Category Archives: Memoir
“René Descartes walks into a bar. The bartender says, ‘Would you like a drink?’
Descartes says, ‘I think not,’ and disappears. A moment later he reappears and says, ‘On second thought…’
Anyway, Bill, this is Harlan Ellison.”
That was how my second voicemail from Harlan began. It was a moment that knocked me out. I’d already received a call from him the prior fall, in November 2006, but there I was leaving work in the spring of 2007, hearing the gruff voice again. A voice I’d heard in audiobooks, CD recordings of lectures, and on television was, again, coming from my phone. At the end of the message, he left his phone number.
I never used it.
Harlan Ellison died on June 27th. I heard about it on June 28th, which happens to be my wedding anniversary. I am heartbroken.
It’s taken me almost two months to write this because I wanted to get it right. I don’t know that I have. Harlan’s work has amazed me since I first started reading it when I was 19 years old, in 1996. I have trouble believing that I’ve been a reader and fan of the guy I first saw on television through his commentary on Sci Fi Channel’s Sci Fi Buzz when he was in his 60s and I was at the end of my teens. Turning 41–an actual friggin’ adult!–and Harlan is gone. People talk about their favorite Harlan Ellison stories. Of course, “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman.” and “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” are classics and I love them both. I am partial to “Jeffty is Five” and “The Resurgence of Miss Ankle-Strap Wedgie,” and also “Incognita, Inc.” But trying to list favorites is a mug’s game, as Harlan might say. Every time I think of a few, a few more pop up that I love. His nonfiction was amazing, too. It made me want to try my hand at nonfiction, which is how I got into blogging, and even had the nerve to pitch my column to Dark Discoveries Magazine back in 2004.
But his writing, which was how he defined himself, was only a part of what I loved about Harlan. His personality seemed very similar to mine at times and I loved that he would say what he believed, throwing the chips into the air and letting them fall where they lay. For a kid who spent too much of his adolescence trying to figure out who he was, just living your life by your rules and to fuck with anyone who didn’t agree was refreshing. Looking back, I realize I may have taken this too far at times because Harlan had something I lacked: courage. Or the stupidity of just not being scared by anything. He was a Force of Nature, I was a Fart in the Wind. I look back on my column, American Gauthic, and some of the things I wrote online and said in real life during my early-to-mid-to-late-20s and cringe. I should not have gone there. I was not then, and am not now, Harlan Ellison, who could mostly get away with it. That said, the column did build some bridges and it is the thing that got me the voicemails from Harlan.
In the fall of 2006, upon renewing (or changing my address for) my HERC–Harlan Ellison Recording Collection–subscription, I sent a letter saying I was writing an essay about him if he’d like to read it. Harlan (or, more likely, Susan) sent a Post-It attached to an issue of The Rabbit Hole saying yes, so I mailed the manuscript to him.
A few weeks later, I was leaving work at my newish job as a teaching assistant and I saw I had a voicemail. It was Harlan, thanking me for the essay, telling me it was good, and correcting some mistakes that I’d made. I was thrilled. I wish my phone company at the time had let me keep the voicemail. I revised the essay and sent it to the magazine. The next spring it was published and I mailed the copy or two that Harlan had asked for to keep in his files.
Spring of 2007 was a good time for me. I had met the woman I was pretty sure I was going to ask to marry me. I had been hired as a teacher. Things were looking good. As I left school, I saw I had a voicemail. I opened it and heard, “René Descartes walks into a bar….”
Harlan Ellison had a large impact on my life, just as he did on many readers’ lives. His words, his personality, his performances, his life helped me through difficult times. Harlan’s message in his writing and in many of his lectures and public appearances was to be ourselves, to not take shit, to learn and think and love and help and basically try to be our best. And that was a message I needed at critical times in my life when, as someone coming from a lower middle-class background, elitism was a definite no-no.
Harlan and I had a few exchanges via his bulletin boards, but I was never able to bring myself to actually call him after he gave me his phone number in the spring of 2007. I was just too goddamned afraid, which would have disappointed him. I wasn’t afraid of him, I was afraid of me. It was stupid, and I should’ve listened to everyone around me, but I didn’t.
And now, Harlan is gone. I didn’t know him. I wasn’t a friend. I was a reader who admired his work and what the man did in his life. There are many out there who can tell stories of bad behavior and this and that and fuck them all. Harlan Ellison was a great man. His stories could cut you, make you feel, make you laugh, make you cry. He always believed in the possibilities of human beings. Harlan wanted what was best for us and for us to live our best lives with ethics, and for us to also know we’re all broken to a degree. We all have ugly sides that are part of being human. He wanted us to experience good art, good food, the best of what humanity had to offer. He knew, though, that there was violence beneath it all, and he had no problem revealing and, in some ways, reveling in it.
Harlan Ellison is dead. Words I knew I’d have to write someday but still feel strange to see together. Like Robin Williams and Wes Craven, another of my heroes gone. But, never truly gone. Because the work remains. And that is what Harlan wanted, for the work to last far longer than he did. I’m up to carrying it along. Join me?
Do you want the general update first? Yes? All right.
I received my Master’s Degree in May. I am officially a master. I get a seat on the council without whining. So there’s that. I’ve been catching up on reading that I put off while reading for the graduate program. Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog and The Cartel…holy shit! These are good books. Stephen King rewarded me for the Master’s by publishing The Outsider in May and kicked my ass with it. Jeremy C. Shipp’s The Atrocities was a hallucination nightmare and recommended. There are other things, too, but we’ll worry about them another time, if at all.
I’ve been writing, too. I’m editing Echoes on the Pond and should be doing revisions next week. I should be able to begin submitting to agents/publishers by August. I also started a new novel, which is a middle readers novel. My youngest daughter loves novels as much as she loves picture books. At five years old, she’ll sit and listen as her Mom and I read a chapter or so a night. This has been going on for about a year. While I was still in grad school, she asked me to write something for her. Well, it just so happens that I had a story I came up with when I was between 10 and 12 years old, I even drew a picture of it. Funny enough, I found the drawing about four or five years ago in my parents’ attic and brought it home. It’s a slightly revised version of that original idea but I’m writing it now. I also wrote my first (good) short story in a few years and submitted that. It feels good to be back on the horse.
And that’s the thing, that’s the real topic of today’s post. It feels so good to be writing again for me and, by extension, you.
I’ve spent the last two-and-a-half years writing academic papers with only a few small forays into my own writing that I feel like the world is mine for the taking. But it has also led me to think about (or rethink about) (or re-rethink about) some things. This blog is one of them. Now, before you get all sweaty and freak out, having waited oh so long for a new post from me and now you’re afraid I’m about to say I’m going to stop, calm down. If there is anyone out there reading these posts, I assure you, I intend to keep them coming. I’ve thought about several topics to write here on the blog in the last few months. They include:
- How the deaths of Carrie Fisher and Margot Kidder made me realize how their characters taught me about women when I was a child
- Writing about keeping the dream alive when everything seems to be working against it
- General observations about the world
- A remembrance of Harlan Ellison
The first and last things especially have hit hard. The thing is, though, as I look at the time that I have, it’s limited. I can either work on my novels, stories, general fiction that I hope to submit and get paid for, or I can write blog posts about things that I’d love to talk/write about but there’s no chance of getting paid for it. Money is very much in my mind right now. I owe over $100,000 in student loan debt. And even though on paper my wife and I make a pretty good income, the cost of living is rising ridiculously. This past month alone, I’ve found myself tight in the wallet, and I foresee next week is going to be really hard. Part of this is that changes will have to be made, and I dig that. But I also need to be able to earn some extra income. So while I’d love to be able to write more here, I think I’m going to look into turning these ideas into essays, columns, whathaveyou.
Now, I may look into Patreon at some point, once I’ve hit my writing groove again, and if I do, you will be the first to know. I may pitch some ideas for columns, too. Maybe bring back American Gauthic or something else entirely. I don’t know. But if going through grad school taught me anything, it taught me that I can juggle some of these things more than I ever thought I could. And if the last three weeks have done anything, they’ve lit a fire under my ass.
What happened in the last three weeks to do this? 1) The money thing. 2) The death of Harlan Ellison
If you’ve been a longtime reader of mine, you know how much Harlan Ellison meant to me. Since his death, I’ve been watching commentaries and listening to his lecture CDs put out by Deep Shag Records. It has reinvigorated me. I’d like to write more about Harlan but I think that should be its own post, and I also have another idea. You’ll know when and if I pull that other idea off.
So there we go. As the world burns around us, I am doing my thing. Writing, telling stories, and watching. I will report back, I promise. How and when is the real question.
How have I not posted anything since July?! Well, there were a few abandoned posts that I just didn’t like the sound of before posting them, and the many ideas for posts I either didn’t have the time, energy, or wherewithal to write and post. There were the posts about Star Wars, or politics, or the depression/anxiety I’ve been going through, or…. Well, you get the idea.
Those pauses are as much for me as for you, because I realized as I was writing that last paragraph that I’m falling into a voice I employ on this blog which is usually fine but isn’t right now. It’s more chipper than I wish to sound. The fact is, I’ve been in a mental storm for over a year now. Closer to a-year-and-a-half now. I’ll be calling my doctor soon. When I checked a list of symptoms of depression, I’ve had almost all of these on a nearly constant basis since late-summer of 2015. Naturally, 2016 really helped with things. As my graduate studies progressed, and my grades have been superb, my personal writing and reading went down, down, down. Maybe this is part of it. But I don’t think it’s all of it. I found myself sitting around on the days my now-four-year-old was at daycare not writing, not doing homework, not doing anything. Toward the end of my summer vacation, I forced myself out of the apartment to get pizza. It was my birthday. Whee.
There was my oldest daughter graduating high school and moving on to college. I’m so proud of her. I worry about her, though, because I’m her Dad. I also worry for other reasons. But I’m proud of her and happy to see the young woman she is and the woman she is becoming.
There was work-related stresses. Some of those will hopefully be put to rest soon as I apply for a teaching license extension, but until it’s in my hands, I’ll be
In late October, doctors thought they found ovarian cancer in my mother. They did. They also found a pulmonary embolism, or a blood clot in her lung. They treated the clot and she had the cancer removed. They believe they got it all but she’s going to have to go through chemotherapy soon.
My wife has work-related stress.
Did I mention that I hardly have time to write my fiction as I write my papers, discussion posts, etc.? It’s not simple time management, either. There’s no energy or time. Not in my current life.
I won’t even mention the “election.”
All these could be factors. But….
Look, 2016 wasn’t all bad. There was a lot of good, even great. My family life is amazing. I’m relatively healthy. So are my daughters and my wife. I have a job I really enjoy. I still have the ability, up here in my head, and down here in my heart, to write my stuff. I’ve seen some good movies and read a few of my books, and have been exposed to a helluva lot of good books for my classes that I haven’t really been able to read because of time/energy. By next Monday, I’ll be halfway through grad school. I don’t quite see the light at the end of this tunnel, but I think I see something.
But this…depression? Anxiety? Both? Melancholy? It’s been bad. I’m trying my damnedest in public and with friends to hide it, more to keep myself from falling too far into the chasm, but it’s growing harder to keep it at bay. It really is.
So that’s why I haven’t posted since July. Time, energy, self-doubt, and this funk.
I hope 2017 will change that. I have my doubts. But I will do my best.
I’ve been called pessimistic by some people I know. I’m not pessimistic. If you saw how dark things are in my head, you’d know I was an optimist. I have to be.
So thanks to all who cared enough to show me this past year. Thanks to those who have made me feel like a good man, husband, father, teacher, even writer. I will try to do better in 2017. In these uncertain times, it’s all any of us can attempt.
It’s hard raising a daughter. Somehow, in 2016, I feel like the world has gotten tougher for girls. Maybe it’s because social media amplifies everything to a ridiculous volume, but it seems that times are getting…well…worse. The Tea Party movement created a backwards thinking environment that’s juxtaposed against a post-1960/70s Women’s Lib movement that has gotten people crazy. My 18-year-old is on a fine track. She’s political, aware, and verbal. I may not agree with everything she proclaims because life and experience has taught me it’s not always that simple, but I’m proud of her.
My 3-year-old though, G…I’m worried. She loves Doc McStuffins, Sheriff Callie, and Sofia the First, and Disney Princesses, but she also loves Star Wars and superheroes. I recently got her the Star Wars: Galactic Heroes Millennium Falcon playset, along with some figures. The ship came with Han Solo, Chewbacca, and R2-D2, and I got her Luke Skywalker/Yoda, C-3PO/R2-D2, and Darth Vader/Stormtrooper. She wanted Princess Leia. The store had none. Amazon has none. From what I can tell, except for older versions of the Galactic Heroes line on the second hand market (eBay, etc), they don’t make Princess Leia. Sure, Rey and Captain Phasma were just released and will soon make their way home (along with Finn), but where’s Princess Leia?
We were at Target and she saw the Fisher-Price Imaginext DC Super Friends Batcave (one of several, this one is huge and comes with Batman and the Joker). She loves to mess around with it. Underneath it was the Hall of Justice, with Superman and Batman. She flipped. She’d asked for Princess Tiana before that. The Hall of Justice came home with us. Soon she had Lex Luthor, the Joker, Harley Quinn, Plastic Man, Martian Manhunter, the Batmobile (one of about 75 from what I can tell) that comes with Batman and Red Robin (and his winged jetpack), Commissioner Gordon (I never owned a Commissioner Gordon action figure! Which I desperately wanted…because they didn’t make them in the 1980s!) and a GCPD police cruiser. Today, Wonder Woman and her invisible jet, which was bought on Amazon on the collector’s market, arrived. She was thrilled. In my research, Fisher-Price Imaginext released a Batgirl and her motorcycle figure recently. It’s very hard to find. Those are the female superheroes. Mind you, this toy line has Harley Quinn, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, and Cheetah. I may have missed someone. No Supergirl. No Hawkgirl.
G loved the DC Super Hero Girls shorts on YouTube. We couldn’t watch the one hour special on Boomerang because we don’t get that channel from our cable provider. They don’t carry it. I got her the Wonder Woman costume, and she’s getting a Batgirl costume from her grandmother. I intend to get her the Supergirl and Bumble Bee ones, too. The action figures, though, are recommended 6 and up. She’s three. I think they’re more than she can handle. Same with the dolls.
I’ve been following the strange way these toys are marketed. The Hasbro Rey fiasco, and the Hasbro Black Widow fiasco. Here are characters that creators are including to try to break the mold, to open the world to more than just white males. But the toy lines are behind. It bums me out. When she asks me, “Daddy, can we get Supergirl or Hawkgirl?” I have to say no.
“Because they don’t make them.”
“I don’t know, honey.”
She’s okay with it. She has her imagination. One of the Batman figures will become Batgirl, no doubt, just as Superman will sometimes have to be Supergirl. Guaranteed if I get her Hawkman, he’ll be used as Hawkgirl. But I’m not okay with it. Because she can’t be the only girl who loves her new Imaginext DC Super Friend toys.
Note: There will be SPOILERS here. Be warned!
Also, this is essentially a first draft. Because of grad school and other commitments, my time is very scarce. I haven’t added any images, or have even really re-read it. My apologies on any lost thoughts. Someday, I may revise it and repost. But for now, because a few people have actually asked me to write this…
In 2013, shortly after seeing Man of Steel, I wrote:
Overall, I really liked Man of Steel. It’s not as good as I’d hoped it would be, but it’s the best Superman movie we’ve had since Donner’s 1978 film, and it’s just different enough to be its own thing. I’m looking forward to what happens next. If Goyer and Snyder were smart (and they are) they’d go with a more personal story instead of the spectacle.
