BATMAN

Director: Tim Burton
Screenplay: Sam Hamm & Warren Skaaren
Story by: Sam Hamm
Producers: Peter Guber, Barbara Kalish, Chris Kenny, Benjamin Melniker, Jon Peters, Michael E. Uslan
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, Jack Palance, Billy Dee Williams, Robert Wuhl, Jerry Hall, Tracey Walter, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle
Year: 1989
Country: USA
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 126 mins

What’s the best way to convince an audience that modern Batman is completely different from classic Batman? No it’s not a devilishly despicable conundrum posed by the Riddler, but instead a question Warner Bros and Tim Burton presumably asked themselves on a regular basis when putting together this first big-screen outing for the Caped Crusader. The answer of course is to turn Gotham City into a depression hit scum-hole; to skew the time period so it becomes a retro 30s/80s combo (with added songs by Prince); and to make Batman himself a bit of a bad-ass nut job. Throw in a psychotic performance by Jack Nicholson as the Joker; a bunch of high-tech Bat-gadgets that all look a bit too fiddly to be homemade; remove any references to anything even remotely camp and there you have it, the job is done. Batman couldn’t be further away from the old school Adam West days if it had tried and those wanting to relive the past should perhaps grab a brown paper bag before they start hyperventilating. Those ready to embrace a world of grumpy Bat-antics however are in for a treat, because Batman is an exciting, genre defining adventure where bad stuff happens to good people, mostly because everyone’s actually a little bit greedy and probably deserves it anyway. It’s also a movie where a chap can dress up in a rubber suit and jump off buildings without anyone suggesting he should grow up, because whilst he’s doing that, an older bloke who should know better is running around dressed as a clown.

These two men are of course Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) and Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson), or Batman and the Joker as the story reveals; who despite both being nuttier than a squirrels pantry are the main characters of the film. As a young tyke, Bruce Wayne witnesses his parent’s death at the hands of Napier and when he grows up he decides to clean up the streets of Gotham, by becoming Batman. As for Napier, he continues to be a two-bit crook working for the Gotham’s biggest crime boss Carl Grissom (Palance) until he crosses paths with Batman and gets dropped into a vat of toxic waste. Before you can say, ‘Holy chemical peel Batman’, Napier’s skin is completely bleached and a session of cosmetic surgery can’t stop him from looking like Ronald McDonald’s more attractive brother. Calling himself the Joker, he and Batman soon come to blows over their status as iconic figures within the city and their growing affection for ace photographer Vicki Vale (Basinger) leads them to a showdown where only one will survive!

Batman is a great, yet flawed movie that takes a character so ingrained in pop culture and reinvents him for a generation who want to feel a bit depressed when watching a film. It has action, drama, a hero who is clearly unhinged and a damn cool Batmobile. The reason its flawed is because it’s a movie from director Tim Burton, only it’s a restrained Burton, not quite allowed to develop his Dark Knight in quite the right way he clearly wants to. This is possibly because of continued rewrites during the film’s production, which explains a lot of the glaring plot holes, or because Warner Bros were keeping a beady eye on what is one of their most lucrative properties. The imagery is not really Tim Burton, but what Burton might be like on his first day on the job, eager to do what he has to in order to gain enough trust to go his own way later down the line. Either way Batman is not quite the best Bat-film that it could be (it’s more the Dr No of super hero movies), but it certain is the one that takes a step in the right direction.

BATMAN RETURNS

Director: Tim Burton
Screenplay: Daniel Walters
Story by: Daniel Walters & Sam Hamm
Producers: Ian Bryce, Tim Burton, Denise Di Novi, Larry J. Franco, Peter Guber, Benjamin Melniker, Jon Peters, Michael E. Uslan
Starring: Michael Keaton, Michelle Pfieffer, Danny DeVito, Christopher Walken, Vincent Schiavelli, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle
Year: 1992
Country: USA
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 126 mins

