Scenes from a Franchise

Whether 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.