Batman came first, in the character’s 50th anniversary year, 1989. When I saw this movie in theaters for the first time, it kicked my ass. The costume, the Batmobile, the Batwing, the music, the Joker, and there was Batman, dark and grim and bigger than life – what an experience. I was 9 years old.
Batman Returns opened in 1992 and, impossible as it may seem, it was even better. Two villains this time – Penguin and Catwoman – and new tricks added to the Batmobile! Not just the car – there was a Batboat this time around, too (a Bat-ski for the anal retentive among you). And the music! Was Danny Elfman the greatest composer who ever lived, or what? I was 12 years old.
In 1995 came Batman Forever. There was a new Batman, a new director, a whole new style to the thing. Out with the shadows, in with the neon. This one didn’t impress me as much. Val Kilmer wasn’t exactly Captain Charisma as Batman, but he was so good in Tombstone and Heat that he deserved the benefit of the doubt. The new Batmobile was garish, the new score by Eliot Goldenthal crude and overbearing, and even back then I felt that Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey overplayed it as Two-Face and the Riddler. Still, I told myself, not a bad movie. A pretty slick operation. I was 15 years old, and I loved me some Batman movies.
Then something changed. Batman Forever was released on home video, and Mom bought it for me just as she had the first two. I watched it a few times, and I started to notice things. Why had Batman apparently attended the trial where Harvey Dent had been scarred, in full costume? If Two-Face was half-good and half-evil, why did he seem angry when his coin came up good? Why was the soundtrack suddenly packed with rock songs? Wasn’t Bruce’s decision to give up being Batman a little hasty – and pointless, since it lasted about five minutes? How the hell did he build that personal subway tube from his office to the Batcave? What was the point of Batman’s supposedly high-tech new costume at the end? Those radar-lens things that came over his eyes didn’t seem to actually do anything, and the rest of the outfit looked even bulkier and harder to move in than his other one.
Come to think of it, the costume looked that way in the first two movies, too, and Batman never appeared all that agile, or even mobile . . .
So, things started to unravel. In the space of a few days, Batman Forever went from the lesser of the three films to a bona fide bad movie. Little by little, I was forced to give up my affection for the earlier films, as well. I shouldn’t say “forced,” because there was no gun to my head, and I don’t regret or resent not being able to like the Batman movies anymore. I grew up, I watched more and better movies, my frame of reference grew and my tastes evolved. I realized that I had standards that determined whether or not I liked a movie, standards I wasn’t even conscious of most of the time, but which were undeniably there. The Batman films had to be evaluated by those standards, just like every other movie I saw, and when they were, they didn’t hold up.
Batman may have rocked my world when I was 9, but here’s what I can tell you at 26: It’s a dreary, charmless, pointless movie, but its greatest sin is that it is simply boring. People meet, histories are revealed, choices are made, and it all falls flat because the story is anchored in the action and the explosions instead of the characters. This is a flaw that affects the other films in the series, as well, but here especially it makes for a profoundly hollow and uninteresting film. This film is also the first of the series to exhibit another flaw: the recognizable Batman from the comic books is nowhere to be found. The most egregious example is at the end of the movie, when Batman murders the Joker. The names are the same, the characters are all ostensibly here, but they bear no resemblance to their counterparts in the source material. With 50 years of Batman comics to draw on at the point this film was made, the complete lack of reference, visually, through dialogue, or otherwise, is baffling.
I still think Batman Returns is better than the first one, but not by much. Everything that made the first Batman a dull, depressing piece of shit is here, but at least Tim Burton indulged himself more in the set design, giving us an abstract, expressionistic Gotham City, decorated by giant gray statues. Is it the Gotham City I imagine when I read Batman comics? No, not at all. But at least it’s interesting to look at. Here again, we find an absence of reference to the comic books, though I suppose the “Penguin Runs For Mayor” plot could be considered an homage to an episode of the 1960’s TV series. That, or plagiarism. Batman murders someone in this one, too – stuffing explosives down the pants of one of Penguin’s goons, then shoving him down a flight of stairs to die, with a vicious grin. He’s some hero.
