A Late-Summer Family Marathon of all Caped Crusader Films, 1989-1997.
I couldn’t take it anymore. The complete lack of Batman films in our kids’ lives was not only costing them in pop culture references, but wearing me out every time I had to explain said references. Everything from “Where does he get those wonderful toys?” to “I’m Batman.” were proving to be glaring omissions for them- and that’s just covering the initial 1989 film. Bat-movie references are everywhere nowadays, including other Batman movies. (Look no further than 2017’s The Lego Batman Movie, which spoofs all of them).
Heretofore, our four kids, currently ages 6 to 14, had only seen the funny Bat-flicks (Lego Batman and, more obsessively, 1966’s Batman: The Movie, starring Adam West). They perhaps didn’t understand why, but this was no longer good enough. The decision was purely parental. How could, a pop- culturally savvy dad of teenagers, let them go forth ignorant of the Batman movie phenomenon circa 1989-1997? How could I let them continue to skid through life aware of Tim Burton’s gothic-futurist imprint on the caped crusader? Lord willing, I would never again have to try to explain the Joel Schumacher Batman aesthetic to them, ever again.
So, in celebration of the final week of their summer break from school, I decided that it was the perfect opportunity to make up for lost Bat-time. It took a little creative scheduling, as the six-year-old wasn’t going to be watching the scarier films with the rest of us. And this five-film run of what’s casually referred to as “the ‘90’s Batmans” wasn’t always a slam dunk. Interest waned palpably after the second Burton film (just as it has among the general public), and even the narrative exceptionalism of the animated Batman: Mask of the Phantasm could revive it. (Again, just as it had been among the general public). Frankly, the older kids had been pushing for some R-rated fare, like Alien. But, first things first, kiddos.
What follows is my film-by-film journaling of this process, which I originally posted in installments on my own Facebook page. For this presentation, I’ve fleshed out a few of the entires with newly-added bits and observations. These entities are not intended to be read as reviews, though my critical tendencies certainly bleed through now and again. Mostly, this is simply a chronical of a 46-year-old former comic book-obsessive (turned film-obsessive) reflecting and reassessing the culturally essential five Batman movies of 1989-1997 while his kids experience them for the first time.
DIRECTED BY TIM BURTON/1989
Monday: “Ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?” Just finished introducing the three oldest kids to Tim Burton’s Batman. That went over a lot better than I expected it to.
This was a seminal movie for me as a 16-yr-old comic book obsessive, and a major film in terms of the superhero movie sub-genre that’s now devouring everything else. Also, it was THE career-maker for Tim Burton, who’s own impact on commercial cinema is undeniable… But is 1989’s Batman really that good? Turns out… yes?
At the time, the casting of the film was the central discussion. Michael Keaton (whom Burton had just worked with in Beetlejuice) landing the Bruce Wayne/Batman role sparked no shortage of outcry in the months leading up to release. “Mr. Mom?!? It’s going to be Mr. Bat-Mom?!??” Turns out he was just fine. (Though he didn’t ask). Not only was he fine, he struck a chord so much as that his years-later meta-riffing on the part earned an Oscar for his film Birdman. Just this week, it was announced to great fan excitement that Keaton will reprise his role as Batman for an upcoming Flash movie.
If Keaton’s casting proves to be a wait-and-see for fans, the announcement that Jack Nicholson would be playing The Joker more than compensated. To be figuratively accurate, it set the world on fire. It was perfect, and everyone instantly knew it. From the moment the first trailer dropped, Nicholson’s manic pressure-cooker performance set the tone for every live-action Batman villain to come. And not just Batman movies, but nearly all action/adventure films. The quietly conniving villain was out. For the foreseeable future, playing bad guys became a wallpaper-eating contest. But no one ever matched Jack. With so many quality Joker performances in the years since, we’ve kind of lost sight of how influential, how grand, he was. His Joker dealt a blow, there’s no debate.
Lately I’ve reviewed a few earlier-1980s French films that are associated with a movement known as “cinema du look”. This is basically the rise of “style-over-substance” as a laudable virtue rather than an out-and-out deterrent. Those films claimed an inspiration from comics, promoting graphic “oomph” and world-building over character and plot. Tim Burton claimed not to be a fan of comics in making Batman. Nevertheless, this film is smack in the zone of “cinema du look”; a grand Americanization of such a thing if ever there was one. None of which automatically ensures a cinematically satisfying experience. But it helps me contextualize this thing I’ve been living with, not always thinking of it as a positive, since early high school.
Because the kids found their way into Batman, I enjoyed it more than I have in years. When you embrace the artifice of this thing (including the model work, matte work and other VFX aspects that some would say haven’t aged well), every moment really pops. Amusingly, one of the first things that they noticed and asked about was how Batman, restricted by the stiff realities of his suit, could not even turn his head. Rather than dismiss the movie for this rather glaring flaw in the reality as presented, they chuckled and rolled with it. With each movie, the costume designers would find ways to make Batman himself less stiff. But with this one, each time Batman has to turn around entirely just to look behind him, it somehow made the film better not worse. Keaton’s ability to boldly own this stiffness imbues Batman with a coolly heightened baroque nature. He doesn’t just turn, he turns and lands with a pronounced swoosh! and a stop!, every time.
