Scenes from a Franchise

BatmanWhether or not Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” turns out to be any good when it’s released later this month, I want to just enjoy for a little while longer the situation that we’re in right now. That is, we live in a world in which the most recent Batman movie, Nolan’s three-year old “Batman Begins,” was actually a very good film. For my money, it’s about as rich a super-hero movie as any Hollywood has produced, but I’ll even settle for just a pretty good movie based on what came before it.

Two Decades of Batman

It’s hard to believe, but it’s been almost two full decades since Tim Burton’s fitfully unsuccessful ‘Batman’ was released, and it took sixteen years from that before the pain stopped. To put it bluntly, I roundly detested every one of those movies, whether it was Burton at the helm or his spectacularly miscalculating successor, Joel Schumacher directing. If all four of those installments were lost forever in some minor disaster, I don’t think any of us would be the poorer for it.

To illustrate how good it feels to have ‘Batman Begins’ on record, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to go back through the reviews of its predecessors written in The New York Times, to see how each movie had been received at the time of its release. Following are excerpts of their abysmal track record, starting way back in 1989 with Vincent Canby’s review of Burton’s franchise kick-off.

Batman” (1989)

“Thanks to the work of [production designer Anton Furst], ‘Batman’ is fun to look at, at least for a while… Yet nothing in the movie sustains this vision. The wit is all pictorial. The film meanders mindlessly from one image to the next, as does a comic book…

“…Mostly, though, ‘Batman’ is a movie without any dominant tone or style other than that provided by Mr. Furst. It’s neither funny nor solemn. It has the personality not of a particular movie but of a product, of something arrived at by corporate decision.”

You could say that one review, with minor alterations, is equally applicable to any of that movie’s three sequels. But the filmmakers, undaunted, found new depths to plumb with each new outing.

Of course, this exercise in archival criticism is not as straightforward as I would have liked it to be. Each of the next three installments were reviewed by the critic Janet Maslin, who seemed to take contrarian delight in their various shortcomings. While not altogether negative, her reviews tended to find some redemption in each film’s pointlessness. They are not without praise, but they really amounted to backhanded compliments. So, for the sake of my argument, I’m brazenly excerpting only the parts of her write-ups that conveniently agree with my thesis.

Batman Returns” (1992)

“So intensely does Mr. Burton render his villains’ tender psyches, in fact, that the upright hero Bruce Wayne, a.k.a. Batman (Michael Keaton), is easily overlooked amid all the toys and troublemakers that surround him. This Batman, with motives and magical powers that are never made interesting, is at best a cipher and at worst a black hole. The blandness of Batman (through no fault of Mr. Keaton, who plays the character with appropriate earnestness) is symptomatic of this material’s main shortcoming: almost nothing about it makes sense or particularly matters. Primarily a visual artist, Mr. Burton is often casual about plot considerations, which means that audiences watching his films are set adrift as if in dreams. And the characters’ thoughts and motives are half-forgotten before the film is over. Costumes, attitudes, gadgets and the great ingenuity of Bo Welch’s dazzling production design will linger in the mind long after the actual story of ‘Batman Returns’ becomes a blur.”

Batman Forever” (1995)

‘Batman Forever’ brings on the very secular sensation that you are part of something larger than yourself. Toys, games, comics, videos: each has its place in the cosmos of this multimedia phenomenon, and the consumer’s role is no less well-defined. As for the actual movie, it’s the empty-calorie equivalent of a Happy Meal (another Batman tie-in), so clearly a product that the question of its cinematic merit is strictly an afterthought. More to the point is its title, a proud affirmation that the venture is still flop-proof. ‘Batman Forever’ is both a threat and a promise.

“Serious audiences will be less interested than ever in what’s under Batman’s cape or cowl. There’s not much to contemplate here beyond the spectacle of gimmicky props and the kitsch of good actors (all of whom have lately done better work elsewhere) dressed for a red-hot Halloween.”

Batman and Robin” (1997)

“Aiming for comic book fans with a taste for heavy sarcasm and double-entendres, the lavish ‘Batman and Robin’ cares only about delivering nonstop glitter. In the interests of this, it is more than happy to steamroll over questions of character and plotting. There’s not much more to Batman, now played affably but blandly by George Clooney and given only second billing, than a heroic jaw line, understanding gaze and anatomically correct rubber suit. The mixed-up, melancholy Batman of Tim Burton’s first two films looks like the brooding Prince of Denmark next to this.”

