The Batman Saga

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The world’s greatest detective. The Dark Knight. The Caped Crusader. Whatever you call him, Batman is an icon of American pop culture. The Bat-symbol is instantly recognizable to almost anybody, and almost everyone has seen, read, or played one of the Bat’s many adventures. And outside the comics, the Batman is first known for the ever-growing film series, another installment of which is due out next summer.

The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s second entry, was one of the most successful films of all time, both financially and critically. So there’s no better time to revisit the entire series, starting with the 1966 original, Batman.
Batman – 1966

In the 1940’s, two Batman serials were created. They were each 15 chapters long and played before feature-length films in theaters. The first was mainly World War II propaganda. They were soon forgotten. But when the 1960’s rolled around, a renewed interest in them arose. Television producers took notice.
In 1966, a new television series based on DC Comics’ Batman. Adam West played the titular hero, with Burt Ward playing the Boy Wonder, Robin. It featured all the regulars of the comics, like Alfred and Commissioner Gordon, and an ever changing roster of villains, usually one per episode. The bad guys (and gals) ranged from the still well-known examples like the Joker, to some that are almost totally irrelevant today, like Egghead or King Tut.

The original plan was to make a feature-length film before the series to get some buzz for the coming first season. But the studio wanted to see how the first season (a cheaper investment) fared before attempting a movie. So at the end of the first successful season, Batman hit theaters.

Almost the entire cast of the show returned (with the exception of a new actress for Catwoman) for what is one of the goofiest films ever made, especially of those about Batman. It’s an hour-and-a-half of Bat-vehicles, zany villains, blinding Technicolor, exploding sharks, massive bombs that just can’t be disposed of, foam-filled trucks, and the dehydrated powder remains of the most powerful world leaders. It’s funny, it’s colorful, and it’s just plain entertaining. What might be the funniest aspect is that the day isn’t quite saved at the end.

The cast is terrific. Adam West embodied Batman for a generation, and one can easily see his confidence in the role. Burt Ward is funny as Robin, if only because his catchphrase, “Holy fill-in-the-blank-noun, Batman!” has become the butt of its own joke in recent years. The villains are all over-acted in the best of ways. Cesar Romero, Frank Gorshin, Burgess Meredith, and Lee Meriwether play the iconic foes. Some might recognize Burgess Meredith, better known as “Mickey” from the Rocky series.

Ultimately, if you can take your Batman with tongue-in-cheek humor, then give it a watch. It’s entertaining in its own way, that wouldn’t be attempted again for some time. But that’s further down the line. And the Bat wouldn’t be seen on the big screen at all for more than twenty years.

Batman – 1989

Even when the 1966 film hit theaters, the Batman of the comics was getting darker in tone. But what really sealed the new feel of Batman was a pair of extremely influential graphic novels, The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller and The Killing Joke by Alan Moore. The public loved this new serious take on the Caped Crusader enough to make Warner Brothers produce another feature film.

Several script treatments were thrown around before settling on a draft by Sam Hamm. After his movie Beetlejuice swept the box office, Tim Burton was hired as director. Naturally there was much press over the search for a Batman, and Adam West even threw his hat into the ring, but it wasn’t successful. Instead, comedian and actor Michael Keaton was chosen, who also starred in Burton’s Beetlejuice. Batman fans were outraged. They thought that he didn’t have the dramatic edge to play a darker Batman and even boycotted the decision. But production continued as planned. Jack Nicholson was brought on for the Joker, even though he received an immensely favorable fee for the role.

When the movie was released, box office records were demolished. The critics were overall impressed, though some said the Joker stole the show and it messed with the comics too much. In short, it ushered in the new era of comic books on the silver screen.

So how does it hold up now? Really well, actually. The acting on all counts is superb. Keaton is my person choice for best Batman and Bruce Wayne. Even when he’s Bruce, trying to charm some party guests, the audience can tell he’s hiding something. A great performance, but overshadowed by the pitch-perfect Nicholson. Genuinely funny and more than a little insane, his Joker is arguably the best Joker. The cinematography is just stunning. Taking cues from German Expressionism, Burton made Gotham a real, if visually unsettling city. The Danny Elfman score is instantly memorable, but Prince’s song additions tend to split the viewers. Either you can accept that two rather ill-fitting pop songs are in a Batman movie or you can’t. Personally, I think they fit the Joker’s off-kilter madness quite well in both scenes.

This was always and, most likely, will always be my favorite Batman movie. The plot is engaging even to those who haven’t even heard of the Batman, the cast is fantastic, and it’s just a visually unique film to watch. I heartily recommend it.

