Tim Burton's Batman... A Milestone
Things have been so busy, I almost let this milestone slip by - however, at TV Party, I tend to have the philosophy that it's never too late to recognize any kind of milestone. This may not seem like an important one, but it is, because much of contemporary popular culture has been impacted by an event which happened twenty years ago on June 23rd.
That event was, of course, the release of Tim Burton's film take on Batman - and, you could easily argue, the birth of the modern comic book movie. (I personally would argue for Richard Donner's take on Superman back in 1979.as the main template, but that's another column for another time). The movie had a long, hard development process, and had to overcome many obstacles, including the reputation of the 1960's TV show. (Personally, I have mixed feelings about the show - loved it when I was a kid, but as an adult, I sometimes have a hard time watching it). Of course, ironically, the tv show (which may take awhile to get to DVD) seems almost tame, and as we look at how the Caped Crusader's onscreen image has progressed, we can also see that - at times - the films took on a tone that made the "bang pow!" image of Batman in the 1960's seem enjoyable.
Looking at Burton's first Batman film, it's easy to see (with hindsight) that there are several gaping holes in plot, and that it moves from one action piece to another. However, much of it still holds up, especially Michael Keaton's portrayal of the character. At the time, it was a very controversial choice, but it's Keaton's ability to portray Bruce Wayne as a man who, in the "normal" world, is slightly neurotic and edgy (note the scene where Bruce is about to reveal his secret identity to Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger), and both are confronted by the Joker (Jack Nicholson) - Keaton ranges from slightly neurotic to full-out fury, as he asks the Joker, "You want nuts?"). Yes, it contains Burton's usual fascination with lonely outsiders, but it has the late Anton Furst's neo-Gothic production design. In many ways, if Donner's Superman created a template, Burton's Batman sealed it.
Of course, Burton also created the template for future Batman films, both in terms of structure and (sadly) its decline. Batman Returns contains a lot of great performances - Keaton, MIchelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle/Catwoman, and Christopher Walken as Max Shreck. However, Burton hedges his bets by including a second villain - the Penguin, portrayed by Danny DeVito, but reborn as a bird-faced mutant, and in my opinion, moves the film from function to slightly overstuffed. The Catwoman/Batman dynamic is great, as Burton focuses on a burgeoning relationship between two psychologically damaged people. (The mask-removing scene towards the end of the film reveals much about the characters, about how essentially different Batman and Catwoman are in their nature). However, there feels like there are two movies - any single villain could have carried a movie, but having the two makes it feel a little overstuffed, a little too awkward, but all in all...not a bad movie.
Although Burton left, the reins were handed over to Joel Schumaker, who....it's easy to make fun of him. I think the best way to express sentiment is to use a quote from Schumaker from the recent documentary Heckler, when he proclaims that he was "making a Batman comic book."
Or course, Mr. Schumaker forgot that even comic books have plot, pacing, consistency...and a sense of restraint.
Strip away some of the more over-the-top moments (Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones, I'm talking to you), Batman Forever is actually quite enjoyable. Val Kilmer makes for a very quirky Batman/Bruce Wayne - granted, an unusual choice, but some of the plot aspects (notably Bruce Wayne questioning his role as Batman) are interesting...but much of the film not only seems overstuffed, but the tone seems completely off - almost comedic. (According to sources like Wikipedia, Warner Brothers had attempted to make the franchise more "family-friendly"). There's also some uninspired casting - notably, Chris O'Donnell in the role of Dick Grayson/Robin. It just doesn't work. (Schumaker had also cast him as Ernest Hemingway in the forgettable In Love and War. Yes, you read that correctly - Ernest Hemingway). Of course, the less said about Batman & Robin,the better. George Clooney works somewhat as Bruce Wayne/Batman, but the rest of the movie....better left untouched.
It wasn't until 2005's Batman Begins that we see the latest installment, and Christopher Nolan's take on the character is relatively unique - instead of Burton's neo-Pulp gothic influence, or even Schumaker's pumped-up noir, Nolan focuses on realism, but more importantly, on issues of morality and choice. Batman Begins is one of the first Batman films to deal with "young Batman", or the influence of his parents upon his career. Although Christian Bale goes a great job as the title character, the hidden gem is Linus Roache as Thomas Wayne, providing some moral guidance which will prove to be integral to Bruce's later life. In addition, this is probably the best representation of Gotham City, with a mixture of real life locations (England & Chicago) and CGI - Gotham feels like a real city. At the end of the movie, it doesn't feel like a reboot so much...as a solid movie that integrates the best of Batman into one solid story.
(Side note - Linus Roache played Thomas Wayne, Jeremy Sisto voiced Batman in Justice League: New Frontier, and both currently star in Law & Order, There's something seemingly poetic about that fact).
Finally, there's 2007's The Dark Knight, which has had plenty of kudos given...and there's only one thing I can add to the commentary. This is nothing more than one of the best comic movies ever made, with its focus not only on morality, but on the role of the hero. Although many people have cited Heath Ledger's performance, I personally believe the lynchpin (which rarely gets discussed) is Aaron Eckhart's portrayal of Harvey Dent. One of the themes of the movie is something that Dent says - "(the hero) lives long enough to become the villain" (and Bruce Wayne's quote about "Gotham needs a hero with a face"). The movie touches on multiple areas - anarchy vs. order, the nature of heroism, doing the "right thing" in a morally ambiguous world - but much of that conflict is played out through Dent's arc in the movie. Integrating some of his previous roles (like In the Company of Men and Thank You for Smoking), Eckhart gives us a man who, in many ways, is quite the opposite of Batman - not in terms of villainy (although we know his eventual fate), but in that he compromises his own principles.
There is still no word on whether Nolan will direct a third Batman film, but in a way, that may be irrelevant - the Batman franchise has accomplished a total renaissance, coming from a nadir to even dizzying new heights.
But enough of my talking - please feel free to share your thoughts in the TV Party forum, or read more thoughts at blogthispal.com
Thanks, and keep watching!
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