Thursday, July 19, 2012

Film Review - Batman Retrospective - Batman Forever (1995)

Hey all!

Still excited about The Dark Knight Rises?! Damn right you are!

As such, Ranticular will be running a fortnight retrospective of all the Batman films that have received theatrical release ever! Because my love of my fans is only exceeded by my love for Batman...

 Batman Forever (1995)

Plot: Batman must over-come a police psychologist stalking him and also stop the Riddler from eating all the scenery on planet Earth. Meanwhile, the Joker appears to have been reborn in the body of Two-Face. Despite Robin being in the title of the next film, he actually makes his first appearance here. He has a silly looking earring and looks like a gay pirate. Holy falling franchise Batman!

Director: Joel Schumacher

Actors: Val Kilmer (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Jim Carrey (Edward Nygma/The Riddler), Chris O'Donnell (Dick Grayson/Robin), Tommy Lee Jones (Harvey Dent/Two-Face), Nicole Kidman (Dr.Chase)

The Film Itself:

After Batman Returns suffered a huge public back-lash for it's more adult nature (and since no one saw Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm), Warner Brothers decided that an innocent, more family-friendly (read: more toy-erific) direction was needed for future films and with that in mind they recruited Joel Schumacher, director of Time To Kill, The Client and ranticular favourite Falling Down. Joel had made a name for himself with hard-hitting, socially aware drama's, often with a vicious undertone. So obviously his directing of this toy commercial of a film made total sense.

In his defense,  Joel was noted as being legitimately a huge Batman comics fan. In fact, Joel's original pitch to Warner Brothers, a very faithful adaption of Frank Miller's classic comic Batman: Year One was shot down by Warner Brothers who instead urged him towards a film harking back to the classic 1960's Adam West Batman Tv series. Tim Burton agreed to stay on as producer, so all your Burtonites don't get off that easily, Tim Burton still had a hand in ruining Batman!

The problems start early in Batman Forever. The title screen which has the actors name's travel across the screen comes complete with (I shit thee not) car engine noises. Yes, the noises one might make as a child when pretending their toy cars were real. Oh sweet baby Jesus...

To set the tone for the rest of the film, Batman Forever formally opens with this shot.

What Tea-Bagging The Audience Looks Like

It doesn't really get a whole lot better from here. Now before I get accusations of being homophobic for not liking Bat-cock shoved in my face, i'd like to point out that...

A) - I'm bi (and not a self-loathing bi either) so this doesn't bother me for being 'gay'. However...

B) - Batman's crotch never actually factors into the film in any way.

C) - This scene doesn't actually look like a suiting-up scene. More like Batman is doing a series of twirls and half-turns for Alfred, perhaps on the bat-fashion-walkway they just installed in the Bat-cave.

D) - If I was put off by homo-erotic subtext, the Batman movies would have defeated me quite a few films ago.

Anyhow, aside from the fact he has a penis, how does Val Kilmer's Batman hold up? How to put this...He is the George Lazenby of the Batman film universe. Other then admittedly looking rather bad-ass in the costume, his Batman and Bruce Wayne are horrible, in my opinion the worst ever. His Batman comes across as if he is half asleep, which makes the quip-heavy script seem even lazier then it is (and ohhhh is it lazy!) This gives some lines a hilarious dead-pan delivery that was evidently not intended, such as Batman explaining to police psychologist Dr.Chase that "Bats arn't rodents" as if the good doctor was two years old. 

In fairness, Dr.Chase's response ("By the way, do you have a first name, or should I call you Bats?") is the worst line in the whole damn movie. Yes Dr.Chase, his first name is Joe. Joe Batman.

Anyhow, marvel at Batman's look of steely determination no that's not right... his look of focused aggression nope that's not it either... his look of constipated apathy. Yeah that's the one.

Apart From This Face, Which Is Terrifying

Kilmer's Bruce Wayne, one the other hand, is a turtle-neck wearing snob who seems to be constantly condescending and irritated even when trying to emote. Also, I'm not sure if it's intentional or not but Val Kilmer's attempt at an upper-class accent results in Bruce Wayne having a very slight lisp, which at least guarantees no one would suspect him of being Batman. He also has a plot point involving his father's red diary that is developed but never resolved, seemingly one of many things lost in Warner Brothers editing-room-recut of the film. I sense the red diary plot was a major factor in fleshing out and motivating the character of Bruce Wayne and it's lack of resolution means Bruce Wayne has no evident arc to speak of in this film, despite plenty of screen time (unlike Batman Returns).

I also feel that the film mis-handles Bruce Wayne's reasons for being Batman. At the end of the film, when faced with the Riddlers final riddle, Batman claims (out of nowhere) that he is both Bruce Wayne and Batman, not because he has to be but because he chooses to be. This scene, while a complete reverse of the Batman mentality from Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm, might have worked in that it shows Batman accepting the role of Batman as a necessity in his life... except not twenty minutes before-hand Batman told Robin that he was immediately retiring from being Batman. Because of a woman he kissed, once. This decision being made, I might add, while Two-Face and the Riddler are still at large and happily killing the citizens of Gotham. Our hero, ladies and gentlemen!

Dr.Chase, the world's least professional criminal psychologist, is the love interest for both Batman & Bruce Wayne in this movie. Nicole Kidman does her best with what the script gives her and the idea of her falling for both Batman and Bruce Wayne at the same time is an interesting twist on Catwoman's romantic arc. Sadly, Dr.Chase's scenes with Batman have her practically begging Batman to repeat that opening crotch shot for her, while her scenes with Bruce Wayne have zero chemistry. Maybe it's because I studied psychology myself in college but I find the writers complete disregard for her field (using the term 'wacko', making up conditions that don't exist) to be teeth-grindingly annoying. Her one great scene is when she manages to make Bruce Wayne irrationally sexually jealous of Batman, which is hilarious. Not that Kilmer's acting makes his easy to notice mind you... 