Naturally, the studio wanted a sequel and fast. The original plan was to have Burton crank out another in 1990, for release the year after. But he was disappointed with the original and wanted to work on Edward Scissorhands first. So the sequel was delayed a few years.

Batman Returns – 1992

To get Burton back in the director’s chair, Warner Brothers gave him almost complete creative control. And Burton didn’t like the preliminary script from Sam Hamm, writer of the first film. So he brought on Daniel Waters to write another draft. After some polishing, Batman Returns went into production and casting rumors were going wild in the press.

In what was to become a tradition, everyone was trying to guess what villains would menace Gotham, and who would play them. The common guesses were The Riddler, The Penguin, or Catwoman. Actors and actresses thrown around for these respective roles included Robin Williams, Danny Devito, and Sean Young. Only one out of three was correct, and The Riddler didn’t even appear in Returns.

In 1992, Batman Returns was released and broke more box office records, at least initially. Critical reaction was generally more positive than the original, but the most common criticisms focused on the overabundance of villains, and the weak nature of them in comparison to Nicholson’s Joker.

Tim Burton felt it was a much better effort on his part than Batman, which has to mean something. But in recent years, the movie has gotten less and less respect. And the film went on to gross only three-fourths of the original’s total monies, even with a doubled budget. So what’s the deal?

Well all the returning characters from Batman are played by the same actors, and Michael Keaton is given a little more depth in the Wayne/Batman dual-role. Here he has to deal with other two-faced (pardon the pun) villains. In the first, The Joker was really only The Joker. There was no alter ego. But here there’s Selina Kyle/Catwoman, and Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin. It’s an interesting dynamic, which really results in the overall conclusion that the worst villains are the ones who don’t wear costumes, like Max Schreck.

Once again, the villains are all almost perfectly cast. Danny Devito becomes The Penguin, almost as well as Nicholson became The Joker. Michelle Pfeiffer is effective as a down-trodden secretary who soon finds power in a mask, not unlike Batman. And Christopher Walken plays a disturbing tycoon quite believably. And it’s an interesting statement that the ordinary businessman is using the costumed freaks to get ahead, even when the first film showed more of a reverse, with The Joker conferring with other mob-bosses.

The movie is crammed with subplots, character arcs, and action scenes. Even though it’s the exact same length as the first, it feels like a much longer film, just because it throws so much plot at the audience. And like the first, the villains really take center stage. Much more time is spent on them than on Batman, and especially Bruce Wayne. And another slight flaw is that even after several viewings, the motivations of the key players is still rather murky. The Penguin’s first objective is possibly to find out his own history and get some long-due respect, but he’s also linked to some murders via a circus troupe he’s partnered with. And then he wants to kill the Batman by somehow murdering all the first-born children of Gotham with rocket-wielding penguins. Schreck, meanwhile, wants to get some control in the city by monopolizing the power lines and somehow using The Penguin’s political campaign to further that. While some analysis can fill in these blanks, the movie still tends to gloss over some of the holes.

So it’s a busier, looser film than the original and it subsequently comes off feeling like one of Christopher Nolan’s movies. But what’s interesting here is that it’s a lot less colorful than the 1989 entry.

It’s almost black-and-white in places, and the only color comes from the circus gang or the Gotham citizens in some scenes. But that’s probably intentional. After all, penguins are black and white. It’s just another touch by Burton that makes this one unique, and a more thoughtful film than the first.

And one of the long-standing debates is whether this one is darker or lighter than the first. Almost all the critics agree it’s darker, with more violence and some more serious themes, like child abuse and abandonment. And McDonald’s even cancelled a Happy Meal promotion because it didn’t want to associate with a movie showing a mutant penguin-man biting someone’s nose off.

Ironically, Burton claims it’s lighter. No matter which you subscribe to, it’s still a heavier film all around.

So is it as good as the first? Well the Prince songs are gone, but so is Nicholson. The three villains more than make up for the absence, but no single character is as fascinating or fun to watch as The Joker. The Elfman score is even better here, with some great new cues. The set design is perfect, with some pieces even held over from the first.

Overall, an admirable follow-up. It’s still very entertaining and a little deeper than the original, but it’s over-ambitious and something is lost in the equation. My pick for the second best Batman film.

Warner Brothers decided Returns didn’t make enough money for their liking, so changes would be made with the next sequel.

