Batman was created by the artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger and first appeared in Detective Comics in the late 1930s (a little investigation reveals that it was issue #27 in May 1939, to be exact). Differing from many other superheroes, Batman was very much a man and had no superpowers other than his intelligence, skill and a host of gadgetry that would save his skin on more than one occasion. He would also, and I’m going by my own memory here, fight more standard criminals than the outlandish, crazy baddies that some other superheroes fought against. That wouldn’t last forever though. Everyone nowadays knows about The Joker, Catwoman, The Penguin, The Riddler, et al and it’s a reflection of the many changes the caped crusader has gone through that he has such a variety of strange nemeses to constantly keep in check. Onscreen, from the cheesy 60s TV show and movie starring Adam West behind the mask to the dark Burton outings to the garish Schumacher movies to Nolan’s fine balance, the interpretations have been as varied as the comic-book storylines but one thing has endured throughout all of the more modern takes – the fascination of a superhero who isn’t actually “super”. This is a man with major psychological problems at times, a vigilante who happens to be on the right side, a man who wears a mask perhaps because he couldn’t look at his own reflection and deal with all he has had to do in the name of what he believes is right. I hope fans enjoy the following reviews and I hope, in someway, that the Batman endures but knows when to slip back into the shadows before the public turn on him.
Now . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . to the Batmobile.
The first big-screen outing for the defender of Gotham City is little more than an extended version of the old TV show with a slightly bigger budget and a quartet of familiar rogues to keep audiences amused. It’s no surprise to find that it was originally intended as a pilot episode.
I am not going to go into the history of the character, one of the most famous superheroes in both the world of comics and film. Adam West is Bruce Wayne/Batman, Burt Ward is Dick Grayson/Robin and we’re quickly thrown into some action as a mystery alerts the crimefighting duo to the fact that they may well be in big trouble thanks to the fact that The Joker, The Penguin, Catwoman and The Riddler have teamed up and are planning something big (aren’t they always?).
Revisiting this movie after many years, it’s surprising just how damn good it is. Director Leslie H. Martinson starts the movie at a brisk pace and never really lets up, although an extended sequence near the end involving the batboat and a submarine goes on for far too long. For every little flaw you could easily pick on there are numerous plus points. Adam West has that strange, endearing speech pattern (so wonderfully replicated by Nicolas Cage in Kick-Ass) and Burt Ward is reduced to saying ridiculous things with the word “holy” preceding them. But Cesar Romero remains, for many, the quintessential Joker. I still prefer Jack Nicholson’s later take on the role but there’s no denying just how much fun Romero is and how wonderfully carefree his mannerisms are. Lee Meriweather (Julie Newmar was unable to play the role due to other commitments) is great as Catwoman, all feline charm and poise while the claws are always sharp and ready. Burgess Meredith is, for me, still the best incarnation of The Penguin and yet another highlight. Frank Gorshin may not make as much of an impact but at least The Riddler is always sharing the screen with the other, more memorable characters, and therefore also gets to have some fun moments.
The script by Lorenzo Semple Jr. seems to raise many unintentional laughs but I’m not so sure just how unintentional it all is. There’s a self-awareness here, surely. Nobody involved with the movie could expect us not to laugh at the shark attack that happens near the beginning of the movie or the trap that the baddies hope will catapult Batman into the clutches of a waiting exploding octopus or the sequence involving Batman trying to get rid of a bomb that veers perilously close to The Naked Gun territory. Just writing this down is making me grin again so I can’t hold any of these things against the movie.
On top of the memorable moments I’ve just mentioned we get some the familiar “walking up the wall” scene, some hilarious moralising shoehorned in here and there, that cool Batmobile and much more. In fact, from the time that the technicolour spotlights shine onto the 20th Century Fox logo to the time that the credits roll, you’re guaranteed to have a fun time if you get into the batty spirit of things.
A new Batman movie for modern audiences that doesn’t have the luxury of an audience already familiar with a popular TV show, Tim Burton certainly had his work cut out for him when he was picked to head up this cinematic revival of Gotham City’s finest son.
