By the time we entered the ’00s, the Batman franchise was as dead as a doornail. The Warner Bros. revival of the caped crusader that began with Tim Burton’s “Batman” in 1989 started out smashingly but began losing its footing as early as “Batman Returns.” For all its faults though, those films had a charm all their own even in their increased idiocy. Always dark with a bit of humor, they were an unusual breed of superhero movie that hasn’t quite been emulated since (probably for good reason). As the nation is now back in the spirit of Batman for the third and final installment of Christopher Nolan’s new trilogy, let’s take a moment to review the previous Batman quadrilogy that we all grew up with, and eventually grew out of.
By the time that a new Batman movie was greenlit in 1986, there had not been one for over 20 years. While fans were skeptical of Tim Burton in the director’s chair, as well as the choice of actor Michael Keaton for the title role, the approach to the film was incredibly dark and true to the style of the graphic novels “The Dark Knight Rises” and “The Killing Joke.” Keaton’s performance is a perfect balance of iciness and humanity while Jack Nicholson as The Joker is equal parts hilarious and terrifying. As for Bruce Wayne’s love interest, Kim Basinger as Vicky Vale manages to be the most well-played and hottest Wayne girlfriend of all time without succumbing to the overt innuendos utilized by Michelle Pfeiffer and Nicole Kidman in later movies.
Aside from its visual grandeur, Danny Elfman’s score completely reinvents the heroics of Batman with its muscular theme and epic scope — it has since become a classic. Prince ended up contributing a companion soundtrack of original music to the film, one that Burton regrets as he feels he couldn’t make it work. While the modernism of the Prince songs clash ever so slightly with the otherwise timelessness of the movie, its just another quirk in what is one of most unique and best installments in the Batman series.
“Batman Returns” (1992)
The marketing strategy for “Batman” was one of the most successful in movie history so needless to say a sequel was an irresistible. The movie itself…not so much. While Tim Burton, Michael Keaton and Michael Gough (Alfred) reprised their roles, the magic had mostly evaporated, the film being overpowered by an annoying performance by Danny DeVito as Penguin and a joyless storyline. Danny Elfman returned to do the score but the heroics of his original music could not save the film from the cold damp netherworld it descended into with the evil element heavily outweighing the good on all counts.
While not a total disaster, it’s surprising the series continued after “Returns” considering its box office draw did not pull in the numbers that superhero sequels typically pull in. When director Joel Schumacher took over three years later for “Batman Forever,” things perked slightly financially but the series suffered even more so.
“Batman Forever” (1995)
The mere concept of “Batman Forever” started out with a limp, with both Burton and Keaton out of the picture (Burton did get a production credit but his involvememnt in the film is dubious). Warner Bros. had decided “Batman Returns” was too dark and while a lot of the imagery remained similar in the depiction of Gotham City, the world of “Batman Forever” was a lot sillier and not just because Jim Carrey took on the role of The Riddler. Tommy Lee Jones chewed out scenes terribly as Two-Face and Val Kilmer was as rigid as could be as the dark knight. The introduction of Robin too was also a mistake, not just because it added an unneeded subplot of the frustrations of Dick Grayson adjusting to Wayne Manor, but also because Chris O’Donnell is a not even remotely convincing as a bad-boy-good-guy.
The best part about “Batman Forever” was its soundtrack album which had songs from PJ Harvey, The Flaming Lips, Nick Cave and a surprisingly kick-ass single from U2. While this more family-friendly version of Batman was rickety but stable, nothing could prepare anyone for the atrociousness that lay ahead.
“Batman & Robin” (1997)
In his movie analysis book “Mike Nelson’s Movie Mega-Cheese,” Nelson denies the claims that “Batman & Robin” is the worst movie ever — he deduces that it is in fact “the worst thing ever.” That’s a pretty bold claim but just a quick revisit to the trailer for the film is more than enough of a reminder that it was indeed one of the biggest bombs of all time. I’m still baffled by this movie. Every once ounce of class and mysticism is completely drained from the first movie and replaced with corny jokes, a juvenile plotline and just all around bad acting. This movie sucks all the way down to its misleading title (honestly, shouldn’t its immediate predecessor have been called “Batman & Robin” since that’s the film that the latter character was introduced?).
In comparison to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s brain-numbing role as Mr. Freeze and Uma Thurman’s abhorrent portrayal of Poison Ivy, Jim Carrey and Michelle Pfeiffer look like ingenious craftsmen of villainy in the earlier films. Even The Smashing Pumpkins‘ music video for “The End is the Beginning is the End” reeks with gimmicky Hollywood excess.
With the franchise laid to rest in the “Batman & Robin”‘s wake, Batman once again retreated into the swamps of discarded heroes. Along the way, the revival of the franchise did bring out a lot of pretty nifty action figures as well as a most excellent animated series that displayed far more in depth drama than three out of the four films, but at century’s end, there was nothing lamer. Christopher Nolan’s 2005 film “Batman Begins” finally bestowed honor back on Batman films once again, culminating now in the epic “The Dark Knight Rises” which hit theaters today. Unlike the previous run, Warner Bros. handled this set of movies with extreme care and precision with all of the key players remaining on board for a consistent new trilogy. As the years stretch on, who knows if they’ll give it another go. Let’s hope not as this film will be the first time in a long while that Batman will be exiting on a high note.