Batman ... Has Left The Building
20 Dec 1995 Amazon links updated 02 June 2001
BATMAN FOREVER, Directed by Joel Schumacher (Warner Bros. 15100; 122 minutes), 1995.
I had the opportunity to overcome my resistance to view the latest Batman flick ... and gave in. I grew up with a huge, hardbound anthology of original Batman comics, from the first adventure to the extremely gothic, introspective potboilers of the early Seventies. I wasn't at all sure that I wanted to see this new, over-the-top film with screaming villains and glorious explosions. I shouldn't have bothered.
My Name's Batman,... THE Batman
I appreciated the first Batman film, whether I actually liked it or not. Tim Burton plugged right into the early mythology of the Dark Knight when he introduced him to the contemporary cinema. He swirled the sights and sounds of The Great Depression with a contemporary sense of social chaos, and did it with such panache that only a few, isolated lapses in disbelief crept in. Jack Nicholson's Joker was an old-time gangster who suffers a horrible mutilation in chemical waste ... and photographer Vicki Vale was a liberated working girl straight from COSMOPOLITAN magazine. The film wasn't the kind of light-hearted escapade that audiences expected from a superhero tale ... SUPERMAN and countless other imitations presented Ivory Soap versions of crime-fighters. Burton's vision of Bruce Wayne's nocturnal revenge-kick involved leather and rubber, dark and dirty side streets, a vampiric city that never really slept, and a Batman that snarled at criminals. Bruce Wayne, far from the suave, millionaire playboy, was a distracted man, split in two by a terrible tragedy. He didn't lust for justice ... he brooded, and swept down from the darkness to exact revenge on criminal renegades.
A successful sequel, BATMAN RETURNS, ensured that the Batman series would survive the Nineties. In many ways, the Batman saga has become similar to the James Bond films. In fact, the similarity is uncanny.
In both genres, the hero (Batman or Bond) is a somewhat notorious celebrity. Both possess remarkable toys, particularly a magnificent automobile (BATMAN FOREVER's Val Kilmer asks an admiring woman, "It's the car, isn't it? Chicks dig the car."). Both possess a rather dry wit, often deployed in times of danger (oh, what an icy calm surrounds them). With BATMAN FOREVER, the formula of beginning with a boffo, pre-title (or nearly) sequence of exaggerated heroism and stunt work is glued in place. Both genres feature villains who are maniacal megalomaniacs bent on massive destruction of gross personal gain (and Bond/Batman is on a solitary crusade to stop the villain at any cost).
In a notable diversion, the filmic Bond is a superhero who is almost an Everyman (so that we can imagine ourselves filling his shoes); Bruce Wayne is a flawed, near-Everyman whose dark passion turns him into an obssesed superhero.
A final hint: in one scene in BATMAN FOREVER, a bomb emerges from a rooftop, with a large countdown timer coincidentally set to ... 0:07.
Batman ... Accessorizes
Like the Bond films, the Batman genre is progressing significantly towards a suspension of disbelief that impinges upon science fiction. Early, proto-Batman wore a "utility belt," with compartments for handy devices that he had picked out with amazing prognostication. Burton's costume designer had "marvelous toys" sliding along the belt from behind his cape. (In a dramatic impossibility, Batman once deployed a Bat Hang Glider armature under his cape, probably an inference to his comic book incarnation's ability to parachute down using the cape as an airfoil.) Burton's "toys" were somehow quaint, modern technology wrapped in pre-war Bakelite. Computers in the Bat Cave hung suspended from stage hardware; Batmobile accoutrements sometimes didn't work until the driver punches the dashboard. It was all ... plausible.
The new, improved Batman has technology that is now out of this world. A small pod zips Bruce Wayne from his downtown office to the Batcave at speeds exceeding 200 mph. His cape transforms into an explosion-proof shield ... his vehicles glow from within an armored exoskeleton, the Batmobile is parked on a huge turntable, and one Batsuit even features advanced, sonar-targeting capabilities. The upshot? The sheer heroism of Batman is diminished, because so many of his feats are now accomplished by devices ... not ingenuity. It's also a disposable technology, the most boring kind in a film. Something that is only used once, then mindlessly discarded, seems like a cheap stage trick. Well, it IS a cheap stage trick. Naturally, all of the vehicles are blown to bits by the film's end, paving the way for new ones in the next film, and with them, new merchandise.
Much of the acceptability of the whole Batman mythos rides on the shoulders of the lead actor. Michael Keaton played the part as a complex individual. There was a small doubt as to his overcoming the obstacles ... because his "hero" was so flawed. In BATMAN RETURNS, he grimaces and sneers from behind his mask as a man consumed with rage ... which, partly, Batman is. His personality is split in two: the soft-spoken, slightly befuddled Bruce, and the purposeful, menacing Batman, speaking in a breathless growl.
