FROM TIM BURTON TO JOEL SCHUMACHER: BATMAN’S CINEMATIC BACKGROUND PRE NOLAN /DARK KNIGHT
We all know about the glory days of the Christopher Nolan DARK KNIGHT series. Quality mixed with box office performance and a trilogy of near perfect comic book action adventure pictures was born. But one could argue that Nolan was given a head start by a previous series of films that, whilst far from perfect, got SOME things just ‘right’. Let’s have a look back at the Batman of a previous cinematic era..
I remember this being one of the movies that ignited my passion for the art of visual storytelling. It is a curiosity: paradoxically marrying the imagery of 1930s gangster movies to 1980s technologies and Gothic Horror atmospherics. Somehow, it just works. This is an original vision, with a truly incredible production design (for which the late ANTON FURST won an Oscar). Honestly, almost 30 years before Pinterest and the like, watching Batman ’89 is akin to playing with a cinematic scrapbook and endless well of images that bond together in a cascade of theatrical genius. A testament to the talents of director, TIM BURTON.
MICHAEL KEATON helped reinvent the characters of both Batman and Bruce Wayne. his Bruce is placid, distracted and yet somehow tortured and arguably, dangerous (just look at those EYES). JACK NICHOLSON is a great Joker. I don’t care what revisionists may say. This IS a scary villain!
Nicholson is convincing as a psychotic with a cruel sense of humour. He does not look like the Joker of the comics, but his method / anarchic aims are not dissimilar and it is a kind of ‘greatest hits of Jack’ package, from THE SHINING through to WITCHES OF EASTWICK, rolled into one Joker.
The music by DANNY ELFMAN is one of the definitive super-hero tracks, whilst existing as a kind of Wagnerian epic in its own right. It compliments the captivating credit sequence and the mid film ‘descent into mystery’ always generates sparks of excitement.
There are some weak points. A love story is tagged on (in fairness: it’s KIM BASINGER, looking lovely and this is a similar scenario to 9 1/2 WEEKS; another Kim meets unattainable, emotionally unavailable, slightly messed up yet to her, irresistible man?).
There are some inconsistencies in what, precisely, Batman will or will not do (it appears that he will kill, contrary to the comic book definitions). Some lines are clearly improvised, last minute and simply lack any logic or purpose. But on the whole, this IS worth a look. The Citizen Kane of comic book cinema, it reinvented the genre and opened an entire universe of possibilities that it simply took another 20 years to get just perfect.
BATMAN RETURNS (1992)
This is a literate, satirical, witty and wonderful curiosity of a movie. It just forgets to be a BATMAN picture, for the most part, although there ARE atmospheric shots with comic book fidelity (Batman in the Cave). Interestingly, the film is NOT a true sequel to its 1989 predecessor.
There are some clumsily shoehorned in-jokes and name nods. But the fabulous Pinewood Studios sets (which I had the privilege of visiting, before they were taken down) and certain supporting cast members (BILLY DEE WILLIAMS as Harvey Dent; ROBERT WUHL as Knox) were simply dropped, which is a shame. This is just a TIM BURTON film, that happens to feature Batman.
There is a pantomime quality to the tone, but doused with Dickensian throwbacks and cloaked in a bilious darkness. Literally, DANNY DEVITO as the Penguin, for some odd reason, spits bile. Quite, quite disgusting. And gratuitous. But that is balanced by MICHELLE PFEIFFER as the enchanting CATWOMAN. She is of course, a baddie and a psychotic one at that; but has enough moments of soft sympathy and feminine vulnerability to melt the viewer’s heart. Honestly, this IS a feminist’s film. Catwoman is mistreated by men and rebels, accordingly.
MICHAEL KEATON is excellent, again. Yes, it’s an understated performance. But so it should be! That opening shot of him, slumped, in a chair, awaiting an awakening by the Bat signal? It’s almost identical to Pacino in the closing moments of GODFATHER 2 and sums up the Batman / Bruce Wayne conflict better than pages of dialogue ever could.
But this is CHRISTOPHER WALKEN’s movie. He plays MAX SHRECK. The name is a nod to one of Tim Burton’s heroes of horror movies and the character did not feature in the comic books. Walken’s Shreck is the source of the movie’s best lines and political observations, covering everything from the rise of Nazism to Watergate. Think the brain and superficial charm of a (then) on the rise Bill Clinton, coupled with the brash self confidence of Donald Trump and there you have Max Shreck: one of the cleverest creations from Director Burton and his writer here, DANIEL WATERS. Timelessly relevant and always worth watching.
Look out for a charming song from Siouxsie and the Banshees, too: FACE TO FACE.
BATMAN FOREVER (1995)
As hinted above, Batman had gone just a bit TOO dark and left field for the mainstream. Tim Burton therefore had to go and he knew as much. In any event, he had little if any appetite for more adventures, though he did share some of his ideas, hence the ‘Producer’ credit.
In late 1993, news broke that JOEL SCHUMACHER would take the Director’s job for the third film. It was an interesting choice. Not a total auteur like Burton; neither a fanboy pitch (SAM RAIMI tried to get the gig; had to wait for SPIDER-MAN in 2002) nor action specialist (JOHN MCTIERNAN came close to selection, but was busied with DIE HARD 3), Schumacher appeared to offer something for everyone.
He could be teen market /blockbuster genre friendly, whilst avoiding total dilution of the franchise. It made sense. FALLING DOWN had been a satirical thriller; THE LOST BOYS a vampire teen carnival and THE CLIENT a mob vs witness and lawyer drama. IE: Everything that had come before, plus a little bit more and genuine potential for fidelity to the comic books.
Did it work? Well yes. And No. Visually, BATMAN FOREVER is stunning. You get all the scope and ambition and variety of the previous movies but married to a high tech minimalist sheen and Japanese Manga day-glo theatricality. That was NOT as some say ‘camp’, though some of the acting performances do go that way. It was simply brighter than the previous two films’ iterations of Gotham City and arguably more ambitious, less studio bound. The film also looks like panels have been lifted, directly, from the graphic novels, whilst preserving a Hollywood lighting scheme and action movie feel.
Yes, the script is incoherent for the most part, zapping and zipping around with no care for an attention span. But if you peel away the layers, there is an interesting insight to the heroes’ motivation (both Batman and Robin); an interesting comment on overcoming childhood trauma (see also: James Bond in SKYFALL); a conundrum about which hostage to save in time (see also: THE DARK KNIGHT) and a foreshadowing of social media, twenty years early.
TOMMY LEE JONES is a missed opportunity (he could have been GREAT; but simply does a poor man’s Joker Jack routine). JIM CARREY overacts and frankly takes camp to new levels, but is nonetheless, outstanding: athletic, manic, sinister, hilarious. NICOLE KIDMAN is absolutely lovely, sexy and awkwardly funny.
VAL KILMER convinces both as Batman and Bruce Wayne, injecting a kind of polished panache and balletic grace to the billionaire persona. He even manages to remove a suit jacket with total style (the scene where he is ‘leaving Wayne Enterprises’ via secret shuttle to the Bat-Cave).
So yes, it was the beginning of the decline, in the sense that BATMAN FOREVER gave rise to BATMAN AND ROBIN (a film so bad it gets its own piece later this week). But it has plenty to recommend it, too and especially if you are a ‘fan’ of the character and the franchise. Also: look out for a cameo by DREW BARRYMORE and listen out for one of the best soundtracks from any blockbuster movie, ever.
Tune in again soon: same Bat-Time..Same Movie-Viral Channel..etc.