Michael Keaton is the choice to play Bruce Wayne/Batman this time round and, despite the furore this caused when the announcement was made, he’s absolutely fantastic in the role and remains my favourite of the lot. His Batman is menacing, gruff and walking a thin line between vigilante and psycho while his Bruce Wayne has a twinkle in his eye, can charm everyone around him and is walking a thin line between eccentric rich man . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . and psycho. Jack Nicholson plays Jack Napier/The Joker and it’s a performance that deservedly stole the show in many ways. Not only did Jack get the payday of his career with a canny percentage deal but his incarnation of The Joker IS The Joker. When not cracking jokes and blowing raspberries at those trying to keep him from damaging society he’s killing anyone who gets in his way with a flippancy that embodies the chilling core of the character. All with a smile on his lips and a laugh at the ready. The other players onscreen pale in comparison but Michael Gough is great as Alfred the butler, Kim Basinger is absolutely gorgeous and does just fine as photographer/possible love interest Vicki Vale, Robert Wuhl gets some good one-liners as reporter Alexander Knox and then we get the likes of Jack Palance, Billy Dee Williams and even Jerry Hall in supporting roles.
So Burton helped himself no end by getting the casting spot on but that was only one aspect of a movie that had fans sharpening their knives even before any footage had been seen. There were a lot of questions that people wanted satisfactory answers to. How dark would the movie be? What about the batmobile? Why have Prince doing the soundtrack? Okay, maybe the last one is just my question but I bring it up here as the one problem I still have with the movie. The score by Danny Elfman is fantastic, the occasional tunes from Prince = not so good.
Blending a number of ideas from the comics, the script by Sam Haam and Warren Skaaren manages to gives us a decent origin tale while propelling things forward at a pace that lets every great bat-toy have its moment without ever feeling like its overstaying its welcome. And, although the sequel would get even darker, it IS dark (I also mean that literally as for its initial release on home, the film was graded slightly lighter as cinema audiences had complained they could not see what was going on at all times due to it being a bit too dark). The conflict and background given to both Batman and The Joker makes things more personal and more interesting when the two inevitably face-off against each other.
There’s also the dark, gothic nature of the design. Gotham City is a brooding presence here, every bit a character as those inhabiting it. It’s an impressive, visual delight. Which means, even more so, that Batman should have a suitably cool car to drive around in. RESULT!!! The new look Batmobile is a sleek, black, speedy beast that you will want to own from the first time you see it. Like a great cover version of a song you love, Burton’s style is all over the movie but working in harmony with the universe that Batman fans have been familiar with for many years.
Pleasing fans of the comics, pleasing movie fans and pleasing UK youngsters (the movie was responsible for the introduction of the 12 certificate by the BBFC for its cinema release), Batman would have remained my favourite movie featuring the caped crusader if it hadn’t been for one thing. Batman Returns. 9/10. (nb, that would change in later years, hence the ratings given here).
Batman Returns (1992)
Batman returns as does Burton with a sequel that mixes in a little of the familiar recipe of all sequels (bigger, louder, more, more, more) while adding an interesting layer of schizophrenia and identity crisis onto our caped crusader.
Keaton returns as Bruce Wayne/Batman and this time is up against Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin (played by Danny DeVito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) while falling for the sultry Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer), unaware that she is actually the woman behind the whiskers. Then there is scheming businessman Max Shreck (yet another fun turn from Christopher Walken). It all adds up to a difficult time for Batman. You could say “it’s gonna be a hot time on the cold town tonight”.
There is a lot to like about this sequel, my favourite of the Batman movies for a hell of a long time until this revisit. The design is, once again, superb with Gotham City once again given a major supporting role as the setting for all of the excitement, the batmobile still being the car you would give your right arm AND right leg for and all of the coolest toys still belonging to our hero.
The script by Daniel Waters (from a story by himself and Sam Haam, co-writer of the first movie) is a lot of fun, too. With plenty of playfulness between Catwoman/Kyle and Batman/Wayne, enjoyable nastiness from The Penguin and great threats delivered by Walken’s devious businessman: “Bottom Line, she tries to blackmail me, I’ll drop her out a higher window”. Brilliant.