For such child-friendly fare, the sexual sub-text of Dr.Chase is incredibly potent. I entirely believe the sum of Joel's direction for her character was to drip like a broken fridge in every scene she is in with Batman. While Catwoman did have a similar dual love affair going on, Catwoman was technically two different characters, mentally ill and not an employee of the Gotham police department. Dr.Chase goes so far as to deliberately mis-use the Bat-signal to show Batman her underwear, only stopping because police chief Gordon (reduced from a police officer to a lost OAP) wanders out in his pajamas to see why the signal is on. 

"Hey Guys, I Had The Most Wonderful Dream. It Was 2005 And My Character Was Being Shown Some Respect..."

Lastly on the heroes side there is Dick Grayson, the circus performer turned crime-fighter better known as Robin. While Batman is the worst part of Batman Forever, Robin is the most confusing. After watching Two-Face murder his parents, Robin vows revenge and... gets adopted by Bruce Wayne. Which would be fine if not for the fact the film clearly highlights that Robin is over the age of 18, meaning Robin gets illegally kidnapped and detained by Bruce, who refuses to let him go out and bribes him using Alfred's delicious beef burgers. I didn't make a single line of that up. 

Robin's dialogue consists almost entirely of "Wahhhhhhhhh wahhhhhhhh wahhhhhhhh." He complains and moans his way into becoming Robin (he literally does nothing else the entire movie), creepily helped along by Alfred, who seems to be delighted to put another young life in danger for fun. Robin feels wrong here, with his script clearly written for someone much younger then Chris O'Donnell, resulting in a very strange performance that quickly becomes incredibly annoying. There is no difference between the characters of Dick Greyson and Robin, which makes the character even more tedious.Thankfully, there is little for Robin to do in the film beyond steal the Bat-mobile to pick up chicks (who appear to be prostitutes... Red Robin indeed...) and get kidnapped by the Riddler at the end.

So the casting of the heroes has no redeeming features but what if I told you the casting of the villains was strangely even worse?

No Wai!

Let's not mince words, Tommy Lee Jones is fucking terrible in this, almost as bad as Val Kilmer. I like him as an actor (Men In Black is one of my favourite sci-fi movies ever!), but he plays Two-Face like he's imitating Cesar Romero playing the Joker dressed like Two-Face. He obviously had little familiarity with the character, and Schumacher apparently forgot to explain that his character goes like so...

In the comics, Two-Face is Gotham's former district attorney who gets horribly disfigured by acid that a mobster throws in his face. Harvey suffers a mental break-down and becomes Two-Face, a villain obsessed with duality, who uses a scarred silver dollar to decide if his victims live or die. He is often regarded as one of the great Batman villains, especially as Harvey Dent was a former ally of Batman. Like Batman, Two-Face follows a strict code regarding his coin, symbolising the two personalities inside him battling for control. At least, that's how he is in the comics. 

In Batman Forever, he is a supposedly violent criminal with an incredibly garish wardrobe and a pantomime manner. While he does kill a few people, it's debatable if that is just an indirect result of how incompetent he is. Hell, several times Two-Face breaks his own rule regarding his coin, including a horrible scene where he just keeps flipping his coin over and over until he gets the result he wants and shoots at Bruce Wayne! In his final scene, Batman has to remind Two-Face about his OWN OBSESSIVE COMPULSION ("Remember your coin Harvey...?") and uses it to kill him, throwing up many silver dollars and confusing Two-Face so he... sort of slides off a pipe to his death. As a fan of the comics this Two-Face is just hard to watch, I really don't see how they could have missed the point of the character more. Probably the worst part of Two-Face in this movie is how little he matters once the Riddler appears. Two-Face is reduced to trying to out-gurn Jim Carrey (an insane challenge if ever there was one) and just becomes a goofy distraction/Riddler cheerleader from around thirty minutes in.

"Oh You're The Most Evil!" "No, You!"

As for the Riddler, one must remember that at the time Jim Carrey was one of the most sought-after comedic actors on the planet, thanks to films like Dumb & Dumber and Ace Ventura. He was hired to make the Riddler a funny, camp, manic character, similar to Frank Gorshin in Batman (1966). While Carrey is only doing what was expected of him, his Riddler is a flamboyant, rubber-faced idiot, with a plot consisting of growing smarter on stolen neural energy. Side effects of growing smarter appear to be insanity, effeminate swaggering and losing all understanding of how to dress without looking like a complete fuck-wit. Meanwhile, he leaves riddles because... I suppose leaving crosswords wouldn't have been as exciting? This Riddler is painful to endure, a bad pun factory in neon-green tights. Also, the Riddler is the easiest villain in the entire film catalogue for Batman to beat, the final fight in Batman Forever pretty much not existing. Batman asks him a bad riddle, throws a baterang and voila, Riddler defeated! Riddle me this, riddle me that, why be afraid of this silly green prat...?

Conversely, The Riddlers alter-ego Edward Nygma is the best part of the film and manages to pull the film out of unwatchable for me. Jim Carrey gives him a geeky menace that the film sorely needs, with some really nice delivery on lines like "You were meant to understand... I'll... MAKE... you understand..." Edward Nygma is played as obsessed (mentally and sexually) with Bruce Wayne, leading to Edward dressing exactly like Bruce to the point of dying his hair and wearing fake glasses at one stage, which is a really nice touch for the character. To the film's further credit, the last five minute suddenly get very dark for the Riddler who, driven mad by his own invention and screaming nonsense in Arkham Asylum, now genuinely believes he is Batman. Pity the film waits until the very end to show it can create atmosphere...  While short on screen time, Edward is a convincingly insane sycophant and his scenes break up the otherwise goofy feel of the film and allow some breathing room between all the bat-bum-shots and "Joy-gasms!" Other then the Edward scenes, the Riddler is sadly more bore-gasm then anything else.

