End of Summer
 

"I See Batman…In A Dress!"

by Michael Hutchison
With collages by Chad Sanborn

The quote above is from Animaniacs

What I really want to do is direct. Really. I moved to Minneapolis to study film, but the lack of time and money to go back to school have put it on a back burner, perhaps permanently. Nonetheless, writing screenplays and studying film remain my passions. I'd especially love to do a superhero movie that would capture the essence of a comic book, something that has rarely if ever been done. Perhaps the Batman films have come the closest to replicating the world of that character…and that amazes me, because they're still so far off in so many ways.

Back in the mid-80s, I used to envision how I'd do a Batman movie (I even cast DeVito as the Penguin, believe it or not), so maybe I contrast the films too closely to my vision. But I'm not egotistical; I don't believe that I'm the only one who could make a truly great Batman film. In fact, the more Bat-fans I meet, the more I find that we're all on the same wavelength about who Batman is and how he should be portrayed.

So why has the Bat-franchise, despite some commercial success, been so far off the mark?

Batman

Batman (1989) gave me a thrill from the first preview of the caped figure crashing through a skylight. I knew this movie was going to be great, and I managed to make it in the opening weekend. The sensations of this movie were spot-on, from the Bernard Hermann-eque score (which bears more than passing resemblence to actual Hermann pieces, particularly Journey to the Center of the Earth, but I won't call Danny Elfman a plagiarist because I enjoy his music too much!) to Anton Furst's vision of Gotham City as "Hell that broke through to the surface." The Batmobile was perfect, an adjective I rarely use. The soundtrack, the sets, the costuming (particularly the Gotham Police trenchcoats), the lighting…artistically, this movie was a delight and came as close to duplicating the world of Batman as any fan could have hoped.

But a movie also needs a story, characters and acting, and these elements caused Batman to fall short. The plot seems fairly straightforward and logical, although it hinges on the unlikely chance of Joker falling for Batman's girlfriend (come on, Gotham is a city with millions of women, right?) and his being the one who killed the Waynes (again, quite a coinkydink).

I've always seen Batman as a detective and an acrobatic martial artist, elements which are seriously downplayed. The only hint of detective work is his tracing the Smylex poison to cosmetics, and we never actually see him working. As for martial arts, the costume is so heavy and limiting that Batman can only make his rotating upwards punch and a few other maneuvers. Acrobatics are impossible, and his swinging-on-a-batrope looks like he's being hauled around on a construction crane. For a man supposedly at the peak of athletic perfection, he mainly sits behind the wheel of a vehicle and presses buttons.

Batman should be perching on gargoyles, hanging upside down outside windows to spy on suspects, nimbly leaping up the outside of fire escapes, plunging from rooftops and bouncing off lightpoles. Instead, we're given chair-bound heroics more suited to the button-pushing Chief of the Doom Patrol.

My biggest complaint was the lack of an origin. Batman is given so little time in his own movie, due to the scene-glomming Jack Nicholson and the leggy Kim Basinger, that we never get to find out what made him decide to become a costumed crimefighter, how he trained for it, what prompted him to dress as a bat, how he amassed his gadgets, or any of the numerous questions the audience has. Why does he become Batman? Thousands and thousands of people have witnessed family members lost to crime and they don't all don tights (or in this case, muscled rubber armor).

The acting was respectable. Jack Nicholson, although not my preference for the Joker, turned in an over-the-top performance and is generally considered the highlight of the film. Michael Keaton was an odd choice for Batman, but he was a fine Bruce Wayne. Considering the small amount of time he was given in the movie, and the fact that Batman is mostly seen either stoically driving a vehicle or portrayed by stuntmen in the fight sequences, there isn't much performance available for critiqueing. Kim Basinger isn't as bad as she usually is.

Oh, and the over-hyped music by the Artist-Formerly-Known-As-Prince-At-That-Time- Still-Called-Prince was a huge mistake.

I was looking forward to the next movie in the adventure series, figuring that the moviemakers would read the critiques and make amends in "Batman Returns." Surely the next one would allow us more time for Bruce Wayne and give us a few glimpses of his origin, right?

I am such an optimist!

Batman Returns

Batman Returns (1992) offered two villains, Penguin and Catwoman. I was intrigued that they'd made the choice to bring us a team-up, but I wondered how they could fit in two origins and two characters for us to meet and still give adequate screen time for Batman and Bruce Wayne. This was quite a challenge…and one that the filmmakers were unable to meet.