We also don’t have to put up with any Prince tunes this time, the main musical tie-in being the fantastic “Face To Face” by Siouxsie And The Banshees.
Keaton is great once more in the batsuit and what I can say about Michelle Pfeiffer in that amazing Catwoman outfit is limited by the fact that I like to make my reviews as universal as possible. Suffice to say, she’s sexy as hell and convinces with her claws out or kept in. Walken is a blast and everyone else onscreen does well. Almost everyone. It’s not really Danny DeVito’s fault but his version of The Penguin, a character interpreted far too literally to be an effective baddie, is just caught between the risible and the . . . . . . . well, more risible.
The main failing of the movie is forgiveable though because this movie isn’t really centred around the activities of The Penguin even if it does actually centre around the activities of The Penguin (if you know what I mean). This is about what the mask does to those who wear it, how it shades them from the norms of society and how it skews their lives so far off track that it can be hard to find the way back. Catwoman is the mirror image of Batman with a slightly different sense of what constitutes moral right and wrong. It’s the smallest degree of difference but it’s what Batman always fights against in his fight against crime and in many of his darker moments and it’s this exploration of the most interesting side of one of our most “un-super” superheroes that makes Burton’s sequel a great movie, a much darker movie and almost an equal to the original. Almost.
Batman Forever (1995)
When I first saw Batman Forever I just loved it. Loved it. I was nineteen years old and totally sucked in to everything that was designed for kids and young men who are still little boys inside.
Joel Schumacher had taken over the directorial duties of the franchise, there were now three people writing the screenplay (Lee Batchler, Janet Scott Batchler and Akiva Goldsman), Val Kilmer was now playing the main man and due to be joined by Robin (Chris O’Donnell) and there were two fantastic baddies (Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face and Jim Carrey as The Riddler). On the surface it all seemed so right and, for me at a younger age, it was.
I didn’t even mind the move away from the dark, gothic tone of Burton’s vision to the more garish colour scheme and neon-lit moments. It was a very different style but the original comics had seen just as much variation over the years so that was fine. Besides, The Riddler was a colourful guy so that helped.
But watching the movie again, at an older and (hopefully) slightly wiser age, its many minor flaws add up to something that still entertains but falls a bit short of the movie preceding it and certainly doesn’t come close to the great first outing featuring Keaton in the lead role.
Kilmer is okay as Bruce Wayne/Batman but he’s not got the glint in his eye that Keaton had. In fact, he may as well be as blind as a bat, ironically. Chris O’Donnell gets to be petulant and irritating as Robin so he doesn’t exactly win himself an army of fans there. Carrey, at the height of a triple-whammy that had turned him temporarily into Hollywood’s hottest property is great although clearly allowed a little too much leeway in the character’s more comedic moments. Tommy Lee Jones is okay, overshadowed by Carrey and saddled with an underdeveloped character who at least has a fun gimmick. The nominal love interest this time around is played by Nicole Kidman and while she looks as sexy as she has ever looked the chemistry just doesn’t exist and there is nothing interesting about the character despite the small effort made by the writers (oh look, she fancies a masked stranger, isn’t that something? No).
With its many moments of fun, its decent action sequences, the familiar (if tweaked) designs/gadgets from the first movie and the fact that it is STILL a Batman movie, at the end of the day, the film still manages to entertain and to do so in decent quantities.
I guess the real core of the problem, the real reason that the movie feels like such a departure from Burton’s work and such a drastic move away from the gothic Gotham adventures can be summed up in Batman’s very first line of the movie: “I’ll get drive-thru”. And things would get worse.
Batman & Robin (1997)
This is where things really took a nosedive for the guardian of Gotham City and once seen, thanks to its garish colour scheme and constant barrage of neon lights, it’s not easily forgotten.
