Before The Dark Knight Rises closes out the current Batman series, we celebrate the anniversaries of two older Caped Crusaders.
The unprecedented success of 1989's Batman -- a.k.a. the original summer comic-book blockbuster -- may have catapulted Tim Burton to Hollywood's A-List, but it wasn't a full-fledged "Tim Burton" film. Yes, many of the director's hallmarks are present, from the Gothic set design to the Danny Elfman score, but the overall vision seems somewhat compromised, most likely due to the movie's famously difficult shoot and Burton's own inexperience helming a big-budget tentpole release. That's not the case with the 1992 sequel, which from its opening frames is quite clearly the work of the man behind such distinctive works of cinematic art as Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice. Indeed, the sheer Burton-ness of the movie overwhelms, for lack of a better word, its Batman-ness. While the original Batman also wasn't an entirely faithful recreation of the character as he existed on the page, it did successfully replace the campy Adam West version that up to that point was the character's defining screen legacy with the Dark Knight persona that had come back into vogue in the '70s and '80s in the comics. But Batman is almost incidental to much of Batman Returns and when he does appear, he's less of a vengeance-minded warrior of the night than one of Burton's favorite character types: the lonely outcast who is just looking for someone to connect with.
It's indicative of Burton's general disinterest in standard Batman lore that Batman Returns begins not with the title character, but with Oswald Cobblepot a.k.a. The Penguin. Like Bruce Wayne, Oswald's childhood was marked by tragedy; born deformed, his frightened parents set him adrift Moses-style in a basket on a river that eventually delivered him to a colony of the flightless birds whose name he'll grow up to adopt. Being orphaned by parental rejection instead of a criminal act is only one of the ways that Burton establishes Cobblepot as Wayne's darker mirror image. Where Bruce remains aloof from society, Oswald desperately wants to be part of it, to the point where he allies himself with duplicitous Gotham muckety-muck Max Schreck (Christopher Walken) so that he can be inducted into the city's elite. And where Wayne reluctantly suits up as Batman, Oswald enjoys the tricks and toys that come with being The Penguin. The overarching idea of Batman Returns is summed up in a single exchange between these brothers-from-other-mothers (and fathers). "You're just jealous because I'm a genuine freak and you have to wear a mask!" Oswald says, tauntingly. "You may be right," replies Bruce, hiding inside his Batman armor.
Batman Returns defies comic book movie conventions in other ways as well. There aren't very many big set-pieces (and the few that are included don't feature the rock 'em sock 'em action we usually associate with the genre), the most ruthless person in the movie isn't the costumed villain but rather the wealthy man pulling his strings and the romance between Batman and the third "freak" in the film -- Michele Pfeiffer's Catwoman -- is driven chiefly by lust rather than love. (The heat generated by Keaton and Pfeiffer is something rare for Burton, whose taste in romance is generally more innocent than overtly sexual.) Seen today, it's kind of amazing that Burton was able to get away with making such an odd film that goes out of its way to be anything but a typical summer crowd-pleaser. (It also explains why the studio decided to turn the franchise over to a supposedly more mainstream director Joel Schumacher.) But I'm glad he did; Batman Returns was and still is my favorite of the original Batman quartet largely because of the way Burton bends and shapes the character and his universe to suit his own specific sensibility. It's an auteurist's vision of Batman in the same way that Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, Bruce Timm's Batman: The Animated Series or Christopher Nolan's current trilogy are. And isn't that why Batman has endured for seventy plus years? Just when you think the character has run its course, there's always a new creator who comes along primed to send him into new and unexpected territory.
Batman & Robin
Joel Schumacher's second go-around with the Caped Crusader represents the dark side of the auteurist's vision thing that I just praised above, because Batman & Robin is just as much an expression of a specific artistic sensibility as Batman Returns is... it just so happens that its sensibility is flagrantly terrible. Still, you almost have to admire Schumacher for his refusal to back away from his candy-colored nightmare no matter how little of it is working. Batman & Robin is bad, yes, but at least it isn't bad in a safe and boring way like its predecessor, Batman Forever.
As with Burton before him, Schumacher was given freer creative reign on his sophomore Bat-feature due to the box-office success of Forever and the studio's desire to have a sequel as quickly as possible. The costume designer-turned-director took that freedom and ran with it, turning Batman & Robin into the ultimate burlesque show where men and women in ultra-tight rubber outfits performed for our supposed amusement, cracking bad jokes and showing off their moves. Where Burton deliberately moved away from the campy '60s TV series, Schumacher embraces that legacy wholeheartedly. There's just one problem... actually, there's a whole bunch, but let's start with the biggest: in place of Adam West and Burt Ward -- who were 100 percent committed to the camp -- we're stuck with George Clooney and Chris O'Donnell, who clearly have no clue what they're doing at the center of this madhouse. Both actors seem alternately ashamed and overwhelmed by the scale of the ridiculousness happening around them and willingly cede center stage to the movie's villains, Arnold Schwarzenegger's Mr. Freeze and Uma Thurman's Poison Ivy. They can't rescue this mess but at least these two performers attack their parts with more gusto than the heroes, with Thurman going full-on Mae West and Schwarzenegger tossing off ice-related puns like a latter-day (and blue-colored) Henny Youngman. The unapologetic shamelessness of their performances and Schumacher's direction perhaps is the movie's one redeeming quality.
Funnily enough, despite its deserved legacy as a franchise-killer, Batman & Robin is as responsible for the current comic book movie boom as legitimately good titles like X2 and The Avengers. Confronted with a horrifying vision of what the genre might devolve into, the movie's descendants fled screaming in the opposite direction, embracing a more sober-minded realism rather than campy artificiality. And it was this change in approach (which started with Bryan Singer's first X-Men picture) that reignited the public appetite for superhero pictures and paved the way for Nolan's down-to-Earth franchise reset. So thanks for that, Batman & Robin. Now let us never speak of you again.
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