I recently had the privilege to appear on the Los Angeles-based online talk show Comics on Comics with movie producer Michael Uslan, who was one of the driving forces behind the emergence of these six movies. Uslan regaled the rest of the panel with story after story about his early years of comic fandom, as well as his decades-long effort to make a Batman movie.
Uslan also shared with us some deep thoughts on the modern-era movies, which he categorized according to how well each movie echoed the style and tone of the different comic-book eras of Batman. In this retrospective, I'd like to share art samples from those different eras along with Uslan's takes on the movies and my own analysis. Naturally, we'll start with …
The Tim Burton movies
Uslan on Batman: "Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film [is the] most representative of the earliest take on the character by Bob Kane and Bill Finger from 1939."
Tony's take: I hate to jump forward and offer analysis on 2008's The Dark Knight prematurely, but it's impossible not to compare these two movies' takes on the definitive Batman villain, the Joker.
By the time Christopher Nolan had earned the right to goof around with the imagery and mythology of Batman with his 2008 blockbuster, he had also earned the right to swing for the proverbial fences with his interpretation of the Joker. He stunt-cast the role with an unlikely name (the late, great Heath Ledger) and he tasked his talented young star to attack the role with energy and joy. I'll talk about the result later.
Tim Burton had no such luxury with his first Batman movie. When you're making a huge movie about such iconic characters, there's an unspoken covenant with the audience that you'll deliver definitive interpretations of the characters – or at least as close to "definitive" as you can get. There's no room for stunt casting or crazy, out-of-the-box thinking.
To that end, Burton and his creative team – led by the brilliant production designer Anton Furst – created a magnificent Gotham City and tapped the only man alive (at the time) who could possibly play the Joker, Jack Nicholson. The closest Burton came to a "stunt" casting choice was with his lead, Michael Keaton, but that mini-controversy was mostly in response to fears that this new Batman movie was going to be a comedy. It wasn't, and Keaton's performances in the two Burton movies have held up very well.
Oddly enough, it was the no-brainer casting choice who almost turned the movie into a goddamn comedy. Watching Batman again, I was struck at how funny and lighthearted Nicholson's Joker was. While watching scenes like the Joker's execution of Grissom (Jack Palance), I felt like I was watching the Joker of Alan Moore's The Killing Joke try to force his way onscreen, only to get crowded offscreen by Nicholson's clowning.
It's a small beef, but I feel like the Joker should – and could – have been more terrifying throughout the movie as he is in one scene that I want to recognize. It's the one where the Joker and Bruce Wayne meet in Vicki Vale's apartment. This scene has stayed with me since 1989, when I first put on all my Batman gear and watched a midnight sneak-preview. It had lost none of its power when I rewatched it recently.
Everything comes together in this scene. Nicholson's Joker is funny and scary. Keaton gets to (rightfully) tap into his inner Beetlejuice to show us Wayne's lingering mental illness, and it's filled with classic imagery and classic lines ("Never rub another man's rhubarb!").
I ask you to take a close look at the end of the scene, too. Vicki (instead of calling the bomb squad) opens the box from the Joker, and a jack-in-the-box mechanism presents her with a prop hand that clutches a bouquet of dead flowers. The soundtrack punctuates the end of the scene with a brassy flourish. Awesome.
Unfortunately, Burton cuts from this energetic scene to a much slower scene, and as much as I respect the choice to shift gears rapidly in a movie, I think Burton missed a great chance to feed off his own energy and propel his movie to a stronger place.
Moving on ...
Batman Returns (1992)
Uslan on Batman Returns: "Batman Returns [serves] more as an embodiment of the almost soulless, very dark, almost vampiric comics of the ‘90s."
(Side note: I read Batman briefly during the 90s, which I most associate with the death and return of Superman storyline, as well the as Knightfall Batman storyline, in which the villainous musclemonster Bane broke Bruce Wayne's back.)