George Clooney plays the leading man this time around, Chris O’Donnell is back as the boy wonder, Michael Gough gets to do a little bit more as his character falls ill, Joel Schumacher directs once again (though perhaps with one eye too distracted by the merchandising possibilities) and Akiva Goldsman gets the blame for the script. The baddies this time around? Uma Thurman gets to vamp things up nicely as Poison Ivy while Arnold Schwarzenegger (as Mr. Freeze) threatens to derail every scene he’s in with a non-stop delivery of groan-inducing puns. We also get some screentime for Bane (known to comic book fans for his memorable turn in the “Knightfall” storyline) but it’s a big, fat wasted opportunity and he does little worth watching. Thankfully, Alicia Silverstone is very attractive and makes for a bubbly addition to the cast, even if she also gets very little to do as the niece of Alfred who turns up.
But let’s face it, this movie will always be remembered for one thing. Nipples on the batsuit. The suit was actually redesigned in Batman Forever when director Schumacher wanted a more anatomic look (??) but I guess that this movie made all of the minor mistakes even more obvious under the glare of its extreme.
It really is very, VERY difficult to pick aspects worthy of praise in this outing. The design work, suits notwithstanding, is actually really good although once again it references a very different comic style to the dark, gothic tone that the Burton movies gave us. Some of the action set-pieces manage to grind you down into submission by simply throwing everything onscreen until something manages to make a decent visual impression.
That’s about all I can manage, I’m afraid.
Clooney, as much as I like him, isn’t a great Batman though he does better when not wearing the mask. The character of Robin is still an annoying one and the potential rift in the partnership is a story strand that doesn’t really muster up much interest. Oh, Batman may have to go solo again . . . oh no. And let’s not mention the Batman credit card (“never leave home without it”). Good grief.
The movie is saved by its visuals, Uma Thurman being slinkier than an oiled-up slinky and Alicia Silverstone being cute despite the fact that her character’s development is clumsy, unbelievable and pads out a movie that already has far more in there than it needs. Fans were, understandably, upset. It was only a reboot some years later that would finally help some wipe this one from their memories. I generously give it 4/10.
Batman Begins (2005)
After all of the worry and all of the minor trauma left as faint scars on the psyches of Batman fans by the garish nightmare that was Batman & Robin it was a blessed relief to many when Christopher Nolan came along with Batman Begins. Flawed? Yes. Not quite as arresting in its design department? True. A return to cinematic greatness for the guardian of Gotham City? Absolutely.
Christian Bale gets to put on the cape this time round and is absolutely fantastic as both Bruce Wayne and his masked alter ego. In fact, if it hadn’t been for Keaton’s slightly superior turn then Bale would be the best yet (and, for many, he already is).
Mixing in an origin story for our heroic crimefighter, Batman Begins also throws in a baddie or two in the forms of the mysterious Ra’s Al Ghul and The Scarecrow (a favourite of mine since reading the Knightfall storyline). It’s solid, superior entertainment in almost every way but where Nolan falls down is in the action sequences. For a long time I used to defend Nolan’s quick cutting and frenetic pace in the fight sequences because it shows Batman using the flurry of the very creature that he hopes will put fear into others the way it did to himself but there’s no denying that the director makes a mis-step or two on a few occasions that could have been fantastic.
The only other main criticism I have is the same one that everyone else seemed bothered by: Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes. Not only is the character rather superfluous (although she does prompt our hero to really think about his purpose in Gotham City) but Holmes just fails to convince as a woman who could win Bruce Wayne’s heart.
But just remind yourself of the rest of the cast. We get Bale doing a brilliant job both in and out of the cape. Michael Caine makes for a wonderful Alfred, the loyal butler. Gary Oldman is a young Jim Gordon, Tom Wilkinson is a mob boss, Liam Neeson is a formidable presence, Morgan Freeman does well as Lucius Fox (the man who presents us with a whole new take on the Batmobile, now The Tumbler), Rutger Hauer is always welcome, Ken Watanabe has a small role and Cillian Murphy gives one of the best performances in a franchise that has seen some great performances.
Gotham City may no longer be the brooding, gothic character it once was but it’s memorable enough, despite feeling more like a darkened Metropolis than the genuine home of Batman.
Origin tales are often the hardest ones to get right and with this being a “reboot” it’s only fair that Nolan got the high praise he did for this entertaining blockbuster that sat our caped crusader back on the very top of the superhero mountain.
