Friday, July 20, 2012

Your Bat-Weekend at the Bat-Movies

Posted By on Fri, Jul 20, 2012 at 8:59 AM

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The Dark Knight Rises: This will not be the first time I've recounted all previous Batman movies, nor will it likely be the last. When The Dark Knight came out in 2008, I had a series of fanboyish blog posts in this very space about previous incarnations of various Batman elements. Hell, when Batman Forever came out on VHS, I went back and covered the first three movies for my high school newspaper. So yes, to answer your question, I was a massively cool teenager. School paper? Check. Reading comics and watching Batman movies? Check. Fondness for Doritos? Double-check! Quick looks at all of the Batman theatrical releases so you don't have to sit down and marathon yourself pre-Rises? CHECK!

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Batman (1966): To be honest, I was never enamored with the campy sixties take on Batman. Maybe I came to it too late, or maybe the Burton movies got to me too early. I don't remember ever seeing the show before I was nine or ten, and by then, I was accustomed to the shadowy, gothic version. Eventually I got into the comics, and the disposable sci-fi camp thing wasn't really what I was looking for. I'm pretty sure I've seen the entire '66 movie, though I haven't seen more than five or six episodes of the show. I like how it has Joker, Catwoman, Penguin, and the Riddler all teaming up like it ain't no thing, and I'm always up for a canister of Bat-shark-repellant, but in general this movie is nerd-repellant to me, spoofing an aspect of the Batman comics that only got worse because of this show. Though I suppose that just as we may have needed Batman & Robin to wreck the movie franchise before we could have Batman Begins, this show and movie are more or less responsible for Batman comics getting more grown-up-friendly again in the late sixties and into the seventies. Thanks, Bat-shark-repellant! Grade: C+

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Batman (1989): Burton's phenomenally successful first crack at Batman might make you nostalgic, however briefly, for the days that a strange, often chilly, visually stunning movie could attract a mass audience purely for its intensely visual take on a classic character. Today, a summer movie's success or failure in reaching certain financial benchmarks is held up as incontrovertible proof of audience affection levels (or lack thereof), and, as such, even some perfectly decent superhero movies feel engineered for maximum crowd-pleasing. Whereas you can watch Burton's Batman and wonder: what, if anything, was crowd-pleasing about this movie? Indeed, my one-man crowd who loves both Burton and Batman is not particularly pleased by it, even when it stuns me. Michael Keaton plays Bruce Wayne as something of an oddball distraction, a quiet sidebar to his emerging vigilante work, and his underplaying works well against Jack Nicholson's signature hamming. There's an unfortunate tendency to view similar movies in binary upgrade/downgrade terms, so I should stress that Nicholson's Joker doesn't just fall short in comparison to Heath Ledger; he falls short as a character who isn't more or less Jack Doing Jack. As in The Shining, Nicholson seems pretty much crazy from the jump, so his transformation into a somewhat more ostentatious crazy person lacks real horror, despite some vividly horrific touches. Batman also has a lady problem: Kim Basinger's listless Vicki Vale feels like an awkward date that never ends, and she comes with bonus unfunny Robert Wuhl as her Guy Friday. For all of the darkness and perversity of Burton's film, his personality doesn't always pop through; just as Batman's duality insolates him from other characters, Burton's conception of the character feels stranded inside a bigger, more unwieldy picture. Grade: B-

