We’re approaching a movie event that is long overdue. For the first time ever, the two biggest superhero icons, Batman and Superman, will be appearing in the same movie together in ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’.
To prepare for this, I’m going to go through each live-action theatrical release of these two characters and share my thoughts through a series of posts that I will sub-divide into a few groups.
Note: I will be leaving out the 1966 Adam West cheese.
The first series that I’m going to delve into is the first four Batman films that were released between 1989 and 1997. Why these first, when the Superman movies came out before? Because I felt like it.
Here we go!
I think I actually love this movie more and more each time I watch it. Taking a look back at how I initially saw these movies, I think I watched them at a rough time. Most people through the 90’s saw this series in all it’s glory (for better or worse) in theaters, and watched them many times. I watched them after viewing Batman Begins multiple times. That was the only (cinematic) Batman I knew for about a year.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that The Dark Knight trilogy kind of over-shadowed how incredibly great this first Tim Burton ‘Batman’ movie was for me for awhile. And even to take much blame out of the Nolan movies; it was actually this series in and of itself that gave it a bad name. When many people think of the 90’s Batman movies, the first thing they might tend to remember is how fast it went downhill by 1997. Then they almost forget about this first one. Is it dated and cheesy? Oh yes. But let’s look at all of the things about it that redeem those factors.
For starters, there’s the entire look of the movie, and the aesthetics of Gotham City itself. It’s gloomy, with funky-Gothic architecture, and it just looks like a creepy place you don’t want to live in…or even visit.
Michael Keaton is Bruce Wayne/Batman, and is terrific. I love how subdued he is as both personas, and there are several moments where you can just see through him and tell just how lonely of a man he actually is, and that there’s a weird darkness lingering beneath. This is exactly what Batman is to me; someone who seems like he could be totally evil, but is incredible at keeping his cool at all times.
Then there is Jack Nicholson as the Joker, and there’s not too much to be said other than him being a great iteration of this classic villain. Nicholson has that element of crazy already and he’s able to just go all out with it. He never feels too over-the-top either.
The rest of the cast unfortunately is pretty cut and dry. This is an area where Nolan’s trilogy is far superior, in that the supporting cast shines just as much as the main cast.
There’s a huge element of fun with almost every scene, and at times it can get pretty creepy too. What I like is that ‘Batman’ feels like a classic Film Noir mixed with early superhero comic elements. It’s a tough thing to describe, but the textures, set designs, costumes, and music give the whole movie an element that’s just so unique. You feel like it could be set in the 1930’s, but of course there are all of these 80’s things, and then buildings and streets that look like their taken out of a Gothic stage play. It definitely generates a very interesting scope and feel, all while maintaining a consistent authentic atmosphere.
If you like Batman, you’ll enjoy this movie. Batman: The Animated Series was heavily inspired by this first movie, and that is arguably one of the greatest cartoons of all time. But it was the tonal direction of this movie that serves as a basis for many of the superhero films we see today. Mistakes were made along the way (and I’ll get to that soon), but I always notice that the most successful superhero films mimic what really worked with this particular movie, as well as the first Superman film. It’s dark and grounded, but is able to let loose and have some cheesy fun. Like a good comic book movie should.
Batman Returns (1992)
For the most part, I’d say that ‘Batman Returns’ works pretty well. However, where Tim Burton used his style to mix with comic book elements in the first movie, is basically over-done in this one. It’s a little bit too Tim Burton for me, and I think many Batman fans will agree with that.
So he had more creative control this time around, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As a Batman movie, it’s a little underwhelming. But as a Tim Burton movie, it’s still pretty great. It might sound like I’m making huge contradictory statements, but if you’ve seen ‘Batman Returns’, you’ll likely know what I’m talking about.
It’s very weird, and the creepy level is heightened up a few notches. Many of these strange bizarre moments come from the main villains. The Penguin bites a guys’ nose off, and Catwoman eats a live bird and licks Batman from the chin upwards. These antics shock me every time, even though I know they’re coming. That aside, Michelle Pfieffer and Danny DeVito are absolutely excellent in their roles and their bizarre nature is very consistent with the tone of the movie itself. Christopher Walken as Max Schrek is a solid and overlooked addition to this movie as well. He’s not a villain from the comics, but he still brings something new to the table. He has a lot of great back and forth moments with The Penguin and Selina Kyle.
Michael Keaton is back for the second and last time, and is still great. I always felt that he was heavily under-utilized in this movie though, and that’s probably because this film puts much of the focus on its multiple villains. But when he is on screen, he really brings the best he can to the character.
It’s a lot different, and sometimes unpleasantly darker than the first movie. I think it’s a little more in a fantasy world, which kind of lends to an off-putting feel when watching it as a “Batman” movie.
For example: Why does Catwoman lick herself? Does she literally have 9 lives since she “dies” several times? Did she actually turn into half-cat, half-woman? And why does The Penguin actually have flippers? No other source for Batman (comics, shows, or movies) made any of these particular characters into mutants. So it’s just a little weird.