The Dark Knight (2008)
The sequel to Batman Begins and, for many, the best Batman movie ever made. While I still plump for Burton’s first step into the franchise over this one (for some of the reasons I will be mentioning in this review a little later) I can’t deny that The Dark Knight is well-paced, smart, exciting and visually impressive from start to finish.
All of the familiar faces are here (Bale, Caine, Freeman, Oldman) while the new additions include Maggie Gyllenhaal taking over the Rachel Dawes role, Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent and, of course, Heath Ledger giving us his take on The Joker.
Starting with a fantastically realised, and audacious, bank robbery, Nolan uses The Dark Knight to balance entertainment and thoughtfulness in perfect measure as Batman starts to consider stepping down from his heroic role and leaving the way clear for Harvey Dent to do things the proper way, fearlessly tackling the gangsters and criminals without the aid of a mask to help keep himself anonymous. But when The Joker comes along, seemingly intent on unmasking and destroying Batman, things get pushed towards an outcome that looks as if it will damage everyone involved. It’s what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.
This movie ticks a hell of a lot of the boxes, even more so than the previous Bat-flick, with a better selection of actors (overall), Nolan showing that he has learned how to put together a decent action sequence, an interesting (if unsubtle) number of points made about how far those in power should/could go to break the rules and extract information when trying to stop acts of terrorism and some small sparkle of optimism mired within the darkness and psychoses on display.
Despite what a million rabid Nolan fans will tell you, the movie falls short of perfection for a number of reasons and I will bravely try to list them here. First, and foremost, is Ledger’s take on The Joker. Now, before everyone starts trying to track down my home address and pelting me daily with rotten veg, let me start by saying that Ledger’s performance is a great one. It’s fantastic. He’s genuinely, unnervingly psychopathic and the tales he tells are mesmerising (want to know how he got those scars??). But it’s The JOKER. The Joker was always psychopathic but always completely devil-may-care and lighthearted about everything, which made him appear even more psychopathic. There’s only one truly great moment (the “disappearing pencil trick”) that gets the essence of the character just right before a finale that makes up for everything by letting Ledger cut loose and seem truly care-free.
Secondly, the character of Rachel Dawes is once again not that well-drawn and only seems to be there to be put in danger. Whether it’s Gyllenhaal or Holmes, the acting may differ but the character remains just as ultimately inconsequential.
Harvey Dent? I don’t want to give anything away despite the fact that most fans of the comics and/or movies should already know of him so I will just say that the change his character goes through is far too sudden and easy. It may seem churlish to complain about a lack of believability in a “comic book” movie but Nolan still sets up a world for us that then starts to fold in on itself far too quickly (perhaps he was already distracted by planning Inception?).
Last, and pretty much least, is the way that Bale at times takes his performance as Batman and almost turns it into parody – from the extra-deep, gravelly voice to the emotional turmoil. Not all his fault, of course, but it does feel as if he’s either gone too far behind the mask or is smirking a little while hidden in the darkness.
Gary Oldman is great yet again, as is Michael Caine, while Morgan Freeman does just fine with the little screentime he has.
I can’t deny that Nolan (who co-wrote the movie with his brother, Jonathan) deserves a whole heap of credit for this and it’s almost straight to the top of the pile if only some minor details hadn’t kept it in second place for me. For a lot of other people, however, this will remain the best Batman movie of the lot. And it certainly deserves most of the praise it receives.
I will not use up more time and space here to cover the wealth of impressive extra features on the special edition DVD releases but will just leave a word of warning for R2 DVD purchasers. For some reason, I believe it’s a timing issue after a minor BBFC cut was made, there is no commentary available on Batman Returns even though it is still labelled on the back of the box cover. I have contacted Warner Home Video regarding this issue a couple of times now and am most disappointed to say that I have never had a reply, apology or explanation for them about any plan to rectify this issue for fans. A sad sticking point for fans like myself who’d love to hear more about one of the great Batman movies. However, the “Shadows Of The Bat” documentary spread over the four movies from Burton and Schumacher provide an absolute feast for both cineastes and Batfans so the discs remain essential purchases despite this oversight. We will all just have to wait and see what Nolan does with his next, and final (?), Batman outing. I, for one, will be there whenever opening day comes around.