Well, David S. Goyer, Chris Terrio (who joined Goyer as a writer), and Zack Snyder didn’t go as personal as I’d hoped back then, but then, my views changed as well. After seeing Man of Steel a few more times on Blu Ray, my opinion of the film changed: I loved it. I find parts of it a masterpiece of fantasy/science fiction filmmaking. I understand why fans might not like the movie, but I don’t understand the vitriol the film has garnered in the last three years, either.
Naturally, I was excited when Warner Bros., DC, and Snyder announced Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. And now here it is and with it…well…a real clusterfuck of press. I saw it this morning as I write this sentence (11 hours after the film started), so my thoughts may change over time. Still, here we go….
The Super/The Day
Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne/Batman. I’ve been a Ben Affleck fan since I first saw him and Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting. I haven’t seen everything he’s been in but I like him as an actor and director. He’s a talented guy who should option my Boston-based horror novel. I mean…um…. Anyway, here is a suave Bruce Wayne in public, a haunted, obsessed Bruce Wayne/Batman when he’s not, and a mean Batman. Affleck brings an urgency to the character that it needs. He is also the most Batman-looking of all the Batmen there’ve been. The opening scene of him racing through Metropolis to that city’s branch of his company as the end battle of Man of Steel plays out is great to watch. The dogged obsession he has over taking down Superman, who he sees as a global threat, is palpable. And, finally, the realization that he’s wrong is superb. His Bruce Wayne/Batman may be, in many ways, the most realistic one we’ve seen, which is something considering the juxtaposition of the fantasy elements of this film.
Jeremy Irons’s portrayal of Alfred makes me forget about Michael Caine’s Alfred, which I really don’t want to do. Irons plays a different Alfred and yet hits the essential notes of the character. It’s a thankless role in many ways since Alfred rarely sees action, yet this version seems as though he may loom large in the future Affleck-written/directed/starred Batman film. Either way, I loved the character and the portrayal.
Henry Cavill’s Clark Kent/Superman is still one I love. As was the case in Man of Steel, this Superman is conflicted, though he is growing into the role of the Superman fans love. He wants to do right by the world, and by those he loves in the world, but lives in a fucked-up time period. On the one hand, he’s the most powerful man in the world, on the other, no matter how hard he tries, he’s an outsider. The difference between him and Bruce Wayne is that Clark Kent is willing to let his feelings be known and attempt to become better. Wayne is fine with allowing his obsession and issues reign over his life.
Wonder Woman. Gal Gadot did a very good job as Diana Prince and the eventual reveal of Wonder Woman. I enjoyed watching the character come to life and make Superman and Batman look a little silly.
The rest of the supporting cast is great, too. Amy Adams turns in another great performance as Lois Lane, Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White remains a favorite, and I really liked Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. There are other great performances in this film, as well, like Holly Hunter and Diane Lane.
I liked the story. Look, it was all over the place, I’ll admit, but there was enough there for me to follow along and I liked it. I liked the way Lex Luthor manipulated things and the arrival of Doomsday. I even liked the–albeit forced–Justice League characters. I even liked the way it ended, with a giant question at the end of what can happen next. It made me happy.
Zack Snyder’s direction is heavy-handed. He is not a subtle filmmaker and he can’t pass up a frame that may look like a comic book frame. He’s a fan and it shows. I liked that. I also liked that he and the screenwriters are really trying to show the mythological components of these characters. Yes, it’s a little too Christian for my tastes at times, but it’s okay.
Vacant places. I’m going to throw in that whenever mass destruction is about to happen, we’re notified that no one lives in the place it’s going to happen. It’s ridiculous but it made me smile.
Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL did a great score. I loved it. Loved it. Loved it. I may have to get the soundtrack.
The Kryptonite/The Dark
Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor is under-utilized. I mean, he’s a major source of the conflict and I love what they did with him, but his ending was a little too Jokerish for my tastes. Maybe that’ll change.
The story is weak overall. Look, I liked the story, but considering the movie is 2 hours and 31 minutes, it could’ve been a little stronger. I would’ve liked to learn more about Superman/Clark Kent and his relationships with his Earth friends, and maybe see a little more Wonder Woman considering how important to the ending she was. There’s a lot going on, but it’s all very much at the surface without much depth.
Doomsday was a little weak in the looks department. That said, I still liked him. It’s weird, huh?
As I said before, the introduction to the other Justice Leaguers felt forced. I get what they’re doing, but I think it could’ve been handled in other ways.
It’s too dark. And I’m not talking about the look of it, though it is a bit too dark, but rather, the feel. There were small children at the viewing I went to and I felt bad for them. I’m going to write about this soon, by the way. So this is my little coming attraction, I guess.
The Dawn After the Battle
Like I said, I really enjoyed this movie. I enjoyed the characters, the situations, and the whole movie. It amazes me how many bad reviews this is getting. I have theories. I think that there’s a percentage of people who are growing tired of the superhero movie and at the very announcement of this movie, they began to dislike it. I think that even the stars of it are fashionable to dislike for some reason. I think that a lot of people go into the movie with preconceived notions of who these characters should be and aren’t willing to accept adaptations that fall outside that vision. In the end, it promised me a chance to see the two best superheroes onscreen together for the first time, excuse me, three best superheroes onscreen together for the first time, and they delivered it. Yes, it’s over-the-top in places. Yes, it takes itself too seriously. But so do most comic book fans, most nerds. We are the target audience, after all.
I really liked Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, and recommend seeing it without all the balderdash on the ‘net in your head. See it on its own terms. If you still dislike it, then so be it. But me? I loved this movie. I can’t remember the last time I left the theater this happy.
That handsome cover belongs to a reprint anthology my story “The Umbrella People” is a part of. There are stories by others whose names make me giddy, like Ray Bradbury, Kealan Patrick Burke, Elizabeth Engstrom, Tim Lebbon, John R. Little, William F. Nolan, John Shirley, Tim Waggoner, and so many others that my head’s a-spinnin’! I’m very proud to be a part of this group of writers.
This will be the third printing of this short story. Its first publication was in the first issue of Dark Discoveries, which is what qualified it for this antho. Its second publication was in my short story collection Catalysts, which was actually published by James R. Beach and Dark Discoveries Publications. I decided that, in honor of this publication, which is due to be released from Dark Regions Press this Tuesday, that I would write a few words about the story.
“The Umbrella People” came to me around 2003. At the time, my parents took me, my then-wife, and my older daughter out to dinner every Saturday to a pizza place in a nearby town. It was a good little restaurant. Their pizza was great, and so was a lot of what they cooked, comfort food meals. It was raining and as we sat in our booth, my mother put her umbrella under the table.
“Don’t let me forget my umbrella, people,” she said.
“Where are they?” I asked.
“Where are what?”
“Your Umbrella People.”
She called me a smartass, we all chuckled, and went on with the meal. For some reason, though, the idea stuck with me. And, like most ideas, the longer it stuck, the darker it became. The world itself was growing darker. I was unhappy in my marriage. I was restless and confused. And the world was going crazy. We were about to go to war over lies that our own government was telling us and things seemed, at the ripe ol’ age of 24, bleak. A storm was coming, it seemed.
And so I began writing.
At the time, I worked at a bus station, behind the counter. An entire wall was made of a mirror above the counter if you stood in the waiting area. From my vantage point behind the counter, it was a window. I would bring my Olivetti manual typewriter to write, after January 2003, I brought my notebook computer, a Toshiba Satellite that lasted me until 2010. I wrote the story at the bus station.
It was during a fairly productive time in my life and I was doing a lot more writing than I have time for now. The story flowed out without many issues. I remember thinking how odd the tale was how strange. I was very proud of it.
Now, thirteen years or so later, I’m still very proud of the story. I know James Beach loves the story, and it was a major impetus for him allowing me to write a column for Dark Discoveries between 2004 and 2011, as well as taking a chance on my first collection of stories. Others who’ve read it also seem to really like it. I wrote a short film script based on it and intended to try to make the movie myself for a long time. These days, I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to make it happen.
I also think about the Umbrella People sometimes, and wonder what happened after the story. I think there may be a novella there, but it’s still unknown to me, foggy. Maybe someday, a character will speak to me and I’ll be able to find out what happens next, and then let you know. Until then, I’m happy the story has found a new, really cool home and I’m looking forward to you making this particular Discovery.
It was about a week before the new school year was to begin, this past summer, almost two months back now. Pamela and G had just gone to bed so it was sometime between 8 and 8:30. I was in the kitchen, reaching for the sugar to make my tea and thinking about the following week, the big ol’ return to school and another year as The Best Teacher You Will Ever Have when I had an epiphany: I’m a really angry guy.
If you chuckled when you got to the end of that paragraph, shame on you. This thought chilled me. I mean, I know I’m angry in the same way I know I’m a man, that I have brown hair, too many moles, and ten fingers (one of them weirdly crooked). I know this like I know I have a wife, two daughters, living parents, and friends. But every now and then I still look around and think, Damn! I have a beautiful wife who is able to deal with my stupidity! or Damn! My teenager is pretty freakin’ awesome! or Damn! The toddler is really smart and beautiful and empathetic! It dawned on me that the years of therapy, the growing up, and the calming down that I have endured have simply really been sleight of hand. The anger is still there. And it scares me.
I have near my workspace a quote from Nikki Giovanni that goes, “Rage is to writers what water is to fish.” This seemed really cool when I first found it and taped it to my notebook computer (dead five years now) ten years ago. At 28, being an angry young man seemed like the thing to be, which was good for me because I was an angry young man. I saw all, knew all, and wasn’t afraid to let you know it. At 38, I don’t want to be angry.
I know the anger is a part of me, and it’s a large factor in why I write, why I create, why I insist on trying to succeed in my goals and dreams. I’m still working on grudges that began in elementary school. It’s such an ingrained part of who I am, that I forget just how angry I am, all the time. It’s exhausting.
There’s a scene in Marvel’s The Avengers that comes at the end. There’s been talk throughout the movie about how Bruce Banner is able to not be the Hulk all the time, and he said he had a secret. It all comes to a head at the end of the movie.
When Banner says that line, “I’m always angry,” the audience erupted in applause both times I saw the movie. It’s become a popular meme on the ‘Net. For some reason, anger, and the lack of control of anger, has become a sort of thing people are happy to have and will applaud.
It fuckin’ sucks, though. To have this fire burning in the pit of my stomach, day in, day out, never quite sure when it’ll flame up…it’s tough. People will say things like, “You need to learn to chill out,” or suggest meditation and all that, and I do it, man. I do deep breathing exercises, I write, I journal, I go to happy places, I look at all the good things in my life, all that stuff. But the anger is still there.
I’m angry right now. Something at work got me angry. A few somethings, actually. I’m angry about grad school. I’m angry for no real reason except…well…look at the world!
I’m only writing this because I want you to know that this is not fun. I don’t consider this a plus to anything in my life. I think my writing would be just as good without the anger in the same way that I do my best writing when I’m happy and not depressed, despite what the popular mythology surrounding writers is.
So, yeah…that’s my secret, I guess. I’m always angry.
Today is the end of my first week as a grad student. I have no fucking idea what I’m doing. Because I don’t have time to drive and attend an actual brick-and-mortar class, I’m doing my Master’s program online. I decided to do English Lit because that’s what I did for undergrad and because I think my life isn’t painful enough. Also, I couldn’t get a satisfactory answer by anyone what online school’s education programs would be accepted by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
So it goes like this: the professor (they use instructor) gives you reading and an assignment. You have to post one assignment by 11:59 PM on Thursday, and a second by 11:59 PM on Sunday, and that’s your module. So I did a fuckload of reading last weekend including Freud and Marx and others, and Shirley Jackson’s classic “The Lottery,” which really was the sugar that helped the medicine go down, and then wrote my response, commented on at least two, and then took a quiz for today. The academic writing was…well…you know how I’m writing this right now? You know how it reads? Yeah, well, it’s the opposite of this. It’s like Alice through the looking glass. I’m writing, something I know how to do (and some say I know how to do well), but I don’t feel like I’m writing. I feel like I’m…I don’t know. Farting in the wind?
Anyway, I posted my writing Tuesday night and wasn’t able to sign in again until yesterday. It seems fairly well received, except I threw out all MLA citations and stuff because fuck you, that’s why. Apparently, mostly everyone else did, too, so the instructoprofessor will be nice to all us grad students who should know better.
Then, yesterday, I signed on to take a quiz about two future major projects. The two questions were so mind-numbingly…devoid of anything I read, that I was shocked.
Still, when I look at the syllabus, I see that the remaining nine weeks are going to be very busy. I should be reading right now, but I know you missed me.
I also decided the role I would play was frightened and super-stressed new grad student with an extremely busy home life. It’s an easy role to play since it’s 99.9% true. That .1% is just an asshole part of me that refuses to tell the truth. When I look at the syllabus, I’m like, “Wait! Isn’t this online schooling supposed to be easier?”
But the school’s all like, “No way, man. We need to prove that we’re a legitimate institution and not something that has Sally Struthers in the commercials.”
I let the school know I diggit, and I’m proud of it, and then we go out for coffee at the student café, which is very comfortable and always has a good acoustic performer. It’s a good time.
All right, so now I have to read about this, that, and the other thing, and start rereading Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, which I last read a decade ago. I can’t remember much about it so this should be fun.
I’m rather obsessed with writers’ workspaces. Their desks, offices, writing sheds, whatever it is they use, however they use it. I know I’m not alone on this, but I think the first manifestations of this obsession occurred before I was even aware of it.
Stephen King’s novel The Shining made me want to be a writer, which I’ve written about. I’ve also written about the television segment that led me to buy the book. It was an episode of ABC’s Primetime Live that aired on August 23rd, 1990, the day before my 13th birthday, that got me interested in buying King. As I was reading The Shining the following day, I turned to the About the Author page and saw that King lived in Bangor, Maine, which had to be nearly as uncool as New Bedford, Massachusetts, the small coastal city where I lived, if not even more uncool. Beyond that, though, there was an image in the Primetime Live profile that kicked open the doors of my mind. The image was of King sitting at a manual typewriter, clacking away. He was in a dark room, alone, with no other apparatus around him. Even at 13, I understood this was a set-up shot, done strictly for the television piece.
The power of that image rocked me, though. It made me think of Billy Crystal at the end of Throw Momma From the Train, where he’s sitting at his desk, finishing the last paragraph of the novel he never thought he’d be able to write. It made me think of Chevy Chase in Funny Farm where he’s trying to write a novel that never really seems to come out for him (though his wife writes a children’s book). I’m sure it made me think of Richard Dreyfuss in Stand By Me, working on his tale. Who knows? Maybe somewhere in the flotsam of my mind was Kathleen Turner at the beginning of Romancing the Stone, finishing her novel in a most unglamorous way. The thing with the image of Stephen King sitting at the typewriter, though, was that he was a real writer. He wasn’t an actor playing a part, he was a guy who was paid (a lot of) money to write books. And from what I’d seen that morning at Waldenbooks, he wrote a whole bunch of them, too! There was even a book club devoted to his work that ran commercials on TV! Remembering that image and reading a novel by him walloped me like a trailer truck come to life to mow me down. Later that day, I set up two or three milk crates, put my Royal Quiet De Lux manual typewriter on top, and began writing.
