Jul 17 2012
Well, it’s finally (almost) here. The last installment in Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Personally, I’m pumped. Batman and Bane, locked in the final showdown for Gotham and (presumably) the life of Batman himself. Should be pretty great stuff.
An onscreen take on Batman that actually includes a proper ending has been a long time coming. Over forty years, actually. There are more Batman movies now than Harry Potter movies; the franchise is only topped by James Bond and Star Trek (correct me if I’m wrong). I’d say that earns a look back.
Unlike the subject of my last retrospective, the various onscreen iterations of Batman have been a mixed bag. They range from brilliant to banal, from serious to silly, and even from actual to animated.
Given the wide range of tones and quality, I’m going to avoid a true countdown and simply go in order. Sort of. Starting with…
Ah, what a great way to open a list. This iconic Adam West movie and associated TV show have understandably drawn their share of criticism over the years, but MAN are they fun to watch. Sure, we could mock the corny catchphrases, or absurd onomatopoeias…
… but it’s not like people thought this show was trying to be great back in the day, either. It hails from a time when superheroes weren’t taken all that seriously in the mainstream media. West’s Batman is played with more than a wink and a grin. He’s a full-fledged superhero parody, and on that level, the movie version works brilliantly.
West’s Batman inhabits a bizarrely madcap world, even by 60’s television standards. It’s like if you blended — actually, there’s no combination of shows that would add up to the insanity that fuels this particular movie. At least, not American ones.
Movie effin’ magic.
Let’s just cite part of Wikipedia’s plot description and call it a day, shall we?
“The United Underworld equip themselves with a dehydrator that can turn humans into dust (an invention of Commodore Schmidlapp…), a World War II “Pre-Atomic” Submarine made to resemble a penguin, and their three pirate henchmen (Bluebeard, Morgan and Quetch)… It is revealed the ship was really a projection. When The Dynamic Duo return to the buoy via The Batboat with the projector on it, they are trapped… by a magnet and torpedoes are launched at them, but they escape using a radio-detonator to destroy two of the missiles, and a porpoise is hit by the last one.”
…This movie is kind of wild.
And then, in the eighties, came rising star Tim Burton, whose take on Batman is the stuff of cinema legend. In 2005, and again in 2008, the question was still, “Nolan’s or Burton’s?” The 1989 Batman was considered a legitimate classic by most; the 2005 Begins and the 2008 Dark Knight were either the new king or a pretender to the throne, depending on who you asked. Does Burton deserve his legacy?
It’s important to remember the big thing Burton and Nolan have in common: Both took a franchise that was a joke and made audiences take it seriously again. While Burton certainly indulges in a good bit of wackiness from time to time, his typically macabre sense of humor and sadness undercuts any true merriment by the end.
Batman has mostly aged well, in my opinion. The Vicki Vale subplot feels somewhat typical, and any fear the Joker might inspire is tempered by the couple of scenes where he dances to contemporary pop music. That said, Keaton, Nicholson, and Gough are all great for their roles, the writing and directing are snappy, and the movie as a whole is still compelling.
And Burton’s Gotham deserves a paragraph all its own. While I don’t think that any of the character or story work in his movies is the end-all, be-all of the Batman mythos, his take on Gotham City may well be. The mix of architectural influences, the grime, steam and steel, and the sheer scale of the thing leave a permanent mark. When you add in brilliant design elements like the Batmobile and the Batcave, you have a recipe for visual icons.
Having that brilliant Elfman theme under the whole thing doesn’t hurt, either.
Batman Returns is typically considered to be Burton’s minor entry. And true, it doesn’t have the classic feel, or the sheer rewatchability, of Batman. What it DOES have is pitch-black (and very funny) comedy, a great musical score, and some really nice Christmas tie-ins. Personally, I’d claim it as a superior entry to Batman, as it’s bigger, meaner, and more emotional than Burton’s first crack at the material.
Returns is one of those movies where it’s occasionally hard to tell whether or not you’re supposed to laugh. This is a movie where clowns kidnap children in a toy train, a murdering maniac rides a car shaped like a rubber duck, and sombre penguins act as pallbearers. It’s funny and whimsical and dangerous and sad, all at the same time. I dig that.
Special mention must also be made of Michelle Pfeiffer’s brilliant, deranged Catwoman. Rarely is a movie character that attractive while being that terrifying.
Basically, a lot of Burton got into the sequel, which made the movie a hard sell for the general public. To enjoy the movie requires you to handle not quite knowing what it’s up to from time to time. The quality, however, is high. I think if Batman Returns had been a different (but equally good) movie, Nolan’s Bat-verse wouldn’t be considered as definitive as it is today.
More Unreal Posts
- Nolan’s Next Movie Won’t Be a Batman One
- This is What We Call Batman Overload
- The Evolution of All 7 Batman Movies Through Their Trailers
- The Dark Knight’s Prestige
- The Top Five Christopher Nolan Directed Movies