Tony's take: OK, earlier I said that Batman Returns might be the best movie in the series. In light of Nolan's incredibly successful movies, I feel I owe everyone an explanation. My explanation consists of one word:
Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman is so forceful, so well realized and so spot-on, that it lifts the entire movie. Not only is her Catwoman one of the best – if not the best – realization of a Batman villain in the entire six-film series, but her relationship with Bruce Wayne is the most effective – if not the only effective – love interest for Wayne in the entire series. To wit, let's run down the other love interests:
Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale
She's OK, but Basinger and Keaton don't share the sparks that Keaton and Pfeiffer do.
Nicole Kidman as Chase Meridian
Kidman looked fucking fantastic in this one, but I still find Val Kilmer's Bruce Wayne to be largely inert. Kilmer also focused on Wayne's wounded-ness (if that's a word) for most of the movie, which left Kidman's character with nothing to do but heal him. Not great fodder for romance.
Batman & Robin
Elle Macpherson as Julie Madison
Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes
OK, listen: Holmes wasn't as bad as you think. I mean, give her a break – when Tom Wilkinson's bringing up the rear of your acting team, anyone who's not a fucking genius will look like crap. Holmes is pretty far from being a genius, so her performance suffered when compared to everyone else. But all the same: No sparks.
The Dark Knight
Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes
I was all in favor as recasting this role with the much stronger Gyllenhaal, but given how she's romantically involved with Harvey Dent for this whole movie, her relationship with Wayne is relegated to that of sibling-level loyalty, love and respect.
Anyway, back to Returns:
I'd also like to praise Burton's direction in Returns. Yes, yes, yes – I admit that I'm still not on board with his take on the Penguin, but Danny DeVito's performance isn't half bad. Seriously, go back, rewatch the movie and concentrate on DeVito himself. It's a pretty damn good Penguin. It's too bad that Burton couldn't resist the impulse to graft his usual "freaky outsider" theme onto the character, especially when the series provides so many other opportunities – most notably Bruce Wayne – to explore that theme.
That said, I shall now let Pfeiffer's performance and Burton's direction speak for themselves. First, let's look at Max Shrek's (Christopher Walken) attempted murder of the mousy secretary Selina Kyle:
That fall through the three awnings still shocks me as much as it did when I was in ninth grade, and it brings me to this question:
Can you think of any imagery that's as shocking in either of the Nolan movies?
To be sure, Nolan had a different agenda in his movies, and when it came to his Joker, he delivered his violence through other means – suggestion and innuendo – instead of the sudden burst of chaos that Burton uses in Returns.
But all the same, I applaud this scene, as well as the movie's take on Catwoman's origin. After rewatching Returns, I did some research online and couldn't find a single, definitive origin story for Selina Kyle. I invite correction from the geek community here, but writers Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm came up with a creepy and wonderfully visual origin for Catwoman that Burton brought to brilliant life in the following scene. I apologize for the weird video quality:
Once again, Burton and his team gave us one of the best villains, but they also gave us the best love story of the series, and by doing that, they elevated Michael Keaton's already strong performance as Bruce Wayne.
I don't deny that the Penguin is a liability for Batman Returns, but this movie's formidable strengths far outweigh it weaknesses. It's the best of the series.
The Joel Schumacher movies
Batman Forever (1995)
Uslan on Batman Forever: "Batman Forever [is] the closest in spirit to the Dick Sprang-drawn, Bill Finger-written stories of the ‘40s and ‘50s."
(Side note: On the Comics on Comics show, Uslan specified that when he thinks of the Sprang/Finger era of Batman, he's thinking of fun stories that more involve Batman and Robin running across "giant typewriters," though I got the impression he didn't care for Forever so much.)
Tony's take: When I think of Batman Forever, I have to think of Batman & Robin at the same time, because both of Joel Schumacher's entries into the Batman series are virtually the same damn movie.
