-by Andy Dudas July 22, 2019
I am not an expert on Batman comics but I know the movies pretty well. This blog post will attempt to dispel the notion that the two Joel Schumacher films are awful. They may very well be at the bottom of the scale of all these films, but that doesn’t necessarily make them terrible. When you have more than one of anything, odds are one of them is better than the other(s) therefore making the others ‘worse’ than the best. So if we have to live in a world where everything has to be ranked…fine, let’s talk about them and let’s rank them.
We are not going to discuss this movie here. I believe the TV series and this film are separate Batman conversations. The direction subsequent movies took is so different than these versions of Batman(the series and this film), it doesn’t make sense to compare…but keep reading. There is a connection to be made and I will get to that later but I really just want to talk about the newer films.
BATMAN(1989), BATMAN RETURNS(1992)
Tim Burton’s casting of Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne brought with it tons of controversy. Burton’s films running up to the release of his Batman included, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice. In retrospect those concerns may not have been so unfounded. To be fair, those were very entertaining movies and scored an 87% and an 84% from Rotten Tomatoes respectively. As for Keaton, some of his previous films included Night Shift(92%), Mr. Mom(81%-this seems low to me), and of course Beetlejuice(84%). So when you look at those numbers in this light, they are both very capable artists…but could they handle an action film? Especially one that was going to take the Batman franchise into the dark alleys and backstreets of Gotham City and away from the almost psychedelic color palette of the TV series.
In the end, Burton’s Batman was good…enough. It wasn’t great but at the time it certainly stood as a good enough starting point to what would become one of the most recognized and reliable comic book to screen franchises in Hollywood for decades to come. Don’t get me wrong, I love this movie. Its release was the most anticipated movie of my life. The barometer(s) for superhero films at this point was probably Superman the Movie and Superman II. Christopher Reeve as Superman is one of the finest casting choices ever made and director Richard Donner’s vision for these films was nothing short of brilliant. While these films may have been the measuring stick(s) of which to stack Batman up against(at least the first two – Supermans III and IV are not on the same level as Donner’s two), the comparisons aren’t as apples to apples as they might appear.
Donner’s Metropolis was bright and lively The landscape and backgrounds had visual pop and energy. Maybe in some ways it’s perhaps more appropriate to compare these Supermen, or at least portions of them to the Batman TV series. These films had their campy moments. With heavy hitters such as Marlon Brando(who refused to memorize his lines) and Gene Hackman(dude…you wouldn’t even shave your head???) in the cast and story and screenplay work by Mario Puzo(yeah, the Godfather. THAT Puzo) there seemed to be a lot of things pointing to a more serious take on the Man of Steel than the goofy schtick that can bring a smile to a lot of us, regardless of age. In the end, the balance of camp to action was perfect. These are two bulletproof 😉 movies.
Burton’s Gotham was dirty. Styled in ways that are obviously Burton. It’s easy to look back now and see this Gotham City as though it had been built by Burton’s own two hands, perhaps the greatest credit to a director’s vision and creativity. Mash together Beetlejuice, and what would become Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas…yeah, this is exactly how Tim Burton wanted Gotham to look. I would argue, after Reeve’s Superman, maybe we weren’t ready for a hero to be so dark. After all this was the 80’s. We were looking for accessible and gregarious heroes: John McClane, Axel Foley…hell, even Robocop himself had more humanity than Burton’s take on Batman.
But that was the film he set out to make. And that’s kind of the point of this blog. When an artist or director sets out to create something…it’s theirs. We will critique them all day long but it’s their work. In the end, they are the ones who can truly decide if they were successful in their creation. If success is only defined by how many seats are sold or how much money is made…in the world of Art, that’s a by product. Except films that are made solely as a money grab, but how often does that happen, really? If we are judging the best films of all time and looking at them through the lenses of artistic achievement and box office success…how can anyone with a straight face put The Fate of the Furious ahead of E.T., Star Wars, or Gone With the Wind???
Keaton’s Bruce Wayne was wonderful as we all began to see what how gifted he is as an actor. Give me someone who can play funny(really funny) and that person can play really serious. Robin Williams, Tom Hanks, Albert Brooks, Steve Martin, Whoopi Golderberg. The reverse…not so much. While I would agree Meet the Parents is a knock-out of a comedy, is it because Robert De Niro was funny? I’m not so sure. He played his role straight, cold. That movie works because Ben Stiller is an absolute boob and everything goes wrong. De Niro playing off that and with the script and the casting choice…the result was nothing short of comedy magic. To be fair to Mr. De Niro, I haven’t seen Dirty Grandpa.
