Sunday, March 17, 2013

Two Directors Create A Series That Becomes The Best Cinematic Example Of The Law Of Diminishing Returns: The Batman Anthology

The Good: The first two films are good, Val Kilmer is decent, Great DVD/Blu-Ray bonus features!
The Bad: Joel Schumacher’s works, Repetitive plots, Series inconsistencies, Even the good films have not agd particularly well
The Basics: With no consisted story or direction, the Batman movies of Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher make for an unfortunately inconsistent series that gets worse with each installment after a point.

With the recent end of the Dark Knight Trilogy (reviewed here!), the cinematic Batman franchise is once again in limbo. That is a state not entirely unfamiliar to Warner Bros., who owns the rights to the franchise and is the studio that produces all of the films based on DC Comics properties. With the abrupt end of the Batman movies of the 1990s, the franchise had to regroup and reboot. Before the powerful, thematically complex and decidedly adult The Dark Knight Trilogy, there were the Batman films of 1989 – 1997, now encapsulated in a boxed set known as Batman: The Motion Picture Anthology 1989 – 1997.

Batman: The Motion Picture Anthology 1989 – 1997 is an incredible example of what happens when a surprise hit becomes a lucrative cash cow for a studio and that cow is milked too frequently and too hard. It is also a prime example of what happens to a franchise when the creative teams behind the camera and the talent in front of the camera are not kept consistent (in The Dark Knight Trilogy only one performer was recast!) and the vision by the later forces working on the series is clearly an attempt to capitalize on the formula as opposed to build upon the story and prior successes. The result is that Batman: The Motion Picture Anthology 1989 – 1997 is a film series that starts intriguing, rises well, and then steadily declines until its abrupt and painful crash.

Batman: The Motion Picture Anthology 1989 – 1997 consists of the films:
Batman Returns
Batman Forever
and Batman & Robin. The first two are directed by Tim Burton, the latter two by Joel Schumacher and three different actors play Bruce Wayne/Batman over the course of the four films!

In Batman, a young Bruce Wayne witnesses his father and mother being killed by a mysterious assassin. As an adult, Bruce Wayne manages the giant company left to him by his father by day and at night, he takes up armor and a cape to dispense vigilante justice on the streets of Gotham City. As the press pushes the police to admit that the Batman exists, a local gangster is smoked during a robbery of a chemical factory that goes horribly wrong. However, when Batman accidentally lets the gangster fall into a vat of chemicals, the man is not killed, but rather transformed into a psychopathic killer. Waging a battle with chemical weapons, the Joker menaces Gotham City and threatens to undo all the good Batman is working for.

Batman Returns happens around Christmastime a short time later. Gotham City is hit with a crime wave from a gang of thugs who use old circus equipment. While Batman keeps them in check, he is not prepared for the city to have to deal with more threats. Those threats come in the form of a mysterious man, Oswald Cobblepot, who literally rises out of the sewers to save an abducted baby and a catburgler who seems bent on wreaking vengeance at night to make up for her unsatisfying daytime life (and the fact that her boss tried to kill her). While Bruce Wayne fends off a corporate attack from his rival, Max Shreck, he finds romance with Selena Kyle and it slowly begins to dawn on him that she is the same person as the mysterious Catwoman he fights at night. When Shreck uses Cobblepot as a pawn to take the mayor’s office, the fallout creates a villain who wants to kill all the firstborn of Gotham City.

Joel Schumacher took over behind the camera and Val Kilmer took on the role of Bruce Wayne in Batman Forever. In that, a demented former-District Attorney, Harvey Dent, begins a reign of terror and violence (focused on bank robberies) as the villainous Two-Face. Bruce Wayne’s problems are multiplied, though, when one of his employees creates a device that can drain the brains of the citizens of Gotham City and unlock all the secrets the people there have. As Batman squares off against Two-Face and the Riddler, he is aided by a forensic psychologist and a young acrobat who lost his parents and wants to fight crime as well . . . Robin.