Ok so the characters are almost completely awful, but what of the story and themes? The story features the Riddler inventing a mind-reading device (that looks like a blender filled with styrofoam) which allows your wildest dreams to come through, provided those dreams involve fishing and/or half naked ladies. Bruce gets smack-talked into using the machine at a charity event and The Riddler discovers that he is Batman. Meanwhile, Two Face kills Robin's family looking for Batman and Robin swears revenge. That is actually a solid plot and would have worked fine were it not for the awful characters and strangely truncated final studio cut. The real meat of Batman Forever comes from its heavily sign-posted yet curiously under-developed theme of duality. 

While the theme of duality would seem like the perfect back-drop to dissect Bruce Wayne and Batman's relationship with each other, the film squanders any potential this idea has, with all the themes of duality and psychology never explored enough. The Riddler wants to absorb brain-waves to be smarter, while his alter ego Edward Nygma just wants to be Bruce Wayne. Two Face is obviously a character given to duality. Robin's story of becoming two separate individuals (who sadly act the exact same... stupid script) is very similar to the origin of Batman in Batman (1989). Even Dr.Chase, a psychologist, showing interest in both sides of the Dark Knight... All these concepts are pretty good at their cores but just get tossed on screen half-heartedly, almost as if Joel (or more likely, Warner Brothers themselves) figured such concepts would be too complicated and distracting for the children watching in the theaters. It's a real shame as for all the over the top silliness, Batman Forever had some real potential.

Lastly, the design... This element always pisses people off about Joel's Batman films. The choice of replacing Gotham's gothic, elaborate architecture with lots of neon and half naked male statues was an aesthetic touch that fans felt betrayed Batman's history and tone. To say nothing of nipples on the Bat-suit. I think that if people could accept Tim Burton's fetishes for leather and S&M played out on the screen then why should Joel's fetishes for the gay scene not be allowed? Need I remind all you so-called Batman fans that Batman spent many more years being very colourful and silly then he did being dark and brooding. To say gay subtext doesn't have any place in Batman throughout the years would be flat-out wrong. To claim that a camp Gotham isn't in keeping with Batman is at best woefully ignorant of the comics and at worst just cheaply excused homophobia.

Although I Got To Admit, The Bat-mobile Probably Didn't Need A Dorsal Fin...

Overall it's an interesting but flawed film, mostly due to characters that are both written poorly and portrayed badly by actors who didn't get them to begin with. It's got a weak script, although it's still nowhere near as tattered as Batman Returns. It doesn't have the deftness of touch or the on-the-nose smarts of Batman (1966), which hurts the campy segments of the film. The film doesn't know if it wants to be campy and fun or serious and deep and as a result it ends up neither. There are certainly a lot of great ideas under the surface but they never really get a chance to shine. It's still a watchable affair but it is a huge step down from what the previous films managed to achieve. Though as we will see in the next review, it could always get worse...

Rating : 2 out of 5 - For At Least Taking Some Bold (If Silly) New Risks.

See If You Like : Lowering Your Expectations.

Til next time!

Film Review - Batman Retrospective - Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

Hey all!

Still excited about The Dark Knight Rises?! Damn right you are!

As such, Ranticular will be running a fortnight retrospective of all the Batman films that have received theatrical release ever! Because my love of my fans is only exceeded by my love for Batman...

 Batman: Mask of The Phantasm (1993)

Plot: The story describes the origins of Batman as it follows the Dark Knight's attempts to capture the elusive, deadly Phantasm, who is killing old crime lords and making it look as if Batman did it, causing a media smear campaign against the Caped Crusader. At the same time, an old flame of Bruce Wayne reappears, leading to Bruce exploring his past, the evolution of Batman and all that Bruce has had to give up along the way.

Director: Eric Radomski, Bruce W. Timm

Actors: (voice only) Kevin Conroy (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Mark Hamill (The Joker), Dana Delany (Andrea Beaumont), Abe Vigoda (Salvatore Velestra), Hart Bochner (Arthur Reeves), Stacey Keach (Carl Beaumont & The Phantasm)

The Film Itself:

Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm (also known as Batman: The Animated Movie) is, to date, the lowest grossing Batman film ever. It received only a limited theatrical release at a time when animated films only made money if they had Disney or Don Bluth somewhere in the title. It was also unusual in that it was a dark, violent, oppressive cartoon which featured murder, torture and sometimes shockingly violent images. Many have never even heard of it and to this day it is considered the forgotten member of the Batman film family.

It is also not only my favourite Batman film but also one of my favourite animated films of all time.

Strangely, this would be the only Batman film until Nolan's Batman Begins twelve years later to tackle Batman's origin as the central story. Much like Frank Miller's excellent Batman: Year One comic (which Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm references more then once), here the focus is on Bruce in his early 20's, still trying to figure out exactly how he will go about fighting crime in Gotham. All seems to be progressing nicely until a lady comes along to complicate things and challenge his plans.

Of Course, Unwanted Sexual Attention Is Hardly New For Batman...

This tale is told through a series of flash-backs, all closely linked to the second story of the film, which is the arrival of a new villain in Gotham (called the Phantasm in the film's title, but never in the film itself). The Phantasm appears to be killing off older criminals tied to the Gotham underworld. Now on the run from the police, Batman must apprehend the killer, clear his name, and deal with the lingering romance between himself and Andrea...