I don’t know if I’d go nearly so far as Peter Travers in Rolling Stone did at the time, pronouncing Batman “the movie of the decade”. But for all that it does, that it did, and still has going for it, it is undeniably a “movie of the decade”. As in, a crucial film of the 1980s, getting in just under the wire.
DIRECTED BY TIM BURTON/1992
Tuesday: I won’t lie; having finished Batman Returns, I’m feeling rather exhausted. Thank goodness the comparatively subdued animated Mask Of The Phantasm is the chronologically next of these that we will watch- I’m not sure I could simply careen into the Schumacher movies without a respite. But, Batman Week at our house will continue!
I don’t think I looked at Batman Returns in any capacity since we watched it in as part of a production design class when I was a student at Webster. (Circa 1995, maybe?) It was shown there because it was exemplary as a film that is entirely artificial; constructed from beginning to end. (What do you expect from a former animator-turned-director?) Not one practical location in the thing. And it is indeed designed to the nines, though I will always prefer the Gotham City of the first film, designed by the late Anton Furst. (Furst tragically died the same day as Freddie Mercury, November 24, 1991. That was a rough one).
Michelle Pfeiffer rules, Christopher Walken is a lot of fun as the film’s true villain Max Shreck, Michael Keaton is fine even as his character is almost deadweight. And then there’s the strange case of Danny DeVito’s Penguin. Y’know, they could’ve just put DeVito in a dapper suit and top hat, given him a trick umbrella and a monocle, and let him do his established thing. But no; Tim Burton had to lean HARD into the grotesque. This version of the character was every bit as repulsive and disgusting as I recall. He’s literally oozing black and green slime the entire time. And by way of primarily this villain, Burton imbued the entire film with an unrelenting, insidious horniness. Which is saying something, considering that we also have a whip-wielding nympho Catwoman dressed in skintight black vinyl seductively slinking around quite a bit. Oh, and it’s Christmas. Because, of course it is.
Batman Returns might be the first film that I went in absolutely pre-sold on (I’d already bought the fan magazine, the making-of books, and action figures), but came away thoroughly not liking. (Although Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Dick Tracy may have beaten it in terms of mere “disappointment”). I spent a lot of time hashing this out in my mind back then. I deduced that Tim Burton was simply given too much power in exchange for agreeing to make this sequel which WB was desperate for him to make. I don’t think I was wrong. He came back with a nightmarish vanity piece that perversely indulged all his dark fascinations while effectively further minimalizing the title character.
I don’t think Burton was ever interested in Batman as a character. A few years later when he was being courted to make a third one of these, he was quoted in the press as saying he might, because it occurred to him that “it could be interesting to make a movie that’s about Batman”. In any case, Batman Ruturns keeps and amplifies all the indulgences of the first film, but abandons whatever logic it had, and its legitimately dark complexity. The latter is still present with this sequel, but only to whatever degree you want it to be. R.I.P., movie logic.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
DIRECTED BY BRUCE TIMM, et al /1993
Wednesday: I’ll just say it up top; I absolutely adore this movie. It’s both been overstated and not at all stated enough: Mask of the phantasm is the best Batman movie ever made. For what it’s worth though, I’ve been saying that since it came out. Saw it in the theater in the winter of 1993, at the beginning of the few weeks that it played.
The following year, I got to attend a comic book retailers convention and bumped into Batman: The Animated Series co-creator Paul Dini. I met a lot of great creators that day, but he’s one that I got *really* nervous to be in the presence of. Stammering, I told him that he made the best of all Batman films. “I know”, he simply said. “No really. It’s by far the best one!” Again, he just said, “I know”. Hey, when you know, you know, right?
Fairly stiff competition has come down the pike since then (The Dark Knight), but the statement is still true. Although “just” a TV spin-off, and “a cartoon” at that (both of which led to critics and audiences of its day either dismissing or minimizing it), it’s got a bold narrative that at times is quite moving, if you open yourself up to it.
Some of the twists are more predictable than others, but “predictable” doesn’t mean “wrong” or “bad”. They are all the *right* twists, in any case. MOTP has some of the best melodrama (and much more needs to be said on the pure virtues of quality melodrama) in all of comic book movies. Lots of great nods to classic Batman creators who are not Bob Kane, as well! Which is always fun.