And for some reason, Forever works for me on some grotesque, perverse level, while B&R doesn't. The box office grosses of the two movies reflect the same reaction among the general population – and yet I still can't bring myself to say that Forever is actually a good movie. Its liabilities are legion, from its overly goofy tone to its motivation-less villains to its miscast heroes (Chris O'Donnell is widely regarded as a miss, and although I typically love Kilmer, Bruce Wayne just isn't a good part for him).
All the same, I still find the movie entertaining and exceedingly well designed. Uslan compared it to the Batman comics of the 50s, with all of their outlandish giant props and loony storylines, and I guess I dig it on that level.
I'll recognize one scene from this movie. In the scene below, skip to timestamp :56 to see Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones) and the Riddler (Jim Carrey) meet for the first time:
Listen, you can flame me and make fun of me all you want, but that scene is cool as hell, and Jim Carrey ain't a half bad Riddler. An acting teacher of mine praised Carrey's physical performance in Forever, and I have to agree. Carrey prepared himself very well for this role, right down to how he handles his question-mark cane. I'm sure there's a grimmer take on Edward Nigma out there, but who wants to see that?
I readily concede that Forever doesn't maintain the energy seen in the meeting between Two-Face and Riddler. I also concede that it's not for everyone. But I maintain that on some demented, Cro-magnon level, it's very entertaining, though not even all of Joel Schumacher's tricks can match the enjoyment I derive from watching a garden-variety episode of the 1960s TV series, which brings me to …
Batman & Robin (1997)
Uslan on Batman & Robin: "Batman & Robin [is the] most representative of the campy, Adam West Batman of the mid-‘60s."
Tony's take: No argument here. On the heels of his success with Forever, Schumacher made the mistake of thinking that more is always better, and he dumped a whooole lotta "more" into this movie, including three heroes, three villains, countless vehicles and gadgets – all of it strung together through an endless series of embarrassing, embarrassing scenes. This movie left a lot of collateral damage in its wake. Here are some of the casualties:
George Clooney as Bruce Wayne
Not a bad casting choice. I would have liked to have seen him in a real Batman movie. Too bad we'll never get to see it.
Mr. Freeze as a Batman movie villain
Mr. Freeze is such a grand old chestnut, and he's got a great backstory – a tragic scientist who ruined his body's temperature tolerance while trying to save his terminally ill wife. Schumacher's movie includes elements of this storyline, but it was hard to take it seriously when juxtaposed with stuff like this:
I also think that there's a parallel universe where the right director could have wrangled a compelling Mr. Freeze out of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Let's not forget that James Cameron got some good performances out of him in his movies. Schwarzenegger also looks damn cool in the blue makeup. That said, I'd still love to see Patrick Stewart in the role.
(Side note: Apparently, the TV show took the ice-themed character Mr. Zero from the comics and renamed him Mr. Freeze. The comics followed suit. It's fitting that Freeze appears in the Batman movie that most closely echoes the TV series.)
Still another casualty is:
Poison Ivy as a Batman movie villain
Don't get me wrong – I like watching Uma Thurman slink around in tights as much as the next guy, but let's face it: Poison Ivy is a second-tier Batman villain unless you know what you're doing.
The same goes for Mr. Freeze. It's easy for both of these characters to seem silly if you don't interpret them the right way. (Hell, to be fair, any of the Batman villains can look silly, but the second-tier characters can look worse with far less effort.)
If you want to see a sound interpretation of these characters, look no further than writer Jeph Loeb and artist Tim Sale's pair of classic Batman series The Long Halloween and Dark Victory, both of which served as major sources of material for the two Nolan movies, which I'll get to in a moment.
In Halloween, Loeb and Sale show us an Ivy who's been consumed and deformed by nature. She's a living plant-thing, a sensual demon of Gaia who scrambles Bruce Wayne's brain. Check this out:
But let me get back to B&R. I must disagree with Mr. Uslan on one point. He said that B&R echoes the campy 60s TV series.
I think that's an insult to the old TV series.
