Last century’s Batman films now look like blockbusters from another dimension

Unlike Christopher Nolan’s mostly faithful comic-book adaptations, the first run of Batman movies don’t cater to the fans

Last century’s Batman films now look like blockbusters from another dimension
Chris O’Donnell and George Clooney in Batman & Robin Photo: Getty Images/Handout

In honor of The Batman opening this week, we are rerunning some of our favorite features about the Caped Crusader. This article originally ran on July 31, 2014.

With Run The Series, A.A. Dowd examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.

There’s a very funny scene from this summer’s Neighbors in which Seth Rogen asks Zac Efron who he pictures when he thinks of Batman. “Christian Bale,” Efron replies without hesitation, referring to the deadly serious English movie star who portrayed the caped crusader in Christopher Nolan’s celebrated Dark Knight trilogy. For Rogen’s character, however, the answer is still (and perhaps forever) Michael Keaton, the one-time comic actor who donned the cowl in 1989’s Batman and again in 1992’s Batman Returns. The exchange is designed to provide an easy pop-culture division, one of the many matters of perspective distinguishing a twentysomething party animal from his thirtysomething elder. But the scene also provides a quick reminder of how radically blockbusters in general—and comic-book adaptations in particular—have changed over a relatively short period of time.

Only eight years separate the franchise-killing inanity of Batman & Robin from the productive reconfiguring of Batman Begins. In that time, summer movies got bigger, yes, but they also got grimmer, grayer, and much more self-important. Granted, Nolan himself has played a key role in the sea change: His take on the Batman mythos has reverberated through the industry, resulting in a more poker-faced breed of studio escapism. But it’s still eye-opening to compare his first turn at Bat, the plot-heavy and relatively “realistic” Begins, to the broad, jokey, and indifferently plotted star vehicles that used to pass for Batman movies. Whereas Burton’s two entries in the series once seemed “dark,” they look like peewee fare compared to the allegorical anxiety of their post-millennial descendants. Forget your dad’s Batman. The Nolan version of the character isn’t even your older brother’s Batman.

That’s not to say there wasn’t a pretty radical split within the previous Bat franchise. Burton’s installments, Batman and Batman Returns, are baroque Gothic fantasias, heavy on gallows humor and populated by a typical roster of grotesque but sympathetic monsters. By contrast, Joel Schumacher’s subsequent entries, Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, are lighthearted camp spectacles. What the two sets of films have in common, beyond a garishness that today’s blockbusters no longer possess, is a general disregard for their source material. Unlike the current class of mostly faithful comic-book adaptations, the first run of Batman movies don’t cater to the fans. They hail from a different era—an age of less frequent comics adaptations, before studios began raiding the Marvel and DC vaults and granting second stringers their own headlining gigs.

Batman, which turned 25 this summer, remains one of the biggest phenomenons in Hollywood history—a ubiquitous hit whose marketing strategy involved turning the Bat emblem into a Nike-like brand. The film’s huge success changed how studios sold, cast, and plotted their blockbusters. What it didn’t do was instantly make every comic-book creation a hot commodity. For many producers, Batman only demonstrated that a well-known superhero—one who had appeared on television and was second only to Superman in household-name status—could open a movie. (It was probably Iron Man, released two decades later, that demonstrated the commercial potential of a less universally recognizable character.)

“I was never a giant comic book fan,” Burton confesses in Burton On Burton, and comics readers could have guessed as much from watching his movie, which takes major liberties with the character’s mythology. In his version, the Joker isn’t just Batman’s archrival, but also the man who killed his parents—a deviation from canon meant to strengthen the notion that these two aberrant oddballs essentially created each other. Burton, ever the connoisseur of freaks, just wanted to collide a couple of costumed lunatics. His disinterest in fidelity would become a guiding principle of the franchise: This Batman shows a disconcerting disregard for his secret identity, ripping off his mask for every love interest that catches his fancy. He also violates the character’s historic aversion to murder, blowing up goons and tossing supervillains to their doom. “We’ll kill her later, we have work to do,” Batman quips about Poison Ivy in Batman And Robin. Were they still alive, the Joker, the Penguin, and Two-Face might warn their fellow rogues that the man isn’t kidding.

Burton claims to have drawn inspiration for Batman from a couple of revered graphic novels: Alan Moore’s definitive Joker story The Killing Joke and Frank Miller’s dystopian flash-forward The Dark Knight Returns. But while there are traces of those bleak milestones here, the director steeped his adaptation more clearly in cinematic influences. His vision of Gotham as an ugly metropolis, a city of jagged edges and foreboding skyscrapers, owes a debt to both the great works of German Expressionism and to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. There are also visual references to noir, Eyes Without A Face, and that most famous sequence from Alfred Hitchock’s Vertigo. The movie seems pulled from the collective unconscious of film buffs, not the panels of any DC comic.