And finally, three years ago, Manohla Dargis wrote this…

Batman Begins” (2005)

“Conceived in the shadow of American pop rather than in its bright light, this tense, effective iteration of Bob Kane’s original comic book owes its power and pleasures to a director who takes his material seriously and to a star who shoulders that seriousness with ease…

“It’s amazing what an excellent cast, a solid screenplay and a regard for the source material can do for a comic book movie… Mr. Nolan approaches Batman with respect rather than reverence. It’s obvious that Mr. Nolan has made a close study of the Batman legacy, but he owes a specific debt to [Frank Miller’s] 1980’s rethink of the character, which resurrected the Dark Knight side of his identity. Like Mr. Miller’s Batman, Mr. Nolan’s is tormented by demons both physical and psychological. In an uncertain world, one the director models with an eye to our own, this is a hero caught between justice and vengeance, a desire for peace and the will to power.

“That struggle gives the story its requisite heft, but what makes this ‘Batman’ so enjoyable is how Mr. Nolan balances the story’s dark elements with its light, and arranges the familiar genre elements in new, unforeseen ways… what makes ‘Batman Begins’ the most successful comic-book adaptation alongside Terry Zwigoff’s ‘Ghost World’ isn’t the noisy set pieces, the nods to ‘Blade Runner’ or the way a child’s keepsake, an Indian arrowhead, echoes the shape of a bat. It’s the way Mr. Nolan invites us to watch Bruce Wayne quietly piecing together his Batman identity, to become a secret sharer to a legend, just as we did once upon a time when we read our first comic.”

Which pretty well sums it up. In case you didn’t realize it, three years ago, Christopher Nolan brought our long, national nightmare of bad Batman movies to an end. Let’s hope “The Dark Knight” keeps us in the clear.

  1. Khoi,

    From what I here this is to Batman Begins what Empire was for Star Wars. I think all of us who care that Hollywood produces a film that treats these icons with a semblance of respect are in for a real treat in the coming weeks. Perhaps I am letting my expectations trend toward the high side but I just have a gut feeling that this is going to be something special. Lets meet back here after the screening to see how it shakes out.

  2. There are precious few films I will pay top dollar and wait in line to see. The Dark Knight is absolutely on this very short list.

    Fingers crossed so hard they’re losing sensation…. heh.

  3. Well done sir, I’ve been having the same conversation with many people since Batman Begins was released, and I’m hopeful that The Dark Knight will at least meet the expectations that Nolan gave us cause to have in the first place.

  4. In Kevin Smith’s review, he called The Dark Knight ‘The Godfather II of comic book films.’ That pretty much sums it all up. I’ve preordered my IMAX tickets — I wouldn’t settle for any less at this point, and neither should anyone else.

  5. While Christopher Nolan did many things well in Batman Begins–mood and tone for instance–I felt the screenplay left a lot to be desired. Why constipate the movie with an overabundance of villains? The first half of it set up what was going to be a great revenge story, pitting Batman against the Falcone, the heart of Gotham’s violence and corruption–the surrogate murderer of the Waynes. Instead it got sidetracked by a couple of b-list bad guys. They should have saved the return of Ra’s Al Ghul for the sequel, streamlined the plot, and focused more on the characters.

  6. Jason – hopefully the Empire thing is true (although based on the trailers it reminds me of Seven and Heat), but let’s hope they don’t introduce a wise Muppet into the mix…

  7. I really wasn’t that crazy about Batman Begins, it was ok, but I still don’t think they’ve got it right. Having said that, I really want to see Heath Ledger’s Joker, from what I’ve seen it’s awesome.

    There’s a reason comic books are popular and it has to do with great writing and visuals. So it’s no coincidence the best comic book to screen adaptation was Frank Miller’s Sin City as it was so literally translated. Other film maker’s making these kinds of films need to take note.

  8. Batman Begins was easily one of the best super hero movies that have come out en masse recently (along with Sin City). You’re right, Iron Man was the second best, but not as good as Batman Begins. I’m really hoping Dark Knight follows suit.

  9. Batman Begins really didn’t do it for me. I found the plot weak, storytelling slow and I had no real empathy for any of the characters. Yes it aims more for Miller’s version of ‘the Dark Knight’, but Batman existed long before that.

    I am a real fan of the Burton Batman though. It’s a pop art piece of film. Jack Nicholson is maniacally funny and chilling as the Joker. Its audience is kids up and the appeal stretches well into the adult demographic (something that the Schumacher directed detritus sequels failed miserably to appreciate, opting instead for cereal packet visuals).

    Batman (1989) was unsuccessful? Maybe in your eyes, but $413m worldwide box office says that a hell of a lot of people enjoyed it.