Since the creative team for this film were also central to the Batman animated adventures, it should come as no suprise that the story of Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm is excellent. The look and sound of the film are infused with everything that made the cartoon great, from the art-deco look to the fluid and smooth animation. This film even has it's own kick-ass intro, as a Latin choir sings part of the cartoon's theme while the camera flies through a CGI-rended Gotham. Every time I watch it I get goosebumps, it's just so epic and huge, as Frank Miller might say it makes Batman feel so much... "bigger then any one man". Even the music is great, but then of course it is as it is mostly re-used segments from the animated series. (Seriously, go watch the series. Like right now.)

This is possibly the only Batman film I can credit with an utterly perfect grasp of pacing and story structure. Unlike Tim Burton's very broken scripts, Joel Schumacher's neon-lit 1960's Batman tributes or Nolan's heavy, plodding, epic narratives (I love the films but you know it's true), Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm has a fast-moving, busy but easy to follow story. It manages to be by turns moving, shocking, epic and intimate. It's also a story that contains almost no filler. Every scene features something important to the story occuring, there are no dead plot threads or unresolved issues and the characters and their motivations actually MAKE SENSE, which is frankly mind-blowing for me at this point in the retrospective. 

I mean if there is one thing Batman classically isn't very good at, it's logic.

Your Honour, Exhibit A

The story is a character-based one, focusing mostly on Bruce Wayne as a young man trying to decide how to wage his crusade against crime in Gotham. He's not as experienced as he needs to be, the bat-costume consists of a balaclava and he is still unsure if crime-fighting is the best way to honour his parents. Kevin Conroy gives Bruce Wayne an edge that he had been missing in all the other Batman films up to now. Michael Keaton's Bruce was a wierd and removed figure, here we get a warmer, more open Bruce Wayne who is thus far more venerable. He is complex without being clunky, a charming ladies man who recognises how isolated and removed he has to be if he wants to be an effective Batman. Aside from Alfred (who is less crazy-grandfather here and more incredibly dry wise-crack machine) Bruce doesn't have anyone close to him who he can confide in and his loneliness hangs around him like a fog at times. Or a cape if you will.

The most interesting angle of this Bruce (and the film) is his relationship with his dead parents. Having made a promise to try prevent what happened to his parents ever happening again, Bruce is more or less obligated to become Batman. As such, he sees his parents memory almost as a curse, a horrible oath he is not even sure he wants to fulfill at times. Watching Bruce Wayne weep at his parents grave, telling them he doesn't know if he can be Batman because he never expected to be happy is the one of the most powerful scene in any Batman film. 

Yup, More Powerful Then The Laundry-Karate Scene From Batman Forever!

On the other hand, Conroy's Batman is one step away from a violent psychopath himself. He's a very brutal fighter, an intelligent detective and one ruthless Dark Knight at times. Conroy not only gives his Batman more growl but also a more focused, direct way of speaking, in particular a scene where Batman and Andrea speak briefly has a lot of bite, at one stage she has to point out Batman is hurting her before he lets go of her arm. In the same scene, Batman admits unashamedly to spying, calls her out for being a liar and reduces her to screaming at him to leave before Andrea breaks down crying. Indeed, more then once we see other characters question Batman's sanity (Joker finding it especially amusing that he may have pushed Batman over the deep-end). 

This Batman is held in check by a strict moral code and unquestioning belief that he is honoring his parents. He isn't happy being Batman, he simply knows he must be Batman. This is best shown in the scene where Batman finally dons the iconic cowl. Alfred backs away in shock and utters a strangled "Good God" as the Bruce he knows and loves disappears and Batman takes his place. Man, who would have though making a Batman movie focusing on, you know, BATMAN would be so interesting?!


Not that the rest of the cast don't make themselves known. Andrea Beaumont is one of the first believable love interests for Bruce Wayne that I ever came across in the comics, on TV or on the Silver Screen. Aside from being (to again quote the Joker) "a babe", Andrea is funny, witty, tough and even able to stand up to Batman, something most thugs have trouble with. She also works as a nice foil for Bruce, she too having suffered her share of loss. Stacey Keach does his usual dramatic Orson Wells impersonation for Andrea's father Carl and also provides the deep, unsettling death-rattle that the Phantasm speaks with. In both cases, the voices suit the characters nicely but I do wish he had been given a little more lines, particularly as the Phantasm.

The various members of the mob are all voiced quite nicely and feel like individual characters, even if they only get a few minutes of screen time. In particular Abe Vigoda is pitch-perfect as the old, ill and very scared mob leader Salvatore Velestra. Hart Bochner is coated with slime as the councilman running for mayor of Gotham with some dark secrets, plus he gets one of the most sinister comeuppance's in the entire film, as an encounter with the Joker doesn't kill him but leaves him hopelessly insane and screaming with horrible, uncontrollable laughter in Arkham Asylum. Speaking of the crown prince of crime...

Quick, who is your favourite Joker?

Har Har Har... And No

Nowadays people almost always say Heath Ledger, not entirely without reason, but in my opinion it has to be Mark Hamill. If you would like to know why, watch this film. Hamill's Joker is an incredibly threatening figure, indeed one of the scariest stills of the whole film is merely a close-up of the Joker's evil grin as he declares the one thing he likes to see is a "nice... big... smile...". This Joker murders old men, laughs in the face of death (literally at the end) and is actually a credible threat to Batman. Their big final fight (in a reduced scale model of Gotham) has plenty of crunch and visceral force behind it, with blood, missing teeth and twenty miles of tunnels packed with high explosives. 