George Clooney’s only outing in the cape and cowl comes in Batman & Robin where Batman and Robin are assisted by Alfred’s neice, who takes up the alter ego of Batgirl. The pair could use her help as they are bickering over how to take down the formidable Mr. Freeze and they fall under the love spell-style charms of Poison Ivy and her thug, Bane.

To his credit, Tim Burton’s two outings – in addition to being appropriately weird (as one expects from Tim Burton’s works) – have larger themes. Batman explores crime and the nature of justice vs. the pitfalls of revenge and Batman Returns has a great deal about empowering women and the snares of political corruption. Unfortunately, by the time Batman Forever comes up, the writers and director are working for big action, flamboyant villains, and star power, as opposed to trying to create films of substance. This is not to say that Tim Burton got everything right in his two films. While the miniatures look great, even by today’s standards, Batman is surprisingly slow and the focus on the Joker is far less compelling in-context of Batman’s story than it is as a stand-alone film.

That said, it is almost inarguable that Tim Burton helped effectively usher in the youth culture mindset of the 1990s with Batman and then the even more violent Batman Returns. The two films created a nihilistic sense of the world; crime ran rampant and the victories were more ambiguous than celebratory and the hero uses many of the same methods as the villains, just with nobler purpose.

Val Kilmer was not a bad choice to replace Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne and Batman and he had the physical presence to pull off the dual roles more plausibly than Keaton, who played the part of Bruce Wayne as more goofy than gallant. Kilmer, however, was saddled with a particularly weak script with Batman Forever and a film that was intended to be a Jim Carrey vehicle and ended up disappointing on so many fronts. Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever also prioritized casting (the entire series has pretty impressive guest cast members from the major – Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones, Jim Carrey, Uma Thurman and Arnold Schwarzenegger – to the supporting players who flesh out surprisingly minor roles – Kim Bassinger, Robert Wuhl, Christopher Walken, Drew Barrymore, John Glover, Vivica A. Fox) over fidelity to the series thus far. To wit, in Batman, Harvey Dent was played by Billy Dee Williams and in Batman Forever he is recast with Tommy Lee Jones. It takes a lot more than an acid bath from a mobster to make Billy Dee Williams into Tommy Lee Jones!

The epitome of Schumacher’s obsession with star power and spectacle over substance is in Batman & Robin. There, Arnold Schwarzenegger appears as Mr. Freeze, a character written with a thin backstory surrounding his attempts to cure his wife (who is in suspended animation), but is executed as a character constructed almost entirely of catchphrases. To wit, his big monologue from the film’s trailer, where he introduces himself as a threat to Gotham City appears in the film’s middle, after he is incarcerated, when he introduces himself to two people (his jailers) who know exactly who he is! It is this type of stupidity that shook the series and almost gutted this franchise.

Performances in the Batman movies in this set are generally good. Michael Keaton is an intriguing Bruce Wayne and he pulled off the action sequences for Batman better than most might have suspected. Jack Nicholson performed opposite him in Batman with a flamboyancy and menace that worked beautifully to define the character of the Joker. Danny DeVito gives one of his most underrated performances as Oswald Cobblepot (the Penguin) and Michelle Pfeiffer and Keaton had great on-screen chemistry in Batman Returns. While Val Kilmer and Chris O’Donnell did fine as Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, George Clooney seemed unusually stiff when he took up the mantle in Batman & Robbin. The less said about Jim Carrey, Uma Thurman, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the better.

On DVD and Blu-Ray, the Batman Anthology is chock full of goodies. There are extensive featurettes on the production of the films, from concept designs through casting and the bonus features provide a wealth of insight into how moviemaking was done, especially at the birth of CG effects. Fans of Batman may want to champion the whole series, but given how most people will only watch bonus featurettes once, the full Batman Anthology is hardly worth investing in. Tim Burton’s works might be worth picking up, but Joel Schumacher’s outings oscillate between the disappointing and the outright insulting.

For other live-action DC superhero works, please check out my reviews of:
Green Lantern
Jonah Hex
Superman Returns
Batman & Robin
Wonder Woman


For other film reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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