Summer of the Bat, Part 2

Continuing my look at the Summer of the Bat, we move on to the Batfilms. This was originally supposed to be one entry, but got so long I’ve managed to make it three (thus, tripling my productivity.)

BATMAN (1966)

A film version of the TV series that was talked about in Part One. There’s very little that I can or need to add here, since the film is unabashedly a 90 minute version of the series. It has the novelty of a (slightly) larger budget, allowing for additions such as the Batcopter and the Batboat and a team up of the four best villains in the rogue’s gallery (The Penguin, The Joker, The Riddler and The Catwoman.) It has a reliably fun and witty script by Lorenzo Semple Jr. and is crisply directed by Leslie H. Martinson. There are enough large set pieces to give the film an epic feel, though it’s barely a step up from the series. The four actors serving as special guest villains have a surprisingly good chemistry, given that this was Lee Meriwether’s only appearance as Catwoman and Frank Gorshin delivers a master class in how to pull focus from the other actors.

(In regards to Meriwether, she, like Eartha Kitt, had the Catwoman role fall to her when Julie Newmar was not available. If I may indulge in a bit of commentary left over from the series, the various Catwomen produce the only interesting case of multiple actors playing a single character. With The Riddler, both Frank Gorshin and John Astin took a turn in the role, but only Gorshin produced interesting results. In the case of Mr. Freeze, Otto Preminger’s version was far more compelling than those of either George Sanders or Eli Wallach. But with Catwoman, though my preference runs to Newmar, all three were unique in their own ways. With Newmar, the undercurrent of mutual attraction between Batman and Catwoman created the most interesting relationship. In Meriwether’s case, while there was sexual chemistry present, the Catwoman was willing to use it only as a weapon against Bruce Wayne. There’s never a sense that the attraction is mutual. With Kitt, the Catwoman is too much an asskicker to even worry about an attraction to Batman [although, sadly, that probably had more to do with mainstream America not being ready to accept a mixed race couple indulging in the kind of byplay that existed between Newmar and Adam West. A shame, because I’m certain Kitt could have pulled it off.])

The only qualm I have with the movie is the oddball ending. The villains have kidnapped the members of the United World Security Council and have dehydrated their bodies (for what purpose is never made entirely clear.) While Batman and Robin are able to recover the bodies (now reduced to powder) an accident results in the powders being mixed. In a drawn out ending, Batman and Robin are able to separate the powders and rehydrate the Security Council, but the results are…less than perfect (I’ll let you check it out on your own.) While everyone gapes at the odd Security Council, the Dynamic Duo slip out a window and head for the street. It’s a downbeat anti-climax; something that reeks of “shoot, we came up short. How do we add ten minutes to this thing?” But it doesn’t obliterate the 80 minutes of fun that precedes it.

(By the way, the “Some days you just can’t ride of a bomb” sequence will never fail to crack me up.)

BATMAN (1989)

Tim Burton’s first Batman film restores all of the darkness to the character and is, by my count, one of the two most influential superhero movies ever made (joined by the 2002 Spider Man film.) This, along with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns series and Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke graphic novel, completely restored the Dark Knight version of the character and led to a sort of Batmania. It continues to this day, as only James Bond and Batman can be counted as reliable box office characters, no matter who’s playing them.

Which is not to say that this film is all grim and grit. With the passage of time and the emergence of Christopher Nolan’s Bat films, it’s interesting to note how, well, odd Burton’s film really is. Visually, it’s a melange of futuristic architecture, 40’s clothing and modern (well, 1980’s modern) settings. You can watch a half an hour of the film and have no idea what era it’s set in. It’s as if art director Anton Furst dropped acid and watched Brazil before sketching the designs. As a result, the film is dark, but by no means realistic. Instead, Burton is at pains to create his own distorted world; one in which only someone like Batman could be termed normal.

None of that, however, should be taken as criticism of the film, which has a lot going for it. Much was made over Jack Nicholson’s top billing as The Joker, but he certainly deserved it. Burton always seemed to find the villains more interesting than Batman and Nicholson takes advantage by delivering one of the best performances of his career. It contains all of the Jackisms we have come to know and love, but laying back of it is an absolute heart of darkness. It’s easy to laugh AT The Joker’s antics, but impossible to laugh WITH him. When he’s Jack Napier, early in the film, he’s so loathsome there’s no reason to feel sorry for him when he’s dropped into the vat of acid that turns him into The Joker. And he only gets worse afterwards. He’s both charismatic and horrifying. Michael Keaton was a much-criticized choice as Batman, but he more than acquits himself. He moves effortlessly from Bruce Wayne’s fish-out-of-water discomfort when not in the costume to his grim purposefulness when he’s in it. Michael Gough is pitch perfect as the manservant/father figure of Alfred the Butler. Jack Palance is terrific in the all-too-brief role of Boss Grissom and Pat Hingle is his usual solid self as Commissioner Gordon. Director of Photography Roger Pratt’s energetic camera work keeps things exciting. Burton’s love of gadgets serves him well here, producing interesting contents for Batman’s utility belt and the Batmobile. And the larger set pieces (the battle at the museum, the face off at the parade) mostly work.

Of course, it has its downside as well. You could create a drinking game with the number of times Kim Basinger screams (and it would take the edge off the headache you develop listening to her), Robert Wuhl is his usual forgettable self in the completely forgettable role of reporter Alexander Knox, Danny Elfman’s score has a terrific main theme, but his whimsical incidental music is grating and Sam Hamm’s script searches for a classic one-liner and never finds it (Sorry, “You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight” doesn’t make it.)

