumacher, 1997)

Returning Cast: Chris O'Donnell, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle

New Cast: George Clooney, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Uma Thurman, Alicia Silverstone, John Glover, Elle Macpherson, Jeep Swenson

Plot: Batman and Robin battle the murderous intentions of Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy.

How It Compares: First off, it's hardly the worst motion picture ever made; there's more razzle dazzle on display, and an occasional whiff of honest human sentiment, than most films can even muster. Second, George Clooney is not personally responsible for "burying" the franchise, as he's so fond of telling us in interviews. That blame goes to Joel Schumacher and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, who both seem to think that a nonstop barrage of ridiculous puns, nonsensical set pieces, and a general disregard for all things good taste is something we crave from our Batman movies. Never mind that it reduces several big-name stars to career-worst performances (Arnold Schwarzenegger and Uma Thurman, especially). Or that it takes six decades of comic book mythology and trounces it completely (Bat-skates, Bat-credit cards and Alicia Silverstone? Really?). Batman & Robin's real claim to fame is that it retroactively restores the Caped Crusader to his campier, cornier roots - everything the makers of this particular film franchise struggled so hard to avoid in the first place. (DVD alert: Warner's 2-disc Special Edition is strangely apologetic for a $140-million tentpole. Cast, crew, even Schumacher himself take full responsibility for their choices, which is really just a polite way of telling fanboys to get over themselves.)

Grade: D

More To Come?: Thankfully, no. Plans to bring back Joel Schumacher for a fifth go-round, titled Batman Triumphant, were dropped as soon as Batman & Robin started dropping off at the box office. It took another eight years, and a hotshot director named Christopher Nolan, to resurrect the franchise.


Part Two of a superheroic series of Franchise Face-Offs. Up next: X-Men united. Also click on the following for previous entries: Superman, Sherlock Holmes, Rush Hour, Men In Black, Paranormal Activity, Lethal Weapon, 48HRS., Harry Potter, Transformers, Leprechaun (you heard me), The Matrix, Halloween, and our introductory segment, starring Alec Baldwin/Harrison Ford/Ben Affleck as Jack Ryan. Please comment!  

No comments:

Post a Comment