Okay…we’ve gotten way off topic here. Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns are good movies. They are important works that would set new rules as to how movies were going to live and breathe if even only for how movies are marketed. Making an action movie that is also a great movie regardless of genre, is not easy. For me and my generation of X, I would say Die Hard…Raiders of the Lost Ark…Jurassic Park…and later, The Dark Knight(we’ll get to that one later).
BATMAN FOREVER(1995), BATMAN & ROBIN(1997)
This where I will plant my flag. I LIKE BATMAN FOREVER AND BATMAN & ROBIN!!! There, I said it. Everyone wants to lose their minds over how Joel Schumacher basically put the franchise on life support. Calm down. I can understand everyone’s points in why they didn’t like them and when you compare his two films to the rest(except Batman 1966)…yeah, they seem kind of “do you even understand who Batman is?”
Schumacher’s previous directing credits included St. Elmo’s Fire, Flatliners, The Lost Boys and (ahem)D.C. Cab. But to be fair he also managed to direct “A Time to Kill” in between his two Batman films. So, suck it Schumacher haters!
Was it the screenplay(s) that earned these films their reputations? Try this on for context…while some of the writers had only previously written an episode of The Equalizer, one of them would go on to write for films the likes of I, Robot, Cinderella Man, the DaVinci Code and A Beautiful Mind(for which Akiva Goldsman would win an Oscar).
So…what was it? Why do people hate these movies so much? Was it because Schumacher’s Gotham City was just too bright and gaudy compared to Burton’s blacks and grays? Were people not prepared for Arnold Schwarzenegger to be dropping puns faster than a speeding bullet? Or was George Clooney just NOT Bruce Wayne?
I don’t subscribe to any of that. I think Val Kilmer and George Clooney were great Batmen. The introduction of Chris O’Donnell as Robin was brilliant. And the blacklit fluorescence that fills the screens made for a wonderfully fun movie going experience. One thing I would hope on which we could all agree…Michael Gough’s portrayal as Alfred is bulletproof. Four films and three Bruce Waynes into this franchise(in the modern era), this Alfred was unflappable. Schumacher’s Batman films were fun and I love them! If you think of them through the lens of the TV series…they are brilliant!
BATMAN BEGINS(2005), THE DARK KNIGHT(2008), THE DARK KNIGHT RISES(2012)
Christopher Nolan is a genius. Period. Nolan and Christian Bale brought the Dark Knight into the future with a new view into the past of the Wayne family and Bruce’s beginnings and unveiling a gritty, hyper realistic Gotham of the present. Michael Caine. Morgan Freeman. Case closed. Nolan’s Batman is the benchmark by which all should be measured. The Dark Knight is the Gone With the Wind of action films. The Dark Knight is the Citizen Kane of superhero pictures. The Dark Knight is Casablanca, Star Wars, The Godfather, Lawrence of Arabia and The Wizard of Oz all rolled into one. I believe it really is that good. It defines or put another way, is the pinnacle of action films. I don’t know this will ever be topped.
When it comes to action films that transcended the genre, I think of Beverly Hills Cop, Die Hard and The Dark Knight. In that I mean, films that viewers who don’t usually subscribe to that kind of film liked the film. You could argue that without Schumacher’s two films we might not have Nolan’s take on the Caped Crusader. Would Nolan’s works have swung so hard and real if there hadn’t been the light and neon Gotham of Forever and & Robin? In that light, Schumacher’s are as important to this franchise as anything else.
Why can’t we just accept an artist’s vision and let that be that? How many people want to wring George Lucas’ neck after Episodes I, II, and III to say nothing of the Special Editions of IV, V, and VI? Star Wars is HIS creation. He can do with it as he is so moved. Well, not anymore. Now Disney will do everything they can to make sure the films are run through the focus group simulator as many times as possible. At least Lucas just made his movie(s). Or Gene Roddenberry? Star Trek The Original Series has Gene’s fingerprints all over it but when you get to the films, he’d more or less been pushed to the side and the studio execs called virtually all the shots. That being said, the six original cast movies are pretty damned good. And yes, I LIKED Star Trek: The Motion Picture AND The Final Frontier! Deal with it.