Placed in the larger context of the 80’s/90’s Bat series, this Batman is, strangely, both the most fully realized and least satisfying entry. It successfully mixes the darkness of the character with a commercially viable film vehicle, a balance that none of the sequels were able to strike. At the same time, much of what it seemed to be laying the groundwork for never came to pass. The nascent Batman/Commissioner Gordon relationship was never explored. By the time we saw Harvey Dent again, he was already Two-Face, a transformation so shocking it also turned him from Billy Dee Williams to Tommy Lee Jones. Vicky Vale established the Bat girlfriends as glorified Bond girls; someone with whom the Bat shared a deep, intense relationship…that lasted all of one film. And when you’ve killed off Batman’s archenemy, where do you go from there?

Still, as I said, most of the film’s failings were the result of the series as a whole and not this individual entry. It remains, viewed singly, an epic, dark, stylish film, one that sets the tone for all superhero films that would follow.


People look at me funny when I say this, but Batman Returns is the best film in the 80’s/90’s Batman series.  And I can hear you now, “Wait a minute, Joe, you just said the first movie was the best.” Look at it again. I said the first one was the only film that successfully mixed the darkness of the character with its commercial possibilities. While Batman Returns veers too far to the dark side for some, (I have a hard time imagining parents being thrilled about exposing their kiddies to the film’s sexuality and violence) as a character study of those whose afflictions (physical, circumstantial or personal) force them to find ways to gain strength, it might be Burton’s masterpiece.

Michael Keaton returns (this time with top billing) although he might as well have stayed home for all the movie focuses on him. Keaton is still, for my money, the most interesting Batman; fully embracing the dichotomy of a man who, as Batman, has the presence of mind while trapped in a runaway Batmobile to record his enemy’s taunting for possible later use, but as Bruce Wayne can’t find his socks without assistance. Clearly, Burton doesn’t find this as interesting. Batman has one line in the first 40 minutes of the film and disappears for about 20 minutes while the focus moves to the villains. Having set up the character’s inner angst in the first film, Burton seems content to let it ride while he explores what drives the villains.

Danny Devito and Michelle Pfeiffer, as The Penguin and The Catwoman, are, largely through no fault of their own, a mixed bag as the villains. In the case of The Penguin, the base of the character is still in tact. He’s a ruffian with pretensions to respectability. However, the film takes the ruffian aspect to its nth degree, transforming The Penguin into a mutated child (mentally, physically and morally) who, as a baby, is thrown into the sewer by his own parents and raised by penguins. Watching Danny Devito for two hours can be a trial under the best of circumstances, but a parade of eating raw fish, biting noses of unwitting associates and throwing gargly temper tantrums is a bit much. Michelle Pfeiffer has all the sexiness and cold vamping required of Catwoman and there’s a palpable chemistry with Keaton that’s the most interesting thing he’s allowed to do in the film. She also brings a vulnerability that deepens both her character and the relationship with Bruce Wayne/Batman. Truthfully, she brings far more to the role than the script, which is rather poorly written on that front. If her boss, Max Schreck, is the one she’s determined to avenge herself against, why the dalliance with Batman? Why the team up with The Penguin? There doesn’t seem to be a particular reason to even have Catwoman in the movie, other than the studio’s sudden need to jam two villains into every film (a trend that now runs through ALL superhero movies.)

Christopher Walken plays the film’s true villain, Max Schreck, a power mad businessman with a tragically poor wig. Walken is, as always, terrifically watchable and I would argue that Max Schreck is the purest villain in this series of films. With the addition of a backstory for The Joker, all of the super villains in the series have some psychological basis for their villainy. All of them have been injured or afflicted in some way, resulting in their turn to the dark side. Schreck, on the other hand, has everything he could ever want in life (power, money, respect) and is driven to evil for no other reason than he simply wants MORE. (I’m assuming after Schreck’s death that Schreck Industries became Enron.)

Michael Gough returns as Alfred and Pat Hingle is back as Commissioner Gordon, but the film does virtually nothing to further their relationships with Batman (a shame, given how much potential is there.) There is a cute mea culpa moment around Alfred bringing Vicky Vale into the Batcave in the last movie, but it adds little to proceedings. Burton’s fascination with the villains leaves Batman as a supporting character in his own movie.

Ultimately, the movie retains its predecessor’s weird yet seamless combination of past, present and future aesthetics (I have to admit, until this last summer, I never found it odd that there were newsboys in what was supposed to be, I think, 1992.) The film is richer and more complex than any other in the series. Each of the main characters undergoes (or has undergone) his or her own descent into hell and what the outside world views as grotesque is the armor they wear when they come out the other side. Whether that descent forges someone into a force for good (The Bat) or evil (The Penguin) or a little of both (The Cat) is dependent on the individual’s make up. But clearly Burton identifies with each of the characters and refuses to completely vilify any of them. Even The Penguin’s death carries a certain poignancy, as his pet penguins, the only creatures who ever truly loved him, guide him to his final resting place.

Batman Returns is decidedly not a commercial flick. Thankfully, when I first saw it, I was at an age where my parents no longer felt the need to accompany me to the cineplex. I can’t imagine them approving of babies being kidnapped, Max Schreck being torched to a crisp by a stun gun, The Penguin wielding a guy’s severed hand and Catwoman licking Batman’s face. I also think, much as I respect my parents, they might not have seen this movie for what it is: a flawed masterpiece.

COMING IN PART THREE: the Joel Schumacher Era (or more accurately, Error.)

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