He’s out. He’s out of the box. Director Tim Burton has been unleashed and he’s back with a Batman film that is his and his alone. Pure undiluted Burton poured into a Batman shaped hipflask and placed in a kinky pouch. Oh and he’s not without back-up, as composer Danny Elfman is giving it his all as well on the musical front, to make sure that this is a sequel that is bigger and bolder than what has come before. Batman Returns is not for kids, those of a nervous disposition or anyone who isn’t prepared to sit through two hours of snow falling, bile spewing, fairy tale imagery dominated by a (cat) woman dressed in a PVC pervert outfit complete with a whip. To say it’s a sequel to Batman (1989) would be true, but a slight misrepresentation of what’s on offer, as Batman Returns is actually just another entry into a much larger series, not too worried about what has come before. It’s the same Batman (Keaton), the same Alfred (Gought), the same Commissioner Gordon (Hingle) and technically it’s the same Gotham, but everything seems a little bit less amateur. That’s not a disservice to the first Batman film, but the look and feel of Batman Returns is clearly the result of developing through trial and error whilst making Batman. Whereas that film was a learning curve, Batman Returns is the finished product, showing what happens when you put a quirky director together with DC Comic’s most troubled super hero.

It’s Christmas in Gotham and as the locals contemplate an eggnog induced festive period, the biggest question on everyone’s lips is surely, why the hell don’t they all move to a much safer city? Oh the streets might not be as dirty as they once were, as they now look like they’re part of a studio backlot, but things in Gotham are far from safe. There is still a need for Batman, although by the looks of things he now waits around for crimes to happen before he can be bothered to suit-up, but that’s not surprising since all the whackos seem to turn up there on a regular basis. This time around Batman isn’t just faced with one vile villain, he’s got three to contend with, in the shape of Penguin (DeVito), Catwoman (Pfieffer) and the odious Max Shreck (Walken). So when Shreck suggests Penguin runs for Mayor of Gotham, Batman has to once again fight a villain who has tried to win the support and trust of Gotham’s citizens in order to make the Caped Crusader seem like the bad guy. It even works for a while as well, because Catwoman briefly joins forces with Penguin and causes the Dark Knight a few headaches that not even a Bat-aspirin can shake off. Obviously with all of Batman’s foes being about as trustworthy as an underfed lion in a room full of pork chops, it’s not long before they’re all falling out and trying to bump one another off. For Batman, this isn’t something that is particularly useful to him, as a bad guy (or gal) with a plan is not as hard to contend with as a bad guy with a grudge and so all hell breaks loose over Gotham; including kidnapping, cat scratching and some back stabbing.

Batman Returns is an odd sequel, because for many reasons it shouldn’t quite work. As mentioned it’s not particularly nice at times, in fact it’s downright gruesome and yet at the same time it’s imaginative, sombre and just so beautiful. This particular chapter in Batman’s escapades seems almost trapped in a snow globe, cut off from the outside world, without the need to exist as anything other than itself. For that reason it never actually seems to further Batman’s story, not that it really matters and anyway, with so many villains on screen someone gets shafted for screen time and it’s not an issue that it’s Batman. The film isn’t concerned with the fact that it’s his movie, because there’s far more fun to be had with the villains, with Michelle Pfieffer’s Catwoman easily the best of the bunch. Prancing around the snow covered rooftops of Gotham dressed like a dominatrix fills her with the right kind of attitude to keep the character on an equal footing with all those boys knocking about and never has it seemed so much fun to be a cat. Walken as Shreck is equally as good, especially as he shares screen time with two well known Batman villains and it’s only the Penguin that fails to work. It’s a shame really as Burton’s approach to the character is arguably the most interesting thing to ever happen with the Penguin and DeVito is right on the money for making him so despicable. Still everything that shouldn’t work only adds to the magic of this film and makes this a terrific sequel that is far more dynamic than the original.