The summary of this movie heard over and over again is that it's "too dark." But that's incorrect. Batman is supposed to be dark! "Grisly" or "disgusting" might be a better term, and most of it is due to the adaptation of the Penguin from a well-dressed fop into a misshapen freak. The movie version was very unpleasant, what with his nose-biting and his grunting sexual advances on Catwoman.
Batman Returns, like the two films that followed, was two "germs-of-a-good-idea" ruined by mashing them into one. Certainly, Catwoman's movie is much better than Penguin's movie (despite her silly "brought back to life by cats" origin).

The Circus Gang

In a nutshell, I was bothered by the Bond-ness of Batman in the first two films. James Bond has always been a user of women who remorselessly dispatches human beings using fantastic gadgets amid great spectacle…and it would appear that the makers of Batman merely copied the formula, despite great differences in the characters.

The first two Bat-films showed Batman dispassionately killing many people (the henchmen at the chemical factory, the henchmen in the tower, the carnival strongman and fire breather in Batman Returns), as well as arming his vehicles with chain guns and missiles. Batman never kills! To me, this is a defining characteristic of Batman and seeing him calmly turn away from someone falling to their death or being burned alive rubs me very wrong!

Batman is also a loner. He dates casually as Bruce Wayne more to maintain his image than to find a lifemate. Yet each movie has found it necessary to incorporate a "love interest." Yes, screenwriting books do have a format of Hero-Villain-Love Interest-Reflection, but this isn't a necessity for every movie (Where is the love interest in Home Alone or E.T.?) Not only are these obligatory love interests out of character for Batman, they seriously eat into the screen time. We KNOW Batman will never settle down, so why must we waste a quarter of the movie following the romantic adventures of Bruce Wayne? Selina (Catwoman) Kyle has been the only love interest that was essential to the plot of the movie.

Director Tim Burton is a very cold artist. As stylish directors go, he may be one of the best in the business…and I'm talking ever! But Burton just doesn't seem to understand the human heart well enough to deliver an uplifting ending. Every single one of his movies, even the charming Edward Scissorhands, leaves the audience in a sober mood at the end. Even the films that are supposed to be cute or whimsical (Nightmare Before Christmas, Edward Scissorhands, Frankenweenie) can only manage poignancy. This is, by the way, the main reason most comic readers do not want Burton directing the new Superman movie.

With the disappointing reviews of Batman Returns, I figured that we'd seen the end of villain team-ups; any filmmaker with half a brain would realize that the big hang-up was trying to do too much within the time constraints of a two hour movie, right? Surely, the next one would have just one villain so that they could do him (or her) and Batman justice.

Two-Face

So Batman Forever (1995) has Batman and Robin and Two-Face and the Riddler…and Chase Meridian, a love interest who has to throw herself at Batman the moment she sees him just to fit into this overcrowded movie. The same discourteous lack of development is shown to Tommy Lee Jones' Two-Face (somehow, Harvey Dent becomes a caucasian again). The very hot Jim Carrey steals the movie as the Riddler, despite hatching one of the worst criminal plots yet. We get a new Batman, Val Kilmer, whose young looks are accentuated by the fact that Chris O'Donnell as Robin looks the same age as him.
…And we get Joel Schumacher, the Bane who really broke Batman's back. We can only hope that someday castration will be applied to film directors. Does this guy really think Batman survived as a character for almost six decades because readers want to see his buttocks? Plus, the male leads seem to have been cast mostly because they have pouty lips.

Suddenly, Gotham City is transmogrified into a hideous display of giant naked men, glow-in-the-dark graffiti, neon lights and street gangs armed with black lights (I don't understand how drug pushers expect to hide from police when they glow.)! Batman and Robin's already-ridiculous rubber muscle armor now comes trimmed with nipples. There are rotating light shows everywhere. And the music is now doing horn riffs reminiscent of the Adam West Batman series.

Back to the non-plot: this movie yet again grinds the grains of good ideas into a flour that nobody likes. There's a pretty good movie about duality, involving Two Face and a psychiatrist analyzing Batman's psyche. There's also a pretty bad movie about the Riddler inventing a mind-sucking device. Mash them together and you do not get a tasty Reese's Peanut Butter Cup.

Two Face is probably one of the deepest characters in Batman's rogues gallery, torn between good and evil and so committed to both that only his coin decides for him. Batman considers Harvey Dent a close friend and is always hopeful that Harvey can recover. The movie tries to emphasize these elements at the very end…but as they're given almost no build-up throughout the film, they seem so out of place that the average movie-goer doesn't even know what they're talking about. The end result is a poor man's Joker.

Jim Carrey is wonderful as the Riddler, but the mind control plot is very inappropriate and detracts from his role. Unfortunately, he goes the Joker route, too, with more madness than the quiet cunning of the comic book character.

