by D.W. Lundberg

Saturday, December 8, 2012


Part Four of our Burton/Schumacher retrospective, in which we take a visual tour of the 1989-97 series' special (and not-so-special) pleasures.

One truism about comic books - or any serialized form of entertainment - is that they're always in flux. Readership dwindles, tastes splinter off and mature, and publishing houses find themselves in a constant struggle to stay one step ahead of the public - to remain pertinent, say, or keep current with the ever-changing media climate. It's why we have so many iterations, spin-offs and incarnations of the same old titles: to please any number of fans at any given moment.

These changes apply not just to plotlines and styles but to characters as well. When Siegel and Schuster created Superman in 1938, for example, the Man of Steel did not have the ability to fly - though he could leap 1/8 of a mile, like a grasshopper. Wonder Woman started out as a mere Amazonian princess but was later revealed to be molded out of clay by the gods. And Batman was softened from murderous vigilante to crime fighter with a strict "no killing" stance.

The Batman of Warner Bros' 1989-1997 film series went through similar changes - and alternately seemed to please and alienate the status quo. Nevertheless, each film owes its debt to comic book history. To quote producer Michael Uslan: "The way I look at this stuff is that the first Batman movie was really the Batman of 1939-40[.] The second movie, Batman Returns, I thought was so utterly dark that it approaches that almost vampiric Batman that was really the Batman of the comic books in the 1990s. Batman Forever, to me, clearly was the Batman from about the mid-1940s till the early 1960s. It was Bill Finger's scripts of Batman and Robin punching their way through [...] a grotesque gallery of supervillains, jumping across giant typewriters as they battle them. Batman & Robin was clearly the TV series redux. End of story." The only question is, then: Which Batman do you prefer?

My biggest problem with Tim Burton's original Batman is that it paints the Dark Knight as even more of a heartless killer than the Joker. Check out the following series of shots, in which Batman (Michael Keaton), having discovered that the Joker is actually his parents' murderer, launches an all- out attack on the Axis Chemical Factory. First, he uses the Batmobile - armed with dual machine guns - to bust into the Joker's hideout:

Then, surrounded by the Joker's goons, Batman pulls this little trick:

Which is a pretty effective way to clean house, so to speak, until you realize that our "hero" has just murdered dozens of people in cold blood. And he doesn't stop there! Later, Batman takes to his trusty Batwing, to rain on the Joker's parade:

To be fair, Batman's anti-gun stance wasn't always so cut and dry. During his earliest appearances in Detective Comics (circa 1939), in fact, Batman carried a gun and even used it to shoot at criminals. In Batman #1, however (Spring 1940), he swore off (hand)guns completely and vowed never to take a life again.

This doesn't stop him, of course, from committing even more maimings and murders in Batman Returns. Consider this scene, in which Batman gets the upper hand on one of the Penguin's circus strongmen during a particularly brutal back-alley brawl:

That's right: he stuffs a bomb down the poor dude's pants (a bomb he stole off a previous goon in a previous scene, but still), then walks away casually as the guy explodes. Which is pretty extreme, if you ask me, even for a Dark Knight.

Batman Forever, at least, tries to paint its hero as less of a homicidal sourpuss. Or makes him the central figure of his own movie, anyway, instead of playing second banana to the villains' nefarious plans. Another thing about Val Kilmer's Caped Crusader: the guy definitely isn't camera shy. One look at the following shot (Nicole Kidman's Dr. Chase Meridian, like Jim Carrey's Riddler, has a serious Batman fetish) and I wonder: Does Batman literally pose for these things? How do they get so many close-ups of his face?

Or perhaps I'm getting a little cheeky:

That's an image, by the way, I never expected - or particularly wanted - to see in a Batman movie. It is also one of Joel Schumacher's more blatant attempts to sex up the franchise. Schumacher, too, seems to be working under mandate from Warner Bros to make the villains as campy as possible (Catwoman and the Penguin gave the kiddies nightmares, after all, so why not go the Jack Nicholson/Joker route and make 'em laugh instead?). How else do you explain Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones doing so much of this:

Or this:

It's a particular shame to see Two-Face getting the short shrift. Harvey Dent has always been the most tragic of all Batman villains - a good man scarred mentally and physically and forced into a life of crime. But there are simply too many characters in Batman Forever to service them equally. Poor Harvey doesn't even get a proper origin story; just a quick recap on a Gotham news bulletin and that's it. Here's D.A. Dent in court:

Here's defendant (and mob boss) Sal Maroni with a bottle of acid:

Here's Batman coming to Harvey's rescue:

Now pause for a moment, and consider: Where did Batman come from? Was he sitting in the jury box? Can superheroes even be called for jury duty? How did they know where to send his summons? That's not just lazy script-writing; it's a genuine insult to the audience's intelligence. In any case, Batman misses his mark, and another supervillain is born:

I also like that a single manila folder is enough to stop a full-on acid attack to the face. Look closer, though, and you'll see that said manila folder didn't block any of the acid at all. And yet, somehow, Two-Face comes out looking like this:

I know, I know: It's only a Comic Book Movie. And pairing Two-Face and the Riddler together ties in thematically with the rest of the plot, which forces Bruce Wayne to come to grips with the symbol he's created for himself. (You could say every character in the movie - from the villains to Chase Meridian to Alfred to Dick Grayson - is a catalyst for bringing Bruce out of his self-imposed bat-shell. But that's another element that gets lost in the spectacle.)

If only you could say the same about Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy in Batman & Robin. Now here's a couple pretty much doomed from the start: He wants to freeze all of Gotham ("I will blanket the city in endless winter!"), while she wants nothing more than to reclaim the planet for herself and her beloved plant life. You'd think plants and subzero temperatures would mix together like oil and water, but I digress. For his part, Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) spends most of his time pining for his comatose wife, a character arc they used before - and more poignantly - during an episode of Batman: The Animated Series:

The rest of the time, well, judge for yourself:

And how to describe Uma Thurman as the delectable Poison Ivy? I think film critic Anthony Lane summed it up best: "[Akiva] Goldsman wrote a few speeches for her but forgot to provide anyone she could address them to, so she wanders round delivering monologues in a void, stopping her sentences in odd. Places in order to. Make them. Sound strange and vol. Uptuous." And her character is so ferociously un-sexy she has to keep blowing magic fairy dust in everyone's faces just to keep them interested:

To be fair, Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy weren't exactly top-tier villains when they debuted in 1959 and 1966, respectively. Freeze's initial name, in fact, was Mr. Zero (as in "degrees," I guess), until he was resurrected and renamed for the 60s Batman TV series. And Poison Ivy dressed more like the Jolly Green Giant. But I bet their creators would have been less than thrilled with the script-to-screen translation.

B&R also tries to shoehorn Batman villain Bane into the mix, as if the plot weren't crowded enough. In the comics, Bane is a master strategist and strongman who breaks The Batman's back. In the movie, he is the victim of a mad scientist's experiment, and a retard:

That's Batman & Robin for you: a film so disconnected from its comic book roots, even non- Batfans could sense something off about it. As if the following shots weren't already proof of that:

And with that, our Burton/Schumacher retrospective comes to a close. For Part One, click here. For Part Two, click here. For Part Three, here. And for the Franchise Face-Off which kickstarted it all, click here. Care to chime in? Feel like I missed anything? Or did I spend too much time on a subject that didn't deserve all the effort? Please comment below... let me know what you think!

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