BATMAN FOREVER

Director: Joel Schumacher
Screenplay: Lee Batchler, Janet Scott Batchler and Akiva Goldsman
Producers: Tim Burton, Mitchell Dauterive, Peter Macgregor-Scott, Benjamin Melniker, Kevin J. Messick, Michael E. Uslan
Starring: Val Kilmer, Jim Carrey, Tommy Lee Jones, Nichole Kidman, Chris O’Donnell, Drew Barrymore, Debi Mazar, Elizabeth Sanders, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle
Year: 1995
Country: USA
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 121 mins

If Batman (1989) was about reintroducing the Dark Knight for a new generation, then Batman Forever is about readdressing the Caped Crusader’s accessibility to slightly unsure audience. The reason for this is to win back the cinemagoers put off by the macabre (yet brilliant) offerings of Batman Returns (1992) by giving the popcorn munching crowd a Batman they can get down with. Gone is the harsh wintery wonderland of Gotham City and in its place is a cross between New York and Judge Dredd’s Mega-City One, where Batman can glide around town on the look-out for crime! This is a new Batman (Kilmer) (although technically the same Batman) and with a new actor under the cape and cowl there is also a new approach to the material. Director Joel Schumacher is the man calling the shots and his take on proceedings is to move more towards the comics, whilst still keeping an eye on what Tim Burton achieved with the first two entries in the series. That means new villains in glorious Technicolor, a whole Batcave load of gags and of course the introduction of Robin (O’Donnell), the Boy Wonder. Only Robin’s not so much a boy as a ‘young man’, but fear not all sidekick haters out there, as Robin doesn’t hijack the movie, instead he hangs around in the background so that Batman can get on with more pressing matters.

There’s a new villain in town called the Riddler (Carrey) and he’s not just got issues with Batman, he’s also got Bruce Wayne, the Caped Crusader’s alter-ego, in his sights as well. But solving riddles and dodging one-liners at every turn isn’t the only problem that Batman has to deal with, because he has former friend Harvey ‘Two-Face’ Dent (Jones) on his case, as well as a complex love life with Dr. Chase Meridian (Kidman) and the arrival of Robin to fit into his bulging schedule. It’s enough to give a super hero an identity crisis and so it’s no wonder that before long he’s trying to decide how best to balance both aspects of his life. This is of course would be a bit of a nightmare for most cape wearing wonders, but for Batman it’s just another day at the office. When he does eventually come face-to-face (no pun intended) with the villains that are giving him the run around, it all ends up in an exciting and action-packed showdown, that makes Batman Forever a refreshing change from the first two films. Batman is still a brooding gadget-carrying hard man, but he’s now far more enjoyable to spend two hours with and the film walks the thin line between action-adventure and comic-book storytelling.

Batman Forever is fun. Yes, fun. It may seem like a swear word amongst the die-hard Burton devotees, but what Joel Schumacher has done with the Dark Knight, is open up the likability of his world that was previously repressed through the fear it was all be a bitcampy. He hasn’t done this at the expense of his hero, as Batman still remains the authority on all things serious, but he has allowed Batman’s villains to get away with a bit more hilarious hi-jinks than before. Carrey as the Riddler steals the show and clearly takes his influence from 60s Batman star Frank Gorshin as he prances around in an emerald leotard handing out the odd riddle when her can be arsed. Unfortunately it is at the expense of Tommy Lee Jones’ Two-Face who more or less gets left gurning in the background as he fills in the gaps when Carrey isn’t on screen. He’s an unfortunate casualty of Carrey’s hyperactive presence and perhaps should have been saved for another entry in the franchise, but with so much going on there’s no time to worry about such details. O’Donnell is fine as circus acrobat turned orphan Robin and Kidman does her best with what she is given to do, which isn’t all that much. Then of course there’s new Batman Val Kilmer, who manages to be both a great Batman and Bruce Wayne, easily filling the role made so intense as his previous incarnation with Michael Keaton playing the part. The film’s not perfect and there are a number of short comings in where the line should be drawn before things get too cartoony, but it is certainly a Bat-film that the whole family can watch without having to have the Samaritans on standby. Not quite as interesting as Batman Returns, but a bit more fun than Batman.