    I am however looking forward to the Dark Knight. The exposition and rewriting of the ‘Legend’ that slowed BB down is out of the way and we should have a leaner film for it.

  10. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I would never read a comic book.’ – Tim Burton

    ‘[That], I guess, explains Batman’ – Kevin Smith

  11. Just posted something about the ludicrous amount of posters for this movie. Rather than turning to some of the most famous comic artists in the world (many of which already have Bat-successes under their belts), they’ve instead opted for the death-by-photoshop route. Shame.

  12. Maybe Burton’s Batman hasn’t aged as well as it could have, but I agree that calling it a unsuccessful is a bit of a stretch. It still holds the record for a box office opening for the 25th of June, and for the few days surrounding it it still ranks 3rd. Nicholson won both a BAFTA and a GG for his performance, which was very memorable.

    I also think Burton’s Batman fit really well in to that time period; but sure maybe that’s a valid strike against it.

    With the exception of Katie Holmes who pulled me out of the movie every time I thought Batman Begins was good. It did however, suffer from the having-to-explain-the-backstory problem that most comic franchises seem to have.

    Okay, so enough about that.

  13. Also ‘successful’ in 1989: ‘Look Who’s Talking,’ which came in at #4 that year, just three spots behind Burton’s ‘Batman.’

    Which is to say, box office is not a useful gauge, in my opinion, of whether a movie is successful or not.

    If it was then the following year’s #1 movie, ‘Home Alone,’ having earned roughly $40 million more than ‘Batman,’ would be a classic. It’s not an unlikable film, I admit, but it’s not one I’d look back fondly upon as an example of great filmmaking. Just as I don’t look back at ‘Batman’ as particularly successful.

  14. not all the movies can stand the test of time, even the so called ‘Great Classics.’ Simply because people change and olders movies aren’t as relatable, depending on the genre.

    Batman(89) established the tune and mood for me, for Batman. So it’s a success imo. Batman Begins is superior, but I wouldn’t call the other one is unsuccessful. and as for the boxoffice#, Home Alone didn’t do nearly as well worldwide compared to Batman. That should tell you something about Batman’s appeal on a grander scale.

  15. Jin: Sorry but I believe you’re mistaken. According to Box Office Mojo, “Home Alone” did $477 million worldwide in 1990, and “Batman” did $411 million worldwide a year earlier.

    Anyway, my point is that money is not a gauge for anything beyond commercial efficacy. That includes whether a movie is successful, or whether it holds appeal on a ‘grander scale.’

  16. my mistake. i agree with your point on box office figure.

    as far as ‘successful’ as in good movie making, i think it comes down to personal taste, which is purely subjective.

  17. Your opinions are wrong!

    ‘Batman’ was suprisingly enjoyable!

    ‘Batman Returns’ was only slightly less enjoyable!

    Anything with ‘Joel Schumacher’ on it should be destroyed!

    ‘Batman Begins’ was so forgettable, I can’t even think of anything to say about it!

    For some reason, Heath Ledger became quite popular despite is profound inability to pretend to be other people, so I have no high hopes for ‘The Dark Knight’ even though I will probably see it anyway!

  18. My favorite Batman movie is still Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm. It was an Eric Radomski/Bruce Timm animated feature that portrayed Batman as the scary vigilante that he’s intended to be. I especially like the scene where he gives an extra little stomp on a thug who’s lying under an upturned table.

  19. You guys haven’t touched on the best one of them all: Batman: The Movie (1966)!

    Do the great names of Leslie H. Martinson and Lorenzo Semple Jr. mean nothing in this day and age?

    Humph. No one respects the classics.

  20. Its unfortunate that Billy Dee Williams wasn’t brought in to reprise his role as Harvey Dent. IMHO, he earned the right to play Two Face.

    Besides, if this really is the ‘Empire’ of the Batman series, what would it be without Billy Dee?

  21. I must say, after rewatching Batman Begins a few weeks ago, I found myself surprisingly bored by the movie. I loved it when I first saw it, but the movie really spends too much time introducing and justifying Batman, rather than with an actual plot. The villains are – apart from Scarecrow – just not terribly menacing. It’s still a great movie, but I will put it in third place behind both of Burton’s flicks. Burton’s movies have plot and a coherent vision, as well as truly terrifying villains – Nicholson’s Joker is absolutely incredible.

    Saying the first movie was unsuccessful does not match what I remember. It was a world-wide phenomenon. In Switzerland, we had collectible stickers, Matchbox Batman cars, and all kinds of things. The movie really defined pop culture for a short period of time.

