Editorial – Batman: Forever Begins In June
As we wait patiently to see if our newest incarnation of the Batman will sparkle, let’s take some time to celebrate the anniversary of two previous films in the long-running franchise that helped make the transition from Dark Knight to Caped Crusader… and back again.
With film productions at a relative standstill thanks to the current state of the world, the wait has become even longer to see the latest big-screen take on the Batman and to check if former Twilight star Robert Pattinson can fill the famous cape and cowl just as well as those who’ve preceded him.
Pattinson takes over the lead role from Ben Affleck, who was also initially scheduled to write and direct the solo Bat-flick following his debut in Zach Snyder’s Batman v Superman and appearances in 2016’s Suicide Squad and 2017’s Justice League. Varying factors would eventually lead to Affleck hanging up the cape and passing directorial duties on to Matt Reeves, who became famous thanks to Cloverfield and the last two Planet of the Apes. The changes in creative talent both in front of and behind the camera as well as the lackluster box office and reaction to Justice League also prompted Warner Brothers to take the film in a different direction than originally planned. Rather than following the model set by Wonder Woman and Aquaman and keeping everything contained within the same cinematic universe, Reeves’s upcoming film will be a completely stand-alone tale, with Pattinson playing a Batman only in the second year of his career and promising to take things in a much more detective-centric path than previous films.
While this new direction does sound pretty exciting, some could argue that this seems awfully quick to be hitting the reset button again. But let’s not forget that this isn’t the first time, nor even the SECOND time, this has been done. In fact, this month just so happens to mark significant anniversaries for two previous films in the franchise that very significantly changed (for better or worse) the look and feel of a Batman film. Batman Forever turns 25, and Batman Begins turns 15 this very month. But before looking at that, let’s take things in order and start at the beginning…
For those of you too young to remember, the summer of 1989 was essentially the summer of Batman. The hype surrounding it was unlike anything I could remember seeing in my short time in this world. In the months leading up to and following the film’s release, you couldn’t walk down the street without seeing some variation of the Bat-symbol posted somewhere. Tim Burton’s gothic film-noir interpretation, which was also released in June (31 years old this month), would bring the darkness to the Dark Knight in a way that hadn’t been seen on screen at that point. It forever wiped away the memory of the campy Adam West TV series of the 60’s.
The massive success of the first film would inevitably lead to a follow-up, Batman Returns, three years later (June of 1992, turns 28 this month). Although that film was highly successful as well, making over $162 million at the US box office alone, Returns still saw a significant drop-off from its predecessor. Many blamed this on the tone, which managed to be even darker than Burton’s original. In addition, the studio found that there was very little in the film that could be merchandised (it’s a bit of a hard sell to put kamikaze penguin toys into a happy meal). With that in mind, Warner Brothers opted for a major overhaul when it came to the next film in the franchise, both in tone and in the creative teams involved in its making.
When it came time to start working on what would become Batman Forever, both star Michael Keaton and director Tim Burton felt that two was enough and it was time to move on. With Burton shifting to a role as producer, directing duties were given to Joel Schumacher, who would help give the film a much lighter and colorful look as well as a more family-friendly action/adventure tone to counteract the cold and somber feel of the previous films.
Fresh off his scene-stealing performance as Doc Holiday in Tombstone, Val Kilmer was chosen to become the second actor to don the cape and cowl for the film series, and he would be paired against recent Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones in the role of Harvey/Two-Face and then-breakout star Jim Carrey as the Riddler. Rounding out the cast would be Nicole Kidman as Dr. Chase Meridian, a potential new love interest for both Bruce Wayne AND Batman, and Chris O’Donnell as Batman’s new side-kick Robin.
Despite the numerous additions and changes, both Michael Gough and Pat Hingle would return in their respective roles as Alfred Pennyworth and Commissioner Gordon. This combined with a passing reference to Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman would clearly establish that, while things may look different, this was still part of the same universe as the Burton entries. In a sense, Batman Forever is possibly the earliest major franchise example of a “soft-reboot.” It’s a stand-alone film with its own unique look and style but with enough ties to what’s come before to have it be considered part of the same series. It’s almost The Force Awakens of its day.
With decades having passed since its initial release, there’s been more than enough time to reflect, and we could probably spend hours discussing in what ways the film works and ways in which it doesn’t, or if it qualifies as a “good” Batman movie. Many others have, so rather than retreading all of that again, I’d like to focus more on whether it succeeds at revitalizing the franchise. Is it different enough to make it fresh and interesting to viewers without totally alienating those who loved what came before? Along those lines, I would have to say the film does succeed. While its direct sequel Batman & Robin would end up taking things a bit too far into camp territory, I’d have to say that Batman Forever walks the line between serious and ridiculous pretty well.
