My favourite comic book hero has always been Batman, and I’m very much looking forward to the release of the new Arkham City game later this year, so I decided to rewatch the Batman films, even the ones I really hate…
The Caped Crusader‘s first cinema outing was a spin-off from the campy TV series starring Adam West and Burt Ward as the Dynamic Duo, and it’s packed full with everything that made that show entertaining and disposable. To make sure it didn’t just feel like a longer episode, the producers made sure they made things bigger, better and bolder, starting by pitting the heroes up against the four most iconic villains – The Joker, Riddler, Penguin and Catwoman. The plot (something about the dastardly villains turning the UN into dust) doesn’t really matter too much, it’s all about the quips, the ZAPs, the POWs and the Shark-Repellent Bat-Spray, and this Batman is a lot of fun and works surprisingly well, even when Catwoman is pretending to be a Russian reporter called Kitanya Irenia Tatanya Kerenska Alisoff.
Unfortunately, the campy TV show did so well in creating a public perception of Batman that it took over twenty years for the character to start to escape its legacy in the eyes of everything outside the world of the comic books. That was thanks to this film, which brought the darker edge back to the Bat with the help of some surprisingly brave decisions in the hiring of both Tim Burton and Michael Keaton, neither of whom were the kind of big box office people that you’d expect for a film like this. Burton in particular seems to struggle to completely make the film his own, but even the compromised vision is impressive, with Gotham looking fantastic, while Keaton works well as both Batman and Bruce Wayne. But still he does rather get outshadowed by the force of nature that is Jack Nicholson’s Joker, who chews up and spits out every scene he’s in. It’s not an out-and-out classic, but this Batman film helped show that comic book characters still had a place on the big screen after the declining successes of the Superman series.
Batman Returns (1992)
The fact that this is my favourite Batman film and is also the one that is least about Batman probably says a lot. While the first film had been ‘Tim Burton directing a blockbuster’, this one is very much ‘A Tim Burton film dressed up as a blockbuster’ because success had seemingly given him the power to do things his way. It looks and sounds amazing, with the sets and Danny Elfman’s score both memorable and atmospheric, and it’s often overlooked that this is Burton’s gothic Christmas horror story just as much as The Nightmare Before Christmas. Batman may be in the shadows here, but it’s only because both Catwoman and Penguin are given such rich characterisation and are so incredibly well-performed by Michelle Pfeiffer and Danny DeVito, with the former giving Selina Kyle a believable mix of vulnerability and strength, and the latter playing the tragic villain with enough pathos and menace. It’s one of my favourite Tim Burton films and I think works really well as a Batman film too.
Batman Forever (1995)
Sadly, not everyone agreed with me and it didn’t do very well, so Burton was ‘moved upstairs’ for the next instalment. Keaton jumped ship when he saw the direction the franchise was heading in and was wise to do so, because while Batman Forever was a commercial success, artistically it was a disaster. Right from the intro sequence of gadgets, buttocks and cringeworthy lines, it’s obvious that Joel Schumacher was taking Batman further towards the TV series than either of the previous two films. With Val Kilmer a weak stand-in for Keaton in the central role, Chris O’Donnell as dull bratty Robin and Nicole Kidman debasing herself as a nymphomaniac psychiatrist, the show is stolen by Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones as Riddler and Two-Face. I don’t mean that as a compliment either, with both of them acting like over-stimulated children at a birthday party, and it’s very hard to care about anything or anyone in this film. If the people wanted a big dumb cartoonish Batman movie, they certainly got one, and things were only going to get worse.
Batman And Robin (1997)
Just as Burton had been spurred on by the success of his first Batman film to take his sequel further in his ‘world’, so was Schumacher. Unfortunately, this just meant that Batman And Robin ended up making Batman Forever look like a Bergman drama. Kilmer was replaced by a lost-looking George Clooney, while the villains this time were Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr Freeze and Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy. Thurman tries hard in a ham-fisted role, while Arnie delivers probably his worst-ever performance, not helped by some of the most feeble ‘ice’ puns ever put to paper. And then there’s Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl. And then there’s the Bat Credit Card. Schumacher was apparently trying to take the franchise even further into ‘family-friendly’ territory, which makes some of the quite explicit innuendos a little hard to swallow, as well as his fascination with the rubber-clad buttocks of his heroes (and heroine). To his credit, he’s admitted that this was a bit of a mess, but no amount of apologies can erase the damage this did to the franchise or the fact that I wasted two hours of my life watching it at the cinema.
Batman Begins (2005)
Schumacher wanted to make amends by doing a fifth Batman movie and making it darker again, but unsurprisingly wasn’t allowed to do so, and it took a long time for a project to come to fruition with Christopher Nolan’s reboot bring back the brains that had been so thoroughly discarded by his predecessor. Batman Begins stands out in the history of these films as the only one that actually focuses on Batman himself, as it spends a long time filling in the gap between the death of Bruce’s parents and his time in the cape. Whether or not it’s a story that needs telling in great detail is debatable, and some of the early scenes drag a little, but there’s no doubt that Batman Begins improves on Batman And Robin in every single way, with Christian Bale impressive in the dual role and Nolan’s direction giving us a realistic world for the character to exist in. If there is a let-down, it’s that neither Ra’s Al-Ghul or The Scarecrow get much time to be effective or memorable bad guys, and Katie Holmes is disappointingly weak as potential love interest Rachel. But this was exactly what Batman needed and stands up as a really good film in its own right.
When Nolan cast Heath Ledger as The Joker, I had to admit being a little wary of how someone I had only really considered as a ‘pretty boy’ actor could convince. I was very wrong, because Ledger was incredible in the role, even when you put out of your mind his tragic death before the film had been released. Batman fades into the background of his own story again here, this time given two much stronger villains to go up against, with Aaron Eckhart doing well as Harvey Dent (Two-Face), the White Knight to Batman’s Dark Knight. It’s a fantastic film, full of thrilling set-pieces (and awe-inspiring IMAX filming that still stuns when seen on Blu-Ray) and great performances from all of the central cast (with Maggie Gyllenhaal a much better Rachel than Katie Holmes was). It’s maybe a bit too long for its own good and could have easily cut some of its scenes down a bit, but for a sophisticated thrill-ride with a dark edge, you can’t really do much better than this. Where Nolan takes it for The Dark Knight Rises, we’ll have to wait and see.
- The Evolution of Batman’s Leading Ladies (fabsugar.com)
- Batman Actors (mrmovietimes.com)
- Kiefer Sutherland was almost Robin to Michael Keaton’s Batman [Batman] (io9.com)