Long before Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale revitalized the Batman franchise, four movies brought the Dark Knight to movie audiences in the 1980s and 1990s. Two of these movies were very highly respected, two were truly hated by comic book fans, and all four are together in 4 Film Favorites: Batman Collection.

After Frank Miller's grim and gritty rendition of Batman in 1986's comic book miniseries Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, the movies followed suit soon after. The first movie, Batman, seemed like a big gamble -- the director of Pee Wee's Big Adventure with the star of Mr. Mom? -- but all the elements came together very well.

Michael Keaton's costume may not have allowed him to turn his neck, but Keaton brought a gravity and thoughtfulness to both Bruce Wayne and Batman. Getting Jack Nicholson as the Joker was perfect casting, as he brought a manic, lunatic streak from start to end. The combination of Tim Burton's directing style, Danny Elfman's heroic score, and Anton Furst's decaying Gotham City landscape brought the darker side of Batman to the big screen. There were flaws -- some huge plotholes, Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) doing little but scream and get kidnapped a lot -- but the movie was a huge success.

How do you follow up a movie that had a great villain? Toss in two villains! Batman Returns not only returned Burton and Keaton but added two costumed villains from the comic books (plus Christopher Walken as evil businessman Maximillian Shreck.)
Batman Returns featured beauty and the beast. Wearing a tight vinly bodysuit, Michelle Pfeiffer was the psycho, whip-wielding femme fatale Catwoman (as a guard says, "I don't know whether to shoot her or fall in love with her"). On the other side of the spectrum, Danny DeVito became the Penguin, a short, deformed, crude, sexist villain who, oddly enough, ran for mayor of Gotham City. As with the previous movie the plot had plenty of weaknesses, but the movie was dark fun.
Too dark, for some. Fearing the kids who were buying Batman toys would be terrified by the movie those toys came from (McDonalds pulled its toys), there was a decision to lighten up the franchise. Enter director Joel Schumacher. There's a scene in the show Robot Chicken where a fan at a comic book convention shouts "Look! It's Joel Schumacher, history's greatest monster!" Looking at his two entries in the Batman movie franchise, it's hard to disagree.

Batman Forever continued two-villain motif, as Tommy Lee Jones played Two-Face and Jim Carrey was the Riddler. Val Kilmer took on the roles of Batman/ Bruce Wayne, making him flat and uninteresting. Audiences also got to see Robin/Dick Grayson on the big screen; this Robin was also a young adult, played by Chris O'Donnell, making it.... odd that people talk about him like he's a helpless young orphan. Nicole Kidman had little to do as psychiatrist and love interest Chase Meridian; at least she didn't scream as much as Basinger.

If the first two movies had plot holes, Batman Forever had gaping chasms. There was also a return to near-camp silliness, from the painful dialogue to the almost neon color scheme for so much of the movie. A tendency to shift to slow motion in most action scenes didn't help, and Jones and Carrey seem to be competing to see who can ham it up the most. And yes, the body armor worn by Batman does feature visible nipples.

If you ask people what the worst superhero movies are, Batman and Robin will always be present and may be named the worst. While my personal vote for the worst is Pumaman (great on Mystery Science Theater 3000, wretched on its own), Batman and Robin would earn this dubious silver metal.

Thinking that less must mean better, this outing has three villains and three heroes. Mister Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger, painted blue) wears a robotic exoskeleton, shoots a freeze gun, and never stops making puns involving the cold. Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman) is a nature lover with hypnotic love dust, a poison kiss, constricitng vines, and an increasingly silly series of hairstyles. Finally there is Bane (Jeep Swenson), who is big and grunts out one or two word sentences.
As for the heroes, George Clooney becomes Batman/Bruce Wayne -- and the charm he's shown in so many movies since doesn't appear here. O'Donnel reprises his role as Robin/Dick Grayson, and he's no more interesting this time around. The new heroine is Batgirl/Barbara Wilson (Alicia Silverstone, whose career peaked with Clueless), Alfred's niece (despite looking about 50 years younger than him) and Oxford student (despite having no trace of a British accent) who becomes Batman and Robin's new partner pretty much by surprise.
The challenge with Batman and Robin is figuring out which part of the movie is the worst. Is it the return of the Bat-Nipples on the costumes of the men? Batman's Bat-Credit Card? Thurman's playing Poison Ivy like Mae West? More slow-motion action sequences? A car chase across the arms of a giant statue? There is so much here to hate. The best thing: The sequel suggested by the shot at the end never materialized.
So, how to grade a four-pack of films? My advice: Watch the first half of 4 Film Favorites: Batman Collection for a look at the quality renditions of Batman that preceded the current versions -- and use the disc with the latter two movies for target practice.
Overall grades:
Batman: A-
Batman Returns: B+
Batman Forever: F
Batman & Robin: Can I give a movie a F-?
Reviewed by James Lynch

1 comment:

digitaldoc said...

Yup, you certainly can give a film and F-....