The plot has far, far too many holes and contrivances for me to list here.

To its credit, Batman Forever does give us the first glimpse at Bruce's inspiration for becoming Batman. Nicole Kidman's Chase Meridian is a fantastic match for Bruce, no matter how badly she's written into the over-packed plot (although why does Bruce say that he's never been in love before?). And we finally get to see Arkham Asylum (with Rene Auburjonois as "Dr. Burton"). But these elements aren't enough to make up for this stinker.

This movie also introduces one of the most horrid characters of any Batman movie: Gossip Gertie. It's shocking to think that the thousands of dollars budgeted for this woman to speak could have gone towards a few more lines of real character development for Bruce Wayne. Methinks that the actress portraying her knows a lot of guys with names like Anthony and Vito and Jimmy, if you catch my drift.

After that awful movie, I knew that the people at Warner Brothers would have to re-think the Batman "franchise." They'd start casting people based on their appropriateness for the role, not their star power. They'd go back to having one villain and a straight-forward plot that made sense. They'd get a court order to keep Joel Schumacher away from the set. I mean, it would take a moron to not see the problems with the last movie, right?

Batman And Robin

Batman and Robin (1997) features Batman, Robin, Batgirl, Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, Bane, Jason Woodrue, Julie Madison and a larger role for Alfred. This movie is so overwhelmingly packed that Pamela Iseley's character development is limited to maniacally dictating exposition into a tape recorder. And I've never believed in that old chestnut about undeserving actresses getting roles in movies by providing sexual favors to producers…but Gossip Gertie is back, so draw your own conclusions.

First of all, why would anyone put Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy in the same movie? Maybe they don't do enough farming in Hollywood, but ice is bad for plants! This team-up is ridiculous.

I would never have picked Arnold Schwarzeneggar to play Mr. Freeze, but he does a surprisingly good job. His dialogue is laden with ice and snow puns, but that's more the fault of the writers who resorted to snappy Terminator-esque phrases (and a slew of set action pieces) in lieu of real character development. Perhaps this is just a sign of how rancid this film is, but Mr. Freeze is the deepest character in it.

Uma Thurman camps it up to beat the band. Basically, she tries to do a reheated version of Pfeiffer's Catwoman in only a quarter of the time, as she hurls expository dialogue, waves her arms wildly and blows dust from her palm about fifty times. Bane and Woodrue are wasted. For that matter, so is Batgirl; Schumacher finds time to show Barbara in a protracted motorcycle race just to emphasize that she's not a nice girl. God forbid he should use that time for some quality insight into who she is. Her origin basically consists of breaking into the Batcave and putting on a suit that Alfred made for her. (Ever notice how no one seems to need any training in these movies?)

George Clooney's probably the best Batman/Bruce Wayne choice so far, although he has about four minutes of real screen time to prove it. Unfortunately, his time is devoted to melodramatic flashbacks about Alfred.

There are a few pluses: Instead of two headlining villains trying to squeeze their incongruous plots into one story, Mr. Freeze is obviously the main villain. Batman and Robin would have been much better if Poison Ivy had been left out completely, as she's totally unnecessary to the Mr. Freeze plotline and there really isn't any story for her. And call me a fanboy, but I like the little touches like the mention of Superman and the sight of the Riddler and Two Face costumes in an Arkham Asylum closet.

The final nail in this movie's badness coffin is the charity ball scene. Batman and Robin are not only seen in public but stand in the spotlight (I keep expecting them to start dancing the Batusi). Plus, we have Batman "setting a trap" for a known killer amidst hundreds of people!

We've already discussed the garish appearance and homoerotic overtones of the Schumacher Batman films, but there is one other element worth mentioning: the over-the-top stunts. We've always had to suspend our disbelief when it comes to Batman, but these last two movies have totally abandoned the pretense that Batman is a normal human. Witness the skyboarding of the last movie (obviously, you can survive a fall from the upper atmosphere if you have a board below your feet), Robin's hanging onto the outside of a rocket or Batman leaping from a skyscraper and making absolutely no effort to break his fall.

So far, there has been only one movie that was everything a Batman film should be: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993) gave us a believeable romance, insights into how Bruce became Batman, a solid storyline, excellent dialogue and good acting! See how good a film can be when it's done by people whose main concern is to tell a good story?

Movie 5?

