I’m a Batman fan, pure and simple. That is a fact that has remained constant since I was six years old and the whole Batmania craze happened. That was back in 1966. So, Batman and I go back quite a while.
It’s true, there were times I succumbed to parental pressure to grow the hell up and put those comics aside. But, like an addict getting a craving for whatever gets him high, I only needed to see an intriguing cover - and I was back at the revolving comics rack, needing my fix. As Batmania faded in the way of all crazes, I went with the crowd, until some summer afternoon came along and a Carmine Infantino drawn cover caught my eye and I was hooked again. In the autumn of 1971, it was a massively expensive book collecting some of the best stories from the 30s to the 70s (It really was massively expensive to me at the time - in reality it was £1:25, still more than I got in pocket money over a couple of weeks). Then it was the Neal Adams covers and the lure of the Bat embroiled in a dark supernatural story that caught my attention, followed by the return of The Joker and Two Face more perversely evil than ever before.
As I entered my mid teens, got a job it seemed time to move on, (though still retaining my stash of comics) Then, damn it, it was Frank Miller and his seminal graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns in my mid twenties that dragged me back after several years cold turkey! That was when I quit quitting. I realised I was a die hard comics fan and there was little I could do to resist. That’s the way it’s been ever since. Okay, so I don’t collect the individual titles any more, but I have an impressive library of collected editions, trade paperbacks and graphic novels - plus those titles I bought back in the sixties and seventies. The ones I hid from my over zealous mother with the gusto of a junkie hiding his drugs.
Two big, huge life-changing things happened in 1989!
1) I got married.
2) For the first time since 1966, Batman returned to the big screen.
But there was a problem with the public. The public, love ‘em, were still stuck in the sixties groove. They were still expecting "Pow!" "Smash!" and "Wham!" captions and Adam West deadpanning his dialogue. I had kept current, I knew that the Caped Crusader had become The Dark Knight. I knew that the stories were darker, grimmer and grittier. The days of the Joker being little more that a clownish nuisance were long done. Now he was a disfigured homicidal maniac, and Batman himself was just as likely to be seen taking down a drug pusher as The Penguin. Gotham was full of gangsters, rapists, pimps and worse.
Warner Brothers has a huge job of reprogramming the mainstream audience on their hands, and fair play - they did it admirably. From the improbable casting of Michael Keaton as Batman, to the dream casting of Jack Nicholson as The Joker, Tim Burton brought us the gothic nightmare of Batman’s world and Batman became THE film of the year. I loved 1989 - not only was I marrying the girl I love, but also I had another feverish summer of Batmania just before the wedding.
Despite a successful follow up in Batman Returns, which is still one of my favourite Christmas films, Burton and Keaton decided that enough was enough. Warners however were studying the Bat phenomenon with dollar coloured glasses and enough is never enough where there’s a buck to be made.
In comes Joel Schumacher as director for a third movie. Another dream director - right? This is the guy who directed The Lost Boys. He directed Falling Down - another firm favourite. The Bat is in safe and good hands...even if the casting of Val Kilmer as Bruce Wayne/Batman seems a little....off. And they cast Nicole Kidman as Dr Chase Meridian, a psychologist who never appeared in the comics. (Surely that should’ve been Professor Hugo Strange trying to get into Batman’s head and using his psychosis against him). But okay - we’ll go with the flow because as was my practice at the time - I always bought the paperback novel tie-in and read it voraciously before the movie. (This was Batman - and I couldn’t wait.).
When I took an impromptu half day on the opening Friday with a friend of mine to see the afternoon screening, my heart sank. The title may well have been Batman Forever, but this movie was driving a stake through his noble heart. The casting was as off the mark as I feared, Kilmer was too young, there didn’t seem to be enough of an age gap between Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson - they seemed to be siblings because Kilmer just couldn’t project a paternal/mentor persona. Jim Carrey played The Riddler like Jerry Lewis on speed and to this day, I have no idea what Tommy Lee Jones thought he was doing as Harvey "Two Face" Dent.
The dark psychological torture that Bruce Wayne was suffering in the novel due to his guilt following his parents death - he was blaming himself for being a brat and insisted on having his own way, which put his parents in the alley where they were shot - and his eventual redemption at with the spirit of the Bat in the cave under Wayne Manor were gone. Instead we had a garish, neon pantomime with bad jokes.
I was severely disappointed. A fantastic concept was wasted on a lousy cast and a clueless director - though having re-watched the film very recently, time is being kind in retrospect.
And now to the real point of this article. Batman and Robin.