Did you have these Topps BATMAN RETURNS trading cards? I did. Why did I? Did they come with a Happy Meal?
  • Did you have these Topps BATMAN RETURNS trading cards? I did. Why did I? Did they come with a Happy Meal?
Batman Returns (1992): This, though: this is more like it. Batman Returns, like the original, deviates from most modern comics incarnations of the character in key ways: this Bruce Wayne doesn't use gregarious charm to mask his inner demons; this Batman doesn't seem particularly concerned with not taking lives, or doing more than cursory detective work. But in Batman Returns, these changes feel more organic, because with the introduction of a similarly altered Catwoman (now given a vaguely supernatural lifespan) and Penguin (in the comics, basically just a quirky gangster; here, a murderous and sometimes pitiable grotesque), Burton constructs a full reinterpretation of the material. This is a warped funhouse Batman, whose enemies become twisted reflections of his own fractured, lonely psyche. Indeed, the loneliness of this movie is fascinating and sometimes heartbreaking: Batman, Catwoman, and the Penguin barely have a friend between them (Batman comes closest with his butler Alfred, but that role is marginalized in the first film series, as is a more buffoonish Commissioner Gordon). Also, good luck to Anne Hathaway, because Michelle Pfeifer's Selina Kyle/Catwoman is the most interesting and complex villain and love interest of Batman Movies Mark 1. Grade: A

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Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993): Or: yes, this actually came out in theaters. Briefly, but it did happen, and I did see it on the big screen. Until the Nolan series, I took solace in Mask of the Phantasm as a stronger big-screen companion to my beloved Batman Returns than Burton's first film. It doesn't have much in common with Burton's wintry-carnival aesthetic; faithful viewers of Batman: The Animated Series will recall a more noirish, art-deco visual scheme (Burton's has these touches, but his Gotham looks less inhabited—a bit more like, well, a movie set), as well as Batman stories that frequently involved detective work, absent from most of the live-action films. Those values get carried over in this mature feature-length version, even if it's too truncated at under eighty minutes. Andrea Beaumont, the fiction love interest concocted for this film, is more complex than many of her live-action counterparts. Grade: A-

The 90s were a different time.
  • The 90s were a different time.
Batman Forever (1995): Normally I'd be annoyed at the sort of public-opinion retconning that pretends no one liked Batman Forever upon its release in 1995; as I recall, it got some enthusiastic reviews about its lightness of tone (similar to the constant oscillation between "finally, a dark one!" and "finally, a fun one!" that goes on with today's comic book movies) and made a chunk more at the box office than its pure-Burton predecessor. But it's hard not to join in on the retro-bashing, in large part because what seemed like a slightly cartoony but still acceptable version of Batman when I was fourteen now feels like the Batman & Robin warning sign we all chose to ignore. Even as a teenager, I understood that hiring Tommy Lee Jones to play Two-Face and then encourage him to participate in a ham-off with Jim Carrey is not productive, although Carrey himself makes an agreeably spindly Riddler, doing that thing where he's not always so much funny as just physically impressive (in an alternate universe, by the way, Semi-Serious Carrey totally could've played the Scarecrow!). There are aesthetic pleasures in Batman Forever: Carrey's green-suited figure, the fascinatingly hideous neo-Tokyo production design, Nicole Kidman in a bedsheet. But the movie—gutted of subplots and psychology that were probably not much better than the rest, but at least would've helped it make more sense—is a dispiriting Bat-simulation, resting on the peculiar notion that a few sessions with a shrink would render Bruce Wayne a well-adjusted crime-fighter. Val Kilmer, playing the faux-conflicted Wayne, might seem miscast if you could remember that he was in this movie or what he does in it (which is to say barely; not much). Grade: C+

(See above comment re: the 1990s.)
  • (See above comment re: the 1990s.)
Batman & Robin (1997): Just as I might have enjoyed the campy 60s take on Batman were it not about Batman, I might have enjoyed this large-scale ridiculousness had it taken an expensively retrograde spin on another superhero franchise. Maybe. I actually just rewatched it the other night as a horrible coda to my rewatching of the first two Nolan Bat-pictures, and as a reminder of what another cinematic interpretation of semi-popular villain Bane looked like. What it looks like is: horrible (assuming Nolan's Bane improves on the interesting-if-90s-ish comics version, this Bane can sit at the other end of the spectrum: an inflated pro wrestler with sickly greenish skin doing poor man's Frankenstein's Monster shtick). Even as a big-budget take on the 60s TV series, even allowing that the idea of doing a big-budget version of a low-budget-looking live-action cartoon is kind of a stupid idea, Batman & Robin is pretty deficient; Joel Schumacher lacks the pop-art panache to pull off a scene where Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman) enters in homage to the Marlene Dietrich movie Blonde Venus to the strains of an instrumental version of the old Coasters song "Poison Ivy"—that sounds sort of cracked in a neat Baz Luhrmann way, but the scene feels traffic-directed rather than smoothly cut together. Bungled moments like this, as well as some even clumsier attempts at familial earnestness, make Batman & Robin endlessly fascinating: you can see money being shoveled into the franchise furnace on screen, yet everything is intricately hideous and plastic-looking. It is probably the worst movie I own on DVD and have seen several times. Grade: C-