THE LEGO MOVIE(2014), THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE(2017)
Okay, so The Lego Movie isn’t a stand alone Batman film but we need to bring some context into this conversation so we can talk about The Lego Batman Movie. Everything about Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s The Lego Movie is awesome(see what I did there?)! Lord and Miller, with Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs already in their quiver, somehow figured out a way to make an hour and forty one minute long commercial for Lego(or is it Legos?) smashingly entertaining from start to finish. Thrown into the mix was Will Arnett as Lego Batman. Good Gawd, what a brilliant performance! As Lord and Miller also penned the script for this iteration of Batman, a Lego Dark Knight was destined for his own stand alone film.
Lego Batman director Chris McKay who to this point, his most significant work was an editor on The Lego Movie and a ton of work with Robot Chicken. His Lego Batman is marvelous. If we are going to talk about the pantheon of Batman films this absolutely must be included. Zach Galifanakis’ Joker, Michael Cera’s Robin…it’s a blast from start to finish.
So while this is a parody/homage to the Batman franchise and you don’t get this film without all of the others, including the sharp and violent Dark Knight trilogy…I cannot say enough good things about this movie. Much in the way Rogue One: a Star Wars story has become my favorite of all the SW films, you can’t have this one without the others. You have to IV and the rest of the universe solidified before Rogue One can deliver that kind of impact for you. The ONLY slightly bad thing I can say about Rogue One is that it’s a monumentally huge ripoff of Spaceballs. One day we’ll have a blog about that.
The Lego Batman Movie is within a couple of microns of being every bit as great as the Dark Knight.
BATMAN V SUPERMAN(2016), JUSTICE LEAGUE(2017)
I saw Justice League and within a year I had forgot that I had done so. When talking superhero movies with someone recently, JL came up and I didn’t think I had seen it. And then I thought about it or possibly saw the Honest Trailer for it and it finally dawned on me I had seen it. It didn’t have much of a lasting impact obviously. But I will say this, where is the stand alone The Flash movie? Ezra Miller was bananas as The Flash! According to IMDB, this film is actually in post production. So maybe we’ll get this movie after all.
As for Ben Affleck’s take on Batman, I liked it. Everyone wanted to hate on him when he was announced as Wayne-in-waiting. It sounded all too familiar to the grumblings surrounding Keaton’s portrayal. I withheld judgement until I saw Batman v Superman. I liked this movie. Everyone lost their mind over the whole ‘MARTHA’ bit, but I loved it. I thought the tying of Gotham City and Metropolis together though the common names of their mothers was a stroke of brilliance. Maybe I don’t take these things as seriously as I should.
Affleck’s Batman was awesome and his Wayne was every bit as good. Seeing Batman with a couple of days worth of beard stubble made director Zach Snyder’s masked vigilante seem harder. Dirty. A layer that not even Nolan found. It was something we didn’t know we needed until we saw it. Batman hasn’t shaved in a couple of days? Kinda makes him look like even more of a badass.
So where does that leave us? Putting them in order…
6. George Clooney
5. Val Kilmer
4. Ben Affleck
1. Michael Keaton
1. Will Arnett
1. Christian Bale
6. George Clooney
5. Val Kilmer
4. Ben Affleck
1. Christian Bale
1. Will Arnett
1. Michael Keaton
With a maximum score of 10 in each of these categories:
Bruce Wayne/Batman/script/villain(s)/visual appeal/other characters/overall entertainment-fun factor) for a total max score of 70(that’s weird, right?).
Here is the best way for myself I can rank these movies:
10. Justice League(10)
9. Batman & Robin(26)
7. Batman Begins(31)
6. Batman Forever(33)
5. Batman Returns(36)
4. Batman vs Superman(38)
3. The Dark Knight Rises(51)
2. The Lego Batman Movie(62)
1. The Dark Knight(70)
What did I find that surprised me? BvS is as high as it would finish. That ’89 would finish as low as it did. Okay…so while Batman and Robin finishes very low, it’s not last. And that I ended up with Batman Forever higher than Batman(1989) was a big surprise. And the more that I think about it, maybe I need to rewatch Justice League.
And just for the hell of it, in a stand alone category, let’s rank the bad guys too.
1. The Joker(Heath Ledger)
Can we at least agree on this one? Everyone else can get in line.
Andy has interests varying from painting and singing, to photography and prop making. Pretty much anything that has a creative element. Amateur status in all endeavors, he finds art everywhere he looks. Always seeking his next inspiration.