Batman Forever – 1995

Tim Burton felt that he wasn’t wanted back for another, so he decided not to direct and instead produce. Michael Keaton was told that the darkness and overall serious tone of the first two would be abandoned in favor of a more family-friendly film, he bowed out.

So a new director and a new Batman had to be found.

Joel Schumacher was chosen as the new director, with Burton’s approval. The plot would be based off of Frank Miller’s critically acclaimed Batman: Year One, another graphic novel that expanded on Bruce Wayne’s earliest days as Batman. But the studio didn’t feel it was right for the time, though Year One would inspire a Batman film much later.

Val Kilmer was hired almost immediately after Keaton decided not to come back. The villains this time were The Riddler and Two-Face, and the casting of each was hotly reported. Though Billy Dee Williams played Harvey Dent in the first Burton film (and didn’t appear in Returns), it was decided that a new Dent, and therefore a new Two-Face, was needed. Tommy Lee Jones was cast after working with Schumacher on another film. The Riddler was trickier, with many names attached at points to play the role. Robin Williams, who always rallied for the part, was turned down and Jim Carrey was chosen.

The bigger news was that Forever would introduce Robin, a character that was cut out of Returns at the last minute to keep it simpler. Marlon Wayans signed up for Returns, and assumed he’d still be in Forever, but Chris O’Donnell was chosen instead.

And once again, the Bat broke the box office. And this time it earned back more than Returns, making it an official success. The critics, however, weren’t as impressed with this newer, neon-lit Batman adventure. Most said it was more fun than Returns, but without nearly as much substance. Batman had become just a summer blockbuster, they said, which some found favorable and others not so much.

So is it a good movie? It’s entertaining, and some would say that’s all that matters. Val Kilmer is either boring or distant, depending on how much you enjoy his performance as Wayne, and just bland as Batman. Robin, even with a suitably sad origin story, just comes off as whiny most of the time. Nicole Kidman is pretty flat as the love interest, falling way too hard and way too quickly for Batman. Michael Gough as Alfred, as he played him in the first two films, is just as dependable here. But it’s the villains that steal the show. Jim Carrey throws himself into The Riddler and it shows. Most of the time it just seems like Jim Carrey is doing his normal rubber-face routine, but it fits too well for this lighter Batman movie. Tommy Lee Jones is goofy as Two-Face, but it’s a contrast to the character’s usual serious nature. But it’s all for the tone of the movie.

And boy is it obvious. Gotham looks like a city out of Blade Runner, with neon covering just about everything and bright lights everywhere else. The Bat-suit looks less menacing and more like an ordinary bodysuit. The Batcave is bigger, the Bat-vehicles are more exotic, and the soundtrack is at times painful. The new score by Elliot Goldenthal is well-done, but it’s not as memorable as Elfman’s. But the overabundance of pop songs is obnoxious at times.

Overall, it’s not a bad movie. It’s often funny, the action’s solid, and the villains steal the show. It’s far from great, and a sizable step down from Burton’s entries.

Still, this family-friendly sequel wasn’t so squeaky clean before it hit theaters. In fact, there were some dark, emotional scenes left out of the final cut. It’s interesting to wonder how that version would’ve faired.

But since it was so wildly successful, another movie was put on the fast-track for 1997, for better or for worse.

Batman and Robin – 1997

Schumacher returned, along with screenwriter Akiva Goldsman who penned Forever. Schumacher decided that the next film should be a throwback to the 1960’s series, camp and all. Basically, he wanted to take the humor and the rather kid-oriented feel of Forever and ramp it up as far as it could go.

The storyline would follow Mr. Freeze in a plot similar to episodes of the acclaimed animated series at the time. Poison Ivy and Bane were thrown in to keep the villain count high enough.

Val Kilmer didn’t get along with hardly any of the crew from Forever, so he was replaced with George Clooney, though Chris O’Donnell returned. Arnold Schwarzenegger was cast as Mr. Freeze after Schumacher decided the character ought to be physically menacing. Uma Thurman was chosen for Poison Ivy. Finally, Batgirl was added to the film, presumably to make more action figures. Alicia Silverstone was cast as the character, who’s alter ego is Barbara Wilson, Alfred’s niece.

So how did it turn out? You’d be hard pressed to find anyone that ranks this as anything higher than the worst Batman film ever made. The humor surpasses that of Forever, to the point of being insulting to the audience. Every line Mr. Freeze has is some sort of pun on ice. Obviously Arnold is enjoying himself, but it doesn’t fit the character at all. The action sequences tend to be utterly implausible or outright impossible, like surfing on metal panels from an explosion in the sky. George Clooney is suitably charming as Wayne, but strangely open as Batman. He appears at city functions and even has a Bat-credit-card, with a “good-by” date of “Forever.” Get it? Neither did audiences.