Something very similar, yet very different happened, happened several years later, again involving King. For a time in the 1990s, former King chronicler George Beahm, who’d written three books on Stephen King, began publishing a fanzine called Phantasmagoria. I don’t know how I came across it. Maybe from the Stephen King column in Cemetery Dance? Probably. Anyway, I subscribed to it. In one issue there was news that King was one of many writers who were featured in a photograph book about writers at their workspaces. It was called The Writer’s Desk and it was by a woman named Jill Krementz. I’d find out soon enough that Ms. Krementz was married to the writer Kurt Vonnegut (who appeared in the book, of course). I was working at a big chain bookstore at this point and decided to order it. It must’ve been summer or fall of 1997 because my girlfriend (who would become my wife, and then my ex-wife) was pregnant with my teenager. I remember that because the book was $35, which was too much money to spend considering how my life was really about to change. But I ordered the book because I knew that I wouldn’t have to buy it (it was the company’s policy) and I figured I’d look at it on break and then shelve the book for someone else to discover and buy.
Before I even opened the book, the cover mesmerized me. I had no idea who the woman on the front cover was (it’s Eudora Welty) but on the back cover was Toni Morrison, whom I knew though I hadn’t read yet; Tennessee Williams, whom I also knew but hadn’t (and still haven’t…and I don’t think I’ve seen any of his plays, either, which saddens and shames me); and Stephen King. I began looking through the book and found the huge quantity of writers and pictures that went back into the early 1970s. The photos were accompanied by quotes, or small musings on writing, or their desks from the writers. There were many writers whose names I recognized even though I hadn’t read their work. There were many more who were introduced to me by this book. I knew before I got halfway through flipping through the book during my break that I needed to have it.
It gave me a charge. To see where these people produced their work made me want to work. To see how simple it really was, this so very difficult task of wordslinging. Some of the writers have work spaces that are stately and well put together, organized. Some are a mess. Many used typewriters (remember, the book was published in 1996 and many of the pictures were taken in the ’70s and ’80s) though quite a few used computers. There was even a few who had notebook computers. Quite a few of the writers were working longhand.
I found myself cutting out pictures of writers at their desk should they appear in magazines or in the newspaper. Once I got a computer I began finding writers at their desk online and, for a while, kept a folder of images. I still have the folder though I hardly save to it anymore. There’s no need. A quick Google search (or a few, depending on your word-use) will come up with thousands of pictures. I’ve also discovered I’m not the only one obsessed with this. There are at least two blogs I know of, Write Place, Write Time and Writers at Work, that share photos of writer’s work spaces. Write Place, Write Time was cool because it had photos taken by the writers they featured, as well as a small piece about their work environment. Unfortunately, after a strong 2011, the posts began to be few and far between until they seemed to stop in June 2013. Still, it’s fascinating to take a look at. Writers at Work collected photos from around the ‘net and posts them. Some of the pictures are sent in by blog readers.
As I said, a quick internet search will show that writers and their workspaces are quite popular. Why is that? I think it’s partly because writing is so solitary, and so personal, that one wonders if they’re weird. So to see the famous French mystery writer George Simenon has an arsenal of pipes ready to go while he works, or that Tennessee Williams has another typewriter leaning back behind the one he’s using in case there’s an issue, he can just swap out (anything from a bad key to a change of ribbon; there’d be no slowing him down when he was hot!), makes me think maybe my rituals and quirks aren’t so weird.
I think the other thing it does is inspire. And I don’t mean that in some mystical, mythical sense of the word, either. I mean seeing writers, past and present, at their desks and knowing that from that person came a body of work, sometimes huge, sometimes not, all important, really makes me want to sit at my modest space and work. It makes me feel like if they can do it, and they basically have the same tools I do, then maybe–just maybe–I can do it.
Hey, Kids. Do You Like the Rock N Roll? Or How David Letterman Made Life Bearable & Helped Me Through Adolescence
I’m sure that I tried to watch David Letterman on TV before August 30th, 1993. By that date, I was six days into being 16 and I’d been suffering from insomnia (or poor sleep habits, either/or) since I was 9. This means that I would’ve tried watching Late Night with David Letterman at some point, and I faintly remember doing so. Trying, that is. Just as I tried to watch The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. I mean, all you heard about back in those quaint days of the 1980s was about how Johnny Carson did this, or said that, and then there’d be reminiscing by the adults in the room. Mom would mention the Potato Chip Lady. Grandma would chime in that Ed McMahon was “a bullshit artist,” but then reminisce about something Carson did. Carson was too damn old for me, though, between 9 and 14, and Letterman…I don’t know. There was something off-putting about him at that time in my life. And he stood too close to the camera. I’m sad to say that my first introduction to the late night talk show was The Arsenio Hall Show.
When Hall’s show premiered in January 1989, I was 11. I didn’t discover it until later that year, I think. I’m sure if I did research of who appeared on his show, and when, I could come up with a more accurate time, but who really has that kind of time? He’s not the topic of this story. The topic or not, Arsenio Hall’s show was cool. It had music that I liked, humor I liked, and was on at 10 PM on channel 64. That was the Fox Channel affiliate out of Providence, Rhode Island. (The show also aired at 11 PM on channel 25, the Boston Fox affiliate). Arsenio was speaking to me, it felt. Far more so than Johnny Carson. And as far as that Letterman guy with the gap between his teeth, weird hair and eyes…why’s he standing so close to the TV?!
Though I had many good times with Arsenio, by the time 1993 had come, I wasn’t watching nearly as much. I was still watching, but not as often. I was interested in the Late Night Wars from afar, though, and had been since 1991. In June of 1991, NBC announced that Johnny Carson would be retiring and that Jay Leno would be his replacement. To me, Jay Leno was the Doritos guy with the chin, who appeared on TV a lot and was supposed to be funny. He even made a buddy cop movie with Mr. Myagi himself, Pat Morita. You don’t remember the movie? That’s because it was a buddy cop movie starring Jay Leno and Pat Morita! The movie had aired on Cinemax and it always seemed to be on when I was looking for something to watch. Of course, I’ve never actually seen the movie. But I digress…. The entertainment magazines my mother subscribed to that I lovingly read cover-to-cover were very much about the “feud” between Leno and Letterman. When The Tonight Show with Jay Leno debuted in 1992, I feel like I tried watching it but found it…well…unfunny. Leno was no Arsenio Hall, I’ll tell ya! When rumors began that David Letterman was about to jump ship from NBC, the news had a field day. Again, I was mildly interested. I remember seeing video of the press conference where the news broke that Letterman had accepted an offer from CBS and would be taking his show and leaving. I remember reading about NBC not allowing their “intellectual property” to go with him and how he was going to have to change certain things.
I was interested. I don’t know if it was my budding maturity, being a wise, old 15, or if it was just interest in the entertainment business, but I was interested. So on August 30th, 1993, most likely a week before I would start my junior year of high school, I tuned in to one of the CBS affiliates at 11:35 PM, and watched the very much-hyped and ballyhooed first episode of The Late Show with David Letterman. There’d been so much talk, so much analyzing, so much…mythology building, how could I not?
I was hooked.
From Paul Newman’s surprise appearance in the audience; to Tom Brokaw storming onto the stage, grabbing a cue card, and announcing, “This joke is the intellectual property of NBC,” and then storming off (Dave’s comment: “That’s the first time intellectual and NBC has ever been used in a sentence”); to his comment about how the Top Ten List will cost the show $10 million; to Bill Murray spray painting Dave’s desk and taking him outside to introduce him to the people; I loved it. But, while I loved all that stuff, the thing that really spoke to me, the thing that really hooked me was David Letterman himself. At 16, I felt like a mutant. I mean, who doesn’t? But I’d been bullied for a 5-year stretch. I liked to read and write, and I loved movies way more than other kids my age seemed to. I still secretly played with my action figures because the words couldn’t be written down as quickly as the ideas would come. I had an unhealthy fascination with stand-up comedy. And I had a sense of humor that those around me called “witty,” “warped,” “weird,” and “unfunny.” I was also super sarcastic and was always in trouble for that at home. And here was David Letterman making jokes that only one person in the whole room was actually, truly laughing at: himself. Through the magic of TV, I was laughing, too. I got it.
Between 1993 and sometime in 1996/1997, I watched Dave every night. During my senior year in 1995, the National Honor Society took a field trip to New York City and I went to the Ed Sullivan Theater and had my picture taken in front of the marquee. When I got home, I sent for tickets and in August 1995, I went to New York to see The Late Show. I talked to Rupert Gee. I saw Van Halen (with Sammy Hagar) perform. Most importantly, I saw David Letterman. He was standing as close to me as the oven is to my right. Ten feet? I sat right behind then-executive producer Bob “Morty” Morton. In one shot of Morty, you can see a Star Wars baseball cap. That’s me. Unfortunately, except for the performances by Van Halen, the show kind of sucked. I was thrilled to be there, and still remember it fondly, but it wasn’t Dave’s best. Hugh Grant had been arrested with a prostitute earlier that summer and his first public appearance to promote his first big Hollywood movie Nine Months had already been booked…on The Tonight Show. Jay Leno scored his first #1 night since Letterman began his run on CBS and he never let it go. Well, except for when he let it go.
Anyway, The Late Show with David Letterman was just what I needed, just when I needed it. I became obsessed with the show and with David Letterman. And with late night TV. I loved Bill Carter’s phenomenal The Late Shift, which documented the whole Carson-Leno-Letterman fiasco. I studied how Letterman did his show. The set-ups, the remotes, the sarcasm. He interviewed people and he helped them along, but he was also fun to watch. Unlike Leno, who seemed to wait for his opportunity to throw in a joke, Letterman actually conversed with them in the time permitted by the format. He was also able to make those around him stars. From the owner of the Hello Deli next door, Rupert Gee, to the stage manager Biff Henderson, to his mother, Letterman took whoever happened by and made them a character you followed. Sure, it was partly inspired by what he saw another former NBC employee, Howard Stern, do but he found a way to make it his own, and unlike another late night host I won’t mention, Letterman often praised Stern for giving him the idea to do those kinds of things.
More than all that though, I saw another mutant who was full of self-loathing doing his best. He came out each night in a nice suit, he told jokes, he had a good time, and he made people happy. I wanted to be him. Or, at least, I wanted to be like him.
I’d already begun writing by this time, and was honing my craft writing (bad) books and (bad) short stories, but I secretly wanted to either be a filmmaker or, because of Letterman, a late night talk show host. Had I been a little more courageous, I may have tried my hand at stand-up comedy with the intention of someday having my own show. And now that I see Jimmy Fallon, who is only three years older than me, doing what he’s doing, I think maybe I should’ve attempted it. Ah, well, it is what it is. My time has come and gone and I have novels to write, oh so many novels, but Letterman is still an influence.
Unfortunately, I haven’t really watched Dave in a long time. I’ve seen the odd show here and there. Thanks to the Internet, I will often catch interviews a day or so after they air (especially when Howard Stern, Steve Martin, or Robin Williams was on). I watched it the night G was born in 2012, after watching the election results.
David Letterman isn’t perfect. His show wasn’t perfect. But I loved it. It’s going to be weird in September once Stephen Colbert sits behind the desk and becomes host of The Late Show. It’s going to be weird that Letterman won’t be there to hear about the next morning. I think about that. The pillars of our youth begin to crumble at some point. I understand why so many people were sad about Carson’s departure now. Even Leno’s. Late Night TV is going to be very different. The new guard is in place. But I think it’ll be good. Because when they talk about the late night host who inspired them, they don’t mention Carson, and they sure as shit don’t mention Leno. They all mention Letterman. Fallon, Kimmel, O’Brien…all of them. They all name David Letterman as the guy who turned them onto their paths.
Looks like there are a lot of mutants out there.
See that? That’s what’s at the very end of my manuscript for Echoes on the Pond. The reason I’m showing you is because—and I say this knowing it’s not 100% true, but roughly 98% true—I’m done with it. I have a few people giving this third draft a read, and if they all hit on things that have popped up in my head recently, or hit on things the other readers hit on, then I’ll do another sweep of the novel, but it’ll be a short one. The kind that takes a week or two instead of months. Of course, if an agent or editor at some point asks for changes that’ll make the novel better, I’ll be more than happy to oblige.
As you can see, I’ve been on this bastard for a long time now. When I began the novel in April 2008, I thought that I’d finish the first draft in three/four months, the second draft within six months, and then have the third draft to shop around in 2009. All long-form writing I’d done prior to this book indicated that should have been the case. Of course, things were different.
It’d been four years since I’d started—and finished—anything of significant length. Between 1998 and 2004, I wrote many novels. Most were pretty bad, few were terrible, and a couple were…good. For the time. They were written by a younger guy, of course. I turned 21 in 1998, so being in my early-twenties, I didn’t have much perspective on life, but I had an itch to tell stories and the insanity to think I could do it.
By 2008, I was in my early-thirties, had been through a divorce, severe depression, some of the hardest times in my life, and hadn’t written anything worthwhile except for several abandoned novels, garbage short stories, and little else of value. Well…that’s not entirely true. I wrote my late, great column American Gauthic for Dark Discoveries, a gig I really enjoyed doing and would love to do again, given the opportunity. I’m proud of those essays, though I admit that some of them are a little…well…wince-inducing. I also wrote papers for college, lesson plans, and blog posts.
But here I sit, twelve days after finishing what I consider to be my final edit, and I’m looking forward to what’s next. I have about six book ideas. Two horror(ish) novels, two “mainstream” novels (that I think may be darkly comic), and two YA novels. Way back in my mind are the science fiction novel takes on two Shakespeare plays that I’ve wanted to do for a long time now.
I think I’m going to do one of the YA novels. I want to do it something that’s fun, plot-driven, and fast. In other words, the kind of book I would’ve wanted to read when I was a kid.
Other than writing, I’ve got the real work ahead of me on Echoes…: Figuring out what the fuck to do with it now.
It’s a good place to be, though. Actually, it’s a great place to be.
For 75 years, Batman has thrilled audiences. His story appeals to many children, teens, and adults because he is the outsider who relishes his role as the outsider and has worked himself to be the best at everything so he can help people. He began as the dark vigilante of the night in the 1930s and became a moral but harsh crimefighter and adventurer in the 1940s, a friendly father figure during the 1950s, a pop culture icon in the 1960s, went back to his dark roots in the 1970s, grew up in the 1980s, sold out in the 1990s, and came back stronger than ever in the 2000s. Throughout, the creation of Bob Kane and Bill Finger has changed as we have, his story has been our story, just as any good mythological character is.
Before The Dark Knight Rises was released, word had already come out that Batman would be rebooted in the coming years. This came as no surprise since Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy could only really exist in its own world. With Man of Steel, Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment wanted to begin their cinematic universe. In July 2013, at the San Diego Comic Con, Zack Snyder and Warner Bros. announced that the sequel to Man of Steel would be what was then tentatively titled Batman vs. Superman.
By the fall, news was released that the world’s next cinematic Batman and Bruce Wayne would be played by Ben Affleck.
The movie, officially titled Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, will officially launch the DC Cinematic Universe in March 2016 and will begin flooding movie theaters, along with Marvel’s movies, until 2020. For the most part, this seems intriguing, but I’ll really be looking to see how Batman and Superman fare.
For me, Batman is a very versatile character that has had a strange cinematic history. I long for the day someone attempts a great adventure, in the realm of Mike W. Barr’s phenomenal Batman: Birth of the Demon, or an alternative history version, like Brian Augustyn and Mike Mignola’s Batman: Gotham By Gaslight.
In the meantime, I look forward to seeing Snyder’s and Affleck’s take on Bruce Wayne and Batman.
And I look forward to sharing my thoughts with you about it.
