Batman Forever (’95)

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The first thing to remember about Batman Forever is that no matter what angry fan boys on the IMDB message boards say, Forever is considerably closer in content to the comic books than Batman Returns. Whether or not it is a more satisfying movie may be a whole different matter, but the argument that Burton was better because he stuck closer to the source material doesn’t ring true in this case.

  

When people think “comic book movie” they tend to imagine a bunch of grown men running around in silly outfits with lots things needlessly exploding and a plot line that plays second fiddle to nerdy indulgence (See The Avengers for the most compelling example of this). This is basically what Batman Forever is, but now nerds are too embarrassed to admit they liked it. But they did. We all did. I even recently saw a batman infographic depicting all of the stages of Batman in comics and film. It erroneously claimed that Batman Forever was a critical and financial failure, which is not the case at all. When it came out it made a pretty big splash.

The biggest failure of the movie is that its story takes a back seat to the visual elements which also happens to be the problem with the first two. Critics, however, reacted with less enthusiasm over Schumacher’s first bat-attempt because for some reason the overpowering bodaciousness of the neon-lit Gotham is less appealing than the overpowering gloom of Burton’s shadowy version. In the earlier incarnations the noir approach distracted viewers into believing that there was a lot more going on than there actually was. It all seemed like some sort of dark mystery that was too emotionally damaged reveal itself. In Schumacher’s Gotham-Tokyo there is no real sense of mystery. The film acknowledges too openly that what you’re seeing is just a bunch of grown-ups in a fantasy world. There is a certain charm to it but in the end it is far less satisfying.

Many of the problems with the movie’s approach first took root in Batman Returns. For example the odd statues that litter the Gotham City of Forever emphasizing the cartoonish nature of the world they inhabit are surprisingly similar to the statues seen in Returns. The more sleek look of the batsuit which is a stark contrast to the more rugged original suit worn by Keaton actually appeared first in Returns as well. Aside from the design of the film, the performances draw, at least to some degree, from a standard set in Burton’s sequel. While Batman ’89 had an obvious aversion to campy dialogue and performances, Returns was really the first Batman to allow its characters to acknowledge the fact that they are ridiculous, something that Batman Forever takes full advantage of. Though some fans may have a problem with Jim Carrey’s over the top performance and Tommy Lee Jones’s unfaithful interpretation of Two-Face they must recognize that Michele Pfifer’s Catwoman and Danny Devitto’s Penguin suffer from the same problems.

It is also important to take into account  that while Danny Devitto’s odd (and quite frankly outrageous) interpretation at least made the Penguin more interesting, not less. Tommy Lee Jones’s Two-Face is far more one-dimensional than modern renderings of the character in the comics. In fact if this movie committed one truly punishable sin it is that one of Batman’s most important and menacing villains was treated as a joker rip-off. I don’t find much to complain about with Carrey’s Riddler though. My view may be slightly tainted by the fact that when the movie was first released I – like most kids my age – practically worshiped ‘ol rubber-faced Jim.

The Gotham City in Forever is a fascinating nightmare of 90’s media overload. Everywhere there are signs in Japanese (even though there appear to be no Asians anywhere in Gotham City) and neon lights. Gangsters roam around the streets in blacklight makup and even the Batmobile has a slick neon disco ball for its motor (you’d think that might be less than useful when you’re trying to sneak up on thugs in dark alleys). It’s inspiration seems to be something of a combination between a mid-90’s U2 concert and a Saturday morning version of Blade Runner. All of this is topped off with a musical score that sounds like it belongs in a circus. Makes sense I suppose.

There are many other aspects of the movie that play well. Bruce Wayne is treated as a national celebrity which is much closer to his portrayal in the comics, even though Val Kilmer gives an unfortunately stiff performance. The batsuit looks pretty cool (except for the unnecessary nipples) and they did a pretty good job introducing Robin into the whole mix. The soundtrack is by far the most important contribution of this film. Movie soundtracks in the 90’s were nothing less than an art form, and Batman Forever’s is an absolute masterpiece.

