Batman on Film

July 18, 2012 - 1:00 pm   |   by
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The first Burton movie sets the stage for further adventures of the Dark Knight beginning with Batman Returns in 1992. This second movie brought the franchise to an area best called the Twilight Zone. Burton and Keaton returned and added Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle/Catwoman and Danny DeVito as Oswald Cobblepot/Penguin. Batman Returns is a weird hybrid film, more a Tim Burton movie than a Batman one.

What really works in Batman Returns is the exploration of duality, especially between the Bat and the Cat. Every scene between those two characters sparkles with chemistry and danger much like the source material. As Bruce Wayne tells Selina Kyle at the end of the movie, "We're the same, split down the middle." Their relationship is complex and riveting in a Burton kind of way.

Batman Returns features two of the best brief Dark Knight moments ever, and that includes the recent Christopher Nolan movies. The close up of Batman's eyes when he confronts the Penguin near the end of the movie is pretty cool on a big screen. But the best Batman moment, what it would feel like to be the Dark Knight, comes about halfway through the movie when he is on his way to checking up on the Penguin at night. The perfect little musical notes from Elfman and the brooding face of Keaton as he drives alone in the Batmobile create a quiet and effective Batman scene.

Batman Returns (1992)

The flip side of the movie features the Penguin and most of it doesn't work well. Through no fault of his own, DeVito is saddled with a depressed and often repulsive character. The fact that he and his team of circus thugs easily get control of the Batmobile is reminiscent of the Joker's silly gun taking down the Batplane in the previous movie. The sequence of the Penguin controlling the Batmobile plays closer to the old TV show than expected. Most of the other characters, especially Commissioner Gordon, come off as too goofy.

Tim Burton brought the Dark Knight back into the shadows in his two films. It helped bring some respect to the Batman and the world of Gotham City. Along the way, however, there are lapses of reasoning that are more obvious today. It seems like Bruce Wayne doesn't respect his one rule not to kill judging by the big circus thug in the back alley in Batman Returns that he blows up. The villains are more potent or bizarre than the Dark Knight and the characterization either takes a back seat to silliness or gets lost in weirdness.

With the giant success of Batman on the big screen, Warner Brothers wisely decided it was time to reanimate the character on television. Hiring a talented crew of writers and animators, such as Bruce Timm, Paul Dini and Alan Burnett, to create a definitive version of Batman in animation turned out to be a critical and ratings success. Many of the episodes of Batman: The Animated Series (1992-94) which became The Adventures of Batman & Robin (1994-95) and The New Batman Adventures (1997-1999) have become classics featuring some of the best stories of the Dark Knight in any form, live action or animated. The animation spawned a new technique using black backgrounds, later called "Dark Deco."

Batman: The Animated Series (1992)

The popular animated series convinced the studio to create several direct-to-video features, including Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993 - also released briefly into theatres) that may be the best Dark Knight movie ever made, or on par with the later Christopher Nolan live action trilogy. The movie digs deep into Bruce Wayne's psyche and features a terrific Joker as well (Mark Hamill, in perfect form).

Meanwhile, on the big screen, all of Tim Burton's darker and weirder elements from his two live-action movies vanished in a hurry once Joel Schumacher took over the franchise, beginning with Batman Forever in 1995. Batman became much more normal and less dark knight in the next two movies. Val Kilmer broods quite well but his Bruce Wayne is non-expressive even if he does smile goofily at the end of one scene. Chase Meridian (a sexy Nicole Kidman) tries to analyze Batman but only in an artificial manner.

Batman Forever has some solid fighting scenes and good pace overall. Richard Grayson/Robin is introduced and fairly well handled by the script and as played by Chris O'Donnell. At least until the nod to the TV show with the obligatory corny lines by the end of the movie. Jim Carrey brings a lot of energy to his role of the Riddler, perhaps too much so, but his riddles force the Batman to be more of a detective. A bit more.

It's unfortunate that what works in some areas is undone by the loud, neon lights of Gotham City and the relentless tackiness that takes over the franchise. Starting the movie by having Batman say, "I'll get drive-thru" is a bad omen. Okay, it was aimed at a younger crowd, got it. Ummmm, but nipples on the Batsuit? The cartoonish yet violent tone and the allure of Dr. Meridian doesn't come across as kids stuff.

Batman Forever (1995)

Tommy Lee Jones really overplays Two-Face (and that is saying a lot) as if feeling the need to upstage Carrey's Riddler. There's the Batmobile going up on the side of a building... cool, sure, but a bit too much. Speaking of the Batmobile, why is it so easy for Richard Grayson to take it for a spin? No safety precautions from Bruce Wayne? It is these kinds of sequences that prevent Batman Forever from being a dynamite Dark Knight movie.

It would only get worse, much worse in the abominable Batman & Robin two years later. When the only true real character is a supporting one, an old butler, you've got a problem. George Clooney takes over as Bruce Wayne/Batman, third actor in three movies, and he fails as either one. But watch Clooney in Michael Clayton and you get the feeling that, with the right script and director, he could have made a great Batman. But here, he is saddled with an atrocious script (wait, there was one?) and lines like "We'll have to kill her later" referring to Batgirl. Seriously?

O'Donnell returns as Robin but goes from interesting young sidekick to whiny little brat. Oh, go away already! Alicia Silverstone is introduced as Barbara Wilson/Batgirl and adds to the mess of the movie. Her character is not even faithful to the comic books where she is Commissioner Gordon's daughter. What a waste of this character. And the villains? Where do you start? Arnold Schwarzenegger as Victor Fries/Mr. Freeze and Uma Thurman as Dr. Pamela Isley/Poison Ivy have a ton of brutal corny lines while playing the characters very far removed from the source material. And the icing on the cake is Jeep Swenson as a moronic Bane, a far cry from Tom Hardy's interpretation in The Dark Knight Rises 15 years later.

Batman and Robin (1997)

Batman & Robin features Batman flying on some kind of surfboard in outer space, playing hockey and appearing live on stage in front of hundreds of people in broad daylight while showing a credit card. Its remarkable how dreadful this movie turned out to be and how it killed the franchise for almost a decade. Various incarnations were attempted from a Batman: Year One adaptation to a Batman vs. Superman idea.


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