Some of Batman feels horribly dated, including its special effects and those intrusive Prince songs from the hit soundtrack. (The museum dance, especially, seems so out of fashion that it’s hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t.) What hasn’t aged so poorly is Michael Keaton’s cast-against-type performance. Keaton was a controversial choice, thanks mostly to his prior appearances in comedies like Mr. Mom. When it was announced that he would be playing tortured billionaire Bruce Wayne, as well as his iconic alter ego, fans launched a pre-Internet, write-in campaign to have the part recast. But the outrage died down when audiences actually saw Keaton in his suit(s). He plays Wayne as a good-humored, faintly neurotic playboy—an approach that lends portions of the movie, specifically his scenes with reporter Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger), a kind of eccentric rom-com spirit. His presence is less keenly felt from behind the black rubber, though there must be those who agree that his whispery Bat voice is less unintentionally amusing than Bale’s big-boy baritone.

Of course, the movie really belongs to its villain. Paid an arm and a leg to smear clown makeup on his famous face, Jack Nicholson earns his keep by offering gradations of madness: Before taking a fateful plummet into toxic waste, his cold-blooded character is just a garden-variety slimeball; after the accident, the actor tweaks his insanity accordingly, turning the Joker into a merry anarchist prankster that steals every scene he’s in. It remains an inspired bit of movie-star showboating—so good, in fact, that many voiced concerns that Heath Ledger would never be able to make audiences forget Nicholson. (With apologies to wacky Jack, those fears turned out to be unfounded.)

Batman has arguably the most colorful, memorable gallery of villains in all of comic books, so it makes sense that the movies would spend as much time with the bad guys as the good one. Furthermore, as Nicholson’s performance proved to be basically everyone’s favorite element of the original, the sequels slanted more dramatically to the dark side, beginning with Burton’s Batman Returns. Bruce Wayne (played again by Keaton, in a slightly diminished role) doesn’t even appear on-screen until about a half-hour into the film. Before that, and often after, attention is devoted instead to the heavies: Danny DeVito’s repulsive, sewer-dwelling misfit Penguin; Michelle Pfeiffer’s victimized secretary Selina Kyle, who takes a nasty fall and is revived by magical felines as Catwoman; and manipulative corporate scoundrel Max Shreck, played by Christopher Walken in a shock wig.

Reluctant to do another Batman movie after the troubled production that was the original, Burton re-upped under the condition that he could make the sequel his way. And even more so than its predecessor, Batman Returns is unmistakably a Burton joint. The director turns Gotham into a wintry fantasy kingdom, crawling with literal sideshow freaks—the Penguin’s often-hilarious goons—and trading the Art Deco imagery of the first film for a more fairy-tale-like atmosphere. The scene in which his camera dives through the elaborate sculpture work of Gotham Zoo is vintage Burton, like something out of Edward Scissorhands or Beetlejuice.

There’s a hint of an actual plot this time, a solid political satire in which Shreck turns the hideous Penguin into a very unlikely mayoral candidate. (There’s a lot of humor in the idea that the PR machine could actually make a contender out of a crazy, bile-spewing mutant who bites chunks out of naysayers’ noses at fundraising events.) For the most part, though, the blackly comic Batman Returns is just a showcase for Burton’s refined craftsmanship and for his scenery-chewing actors. Nearly unrecognizable under pounds of Stan Winston prosthetic work, DeVito snarls with vulgar conviction, but it’s the leathered-up Pfeiffer who steals the show. Going deeper than Nicholson, she manages to make her Catwoman both a force of feminist vengeance—playing Batman’s sexism against him—and a woman in the throes of a legitimate identity crisis.

Returns is an even better superhero rom-com than the last movie, given that it features two characters tiptoeing around their incognito night lives. At times, the film plays like The Batcave Around The Corner, and a scene in which Wayne and Kyle simultaneously figure out each other’s secret identities pulsates with an emotion that Burton’s previous Batman movie never found room for.

The most awkward thing about Returns is its uneasy pairing of villains, a problem that would also plague the subsequent two sequels—not to mention any number of comic-book adaptations that try to cram too many opponents into one feature-length narrative. If The Penguin and Catwoman make little sense as a criminal partnership, at least Burton has some fun with their buddy-comedy mismatch of personalities. Batman Forever, the first of two franchise extensions that Joel Schumacher directed, awkwardly teams Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones, delivering the single worst performance of his entire career) with The Riddler (Jim Carrey, then at the height of his popularity). Sensing, perhaps, that these two characters are a bit incompatible, the filmmakers stumble upon the novel workaround of turning both into giggling, overgrown schoolchildren.

People tend to remember Batman & Robin as the abysmal nadir of the series, but it’s only a little worse than Batman Forever, which is cut from the same tacky, polyester cloth. When Returns proved a little too violent and nasty for unsuspecting families, Warner Bros. sought a lighter, less demented vision—and they got it from Schumacher, who literally begins his installment with Batman joking about getting fast food on his way to a hostage situation. Under the new director’s care, Gotham becomes a futuristic Ancient Rome, all neon signs and impossibly enormous statues. The comedy gets broader, and not just because Carrey is given license to grossly mug; there are also lame bon mots about “chicks digging” the Batmobile, for example. Whereas Burton looked to old cinema for ideas, Schumacher essentially offers an expensive, overlong adaptation of the old Adam West TV series. All that’s missing are the word-balloon combat sounds, the “Bang!” and “Pow!” They’d go well with the clunky, physics-defying fight scenes.

