Zack & Nick's Culture Cast

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Franchise Fracas: Batman (Part One)

This weekend, The Dark Knight Rises opens in theaters world-wide (as if anyone did not already know), and is slated to conclude the popular Christopher Nolan directed trilogy.  But, nuts to that.  Let’s rewind time and look at the previous Batman cinematic series.

Founded by director Tim Burton and then continued by Joel Schumacher, the Batman films from 1989 to 1997 are such an eclectic group of films.  While each shares several traits, each one is also wildly different in tone and execution.  It would make an interesting academic study, and I would love to one day read an in-depth chronicle on the making of these films akin to Del Ray’s The Complete Making of Indiana Jones.  The documentaries located on the two-disc DVD and Blu-Ray releases are pretty good, but I would love to learn more.

In any event, this series was really the first time Batman was given a “serious” take.  Like most superheroes at the time, Batman was regulated to Saturday morning cartoons and the classic Adam West TV series.  Here was an “adult” version, and, though I was young, I remember that taking some people aback at the time.

That first film, simply titled Batman, saw Michael Keaton as the caped crusader.  Keaton, of course, was a hugely controversial casting choice at the time due to him being mostly known for comedies.  Of course, his performance shut up pretty much everybody, and there are still people today who claim that he is the best Batman.   Opposite him is Jack Nicholson as the Joker.  Nicholson really threw himself in the role to the point that I really think that that’s all Nicholson has been playing since 1989.  Heath Ledger was great in The Dark Knight, but I will argue that Nicholson’s interpretation is just as good.  Then again, that is the great thing about the Joker; there really is no wrong way to play him.

The plot is all over the place, but what makes this movie work is the mood and the atmosphere.  Burton really was able to craft this incredible and visually interesting world.  I love the decision for retro-designs with modern technology.  It works so well for Batman that even the popular 1990s Batman cartoon picked up on this.  This movie has a lot of rewatchability to it, and I am never not entertained by it.

Then we got 1992’s Batman Returns.  Quite frankly, I do not like this movie.  I know it is popular with many, but I think it is awful.  I like elements to it.  The casting is great and Burton really evolves the designs from the first feature, but a lot of this movie does not work for me.  I found it to be too much Tim Burton, which should not be a surprise since Burton pretty much got full creative freedom when making this movie.  Had this been another movie that was not connected to Batman, it would have worked a lot better.

The movie is dark, but it goes dark in the wrong direction.  It is more grotesque than anything else.  For example, Penguin, who looks great and is played wonderfully by Danny DeVito, is just a bit too disgusting for his own good.  Perhaps I am bias since Penguin is my favorite Batman villain, and the film completely botched his character.  Adding to the strange factor is Catwoman’s bizarre cat resurrection, an invention for this movie.  I really do not know what the point of it is since the movie never really goes into it.

Like the previous film, the performances are terrific.  DeVito and Michelle Pfeiffer completely own their roles.  Christopher Walken is enjoyably creepy as always.  Maybe that is why people like this movie.  I really do not know.

Due to the darkness of Batman Returns (and its relative under-performance), there was a large backlash against it.  As such, Burton was replaced by Joel Schumacher who relaunched the franchise with Batman Forever.  The series followed the “adult” nature, but the tone was lighter.  We also switched Batmans with Val Kilmer stepping in.  This movie gets a lot of bad press, and I personally feel it is uncalled for.  Granted, the movie is incredibly goofy at times and the villains’ plot is a bit questionable, the movie still has a lot going for it.

Personally, I really enjoyed Kilmer as Batman.  Maybe the script just gave him more to work with, but I felt he humanized the role better than Keaton did.   Schumacher’s original cut of the movie involved a subplot delving into the Batman’s psychology (and actually explained why the film is titled Batman Forever).  It was ultimately cut for the theatrical release, and that is really a shame.  I also did not mind Chris O’Donnell, and I do not have the hate the rest of the Internet does for the latter.  Quite frankly, I think the film took the best route in adapting the Robin character in a believable manner.

The action in this film is also top notch and a heck of a lot better than the previous films.  The opening sequence where the audience is thrown into the action is fantastic.  It was a good move by Schumacher.  From there, the sequences get better and better.

The villains, however, are what bring this film down.  Jim Carrey does his best Frank Gorshin impression as the Riddler (which is fine, but probably not what the movie needed), and Tommy Lee Jones is clearly there for the paycheck.  Also, the sci-fi nature of the villains’ scheme didn’t help matters either and really clashes with the psychological element.

Despite how people look on the movie now, in 1995, this film was wildly successful.  It performed better than Batman Returns, and it was largely received well by moviegoers at the time.  I think that seems to get forgotten a lot in our post-Nolan world.  And, the film itself is just a fun little movie.

Because this entry proved to be excessively long (even for a Franchise Fracas), I decided to split it into two parts to make reading it much more manageable.  Tomorrow, I will look back at Schumacher’s second entry and reflect on the impact of these films.

~N

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12 responses to “Franchise Fracas: Batman (Part One)

  1. CultureCast-Z July 18, 2012 at 11:32 pm

    Nick, fantastic write-up! I’ll offer a few thoughts on the Batman movies here.

    Batman – Loved Keaton in this film and love him in general. Nicholson steals the show as the Joker, and I agree that he is just as iconic in the role as Ledger would come to be. This movie is pure spectacle and one of the greatest summer blockbusters of all time. It’s a shame the movie is almost largely forgotten.

    Batman Returns – One of the first PG-13 movies I got to see in theaters! I remember liking it but also being somewhat disappointed in it, which is weird considering I was 9 years old when it was released into theaters. The hype surrounding this movie was palpable, and I remember it not living up to the hype. People on the internet *love* this movie, probably because of how weird it is, but I don’t think I could go back and watch it and like it now.

    Batman Forever – One of my summer highlights in 1995 (a great year for movies if I do say so myself). I loved the change in tone, I loved Kilmer as Batman, and I loved O’Donnell as Robin too (seriously, fuck the haters). This movie gets a bad rap largely because of Batman and Robin, but it isn’t nearly as odious as people think it is.

    • Nick! July 19, 2012 at 6:09 am

      You know, when doing some research (a term I use very loosely) for this article, I found a large portion of people who have turned against “Batman Returns”.

      Also, you should resurrect your 1995 feature and talk “Batman Forever”.

      • CultureCast-Z July 19, 2012 at 10:37 am

        I would just need to watch it again. I’m debating doing a midnight thing with DKR and getting a review up as soon as possible. Thoughts?

        • Nick! July 19, 2012 at 2:38 pm

          Did you buy your tickets back in December? lol. Seriously though, quick reviews are good, but would you want to put up with that insanity? That said, you should wear an Avengers t-shirt if you go. I’m tenitively planning to go tomorrow morning with the likely misguided theory that the theater will not be as crazy.

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  3. Ben July 23, 2012 at 2:02 pm

    Very interesting approach to examining the films. Look forward to part 2.

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