Believe me, I prefer the more serious Batmans of the modern era, but god-damn was the 60s series entertaining. Unlike the Schumacher movie, which didn't know what the fuck it wanted to be, the 60s series knew exactly what it wanted to be, and as a result, we got some of the best interpretations of the rogues gallery ever – Burgess Meredith as the Penguin and Julie Newmar as Catwoman spring to mind – and let's not forget those cliffhangers! Yes, they were silly, but tell me you couldn't wait to find out what happened on the next episode.
But let's take our hats off to the great Frank Gorshin as the Riddler. It's impossible to choose just one great moment with Gorshin, but with respect, I'll offer this one:
Like I said, I prefer my Batman to be serious. I'll take Frank Miller's Batman over Adam West's, but the old 60s series was at least engaging. Joel Schumacher's shitpile wasn't. That's how bad it is.
The Christopher Nolan movies
Batman Begins (2005)
Uslan on Batman Begins and The Dark Knight: Uslan didn't actually compare either of Nolan's movies to specific eras from the comics, but he did say that when it came to Nolan's movies, you could say with a straight face that they're really films. I submit that you could say that about either of Burton's movies, but that's just me.
Tony's take: So let's talk about Begins. Uslan didn't place Nolan's Batman reboot in a specific comic-book era, so I'll give it a shot. For me, Begins shares a lot of DNA with the Batman of Frank Miller. No surprise. I'm thinking The Dark Knight Returns and Year One, as well as the aforementioned Long Halloween and Dark Victory, by Loeb and Sale. Nolan aimed for a dark, realistic and psychologically truthful Bruce Wayne, and he succeeded.
But when it comes to how Nolan succeeded, you have to look a little deeper into the Batman mythology – and here I have to admit that I'm venturing past the boundaries of my knowledge. In the 80s, the comics introduced a major backstory to Bruce Wayne that took him to the far east to learn martial arts. I happily invite correction here, but I did some research and according to a few different sources, writer James Owsley introduced this storyline in 1989's Batman #431.
Nolan also had the balls to dip very deep into the Batman rogue's gallery to find two great villains who served each other very well. I didn't think that either the Scarecrow or Ra's al Ghul would work in a movie. I figured Scarecrow would look too stupid, and I figured Ra's would be too boring.
Obviously, what the hell do I know?
Nolan downplayed the Scarecrow, reducing his costume to a creepy mask worn by Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), while also tasking his creative team to conjure up some very scary effects for the Scarecrow's fear-toxin gas. At the same time, the writers had the good sense to press the Ra's al Ghul character into duty as Batman's chief mentor during his martial-arts training. I thought this fit the character very well, and Liam Neeson made a surprisingly awesome Batman villain because you didn't see him coming. Neeson is a huge guy, but he doesn't play the role in a physically imposing way, and all of his character's villainy centers around his desire for balance.
And then there's Christian Bale. OK, Batman the character can be divided into many parts – the dark knight, the great detective, the brooding dude, the millionaire playboy, the martial-arts expert and more. Bale captures almost all of these qualities while also giving us the right physical look for Bruce Wayne.
But he's not a great Batman. He's a better Batman in Begins than he is in The Dark Knight, and I think that has a lot to do with a better script in Begins and the fact that Bale's Batman-voice hadn't completely gone off the rails yet.
(Side note: Batman Begins might be as good as Batman Returns. Might.)
Which brings us to …
The Dark Knight (2008)
Tony's take: Like I said, Uslan didn't specifically place The Dark Knight into any one era of the comics, and while I think it owes a lot to the Batman of Loeb and Sale, I don't think you can place it in any era of the Batman comics, because it's simply unlike any Batman comic book, ever. For better or for worse, it is. Let me explain:
When I saw TDK, here was my reaction: It felt like Nolan built a magic portal between our world and the world of Batman. He then pulled everything "Batman" through that portal, which transformed everything about that world. We recognized the characters and trappings of the Batman world, but nothing looked the same. To wit:
Batman had transformed into a paramilitary operative.
