Wow, how Batman can go off the rails when put in the wrong hands. I recently rewatched the 1989 Tim Burton Batman and was blown away by its bold style, dark humor and everyone’s level of commitment to this heightened universe. I know Nolan gets all the credit for making the gritty, realistic Batman, but I don’t need him to exist in my world. Burton’s vision of a 1930’s cartoonishly drawn Gotham works because the peril feels real and the visuals are corrupting. Jack Nicholson’s disfigured Joker with his plasticy face that is more creepy as a normal skin tone or the two bit crooks Batman encounters in the opening who look like Tommy in Trainspotting post-AIDS are really disturbing. I was so impressed that the first swing at making a Batman movie post Adam West cult classic TV show, managed to still have that childlike appeal of a comic book but have this sinister edge. After the well-earned success of this blockbuster, sequels were bound to follow and the bar was set insanely high. You may ask why I decided to jump all the way to the end of this quadrilogy bypassing Batman Returns which has the incomparable Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman and penguins with bombs strapped on their backs and then Batman Forever a movie I’ve never seen so I can make a comment on how great the villains are and ending up at the notoriously panned nail in the coffin that is Batman & Robin. Is it because it was all that was available at the library? Who’s to say but there is some small connection I have to this forlorn entry. While I didn’t see it upon release when I was the ripe age of 5 (the target demo) I did have the coloring book which made me aware of the characters and broad design of the feature. Twenty years later the images in that book pay off and I saw that world animate in front of my eyes, and boy is it a shit show.
Joel Schumacher is definitely the person I’m gonna blame for all of this. Taking over the reigns from Burton, there is a huge visual and tonal shift that accounts for the downfall of this film. The stories are always the same, Batman comes up against some big baddies, usually two wackos that got their powers from falling into a vat of fill-in-the-blank and their plans for overtaking Gotham must be squashed. Because of the simplicity, it all comes down to the execution. Burton’s color pallet was hues of black and when there would be splashes of color like in the Prince scored Balloon Parade it really pops. That’s why the Joker’s white and green face is so striking because it’s contrasted against a black backdrop of the city. Here, Schumacher takes that cartoon element and runs with it more literally. Every set is painted in heavy neon. The movie never feels dark because there’s so much neon light pouring in at every angle. Just looking at the poster itself, it’s very honed in on the fact that if Mr. Freeze is around, everything is super blue or Poison Ivy, it’s painfully green. He then also tweaks the tone to fit that brightness. Gone is the disturbing grossness you get with a creep like Penguin. Every inch of this movie has to be bubbly, big and kid friendly. All the henchmen do extreme sports which relegate our heroes to having to fight on roller skates, motorcycles and sky diving surf boards. It’s a clear reminder at how lame extreme sports are but that they were studio shorthand for “cool” in the late 90’s. All the sets look like cheap paintball arenas compared to the well crafted, gothic scenery of Burton’s landscape. As someone who loves a hand built, practical set I found myself cringing at locations like the artificial icicle lair and Poison Ivy’s Audrey Two puppet.
It’s pretty obvious that what makes Batman so great are his villains and it has been stated already that it often stands as the best way to judge a Batman movie. I definitely wouldn’t want to have this movie solely be judged by its heroes because they’re pretty abysmal. George Clooney taking over the role filled first by Michael Keaton then Val Kilmer, the salt and pepper haired gentleman seems less than thrilled to be taking on the iconic caped crusader. Clooney sleepwalks as Bruce Wayne made only more clear by the high energy, chipper demeanor Chris O’Donnell brings to the boy wonder. The newest edition to their crew is Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl and she’s never been the greatest actress to begin with but when saddled with dialogue only written in quips, she can not sell the contrived lines like “watch and learn, little boy.” The quips and puns are a staple of the campy Batman era and are in full swing here as that is only way Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy know how to communicate. Mr.Freeze is the central villain with his diamond robbing needs and character motivation of trying to find a cure for his cryogenically frozen wife. Schwarzenegger has the natural build for a super villain but due to the goofiness of the environment, he never feels like a threat, just a rogue agent of the Blue Man Group. Poison Ivy (played by Uma Thurman) becomes the nastiest of the baddies mostly because she’s a woman and her transformation from nerdy scientist Pamela Isley to a vivacious seductress in a coded sexual awakening makes her be fit for ultimate punishment. Antiquated sexual politics strikes again! Uma Thurman is by far is my MVP because she’s having a grand time delivering every line with a slice of ham. Least valuable player goes to Bane who is played by a luchador Stretch Armstrong which is one of the most disappointing characters I’ve ever seen put on screen. Once you’ve had Tom Hardy do it right, you can’t turn back,
From the word go, my reaction to this was “is this a joke?” It literally begins with ass shots of Batman and Robin suiting up. I wish I could say that the juicy homoeroticism continues throughout but it’s just this weird note to kick off the action. This is a children’s movie that starts like a gay porn. It’s so hokey and the campiness isn’t fully embraced by the cast and ontop of that is overshadowed by the obvious angle that this movie exists to sell toys. It’s caught in such a limbo of intent. Lost Boys is a better example of Schumacher’s ability to make a children’s film that can balance the camp and the darkness while appealing to a broader audience. Batman & Robin dissolved the 90’s incarnation of Batman, only reviving its credibility with the animated series then getting a second chance with Batman Begins. I find myself enjoying the muddled mythology and vicissitude of Batman’s on-screen history which all pays off in Lego Batman. Suprise! Didn’t expect this review to be a ploy to praise Lego Batman but that’s the kind of chaos the Joker would unequivocally approve of.