With The Dark Knight becoming one of the highest-grossing films of all time, with its critical and fan reaction so positive, it was no surprise that Warner Bros. wanted a sequel. That wasn’t the only thing at play behind the continuation of this Batman’s story, though. See, DC Comics characters had pretty much owned television and film for nearly sixty years. Their characters had been on the Silver Screen since the Fleischer Brothers first brought Superman to theaters in 1941 and included the Superman animated shorts, the Batman serials, the Superman serials, Superman and the Mole Men, Batman: The Movie, the Christopher Reeve Superman series, Burton’s Batman movies, and Schumacher’s Batman movies. On television, Superman and Batman reigned supreme, but was also joined by Lynda Carter in Wonder Woman, as well as all the various animated shows from the 1960s straight through to 2000. Marvel did all right with the cartoons, but their live-action franchises pretty much began and ended with Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno in The Incredible Hulk. There’d been an attempt to bring Spider-Man to the small screen that was mostly a failure. The same with Captain America. The movies that ended up being made after 1989’s Batman was a huge success either were relegated to small screenings and went direct to video (Captain America and The Punisher) or were never released (Roger Corman’s legendary Fantastic Four).
In 2000, with the success of Bryan Singer’s X-Men, Marvel began to have some cinematic street cred. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) re-enforced it. And while the much under-appreciated Hulk was largely seen as a failure, the sequels to X-Men and Spider-Man most assuredly were not. Even the Fantastic Four movies did all right. But the thing that really shook things up, the thing that I think really made DC Comics–and Warner Bros.–begin to worry didn’t happen until 2008, a mere two months before The Dark Knight would change everything.
By all means, Iron Man, starring Robert Downey, Jr., shouldn’t have been a good movie, never mind a huge hit. But it was. And not only that, but the “secret” scene after the end credits where Samuel L. Jackson appears as Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. and talks to Tony Stark about joining the Avengers Initiative sets up what couldn’t possibly come to pass. While The Dark Knight clearly won the box office that summer, there was definitely room enough in geeks’ hearts for both billionaires with a predisposition to gadgets and cool suits who fought bad guys, Iron Man hinted at the possibility of a lively Marvel cinematic event, which only became more real with the following month’s The Incredible Hulk. Regardless of where one stands on this version of the Hulk’s story, Tony Stark’s cameo regarding the Avengers began to cement comic book fans’ hopes. By 2010’s Iron Man 2, it was a done deal. Marvel would be making The Avengers. While the first Iron Man set up the idea, and The Incredible Hulk kept it afloat, Iron Man 2 really started the story. Nick Fury and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and S.H.I.E.L.D. play a huge role, as well as cameos from the other future Avengers in some way or another.
DC needed to respond. Could Christopher Nolan’s Batman films be a part of a new DC Cinematic Universe, or were they too stand-alone? Did Nolan even want to return to make a third Batman? What about the other heroes?
2011’s Green Lantern was met with a lot of excitement but became a let-down. The hopes that DC and Warner Bros. would replicate the success of the growing Marvel Cinematic Universe were destroyed faster than Green Lantern‘s running time. Rumors swirled about a Justice League movie in the works, which would ignore Nolan’s films. DC/Warner Bros. needed something.
Cinematic Universe or no, Christopher Nolan decided to return for a third film in his Dark Knight Trilogy. Again, he met with David S. Goyer for the initial story, which would then be written as a screenplay by him and his brother Jonathan. Nolan decided to stick to his guns and make this film the final act of his story. Warner Bros. and DC were smart to leave him alone.
On July 20th, 2012, The Dark Knight Rises premiered.
By then, things were pretty good for me. I’d been re-married three years and Pamela and I were expecting a baby, a girl. My older daughter was fourteen and just over a month away from starting high school. The year had had some bumpy moments but things were good. And in a summer that had already brought us Marvel’s The Avengers, we truly looked forward to The Dark Knight Rises. I was excited that something similar to the real version of Bane would appear in a movie, and also just to see where we’d be brought this time.
By now, we’d expect that I’d place Christian Bale here, and I will, though nearly by default and also by a hair. Where he lit the screen in Batman Begins and truly became Batman in The Dark Knight, he feels too familiar by now. Still, there are moments that truly show his craft. The scene between him and Michael Caine as Alfred resigns out of fear for Bruce in one. The raw emotion displayed by both actors gave the movie much-needed emotional depth and was a surprise, as well. Also, his fight scene with Bane (Tom Hardy) is also spectacularly acted. This is the Batman we’ve grown to love meeting his match and unable to change course, which leads to his undoing. Bale’s real performance isn’t under the mask, though, but rather as Bruce Wayne comes out of his self-exile and re-emerges to a different world and slowly figures out how to deal with Bane and the crisis in Gotham.
Also, props are given to Gary Oldman, who once again brings Commissioner James Gordon to life with intensity, intelligence, and pathos. That said, like Bale’s entry, he’s here by a hair.
Tom Hardy as Bane is the backbone (not sure if the pun is intended) of this movie. Like Heath Ledger’s turn as The Joker, Hardy’s Bane steals the show. The guy is 5’9″, which while it isn’t short (ahem…thinking of my own height, only I always throw in “and three-quarters” because…well…you know) and he looms over everyone. And I don’t mean the obvious camera tricks, either, though they’re definitely put to good use here, but by his performance. Hardy gives Bane a confidence that borders on arrogance. He doesn’t just walk, he saunters. His soulful eyes also do a phenomenal job in letting the audience grasp his emotion, without ever once seeming to over-play it. And while there’ve been critics about his voice, I liked it. It was silly sometimes, but effective.
And while we’re on Bane, kudos to Nolan, Goyer, and Nolan for bringing to the Silver Screen a Bane who is worthy of an adaptation. He would’ve been the last villain I’d’ve thought they’d go with (well…maybe not the last…) but they utilized the gist of the comic book character who was one of the break-out stars of 1990s comic books.
Also, Anne Hathaway is quite good as Selina Kyle/Catwoman, though she’s never called Catwoman, even once. Hathaway is an actress I enjoy immensely and whom, like Gwyneth Paltrow, I feel gets given a hard time too often. Hathaway is tough and broken, yet she has the ability to change as the world around her changes.
I also rather enjoyed Joseph Gordon-Levitt as John Blake. His role as a police officer-turned-detective-turned-Batman/Robin brings an infusion of new blood to the screen, and helps move the story along. He’s spunky and likable.
Marion Cotillard is, well, beautiful, haunting, and I can watch her all day.
Of course, the rest of the cast is good, too, which we expect by now for not only a Christopher Nolan film, but also for this series of Batman movies.
I loved The Bat. I know that some people thought it was lame, but I’m not one of them. I’d hoped for a return of a Batmobile, but The Bat does the job nicely for me. This machine flying through Gotham makes me happy.
The story is bold, and I like that a lot. After the mega-success and instant-classic status of The Dark Knight, to go back to Batman Begins, yet forward with a story that truly closes the series with little hope for a follow-up in this universe is bold. To tell a story that surpasses The Dark Knight‘s 2hr 30mins by 15 minutes, bringing it close to 3 hrs, is also bold. It would’ve been easy to play it safe at this point and give us a similarly-themed third installment, replacing The Joker with another character. But Nolan decided to go back to the League of Shadows and Ra’s al Ghul and bring the story full circle. Here is a Bruce Wayne who is finally able to hang up the cowl and walk away. Here is a Batman who will sacrifice himself for Gotham…in a sense. Very, very bold.
Also bold is having Gotham be completely hijacked by Bane. This was the tell-tale moment where this movie went from, “Wow!” to “What the fuck are they doing?!” in the best way possible. I admire it.
I also love Batman’s comeback after the Gotham Stock Exchange is held-up. It’s an appropriate re-introduction to the character and means a lot. The fact that the filmmakers decided to keep the same suit is also wonderful. No sudden outfit changes for this Batman!
And Nolan’s direction is, once again, really good. He makes Gotham feel huge and real, while definitely making it known that it doesn’t exist. The action is well done and the overall tone of the movie is right.
I mentioned above that both Christian Bale’s and Gary Oldman’s performances are there by a hair each (maybe even the same hair!). I feel that their performances in this movie are a little uneven compared to the previous movies. Bale underplays Bruce Wayne sometimes while Oldman overplays Gordon at times. Mostly, though, they’re keeping up the status quo, and it’s neither good nor bad.
The “realistic” villains in John Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn) and his assistant (Burn Gorman) are a little too cartoony for Christopher Nolan’s world. Mendelsohn seems to sneer a little too much and comes off more like a Bond villain (says the guy who’s never seen a James Bond movie) than a Dark Knight Trilogy villain. Also, Matthew Modine’s role as…whoever he was, I’m not checking…is a little weak. Even his death is weak.
Marion Cotillard is under-utilized. Her role as Miranda Tate brings some new energy to the movie, but the big reveal that she’s Talia al Ghul, Ra’s al Ghul’s daughter, is a let-down. I was hoping she would be this character as I watched the movie, but by the time she reveals who she really is and takes charge, the movie is almost over and she’s given nothing to do but die, which is a waste of this actress and a waste of this character. I know that Cotillard was pregnant during this time and I’m sure that had something to do with the lack of a Talia al Ghul fighting Batman, but isn’t that what stuntwomen are for?
While each of these movies have some plot holes, The Dark Knight Rises seems to suffer the most from them, and while I’m not so concerned about the plot holes (if I’m entertained, I rarely am) I feel like the pacing of the movie is off. The first part of the movie, where Batman is no more, Bruce is slowly peeking his head out of his exile, and Gordon is having a crisis is great. We meet John Blake, Modine’s character, Selina Kyle, and Bane. We see where things are headed. When Gordon is nearly killed and Bruce decides to return as Batman, the movie hits a strangely bumpy road. Too much is going on in the amount of time it’s happening, making some of the scenes flow into each other so quickly that it’s almost dizzying. Batman returns, Catwoman is watching it as she robs Daggett, she beats him up and escapes, finds Bane’s men, Batman shows up, they fight and escape, and she disappears so he can have a joke. No breathing. Even how quickly he asks her for help and she gives it, only to betray him by giving him to Bane feels too easy, too convenient.
Why isn’t The Joker mentioned? Even once? Harvey Dent is mentioned, his photo is shown, and Gordon has flashbacks. The Joker? The dude who had Gotham on its knees and basically caused the whole Dent thing to go down isn’t mentioned. Where is he? Why isn’t he released when Bane lets the psychopaths out? It’s just strange to me. Was this out of respect to Heath Ledger? It’s damn weird, is all.
The pacing is perfect for a short period of time here, where Batman gets beaten and brought to the hole prison place. As Bane methodically traps Gotham PD and takes over the city, the movie feels right. Until Bruce suddenly starts training in the hole. Then it’s choppy again. And slow. Very slow. And then Batman returns again and things feel more on track.
Did I explain it well? I’m not sure. But I think that The Dark Knight Rises is, more than any other thing I’ve seen, a strong argument as to why television is actually better suited for these stories than film. Excuse me while I digress a little….
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s (okay, and 2010s) as superhero movie after superhero movie has come out, I have felt stronger and stronger that the best place for these characters would be television. While movie theaters can offer a big spectacle, the television offers breadth. These characters, by their very nature, are meant to evolve and change over a long period of time. They have secondary and side characters that are colorful and varied and best-suited for the way television works. The Dark Knight Rises would’ve made an excellent season of TV. The build-up of Bruce Wayne’s return as Batman. The way Bane breaks him (mid-season finale) and then takes over Gotham. Batman’s return. The intro of John Blake’s true first name being Robin, thereby setting up the next season! Even Batman Begins and The Dark Knight follow this. That said, I’m not currently watching any of the superhero TV shows (well, I just started watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on Netflix) but I really think this is the way they’d be best. I propose a new cable channel called HERO, where comic books and their other-media-offspring have a place to live. Sign both DC and Marvel and get adaptations of both places’ biggest names. Imagine the possibilities! After 10PM is reserved for The Sandman or whathaveyou. Egads!
Anyway, the movie is uneven at times, and even a little boring at times. A little.
My final real beef with this movie is the ending. No, not Batman “sacrificing” himself, the Robin reveal, or even Alfred finding Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle at some café. My beef is pretty much from the point where Miranda Tate reveals that she’s Talia al Ghul until the moment Batman flies off with the bomb. In other words, the climax. I’ve already mentioned how the Big Reveal is a little lame above, so I’ll skip that and go to Bane and Batman left alone. Talia has given Bane orders to keep Batman alive so he can feel the burn of the nuclear explosion and know that he failed. She leaves and Bane waits a few moments with a gasping, spirit-crushed Batman.
(An aside: The world’s greatest detective has been fooled by Talia al Ghul. All right, I’ll buy that, League of Shadows and all that. But he is so heartbroken. Between the less than subtle stab in the back she gave him and the point after she leaves and–well, I’m about to go there–he is in shambles. Heavy mouth-breathing, eyes wide, unable to figure out what to do or get his footing back against Bane. Yes, he’s in pain. Yes, his feelings are hurt and he feels betrayed, and probably the fool, too. But he’s Batman, fer chrissakes! His last fuckin’ girlfriend was blown up by a clown! He hardly knew this girlfriend and only really had a one night stand with her! All right, diatribe done.)
Bane takes a shotgun, points it at Batman’s face, and basically says that Talia will just have to believe Batman blew up and didn’t have his face shot off, when suddenly–BLAM!–the Catwoman shoots him with the guns on the Batpod. In other words…Batman fails. He got his ass handed to him by Bane halfway through the movie. He gets his spirit back. He gets his body back. He escapes the prison hole that is able to symbolize the well he fell down in the first frames of Batman Begins and how Bruce Wayne has finally grown up and is able to move beyond his childhood trauma. He somehow gets back to Gotham through means we’ll never know (here’s where a TV series would’ve helped). He rounds up everyone he needs to. He beats up Bane, proving that he’s the motherfuckin’ Batman. Yes, Talia threw him off. Yes, he’s upset. But isn’t that how it’s supposed to go? Shouldn’t Batman be the one to take down Bane? Isn’t it the job as the hero of the movie to, I don’t know, take down the villain?
Instead, the Catwoman does it, and adds a one-liner that, while in character, throws away Batman’s beliefs. It’s not like he’s the title character or anything.
Oh, wait, there’s more.
So they leave to stop the bomb. Batman gets Talia to drive off a bridge. I’ll buy Gordon miraculously living through a drop off an overpass as he’s in the back of a truck with a bomb that ways a ton even though the driver of the truck dies. But…the driver dies. Talia, the “true” villain of the movie, is killed in an automobile accident. And her last words are given to Gordon.
Finally, the last thing that annoyed me about this ending is something I’m okay with in theory, but after these two letdowns, it bothered me. Batman lets Gordon know who he is, through his typical cryptic means. And Gordon, who one would think has helped many children in the crime-infested city that is Gotham, knows exactly which child he gave a coat to. It’s a little thing, but this proves that this Batman is hardly a secret to anyone. Not only does Alfred know, but Lucius Fox knows, Rachel Dawes knew, the guy who works at Wayne Enterprises and was going to blackmail him knows, Ra’s al Ghul knows, Selina Kyle knows, Bane knows, Talia al Ghul knows, John Blake–who never met the man–figured it out because he also lost his parents, and, finally, James Gordon knows.
(Another aside. Unless the point of these “faults” was that Batman’s true job wasn’t to take down Bane or Talia, but to only take care of the bomb. But that’s a little weak to me.)
I also think they had a lost opportunity. I kept expecting that Harvey Dent was alive. That he’d never died but was hurt, and that he was holed-up in the prison or in the new Arkham facility, and that he’d pop up at the end to wreak more havoc. It would’ve been great. Who better to be a judge instead of Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow? But, alas, he was dead.