BATMAN & ROBIN

Director: Joel Schumacher
Screenplay: Akiva Goldsman
Producers: Mitchell Dauterive, William M. Elvin, Peter Macgregor-Scott, Benjamin Melniker, Michael E. Uslan
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, George Clooney, Uma Thurman, Chris O’Donnell, Alicia Silverstone, John Glover, Elle Macpherson, Jeep Swenson, Elizabeth Sanders, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle
Year: 1997
Country: USA
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 125 mins

Oh no, someone has made a mistake and it’s a bit of a big one. After the success of Batman Forever’s (1995) more light-hearted approach to the Batman mythology, director Joel Schumacher’s follow-up is a bit of a misjudged neon nightmare that has gone way off the scale of super heroic foul-ups. Just like when Tim Burton, relieved of the shackles of audience expectations following Batman (1989) went into full Burton-overdrive with Batman Returns (1992), Schumacher has done the same and it’s not for the faint hearted. If colour is your thing, then chances are that Batman & Robin will be something you can stomach, because it has lots of it. If on the other hand the thought of a DayGlo Dark Knight is about as welcoming as kick in the Utility Belt, then you should perhaps avoid your eyes, for Batman & Robin could be an assault on the senses. There’s more puce on screen than a colour chart from the local DIY store and that is only half the problem with Batman’s latest adventure in Gotham City. There’s also an unhealthy obsession with unfunny one-liners; close ups of intimate areas and lots and lots of padding to get through this two-hour step in the wrong direction. With Batman and Robin the perfect crime-fighting team in Gotham (and presumably Gotham’s only crime-fighting team), another new bunch of villains are needed to stop them from sloping off down the local discothèque to try it on with Wonder Woman. Step forward the cold-hearted Mr. Freeze (Schwarzenegger), the venomous Poison Ivy (Thurman) and the lumbering and embarrassingly gormless Bane (Swenson). Together they pose the ultimate threat to the Dynamic Duo, but not because they actually have the ability to defeat them, but because they seem so daft that Batman (Clooney) and Robin (O’Donnell) may actually just laugh themselves to death.

Freeze is a bit narked, as his wife has been cryogenically frozen so she can await a cure to a life threatening illness and thanks to an accident with some dry ice he’s been left looking like a Smurf on steroids. For reasons known only to him and script writer Akiva Goldsman, he has developed a hatred for all of humanity (especially humans living in Gotham) and so he steals diamonds and dishes out poor dialogue as a way of dealing with his problems. Whilst he’s doing this, botanist Pamela Isley is turned into the deadly and seductive Poison Ivy, who once again for reasons not all too clear has a grudge against Bruce Wayne and so decides to take it out on Gotham. Along the way she drags wrestler/gimp Bane into her dastardly scheme and then teams-up with Mr. Freeze to turn the city into a wasteland, ripe for nature to reclaim its rightful place amongst the erotic statues of the landscape. With all this confusing mess of villainy going on, Batman and Robin are finding that their relationship is also becoming problematic, with the Boy Wonder less than impressed that Batman’s always telling him what to do. Oh and to top things off Alfred’s losing the plot (you can’t blame him really, he’s been the butler for three different Batmen) and his jail-bait niece Barbara (Silverstone) turns up to become Batgirl, the super hero that nobody needs.

There are many problems with Batman & Robin and to list them would possibly take longer than the time it takes to watch the movie. The biggest and most glaringly obvious problem however is the script, which is not worth the paper it was written on. It’s a shame, because there is clearly a lot of money spent on screen and visually Batman & Robin is at times an interesting movie filled with some dynamic sequences. Batman’s museum entrance as he crashes through a skylight and rides down the back of a dinosaur is daft but fun, as is his and Robin’s explosive escape and subsequent sky-surf from a rocket that Freeze uses to almost bump off Batman. But none of this can forgive the fact that so much of the film is a rehash of events from Batman Forever, only set to some of the worst dialogue imaginable, with Mr. Freeze having more than anyone. This type of predictable pun projecting is what Arnold Schwarzenegger usually does best, but here it’s just irritating and detracts from what could have been an interesting villain. Thurman as Poison Ivy doesn’t fair much better, George Clooney is terribly miscast as Batman, although he’s ok as Bruce Wayne and the less said about Alicia Silverstone’s Batgirl the better. Long time Bat-veterans Pat Hingle and Michael Gough are still given a few lines to earn their keep, but Commissioner Gordon is now a bumbling fool and it’s only Chris O’Donnell that actually comes out of things unscathed. This could be because he’s acting as if he’s in a completely different movie to everybody else (a wise decision), but it still doesn’t stop Batman & Robin from being a movie mega-bomb that needs to be deactivated. And as every Bat-fan knows, some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb.

