Right. If we’re being honest (and this is the internet, so of course I expect we all are) this particular slice of the Batman saga has been pretty much talked out to exhaustion. I seriously doubt there is much new insight I can lend that hasn’t already been discussed by legions of highly qualified, incredibly discerning, articulate and level-headed online fans.
So we’ll be somewhat brief today. And we will start with this:
Joel Schumacher is a good director.
We’re jumping a little bit ahead, so before we get too deep into this potential quagmire, go and check out his IMDB page. Let that list of films percolate in your brain while we get into Batman’s cinematic adventures – or as the suits at WB call them “CHA CHING CHA CHING CHA CHING!”
From Knight to Bastard
As Batman has grown throughout the decades, so have those loyal readers who continued to buy the comics every month – and, as DC increasingly upped their publishing schedule, every week. From his, admittedly gritty, pulp origins, Batman waded through decades of whimsy until he was recast as much more of a grounded, “realistic” character. Realism is not something that can really be achieved in comics, but Martha Wayne’s baby boy is probably as close as you’re ever going to get.
It was in the 80’s, however, that the next major shift in tone came into play – the first time when Batman truly became a Dark Knight. The players responsible? Well, it pretty much rests on the shoulders of this lunatic:
Frank Miller, though not currently as in favor with the entirety of the comic-book world, nonetheless was once bigger than any rock star for his contributions to Batman. This came primarily in the form of his epic Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, in which an elderly Bruce Wayne comes out of “retirement” to face social disaster in his city. He’s full of rage, incredibly violent, completely reckless and he beats the tar out of Superman toward the end. People loved it.
When the time finally came for a genuine effort to place Batman on the big screen, this was the Batman firmly entrenched in people’s minds. Especially so in the vision of director Tim Burton, who brought, along with the shadow of the Bat, his unique sense of design to the architecture of Gotham.
What Burton and Miller shared in their approach to Batman is something that had generally been overlooked by any other writer or artist who worked on the character, and would have been beyond most of the youngsters who picked up the books: The concept that Batman is, quite frankly, mentally disturbed.
Miller carries this idea much further than any other, but it’s certainly present in the first two Batman movies, made under the kooky eye of Burton.
Bruce Wayne – played by Michael Keaton – is very much a loner who has little sense of meaning without donning his Bat-garb, now consisting of midnight black body armour. The point is made several times that he is unable to maintain, at the very least, regular romantic relationships, because he refuses to put aside his obsession with his dead parents and punishing “bad guys” for their deaths.
Though it is never discussed, Burton’s Batman is also, quite possibly, a killer. While the climactic finale involves the death of his parents killer (a contrivance, maybe), it is implied that he intentionally tried to kill Jack Napier by dropping him into acid.
Of course, in Burton’s cinematic worlds, everyone is kinda nuts. This is brought even more to the forefront in his sequel Batman Returns, in which The Penguin and Catwoman are cast as monstrous freaks who are alienated from society at large. Hmm… very angsty.
Oh, and Batman straps a bomb to a guy’s waist and punches him into a sewer hole to explode.
So, Batman as a poster boy for the socially discontent teen?
Batman For How Long?
And now we come to the looming, flouro-highlighted, gaudily dressed and overacting gargoyles of the franchise: Batman Forever and Batman and Robin.
I’ll say it again: Joel Schumacher is a good director. This is evidenced as much as anything by the fact that his filmography is incredibly diverse. He has character focused dramatic pieces, cult-favorite horror flicks, spectacular and brilliantly realised musicals, tightly wound thrillers… not many directors bother to try and stretch themselves this much.
But, it has to be admitted, his contribution to Batman was… not so great. Even he admits it.
So lets leave alone the obvious and focus on an overlooked fact of these movies: Schumacher is the first guys to really try to develop Batman/Bruce Wayne as a character.
The entire central premise of Forever has Bruce realising that his “quest for vengeance” has left him empty and without real purpose. The story, such as it was, tried to bring him from a place of selfish pursuit, to one where he dedicates himself to a higher cause because he is able to make a positive difference to people. Now, it’s true, the movies didn’t really do that very well, but at least they tried something there.
The style and tone were a return to camp (with a vengeance) of the days of the 60’s TV series. But what’s remarkable is that they tried to illustrate what it would be like for Bruce Wayne to grow the hell up. It’s something that writers have generally avoided, because having Batman actually deal with his neurosis would empty the character of his driving motivation, and they probably think that no one would be interested in a Batman who wasn’t an eternally tortured soul.
But, and you know there’s always a ‘but’, there was someone who had other ideas. We’ll look at those next time.