This film is also the first to really imply that Bruce Wayne is fighting crime as an attempt to reconcile his angry feelings. While the first two films were never very clear on why Bruce Wayne got his kicks from crime fighting, Forever claims it’s all a form of therapy. Making a therapist be Batman’s love interest is a fascinating choice and Nicole Kidman’s portrayal ofDr. Chase Meridian works just fine. Unlike its successor Forever actually tries to address some questions about the nature of Batman’s journey. What would it take to give it all up? Could he use some help? While the first two simply assumed Batman was impossible to understand, Forever opens him up for examination. The answers may not be terribly insightful but at least this movie has questions.

If the Burton/Schumacher films were, as some critics suggest, nothing more than extravagant pop art then Batman Forever deservesto be remembered as a worthy effort. The problem is that while the Burton films certainly focused on style over substance there was still an element of desperation and melancholy that took the viewer to interesting places. While it is a shame that this less-than-terrible batfilck will forever be associated with its universally despised and epically absurd little brother, it still remains a difficult film to defend.

Bat Rating: C+

Movie Rating: C

Batman Returns (’92)

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Batman Returns is messed up. And by messed up, I really mean whacked out like crazy. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but when you’re dealing with a franchise character like Batman, a little fidelity to the source would have been nice.

Returns, though it was still directed by Tim Burton and starring Michael Keaton as Batman, does not take place on the same planet as the first one. While Batman ’89 portrayed a Gotham City with decaying overcrowded streets run by mobsters lurking in shadows who are aided by a corrupt police force, Returns takes place in a slick art-deco Gotham with monsters in the sewers and supernatural cats in the alleys. Instead of pinstriped crime lords there are crazy circus people terrorizing the city in large Christmas packages. Instead of an impoverished urban street scene, everyone in Gotham is now an upper-middle class moron that no one feels sorry for.

Burtons reformed vision is definitely stylistically interesting, much like the first one, but for different reasons. While the grim madness of the first served as a backdrop for Batman’s quest to release his neurotic angst by fighting crime, the zany new Gotham City serves as more of a home for Batman. He seems less like the city’s savior and more like just another crazy in a strange suit walking around (Batman walks even more in this movie. Why would he ever walk anywhere? Run or drive Batman. Nothing else). In fact, Batman is hardly even in the movie. Returns should have been called Edward Penguin Face. It’s not only that the villains are more interesting than Batman in this movie, it’s that they are actually the central focus of the whole thing. The only thing Batman does is fall in love with Salina Kyle and slurp cold soup. Burton even goes out of his way to show that Batman/Bruce Wayne is so crazy and uninteresting that apparently when he is not fighting crime he sits in an empty room waiting for the Bat Signal (wouldn’t someone notice that Bruce Wayne has huge searchlights with batlogos in them outside his window?).

Not everything about the movie is bad though. Because Batman is a character that has been reinvented so many times, it’s always fascinating to see how different people interpret him. For example Grant Morrison’s graphic Novel Arkham Asylum is a fan favorite, but I think it’s crazy for many of the same reasons I don’t understand Batman Returns. In Morrison’s story Batman does really macabre things like shove broken glass into his hand while he thinks about his parent’s murder. Not my cup of tea, but there are plenty of Batman fans who find it interesting. To me that is where Batman Returns fits in; it will never be considered any sort of “definitive” version of the character, but it is an interesting interpretation. Burton has always shown a great love for classic horror movies and German expressionistic influences in his films, so it is possible to assume that Returns is Burton’s Nosferatu Batman.

I think it’s also important not to overlook Michele Pfifer’s portrayal as Catwoman. While not perfect, it’s still a riveting performance, and Catwoman’s back story in Returns is a lot more interesting to me than Frank Miller’s noble prostitute (every interesting Woman has to be a prostitute in Frank Miller’s world). And even though I still think The Penguin is one of the most outrageous characters ever put on film (he spews black grossness for no reason. All the time. For no reason.) Devitto’s performance is definitely worth praising.