It made far less than any of the other Batman movies, and effectively killed the franchise.

So the 60’s nostalgia didn’t translate to the 90’s. Then again, Batman and Robin really overshot the humor of Adam West and Burt Ward’s adventures, and was just plain strange. It’s a movie that makes you question just what the filmmakers were thinking during production.

Interestingly, another film was put into pre-production while this one was filming. The working title was Batman Triumphant, and it was going to be a return to a more serious Bat-film. The villain was to be Scarecrow, with Harley Quinn as a supporting heavy. But after Batman and Robin failed at the box office, relatively speaking, Triumphant was cancelled. Even though Schumacher, Clooney, and O’Donnell were willing to return for another, Warner Bros. decided to take a long look at the franchise before any more money was spent.

And through the 1990’s and early 2000’s, several failed movies came and went. Some featured Scarecrow as the villain, Man-Bat was mentioned, and a team-up with Superman was in the works for a while. But it wouldn’t be until young director and screenwriter Christopher Nolan worked on a script that the series would continue, or begin again.

Batman Begins – 2005

In 2003, pre-production began on a new Batman film, one that was promised as a more serious, modern take on the hero. It was to be an origin story, one based on several different graphic novels, including Year One, The Long Halloween, and Dark Victory. Basically, this project was to make the Dark Knight dark again.

Christian Bale, who was approached to play Batman on most of the interim projects, was officially cast. And he was just the first of many acclaimed actors to join the cast, like Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, and Gary Oldman, to name a few.

Instead of almost purely soundstage work and special effects to create the city of Gotham, Nolan used Chicago as a base, and added distinctive buildings, like the Wayne Foundation, to make it more accurate. In fact, it was decided to deemphasize CGI effects in favor of practical effects, and it shows.

The plot did include the Scarecrow, and surprise villain Ra’s al Ghul. But a fair amount of focus was cast on Gotham’s non-costumed criminals, especially Joe Chill, the man that killed Bruce’s parents. For the first time on screen, Bruce Wayne’s journey to Batman and further is shown, and it’s packed full of drama and action, in just the right proportions.

And it’s clear that the audiences knew a winning formula when they saw it, because Begins was a rousing success both financially and critically, even by studio standards. For the first time since Returns, everyone seemed satisfied. Its fresh realism and emphasis on substance with style reinvigorated the superhero genre, like the 1989 entry before it. Critics loved the characterization and discussion of the Batman/Bruce Wayne dynamic, though some felt it was underdeveloped and others believed it was overdone. Katie Holmes as Bruce’s love interest was picked out as one of the low points of the film, most agreeing that she’s not quite believable.

And it is a fantastic film. It’s thrilling, it’s beautifully shot, and it deals with Bruce’s duality just enough to please most viewers without dragging down what really is supposed to be a popcorn flick. And what Nolan really excels at is the supporting cast. Gary Oldman, though he didn’t receive that much screen time, is brilliantly cast as Commissioner Gordon. Nothing against Pat Hingle, who played Gordon in every film from the 1989 installment to Batman and Robin, but Gordon is just given more to do, no doubt because of the influence of Year One on the script. Michael Caine is an intriguing father figure for Bruce, and Morgan Freeman provides a nice anchor to the Batman image, providing the various gadgets, like the Batmobile/Tumbler, which has been modernized (to divisive results).

And a sizable portion of the audiences and critics lauded it as the best Batman film ever made. It’s one of the best, but I’d still give that prize to Batman (1989). While the film studies Batman/Bruce Wayne, and defies the tradition of giving more attention to villains, it really forgets about Scarecrow by the end. He’s given a weak send-off in what is a rousing climax. Like Returns, the motivations are rather sketchy. It all makes sense, but that doesn’t change the fact that idealism is an over-used plot device. But the biggest strike against Begins is the editing. Through 90% of the film, it’s perfectly acceptable. But whenever there’s a fight sequence, you might have to look away. The cuts are so quick and so jarring that it’s almost nauseating to watch, not to mention the fact that with three viewings it’s still hard to make out what’s going on.

So a great film, but not the greatest. Never-the-less, the Bat had returned to the cinemas with a new director and a new vision. In fact, it inspired dozens of other “gritty reboots,” as they were soon called.

Within a year after its release, production began on another entry.

