On the eve of the release of THE DARK KNIGHT, the highly anticipated Batman follow up from Christopher Nolan, I got to thinking of the interpretations and incarnations of Batman over the years. Has any character in the history of pop culture ever had so many different interpretations? Superman is always Superman. He’s always going to be a handsome, all-American guy with a spit curl and the capability to do seemingly anything. Spiderman always Spiderman. He’s always going to be a dorky high school kid crumbling under the weight of the responsibility of being a superhero.
So why has Batman been so difficult to pin down?
Here is a look at the adaptations through the years.
>>>Batman (Television Series)
Nothing but camp. This show probably rivals QUEER AS FOLK for the most homoerotic television series of all time. Somehow they squeezed Adam West’s fat ass into spandex and gave him a cabana boy (Robin) to play with. To punctuate the action in this show they made sure to insert titles that said “POW!”, “WHAM!” or “BIFF” everytime someone got punched. I think the only thing that could have saved the show would be if when they showed “WHAM!” on the screen George Michael and Andrew Ridgley came out in “Choose Life” t-shirts and performed while Batman and Robin got their freak on. I guess America just wasn’t ready. Anyway, The jokes are terrible, there’s no seriousness to it at all and the villains are absurd. Just look at the Joker.
Now does that intimidate you? Is that a villain to be feared? Why didn’t they just hire this guy:
At least after Batman kicked his ass he could get some McNuggets out of it.
>>>BATMAN (1989) Directed by Tim Burton
I hate this movie and have no idea why people like it so much or why people think Jack Nicholson was a great Joker. He wasn’t the Joker. He was Jack Nicholson. It was like RP McMurphy put on clown paint and got his brain back.
This isn’t much of an improvement over Romero. The Joker still isn’t taken seriously (if the filmmakers don’t take him seriously why should Batman and why should we?) and this is never more evident in the scene in which Nicholson dons a purple chefs hat and dances around to Prince. Tim Burton is a hack but at least he made it darker (as it should be). This dark tone was destroyed by Schumacher but we’ll get to him in a moment. The batsuit looked great and Michael Keaton did an admirable job. I’d rank him as the second best Batman put to screen but Nicholson’s over the top Jack-ness ruined this movie for me.
>>>BATMAN RETURNS (1992) Directed by Tim Burton
The 2nd and last Batman film directed by Burton is the most misunderstood film of the bunch and a big improvement over the first installment. In this chapter Batman does battle with Marilyn Manson Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) and The Penguin (Danny DeVito). I actually like the idea to make Catwoman a gothic dominatrix and DeVito was a nice choice at well. Throw Christopher Walken in there and we’re cooking. The film overall is still a miss but it did begin to deal with the issues of Wayne’s identity crisis intertwined with Catwoman’s.
Now that’s a sick demented Penguin. They’re starting to get it now. If only Burton wasn’t so terrible at anything beyond the visual. Many write Batman off as “just a comic book” but it’s a complex story to tell. Burton’s films were obsessed with the villains, not Batman, and the character was neglected and sacrificed for the big named bad guys. It was wise to move on without him as the series progressed but it’s around this time that the series goes to complete and utter shit.
>>>BATMAN FOREVER (1995) Directed by Joel Schumacher
Taking a big gigantic step backward, Warner Bros. decided to hand the reigns of the Batman franchise to Joel Schumacher of LOST BOYS fame. As you can see, Warners decided to completely abandon anything resembling a real film and instead figured it was time to cash in on action figures. I mean look at that pic. They practically ARE action figures. Batman got a new face in the form of Val Kilmer. Why Kilmer? No idea. He’s a terrible, wooden actor with no range and no personality. Somebody at Warners must have seen that intimidating chomp he gave Tom Cruise in TOP GUN and figured he was the right man to put in a rubber suit and run around with a 17 year old boy. That’s right, Schumacher also decided to finally add Cabana Boy Robin to the mix, who was to be played by Chris O’Donnell.
Again this film is villain-centric. Tommy Lee Jones shows up as Two Face, a man so sadistic he got his suit tailored so that one half was a craaaaazy animal print while the other half was normal.