I didn’t tell the kids any of this before we watch it. Some chose to be fidgety and wiggly (like the critics and audiences of 1993), that is, until the quality and weight of the thing sank in. By the end, they all had theories as to who was who and what was really going on. MotP is a movie that keeps on giving in a truly narratively rich way that Tim Burton could never approach. His brain doesn’t work that way, and that’s fine. But as far as Batman is concerned, this is the finer aesthetic points of his caped crusader pinned down and fleshed out. Add a strong dose of Fleischer Studios aesthetic and a resonant screenplay and mix well. #BatmanMOTPForever
DIRECTED BY JOEL SCHUMACHER/1995
Saturday: Earlier today, after a minor delay, I was able to regather the kids for continuing our chronological dive into the 90’s Batman movies. It was finally time for Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever. This is the one with Val Kilmer as Batman, Jim Carrey as The Riddler, and Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face. Chris O’Donnell (remember him?) shows up as Robin, and Nicole Kidman is Batman’s love intrest, Dr. Chase Maridian.
The oldest (fourteen years old) asked up top if this movie would finally be about Batman. “Yes”, I said. “More than any of the other live-action Batman movies of this time.” And, that’s definitely true. And, at the time, it was definitely good enough for me. I was in college then, spending days on end editing video linearly (VCR to VCR). Somehow I was still doing that well into June. A good friend showed up and told me I was taking a break to go see the new Batman. I didn’t put up too much of a fight.
I’ve always argued that this film’s biggest problem is that it’s got Tommy Lee Jones desperately trying to out-Jim Carrey Jim Carrey. I mean, Carrey’s already climbing the walls and no living being is going to match him. Yet, here we have crusty old Tommy Lee Jones giving it a shot. I would’ve loved to have seen Jones as a quietly volatile Two-Face. But alas, this is what we got.
Looking at this now, though, I’m not sure how well my desired version of Two-Face would’ve fit into the darkly day-glo carnival Gotham that Schumacher spun off. But I won’t wholly revise my original statement, either. Even in this movie, two manic baddies seems like too much.
Hard to tell what the kids thought of this. When Jim Carrey’s name appeared in the opening titles (which are silly-cool), they got excited. They know him from The Mask, Sonic The Hedgehog, and The Truman Show, and he did not disappoint as The Riddler. I think the overall barrage of weirder laser-light-show artifice might’ve taken them aback. That’s a whole lotta green, purple, pink, and yellow hues all over place. Also, the Batmobile looks like a cockroach.
These days people dismiss Batman Forever. collectively with Schmacher’s next one, Batman & Robin. The dismissal is understood from a completely lazy point of view, but I still maintain there’s more to this one than it gets credit for anymore. It’s hard to remember that before the MCU, this sort of thing remained it for big-budget movie adaptations of comic book characters. It might be too big and gaudy and loopy, but it was what we had. And yes, we liked it. Basically.
And I’m pretty sure the kids think we were all nuts back then.
Batman & Robin
DIRECTED BY JOEL SCHUMACHER/1997
Sunday: Well, we made it. All four kids gathered with me today for the notorious Batman & Robin, thus completing our week with Batman. Like the other even-numbered sequel, Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, this of course doesn’t make a lick of sense. But unlike that film, the kids had a lot of fun with this one. With them, I did too.
I made sure that they understood the “toyetic” bent at work here. Actually, “bent” is too lenient- Batman & Robin, is nothing short of the world’s gaudiest toy ad; more cash machine than movie. Rightly, history remembers it as such. Following this, George Clooney famously swore off such crass commercial projects, going forward only with films he actually cared about making.
There are broad swaths of Batman & Robin, where it is almost aggressively plotless AND storyless. The gaps are filled if not painfully with Schwarzenegger’s unrelenting “cold” puns and Uma Thurman recycling Catwoman’s fatale nympho act then gratingly with more laser lights and overbuilt, over-designed everything. It’s almost trance inducing. Oddly enough, it’s this Schumacher Batman, not the previous one, that actually manages to quiet down for a few choice, “emotional” moments. Clooney is incorrectly smirking his way through all of them, though- and that did not go unnoticed.
The biggest thing that threw the kids for a loop was that Batgirl is not Barbara Gordon in this, but rather the niece of the ailing Alfre (played by Alicia Silverstone). The character is literally only there because Batgirl is a thing, and therefore she could be a good action figure. And a doll. And a Halloween costume. Cornering the neglected girl market for bat-merch.
Commissioner Gordon, for whatever it’s worth, is one of the few characters played by the same actor in all four of the 1989-1997 films. It always bummed me out that old, jowlly, slurring Pat Hingle somehow maintained a lock on Jim Gordon, who in other incarnations of Batman, is a really great character. In these films, he’s inarticulate window dressing. It’s in this film that his Gordon actually gets to do something for once, struggling to make his way to a big wall-mounted hot/cold lever, pulling it to “hot” in the nick of time to thaw his fellow officers. (Sheesh)
This movie’s as much of a mess as I remember, but darn if it didn’t more or less zip on by. Our ten-year-old actually claims this as his favorite of these four live-action ones. For me, I won’t go so far as to quote Bane by declaring it a “bomb”, as we did have some silly fun. But I don’t know that we’ll be revisiting Batman & Robin, any time soon.