BATMAN BEGINS

Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenplay: Christopher Nolan & David S. Goyer
Story: Christopher Nolan
Producers: Larry J. Franco, Benjamin Melniker, Lorne Orleans, Charles Roven, Emma Thomas, Cheryl A. Tkach, Michael E. Uslan
Starring: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Gary Oldman, Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkinson, Ken Watanabe, Katie Holmes, Morgan Freeman, Rutger Hauer
Year: 2005
Country: USA
BBFC Certification: 12A
Duration: 140 mins

Batman’s back and after falling foul of an excess of overindulgence, he’s got another new director, another new direction and another new actor with the keys to the Batmobile. After years dwindling in Development Hell following the failure of Batman & Robin (1997) to convince the audience that they wanted to see Batman on ice skates (?!), Batman returns with a bat-to-basics approach. Batman Begins jettisons everything that has gone before and reinvents the Dark Knight for another new generation, who want to see their hero running around being all moody like a teenage boy after he’s been told his X-Box has been confiscated. Christopher Nolan is in the director’s chair and Christian Bale is wearing the cape, but this time around the emphasis is very much on making sure that Batman is the true star of this epic adventure which retells the origin of Batman, whilst filling in the blanks as to where he got all those wonderful toys. This is a Bat-film for those who have never seen a Batman film before; for those who detested Batman & Robin; and for anyone who likes intelligent and fast paced storytelling. In fact such is the speed at which Batman Begins moves, that you will be forgiven if you have find yourself suffering from motion sickness by the film’s climactic conclusion.

As the film restarts Batman’s story from day one, a young Bruce Wayne witnesses his parents brutal murder during a mugging that goes wrong, at the hands of one of society’s unfortunate victims of a harsh existence (aka a low-life scumbag). The incident leaves Bruce angry and filled with hatred and as he grows up he vows to get revenge against his parents executioner. But before he can act upon his feelings the situation is taken out of his hands and he quickly learns that the corruption in Gotham goes deeper than what he had witnessed firsthand. Unable to reconcile with his inability to understand his feelings, he leaves Gotham, abandons his life as one of the city’s richest youngsters and travels the World in search of answers. Along the way he bumps into Henri Ducard (Neeson) who mentors him under the watchful eye of the mysterious Ra’s Al Ghul (Watanabe) and with his training complete he returns to Gotham, pieces together a costume and takes to the streets to clean up the city. However once he’s back he discovers there’s trouble brewing down at Arkham Asylum, the local holding place for some of Gotham’s insane inmates, which is connected to the Mob and new whacko the Scarecrow (Murphy). So Batman has to find allies in his war on crime in order to make things a bit more cheery for the city that faces more problems than a guidance counsellor on a double shift.

Almost everything about Batman Begins works and it’s to Nolan’s credit that he doesn’t spend any time trying to slow down for anyone not familiar with Batman’s story. The film starts off at ground level, but it packs in so much story that anyone not paying full attention could find they miss out on a few vital plot points. This means that in terms of where the film begins and concludes, Bruce Wayne has gone through so much, that you almost want to go over and give him a hug; but of course with Christian Bale playing the boy billionaire, it’s not something that you should worry about too much. Although it still doesn’t feel as if Bale is the ‘Definitive Batman’, in the same way that Christopher Reeve is still the ‘Definitive Superman’, he is perfect for Nolan’s take on the story and he heads a very impressive cast. Michael Caine as loyal butler Alfred is a fantastic foil for Bale’s Bruce Wayne; Neeson, Watanabe and Murphy offer brilliant support as villains who don’t try and hijack the movie and Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman provide useful back-up as Commissioner Gordon and techno-whiz Lucius Fox respectively. The only one who really gets left out is Katie Holmes as Bruce’s best friend/love interest Rachel and that’s not Holmes’ fault, it’s just that there’s nothing much for her to do. This coupled with a few fudged action scenes and an unhealthy insistence to keep Batman off screen at times are the only real down falls in what is possibly the best Batman film of them all.