As a film striving to please both the bean counters at the studio as well as the fan-base it’s aimed at, I’d say that it delivers on both fronts. The studio gets their family-friendly action/adventure film with tons of items that seem (and probably were) tailor-made for merchandising. From an audience perspective, even with the darkness scaled back a bit, it still feels like the Batman we’ve had in the last films, but with a tone that allows for the incorporation of lighter (and brighter) elements such as Robin and the Riddler. Beyond that, Batman arguably gets more on-screen action in this film than in either of the Burton entries. There’s a saying that you can’t please everyone, and Batman Forever is no exception. But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t trying its absolute hardest to do so.
Despite any flaws that it may potentially have, the film is also arguably the closest the live-action theatrical releases have ever gotten to a literal visual translation of the comic book that was being released at the time without going too over the top. That alone is a major achievement. The idea of people with super-human powers running around in bright-colored costumes works wonderfully in a comic book, where color is used to draw your eye and also allows you to easily identify a character from a distance. The same can be said when translating those characters into an animated medium. But with live-action it’s different.
Without straying too far from our current focus, allow me to present a moment from another famous comic book film franchise:
The line was meant as an in-joke responding to negative fan reactions to the initial costume reveals, but it does say something about the mentality of viewers. As fans, we ask for and want a literal translation of what we’ve read in the comics but are often unwilling to accept that certain things in a comic book don’t translate visually well to live-action. When it comes to Batman, the best example is probably Robin.
Just from a visual standpoint, the original design of Robin’s costume just isn’t something practical which makes any logical sense in a live-action medium, except in a “camp zone” like the Adam West series.
Our suspension of disbelief is enough that we can accept a man dressing up as a bat as means to intimidate and frighten criminals, and possibly even that this same man would take an adolescent boy out with him at night and constantly put him in mortal danger… But it’s not strong enough to accept the idea of that boy doing so while wearing elf shoes and a pair of short-shorts. And even with the revised costume design that was done in the comics for the Tim Drake Robin (bo-staff, long pants, boots, etc), it still doesn’t make logical sense to have a sidekick wearing a bright red and green outfit unless you only have him with you to help draw the enemies’ fire.
All of the above reasons are likely contributing factors to why we’ve never gotten a live-action/in-costume version of Robin on the big screen except for Batman Forever (I’m not counting Batman: The Movie since it was spun off the TV show).
In the context of both the noir-esque style of the Burton films and the gritty “grounded in reality” Nolan trilogy, Robin just doesn’t fit. At least not in the guise of his standard costume. After all, screenwriter Sam Hamm’s attempt to have Robin introduced towards the end of the original Tim Burton film was axed without ever being shot, and Christopher Nolan was only able to shoehorn in a variation on Robin in The Dark Knight Rises by keeping him out of costume and only name-dropping him at the last possible moment.
With that being said, times continue to change and evolve, and with a live-action Robin featuring as the lead of the DC Titans TV series, it’s not out of the realm of possibility to imagine that some variation of the character could end up eventually making an appearance in this new upcoming series of films. But, back in the day, the idea only fit within the bright and colorful realm of Joel Schumacher’s Bat-verse, and I would say that alone is reason enough to cement Batman Forever‘s place in the character’s cinematic history.
It’s true there are cheesy moments galore and it’s certainly not as well crafted as some of what was to come, but there is a charm to it, and it does have a feel to it that’s unlike any other Batman film made. With this month marking the 25th Anniversary of its initial release, it’s as good of an excuse as any to give the film a fresh viewing. If you haven’t seen it in forever (pun, sorry) or if you’ve never seen it at all, I definitely recommend giving it a chance. It’s likely better than you think or better than you remember.
The same cannot be said of Schumacher’s 1997 follow-up, Batman & Robin.
I talked earlier about how Batman Forever was very good at treading the line between serious and camp. Skip ahead two years and Schumacher’s follow-up Batman & Robin would fall completely over the line. Enough has already been written, spoken, and yelled about that film’s flaws, so I won’t waste our time covering that same ground yet again. Suffice to say that the film was so ill-received by both critics and audiences alike that it literally killed the franchise for almost a decade. Numerous failed attempts to bring Batman back to the big screen would occur in the following years with directors like Darren Aronofsky and even Schumacher himself pitching the idea of adapting Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One as a feature, but nothing would get further than the development stage.
Which conveniently brings us to our next topic…
Exactly ten years (almost to the day) after the release of Batman Forever, Warner Brothers and director Christopher Nolan would finally bring the Dark Knight back to the big screen. But this would not be the soft-reboot that Forever had been. If anything, this was a hard reset. Batman Begins (very aptly named) is a start-from-scratch kind of movie. There would be no returning cast members or references to previous films in this outing. What we got instead was, as the title implied, the creation of Batman from the ground up.