Overall, I think The Dark Knight Rises, much like 2013’s Man of Steel, which was shooting at the same time as Nolan’s movie even though it was released a year later, is a very flawed masterpiece. The size of the movie and the fact that it boldly goes where most of these kinds of movies are afraid to go, to ask questions and not answer them, and to actually give an ending to the story, is an achievement that is rare in this type of movie. If the filmmakers use coincidence a little too much, or allow for the fantasy to seep a little too much into their ultra-realistic storytelling, or sort of botched up the ending, so be it. I’m fascinated by this movie in much the same way I’m fascinated with Man of Steel. Both films have things that strongly bother me (Gordon calling for every police officer to go into the sewers looking for Bane, for instance) but both tell fully-realized stories that I feel I have to watch again and again, like reading a good novel.
I left The Dark Knight Rises the Sunday after it opened unsure of how I felt about it. I loved it and didn’t like it at the same time. I needed to see it again, to experience it again. I’ve seen it, I think, four times now. I really like the movie and am drawn to watch it again. I feel like I’m still missing something. Maybe it’s because there’s not as much there as I’d hoped, or maybe it’s because the movie works on a higher level than most superhero movies. Again, I feel the same way about Man of Steel.
Conclusion to The Dark Knight Trilogy
It looks as though Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy is a look at the modern superhero in modern terms, with terrorism, mass murders, and cynical outlooks all over. This Batman wants to be a symbol, and he is. He gets others to do good just by being. The biggest problem with these movies is that they’re too serious. Sure, they have some humor, here and there, but everything is serious and a little too well-thought-out. Nolan is trying to elevate the superhero movie with these movies, but in so doing, lost one of the things that make Batman and his villains so interesting: they’re pulp fiction history. This Gotham City couldn’t host Man-Bat, or Killer Croc, or many of Batman’s other Rogues Gallery unless they were so adapted that they’d eventually lose their character. And it certainly doesn’t open up the hope that there could be other superheroes.
One of its other major flaws is in allowing Bruce Wayne so much help. The fact that Lucius Fox is either the designer, or part of a team, that has made most of the gadgets and vehicles Batman has, the fact that there are so many people who know who he is and help him in some way may make for a more realistic portrayal of Batman, but it also takes away some of the magic that the character has. One of the fantastic things about the character of Batman is that he’s a genius. He could easily have helped stop crime by following the rules and using his research and technology to help the police do their jobs, but instead uses it himself as a vigilante. By taking away his ability to come up with the tools he uses, Batman and Bruce Wayne become nothing more than a rich dude who wants to kick people’s asses. Sure, he has detective skills, but some of what makes Batman Batman is lost.
While in many ways, The Dark Knight Trilogy is a masterpiece in storytelling, it does fall shy of what Marvel’s movies have been able to achieve: Big screen adaptations of not only the characters, but the universe that was created in the comic books. Nolan isn’t interested in being at the helm of a shared world, he’s interested in being a serious filmmaker. As such, for everything Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises gets right–which is considerable–they miss one major thing that the Marvel movies–whether from 20th Century Fox, Sony, or Paramount/Disney–has: fun.
I went to bed on July 19th bummed that I couldn’t get out to see the midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises. My wife had to work the next day and was pregnant, so sleep was very necessary, and my best friends either lived too far away, were busy with their own lives, or also had to work the next day. Being a teacher, I had the 20th, the film’s opening date, off. But Pamela really wanted to see the movie, too, since she loved the predecessor as much as I did (well…maybe not as much), and would’ve been bummed if I’d gone without her, so I went to bed vowing to stay away from the internet for any possible spoilers between Friday and Sunday.
I awoke the next morning hearing the news from the living room. In my sleepy consciousness, I heard something about a mass shooting. In a movie theater. The Dark Knight Rises was named. Horrified, I slid out of bed and went into the living room.
Colorado. Okay, I thought, no one I know lives out there. That’s the first concern, right? Do I know anyone in one of these places?
The news that a man armed to the teeth began shooting in a crowded movie theater during a midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises, killing 12 people and injuring 70 others struck hard. I remembered the joy and buzz seeing Star Wars: Episode II–Attack of the Clones and Star Wars: Episode III–Revenge of the Sith at midnight screenings, being some of the first people to see a movie you’ve been waiting for. Those are great memories for me. Then, using my keen writer’s imagination, I thought about the impossible happening, the kind of thing that my writer’s imagination sometimes frightened me about. Twelve people–12–dead. A six-year-old was killed.
I wept. As I did for Columbine High School back in 1999. As I would for Sandy Hook Elementary School the following December, holding my one-month-old daughter in my hands as I watched that particular nightmare unfold.
The horrifying incident haunted me then. Pamela and I had planned on rewatching The Dark Knight that Saturday night to prepare for the following day’s trip to the movies. The spectre of the news colored that viewing.
The following day, sitting in a movie theater in Southeastern Massachusetts nearly 2,000 miles away from the tragedy, it was difficult not to keep an eye on the entrance and exits of the theater. My mind is set up to imagine the worst, which is probably why most of my fiction tends to lean toward dark subjects–horror, crime, dark fantasy–so this was a difficult viewing.
Twelve people died due to negligence in taking care of mental health issues as well as availability and access to guns. There are morons who said that if anyone in that theater had had a gun, they could’ve stopped it. Yeah, that would’ve worked out. Either way, this isn’t about a political statement, because I have no answers, but it is about the incident that I truly believed marred this movie’s reception and raises lots of questions.
Was the shooter fantasizing about being a Batman-type villain? Could Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight have acted as an accelerant to someone who was already keyed up to do something horrifying? Could the Dark Knight movies, themselves, have acted as accelerant?
All those people wanted to do was see the new Batman movie. That was it. Twelve of them never went home. Seventy others will never forget that nightmare of that evening.
For me, the incident and the film will always be connected.
G, the two-year-old, is watching Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood‘s special “Snowflake Day,” a phenomenal special that is a way to be an all-inclusive winter holiday. The kids in the show put on a play that has the message that “friends are the best presents.” In the play, a little girl, played by Miss Elaina, is visited by a fairy (Katarina Kittycat) and is granted wishes. She uses all the wishes to ask for presents. When the fairy leaves, the presents cannot hug her, or play with her, or talk to her. She cries herself to sleep, wishing she’d asked for friends. Of course, the fairy comes back to the sleeping girl and turns the presents into friends. When the girl wakes up, she’s happy, and a song about how “friends are the best present” commences (a fancy word for “begin,” according to Prince Wednesday).
Now this is a lovely message aimed at the preschool crowd, and much like the creator’s previous show, Blue’s Clues and this show’s namesake, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, it teaches complex things in very simple ways.
That said, the message made me think about my childhood. And the message didn’t equate. I had some great friends when I was around 8 or som but before than, and even during, and until my 20s, really, I didn’t find that “friends are the best presents” was accurate. My toys never betrayed me. They always saw exactly what I saw in my imagination. They never made fun of me or made me feel less than I was, laying the seeds for self-esteem issues that live with me today.
So, yes, I hope G–and my teenager, for that matter–has a childhood where friends are the best presents. I sincerely hope that. For me, that wasn’t the case. Luke Skywalker, Batman, G.I. Joe, the Incredible Hulk, and He-Man were my friends. They never let me down.
Well, except when Robin’s and He-Man’s arms broke. Bastards.
When Batman Begins ended, with Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Batman (Christian Bale) on the roof of Gordon’s police station after using the Bat-signal for the first time, I was filled with excitement more than should’ve been rational for a nearly-28-year-old. Not only did the scene perfectly show the Gordon-Batman dynamic that I’d loved in the comic books, but it also ended on a teaser for a possible follow-up that probably sent all the nerds in the audience into a frenzy. Gordon talks to Batman about escalation: the cops get something to fight crime, the criminals get something even deadlier. Then he refers to a case he’s working on, with a criminal who “has a taste for the theatrical, like you.” The criminal, who has robbed and murdered someone, has left a calling card.
That Joker card was a shock. Everyone in the theater I was in cheered. Would it work, though?
Between the critical and financial success Warner Bros. had with Batman Begins, it was obvious they wanted a sequel. Not only that, they wanted Christopher Nolan to return along with the rest of the cast. Nolan wasn’t entirely sure he should–or even could–do another Batman. He was happy with the first movie and wasn’t sure if going back would be a worthwhile exercise for him. But David S. Goyer had given Warner Bros. a proposed trilogy that included The Joker and Harvey Dent in the second film, and Nolan became interested in reinventing The Joker…
In 2005, when Batman Begins came out, I was lost. In 2008, when The Dark Knight was released, I’d been found. I’d been with my fiancée for over a year-and-a-half, I had just completed my first (and I daresay, worst) year as a teacher, and I was living in Boston. A major city. A dream come true. My excitement over the imminent release of The Dark Knight was helped along by its massive viral campaign. Hell, I’d even taken part in it when an I Believe In Harvey Dent campaign van drove by me on the streets of Boston after having just seen No Country For Old Men. I chased the van down and got three campaign buttons. The summer of 2008 was like the summer of 1989 in some ways, a Batman movie and an Indiana Jones movie. Who could ask for anything more?!
Christian Bale continues to be a solid Bruce Wayne and Batman. He’s doing the best he can and pushing himself hard and one feels that Bale is doing the same for this role. He doesn’t just want to portray the character, but make the character live. This is a Bruce Wayne who has suffered from his inner demons but has mostly beaten them. The obsession that has fueled him in his crusade against crime seems to have lifted. Wayne talks about being able to hang up the cowl and attempt to live a fully-realized life. And…
Batman’s voice is great! I know that people have been especially hard on his voice in this movie, but I loved it. It’s just how I’d expect Batman to sound. For starters, Bruce Wayne wants to hide his identity, so he’s changing his voice. He also wants to be intimidating, and the growl helps with that. People suggest that it’s a little over the top, which I’d agree with if it weren’t in a movie where a guy in a rubber bat costume is chasing a clown around a city. Bale’s Batman voice is perfect, so fuck off.
Heath Ledger. I know it goes without saying, but his performance is amazing. When it was announced that Ledger would play The Joker in this film, I remember there was a lot of unhappy nerds. Perhaps because I lived through the Michael Keaton-as-Batman fiasco, or perhaps because I understand that actors are supposed to act, I wasn’t worried. Brokeback Mountain had made him and Jake Gyllenhaal critically acclaimed and I suspected that he wouldn’t take a role that wasn’t in some way challenging to him. That and because Batman Begins hit so many of the right notes, I figured Christopher Nolan could be trusted when it came to bringing new citizens to Gotham. What we got was beyond anything I could’ve hoped for. When the first trailer to reveal The Joker–and Ledger’s performance–debuted in December 2007, the hook was in. I was beyond excited to see the new movie. Ledger gave a performance that not only amazed but terrified. As Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson (and Mark Hamill, for that matter) all tapped into The Joker’s zany, terrifying ways, and there was definitely a sinister edge to their characterizations, especially Nicholson’s and Hamill’s, but Ledger pushed the character into the modern world. His Joker is terrifying and insane in a way that makes him fascinating but not fun. You’re not really laughing with (or at) Ledger’s Joker, so much as releasing nervous chuckles. It’s easy to suggest that Ledger not so much embodied The Joker but rather The Joker embodied Ledger in light of his tragic end in January 2008. There’s a sort of romanticism that goes with saying that Ledger may have gotten too into the role, that he’d allowed the character that Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan, and David Goyer envisioned as this incarnation of a beloved evil character to get too deep into his own psyche, but I’m not sure that it’s true. I think what we see in Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker is the perfect mix of a young actor with demons finding a role that appealed to those demons and truly going for it. His performance helped elevate the entire movie, which hardly needed it to begin with.
Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes is great. People have given her a hard time, saying incredibly rude things about this beautiful woman’s looks. The funny thing I noticed while rewatching Batman Begins for these essays, is that Katie Holmes and Maggie Gyllenhaal could almost be sisters. Either way, looks aside, she brings a depth and grown-up feel to the character that Holmes lacked. Gyllenhaal looks like she’s seen some bad shit go down in Gotham City but still remains hopeful. Her death is shocking a brutal.
Gary Oldman’s Gordon remains spectacular. He is mostly understated, saying more with his eyes and mannerisms than with what he says. He shows a warmth and sense of trust to Batman that remains throughout. Even by the end of the movie, when he’s frustrated and nearly crazed by what The Joker has been able to pull off, and he’s ready to shoot Batman for getting in the way, he’s more believable than most actors would be in this situation. Instead of a crazy turnaround of a character, it feels like a natural sense of frenzy, frustration, and fear.
Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent, Michael Caine as Alfred, Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, and everybody else in the film, are all perfectly cast. Nolan even gets Eric Roberts to turn in a great performance.
The new Bat-costume is great. It’s pretty bold to change it so much yet it works perfectly in the world Nolan, et al, has created. The small pieces of armor, the mask as its own thing, all of it, make this the coolest Bat-suit on film. And even better than the look of it? The fact the filmmakers actually show us a transition between costumes. Batman starts the movie in the suit he wore in Batman Begins. We then see Bruce Wayne talk to Lucius Fox about enhancing the suit. There are a few more times Batman in the Begins suit shows up, and then he’s in Tokyo in the new one. No unexplained enhancements or changes between movies. No strangely embellished suit at the end.
The Batpod is an amazing vehicle. The fact that they tied it into the Tumbler is even better. I want it. I want it. So. Bad.
The writing of the movie is great. The pace is perfect. I have heard of people, even people whom I admire like Harlan Ellison and Joe Hill, say this movie is boring. It breaks my heart but I must respectfully disagree. You get two great action pieces, some story, more action, more story, more action…you get it. And the fact that the entire movie hints at what will happen to Harvey Dent in its structure is even better. There are two introductory scenes, two major happenings in the middle, and two endings. Using Gordon’s statement about escalation at the end of Batman Begins as a jumping off point, the cornered mob turns to The Joker but can’t rein him in. He is the genie out of the bottle. One of the best lines in the movie is given to The Joker, “I think you and I are destined to do this forever!” That line always gives me chills. It acknowledges the 70 years of source material in the movie as well as the idea that this movie will live on.
But it’s not just the final showdown between Batman and The Joker that’s great, but every single showdown between the two is like it’s straight out of the comic books I read as a young teenager. The first time they meet face-to-face at Bruce Wayne’s fundraiser for Harvey Dent is chilling and has all the elements one would expect from both characters. And while some nitpickers have gone online to protest that Batman leaping out the window for Rachel Dawes was silly, let me break down a few things. I may be a nerd who’s apologetic for a movie he loves, but this is how I see it as a storyteller and an observational person: 1) Batman’s going on his guts and adrenaline at that moment. While he’s usually calm and collective, we know Bruce Wayne–and therefore Batman–can be impulsive when it comes to his personal feelings. Look at what happened when he lost his parents! So if he’s against the idea of any criminal ever taking someone he loves away from him, and The Joker has possibly done just that, and Batman thinks he can save that person, he will. It may not be the most heroic choice, but it’s in line with the character in these movies. 2) Logic dictates that The Joker will not kill anyone (else) at the fundraiser. The Joker has just thrown a woman–not just any woman, but Harvey Dent’s “main squeeze” out a window, and the one person who he thinks may stop him just leapt out the window to try to save her. The Joker must realize that someone has called the police, or will when the woman and the guy in the bat suit crashes to the ground, so he’s gonna hightail it outta there! As a matter of fact, the safest place in Gotham, at that moment, is probably Wayne’s apartment. 3) Even if The Joker stays, even if he begins slaughtering party guests, the police are on the way and no amount of bribes would keep him safe. Nope, Batman jumping out the window to save Rachel Dawes makes sense to this guy. Now the two of them landing on the cab without injury…well….
