CC2K’s Tony Lazlo offers us one of his insanely long and detailed examinations of a major movie series. This time it’s Batman.
A look back through the six modern-era Batman movies yields some unexpected results, including the revelations that Batman Forever isn’t as bad as I remember, that The Dark Knight isn’t as good as I remember, and that Batman & Robin is good for one thing: reminding me how much I like the 1960s TV series.
And finally, that Batman Returns just might be the best damn one of them all.
Those statements may shock you, but I encourage you to keep reading.
I recently had the privilege to appear on the Los Angeles-based online talk show Comics on Comics with movie producer Michael Uslan, who was one of the driving forces behind the emergence of these six movies. Uslan regaled the rest of the panel with story after story about his early years of comic fandom, as well as his decades-long effort to make a Batman movie.
Uslan also shared with us some deep thoughts on the modern-era movies, which he categorized according to how well each movie echoed the style and tone of the different comic-book eras of Batman. In this retrospective, I’d like to share art samples from those different eras along with Uslan’s takes on the movies and my own analysis. Naturally, we’ll start with …
The Tim Burton movies
Uslan on Batman: “Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film [is the] most representative of the earliest take on the character by Bob Kane and Bill Finger from 1939.”
Tony’s take: I hate to jump forward and offer analysis on 2008’s The Dark Knight prematurely, but it’s impossible not to compare these two movies’ takes on the definitive Batman villain, the Joker.
By the time Christopher Nolan had earned the right to goof around with the imagery and mythology of Batman with his 2008 blockbuster, he had also earned the right to swing for the proverbial fences with his interpretation of the Joker. He stunt-cast the role with an unlikely name (the late, great Heath Ledger) and he tasked his talented young star to attack the role with energy and joy. I’ll talk about the result later.
Tim Burton had no such luxury with his first Batman movie. When you’re making a huge movie about such iconic characters, there’s an unspoken covenant with the audience that you’ll deliver definitive interpretations of the characters – or at least as close to “definitive” as you can get. There’s no room for stunt casting or crazy, out-of-the-box thinking.
To that end, Burton and his creative team – led by the brilliant production designer Anton Furst – created a magnificent Gotham City and tapped the only man alive (at the time) who could possibly play the Joker, Jack Nicholson. The closest Burton came to a “stunt” casting choice was with his lead, Michael Keaton, but that mini-controversy was mostly in response to fears that this new Batman movie was going to be a comedy. It wasn’t, and Keaton’s performances in the two Burton movies have held up very well.
Oddly enough, it was the no-brainer casting choice who almost turned the movie into a goddamn comedy. Watching Batman again, I was struck at how funny and lighthearted Nicholson’s Joker was. While watching scenes like the Joker’s execution of Grissom (Jack Palance), I felt like I was watching the Joker of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke try to force his way onscreen, only to get crowded offscreen by Nicholson’s clowning.
It’s a small beef, but I feel like the Joker should – and could – have been more terrifying throughout the movie as he is in one scene that I want to recognize. It’s the one where the Joker and Bruce Wayne meet in Vicki Vale’s apartment. This scene has stayed with me since 1989, when I first put on all my Batman gear and watched a midnight sneak-preview. It had lost none of its power when I rewatched it recently.
Everything comes together in this scene. Nicholson’s Joker is funny and scary. Keaton gets to (rightfully) tap into his inner Beetlejuice to show us Wayne’s lingering mental illness, and it’s filled with classic imagery and classic lines (“Never rub another man’s rhubarb!”).
I ask you to take a close look at the end of the scene, too. Vicki (instead of calling the bomb squad) opens the box from the Joker, and a jack-in-the-box mechanism presents her with a prop hand that clutches a bouquet of dead flowers. The soundtrack punctuates the end of the scene with a brassy flourish. Awesome.
Unfortunately, Burton cuts from this energetic scene to a much slower scene, and as much as I respect the choice to shift gears rapidly in a movie, I think Burton missed a great chance to feed off his own energy and propel his movie to a stronger place.
Moving on …
Batman Returns (1992)
Uslan on Batman Returns: “Batman Returns [serves] more as an embodiment of the almost soulless, very dark, almost vampiric comics of the ‘90s.”
(Side note: I read Batman briefly during the 90s, which I most associate with the death and return of Superman storyline, as well the as Knightfall Batman storyline, in which the villainous musclemonster Bane broke Bruce Wayne’s back.)
Tony’s take: OK, earlier I said that Batman Returns might be the best movie in the series. In light of Nolan’s incredibly successful movies, I feel I owe everyone an explanation. My explanation consists of one word:
Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is so forceful, so well realized and so spot-on, that it lifts the entire movie. Not only is her Catwoman one of the best – if not the best – realization of a Batman villain in the entire six-film series, but her relationship with Bruce Wayne is the most effective – if not the only effective – love interest for Wayne in the entire series. To wit, let’s run down the other love interests:
Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale
She’s OK, but Basinger and Keaton don’t share the sparks that Keaton and Pfeiffer do.
Nicole Kidman as Chase Meridian
Kidman looked fucking fantastic in this one, but I still find Val Kilmer’s Bruce Wayne to be largely inert. Kilmer also focused on Wayne’s wounded-ness (if that’s a word) for most of the movie, which left Kidman’s character with nothing to do but heal him. Not great fodder for romance.
Batman & Robin
Elle Macpherson as Julie Madison
Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes
OK, listen: Holmes wasn’t as bad as you think. I mean, give her a break – when Tom Wilkinson’s bringing up the rear of your acting team, anyone who’s not a fucking genius will look like crap. Holmes is pretty far from being a genius, so her performance suffered when compared to everyone else. But all the same: No sparks.
The Dark Knight
Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes
I was all in favor as recasting this role with the much stronger Gyllenhaal, but given how she’s romantically involved with Harvey Dent for this whole movie, her relationship with Wayne is relegated to that of sibling-level loyalty, love and respect.
Anyway, back to Returns:
I’d also like to praise Burton’s direction in Returns. Yes, yes, yes – I admit that I’m still not on board with his take on the Penguin, but Danny DeVito’s performance isn’t half bad. Seriously, go back, rewatch the movie and concentrate on DeVito himself. It’s a pretty damn good Penguin. It’s too bad that Burton couldn’t resist the impulse to graft his usual “freaky outsider” theme onto the character, especially when the series provides so many other opportunities – most notably Bruce Wayne – to explore that theme.
That said, I shall now let Pfeiffer’s performance and Burton’s direction speak for themselves. First, let’s look at Max Shrek’s (Christopher Walken) attempted murder of the mousy secretary Selina Kyle:
That fall through the three awnings still shocks me as much as it did when I was in ninth grade, and it brings me to this question:
Can you think of any imagery that’s as shocking in either of the Nolan movies?
To be sure, Nolan had a different agenda in his movies, and when it came to his Joker, he delivered his violence through other means – suggestion and innuendo – instead of the sudden burst of chaos that Burton uses in Returns.
But all the same, I applaud this scene, as well as the movie’s take on Catwoman’s origin. After rewatching Returns, I did some research online and couldn’t find a single, definitive origin story for Selina Kyle. I invite correction from the geek community here, but writers Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm came up with a creepy and wonderfully visual origin for Catwoman that Burton brought to brilliant life in the following scene. I apologize for the weird video quality:
Once again, Burton and his team gave us one of the best villains, but they also gave us the best love story of the series, and by doing that, they elevated Michael Keaton’s already strong performance as Bruce Wayne.
I don’t deny that the Penguin is a liability for Batman Returns, but this movie’s formidable strengths far outweigh it weaknesses. It’s the best of the series.