I’d say for me, ‘Batman Returns’ is a big step backwards from the first movie. It’s a little too Tim Burton. There are some pacing issues, and there’s an atmosphere that changed ever so slightly that confuses me about the type of world this story actually takes place in. BUT! Many elements that worked in the first movie are still here. There are a lot of great sequences, fun characters, and wonderful music, that generates a pretty enjoyable experience. Plus, the Christmas setting is actually very fitting, and makes for a pretty well-made Batman Christmas Special… if you want to look at it from that angle.
Batman Forever (1995)
So because parents like to be lame from time to time, there were many complaints that ‘Batman Returns’ went a little too dark. It was requested (and maybe rightfully so) that the Batman series would go in a more family friendly direction.
Unfortunately, this was before Hollywood cracked the code on how to make a superhero movie appeal to kids, while still allowing adults to enjoy as well. Little did they know, this code was cracked with ‘Superman The Movie’, ‘Superman II’, and ‘Batman’. They must have just forgot.
Anyways, Warner Brothers set out to make a family friendly Batman movie. Tim Burton must have felt too chained up by studio’s demands. So he left the directors’ chair, but stayed on as a producer. Since Burton left, Michael Keaton left too.
Val Kilmer took over as the Caped Crusader, and honestly…did a pretty good job.
This kind of brings me to my biggest point. This movie is kind of 50/50. There are some tremendously horrible things going on with this movie. But there’s also quite a few great things too. As I said before, I actually really like Val Kilmer as Bruce Wayne and Batman. I feel like he understood and portrayed the character almost as well as Keaton did. Jim Carrey as the Riddler is another fun thing going on. He goes a little over board at times, and the Riddler shouldn’t necessarily do that, but it’s 90’s Jim Carrey. Are you really going to tell him to tone it down? The guy is a human cartoon, and he just looks like he’s having fun. So it puts a smile on my face.
But then there are pretty bad things happening. Tommy Lee Jones sucks as Two-Face. Chris O’Donnell as Robin is not even worth talking about, and the dialogue is sooo cheesy most of the time. The look of Tim Burton’s Gotham City is now mostly gone, and everything is neon for some reason.
The music is good, the plot is ridiculous, yet sort of cohesive, and even some of the action scenes are very fun to watch. I think that overall, this movie kind of worked with what they set out to do. I’d even say it’s more fun than ‘Batman Returns’.
It might be a bit more for children than it was for adults, but that’s what the film makers were sort of told to do. They just didn’t really know how to have it appeal to both yet. They probably still don’t in all honesty, I mean… only Marvel has accomplished this so far. I’m not bashing DC, I love both, I’m just saying that they approach everything from a more serious angle, while Marvel has proven to be very good at mixing lighthearted humor alongside the serious stuff. This was the first attempt at consciously doing that. It might have worked easier for Superman, because that’s just the type of character he is. When it came to Batman, you had the darker versions, and the cheesy Adam West version. Tim Burton tried to emulate the darker tones of the comics. This time, director Joel Schumacher had to get away from that a bit, and his only (live action) source for a more family friendly Batman was the 60’s TV show.
Nonetheless, we’re living in an era where parents don’t complain about the tone or rating of a superhero movie anymore, because there’s so much stuff coming out. ‘The Dark Knight’ and ‘Man of Steel’ probably don’t have the same popularity with little kids that the Disney owned Marvel movies have, and that’s totally fine. Have little kids watch Disney Marvel, and then DC when they’re a little older…then Deadpool. There are 6 or 7 comic book movies coming out for 2016 alone. Plenty enough to go around. In the 90’s, Batman was the only thing cookin’ really. So it’s sort of understandable how this went down.
In a sense, ‘Batman Forever’ is a nice mix of Burton’s first movie and the Adam West show. Not everything works, but it’s interesting to see the varying degrees of tone that Batman has gone through in his whole history, in just one movie. But a movie with a confused tone is almost never anything that great to write home about. It’s a bad movie with a lot of good things in it that I find enjoyable for some reason. So it’s a guilty pleasure for me.
Regardless… it’s Citizen Kane in comparison to this next one.
Batman & Robin (1997)
Okay. I’ll say something about it.
This is actually my favorite bad movie of all time. Watching it as a comedy, and with a few beers; this movie gets an A. But there’s nothing to be said that hasn’t already been said by the rest of the world. It’s ass cheeks. Literally.
If you’re not familiar with ‘Batman & Robin’, or you just love seeing it being made fun of:
Here are a couple of my favorite videos that do this way more justice than I ever would.
One is an Honest Trailer from Screen Junkies, and the other is one of Chris Stuckmann’s very detailed Hilariocity Reviews. These are from two of my favorite YouTube channels, and I highly recommend watching both of these!