And of course, the showdown between Batman and The Joker in the interrogation room at the police station is iconic. Straight out of the comic books, it’s classic Batman and Joker. The Joker is doing his best to get under Batman’s skin, and finally pushes the right button. The rage that Christian Bale exhibits, the beating Heath Ledger takes, is right out of all those classic Batman/Joker showdowns. It is the one scene that constantly makes my heart race and gives me goosebumps. It is perfect.
Nolan’s direction of The Dark Knight is stronger than Batman Begins. His choice of using Chicago for the exteriors as opposed to sets built on soundstages made this Gotham City feel like Metropolis did in Superman: The Movie, huge and real. The use of IMAX cameras also makes for an interesting home experience while watching it on Blu-ray. The IMAX fill up the 16:9 ratio while the regular scenes will have the black bars at the top and bottom.
The music and sound effects are astonishing. That’s not hyperbole, either. I got to see The Dark Knight in the theater twice, once in its standard format, once in IMAX, not to mention the countless times I watched it on DVD, television, and Blu-ray, and I’m constantly amazed at the two audio elements of this movie. In a day and age when one expects the sound effects to be superb, something about the sound in this movie seems to tower over the rest. I’m thinking of two scenes specifically, although they’re all great.
The first scene is the chase through Gotham, where The Joker is trying to get Harvey Dent. Even before Batman shows up, the sound is incredible, but after he shows and gets the Tumbler blown away, the sound kicks into overdrive. As Batman races on the Batpod, shooting through windows, you can hear every little sound of glass tinkling on the ground. The sound the big tires make on the street, the various sounds of the Tumbler releasing the Pod, and The Joker’s post-crash walk, firing a machine gun at cars and at Batman, are all a feast for the ears.
The second scene is when The Joker blows of Gotham General Hospital. Again, it’s not just the explosions, but the sounds of debris falling all around, glass tinkling, that really helps sell the scene.
The sound effects’ biggest frenemy is the music, and Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard is phenomenal. From the very first criminal sliding on a line from a building to the roof across the Gotham skyline to the point when the sad clown reveals himself to be The Joker, the music goes from what we experienced in Batman Begins to a fever pitch that puts you on edge. Throughout the movie, Zimmer and Howard go from the heroic marches one expects for a superhero to a deranged cacophony for the Joker. It contributes to Ledger’s performance because the music is intense and nerve-fraying.
There are a few too many coincidences. I think. Or The Joker is a little too good. There’s a lot that happens in this movie and The Joker seems to be one step ahead of everyone a little too much. For a guy who claims he loves chaos, he’s always at the right place at the right time, and no one ever seems to be able to outsmart him. He knows exactly how every single police officer, how Batman, and how every major and minor character is going to think, behave, and act. Except for the ferries of Gotham citizens and criminals, those people he can’t read worth a damn.
The Nolans come through their characters a little too much. Certain phrases keep popping up, and while I do believe that the characters are reusing key phrases they heard from another character, they sound a little too much like phrases that are popular with the writers at that moment. They’re a little too neat. Nothing wrong with some of that, but when you can easily quote:
“That night is always darkest before the dawn.”
“…played that hand close to the chest…”
“You either die the hero or see yourself live long enough to become the villain.”
You get what I mean. And there are more, I’m sure, but I’m stopping there. If Bruce Wayne tells Lucius Fox that he’s playing something close to the vest, I expect Fox to say it later in the movie, not Harvey Dent commenting on Gordon’s sudden resurrection.
Harvey Dent is under-utilized. This is probably the one point in this essay that I’m going to really sound like a nerdboy, but when you have such a great character, being portrayed so well by Aaron Eckhart, killing him off so quickly is a sin. Apparently, the original treatment that Goyer submitted to Warner Bros. had The Joker helping turn Dent to Two-Face, and then Two-Face would be the main villain of the third movie, but Nolan thought Dent as Two-Face was too good to save so he included him in this story, helping with the notion that this Batman wasn’t interested in being Batman forever but hoped Harvey Dent would be the city’s White Knight and save the day. Dent’s death does help bring Batman back to fugitive status, which is kind of where the hero works best, but still feels a little too soon.
Damn, wasn’t that night really dark for the last few sentences of the last paragraph? Anyway, The Dark Knight, by setting aside Batman from its title, distinguishes itself from all the other movies made thus far, including its direct predecessor, Batman Begins. It brings the superhero movie into the present, with real-world issues, carrying on the question, “What constitutes a superhero in a post-9/11 world?” How can the people, like me, who oppose the wire-tapping dissolution of rights under the Patriot Act be cool with Batman using his cell phone sonar device to catch The Joker? If we say the end justifies the means, then wouldn’t that be an argument against our own beliefs? I think Christopher Nolan likes that. He likes to raise the questions but let you worry about the answers, without ever answering them himself, or having his characters answer for him. One could argue that the destruction of that ability would mean that as long as we go back to how it was before those rights were removed, then it’s all right. But the conflicting argument that comes out of this movie is that once the change starts, it won’t stop. The Joker tells Batman that he’s changed things, and that there’s no going back, and even The Joker doesn’t understand how deep that message has sunk until his ferries don’t blow up.
Either way, The Dark Knight made me break one of my own rules: I never talk about a movie I’ve seen in the theater until I’m in the car and on the way home. I was leaving the theater and turned to Pamela and said, “We need to see this again.”
The film was critically loved and became one of the highest grossing films of all time. It was nominated for Academy Awards and Heath Ledger’s performance won every acting award it was nominated for, including the Academy Award. Surely, with all the hoopla and love for The Dark Knight, it was inevitable that there would be a sequel.
Or was it…?
With the horrible reviews and fan reaction to Batman & Robin, Warner Bros. considered going ahead with a fifth film in the franchise, already titled Batman Triumphant, which would star the cast of the failed movie and would be directed by Joel Schumacher. Word at the time was a different director might be hired, and names of actors to play Scarecrow and whatever other villain who was being named in the rumor mill, came up every week. But Warner Bros. thought a fresh start would be best. Comic book movies just didn’t seem to be popular at that moment, and they weren’t sure how to continue. Remember, by now, the infamous Superman Lives fiasco that had caught Tim Burton, Nicolas Cage, and Kevin Smith in its web had happened and everything seemed up in the air. Funny enough, it was really Marvel that laid down a blueprint for how to proceed.
In 2000, 20th Century Fox and Marvel Entertainment released X-Men. Directed by Bryan Singer, whose previous credits included the independent films The Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil, Singer seemed like the last choice to direct a huge superhero, special effects movie. With his screenwriters, Tom DeSanto and David Hayter, Singer made a movie that was an instant fan favorite, and which also garnered positive reviews. Honestly, it hadn’t been since Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie in 1978 that a comic book-inspired movie generated so much favorable comment. In 2002, Sony and Marvel Entertainment released Spider-Man, written by David Koepp and directed by Sam Raimi, best known for the Evil Dead movies. Again, Raimi seemed like the last person who should direct a superhero movie, yet Spider-Man worked on every level.
The idea of taking an independent film director, having him/her work with screenwriters they were familiar with (or whom they chose), and then letting them loose on a major superhero movie seemed like a good idea. They were used to making smaller, more character-driven movies, and the superheroes who populated these movies were popular more for their character than because of any particular story they were in. Warner Bros. approached Darren Aronofsky, director of Requiem for a Dream and Pi, to work on a new Batman film. Inspired by Batman: Year One, Aronofsky approached Frank Miller and the two began collaborating on a new Batman movie.
Their ideas weren’t what Warner Bros. was looking for. After a few more false starts, the idea to put Batman and Superman into one movie came to them. Tentatively titled Batman vs. Superman, the movie was announced and writers and directors were spoken to. Warner Bros. was so sure they would make the movie, casting began, a logo was released, and a billboard can be seen in Times Square in the 2004 Warner Bros. release of I Am Legend. The film hit a snag when Warner Bros. approached up-n-coming indie writer/director Christopher Nolan to direct.
After receiving a load of critical acclaim with his film Memento (2000), Nolan directed Oscar winners Al Pacino, Hilary Swank, and Robin Williams in the thriller Insomnia (2002). The movie was critically acclaimed and did well. Warner Bros. approached him with the idea of directing Batman vs. Superman, which Nolan thought about. Finally, he declined to direct the major team-up for the chance to do a movie more in line with Miller’s Year One. After meeting with Blade screenwriter David S. Goyer, Nolan signed on for the new Batman movie.
Unlike previous Batman movies, I wasn’t following much of the story behind Batman Begins. By its release in 2005, I knew that Nolan would direct, that Christian Bale had been cast as Bruce Wayne/Batman, and that it was going back to the beginning. I was busy. I was going through a divorce, finishing college (five years after when I should’ve), following Star Wars: Episode III–Revenge of the Sith, dating (or trying to), being a father, and just basically trying to survive. Word-of-mouth brought me to a nighttime screening with a friend more than anything else. I wasn’t sure what to expect. The last time I’d seen Batman on the big screen, things hadn’t gone so well. I was anxious to see where Batman Begins would bring me.
Christian Bale is amazing as Bruce Wayne and Batman. Bale comes off, to me, as completely bugfuck. He’ll totally change his look and weight for whatever role he’s cast in, he’ll change his accent, and he’ll be so much in character that he’ll scream at lighting people who accidentally cross his line of vision. He is handsome and suave enough (and strangely pampered-looking) to pull off Bruce Wayne, and intense and scary enough, as well as hard-working enough, to play Batman. When I read the Batman comic books between 1990 and 1996-ish (Batman, Detective Comics, Legends of the Dark Knight, Shadow of the Bat, and the many, many one-shots and graphic novels), this is what I envisioned. Someone who would play an arrogant ass, like in the scene when Bruce Wayne shows up to a very upscale restaurant with two dates in his Lamborghini, but who is focused and driven when he’s alone. He could easily trade barbs with Alfred, but he could be relentless, and perpetually pissed-off as Batman. There’s a scene when Batman is interrogating Lt. Gordon’s crooked partner, Flass (played by Mark Boone Junior), that completely encapsulates the Batman I read and loved so much. He makes the character more believable than any of the other actors who played Bruce Wayne/Batman ever has.
Gary Oldman as Lt. James Gordon is superb. In the previous adaptations, Gordon was always an old man who looked more akin to desk work than anything else, which is pretty much what Gordon always was, until Frank Miller had his way with him in Batman: Year One. The Gordon I read in the comics was older, sure, with white hair and a mustache, a trenchcoat, and–usually–a smoking habit, but he was also Batman’s friend. The two trusted each other without ever really knowing the other, yet they completely knew each other. Somehow, in just two scenes, Goyer and Nolan, as well as Bale and Oldman, make us believe their relationship is of mutual respect, if not exactly trust…yet…with what only amounts to a few minutes of screen time. A big part of this is through Oldman’s portrayal. His eyes do more speaking than his mouth, and it sells the character completely. He’s uneasy with the corruption all around him but understands that it goes down, even though he won’t take part. With Batman’s arrival, he sees a chance to fix things and feels hope for the first time. And it’s all in Oldman’s performance.
The rest of the cast is excellent as well. Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes, Liam Neeson as Henri Ducard/ Ra’s al Ghul, Michael Caine as Alfred, Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, and Cillian Murphy as Dr. Jonathan Crane/The Scarecrow really bring it. Liam Neeson just about owns the first half of the movie, and his return at the finale, including the big reveal that he is Ra’s al Ghul, is perfect. But everyone in this movie plays it understated and realistic. The theatrics are left to Batman, and even then, there’s a certain amount of realism that makes one believe in the fiction.
The Tumbler, or Bat Tumbler, or the new Batmobile was something that I didn’t like when I saw the first pictures to come out in 2005. By the time Batman is driving across Gotham’s rooftops, I was in love. It’s a fascinating vehicle that you wish were real (yet, would be terrified if it was). It fits the tone of this Batman and this Gotham and is just fun to watch.
The screenplay by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, based on Goyer’s story, is fascinating. People often credit (or blame) Batman Begins with bringing dark, gritty realism to superhero movies. This may be true, but I think it’s more likely Goyer and Nolan looked back at the genre and realized that the best of them followed the mold set up by Richard Donner in 1978’s Superman: The Movie. Donner had a cut-out of Superman with a word bubble that read, “Verisimilitude,” and would hold the sign up whenever he felt everyone needed reminding that in order for people to believe in Superman, they needed to make his world as realistic as possible. The charm of Tim Burton’s Batman films (and even of Joel Schumacher’s films) was in their unreality. They were theatrical and bold, with little use for the real world. Nolan’s and Goyer’s decision to set this Gotham City, this Batman, in the real world would help revitalize him. Telling his origin story on screen for the first time on film would make it something to come to that would be unlike its predecessors. The best part about the story is that it’s actually about storytelling. Bruce Wayne creates the character of Batman step-by-step, using his past, his needs, his fears, and the technology at hand to make a symbol that would leave a mark on the city and, hopefully, its criminals and citizens. The criminals would be afraid of this symbol as the citizens, hopefully, embraced it. This is what every writer of fiction hopes to do, whether it’s prose of screenplays. By using Donner’s formula for Superman and having the audience slowly learn who the man who wears the cape is, they ensure that this Bruce Wayne and this Batman will distinguish themselves from those who came before. While the use of Donner’s basic formula means the title character doesn’t appear until an hour into the movie, the incidents and happenings in Batman Begins are much different, making the movie feel fresh. And while the ending, with Ra’s al Ghul’s scheme, is a little silly, I’m so sold by this Batman and this Gotham that I’d follow him anywhere.
Christopher Nolan’s direction is superb. Again, breaking from the more theatrical styles of Burton and Schumacher, he creates a world that is vast. From the mountains that Bruce Wayne navigates on his trek to meet up with Henri Ducard and the League of Shadows, to the shots of Gotham City. He also gets performances from the actors that are realistic in this otherwise insane world. His shots of Batman on buildings, watching the city, are the splash pages and panels that I grew up reading, captured in their true splendor for the first time.
The ending. Gordon’s first use of the Bat-signal, and the surprise of The Joker’s calling card, nearly made me squeal when I first saw it, and it still does.
Batman’s costume isn’t my favorite. Look, it’s better than those SuperBatman costumes worn by Val Kilmer and George Clooney at the end of their respective movies, and really isn’t all that different from any of the other costumes, but it looks best when shot in the dark. Too close a look and it falls apart. Unlike previous suits, which were made of foam latex rubber, this costume is made of neoprene and just has an odd look about it in the light. Luckily, this Batman isn’t in the light much.
Alfred stops a scene by explaining to Bruce Wayne what the Underground Railroad was. They’re below Wayne Manor, checking out the caves for the possible Batcave, and Alfred shows some hidden underground passages and hideaways. He explains that Bruce’s great-grandfather was part of the Underground Railroad, and then explains what that is. Now granted, Batman Begins doesn’t explain much about Bruce’s schooling except that he’s gotten kicked out of many schools, but surely the man who is, arguably, going to become one of the world’s greatest detectives knows what the Underground Railroad is. My real fear is that Bruce does know. That’s not a typo. I fear Bruce Wayne, aka Batman, knows what the Underground Railroad is because if he doesn’t know, then the dialogue makes sense. If he does know, then the writer, director, and/or studio thinks the audience is stupid. And that‘s a goddamn shame.