Batman and Robin did what I never thought was possible. It gave Batman Forever some perspective, and made it seem, well, if not good - then at least not as bad as it first appeared.
It’s true my heart sank when I saw Batman Forever, because all the work Warners had done to distance themselves from the 1966 Batman by 20th Century Fox was unravelling fast and they were heading down that same road themselves. This wasn’t the first time Warner Brothers had literally thrown away a golden egg laying goose - look what happened to Superman. Two incredible films with Christopher Reeve and an all star cast that broke box office records all over the world. When it came to the third, let’s sacrifice the Last Son of Krypton and make him a straight man for comedy star Richard Pryor.
Again, on paper Batman & Robin SHOULD have worked. George Clooney SHOULD have worked as Bruce Wayne/Batman. Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy SHOULD have worked, and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr Freeze SHOULD have worked. Hell, even the law of averages says that everybody has a bad day, so Joel Schumacher returning as director SHOULD have worked.
None of it did. What we, the audience, and the legions of comics fans got - was royally screwed. The film, in many ways is structured exactly like its immediate predecessor. Dramatic music, animated titles, Batman roaring out into the night to confront his nemesis (Two Face in Forever, Freeze in Batman & Robin) even the exact same music for that initial fight. But it gets worse than mere over familiar repetition. The stupid campy comedy started early, when Robin crashes through a museum door, leaving the shape of the Bat symbol. Schwarzenegger’s awful puns when stealing a diamond, ordering his henchmen to "bring me de ice" or defiantly telling Batman "you’re not taking ME to de cooler". Schwarzenegger is a movie star whose films I love. He’s not an actor, someone like Johnny Depp is an actor - Arnie is a God damn STAR, but even he with his limited range comes across as a villain in the same vein as a pantomime dame in this film.
The plot is feeble. Originally, Mr Freeze was a Professor Shivel, who was accidentally doused in his own instant freeze liquid by Batman. He became Mr Zero and then was repackaged as Mr Freeze for the sixties series.
The animated series of the nineties (for me, the definitive Batman TV series) tweaked this origin, making the villain a far more sympathetic character in the "Heart of Ice" episode. He was now Victor Fries (pronounced "freeze" rather than the potato product you get with a burger at McD’s) and he had cryogenically frozen his dying wife while he sought a cure for her. His unscrupulous industrialist employer was unhappy at the cost and threatened to pull the plug, Fries was pushed into his own freezing formula while fighting off the boss’s hired thugs. Now unable to exist in temperatures above freezing, he still seeks a cure for his beloved Nora and has to turn to crime.
That story was told over two episodes and concluded in an original animated movie.
Or, in other words, that story was told far BETTER over two episodes and concluded in an original animated movie. The constant mugging to the camera and agonising stupid puns slaughters any semblance of emotional resonance in the live action version of the story.
But it gets worse.....
Because, I guess, Tim Burton had introduced TWO villains in Batman Returns, Batman would always face two from then on, so the second problem for Batman & Robin was Poison Ivy - played irritatingly as a Mae West type by Uma Thurman who really should’ve known better. Ivy has a pheremone spray she uses to get men to do her bidding, but she doesn’t seem to have any criminal master plan in mind other than to "save nature" and plant some carnivorous plants. I don’t know for sure whether that’s actually against the law. She seems more of a nuisance than a criminal genius. She doesn’t actually steal the Wayne diamond - she’s handed it.
Batman fans (me among them) shuddered when we saw Bane reduced to Ivy’s henchman. Bane, the man who broke the Bat, snapping his spine in a comic story arc that took Bruce Wayne out of the picture for over a year in Knightfall - was a stooge.
Batgirl - what the hell? Batgirl is Barbara Gordon. Commissioner Gordon’s daughter - NOT Alfred the butler’s niece!!! She’s a schoolgirl??? (actually an adult in the comics) And he fits her out with a skin tight batsuit? What kind of weird perverted "uncle" IS he? The man should be locked up.
All in all, every single fault and crime against a beloved character committed by Schumacher in Batman Forever, he expanded in Batman & Robin. Every shot of the city is ludicrously gaudy with an over abundance of neon. It’s like Tokyo at night on acid rather than the gothic urban nightmare of Burton’s films and the comics.
Do I need to mention bat credit cards or the fantastically grating "Gossip Gertie" played by Batman creator Bob Kane’s widow? No, I didn’t think so.
The fact that Batman & Robin killed off superhero movies for three years, until Marvel revived it with the X-Men says it all.
Flash the Batsignal, guys - I'm done.
Copyright © 2010 - 2013 Robin Pierce. All Rights reserved.