In just a few hours time, ‘Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice’ debuts in theaters worldwide. Which has ModCon02 thinking about ‘Batman Returns’ – his favorite big screen version of the perennial comic book hero.
I may have mentioned this before, but Batman was always my favorite super hero. I don’t remember when this realization came to me exactly. My best guess is I had to be somewhere around 3 or 4 years old. Probably. What I do remember, with absolute certainty, is that it was the cover of Detective Comics #27 that first sparked my interest in the character. I’m pretty sure I first saw it as one of the “Famous First Edition” reprints that DC did back in the 70s. The big silver border looms large in my memory.
The crude angular nature of the composition didn’t matter to me. The costume worn by Batman was so striking that I didn’t even need to see the story inside. Something about the toothed cape and the cowl with pointy, devil-like… what were those things anyway? Ears? Horns? I mean, I knew in theory he was representing a bat, but… honestly there was something so menacing about the overall effect. And Batman never smiled in those early strips. Every other comic book super hero, be it Wonder Woman, Superman or Captain America, was usually shown with a beaming grin, waving to the nice people as they stuffed evildoers into a trash can.
Not Batman. He looked… scary.
And he was the Good Guy!
So, I was hooked from an early age. I was a total Bat-Fan. I would watch the Adam West TV show re-runs unironically. (I thought they were serious. I swear I really did.) I bought the then-current issues when I could, but I honestly always preferred the old “Bob Kane version”. As I got older, I cottoned on to the fact that a concerted effort was made after 1940 to “lighten up” the image of Batman. The cowl ears got shorter, the cape got way more blue, Robin popped up, and Batman smiled. He smiled A LOT, to be honest. Which always seemed a little “off” to me.
I liked Batman when he was a creepy, unknowable creature of the night. I wanted the cowl ears to be long. I wanted the cape to be black with dark blue highlights, damn it. I mean, I still loved the TV show. And I’d read the stories from the 40s where Batman and Robin would battle giant space dinosaurs or whatever and enjoy them as well, but… yeah. I was becoming one of those people who preferred it when Batman was taken “seriously”.
Well, I got my wish. Frank Miller’s game-changing ‘Dark Knight Returns’ mini-series was first published in 1986. The Batman comics had been steadily trending darker way before that, but the popular and critical success of Miller’s “grim ‘n gritty” vision tipped the scales permanently towards “serious”. Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s ‘Killing Joke’ arrived 2 years later in 1988. A re-calibrated “possible origin” story for The Joker, Batman’s most iconic nemesis, it featured horrific moments like Commissioner Gordon and his daughter Barbara being tortured and possibly sexually assaulted. Barbara, a.k.a. Batgirl, is shot through the spine and left crippled – a condition that remains to this day in the comic books. ‘Killing Joke’ was almost as highly praised as Miller’s ‘Dark Knight Returns’ and won multiple awards. The verdict was official: Batman comics were now “serious”, “adult” business.
This was the landscape that Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’ was released into in 1989. I remember the buzz had been building around the movie for a year, but no one was convinced it was going to be any good. Burton’s only movies prior to ‘Batman’ were ‘Pee Wee’s Big Adventure’ and ‘Beetlejuice’. I was and am a fan of both of those movies, but they didn’t suggest the work of a director who should be taking on ‘Batman’. And yeah, everyone was thrilled that Jack Nicholson was playing The Joker, but Burton’s choice of Michael Keaton for Batman/Bruce Wayne was greeted with reserved caution at best and outright scorn at worst.
(Imagine casting Keaton as Batman in this day and age? There’d be fanboy riots, man! Twitter would overload and crash!)
As it happened, the movie was a runaway blockbuster hit of totally unexpected proportions. At the time, I loved it. I thought it was great. It wasn’t campy like the TV show; it looked amazing; I loved Nicholson’s Joker, and I thought Keaton absolutely nailed the role of Batman/Bruce Wayne. But today, Keaton’s performance, Danny Elfman’s score and Anton Furst’s Oscar-winning production designs are about the only parts that I still unequivocally love. ‘Batman’ is a deeply flawed, poorly paced movie; and it’s faults became increasingly obvious to me upon every repeat viewing. Burton himself has stated that he was dissatisfied with the end result, and it was a notoriously troubled shoot; with lead actresses being recast at last minute and a producer who defined the term “meddlesome”. Burton resolved that next time, things would be different.
And boy howdy, they were.
‘Batman Returns’ premiered in June of 1992. It’s safe to say it was the most anticipated movie of that year. It opened strong (highest grossing weekend in cinema history ever at the time) and ended up becoming the third-highest grossing film of 1992. Critical reaction was mixed (Roger Ebert called it “…not a bad movie, but a misguided one”) and parents were horrified by the suggestive nature of Michelle Pfieffer’s Catwoman and the sheer weirdness of Danny DeVito’s Penguin. Not to mention Batman himself was a less visible presence in this movie. McDonald’s famously cancelled it’s Happy Meals tie-in promotion. (Honestly though, it’s kind of hard to fault them; this is a movie that opens with a rich couple tossing their hideously deformed child into the sewers.) In the end, moviegoers opted to fall in love with ‘Aladdin’, and ‘Batman Returns’ ended up grossing a little over half of what it’s predecessor made. By Hollywood’s strange logic, the third-highest grossing movie of the year was a failure.