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Batman Begins (2005): Nolan's first crack at the character is a little pulpier and comic-bookier than his smash follow-up (even while infinitely less cartoony than its franchise predecessors). That is to say, it's a touch more David Goyer-y—not to discount Nolan's tolerance for hokum, which is a mite higher than he lets on. Yet I almost mean that as a compliment; few directors make audiences feel less insulted for enjoying this sort of spectacle. Maybe the finale goes a over-sized in terms of First Gotham/Then the World (actual quote from Mr. Freeze in Batman & Robin), but with ample Bruce Wayne time (Bale gives just enough of the callow-playboy act), an Alfred with a bit more agency, Jim Gordon actually done right, Cillian Murphy serving elegant ham as the Scarecrow, and one of Liam Neeson's best mentor acts, it's hard to complain. Grade: A-

This has nothing to do with anything, I just wanted to include a picture of Sean Young from that period when she was going around dressed as Catwoman all the time.
  • This has nothing to do with anything, I just wanted to include a picture of Sean Young from that period when she was going around dressed as Catwoman all the time.
The Dark Knight (2008): Many of Nolan's pre-Dark Knight films, not just Begins but also Memento and The Prestige, lay out complicated time schemes: flashbacks, reverse chronology, diaries within diaries. The Dark Knight and Inception instead concentrate on forward momentum, cross-cutting between multiple threads of the same story with impressive urgency. I've said before that Dark Knight reminds me of The Empire Strikes Back hurtling forward at the pace of the final half-hour of Return of the Jedi; so many imitators have tried to emulate that rush just with wommmping musical score alone. The sustained tension of Dark Knight makes the prospect of a follow-up fascinating to me; I assume Nolan will have to vary his tempo a little, and I wonder how that will play out. The Heath Ledger performance, meanwhile, is comfortably difficult to top or equal. I'm sure he had help from Nolan and the screenplay, but while you're watching Ledger, it's like seeing a new artist re-draw and re-conceptualize the Joker before your eyes. It's also equally funny, creepy, and even a little bittersweet when he tells Batman (in a very comics-faithful line) that he can see the two of them doing "this" forever. But nothing lasts, of course. Grade: A

The Black Knight will always rise again.
  • The Black Knight will always rise again.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012): I haven't seen it, but it's pretty clearly the best movie ever made, and I will lead a comments-section jihad over anyone who doesn't like it before I get a chance to love it. No, I'm kidding; obviously those people who lose their shit on Rotten Tomatoes are crazy and/or stupid. I will say, though, that as idiotic as those people are, I can't imagine they represent any kind of actual cross-section of actual fans. I mean, obviously they represent some segment, but the way it's written about makes it sound like this is how most comics fans react to negative press over their beloved characters. I hardly put comics fans on a pedestal; I just know that there are too many of them to characterize in one particular way. You know how "everyone" hates certain movies but really what that means is, extremely vocal sections of extremely passionate fanbases hate something? A medium-sized percent of a medium-sized percent, equaling probably more like a small percent? Yeah, it's kind of like that. Walk into Midtown Comics and interview some people, and I don't think you'll find a ton of guys who are like, yeah, as soon as they put a negative review on Rotten Tomatoes, I send a shitload of threats to Dana Stevens, what of it? Grade: pending!

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