Val Kilmer plays the Batman role well, but he's forgotten that he's playing a fractured man, and so he's always Bruceman ... always serious, always speaking breathlessly. His voice, obviously borrowed from Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry, is a virtual whisper ... even from across a room (which is a bit odd). But Bruce Wayne speaks in the same voice -- how anyone couldn't realize they're one and the same escapes me. He also seems ... well, boring. A real stiff. A handsome stiff, but flavorless all the same. After an hour, the performance stales.
The villains, also, are more one-dimensional in BATMAN FOREVER. It's hard to tell whether Jim Carrey is playing Frank Gorshin playing The Riddler ... or just Jim Carrey playing Jim Carrey playing The Riddler. Though his appearance and body language bring the character to life, we never get a sense of who Edward Nygma really is, nor gain insight into why he's obsessed with Bruce Wayne. Without such depth from the script, Carrey's performance is left to employ only two modes of delivery, "shrill" and "raving."
Speaking of raving, Tommy Lee Jones rather underwhelmed me as Two Face. Billy Dee Williams was obviously being set up for the role by appearing in a virtual cameo as District Attorney Harvey Dent in the first film. It's a shame he didn't carry on the role: suave, handsome Williams, with half his face defaced (discolored!) by a serious chemical burn, would have been a marvel. Nevertheless, either actor should have had a juicy role to sink into. Two Face is the essence of Batman; his face is a disfigured incarnation of the duality of man. His mania hinges upon the duality of destiny: is it Fate, or Luck, that punctuates our lives? (The Riddler, as well, cavorts around the same, essential enigma surrounding Batman: who are we, and what are we here for?)
Burton mined the dichotomy of Batman through BATMAN RETURNS. His films were full of foreboding, and the true story of his second was the schizophrenic nature of night and day, good and bad, justice and revenge ... and Bruce Wayne and Batman. The villains in the piece (Max Schreck, The Penguin and the delicious Catwoman) are all characters with two faces ... "two truths," as Wayne puts it. Michele Pfeiffer stole the film with her electric performance as Selena Kyle, a woman who's been split in two by an act of wanton violence. Both repelled and obsessed with Batman, she doesn't know whether to kiss him or kill him (something James Bond is accused of thinking of every person he meets), and spends the rest of the film barely keeping the two dementias in her one, pretty head. Chilling, also, that Burton set the piece during the cold, lifelessness of winter ... and Christmas. In a way, he'd made a marvelous, disturbing Christmas movie, the flip side of IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, in which each person's presence in the city helps ... to confuse it more.
The new director on the block, Joel Schumacher (FLATLINERS, THE CLIENT, THE LOST BOYS), seems to think he's making a sci- fi film. He chose to ape the TV series (always meant as a fluffy spoof of superhero sagas), right down to outrageous criminals, one-dimensional minor goons and street ruffians. The women are mere ornaments. The skewed camera angles and ludicrous puns weren't meant to be taken seriously, could only work on television. On the big screen, it all kind of falls flat. Even Batman's "acceptance" into society is baffling. At the film's conclusion, Wayne is assured that his "secret is safe," and he goes off "to work." The nightmare is over, and it's back to normality as usual. The whole obsession is diminished to a cheap thrill.
A 1990s film aping a 1960s TV show aping 1940s comics ... it's embarrassing. What next, Drew Barrymore as BARBARELLA?
The Dark Knight, Evermore
Even the conventions of the Batman world don't play to the present. Batman, in his genesis, was a phantom, a figure working in the shadows, deftly dancing on the line between justice and revenge, law & order and chaotic vigilantism. Frank Miller knew this, and he mutated the lore to fit the Eighties in his notorious DARK KNIGHT RETURNS series. Burton knew this, and created a world in which Batman could fit in. He shrank down Gotham City to an urban gothic in which Batman seems inevitable: a renegade in rather kinky clothes, hiding in the shadows of skyscrapers, delivering deranged justice because it seems like the only kind that works. It's a concept that every city-dweller can understand, and that's why Batman has been so popular for almost 60 years. It's the dark vision, the black blood that discolors upon contact, that keeps Batman alive. BATMAN RETURNS, in my view, is the best that the cinema has seen of the "caped crusader."
-- D.B. Spalding
Batman (1989) is available on DVD from Amazon.com.
Batman Returns (1992) is available on widescreen VHS and DVD (highly recommended), from Amazon.com.
Batman Forever (1995) is available on widescreen VHS and DVD, from Amazon.com. If you really want it....
(C) Copyright 1995 D.B. Spalding. All rights reserved.
D.B. Spalding is a writer, musician, computer consultant and online sysop; he writes frequently about music, film, computing and the mass- and multimedia. Many of his articles can be found on the World Wide Web at www.korova.com.
For an excellent analysis of the Gothic structure and subtext of BATMAN RETURNS, read José Maturana's "Batman Returns As a Gothic Force."