THE DARK KNIGHT

Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenplay: Jonathan Nolan & Christopher Nolan
Story: Christopher Nolan & David S. Goyer
Producers: Kevin De La Noy, Jordan Goldberg, Philip Lee, Benjamin Melniker, Christopher Nolan, Lorne Orleans, Charles Roven, Emma Thomas, Thomas Tull, Michael E. Uslan
Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Cillian Murphy, Eric Roberts
Year: 2008
Country: USA
BBFC Certification: 12A
Duration: 152 mins

So Batman’s had a movie all about himself, with the brilliant Batman Begins (2005) and now it’s only fair that once again he shares his screen time with arguably the most iconic villain of all time for the sequel The Dark Knight. Yep, the Clown Prince of Crime, better known to you and me as the Joker is back (or rather reintroduced), and he couldn’t have asked for a bigger chance to shine. With Jack Nicholson’s performance as the Joker permanently etched across the minds of millions of fans who grew up during the late Eighties, making a character as identifiable as the Joker stand out is a tough thing to do; but Heath Ledger does it. Not only does he move so far away from what Nicholson did with the character, that it’s as if Nicholson’s performance was just a distant dream, but he actually creates the guiding force for the entire movie. Whereas Batman Begins was about Bruce Wayne’s journey to become Batman, The Dark Knight is about Batman’s journey to stop a deranged terrorist from having the citizens of Gotham live in fear. That’s not to say he actually achieves his goal, for the lines of right and wrong are often blurred and that’s why The Dark Knight is a bit of an intense gut-twisting beast of a movie that has gives no excuses for the emotional jaunt that it takes you on.

With Batman (Bale) becoming a figure of good in Gotham, the Mob are getting a bit peeved at his continued interference and so when they are approached by the Joker, they (reluctantly) agree to let him attempt to take down the Caped Crusader using his rather strange methods. But what they don’t count on is the fact that behind the green hair, pale complexion and hideous smile is the clever mind of a genius who has a plan up his tattered sleeve to double-cross everyone, just for the hell of it! So what takes place is an intense game of Bat and mouse, between the Joker and Batman that touches upon the lives of everyone Batman comes into contact with, including his old flame Rachel Dawes (Gyllenhaal) and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Eckhart). For Dent this leads to his transformation into the physically and mentally scarred Two-Face, but for Batman it means he has to make some tough decisions that leave him to question if he really is doing things for the greater good. Over the course of two and a half hours, the epic (and yes this is an epic) tale of one man’s quest to deal with the consequences of his actions, makes this a genre defining Batman film that goes beyond the boundaries of most other super hero movies.

Returning for this super-sequel is pretty much all of the major players from Batman Begins and the new additions, such as Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent only add to what is already a fantastic cast. Maggie Gyllenhaal replaces Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes and whilst she still doesn’t get much to do, she does at least give the role all she has and fleshes out an important character to Bruce Wayne and his journey. What also helps strengthen Nolan’s Gotham are the smaller characters played by actors such as Eric Roberts as Sal Maroni and Joshua Harto as Coleman Reese who create the sense that everyone is important in the movie, no matter how much screen time they’re given. It’s also fun to see Cillian Murphy back for a quick cameo as the Scarecrow to create another connection to the previous movie and to once again hear the music of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard who manage to capture the intensity of the situation with each musical note. The Dark Knight isn’t just a great sequel it’s a great continuation of Batman’s legacy and demonstrates the depth of storytelling that can be derived from the character. The only quibble is that it’s perhaps a little too long, with the sense that it is drawing to a conclusion a little bit before it does, but it’s a minor problem that doesn’t stop it being the smash hit that for once ‘an epic’ of this calibre deserves to be.

Reviewed by Alex Wiggan

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