But, unlike it’s predecessor I still love ‘Batman Returns’. In fact, for years I routinely named it as my “Favorite Movie Of All Time.” It has perfect internal logic, and yet it is utterly (pardon me) bat-shit insane. The performances are uniformly excellent (Pfeiffer deserved an Oscar nomination; Devito manages to make a total cartoon of a character utterly real) and there are many wonderful little oddball cameos. (Jan Hooks! Paul Reubens! Anna Katarina!) Best of all, it has Christopher Walken channeling Donald Trump as the movie’s true arch-villain, industrialist Max Shreck. That this psychodrama plays out over Christmas is an inspired choice. What better season to highlight the basic alienation of it’s main protagonists? And remember – ‘Batman Returns’ opened in the middle of summer!
As with ‘Batman’ the production is flawless. Danny Elfman’s score is one of his absolute best. Sadly, Anton Furst took his own life in 1991, but the spirit of his work lives on in ‘Batman Returns’. Long-time Burton collaborator Bo Welch’s production design injects deranged art-deco sensibilities into the mix – with buildings literally appearing to be held up by tension wires. Gotham looks more than ever like a city on the verge of collapse, yet there are incongruous giant statues dotting the city like leftovers from a Leni Riefenstahl fever dream. There’s a pointed critique of crony capitalism and creeping fascism lurking in here somewhere, I swear.
Meanwhile, many comic book fans were so focused on complaining about the Burtonesque style of the movie (and it does have Burton’s signature obsessions all over it, no question) that they missed how utterly true it was to the comic book roots. Or maybe they just didn’t catch that the roots it was referencing were those earlier Bob Kane/Bill Finger comics. That’s another reason I love this ‘Batman’ movie over every other ‘Batman’ movie; it’s invested with same odd, angular weirdness of those early comics that first got me into Batman. Because for me? That’s the only way Batman makes sense as a character.
I’m gonna say this right here: Batman does not work when you try to make him “real”. Sure, his lack of super-powers does technically make Batman the most “real” of the classic comic-book heroes, but be honest: Batman’s super-power is really Bruce Wayne’s family fortune. Now, I respect the hell out of Christopher Nolan, and I appreciate that he clawed back some dignity for the series after the abomination that was Joel Schumacher’s ‘Batman & Robin’. I think ‘The Dark Knight’ is one of the most fascinating, thought-provoking films of the last 20 years. Having said that, I find the rest of Nolan’s ‘Batman Trilogy’ to be hopelessly overburdened by it’s need to be taken seriously and not seen as a “comic-book movie”. I also found myself thinking that Nolan’s Batman isn’t so much a worthy hero as he is an entitled man-child. All of which stems from the relentless need to show this character as being plausible in the “real-world”; one who must be taken “seriously”.
None of that factors into ‘Batman Returns’ because the characters all seem logical in the world and setting Burton crafts for them. The details of the plot are at times absurd (a bunch of Carny Folk manage to sabotage the Batmobile? Really?) to out-right ludicrous (uh… Penguins with rockets strapped to their backs. Really.) but the movie as a whole feels consistent. I understand these characters and empathize with them. The choices they make feel… well, frankly, “real” . Even though ‘Batman Returns’ is hyper-stylized and grotesque, it actually feels more realistic to me than all of Nolan’s carefully constructed plausibility.
Plus, it’s got Micheal Keaton as Batman.
Keaton is the best Batman. I’m sorry. On this point, I will not budge. Keaton manages to make Bruce Wayne and Batman actually feel like two separate characters. Val Kilmer didn’t. George Clooney sure as shit didn’t. And yeah, not to be harsh, but for all his Method Acting brilliance, neither did Christian Bale. (In fact, the idea that Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character could tell that Bruce Wayne was Batman just by looking at him was probably the most honest idea in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’.) Keaton’s Bruce Wayne wanders around in a shell-shocked daze. His Bruce Wayne really didn’t get over seeing his parents murdered in front of him. He’s only ever half-present, easily distracted. But when he’s in The Suit? He moves differently, with authority. He is focused; present; totally in the moment. It’s a brilliantly subtle performance, and a lot of it comes from Keaton having no choice but to submit to the reality of the Batsuit. As he said, “I just work the suit, man. I let the suit go to work for me.” His version of Batman/Bruce Wayne again, feels the most real because it really seems like he has no choice about being Batman. It’s something he NEEDS to be. Whereas with Bale, his Batman is something he CHOOSES to do. It’s a very important difference.
Ironically, by embracing it’s comic book roots but, importantly, not being constrained by them ‘Batman Returns’ is the most faithful big-screen version of Batman so far. I haven’t seen ‘Batman V. Superman – Dawn Of Justice’ yet. Maybe it will change my mind. We’ll see. But I will say Ben Affleck has a hell of a hard time ahead of him convincing me he’s fit to take Michael Keaton’s place. For me, ‘Batman Returns’ is the Batman Movie to beat. And no-one’s done it yet.
(To be fair, ‘The Dark Knight’ came really close.)
ModCon02 will be seeing ‘Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice’ this coming Sunday. He will go on record as saying that even if it’s the best movie of the year it’s still the dumbest title for a movie ever, comic-book adaptation or no..