The Joker had transformed into a terrorist.
The Batcave had transformed into a featureless, industrial installation.
Wayne Manor was gone, replaced by a penthouse atop the Wayne building downtown.
Gotham City had transformed into Chicago.
Elements of TDK succeeded or failed based on how well they weathered the transition through that magic portal. Bruce Wayne did fine, but Batman looked pretty silly whenever he stayed still long enough for Nolan's camera to get a look at him. Commissioner Gordon weathered the transition just fine, largely due to Gary Oldman's perfect performance.
But let's talk about the villains. Heath Ledger's Joker could only exist in the world Nolan created. The Joker probably emerged from the magic portal having undergone the most dramatic transformation, but we wound up with one of the best movie villains in recent memory. Yes, the creature Ledger gave us had green hair, red lips and a purple suit, but he didn't look or sound like any Joker I had ever imagined.
Two-Face: Aaron Eckhart made a great D.A. Dent, but when Two-Face appeared onscreen, the movie lost steam for me. A lot of that had to do with its overlong third act, but let's go back to that magic portal. Two-Face came out of the portal looking almost exactly like he did in the Batman world – and that was a problem. In case you don't quite understand what I'm getting at, let me ask you this:
Where is Arkham Asylum?
Arkham was located at the edge of an island called the Narrows in Begins, but both the Narrows and Arkham seem to be MIA in TDK, and it's no surprise, because I don't think they could exist in this world. I don't think a lot of the Batman world could exist here. Seriously – can you imagine the Riddler in this world? Or the Penguin? Or even Two-Face? (I think including Two-Face was a misstep in TDK.) No bullshit – when the Scarecrow appeared, I just laughed because he looked so out of place.
Nolan managed to smuggle a great cinematic experiment onscreen in TDK. He placed one of the craziest and most of gothic comic-book creations into the real world, and he stunt-cast its most iconic villain. Remember earlier when I argued that Burton had no choice but to deliver a "definitive" Joker in his movie? Well, because Burton did that – and only because Burton did that – was Nolan able to offer us the fringe interpretation of the Joker that he did.
I think there could only be one Batman movie in the style of TDK, because I don't think Batman works in the real world. Batman has to inhabit a reality that's gothic and heightened to some degree.
So needless to say, TDK has not aged well for me. Overall, I still give it a thumb-up for its humorless commitment to showing us a real-world Batman (along with several excellent scenes), but nary a scene goes by where Nolan and his creative team aren't telling us exactly what to think and feel. In the opening bank-robbery, the henchmen can't just do their jobs – they have to pepper their actions with leaden dialogue that explains everything:
Henchman 1: "So, why do they call him the Joker?"
Henchman 2: "I heard he wears make-up. To scare people. You know, like war-paint."
Yes, I know I'm being nit-picky, but that exchange is symptomatic of a problem that plagues this script. Screenwriters Christopher and Jonathan Nolan couldn't just trust their audience to go along with the ride. They have to remind us that it's OK for the Joker to be wearing makeup – even though we live in a world with the likes of John Wayne Gacy. Harvey Dent must tell us the movie's theme in simple language with the seemingly good line "Either you die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain." (Spoiler alert: It's a terrible line.) When Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) sees Batman's sonar array, he must tell us it's unethical. When the people on the two ferries don't blow each other up, Batman must tell us that they believe in the forces of good.
When I watch TDK and I spend two and a half hours being told how to feel, I can't help but think back to that mesmerizing scene where Selina Kyle plummets to her death, is revived by cats, returns to her apartment, reenacts her sad little life – and destroys it all so she can dress up as a cat.
No one has to tell me to believe that scene, because Burton and Pfeiffer don't give me any choice. It couldn't be any other way.
Finally, I'll offer my informal ranking of all six movies, in descending order of goodness.
1. Batman Returns
2. Batman Begins
4. The Dark Knight
5. Batman Forever
6. Batman & Robin
I await your correction in the forums.