Monday, November 21, 2016

A Cine-Thematic Retrospect of the Dark Knight: The Caped Crusader "Returns" to A New Franchise or, What Wouldn't Keep "Forever"

One of the interesting things in looking back on the history of comic book characters making their leap to the silver screen is learning about (and learning from) their periods of highs and lows, as well as the notion of creative control or lack of it, whether from Hollywood's end or the filmmakers behind said films. I've written in previous months (and, to a degree, extensively) about Batman and his big-screen interpretations from 1989 to present. In fact, it was the 1989 feature that gave new life to the character after a two-decade absence, not to mention my first recollections of the character while growing up (read my review of the film here). Since then, I've had two other fond childhood memories of the character and the franchise: the award-winning animated series that premiered on Fox in 1992 (which was influenced by Burton's films), and the 1995 third feature, Batman Forever. (I even did chores one time to save up money to buy the videocassette when it came out.) 

The original movies from the late 80s to the late 90s have generally been regarded and often criticized for their style over substance, action over story, and villains over heroes. The first movie had an artful and dark tone, for sure, while the second film, Batman Returns, initially upset critics (and especially soccer moms) with its grim and nightmarish atmosphere. This led Warner Brothers to aim for a lighter, blockbuster action-packed, and more family-friendly approach to the next installment (despite the fact that the previous big screen outing, the 1993 animated feature/spin-off Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, was PG-rated.) Having rewatched Forever recently, I stand heavily divided on it, as far as I'm concerned. 

Val Kilmer and Nicole Kidman in Batman Forever
Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones in Batman Forever
On the positive side, first of all, Val Kilmer is an effecting Bruce Wayne and an interesting and distinct Batman. (The actor has a hypnotic and mesmerizing voice to begin with.) The motif of duality and split personalities is prevalent not just in Kilmer's rendition, but also in the supporting cast of characters from Harvey Dent/Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones), abnormal psychiatrist Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman), acrobat-turned-sidekick Dick Grayson/Robin (Chris O'Donnell), and scene-stealing mad scientist Edward Nygma/The Riddler (Jim Carrey). Carrey's scenes, in fact, give the film a physically comedic aspect similar to Jack Nicholson's scene-stealing role as the Joker in the original film and Michelle Pheiffer's mischievous role as Catwoman in the first sequel. And Robin's origin story is well told in this version. 

But despite a brilliant flashback sequence showing Bruce Wayne's past, the two disadvantages of Kilmer's rendition (despite his evident complexity) are his character's lack of mystery and terror, and his sex appeal. Moments of sexual references and sensuality between Kilmer's Caped Crusader and Kidman's Meridian are unnecessary, especially when trying to appeal to a broader audience. Plus, the now-infamous rubber Batsuit nipples personally bother me, as they did many viewers. 

The newly-styled Batmobile in Batman Forever
Val Kilmer and Chris O'Donnell in Batman Forever
George Clooney and Chris O'Donnell in Batman & Robin
Clooney has stated that doing this film was one of his biggest career regrets,
while O'Donnell confessed, "When I made Batman Forever, I felt like I was making a
movie. When I made [this one], I felt like I was making a toy commercial."
And while the complexity of the Caped Crusader does surface at times, all of that really takes a backseat to the pop entertainment and action that permeates this film. The filmmakers have stated that the look of Gotham City here was inspired by the comics of the 1950s, and even paid homages to the first appearances of Robin and the Riddler at the time. On the other hand, one reviewer compared Gotham City in this film to Las Vegas, while one of the film's producers described it as "Saturday Night Fever on acid." And some of the action sequences (including the stylish Batmobile driving up the side of a building) are pretty cool and spectacular. But that's also, perhaps, the film's biggest disadvantage in terms of over-the-top style (Jones' Two-Face is extremely overkill, for one). And this would dominate the critical and commercial disappointment that was 1997's Batman & Robin, and to a fault that many feared killed the franchise then. 

When interviewed years later on the aforementioned response to both films from director Joel Schumacher, executive producer Michael E. Uslan described it as follows: 

The best way I can answer that is probably to talk generally about the industry, as opposed to talking specifically about Batman. There are times when you need to step back and realize that movie studios today are not necessarily the same things that they were many years ago. Many movie studios are international conglomerates now. They own everything from theme parks to toy companies to T-shirt companies to video companies. There's a lot of different wheels to be greased. Sometimes, over the decades, the tail started wagging the dog. In some cases, decisions were being guided more by toys and Happy Meals than by creative filmmaking. The danger there is that the entertainment you're making starts to feel like an infomercial for toys, as opposed to great film. Rather than being in a position where a studio dictates that a movie should be light, bright, and kiddie-friendly and family-friendly, with three or four heroes and three or four villains, and each one having two costume changes and two vehicles, to satisfy the toy and merchandising requirement, I think just letting filmmakers-great filmmakers-just go out and make great films, with a belief that if they make great films, you're going to sell merchandising and video games and things anyway, is the best way to do it. (IMDb) 

Tim Burton behind the scenes of Batman Returns
Michelle Pheiffer, Danny DeVito and Michael Keaton in Batman Returns
Uslan makes a great point in starting with films first, and then having toys and merchandising spin off from that. I think one of the reasons Batman Forever and its mind-numbing follow-up don't hold up today is because, at the time, they seemed to fulfill the supposed expectations of what Hollywood thought a conventional comic-book movie should be (with hip and pop soundtrack music thrown in), instead of allowing filmmakers to bring their own creative and unconventional visions to life. (The same thing happened with the Superman franchise in the late-70s to the late-80s.) The former runs contrary to why Burton's respective films in the series stand out, what with their artful, intriguing and provocative undertones. (To be fair, Returns is more episodic.) On the other hand, all of the films here (preceding Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy) showcase Batman's adaptability to both art house-style filmmaking and summer blockbuster entertainment (for better or worse), as well as to comic books and animation and other mediums.

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