The Dark Knight – 2008

Christopher Nolan and his co-writer (and brother) Jonathon Nolan wanted to tackle The Joker and the questions he posed. Influenced by The Joker’s earliest appearance in the comics, the plot wouldn’t delve into The Joker’s backstory, since the writers felt it wasn’t necessary. Instead, the characterization fell on Wayne and new-comer Harvey Dent, who would eventually become Two-Face. And since The Long Halloween was used as a reference again, Gordon would receive more focus this time around.

Bale returned, as did the rest of the cast, with the exception of Katie Holmes. Maggie Gyllenhaal replaced her as Rachel Dawes, and it seems to help the movie rather than hinder it. Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent is a multi-faceted character and he fits perfectly in the film.

But the biggest news was Heath Ledger’s turn as The Joker, or more accurately, the tragedy therein. After wrapping production on Knight, he died of a drug overdose, prescription drugs. And even though it may be in bad taste, it offered tremendous publicity for The Dark Knight. But some still wondered how he’d make the role his own, independent of Nicholson.

No doubt the release of The Dark Knight will stay in the history books, at least cinematic history books, for a long, long time. Its opening night broke records. Its opening day broke records. It’s first weekend earned about half the total grosses of Batman and Robin. Warner Brothers even re-released the film to break the one-billion dollar mark. And it did. The total gross was just over one-billion, making it one of the highest grossing movies of all time.

And the critics loved it. Reviews were overwhelmingly positive, and they all said the same thing: Ledger was unbelievably well-cast as The Joker. He became The Joker on-screen. Eckhart was also praised, though not quite as much. The deeper analysis of heroes and villains, carried over from Begins, was celebrated by the critics.

I still don’t see it. I’ve watched The Dark Knight time and time again, and I still don’t see the greatness. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a fantastically made movie. And the story is totally believable. I really enjoyed Eckhart’s performance and I felt like he was the best player in this entry. But everything else is lackluster. Bale takes the serious, brooding persona from Begins and ratchets it up so far that Batman sounds like a chain-smoker with a cold. And the dialogue. What to say about the dialogue. Every line sounds like some grand monologue on human nature. It’s exhausting to listen to, and by the end, I was just wishing someone would make a snappy come-back or something less dense. This over-analysis about every character is just poor writing, in my opinion. There’s no room for the audience to discuss the themes or the motivations behind characters; it’s all explained in the film. But I think this could be deliberate by Nolan, because Inception employs a similar tactic. The audience leaves feeling more intelligent, having these insights into the characters, even though they didn’t actually come up with them. That’s what made the Burton films so meaningful; you can watch them time and time again, and each time find something new about a character or some hidden theme. But Nolan leaves no room for interpretation, and though it does make the audience more satisfied for it, it’s just near-ruins the movie for me.

Which leaves my last complaint: Heath Ledger. He’s a great actor, and this film proves it beyond a shadow of a doubt. You leave the theater believing he’s a homicidal maniac. But he’s not The Joker. He’s just not. Sure, he laughs and he has a screw loose, but he’s not funny. Sure, there’s the pencil trick, but that’s more disturbing than funny. There was no humor in the character. I’m not suggesting The Joker ought to be a comic relief, but his name has the word “joke” in it; being funny is kind of important. So hearing the whole hubbub about this being the greatest performance and interpretation of the character really turned me off this movie. I may be biased, but I walked into that theater a fan of Batman Begins and Nolan’s work. I left disappointed.

It was a great movie, just not a Batman movie. I’ve taken a lot of flak for talking down this movie, but I stand by my opinion.

Naturally, a sequel is in production. The Dark Knight Rises will feature all new villains, like Bane and Selina Kyle. Nolan has claimed that Catwoman won’t appear, though her alter-ego will feature prominently. Either way, this is said to be his last entry in the series, ending his trilogy. No doubt it will break box office records and continue the serious take on the Caped Crusader, the modern take.

If you see it or not, one has to respect the long history of the Bat on the silver screen. And I heartily suggest you give the entire series a watch. My personal pick is the first of the darker series, Batman (1989), as the best. A second pick would have to be a tie between Batman Returns and Batman Begins. And regardless of which films you enjoy and which you refuse to ever watch again, one thing’s for certain: the Bat-signal will be shining in theaters the world over for a long time to come.





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Jacob44 said...
Aug. 3, 2011 at 10:34 am
When did Alicia Silverstone star in a Batman movie?!?!!?!?!?!! Batman is my favorite hero, and I really liked Silverstone in Blast From the Past and in Scooby Doo: Monsters Unleashed the latter movie being the one where the acting was good, the story not so much.
 
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