Some of the story fits a little too neatly together. But these are parts of the overall silliness that invades the latter half of this story. They’re small stuff that could ruin a lesser movie but is forgivable because of the overall quality of the film.
The title. I’ve never liked the movie’s title, and I wonder what Christopher Nolan, et al, would call it now, considering the success of the successors.
Batman Begins has a lot going for it. When I first saw it, I watched it with a huge grin from beginning to end. It’s the Batman movie I’d always wanted as a fan of the comic books. It took the character and his co-stars seriously, added to the mythos, and brought Batman back to the top of the superhero heap. And with its promise of a probable sequel, I was super excited.
And so was Warner Bros. Garnering good reviews and great box office, Batman Begins restarted the Batman film franchise. It really wasn’t a matter of if but of when there’d be a follow-up.
So with Batman Forever being a huge box office hit, and the merchandising selling ridiculously well, it was a no-brainer for Warner Bros. to ask Joel Schumacher to return for a sequel. The thing was, they wanted one quickly. Schumacher went off to direct the adaptation of John Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill, but was still involved in the preproduction for the third Batman sequel. Akiva Goldsman would write the movie, and everyone would return; Pat Hingle as Gordon, Michael Gough as Alfred, Chris O’Donnell as Robin/Dick Grayson, and Val Kilmer as Batman/Bruce Wayne. Except…Val Kilmer quit. Or was fired. Or wasn’t told about the movie and committed to the movie The Saint. Whatever happened, they needed a new Batman. Because Schumacher and Goldsman had decided to use the 1960s TV series as well as the absurd 1950s comic book stories as their inspiration, the director felt an actor who could be lighter in tone than Keaton or Kilmer would be better. Enter George Clooney. Clooney, whose star had risen considerably because of ER, jumped at the role. Working seven days a week for months between ER and Batman & Robin, he took on the dual roles of Batman and Bruce Wayne.
Sticking with Warner Bros.’s wishes to keep the franchise lighter and more family friendly, the fourth movie, Batman & Robin, would be fast-tracked to a 1997 release and star Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze and Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy. It would also feature the first film version of the new comic book villain, Bane, who broke Batman’s back in 1993, played by Jeep Swenson.
In June 1997, my world was turned upside-down. Two months away from my twentieth birthday, I found out I was going to be a father. I was stunned. Sixteen years later, I can’t remember the exact order of events. I can’t remember if I’d told my parents by the time the movie opened on June 20th, or if I told them later. I remember going to my then-girlfriend’s then-stepfather’s family’s cottage on White Horse Beach in Plymouth the weekend we saw the movie (or at least fairly closely afterward) and worrying about the baby there, and her family didn’t know about it at that point. So I guess maybe mine didn’t either…? Anyway, it didn’t stop me from seeing Batman on the big screen.
I remember my feelings as the end credits began to roll almost as intensely as I remember my feelings upon hearing that this kid was gonna be a daddy. They weren’t the same feelings, but they were both intense.
George Clooney as Batman is a no-brainer. He gets a bad rap for this movie, and it’s understandable. When compared to Michael Keaton, and even Val Kilmer, Clooney’s Batman/Bruce Wayne is another creature altogether. Still, there’s a sadness in his puppy-dog eyes that can make me believe that he has suffered. The fact that he made the choice–or Schumacher (or Goldsman) made the choice–to make Bruce Wayne less brooding makes sense. I know that if a person loses his/her parents in childhood, at the age of 8 or 10, it’s likely to haunt them for the rest of their lives. I’m also sure some people will spend the rest of their lives brooding, and maybe even trying to make a difference in some way. But I’m also sure that a part of a healthy person’s life is healing and by his mid-30s, while still hurting deeply, maybe Bruce Wayne has come to terms with his parents’ death. And in relation to Batman Forever‘s storyline, it makes sense that Clooney is less brooding.
The imagination behind this movie, like Batman Forever (and Burton’s Batman movies) is something to behold. It’s a strange, alternate world that shouldn’t exist and is a marvel to the eye.
George Clooney as Batman is very flat. Clooney’s casting is brilliant, but he’s given nothing except a larger codpiece and more defined rubber ass cheeks. Here was a guy who played such depth on TV every week in the highest-rated drama of the time being used as a carbon copy of himself. While it’s fine that Bruce may have moved on from his parents’ murders, there’s very little real emotion for him to work with in this movie. The few moments he’s allowed to actually emote are overshadowed by the silliness of the disease that’s threatening to turn his life upside-down again. Aside from that, he’s mildly more interesting than Adam West was as Batman/Bruce Wayne. Oh, and it seems that every shot of every scene has the Clooney head-bob. I know that he does that, that it’s natural, but he’s like a bobble head toy in this movie, even when he’s in the mask.
Chris O’Donnell would be faintly better in this movie than in Batman Forever if it weren’t for his lame dialogue, I think. He had crappy dialogue during his first go-around as Dick Grayson/Robin, and this time it’s even worse. And while we’re on sidekicks, this movie introduces us to Barbara Wilson, who becomes Batgirl, played by Alicia Silverstone. Silverstone became the infatuation to many adolescent boys in the mid-1990s because of her starring role in several Aerosmith music videos (“Cryin'”, “Amazing,” and “Crazy”) but became a star in her breakout role in Amy Heckerling’s Clueless. In that film, she was sassy, magnetic, and pitch perfect. In Batman & Robin she plays Alfred’s niece (as opposed to Commissioner Gordon’s daughter) in a range that can only be called mildly mentally challenged. She’s terrible. Her dialogue, her acting, her action scenes, everything is terrible.
Arnold Schwarzenegger can be charming, charismatic, funny, and just-plain entertaining. I mean, there was a time that people may have actually been willing to rewrite the Constitution to allow him to become President! In Batman & Robin, he almost pulls off charismatic. In many ways, he’s the best part of this movie, and may have been put in The Day section of this essay if it wasn’t for his makeup, dialogue, costumes, acting, and… It’s bad. He has glowing blue teeth in the costume. I had to add that. The concept of Mr. Freeze isn’t a bad one, and Batman: The Animated Series showed that it can be done well. A scientist who, in trying to save his wife’s life by freezing her until her mysterious disease can be cured, accidentally makes himself unable to live outside the coldest temperatures. The sadness of the idea of this brilliant man longing to save his wife but having to turn to crime is great, worthy of a Batman villain. But the writer and director are spending too much time putting in bad jokes, worse puns, and even worse one-liners to ever really give a shit about something so tiny as character. And with the jokes, quips, puns, and one-liners, Schwarzenegger is right at home. By 1997, his star had begun to fade. One could still expect a Schwarzenegger movie nearly once a year, but the reviews were becoming harsher, the action movie was changing, and people were just ready for something new. What they got in Batman & Robin was akin to a 1960s/1970s TV guest star playing to his typecast. Mr. Freeze adds nothing to the Batman film series, poses no real threat, and has muddled-thinking at best.
Poison Ivy, played by Uma Thurman, on the other hand, makes Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze look like Hamlet. Thurman, who’d rocked the boat playing Mia Wallace in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, hams it up so much as Poison Ivy that I felt like I was watching a bad sitcom performance. Thurman can be an excellent actress, full of swagger or innocence, depending on the role. Yet in Batman & Robin she seems to be acting in a way she believes a comic book would be played. And maybe she’s right. I’m probably just another nerdboy upset by what happened to Batman and his mythos in this movie, but I can’t escape feeling that a better script, better dialogue, and better direction would’ve given us a so much better Poison Ivy.
The inclusion of Bane in this movie should’ve been a high point, but instead is a gross misstep in a movie filled with them. As an ardent Batman comic book reader in the early 1990s, I read first-hand Bane’s introduction and story-arc in 1993’s Knightfall. Bane was an intelligent man who wanted to exact revenge on Batman (I fail to remember why right now) and, unlike most of the villains Batman faces, decides he’s going to run Batman into the ground long before they meet face-to-face. By destroying Arkham Asylum and the prison many of Batman’s greatest foes are in, he releases them all and Batman spends months bringing them to justice. By the time he’s through, he’s exhausted, has hardly slept, and walks into the Batcave to find Bane waiting for him. Bane beats up Batman, ending the fight by snapping Batman over his knee, breaking his back. This was Batman’s editors answer to 1992’s “Death of Superman” storyline.
The Bane that appears in Batman & Robin is pumped full of the mysterious Venom that appears in the comic books, but other than that and the costume, he is a shadow. A large shadow. Played by Jeep Swenson, Bane is nothing but grunts and parrot-like responses. He’s essentially Poison Ivy’s henchman and is hardly a threat. While he may have superhuman strength, he has below-human intellect and could be outsmarted by a slow toddler. While the Bane of the comic books was an instant fan favorite, the Bane of Batman & Robin became how most people knew and stigmatized the character. And not only was the take on the character appalling (and demeaning) but the makeup was atrocious.
Look, the acting in general is horrible in the movie. Michael Gough, in his final turn as Alfred, is, again, great, but even he has to stretch. Of course, he and George Clooney are given the only emotional character-driven scene in the movie. Aside from that, it’s all bad. John Glover, who plays Dr. Woodrue, a mad scientist who is working with Poison Ivy’s alter-ego, Pamela Isley, but secretly using her research to create a super-soldier serum (the aforementioned Venom), said that before each take, Joel Schumacher would shout out, “Remember, everyone, this is a cartoon!” Which leads to the main problem of the entire movie.
The filmmakers responsible for the movie didn’t get it. Akiva Goldsman’s script is terrible. Like Batman Forever, Batman & Robin begins with suiting-up (this time it’s Batman and Robin suiting up), complete with groin and ass shots. Then we go into the new Batcave where Batman and Robin stand dramatically as Robin’s motorcycle and the new Batmobile (which has only one seat and no roof!) comes from the floor. And then it’s one-liners and jokes. Welcome to Batman, kids! And it gets no better. Almost every scene in the movie has bad puns, one-liners, jokes, and dumb dialogue. Bruce and Alfred’s relationship is examined, as is the idea of what makes up family, which is all well and good, but it’s forced in the same way student writing has forced meaning because the kid knows the teacher is looking for X.
The production design is hit or miss. Above I mentioned that the world Schumacher and his team created is something to behold, and I meant it. Gotham City is loud and gaudy and crazed. The thing is, it’s a little too gaudy and crazed. I mentioned in my essay on Batman Forever that there’s way too much neon in the movie. The same can be said for this movie, as well as odd colored spotlights projecting on every surface. It’s like modern Tokyo on a steroid/acid mix. While that could be a thing of personal taste, what isn’t is the cheapness of some of the look. The ice that’s generated by Mr. Freeze wherever he goes looks like sculpted plastic. There are scenes when vehicles get hit by his freeze-ray and when a door opens, you can see the “ice” wobble in the motion, looking like cut velum on the doors. Uma Thurman’s costumes are pretty tame and lame, by most standards. Hell, the behind the scenes featurettes on the Blu-ray have a costume person actually saying that her costumes were incomplete by the time filming came. Even her demise at the end is lame, when a huge rubber plant eats her, á la Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors, it doesn’t look nearly as good as the Frank Oz movie of less than 10 years before.
The look of Mr. Freeze’s henchmen is ridiculous. And the heroes change costumes for the final showdown again. This time, instead of it only being Batman in that bulkier suit he used at the end of Batman Forever, even Robin and Batgirl have new costumes made, with silver highlights. Because if you weren’t convinced that the toy makers had a say in the production design before this, they needed to make sure you knew.
Finally, the directing is off. Schumacher had a vision. He carried out that vision. In that, he was successful. He intended on making a silly comic book/cartoon in live-action and he succeeded. That said, the performances of his actors, and his designers, and his scriptwriter were all awful. And while I understand that he was being rushed by Warner Bros., and being held to a standard that would help sell toys as much as movie tickets, there has to be something somewhere in his head that makes him see just how bad the movie is. It’s not a sin to have made Batman & Robin campy in the way the TV series was, or silly like some of the strange stories out of the 1950s, but if you’re going to invoke the 1960s TV series, at least try to be as cutting edge, biting, and smart as they were in the beginning. Batman & Robin were none of these things. And while his apology on the Blu-ray/DVD interviews done in 2005 are now as legendary as the low quality of this movie, in a large part of the interviews, I saw the same things said over and over that I’ve heard other filmmakers say on other bad sequels (I’m looking at you now Jack Sholder and Rachel Talalay). In essence, “We didn’t know that the movie was going to be as big as it was. We didn’t know the fans wouldn’t like it so much. We were trying to make an entertaining movie, that’s all.” That last was true, I’m sure of it. And maybe even the first sentence might have a grain or two of truth. But if anyone working on Batman & Robin from the start thought that the fans of this PG-13-rated movie were going to love any of it, they had to be out of touch with reality.
Warner Bros. had been happy with what they’d seen during the filming of Batman & Robin enough to hire Joel Schumacher to direct a third Batman movie (fifth in the series) which would be called Batman Triumphant and would feature the Scarecrow, Harley Quinn as the Joker’s daughter, and the Joker, as a fear toxin-induced hallucination. Mark Protosevich had been hired to write the script. Word was the cast of Batman & Robin was signed to return and negotiations with Jack Nicholson had begun.
It wouldn’t come to be. In the end, Batman & Robin had a great opening weekend and then dropped immediately as word-of-mouth began to spread. Where fans can save a movie that has bad reviews (how many Transformers movies are there now?), nobody was saving this movie. Schumacher reportedly pitched an idea to do Batman: Year One, in a grittier way as presented in Frank Miller’s original comic, but Warner declined.
I remember walking out of the movie theater shell-shocked. We’d seen an early-afternoon matinee. My girlfriend said that it was pretty good. I felt like I’d been beaten. Worse than that. I can be over-apologetic to movie franchises if I love the overall series enough, anyone reading these essays have seen that. I hated this movie. I saw it one other time before rewatching it to write this. When it finally came on Cinemax, I watched it, convinced that it couldn’t have been as bad as I’d remembered. I was right. It was worse.
It’s a shame, really. I think George Clooney would’ve made a great Batman. I guess we’ll never know.
According to Tim Burton, after Batman Returns came out and was a hit, he was willing to go back to Gotham City again. While he may have hesitated going back for the first sequel, being allowed to really let his imagination go within the Batman’s universe must’ve been to his liking. So when he met with Warner Bros. executives, he launched right into his ideas for Batman III. Except, the execs weren’t reacting in a favorable way. Burton began to realize that it wasn’t just his ideas for a Batman sequel they weren’t in favor of, they weren’t really interested in having him return. So Burton bowed out of the movie. The execs, probably realizing that some of the fans of the first two movies might get upset, signed him on as a producer.
The general idea seems to be that Batman Returns was too dark for many people. Children going into the movie were frightened by the Penguin and parents were no doubt horrified by the sexual jokes and innuendo throughout. Warner Bros. wanted to make Batman more family-friendly. Somehow or another, they went to Joel Schumacher, director of such family fair as The Lost Boys, Flatliners, and Falling Down.
Michael Keaton had been asked to reprise his role as Bruce Wayne/Batman, and seemed willing to do so when Tim Burton would possibly direct, but then didn’t seem sure. Schumacher had seen Val Kilmer in the film Tombstone, where he played Doc Holliday, and thought he would make an interesting Bruce Wayne/Batman. Kilmer accepted the role.
The basic feeling, according to the extras on the Batman Anthology Blu-ray, was that Warner Bros. wanted to reinvent the franchise. Schumacher met with Burton several times at the beginning stages of the movie.