The Joker's origin is also very gently touched on but wisely not explored, leaving him with a great aura of the unknown. The script sets him up very nicely as a legendary monster, with big mafia-bosses scared to go see him and Batman prepared to die to stop him. Other then frightening, Joker is also shown as highly intelligent (working out the Phantasm's identity before anyone else) and even quite funny at times, doing such acts as charging into a fist-fight armed with an electrical whisk while shouting "made you look". It's a credit to the fantastic writing at play here that the film doesn't end up just another 'Joker & Friends' film like so much other Batman media tends to be.

Except For The 60's Comics, Which Tended To Just Be On Drugs

Lastly, the film holds you like a vice. The story makes complete sense under scrutiny and doesn't feel like a chore to watch in spite of all it's weighty themes. This is not a happy film by any stretch but it is a pleasure to behold. The film even takes considerable risks for an animated Batman feature, such as having him involved in an extended action sequence against the Gotham PD on a construction site, in a very clever homage to the comic Batman: Year One. To see Batman battle the police he is normally allies with was a bold move for a cartoon and one the animated series would visit again years later in the fantastic episode 'Over The Edge'. But that's a review for another day...

No other animated Batman film would get a wide-screen cinematic release, which is a shame as the animated films tend to be far ahead of most of the live action films. Why this film never took off the way it should was probably due to it's cinema release day (Christmas day of all times) and Warner's almost non-existant advertisement campaign. It's something of a lost gem and it deserves to be more widely seen and enjoyed.

I don't really know what else I need to say except if you haven't seen it, you owe it to yourself to fix that. About as perfect as a Batman film gets.

Rating : 5 out of 5 - For Being Everything A Batman Film Should Be.

See If You Like : Batman. At All.

Sadly, tomorrow we shall see what happens when you decide that rather then interesting character origins and growth, what Batman needs is.. neon. So much neon...

Argh, My Eyes!!!

Til next time!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Film Review - Batman Retrospective - Batman Returns (1992)

Hey all!

Still excited about The Dark Knight Rises?! Damn right you are!

As such, Ranticular will be running a fortnight retrospective of all the Batman films that have received theatrical release ever! Because my love of my fans is only exceeded by my love for Batman...

 Batman Returns (1992)

Plot: Batman has to stop Penguin from... you know what, I have no real idea, is he running for mayor, killing the first-born of Gotham or weaponising Penguins? Also Catwoman gets resurrected by cats, there are some sexual under-tones. Bring the kids!

Director: Tim Burton (and all his little fetishes)

Actors: Michael Keaton (Batman/Bruce Wayne), Danny Devito (Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin),  Michelle Pfeiffer (Selena Kyle/Catwoman), Christopher Walken (Max Shreck).

The Film Itself:

Batman Returns marks the point where comic-book sequels decided you got to go bigger (more villains), deeper (more characters, explored in better detail) and gloomier. If Batman (1989) set the standard for action-blockbusters, Batman Returns set the trends of grittier, darker follow-ups that focus less on story and more on characters... or does it...?

And, for that matter, is it really darker then Batman (1989)?

This film often gets held up as the most sinister film in the entire Batman canon, which I have always felt to be untrue for multiple reasons. For one, this film has a lot of day or brightly-lit shots, not to mention being shot against a Christmas setting. There is little of the shadows of Batman (1989) here. Secondly, the architecture of the Gotham from Batman (1989) is almost completely gone, replaced with a stereotypical and uninspired urban look. Lastly, while this film definitely has it's extreme moments, it can be very silly (don't even try to pretend the rocket-warfare penguins are anything less then adorable). It's also worth mentioning that being sexual does not equal dark, it equals erections. Just so we are all clear.


The film begins with a very well shot, almost totally silent scene of the Penguin being abandoned by his rich, snotty parents (one of whom is Paul Rubens, A.K.A Pee-Wee Herman!) due to him being born with deformed, flipper-like hands. His crib floats to the sewer, where Penguins rescue and raise him. This seems to set up the Penguin as a kind of Yang to Batman's Yin. Both of them lost their parents at a young age and in both case this proves a major driving force in their lives, for good or for ill. It's a great angle and such a pity when it gets dropped halfway through the film for no reason. Get used to plot points that seem to evaporate, one must assume all the blood in Tim Burton's head was rushing... elsewhere during the shooting of this film.

Like to his penis.

Oh and there are Penguins in Gotham sewer. I just realised how insane that is... Wow.

The Penguin is arguably the central villain of the whole film. While given the most screen-time, he is also by far the worst-written character in any Batman film until Bane became Poison Ivy's pit-bull in Batman & Robin. As I've mentioned in the plot section above, the Penguin's motivations never seem to fixate for very long. He is initially shown as a lonely deformed outcast who merely wants to be accepted, before abruptly morphing into an incredibly perverse and psychotic man-child who makes jokes while biting peoples noses off and offering to demonstrate his "French-flipper trick"to any ladies in ear-shot. Is the Penguin a socially stunted malcontent who just wants to get laid and eat raw fish, or is he a criminal genius masterfully playing the public's sympathies? This movie seems to want it both ways and never fully explains.

When Max Shreck (more on him in a second) explains his plan to get the Penguin elected to office, I was honestly gobsmacked. Aside from the audience having little idea what to really make of the Penguin, he is not really the person I would imagine anyone insisting on being their representative, the man is a spherical dwarf with flippers for Christ's sake!  Yet a huge chunk of the film is devoted to this plot, in what I must assume is Tim Burton's weak jab at the true nature of politicians. In this regard, Nolan's Batman films dominate Burton's to a degree that is just sad.

Nightmares A-Hoy!