    Furthermore, it has a ton of memorable scenes – Joker’s shooting down of Batman’s plane, Joker’s death… As kids, we regularly quoted the movie in all kinds of situations.

    Dark Knight looks incredible, and since Nolan doesn’t have to spend half the movie introducing Batman, perhaps this time he will truly unseat Burton’s Batman. So far, he has not.

    The 1966 version is, of course, in a class of its own 🙂

    (And let’s pretend the other two simply don’t exist at all.)

  22. Your post of critics for Batman and Batman Returns and your praise of Batman Begins are surprising and disappointing to me.

    Batman Begins is good as the next Popcorn movie. And I love Popcorn as much as the next guy. But that’s it: good Popcorn

    It is in fact very shallow, often times mistakable with many other Hollywood productions, as the nature of Popcorn movies just is, and equally as forgettable.

    Dark Knight: Ledger is overrated and surprisingly popular, but he is not a great actor, in fact he has trouble to be somebody else but him. What you could see of him in the role of Joker, in trailers, is a laughable stereotypical adaptation of a comic character. But that’s what the movie is going to be: a Popcorn production which takes itself too serious, just as Batman Begins.

    It’s so stupid: ‘crazy’, red color smeared over his face: a maniac. Yes, rubb it into our noses, so that every simpleton can see: he’s a crazy guy. Wow.

    I can understand that there is the great pressure of Burton’s version, the only respectable, of the Joker:

    But if you can’t do it like that anymore why not just let it go? Arrogance!

    If you want a comic 1:1 as a movie, fine, go watch it, but see it as what it is: Popcorn, kindergarten and don’t ruin what Tim Burton did by putting it in a row with B&R and Forever.

    I’m really afraid of Burton’s Bat getting lost in the hype over this Gazillion-Dollar-Super-Popcorn.

    Nothing can compare to the first Batman: in my oppinion the best and only respectable comic adaptation ever … with Returns a great second.

    Batman Returns is great, too, but never reaches the heights of the Freudian and visually amazing trip of Burton’s first Bat. Keaton and Nicholson are brilliant actors and brilliant choices.

    Burton does it right: he reduces the story to it’s basic elements of psychology and just moves it too a phantastic scenery.

    The only right thing to do and the recipe for greatness: wrap your abstracts into candy.

    You can watch Shining as a horror movie and don’t get what’s it about, just be scared and thrilled: or dive deeper and pull out Freud, for a start. Burton does that, too … to an extend. He certainly is no Kubrick, but Batman, as I said, is the only serious and respectable Comic adaption ever.

    And: Burton’s Batman movies have no sequal. Even the second one is not a sequal for the first.

    Instead he did another interpretation, this time concentrating more on making it a visual trip. Batman was dealt with enough in the first, so the focus is on other forms of personality disorders and what leads to them. Another take on losing reallity, slipping into a parallel world, cut of from the real world surrounding them:

    Just my two cents … and I’m shure a little chaotic …

  23. Sorry for posting again:

    But after reading the Review of the first Batman in your post again and again: I have to shake my head. Really hard.

    How can anybody be so way of?

    The wit is all pictorial. The film meanders mindlessly from one image to the next, as does a comic book. Mostly, though, ‘Batman’ is a movie without any dominant tone or style […] It’s neither funny nor solemn. It has the personality not of a particular movie but of a product, of something arrived at by corporate decision

    A big, big mistake. Disappointing.

  24. tmm – ‘Burton’s Batman movies have no sequel. Even the second one is not a sequel for the first.’ Well that’s just plain wrong.

    James – I agree that we shouldn’t dismiss the 60s version. Although we think of Batman as being in the ActuallyVeryDark genre, the TV series was fairly close to the tone of the comic at that time, which was a lot more zany and light-hearted.

    Plus the bomb-disposal scene is genius.

  25. Daniel: Not, it’s not plain wrong.

    Please, it is not about movie production mechanics.

    Technicly they may be sequals, because they are in a line of productions and follow some sort of shared story: but that has nothing to do with the way I see it and how it is in an abstract discussion.

    Returns is not a sequal in the classical sense: Of course it follows some sort of common story line, but Returns is completly different kind of movie.

    I like to see it as another take on the subject – as I said – following a shared story.

    There’s is continuation, of course, but you can not deny that it is simply not a sequal in the classical sense you seem to mean it.

    B&R and Batman Forver are so far of from being a sequal to Burton’s Batman, it’s not even worth a discussion.

  26. tmm – I will, as any sane human should do, ignore B&R and Batman Forever!