While a great deal of attention is usually paid to the film’s dark and realistic tone, what’s often overlooked is its significance as the first big-screen depiction of the Dark Knight’s origin. Previous films in the franchise tended to put the emphasis on the colorful and eccentric villains and seemed to use Batman as window dressing, making him often more of a supporting player in his own film. One got the feeling that Warner Brothers either felt that everyone knew who Batman was and that was enough, or that the actual character of Batman/Bruce Wayne wasn’t interesting enough beyond the action scenes. Batman Begins would be the film to prove once and for all that this just wasn’t the case.
The duality of Batman, the trauma that made him who he is, and the journey he went on to become “more than just a man,” as Liam Neeson puts it in the film, is fascinating to watch unravel.
By making this the focal point of the story, Christopher Nolan allows us to understand Batman (and more importantly, Bruce Wayne) in a way that had not been done in any previous film. For the first time in the franchise, the villains truly take a back seat to the hero, and we’re finally allowed to delve full-on into the psyche of Batman/Bruce Wayne and watch him develop as a character.
Batman doesn’t even make his first in-costume appearance until over an hour into the film, but, as viewers, we don’t mind because we’re so fully involved in the story of Bruce Wayne. It’s a lesson very similar to that of Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man film; if you present a character that the audience can be fully invested in and tell a story that is equally as involving, you don’t NEED the costume to keep their attention. By the time Christian Bale yanks Carmine Falcone out of the roof of the car and says “I’m Batman!”, it not only feels right, it feels earned.
In addition to the origin story, I could probably go on for paragraphs gushing about the amazing supporting cast, but I’d like to give special attention to Gary Oldman and his performance as Jim Gordon. One of the major aspects of previous films in the series that I always had an issue with was the way they chose to portray Commissioner Gordon. I’ve got nothing against Pat Hingle as an actor, but he just simply isn’t the Jim Gordon I knew from the comics. Not in Tim Burton’s first two films and certainly not in the buffoonish way he’s portrayed in the Schumacher films. This bizarre partnership and friendship between an official representative of law and order and a costumed vigilante is one of the most fascinating relationships in comics, and Batman Begins was the first film in the franchise to finally translate that to the big screen. Oldman’s portrayal and the visual look given to the character are spot on, and I couldn’t have asked for anything better, and still can’t.
I have huge amounts of love for The Dark Knight as well as Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker, but every time I revisit Batman Begins, I always feel the tiniest bit of regret that Nolan and Warner didn’t choose to stick to their guns and keep the focus of the series solely on Batman for the remainder of their trilogy. Admittedly, it never got quite as bad as in the Burton or Schumacher films, but no subsequent entry would directly focus on Batman as much as this film. Even so, no matter what has been done since or what we still have left to come, nothing can take away Nolan’s Batman Begins, which may possibly be the greatest super-hero origin film ever made.
Which brings me back to the subject of these frequent reboots. While I’m all for a steady ongoing stream of films set in the same universe and ongoing continuity a-la the MCU, I do find that there is a benefit to the idea of rebooting a franchise every few years. In the case of Batman, starting the series over again allows the studio to give different areas of fandom a film or set of films tailor-made for their liking. If you look at the theatrical career of Batman even stretching as far back as the serials from the 1940’s, you essentially have something to please just about everyone.
My biggest regret about the loss of Ben Affleck as Batman and not having been allowed any stand-alone adventures with him is that it robbed me of my chance to finally see one of my favorite eras of the comic brought to the big screen.
One of the aspects of Batman/Bruce Wayne’s character that I’ve always found fascinating is the idea that he is an emotionally traumatized individual who lost his family at a young age, but then over the years, either intentionally or unintentionally, has surrounded himself with people who love and support him. The attitude of Batman has always been that he is this dark, brooding, lone crusader and yet can’t help but create a surrogate family for himself. The real tragedy of Bruce Wayne isn’t that he lost his parents when he was a boy; it’s that he’s let the trauma of that loss isolate him so much that he can never truly open up and allow himself to fully love and be loved by these people he’s surrounded himself with. I would love to have seen this kind of aspect explored in one of the films, but sadly anytime we get close it always seems to be time to hit the reset button once again.
However, even with my regrets for what might have been and apprehension about what is to be, you can still count on me being one of the first in line to see the next film. Batman has always been, and will always be, one of my favorite characters, and while there may be some interpretations I like more then others, I can’t honestly say there’s a version that I flat out dislike. I’m reminded of something said by Bruce Timm, producer/director of the 90’s Batman: The Animated Series:
“I can still watch the Adam West shows and I can still read the Frank Miller Dark Knight comics and I can watch the movies, you know? It’s like, they’re all different, but they’re all Batman.”
Amen to that.