So, Batman is 80-years old. Testament, indeed, to the age-defying effects of crunches and push-ups. Despite first appearing in Detective Comics #27, in 1939, his road to the big screen took a little longer. There was the 1943 serial, The Batman, starring Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft as Batman and Robin. Whilst shown theatrically, this was shown in 15 parts, with an average running time of less than 20 minutes per episode. The serial format was once-weekly, with each episode catching audiences up on last week, and then featuring some episodic action, ending in a cliff-hanger. It is a format inspirational to George Lucas in his creation of both the Star Wars and Indiana Jones series.
It would take until 1966 for the Caped Crusader to get his first, feature-length, big screen outing. His career’s work in live-action looks like this:
Batman: The Movie (1966)
The 1960s Batman series, starring Adam West shares the trait with Roger Moore’s James Bond of falling in and out of fashion, depending on the era. For many, this incarnation of Batman, with its jokey tone, bright, California-infused colour palette, and ‘zap’, ‘biff’, ‘pow’ action sequences set the cause back decades. Whilst it is true that it took until 1989 to get a darker (at least in tone and feel) live-action Batman – some 11 years on from Superman’s lavish debut, it is fair to say that the West incarnation is entirely representative of many eras of the comic book; and a version still beloved by millions.
Premiering between seasons one and two of the TV Series, the big appeal of the movie was that it could be viewed in colour. The TV show was shot 35mm in colour, but at home, the public were stuck with low resolution black and white television sets. The film itself is a charming mess. The main thrust of the plot – the dehydration, into dust, of the Security Council of the United World Organisation (no, really) – doesn’t kick-off until the final third. Before this, we have a throw everything at the screen and see what sticks approach. The Joker (Cesar Romero), The Penguin (Burgess Meredith), The Riddle (Frank Gorshin) and Catwoman (Lee Meriwether, standing in for the unavailable Julie Newmar) are all present to mess with Batman and Robin.
The film does have a few very memorable moments: the shark-repellent bat-spray; Robin’s deductive reasoning to work out the names behind the nefarious plot; and, most of all, Batman running all over the place to try to get rid of a bomb safely, and running into nuns, ducks, and all manner of obstacles to its disposal (“Some days, you just can’t get rid of a bomb!”). For years, due to a rights snafu, Batman: The Movie was available to the public, whilst the television seasons were not. Thus, this is a very well-known part of this incarnation. It does demonstrate, however, that this Batman works best in smaller chunks: 20 minute episodes worked far better for this type of humour.
There has been only one film in the 30 years since the release of Tim Burton’s Batman to gain anything like the same level of hype; and that was Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. In 1989, the yellow bat-symbol – used without any text other than a release date in earliest versions – was everywhere. For a generation (even two generations, by this stage) raised on Adam West and Burt Ward, we would be getting a Batman that operated at night, from the shadows; a vigilante, driving the coolest looking vehicle we’d ever seen. A dark knight, played by…..Michael Keaton?
For all of the controversies around casting, from Heath Ledger, to Daniel Craig, to Ben Affleck – the granddaddy of them all was the choice of the diminutive star of Mr Mom, as The Batman. The reaction was that toxic, that it is entirely possible that had it occurred in the era of the internet, it would have hurt the box office of the film. That the director of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure had signed on to direct – and made this casting call – did not help matters
The end result is a film that is nowhere near as dark as it seemed at the time. Jack Nicholson’s once-definitive Joker is surprisingly campy, and his plot (the poisoning of various cosmetic products) could easily be out of the 1960s, but for the deadly on-screen effect on characters. This film was part of the repositioning of Batman, however, along with The Dark Knight Returns, The Killing Joke and others. The film has a weak third act, but Batman was now repositioned in the public’s mind as the night-time vigilante, not the Batusi-dancing, police-deputised Adam West version.
Batman Returns (1992)
The direct sequel to the 1989 film featured a shift in vision, aided by Burton’s enormous success with the first film. The film looks a little different, in part due to the suicide of original production designer, Anton Furst. More than anything, this is a Tim Burton film, a very long way before it is a Batman film.