When you realize that what you are watching isn’t really a Batman movie so much as a Burton movie it becomes a much more fascinating watch. The fact that everyone in Gotham is a bunch of ignorant judgmental tools makes sense since many of Burton’s other films (Edward Scissorhands, Beatlejuice, Ed Wood) portray crowds and “normal people” as simply outsiders to the reality that Burton has created. He isn’t terribly sympathetic to these people, so neither is Batman. In fact, it seems as if he kind of loathes them. Even Danny Elfman’s music sounds like self parody of his work from the first Batman film mixed with outtakes from Edward Scissorhands. This was also a period where Burton thought that snow and Christmas were for some reason fascinating, and both elements played an important role in many of his films during this period (in fact Scissorhands was a fairy tale about snow), so it’s no surprise that Returns takes place at Christmas for no reason.

Taking all of the above into consideration, the best way to watch Batman Returns is by mentally divorcing it from the source material. It should be watched in the context of Burton as a visually stimulating and often brilliant filmmaker, not as a Batman movie. Though there are plenty of silly moments (The Penguin’s constant innuendos, that stupid computer programmed batarang, Bruce Wayne “scratching” a CD, and the militant penguins to name a few) the dynamic of Bruce finding a tormented equal in Salina Kyle allows you to maintain at least a little interest in what’s going on, and as I mentioned earlier, the visuals are never boring. If it’s not a perfect Batman movie, then at least it’s interesting and original, which is more than a lot of blockbusters can say for themselves.

Movie Grade – c+

Bat Grade – C-

Grading Key: F– There is nothing reedemable about this movie : D – Don’t waste your time, maybe if it’s free: C – Nothing special, way too much wrong with it to call it good, not enough wrong with it to hate it. General indifference: B – Good movie. Some things don’t quite get there, but it’s still special. Certainly worth a watch at least once: A – Great movie. There is no good excuse not to see it.

Batman (1989)

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Tim Burton’s first vision of Batman was beautifully dark, thematic and borderline crazy. He creates a world where steam rises up from the grimy streets of a Gotham City that looks like New York City on meth, protected by a nut-job billionaire (or millionaire I think in the first one) who creeps around in the shadows punching gangsters and staring intensely at nothing and everything all at once. It’s a movie that doesn’t make sense because it’s not supposed to. Burton has always claimed that Batman himself doesn’t make much sense, which is what intrigued him. Even though there is a very special place in my heart for this movie (I don’t remember a time in my life where I could not recite every line of it) I think it  is impossible to review this movie without noticing its glaring flaws. Nonetheless, it’s still one of the most important and iconic versions of Batman ever put on film.

Its strengths lie completely in the film’s aesthetic. Burton is such a masterfully visionary director (at least he was before he began relying too heavily on CGI effects. See Alice and Wonderland for an example of Butonesque terribleness) that his version still contains some of the most iconic  shots of The Caped Crusader. So many wonderful moments are burned in my memory, moments that can make any bat-fan’s nerdy salivary glands run wild. It’s the grimmest Gotham, the loneliest Batman, and the coolest Batmobile. Burton embraces all the weirdness, even the fact that Michael Keaton was unable to turn his head in costume was turned by Burton into an iconic visual element of the film. His visuals mixed with Danny Elfman’s music has certainly flavored my cinematic palet for the better, there is no doubt about that.

Though not as memorable as their surroundings, the performances are something to note as well. Jack Nicholson as the Joker still holds up fantastically. Though I am willing to admit I prefer Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, it is not difficult to argue that Nicholson’s Joker is much closer to the version seen in the comics, or at least the version portrayed up to that point. While Ledger’s Joker seemed to have more psychologically honest and ideologically driven motives, Nicholson’s treatment was simply a brain damaged man who thought killing people was entertaining, just like the comics. It’s still a dynamic performance, and an important one for Bat-fans.