The general consensus is that Schumacher has killed Batman and there will be no more Batman movies. We Bat-fans have spent most of a decade watching these filmmakers who just don't get it! Even with most of the best villains wasted, it's still possible to make a Batman movie that would be box office dynamite if the people at Warner would just follow a few simple guidelines:

  1. Have a plot that makes sense. To do this, remember that showbiz cliche, "What's my motivation?" Put yourself in the mind of your villain, figure out his or her objectives, and then draft a basic storyline of the villain trying to reach that objective and Batman stopping him/her.
  2. Along the same lines, avoid set pieces. You want a scene of Batman riding in a missile. Is it at all believeable? Does it fit in with the plot? Is there a good reason for the villain to be doing this in the first place? If the answer is no, be willing to sacrifice a scene for the integrity of the overall movie.
  3. Stick to one villain. If not that, one main villain and one sub-villain (as either a servant to the main villain, a smaller, separate plot or perhaps as an introductory case that Batman resolves before he meets the main villain). If all else fails, only team them up if it makes sense!
  4. Batman is a detective. Show him using these skills. Pit him against an enemy who challenges his mind as well as his body.
  5. Batman is a martial arts genius. Show him defeating somebody formidable without resorting to gimmicks.
  6. Batman is a loner. He doesn't need a love interest. Only put a love interest in the movie if it's essential to the plot.
  7. Batman is not Superman. He grunts and he sweats and he tires. He is fallible. He is breakable. He can get hurt, even severely hurt. This is an essential part of his appeal. Don't let him perform impossible feats just because he's Batman. Repeat: Batman is NOT Superman.
  8. Robin should be a young boy, but Schumacher stuck you with a 90210-ish adult. Get rid of him. Either have him mature into Nightwing and leave, or kill him off as a plot point, or have him run away. Whatever.
  9. Ditch Batgirl. Pretend she never existed. Or shoot her through the spine and have her run Batman's computer.
  10. Show us how Bruce Wayne trained to become Batman and how he runs his operation.
  11. Essentially, this: Less Ostentatious, More Depth.

For villains…well, these last three movies have wasted some of the most well-known ones, but there are still a few good baddies.

Ra's Al Ghul is a fantastic villain. He is Batman's equal in brains, training and resources. An added bonus is that the love interest, Talia, won't detract from the plot at all. The only downside to Ra's is that the general public doesn't know him. For the makers of a movie, that's a big "con". I say, screw the action figure angle. Batman sells the movie, and it can only benefit from a good villain and a good plot. Call it Batman: The Demon's Head and call Ra's that a couple times, and people won't need to pronounce his real name. For him, there are three good choices: Ben Kingsley, Patrick Stewart or Kevin Spacey.

Scarecrow is the only other "headliner" left. A movie all about fear could be a great plot, so long as he isn't teamed with someone incongruous like The Mad Hatter. I can see Schumacher trying to tie those two together by having the Hatter create a fear-inducing hat. Brrrrrr. For the Scarecrow, Jeff Goldblum's always been my first and only choice (going back years before the current discussion), given that he's tall, thin and even looks like Professor Crane.

Other villains can be used in different ways. We can always start the movie with Batman capturing one (Ventriloquist, The Mad Hatter, Man-Bat, Killer Moth). Others would be good as henchmen of the main villain (Clayface, Killer Croc, Deadshot).

Working off of all these suggestions, here's my off-the-cuff idea for a fifth Batman movie:

Batman begins the movie on the trail of the Ventriloquist (or Mad Hatter) and bumps into Talia. Distracted, the villain gets away. Batman returns to the cave, where Bruce is waiting in a wheelchair. Dick Grayson removes the cowl and admits that Batman's job is quite difficult; he'll cover for Bruce until his leg is better, then he's moving away to become Nightwing (getting rid of Robin).

Talia tells her father, Ra's Al Ghul, of Batman. Ra's begins to search out Batman's identity. In the process, he tracks down Batman's old teachers (revealing more of Bruce's background) and defeats or kills them (thus establishing Ra's Al Ghul's skill and villainy). He also hunts out Batman's suppliers such as Jack Edison, designer of the Batmobile.

From there on, the plot could be taken almost directly from any Ra's Al Ghul story. They're pretty much all the same. Ra's reveals that he knows Bruce's identity. Talia romances Bruce and Ra's makes it clear that he wants them to marry. Bruce finds out about Ra's evil schemes for a new world order and rejects Ra's. They fight, Ra's dies and is reborn in the Lazarus Pit. And in the end, something blows up, Ra's is seemingly killed and Talia's torn by her love and hatred for Bruce.

Admittedly, this is pretty standard stuff for us (regular readers of Batman), but it would be a welcome change for the movie-going public. Besides, I'll take "standard stuff" over "mind-numbed crappola" any day. The fun is in the details, of course, but I'm not being paid to write a script for a movie. Yet.

 
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