The beginnings of bloat can be seen here, as the film has three antagonists (or two, and one anti-hero, maybe?) with The Penguin (Danny DeVito), Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer). Much of the plot is concerned with Shreck taking energy from Gotham, whilst The Penguin runs for political office. Batman is framed for a murder he didn’t commit, and is less a part of this film than any incarnation until The Dark Knight Rises.
It is a decent film, and has a real snow globe feel to it. It is a film that betrays, however, Burton’s lack of real interest in the character. The Batman of this film is a killer, with none of the ifs, buts, or caveats that can be found in later versions (pre-Affleck). Parents complained that it was too dark and violent for their children, and it took $266 million, against the ’89 film’s £411 million. Warner Bros. saw a need for change, and boy did they get it.
Batman Forever (1995)
It might be entirely possible that there is more than one director working named Joel Schumacher. How else to square the fact that the director of the sweat-soaked, open-wound of a film, Falling Down, or the relatively sober, court-based drama, A Time to Kill, is the same man that produced two ADHD-addled, toy commercials of Batman films?
Batman Forever saw Schumacher assume the director’s chair. Burton remained a producer, years later admitting that was an in-name-only deal (to the surprise of no-one). Keaton exited at the same time, taking with him Rene Russo, who would have played Dr Chase Meridian (played by Nicole Kidman in the final film). In the event, it was felt that Russo was a little old for incoming Batman, Val Kilmer (around 35 years at the time of the film’s release, against Russo’s 41 – the scandal, eh?!). Also joining the cast was Chris O’Donnell, as Robin, a role that had been earmarked for Damon Wayans, had Burton stayed on. Furthering the whitewashing, Two-Face (a character foreshadowed by the decidedly-not-white-Billy Dee Williams’ appearance as Harvey Dent in the 1989 film) was now being played by Tommy Lee Jones – as a poor Joker knock-off, in effect.
Batman Forever is a mess. Kilmer is stoic to the point of looking carved out of stone, Kidman plays the role of Meridian like she is in heat. Jim Carrey’s Riddler just won’t shut up for a second, and every scene he is in features two-to-three ‘funny’ lines in every place where perhaps one, at most should appear (plus none of them are funny). The plot (taking memories and information out of people’s minds) is idiotic, and the whole tone of the film is plastic and neon. Gone are the gothic stylings of the Burton films, to be replaced by noise and a complete absence of any understanding that less is more. This Gotham has buildings with enormous skyscraper-sized statures crammed in-between, with periodic narration of scene introductions (read: mindless babble) by Gossip Gertie (an ill-chosen role for Bob Kane’s widow, Elizabeth Sanders). Not to worry though, they were bound to course-correct, weren’t they?
Batman and Robin (1997)
There are, roughly, 336 million reasons Warner Bros. chose not to course-correct. With a significant bump in Box Office from Burton’s second entry, the public had taken to the Schumacher version. Batman and Robin would take that vision, and exaggerate it out of all proportion. It is much the same product, only even louder, and far stupider.
Val Kilmer was out after one film. Kilmer claims it was due to a scheduling conflict with The Saint; Schumacher had reportedly told friends he would never want to work with Kilmer again. Whatever the case, 36-year old George Clooney, still pulling double-duty with TV’s ER, donned the cowl, as part of his exclusive deal with Warner Brothers. This was long before he had worked out the types of films he wanted to make. Joining Clooney was Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr Freeze, and Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy. At this rate of burn and descent down the Rogue’s Gallery, surely we were only a couple of films away from seeing the Clock King.
With Schumacher’s constant refrain on-set “Remember everyone, this is a cartoon!” Batman and Robin is one of the worst big-budget A-list Hollywood films ever made. From the constant ice puns, to a tone that shifts from that to a grieving widower, heartbroken, in a second, the film is the worst kind of fake and cheap looking, despite a lavish budget. Batman now makes personal appearances and has a branded credit card. So much for striking from the shadows.
The rumoured fifth film, ‘Batman Triumphant’, likely to have featured the Scarecrow, was shelved, and the property lurched into limbo for eight years, as pitches were heard for a Batman: Year One-inspired adaptation to be helmed by Darren Aronofsky (the treatment for which is online, and not good), and Wolfgang Petersen’s ‘Batman vs Superman’, likely to have starred Colin Farrell and Jude Law.