Batman Forever at least avoids being boring a lot of the time, but it goes for the opposite extreme and becomes incredibly annoying. Its story is just as superficial and meaningless as the previous films, and Joel Schumacher compensates by telling it with an absolute absence of restraint. Even the credits are the “3-D flying names” kind that whoosh by you with loud sound effects and take forever to end. I’ve already mentioned the overbearing score and the shitty overacting, the preponderance of neon and the shitty new glow-in-the-dark Batmobile. Not only annoying, the movie is often just downright fucking stupid, like when the Batmobile drives up the side of a building. Like in Batman Returns, the closest thing here to a reference to the comic books is a quote – pardon me, theft – from a Batman television series, this time the overrated Batman: The Animated Series, when Batman kills Two-Face by throwing him a handful of identical coins, causing him to fall to his death. In the animated series episode, Batman does not kill Two-Face; at least they got that much right.
So when Batman & Robin opened in 1997, I was prepared. At least I thought I was. I expected it to suck. I suppose I was right, in the same sense that astronomers were right when they expected the sun to be hot. Batman & Robin is the worst movie ever made. Forget Ishtar, forget everything Ed Wood ever did, this is it. I’d like to believe that human beings are not capable of making a film this bad, that there is something sinister and primeval at work here. Parents in some ancient cultures used the threat of watching Batman & Robin to frighten disobedient children. No records survive to tell how well this worked on the kids, but I can say that it fucking well would have worked on me. This is the movie that jerks me awake at night in a cold-sweat, and not for any of the good reasons.
Eight years later, after numerous rumors and false-starts, came Batman Begins, the much heralded restart of the franchise. This was a whole new operation, new director, new cast, new writer, a fresh start for the character. This time they were going to do it right. Except that they didn’t. I already covered how I feel about Batman Begins in some detail in my Superman Returns review, so instead of repeating myself, I’ll just say this: This is a bad movie. Not as bad as any of the other Batman movies I’ve written about here, certainly. By process of elimination, it is the best Batman movie ever made. This is still a bad movie. The acting is better, the set design, the tone, all improvements. But this is a really, really poorly written movie. The story depends on its characters, including the supposedly intelligent Batman, being morons. It tries to act interested in its characters, showing us Batman’s origins, the murder of his parents and subsequent training abroad, but in the end the movie cares more about trying to impress us with outlandish action sequences and explosions than with trying to tell us a meaningful story. The costume still looks clumsy and unconvincing, the Batmobile looks dumber than ever (and doesn’t just drive up buildings, but actually on rooftops this time), and the story is cluttered with about 17 different villains. Batman Begins is enjoying a lot of popularity among the comic geek set because it seems to be a more serious take on the character than the previous attempts, but if you evaluate it as the film it actually is rather than the film you want it to be, you see that this isn’t a serious film at all. It’s the same loud, nonsensical garbage that makers of Batman films have been producing since 1989.
Believe me, I get no joy from saying that. I love Batman. I’ve loved the character since I saw the first movie. I suppose I owe the films at least that. They sparked my interest in Batman, and in comic books in general. The more Batman comics I read, the more about the character I learned, the more I realized that none of the movies, including Batman Begins, got it right. This can be a great character, mysterious, intriguing and exciting. He can be used to tell great stories. But he’s nowhere to be found in Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever, Batman & Robin, or Batman Begins. Look at the Spider-Man movies. Look at Hulk. Look at Superman Returns for the best example. These are recent superhero films that really get it right, that are able to take liberties while still honoring the characters and preserving what makes them worth following in the first place. They thrill and excite, but they put story before action and special effects. I hope someday I can add a Batman film to their number. But, after Batman Begins, it ain’t looking good.
UPDATE (7/19/2008): But oh, how sweet it is to be proven wrong! Check out my review of The Dark Knight, the brilliant sequel to Batman Begins, right here. It's as far above Batman Begins as 2001: A Space Odyssey is above Plan 9 From Outer Space.