The Penguin really feels like the character that suffered the most from constant re-writes and script-alterations. There are moments where the audience are meant to sympathise with him and, to DeVito's credit, he manages to inject a little tragedy here and there. Sadly, the character is so half-formed conceptually and so fickle in his motives that he is never much more then a disgusting punching bag for Batman. Again, I cannot stress enough that I haven't a clue what his real motivation is. Revenge? Fame? Groping coeds? He has three separate master plans that all happen one right after another, and while the second (killing the firstborn sons of Gotham) is seeded early in the film, the rocket penguins have no explanation at all. The Penguin is easily the most broken element of the whole film and it's no fault of Danny DeVito, who does a great job with what he's given. Consider this; he manages to make the Penguin threatening while in a custom-made arcade Bat-mobile car, screaming the line "I played this stinking town... like a HAAAAAAAAARP FROM HELL!". Overall, the weakest element of Batman Returns.

 Oh well, on to Max Shreck.

Now That Would Have Been Mind-Blowing... But No.

Despite using the same name as the actor who played Nosferatu, Max Shreck in Batman Returns is just a member of Gotham's 1%, here portrayed by Christopher Walken, who very kindly agreed to be beamed down from his home planet to appear in this film. Make no mistake, this is one of Christopher Walken's stranger performances. Aside from the classic speech-delay that Walken always seems to have, Shreck has some wonderful speeches, including one of my favourite moments in the entire Batman filmography, which occurs near the end when all the characters have been unmasked.

Max: Selina?! Selina Kyle?! You're fired. (to Batman) And Bruce Wayne. Why are you dressed up like Batman? (Imagine that line, but with pauses in all the wrong places)

Catwoman: Because he is Batman, you moron!

That... is... wonderful.

Anyhow, Shreck owns a department store... and wants to build a nuclear power plant (a logical expansion plan), neither of which really factor into the story at all beyond highlighting that he is a capitalist and therefore evil. Max is far better explained then the Penguin but at the same time very little of merit actually happens to him, beyond getting murdered with an electric kiss by Catwoman at the end (it's that kind of movie). Max is more like the glue that binds the story together, being initially the only common element between Penguin, Catwoman and Bruce Wayne.

The best thing about Max is his son Chip (Andrew Bryniarski), who is amazing. Basically Chip is a kid doing a hilarious impersonation of Christopher Walken... TO CHRISTOPHER WALKEN'S FACE! Chip is one of the more subtly funny parts of the film and I could watch him Walken-it-up for hours, but for the sake of time let us move on.

We are also introduced to Selena Kyle, Shreck's over-worked, frazzled and mousey (get it?!) secretary and soon-to-be Catwoman. Selena is portrayed as weak and easily dominated by Max, at least until she gets murdered by him. This proves a temporary set-back as, thanks to an army of cats nibbling at her corpse (...yeah...), Selena is reborn as Catwoman! While this character can be accused of being very hammy, she saves the film from becoming boring. Her scenes are the few dark moments of Batman Returns. She also has quite a Greek tragedy about her (being quite clearly insane but trying desperately to over-come it) which makes her a far deeper villain then the Joker from Batman (1989). A great example of this is when Selena destroys her apartment (a-la Citizen Kane) in a superb bit of recently-reanimated insanity. It's a very scary and sad scene that stays with you long after you have finished watching the film.

Catwoman gets a lot more actual development then the other villains over the course of the story, including a plot I really liked where Bruce starts to fall for Selena as Catwoman finds herself wanting Batman, culminating in the excellent masquerade scene. Selena and Catwoman are definitely shown as separate entities (unlike many Batman villains in the films), with some of the tenser scenes in the film created by Selena slowly going mad as the Catwoman side of her takes over. And what a side it is...

The heightened sexuality of Catwoman was where the film really brewed controversy, with Batman never really being portrayed as a sexual creature in any real way since Batman (1966). Indeed, in the comic Arkham Asylum, A Serious House On Serious Earth, the Joker manages to enrage Batman by acting sexual in his presence, something that was considered quite ground-breaking in 1989. As such, the image of Catwoman and Batman engaging in an S&M-style fight before Catwoman licks Batman's cowl (I said cowl!)... (As in the head-piece on his costume, you filthy fuckers...) was very shocking for many fans of the comics at the time, to say nothing of the parents who took their children to see this film! Warner Brothers were buried under complaints about Catwoman and her whip and her leather mask with stitches and... and... Oh my...

Sweet Dreams A-Hoy!

If Batman (1989) was for pre-adolescent boys, this film is for extremely adolescent boys and sexually ambiguous (read: awesome) girls. Say what you may about the film being an excuse for Tim Burton to throw his kinky desires onscreen, this film has sex-appeal in spades. While it may not necessarily be darker then Batman (1989), it certainly is more grown-up in this regard.

So the villains in Batman Returns are a diverse if disappointingly under-cooked affair, an issue that would haunt Batman films in the future as well. If you are looking for real villainy however, then look no further then the title character! Tim Burton's take on Batman and Bruce Wayne seems to have become even less grounded, not just in the comics but in any sense of logic. Indeed, the first reveal of Bruce Wayne is done through a very silly Bat-signal moment, where all the windows in Wayne manor seem to catch the Bat-signal and focus it, just so Bruce Wayne can get a scene where he stands up in front of a huge, lit-up Bat-Symbol in his library. Bruce, aren't you supposed to have a secret identity?

Batman is even less of a defined character then in the previous films. Batman swaps silly phrases with Catwoman ("Mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it... But a kiss can be deadly if you mean it"... What?!) only moments after an innocent woman dies. This Batman also causes a police-car pile-up that probably murders half of the Gotham police precinct. Batman even removes his mask in front of three separate villains at the end for no real reason! Having said all this, Bruce Wayne and Batman are fairly minor players in this story. Due to a villain over-load, Bruce and Batman get side-lined pretty badly in their own film.

