by D.W. Lundberg

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


As it often happens when I write for the blog, my thoughts have a nasty habit of getting away from me. Sometimes a particular format will steer me in the opposite direction, or change the particular theme, of a piece that I'm writing. Most times, the final published post will end up looking drastically different from what I originally intended. How, for instance, do I adequately express my undying affection for a certain caped crusading comic book character when the article in question is so clearly about all the behind-the- scenes politics that brought him to the screen?

The Burton/Schumacher Batmans have always held a peculiar fascination for me - not just for how much they got "right" but also for what they got so blatantly, emphatically "wrong." Story-wise, they're a mess, with almost total disregard for comic book canon. Visually, though, they are a triumph - a textbook case of style over substance. (Even Batman & Robin, for all its gaudy garishness, in never dull to look at. Especially with the sound turned off.)

So today, we kick off a brand new feature here at FTWW. Movies, by definition, are purely a visual medium, so it's hypocritical to think that 99% of all film criticism must be restricted to the written word. Sure, it's easy to rehash plot, acting and direction in a couple of handy paragraphs, but unless you can sit down and actually see how it applies, then something, I think, gets lost in the translation. As a remedy to this (should the occasion call for it), we'll tackle selected film titles through imagery alone: camera angles, composition, and how they affect your viewing experience. The Batman films in particular seemed like a good place to start, since they practically cry out to be seen, not heard. A continuation on a theme, if you'd like.

This, by the way, will be the first of a four-part introductory post, in which we'll briefly attempt to cover some of the more positive (and not-so positive) aspects of this groundbreaking series. Here, we take a look at the movies strictly from a design perspective: sets, vehicles and gadgets. In Parts Two and Three, we'll take a more thematic approach, looking at specific shots and how they pertain to character development. And in Part Four, we'll look at the series' most glaring and critical flaws - the icing on the cake, so to speak. (All photos courtesy of Warner Bros, unless otherwise noted.) Without further ado...

Tim Burton's original Batman, if nothing else, is a masterpiece of marketing - and art direction. Designed by London-born Anton Furst (Awakenings, Full Metal Jacket) and inspired by all things Fascism, German Expressionism, and Fritz Lang's Metropolis, this Gotham City is almost a character itself, mixing model work, mattes and physical sets to create a stunning sense of place. I mentioned in last week's post that every scene seems to take place on a completely different set, and I wasn't kidding about that - as if the filmmakers wanted you to see every penny of their $48 million budget.

Take each of the following stills, which essentially serve as establishing shots - the exterior location of a scene, for example, or a few introductory frames to establish the spatial geography between characters and objects in a single room. This is commonplace for any TV or film production. In Batman, however, these shots call particular attention to themselves. Note how the actors are consistently swallowed up by the film's gothic Expressionist architecture:

Batman Returns, by comparison, adds a bit of Art Deco and Citizen Kane to the mix, plus a nod to neo-fascist sculpture, to mimic the characters' moral corruption and decay. Bo Welch, who previously collaborated with Burton on Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, replaces Anton Furst as production designer. (Furst leapt to his death from a Hollywood parking garage on November 21, 1991.) Note, too, how the wintry Christmas setting adds to the chilliness of the plot:

Returns, of course, pleased absolutely no one, so Warner Bros went back to the drawing board for Batman Forever, in an attempt to brighten up the franchise. Joel Schumacher revamped the look of the entire series, complete with flashing neon, pastels, and CG accoutrements. He also told production designer Barbara Ling to give their Gotham City more of a "personality," so, naturally, she added faces to everything:

Ling was keen to return for Batman & Robin, claiming they'd barely "scratched the surface" when pushing their designs for Gotham City. The scope is bigger, obviously, like a 1950s Hollywood musical without the songs, with an added emphasis on art nouveau and the Machine Age. And also, of course, faces, faces, faces:

Next up, Batman's ride. At Comic Con 2012, Warner Bros rolled out all six cinematic Batmobiles - from Batman: The Movie (1966), Batman, Batman Forever, Batman & Robin, Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Below, in keeping with our theme, all three Bat-vehicles as driven by Keaton, Kilmer and Clooney:

Burton's Batmobile is the coolest by far, a sleek, ultra-aerodynamic roadster with all the usual upgrades: turbine engine, armor plates, grappling hook launchers and machine guns. Anton Furst modeled the car after the salt flat racers of the 30s and Stingray muscle cars of the 50s. Seriously, though - the ground clearance on that thing is so low, a Gotham City speed bump could stop it dead in its tracks.

