A Look Back at the Batman Movies

 

The Joel Schumacher movies

Batman Forever (1995)

Uslan on Batman Forever: “Batman Forever [is] the closest in spirit to the Dick Sprang-drawn, Bill Finger-written stories of the ‘40s and ‘50s.”

(Side note: On the Comics on Comics show, Uslan specified that when he thinks of the Sprang/Finger era of Batman, he’s thinking of fun stories that more involve Batman and Robin running across “giant typewriters,” though I got the impression he didn’t care for Forever so much.)

ImageTony’s take: When I think of Batman Forever, I have to think of Batman & Robin at the same time, because both of Joel Schumacher’s entries into the Batman series are virtually the same damn movie.

And for some reason, Forever works for me on some grotesque, perverse level, while B&R doesn’t. The box office grosses of the two movies reflect the same reaction among the general population – and yet I still can’t bring myself to say that Forever is actually a good movie. Its liabilities are legion, from its overly goofy tone to its motivation-less villains to its miscast heroes (Chris O’Donnell is widely regarded as a miss, and although I typically love Kilmer, Bruce Wayne just isn’t a good part for him).

All the same, I still find the movie entertaining and exceedingly well designed. Uslan compared it to the Batman comics of the 50s, with all of their outlandish giant props and loony storylines, and I guess I dig it on that level.

I’ll recognize one scene from this movie. In the scene below, skip to timestamp :56 to see Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones) and the Riddler (Jim Carrey) meet for the first time:

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Listen, you can flame me and make fun of me all you want, but that scene is cool as hell, and Jim Carrey ain’t a half bad Riddler. An acting teacher of mine praised Carrey’s physical performance in Forever, and I have to agree. Carrey prepared himself very well for this role, right down to how he handles his question-mark cane. I’m sure there’s a grimmer take on Edward Nigma out there, but who wants to see that?

I readily concede that Forever doesn’t maintain the energy seen in the meeting between Two-Face and Riddler. I also concede that it’s not for everyone. But I maintain that on some demented, Cro-magnon level, it’s very entertaining, though not even all of Joel Schumacher’s tricks can match the enjoyment I derive from watching a garden-variety episode of the 1960s TV series, which brings me to …

ImageBatman & Robin (1997)

Uslan on Batman & Robin: “Batman & Robin [is the] most representative of the campy, Adam West Batman of the mid-‘60s.”

Tony’s take: No argument here. On the heels of his success with Forever, Schumacher made the mistake of thinking that more is always better, and he dumped a whooole lotta “more” into this movie, including three heroes, three villains, countless vehicles and gadgets – all of it strung together through an endless series of embarrassing, embarrassing scenes. This movie left a lot of collateral damage in its wake. Here are some of the casualties:

George Clooney as Bruce Wayne
Not a bad casting choice. I would have liked to have seen him in a real Batman movie. Too bad we’ll never get to see it.

Mr. Freeze as a Batman movie villain
Mr. Freeze is such a grand old chestnut, and he’s got a great backstory – a tragic scientist who ruined his body’s temperature tolerance while trying to save his terminally ill wife. Schumacher’s movie includes elements of this storyline, but it was hard to take it seriously when juxtaposed with stuff like this:

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I also think that there’s a parallel universe where the right director could have wrangled a compelling Mr. Freeze out of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Let’s not forget that James Cameron got some good performances out of him in his movies. Schwarzenegger also looks damn cool in the blue makeup. That said, I’d still love to see Patrick Stewart in the role.

(Side note: Apparently, the TV show took the ice-themed character Mr. Zero from the comics and renamed him Mr. Freeze. The comics followed suit. It’s fitting that Freeze appears in the Batman movie that most closely echoes the TV series.)

Still another casualty is:

Poison Ivy as a Batman movie villain
Don’t get me wrong – I like watching Uma Thurman slink around in tights as much as the next guy, but let’s face it: Poison Ivy is a second-tier Batman villain unless you know what you’re doing.

The same goes for Mr. Freeze. It’s easy for both of these characters to seem silly if you don’t interpret them the right way. (Hell, to be fair, any of the Batman villains can look silly, but the second-tier characters can look worse with far less effort.)

If you want to see a sound interpretation of these characters, look no further than writer Jeph Loeb and artist Tim Sale’s pair of classic Batman series The Long Halloween and Dark Victory, both of which served as major sources of material for the two Nolan movies, which I’ll get to in a moment.

In Halloween, Loeb and Sale show us an Ivy who’s been consumed and deformed by nature. She’s a living plant-thing, a sensual demon of Gaia who scrambles Bruce Wayne’s brain. Check this out:

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But let me get back to B&R. I must disagree with Mr. Uslan on one point. He said that B&R echoes the campy 60s TV series.

I think that’s an insult to the old TV series.

Believe me, I prefer the more serious Batmans of the modern era, but god-damn was the 60s series entertaining. Unlike the Schumacher movie, which didn’t know what the fuck it wanted to be, the 60s series knew exactly what it wanted to be, and as a result, we got some of the best interpretations of the rogues gallery ever – Burgess Meredith as the Penguin and Julie Newmar as Catwoman spring to mind – and let’s not forget those cliffhangers! Yes, they were silly, but tell me you couldn’t wait to find out what happened on the next episode.

But let’s take our hats off to the great Frank Gorshin as the Riddler. It’s impossible to choose just one great moment with Gorshin, but with respect, I’ll offer this one:

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Like I said, I prefer my Batman to be serious. I’ll take Frank Miller’s Batman over Adam West’s, but the old 60s series was at least engaging. Joel Schumacher’s shitpile wasn’t. That’s how bad it is.