Brandyn Johnson's Batman Film Retrospective (Part I)
How many of you forgot we had a movie reviews section here?
It's no secret 'round these parts that I am a huge fan of DC's caped crusader. But who isn't these days? He is a consistent cash cow, having been saturated all through various forms of media the last few years from the Chris Nolan trilogy to the Arkham games. Much as I hate sounding like an elitist hipster douchebag, I became a fan of the character long before the recent craze within the last few years; for me, it started with The Animated Series and Batman Beyond.I had a bunch of action figures and even a Batmobile (just a toy one, oh if only if only).
So with the recent ending of the Nolan movies and the buzz surrounding the character's upcoming role in the Man of Steel sequel, I decided to put together a little retrospective of the Batman's movie career. It was originally going to just be for the Dark Knight trilogy but I figured, why not go all the way. So here it is, my own little Batman retrospective.
Batman 1940s Serials
Batman made his comic book debut in issue number 27 of Detective Comics in 1939 (just a year after the introduction of Superman in Action Comics #1). It wasn't long at all before Hollywood got their hands on him. Just four years later in 1943, Columbia Pictures released a 15 chapter Batman serial, and the sequel serial, Batman & Robin in 1949.The first serial which I have been able to watch the complete thing on YouTube, revolves around Batman and Robin as they battle an evil Japanese scientist named Dr. Daka (a villain exclusive to this serial who is played by a white American actor in Asian makeup), who uses mind control devices to make henchmen out of those who refuse to do his bidding. Seeing that this was World War II era, it contains a strong anti-Japanese sentiment including many Japanese ethnic slurs which to us today seems a bit much but 1943 of course was a much different era. But if you wont be too disheartened by seeing your childhood hero call a man a "Jap Devil!", it's worth looking at for novelty purposes as it does indeed feel like the original comics. Every single chapter ends with a cliffhanger (hey, they had to convince you to come back to the theatre next week to find out how he survived), and some of the retcons when they show how he survived/escaped the dire predicament he was left in at the end of the last episode are laughably bad/lazy. But again, perhaps that's probably just the spirit of the typical modern day cynical film watcher in me these days. Back in the day people were just able to watch these movies, suspend their disbelief, and just have fun and not worry about analyzing every single little nuance so that they could go home and talk crap about it on message boards.
In 1966 there was another film simply called Batman just like the first serial, which was based off the Adam West TV show. As you might imagine it was so deliciously full of camp and cheese, but just like the serials it might be worth a watch for novelty purposes.
These titles are oh so creative. Anyway, people had something against this movie before it even was released: "MICHAEL KEATON AS BRUCE WAYNE?!" At the time, this was seemingly the most ridiculous casting idea there ever was. To be fair, I guess when you have movies like Mr. Mom and Beatlejuice on your resume, it's hard for people to imagine you playing a reserved and psychologically complex character like Bruce Wayne. I guess that's like hearing Mike Meyers or Jack Black has just been announced as the new Batman. Or that Seth Rogen is the new Green Hornet, what a disaster that would be. But lo and behold, I and many others think that Keaton was excellent in the role and to this day he is a close second for my favorite Batman actor.
In the purple suit was Jack Nicholson, although apparently it wasn't easy to get him in his role either; apparently he was on the fence about it when Warner Bros. asked him to do it, so they offered the part to Robin Williams but really it was bait to convince Nicholson to get on board. Nicholson took the bait and Williams was dropped like a one night stand after a breakup. (Naturally Williams was furious and refused to ever work with the studio again until they issued him an apology, and rightfully so.) But in Jack's defense, when one of your most famous roles is playing a mental insitute patient in a film called One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, playing the Joker is a no brainer. And Nicholson did a great job, his Joker was just as entertaining to watch as Ledger's in my opinion, but for a different reason. Some people insist on comparing the two performances but the actors' interpretations of the character are completely different. Both performances are perfect for their respective movies, and neither is really like the comics Joker at all anyway.
This movie was directed by Tim Burton and you can definately tell. He is a very visual director and the film definately has that dark-yet-whimsical tone of his. The musical score was composed by Danny Elfman and as usual his soundtrack compliments the movie well.
Basically it's just Batman vs. the Joker. The Joker does not really have an elaborate plan, he's just running around killing and causing chaos and it's up to Batman to stop him. Again, Michael Keaton really kills it as the Dark Knight, especially as Bruce Wayne. He also does a great job when in costume, but his performance is especially strong as Bruce Wayne and though Christian Bale is my favorite Batman, Keaton was arguably stronger as Bruce Wayne, especially in the scenes where he's brooding. Actually I might have to take that back, as there is a flaw with Keaton's Bruce and it's that even when he's supposed to be playing billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, he still seems pretty distant and the look in his eyes as if he has something to hide. Bruce Wayne is just a mask and Batman is who he really is deep down, as far as Bruce is concerned. Out of Keaton and Bale if you had to guess which one was secretly Batman, you'd likely guess Keaton because his eyes and distant demeanor would probably do it. But that aside, he still does excellent.
The movie is fun, without being too campy. And fun is a keyword, as well as an element that seems to be missing from alot of modern superhero movies. Even TDK trilogy to some extent. Going back to today's over-analyzing movie audience with all the pretentious film buffs and wannabe critics, it seems that most superhero movies that dare to not take itself oh so seriously is automatically shunned. Granted that isn't the case with every movie, there are exceptions to everything, like the smash success of The Avengers. I guess what I am trying to say is that ever since The Dark Knight popularized superhero movies being "dark and gritty" and "sooo edgy", that seems to be how more superhero films need to be in order to get that success. And sometimes, focusing too much on making a movie dark and edgy just to please the modern, cynical movie going public comes at the sacrifice of the movie being fun. (See: Man of Steel, The Amazing Spider-Man). Now a movie can be good even if its not fun (again, MoS, TASM), and a movie can be fun even if it isn't good (The Avengers). And a movie can sometimes be no fun, and not that good (Superman Returns--see fanboys I'm dissing Marvel and DC equally ) Batman '89 hits a sweet spot and finds a nice balance. It's "dark enough" (after all Batman is a rather dark character so a movie about him has to be at least a little dark), but at the same time it knows how to have fun and it isn't overly afraid of being a little bit campy. For some reason I especially like watching this one around Christmas. If you have not seen this one, I highly reccommend.
This ended up being even longer than I thought, so I think I had best split this article into parts. Part 2 will cover Batman Returns through Batman: How to Kill a Franchise, and The Dark Knight Trilogy will be its own part. I hope you enjoyed this article and that you continue to follow this retrospective of Batman movies.