Keaton’s batman is a perfect foil for Nicholson’s Joker, and a more than sensible fit for Burton’s Gotham City. While the Joker is prancing around in a purple suite and a perma-smile, Batman lounges alone in his Batcave wearing a black turtleneck, tight Jeans and a perma-scowl. Because Keaton doesn’t look anything like we would imagine Batman/Bruce Wayne to be, he does an interesting job making up for it with intensity. It’s unfortunate that Burton decided that Batman only makes sense if he is an obsessive neurotic personality whose motives don’t entirely add up, because the most disappointing aspect of this movie is that Batman, well, doesn’t make much sense.

Keaton’s Batman  seems to be a very passive one. In the comics Batman functions as a constant night prowler, which is how he figures out when something bad is going down. He doesn’t seem terribly pro-active in this incarnation, mostly just sitting in the Batcave waiting for one of his security cameras to point out that there is mischief in on the streets. Burton and Keaton’s Batman is supposed to be someone who is so obsessive that he doesn’t even function properly when he is not fighting crime and yet we only get one scene depicting him on the streets of Gotham actually looking for wrong doing. The rest of the time he sits and waits for bad news to come to him.

The scene depicting the death of Wayne’s parents is the best of any of the movies, but they completely fracked everything up by making The Joker the killer. Not only is that point executed as an odd afterthought to be referenced only in passing during the climax, but it also is a huge betrayal to the source material. Comic book fans look for two things in an adaptation: is it true to the source material, and if not does the change make sense? Making The Joker the killer of Batman’s parents fails on both accounts.

Don’t get me wrong, Michael Keaton is one of my all-time favorite actors. I don’t think I have ever been uninterested in a character he was portraying. The problem here is not that Keaton isn’t good at being a brooding obsessed millionaire who uses his money to buy crazy cars and black body armor. In fact quite the contrary. Keaton’s eyes are so intense in this movie I think the Academy should have given them a special Oscar for excellence. His eyebrows alone could scare any street thug into thinking twice about his life’s choices (the only other actor with more intense brows is Jack Nicholson. This movie was basically the first and only eyebrow action film). The problem with the character is simply that he isn’t anything like Batman. He’s small, neurotic, and he walks everywhere. If it wasn’t for these problems I would certainly rate Keaton as the best Batman ever, but with such frustrating inconsistencies with how I understand the character to be, I simply can’t.

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The climactic scene in the upper bell tower of the Gotham Cathedral is probably the most perfect example of what is so right, and what is so wrong about the movie. It looks great, but none of it makes sense or matters. There is no real reson why they go in the cathedral, they just kinda do. The Joker goes up with only Vicky Vale, but somehow when Batman gets there he has a few thugs waiting to beat on him. It is the most Batman-y moment in the whole movie – exciting hand to hand fights, Batman getting beat up, looking dusty and hard-core – but that doesn’t change the fact that it makes no friggin sense. The whole time it is impossible to stop thinking “why are they even in the cathedral?” There are plenty of other odd inconsistencies – such as why would Batman make the Batmobile bulletproof and virtually indestructible but build the batwing so it could be destroyed by 1 bullet? – but those don’t bother me as much. Every movie is allowed little inconsistencies. It’s only when things get so derailed that you can’t help but wish someone had just paid more attention.One minute Batman is cracking the Joker’s chemical code of evil cosmetics, and the next Vicky Vale is in the Batcave, the Joker is dancing in the street throwing money, and climbing up cathedrals.

Which brings me to my overall conclusion of the film; even though it is a fascinating portrayal that I think every fan of the characters should respect and periodically re-watch, I cannot in good conscience say that it is a great movie. Is it a good movie? Yes, because of its tone and style. Is is a great movie? Unfortunately not. Now, having said that, I know that the 14 year old me would not only disagree, but would likely disregard my opinions on movies from now on.  This will always be one of my favorite movies, but the 24 year old me is more ready to admit that it holds that place because of nostalgia, not because of quality.

 Movie Grade: B-

Bat Grade: B

Grading Key: F– There is nothing reedemable about this movie : D – Don’t waste your time, maybe if it’s free: C – Nothing special, way too much wrong with it to call it good, not enough wrong with it to hate it. General indifference: B – Good movie. Some things don’t quite get there, but it’s still special. Certainly worth a watch at least once: A – Great movie. There is no good excuse not to see it.