Beyond the reappearance of series mainstays Michael Gough, bringing his usual invaluable subtlety to the role of Alfred, and Pat Hingle, playing a ridiculously goofy Gordon, there’s little reason to think of Batman Forever as a continuation of the series Burton started. Keaton left with his director, and was replaced by a remarkably stiff Val Kilmer, whose version of Wayne—like every version of the character—struggles to reconcile his two identities. The romance this time is something of a love triangle, with Wayne competing with his costumed alter ego for the affections of a bombshell shrink (Nicole Kidman, getting into the right spirit) with a winged-rodent fetish. This subplot, culminating with an incredibly creepy smile, gels uncomfortably with the introduction of a rebellious, vengeful teenage Robin (Chris O’Donnell).

The villains, meanwhile, are unthreatening and inconsistently drawn, with the movie introducing character quirks it doesn’t stick to. Two-Face’s famous duality is mainly a fashion statement here, an opportunity to dress sets in clashing color schemes; only a couple times does the character actually consult his trusty Anton Chigurh coin, and when he suddenly slips into the Harvey Dent side of his personality, the moment seems to come completely out of nowhere. (For most of the film, he simply behaves like Yosemite Sam, trying and completely failing to get the drop on his rival.) And then there’s the Riddler, who tells only a couple of riddles and who seems to steal his supervillain identity from a preexisting corporate mascot. Both performers overact wildly and unproductively, as if vainly attempting to restore some of the manic energy of Nicholson’s turn. There’s something almost endearing about a late scene of the two sneaking into Wayne Manor on Halloween, like a pair of mischievous children. Amazingly, this was not the most absurd the franchise would get.

Just as Burton refined his take on the Bat the second time around, bringing it closer to the mad movie in his head, Schumacher used the roaring financial success of Batman Forever to buy trust in an even loonier adaptation. The director is said to have shouted, “Remember people, this is a cartoon” before takes on the set of Batman & Robin. It had the desired effect: The film boasts the look, feel, and elastic physical reality of particularly awful Saturday morning kiddie fare. Schumacher evidently wanted not just a cartoon, but also a dopey sex comedy, a treacly cancer drama, and yet another sidekick origin story (this one for Batgirl, played by a severely miscast Alicia Silverstone).

Speaking of miscasting, George Clooney takes the mantle from Kilmer, and though he certainly has the debonair quality necessary to portray Wayne, it’s hard not to detect a note of embarrassment every time he spouts some groan-worthy gag while encased in a newly nippled Batsuit. No one else seems quite embarrassed enough: not O’Donnell, whose Robin is reduced to a petulant crybaby; not Uma Thurman, vamping like Elvira and cooing terrible flora-based double entendres as Poison Ivy; and certainly not Arnold Schwarzenegger, given top billing—and an obscene paycheck—for the duty of delivering no less than 19 ice-related one-liners. (The script, by Oscar-winning hack Akiva Goldsman, pays lip service to the anguish of Mr. Freeze, undercutting his tragic backstory by turning him into a pun machine.)

Having brooded his way through three movies, Bruce Wayne seems, in Batman & Robin, to have gotten a handle on his double life. He feels no need this time to let the bat out of the bag to his girlfriend—maybe because she’s a total placeholder love interest, played by a dead-eyed Elle Macpherson. Schumacher repositions the swinging bachelor and longtime loner as a family man, meting out tough love to his surrogate children and mourning the impending demise of his father figure, a very sick Alfred. In theory, that change of approach could be interesting, but Batman & Robin is too stuffed with supporting characters and limp comedy to ever operate as a credible vision of human behavior. It makes its predecessor look like… well, The Dark Knight or something.

Much has already been written about the movie’s missteps—its ice-skating action scenes, its “anatomically correct” uniforms, its truly horrendous special effects. But words alone do no justice to the MST3K-worthy badness of the scene below. Okay, maybe a few words can. Try “seductive monkey-suit dance,” or “the dynamic duo are available for parties.”

If there’s any case to be made for Schumacher’s Batman movies, it’s that they’re exactly what their director wanted them to be—a dubious victory, perhaps, but one that isn’t often achieved within the framework of a mega-budget Hollywood franchise. Today’s comic-book movies, especially those based on characters from DC’s major rival company, tend to conform the personalities of their makers to a sort of house style. No one, by contrast, could accuse either Burton or Schumacher of applying their massive studio resources to something anonymous; they’ve made Burton and Schumacher movies that happen to feature Batman, not the other way around. On the other hand, Batman is a character rich enough to inspire better, less disposable entertainments, the kind that do more than dress expensive actors up in funny costumes and send them careening across sound stages. Anyone convinced that Nolan’s Batman movies are “too serious” for their own good should remember the alternative. Endless Michael Caine speeches are far preferable to George Clooney flashing a Batman credit card.

Watch: Batman; Batman Returns
Skip: Batman Forever; Batman & Robin

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