Perhaps due to feeling ignored, this film's Batman has no problem murdering a load of evil carnies and other henchmen in fun ways, including burning them alive, shattering their skulls with lumps of cement and using a giant comical bomb to rip them apart.

Unless You Use It For Murder, Of Course!

Yes, this Batman is way more blood-thristy then the Batman of Batman (1989). He just slaughters half the criminals he encounters in an orgy of festive death, using actual martial arts and not getting shot or collapsing once! I will admit, the action scenes here are very tight and well executed which is a big improvement on the previous film. Catwoman and Batman's brawls have a savagery to them which also works extremely well as a violent sexual metaphor. The scenes of the Bat-mobile still look great. The final sewer showdown is actually kind of funny, very exciting and quite sad all at once; a fantastic climax that the film doesn't really deserve!

While i've already covered the bulk of the story, it's worth noting that the story here does not flow smoothly at all. In fact the story seems like a dense and confusing ocean that the audience is forced to swim through between all the action. Due to the constantly dropped plot-points, it can be hard to follow what's going on at times or if anything mentioned scene to scene is actually relevant.

So... do I like or hate Batman Returns? I will be honest, every time I watch it, my feelings on it are different. The best way to sum up Batman Returns is as a series of excellent set-pieces tied around a very sloppy story. There are both great (Catwoman, Max Shreck) and awful (The Penguin) characters in here in equal measure. Despite it's flaws, there is some genuinely great stuff to enjoy here. For many people this is the best Batman has ever been and, while I disagree, I will accept that this is probably the most varied and unusual of the Batman movies. It's both an improvement and a step-backways from Batman (1989).

Overall, I feel that Batman Returns is weaker then Batman (1989) but still well worth a look if you're in the market for a uniquely sexualised adult superhero film.

Oh... Nevermind...

Rating : 3 out of 5 - For Thrusting Many A Young Nerd Into Adulthood.

See If You Like : Girls (Or Fat Pervy Dwarves, Whatever), 

As much as people like to complain that Joel Schumacher ruined the 90's Batman franchise, this film is in fact the root of the issue, just not in the way people think... After a huge complaint campaign and reduced profits for Warner Brothers following Batman Returns, it was decided that the series needed to go in a more... child-friendly direction...

We will get to that next week, but first we have to take a look at the most ignored member of the Batman film family, as well as what I personally regard as one of, if not the best, superhero film story ever...

Til next time!

Film Review - Batman Retrospective - Batman (1989)

Hey all!

Excited about The Dark Knight Rises?! Damn right you are!

As such, Ranticular will be running a fortnight retrospective of all the Batman films that have received theatrical release ever! Because my love of my fans is only exceeded by my love for Batman...

 Batman (1989)

Plot: Batman must stop the Joker from... doing stuff as Bruce Wayne finds himself falling in love with photographer Vicki Vale. Meanwhile, reporter Alexander Knox is the real hero of the film and for that he gets barely twenty-five minutes of screen time.

Director: Tim Burton (back before he sucked scrotum through a straw).

Actors: Michael Keaton (Batman/Bruce Wayne), Jack Nicholson (Jack Napier/The Joker),  Kim Basinger (Vicki Vale), Robert Wuhl (Alexander Knox).

The Film Itself:

Batman (1989) is a strange beast. One the one hand, it has no respect for the comics of the time or for the characters of Batman, Bruce Wayne, Batman, The Joker or Prince (this film created the bat-dance, think about that if you will). On the other hand, it's an entertaining blockbuster that is possibly the alpha-male of the pre-Nolan, non-animated Batman films.

That isn't much of a recommendation mind you...

Oh Your Time Is Coming, Don't You Worry...

Let us first look at what works. The design of this film is magnificent. Anton Furst (who committed suicide shortly after finishing work on Batman Returns and who did the amazing set design for The Company of Wolves, R.I.P) mashed contrasting architectural styles to create the most ugly yet most striking Gotham city ever seen on screen (yes, even better then... Batman & Robin!). It's vaguely reminiscent of Terry Gilliam's Brazil, all foreboding and heavy. It feels like a city where the sun rarely shines. It's the Gotham most modern Batman fans identify with as it was a major element borrowed for Batman: The Animated Series, but the cartoon is a discussion for another day... (go watch the cartoon!)

The music is also excellent. One can rarely fault Danny Elfman when he works with Tim Burton, but here they reached their mutual peak in my opinion. Aside from that incredible theme song, the light, almost dream-like sections of the film ('childhood remembered' or 'flowers') give the film a sense of whimsy that it is otherwise lacking. On the other hand, Prince provides music for the major Joker scenes, which really strangely suits the feel of this film's Joker. The scene where The Joker destroys a museum to the tune of Prince's "Partyman"is easily the best scene in the entire film and the music is pretty pivotal. I still hate the Bat-dance though, fuck that song.

The action is largely pretty solid, if a bit too clean and simple for my liking. The Bat-Wing is still one of the coolest vehicles ever and the shot of it silhouetted against the full moon still makes the 12 year old boy in me cry out for joy! The bat-mobile was the first car I ever wanted to own and I don't think that will ever change. For a film that caused out-cry over being so dark (it really isn't), this film is pretty definitely a film for pre-adolesent boys. It's not a difficult watch, which is a high compliment for Batman film's of the era.