Jim Carrey was also added to do his ACE VENTURA shtick only this time in spandex. There is literally no difference between the Ace Ventura character and his interpretation of The Riddler. Over the top, annoying, and with lots of goofy faces. Carrey is a capable actor who went on to do great work so it’s a shame his talent is wasted in this goofball performance. Try looking at this picture without wanting to punch him in the face:
This was the first of two Schumacher installments and for some reason he obliterated the dark tone that Burton and retreaded to the campiness of the television show. Why? We’re supposed to be progressing not regressing. Schumacher’s Gotham City is an over the top, neon hell. There is no insight to Bruce Wayne or any of the villains. They even have Wayne date a shrink in this movie (which is the most shameless and obvious way to get inside the characters head) and STILL it’s shallow and empty.
But at least it couldn’t get worse…right?
>>>BATMAN AND ROBIN (1997) Directed by Joel Schumacher.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Governor of California.
Where to begin with this thing. Do I start with the nipples Schumacher put on the batsuit? Imagine that creative meeting. “Guys, I really liked what you did with the last batsuit. It was just missing something. I know! NIPPLES!”. Do I start with the completely unnecessary addition of Batgirl? The over the top puns? The sleazy saxophone music that is played whenever Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman) is talking? The built in ice skates that Batman and Robin just have to have in their shoes?
All that stuff is terrible. However, you have to look at Arnold’s Mr. Freeze. I defy anybody reading this to list a performance in the history of motion pictures that is worse than this. Name a single one. Here’s a list of some of Mr. Freeze’s lines:
“You won’t send me to the cooler!”
“Alright everyone! Chill!”
“Mercy? I’m afraid my condition has left me cold to your pleas of mercy.”
“Tonight, hell freezes over! ”
“Ice to see you!”
“In this universe, there’s only one absolute… everything freezes!” (*Editor’s note: Huh?)
“Allow me to break the ice. My name is Freeze. Learn it well. For it’s the chilling sound of your doom.”
“Let’s kick some ice!”
Apparently the writers of this film thought the best way to deal with a tortured, tragic character like Mr. Freeze was to have him make as many puns and references to ice and coldness as possible. Even the ladies from SEX AND THE CITY think this is pun overkill.
This is the worst Batman film ever made and one of the worst films ever made period. Think of a great movie. It’s the exact opposite of that. Joel Schumacher should never be able to make another film for the rest of his career and I would even consider jail time. George Clooney was lucky to survive this. As for Chris O’Donnel and Alicia Silverstone…
>>>BATMAN BEGINS (2005) Directed by Christopher Nolan
Like a breath of fresh air, Warners decided to completely make over the franchise after the Schumacher debacle and hired Chris Nolan, hot off MEMENTO, to give Batman some legitimacy. There’s just no comparison with this film and the previous Batmans. He was the first filmmaker to get it right, the first to capture the right tone, the first to actually explore Bruce’s character (what a concept) and the first to actually have great, intimidating villains.
Christian Bale is the best Batman by far. I love how Nolan plays him as a brooding mess at the beginning of the film. He has no direction, no drive. He has anger and he doesn’t know where to put it. He seems like a guy who really just lost it, had enough of the world around him and decided to craft a symbol that couldn’t be wavered or intimidated. Oh, and they got rid of the nipples.
Nolan’s Gotham City seems like a real place. A never ending sea of skyscrapers andominous gloom. The film works because it is grounded in reality. Nobody is mugging at the camera. There is no winking, no cheekiness and no hamming it up. Gotham is a scary place full of scary people and their hero is no exception.
What can you say about Scarecrow? Easily the best villain of the franchise to this point. Scarecrow is like a mad scientist. He’s not a tough guy but he’ll make you lose your mind. Injecting people with a Fear Toxin and then putting on a scary mask is seriously fucked up. He’s like the guy who gives you mushrooms and then starts fucking with you. Dealing with Scarecrow is like the world’s worst acid trip that you never recover from.
Nolan succeeded because he was the first to take the source material seriously. He isn’t interested in theatrics. He explores the fragile and bruised nature of Bruce, including his horrific childhood and his eventual transformation into Batman. Gotham is a character in this film. A wasteland overrun with crime and corruption that Batman is no closer to fixing by the end of the film.
The keys to the franchise are in good hands. I’ll see if Nolan can score again tomorrow night.