    Didn’t mean to shoot you down completely – I kind of see your point (and love the fact that what some people disregard as throwaway movies can be open to so much textual analysis), but still disagree. Batman Returns has recurring characters, actors, the events of the first film are referred to – to me that’s very much the classical sense of a sequel!

    The fact it covers different themes is a good thing, but not something that completely divorces it from its predecessor – in the same way that Alien And Aliens are almost completely different genres, but still inherently connected.

  27. I have to agree with James, ‘Mask of the Phantasm’ captured Batman well, better than ‘Batman and Robin’ which was as silly as the Adam West Batman, unintentionally. Hope we eventually see ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ on screen.

  28. The anticipation surrounding The Dark Knight is staggering at this point. The last blockbuster I saw in iMax was The Matrix: Reloaded (which I did enjoy), but I’m expecting the filming of certain scenes in the larger format to blow audiences away.

  29. Batman Begins is a ridiculous movie. It whould have been name ‘Batman Kung-fu Panda’ !

    The photography is fantastic. But all the rest is just a shame and as a Batman fan i was really shocked about how a non-sense it was to melt the Batman myth with kung-fu fighting. Batman has its roots in Gothic imagery, not asian fighting. How people can be so wrong they do like this laughable movie ? i have no clue.

  30. Okay, so given that you’re using a very narrow definition of success to mean critical success or as a synonym for good, yes there are lots of points to make on that front.

    I think it’s a misuse of the word however.

  31. nl-

    in Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, a good bit of the comic is dedicated to Bruce Wayne’s time in asia where he learns how to fight.

  32. At the risk of adding very little to a meandering discussion, I’m still going to add something.

    It should be no surprise, especially to this crowd, that artists commonly bow to some of the demands of their benefactors. There are critical elements of Batman Begins that I think could’ve been done better, and which might’ve been executed as they were due to commercial forces. I consider this constraint greatly in favor of Batman Begins, in that Nolan & Co. managed to provide nice depth and nuance in spite of it.

    It bears noting, perhaps, that Burton seems not to have intended to tell Wayne’s story at all, but rather to use it as a substrate into which to embed funhouse caricatures. I enjoyed Batman, and I enjoyed Nicholson’s part (though I hated the long-barreled revolver), and I enjoyed Prince’s soundtrack; but I wouldn’t confuse them with an earnest retelling of Bruce Wayne’s story.

    In that sense, Burton’s and Nolan’s efforts are incomparable.

  33. I liked the first half of BEGINS, the training and stuff. Learning to fight in prison, etc.

    But BEGINS essentially got Bruce Wayne wrong.

    I mean, in BEGINS he is flip-flopping back and forth over whether ‘one man can make a difference’ with little Katie Holmes as his example of a person with spine.


    Wayne didn’t care about making a difference. He cared, in a blindly pathological way, about cleansing the city that took his parents. And, through that ultra-cleansing mission, like an overused antibiotic he actually ends up breeding even more powerful villains, that he has to become even more hardcore to defeat – an endless cycle he is determined to stay on top of no matter what scorched earth may come of it.

    BEGINS should have focus on how Batman creates a worse Gotham City than the one that took his parents: a grimy petri dish magnetically attracting everyone insane enough to take him on.

    Frank Miller captured this perfectly. So did the animated series, as others have mentioned. Perhaps a Robert Rodriguez of Miller’s Dark Knight (ala 300 or Sin City) would sparkle?

    Maybe, maybe not.

    I, too, have high hopes for this movie.

  34. I’m going to have to disagree, the first Batman with Michael Keaton was GREAT! I still enjoy watching that movie. I do agree that from that point on they got progressively worse.

    I will also agree taht Batman Begins is the BEST of all of them, and I can not wait to see Batman-‘The Dark Knight.

    One aspect of the critique of the first movie I find VERY humorous in an ironic way is where it says, ‘The film meanders mindlessly from one image to the next, as does a comic book

    Seeing as how BATMAN is derived from a COMIC BOOK, wouldn’t a phrase like, ‘as does a comic book…’ Be a POSITIVE?

    I would tend to believe that it is a positive.

  35. Batman begins was overly long on set up and positively suffocated by an unbearable score (which is my biggest pet peeve of most hollywood movies).

    Still, it added the much needed darkness to the Dark Night and for that, it remains highly regarded.

    I have heard many comparisons of the new movie to Heat. If that’s only partially true, it should turn out pretty amazing.

  36. I have seen the film and I found it amazing. Ledger was inspired and the film overall was a tremendous success. It was the graphic novel of comic book films really good stuff.

  37. There were things I didn’t like, but having said that I was blown away. Everything you hear about Ledger’s Joker is true and then some.

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