The Batmobile of Batman Forever befits the movie's fetishistic trappings. Inspired in part by the works of H.R. Giger (Alien), Barbara Ling and crew gave the car a distinctively organic design, complete with ribs and a fender structure approximating an actual bat's wing. Joel Schumacher also says he wanted the Batmobile to look like something out of "a leather fetish magazine," so that explains that.

The less said about Batman & Robin's Batmobile, the better. It's a true attention-getter: everything a dark and stealthy Caped Crusader should not use to prowl the city streets at night. It is the first big-screen incarnation of the vehicle to feature a single seat, and a counter-rotating turbine engine visible through the chassis of the car. Plus, no closing canopy! One shot from some well-aimed assassin and Batman's head would disappear in a cloud of red mist:

I'd also be remiss if I didn't give a shout-out to the films' countless other vehicles:

The Penguin's Rubber Duckie-car has to be my favorite. It doesn't make a lot of sense, but it looks great in its original packaging.

Speaking of toys, Joel Schumacher says during filming on Batman & Robin that Warner Bros ordered him to make the film more "toyetic," or "having the potential to generate consumer interest in associated merchandise." This applied not only to vehicles but to weapons and gadgets as well... and no doubt played a factor from 1989 and on, despite the term rearing its ugly head years later. Need evidence of this? Have a gander at some of the more memorable Bat-gadgets featured throughout the franchise. Notice, too, how the bat motif became more prominent (and increasingly kitschy to boot):

Finally, a note on the Batsuit. Costume designer Bob Ringwood molded Michael Keaton's original bodysuit entirely out of foam rubber, and coated it with silicone between camera takes, the better to reflect light during night shots. It was big and bulky and severely impaired Keaton's movements (the cape and cowl were literally bolted to the actor's shoulders, so he couldn't even turn his head). Again, the design isn't very practical, but for the movie's particular purposes, it's intimidating as hell:

For Batman Returns, Ringwood used a thinner, more flexible foam rubber material, with an industrialized, non-organic musculature (meant to resemble an automobile). Bats still couldn't turn his head, though. At least, not that well:

Ringwood's designs for Batman Forever sported a more anatomical look, under instructions from Joel Schumacher. Yes, there are nipples on the Batsuit - and Robin's too. I never minded this all that much, as they're supposedly modeled after the gods of Greek mythology:

Ingrid Ferrin and Robert Turturice streamlined George Clooney's costume even further, with a hint of blue added to the previously all-black color scheme:

It must be said, however, that the designs for Batman & Robin are exceptionally lazy. For the movie's icy observatory climax, Ferrin and Turturice simply took Val Kilmer's sonar suit from Batman Forever and repainted pieces of it in silver:

Telling, no? We've certainly come a long way from 1989, when an astute team of movie moguls sought to restore a campy 60's comic book hero to his roots as a dark avenger of the night. I leave you with this quote from Chris O'Donnell, Mr. Boy Wonder himself, who says on the Batman Anthology's documentary discs that "the first movie with Nicholson and Keaton and those guys was amazing... I didn't like the second one as much, I thought it got really dark, and Joel coming in... things felt much sharper and more focused. [Batman Forever] felt like I was making a movie. [On Batman & Robin] I felt like I was making a toy commercial."

Toyetic, indeed.


Up next: We delve a little deeper into the Burton/ Schumacher series, and examine selected shots and camera angles as they pertain to theme (or lack thereof). Stay tuned, folks! Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!

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