Sadly that's all I can really celebrate about Batman (1989). Not that much here is bad, it isn't. But everything here is... just a little bit off. Firstly, Batman himself is not very impressive as the title character. The first act you see him perform is... falling down after getting shot. In fact this becomes something of a theme. While Batman can clearly fight, he doesn't exactly inspire fear, especially in longer shots where it becomes horribly apparent that Michael Keaton is not a very tall or imposing man at all. I'm gonna straight up call it, this is not an intimidating Batman. In fact he's probably slightly less intimidating then Adam West's Batman, who at least had the power of mad science on his side.

Criminals Of Gotham, Beware!

Batman isn't scary but that isn't for lack of trying, especially in the instances where Batman is shown to kill. When he sends the Bat-mobile into Axis chemicals to stop the Joker from making his Joker toxins, he shuts the plant down via bombs that rip the building apart, with better then thirty people inside. We don't see any of these people make it out, which even as a kid upset me. I get that Burton wasn't a huge comic fan at the time and felt some things had to change. But this is one of Batman's core aspects, that he is dark and brutal but still a hero who separates himself from his villains in that he doesn't kill. To change it just misses the point of Batman.

The un-scary Batman is contrasted by Michael Keaton playing a down-right creepy Bruce Wayne. I can see the concept at play here, that Bruce Wayne could be a twitchy loner with strange habits (sleeping upside down, getting it on with very drunk women on a first date) and a certain awkwardness around people. What doesn't work is when Bruce Wayne tries, and succeeds, to out crazy the Joker. When the Joker appears to kidnap Vicki Vale, Bruce manages to shout like a nut-job and wave a poker around enough to earn a bullet in the chest. Seriously, during this scene, The Joker looks scared and confused to be in the same room as Bruce Wayne. Joker then speaks the immortal line "Never rub another mans rhubarb"and... leaves Vicki alone. Making the whole scene not only very out of character for Bruce Wayne but also completely pointless. Gotta love that Rhubarb line though.

I mentioned Bruce over-shadowing the Joker in the Vicki Vale apartment scene but in truth the rest of the film belongs to the Joker as soon as he appears on-screen. It is more a Joker origin and ending story then a reflection on Batman. Again, Joker is not really very scary or even particularly funny (more random) but he is very unique in this film for one important reason. He's interesting and somewhat charismatic. Joker is just having fun and doesn't need to be characterised any further. He doesn't have any motivation and nothing by way of a real plan. He's just an artist with a crush, a lot of henchmen (including Bob, the best henchman ever) and talents in the fields of "art, chemistry and science". Because chemistry isn't a science apparently. Also the Joker gets the best dialogue, including this line which is probably the closest this film gets to the tone and characterisation of the comics...

The Joker: So gentlemen, that's how it is. Until Grissom, uh, [chuckles] resurfaces, I'm the acting President, and I say starting with this anniversary festival, we run the city into the ground. Any questions?
Gangster: Why aren't we hearing this from Grissom?
Tony: Yeah, and what's with that stupid grin?
The Joker: Life's been good to me.

As the film puts it, love that Joker!

All the other characters are just there to fulfill roles. Batman is serious and stiff. Bruce is a typically strange male in a Tim Burton film. Vicki Vale is literally just an object for the hero and villain to fight over. Even my favourite character (after henchman Bob at least), the reporter Alex Knox, is largely just out for the big scoop, although he has the largest balls of anyone in the film and gets to play hero in a big way during the parade scene. Poor Alfred gets it worst, as he is little more then a kindly but mentally weak grand-father figure, as exemplified by the scene where he just LETS VICKI VALE WANDER STRAIGHT INTO THE BAT CAVE! 

While the Joker may be fun to watch for being random, this does lead to possibly the biggest problem with the film. There is no real point to it all. Sure, there is a story of sorts, there are things at stake but the scale feels very small and unimportant. Ultimately, this story comes down to two mentally unstable men fighting over a girl. That's as complicated as it gets. There isn't even any deeper message or moral. Hell, there isn't even a consistent tone for the film and what story is there is slap-shot. The Joker's big way to win over Gotham after being exposed as a chemical terrorist is... to offer people money at a parade...? The story only works if you pay it very little attention, which is why this film is clearly for young boys. Even Tim Burton himself has admitted disappointment with the film, claiming that he finds it boring. While I wouldn't go that far, it's certainly an un-even watch at times.

Probably the most challenged aspect of the film is the liberties it takes with the comics. Batman's parents in Batman (1989) were killed not by Joe Chill (as in the comics) but by Jack Napier before he became the Joker (and also before he looked anything like Jack Nicholson). I mentioned how oddly Bruce Wayne and Batman are portrayed compared to the comics. Also, characters like Jim Gordon, who were at this stage established and important characters in the comics, are really only given bare lip-service. I did like the idea of Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent, who was set to become Two Face in the later films, both for his charisma and for the race change angle, which was a brave move at the time. Fun fact: Tim Burton originally wanted a Robin in Batman (1989), to be played by none other then Marlon Wayne. I'm deadly serious.

I Know Right?!

I know it may seem like I'm bitching and fan-boying a lot here but honestly I don't have anything against Batman (1989), hell it was my favourite film ever as a kid. But it's still a silly, messy and somewhat pointless outing for the Dark Knight. It gets by on nostalgia value and strange charms rather then raw quality. Still, if nothing else, this may be one of the most influential films of all time. Every current comic book film and a great deal of the style of current blockbusters in general have their genus right here. It made comics a huge deal for much of the early 90's and set the tone for the cartoon, without which many of us may not have discovered Batman or even the medium of comics at all. It's impossible to imagine how different cinema would be without Batman (1989) and love it or hate it, it deserves respect.

Also, it had Bob. That guy was amazing.

His Action Figure Was Not

Rating : 3.5 out of 5 - For Being A Cultural World-Shaker. And Bob.

See If You Like : The Cartoon Show, Being Twelve Again.

Til next time!