Batman Forever came out to more media hoopla than even the first movie. The merchandising of 1989’s Batman seemed almost an afterthought. By Batman Returns, mini-Penguins appeared in McDonald’s Happy Meals. For Batman Forever, everything was marketed.
By now, I was coming to the end of my high school career. Weeks after I graduated elementary school, Batman came out. Weeks after I graduated high school, Batman Forever came out. By now, I was older, hopefully a leeeetle wiser. I didn’t need Dad to take me, I could go myself. I was rather surprised by the movie as a whole (even though I’d read the novelization, written by the great Peter David. If you haven’t read his novel Sir Apropos of Nothing, go do so! Phenomenal work).
The bat costume in this one returns to the muscle sculpt, only more stylistic. And yes, there are nipples on the suit. My reaction then, and now, is: Who cares? Why not? Well, it’s silly. Yes, it is silly to put nipples on a rubber bat suit that will be worn by a grown man in his 30s so he can fight strange people in other silly costumes. Do you get it, yet? The whole thing is silly. Calm down. Drink your juice. Anyway, I like the look of the main bat suit in this movie. It’s sleeker, it looks pretty badass. It’s fine. And Robin’s costume isn’t bad either. Within the realm of this universe, it’s fine.
Jim Carrey as the Riddler kind of steals the show. His manic energy starts at Frank Gorshin’s level, and then goes atomic. Just as Jack Nicholson and Danny DeVito got lost in their roles, nearly stealing their shows, Carrey’s Riddler does the same. That said, I’m going to withhold any more of my comments on Carrey’s performance for later.
The irony. Not within the script or story itself, but that the reason Warner Bros. went with Joel Schumacher is because of how dark in tone Batman Returns was, yet, Batman Forever has moments nearly as dark, if not darker. And it would’ve been even darker if they’d kept the actual characterization and personal journey that Bruce Wayne goes through in this movie. In Peter David’s novelization of the script by Lee Batchler, Janet Scott-Batchler, and Akiva Goldsman, and apparently in earlier cuts of the movie, Bruce Wayne is suffering from nightmares of repressed memories. In a metaphysical/symbolic scene, Bruce eventually faces a giant bat from these nightmares and makes the decision to be Batman…forever. See? For some reason, most of the scenes were cut. Still, the movie is still pretty dark in both tone and actual darkness.
Michael Gough as Alfred still rocks. His care for Bruce is evident, and the way he works with the newly-orphaned Dick Grayson (Chris O’Donnell) is realistic and entertaining.
The attempt to expand Bruce Wayne’s story. Apparently, Joel Schumacher had proposed doing an adaptation of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One. When Warner Bros. declined, insisting on doing a straight sequel, Schumacher had the screenwriters go back to the Waynes’s murder and expand on the story. While much of this material was cut from the final film, what remains has Bruce Wayne choosing to be Batman. The idea is that in the first two movies, and even through much of this one, he felt a need to continue. Now, facing his past and coming to terms with it means that it’s no longer an obsession so much as a job. In many ways, this is actually a good (albeit weird–who wants to dress up as a bat and fight deadly criminals?) thing for the character. It means that Wayne has come to terms with his parents’ deaths and can begin the process of healing. Whether remaining Batman forever will help in this healing is doubtful, but it’s a step to making Bruce Wayne a more fully realized character. And I’m all for that.
The acting is bad. Joel Schumacher gets a bad rap from Batman fans. They’ll call him inept, and silly, and frivolous, and that kind of thing. He’s really a decent director. The Lost Boys should’ve been silly, but it’s an effective horror movie. His John Grisham adaptations, and movies like Falling Down all have characters you care about to some degree, with fairly good acting. But perhaps too much time was spent on costumes, effects, neon, lighting, nipples and bums, neon, Jim Carrey antics, and neon to pay attention to the actors’ performances. Val Kilmer, who can turn in great performances, is horrible as Bruce Wayne and only marginally better as Batman. He’s wooden, stiff, and his voice never emotes. Nicole Kidman, who has pretty good acting chops, gives a performance one expects from a high school production (I’ve actually seen better acting in high school performances, to be fair). Her character, Dr. Chase Meridian, is one of the worst psychiatrists I’ve ever seen, and throws herself at Batman almost immediately.
Some people weren’t thrilled with Robin’s introduction to the Batman movie world, but I was cool with it. Batman had Robin longer than he didn’t. But Chris O’Donnell is pretty bad in this movie. I think he does the best he can with the script, honestly, but the role isn’t great and he’s not great in it. It’s a shame, really. I would’ve loved for Dick Grayson/Robin to have worked.
I gave Jim Carrey some props before, and he does steal the show, but when he’s onscreen, it becomes a Jim Carrey movie. An early-1990s Jim Carrey movie. So we have Batman vs. Ace Venture: Pet Detective/The Mask. (Wait…I need a ticket to Hollywood…I smell a million-billion dollars!). He overacts the entire time he’s onscreen. The subtly of his performances in The Truman Show and Man on the Moon are nowhere to be seen here. And the worst…
It pains me to do this, but Tommy Lee Jones deserves his own paragraph here. His take on Harvey Dent/Two-Face, in this movie called Harvey Two-Face, is horrible. I blame the Akiva Goldsman and Joel Schumacher. Schumacher wanted Jones to play Harvey Two-Face immediately. Jones wasn’t so thrilled. In interviews given at the time, he even says it took him a while to warm up to the idea of playing this character and that it was his son’s enthusiasm for the character and movie that really got him to say yes. There’s no problem so far, because I think Jones would make a great Harvey Dent/Two-Face. Yet, it’s pretty apparent that Goldsman’s rewrite of the Batchlers’ script lightened the tone of the characters, and Schumacher wanted things to be more theatrical. The fact that Jim Carrey’s portrayal of Edward Nygma/the Riddler was allowed to get so out of hand, it almost meant that Tommy Lee Jones had to be large. And a big part of that is…
Your definition of a “comic book” is different than mine. Throughout the documentary features on the Batman Anthology Blu-ray set, Schumacher, Jones, and just about everyone else working behind the scenes keeps referring to Batman Forever as a comic book movie. This is fine. That’s exactly what Batman Forever is. The problem is that the readers of comic books of 1995 and the filmmakers who made Batman Forever based on the Batman comic books they grew up reading were coming from totally different places. Consider this: The two comic book stories that convinced Tim Burton to take on directing Batman were Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke (1988). Both were new stories that came out right around the time Warner Bros. offered the movie to him. His initial reaction to the offer, if I’m not mistaken, was No thanks. It was upon reading those two mid-1980s stories that Burton decided he might be able to make this movie, and signed on. Those are two of the darker stand-alone Batman tales from that time period, and, along with Miller’s Batman: Year One (1986), set the tone for Batman stories for the next thirty years.
In nearly every interview that is on the Batman Forever disc, from actors to director and everyone in between, we hear about their memories of Batman comic books growing up, and how they did everything they could to make the movie like one of those comic books. Schumacher, born three months after Batman’s debut in 1939, would remember him from the 1940s and 1950s, during Batman’s more zany days. Hell, he may have even been one of those kids at the movies watching the Batman serials. Even Chris O’Donnell mentions the TV show as a fond memory, saying in an interview on the disc that he didn’t really like Batman Returns because of how dark it was.
So Warner Bros. gives Schumacher the word to tone down the darkness, and he obliges by making a comic book movie in the style of comic books he grew up reading. The people working on the movie don’t care, because their memories of Batman comic books are from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Maybe some of the 1970s, though by that time, Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams, under the stewardship of Julius Schwartz, was bringing Batman back to his dark roots.
I hate to say it, but Schumacher was doing exactly what he was told to do, in the exact way he felt it should be done. So if the movie looks overproduced, it’s because he’s making a Schumacher comic book movie. And it does look overproduced in strange ways. One last thing, though, I don’t necessarily buy that Schumacher was unaware of what was currently going on in comic books at that time. He seems like he’d have his thumb on pop culture. I’m not sure why, but that’s how it seems to me. Also, if I have the story correct, he originally pitched doing an adaptation of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, which would’ve been more in line with his filmography. Warner Bros. was more interested in doing a third story in the already-existing universe, but lighter.
The film is hypocritical. After Two-Face–sorry–Harvey Two-Face–kills Dick Grayson’s entire family (for some reason, they give him a brother, because losing your parents isn’t enough), Bruce Wayne takes the young man in. Now, Chris O’Donnell looks too old to be taken in by Bruce Wayne. Dick Grayson was originally supposed to be around 12 when Wayne took him in back in 1940. O’Donnell looks like he’s in his early 20s. So there’s that bit of miscasting I failed to mention above. Anyway, once Dick finds out Bruce is Batman, he wants to join him as a partner. His main goal: to kill Harvey Two-Face. Bruce tells him that killing Harvey won’t do any good. That he’ll be empty inside and still grieving. Now, this is touching. We know that Batman has killed his parents’ murderer (the Joker, in the first movie) and didn’t stop being Batman. He’s still solemn, dark, and brooding. And now suffers from nightmares. He’s also killed the Penguin and a whole bunch of henchmen along the way. Who knows who he’s killed between movies? And now, he doesn’t want to kill anymore. All right, I’ll buy that. Yet, guess what happens at the end of the movie? Yeah. Harvey Two-Face Dent dies. Batman does something that eventually leads to Two-Face falling to a rather gruesome (off-camera) death. And Robin is obviously satisfied. And that is the message we’re delivering to little kids.
The CGI is horrible in the movie. I know it was toward the beginning of CGI work, but you had pretty good looking dinosaurs roaming around two years prior in Jurassic Park, and Forrest Gump running through CGI work the prior year, so your Gotham City computer landscapes, and vehicles, should probably look better than they do.
The story is really pretty bad, and I think it’s the deletion of Bruce Wayne’s dark psychological problem with nightmares. It was the glue that held the story together and by getting rid of it, you lose the emotional thrust of the movie. And in an attempt to lighten the mood, the movie resorts to bad one-liners. The movie opens (after a lame CGI credit sequence that feels more like amateur filmmaking than major Hollywood movie) in the Batcave. Batman quickly suits up (nipples!) and we find the new Batmobile coming up from the floor. Batman walks dramatically, theatrically to his mark, where he stands beside the Batmobile, a perfect stop for movie stills in magazines. Cut to: Alfred standing nearby, holding a tray of food. “Can I persuade you to take a sandwich with you, sir?” Batman replies, “I’ll get drive-thru.” That’s our introduction to Batman in this movie. His first line. “I’ll get drive-thru.” It’s not like they’d planned on using footage for McDonald’s commercials. Oh…
The Batmobile is horrible! It looks like…well…a toy car! The glowing lights in the wheels? And what is it with all the strange lights, anyway? Neon and projected lights and lasers everywhere!
Batman has two costumes. This is in line with the comic books, to a degree. Especially in the 1940s and 1950s. There is a prototype costume that Bruce Wayne wears after the Riddler has destroyed the Batcave and his costumes. It’s a bigger costume that’s supposed to have some extra features, though there don’t seem to be many. It makes Batman look bigger, and Val Kilmer look silly. At least it allows him a second suit-up (butt cheeks!), just in time for the final act of the movie, when he’s about to go get the bad guys.
Overall, the movie fails not because of the nipples or ass crack on the bat suit, not because of the bad acting, not even because of Schumacher’s overproduced, overly-theatrical ways. The movie fails because the emotional core of the movie is gone. The concern is more for action figures and merchandising than on telling a good story. Even Dick Grayson’s story, which should make us care, has no real emotion to it. He’s angry and wants revenge. Who are the Grayson’s? Why should we care?
On June 16th, 1995, opening night, I saw the movie with a friend. The 10 PM showing. I remember liking it more back then than I do now. Who knows why? I certainly don’t. But I liked it enough to watch it a few times after it came out on video. Still, I didn’t watch nearly as much as the two Burton movies, so that’s probably telling.
Anyway, Batman Forever did quite well at the box office. It was a no-brainer for Warner Bros. There would be a fourth Batman, and Joel Schumacher would direct. The possibilities were endless. What could possibly go wrong?
While Batman may not have graced the silver screen between the 1966 and 1989 films, his presence was certainly available on television. In 1968, Filmation put out The Batman/Superman Hour, which featured The Adventures of Batman, an animated series that captured the tone of the TV series, yet still felt like the comic books. Olan Soule provided the voice of Batman, and Casey Kasem provided the voice for Robin. The show lasted one season. Batman and Robin made their next animated appearance in the classic 2-part story on The New Scooby-Doo Movies in 1972. The following year, Hanna-Barbera debuted Super Friends, an animated version of the Justice League, which brought some of DC Comic’s most famous superheroes (and a few created just the show) to the small screen. It was the place to get your Batman and Superman fix for a generation, and lasted in some incarnation for more than a decade. Soule and Kasem provided the voices for the Dynamic Duo for these shows. Funnily enough, Filmation put out The New Adventures of Batman in 1977, starring the voices of Adam West and Burt Ward. Like its predecessor, this show lasted one season. Except for reruns of the 1966-1968 TV series and the Filmation cartoons, Super Friends, and it’s 1984-1986 Super Powers spin-off (which was really a tie-in for the superlative Kenner action figure line), Batman was getting no love. (I will ignore the 1979 TV specials Legends of the Superheroes, in which Adam West and Burt Ward reprise their roles, which were shot on videotape with a laugh track. I haven’t seen them…yet).
When Batman was released in 1989, and became a huge hit, not only was Warner Bros. eager for a sequel, but they thought that the time was right for new animated adventures. Enter Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski. Together, they began work on what would become a series that changed animated action television. Going for a stylized look that was at the same time simple and complicated, and taking the tone from the Tim Burton films, the complicated characters from the comic books, and the excellence in animation from the Fleischer Superman cartoons, Timm and Radomski got to put the closest thing to the Batman comic books the screen has ever seen.
Debuting in September 1992, three months after Batman Returns premiered, Batman: The Animated Series became one of the Fox Network’s big afternoon hits. The show was so popular that the decision was made to produce a direct-to-video movie. Written by Alan Burnett and Michael Reaves, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm went into production. Warner Bros. executives were so impressed with what they saw, they decided to release the movie in theaters. So in December 1993, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm came out.
By December 1993, I was well into my junior year of high school. While I looked very much forward to the third Batman movie, and was a fan of the animated TV series, I didn’t get to see the movie. I wanted to, it just didn’t happen. As a matter of fact, I didn’t get to see the movie until I needed to write this. So with 21 years between its theatrical release and my first viewing, let’s get to it.
There’s a reason why Kevin Conroy has been cast as Batman so often in animation and videogames. Like Bud Collyer did for Superman on the radio and in cartoons, Conroy managed to change his voice in a believable way to distinguish Bruce Wayne and Batman. His performance his excellent.
Mark Hamill as the Joker is as legendary as Conroy as Batman. When geeks fight over who has done the best performance of the Joker, Hamill’s name is often cited. Hamill, a long-time comic book fan, truly got into the Joker’s derangement and deadliness. While his lines are sometimes far from great, he performs the role with such relish that one cannot help but be moved.
The courage it took to make the main “villain” a completely new character with the surprise ending that the Phantasm (who was a cross between Darth Vader, the Grim Reaper, and a comic book character called The Reaper, featured in Batman: Year Two) is actually Bruce Wayne’s love interest, Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delaney). It also rewrites Bruce Wayne’s history a little, having him actually propose to Beaumont. Her sudden departure helps him fully decide to become Batman.
The animation is pretty good, as is the background art. The creators went for an Art Deco feel to Gotham City that captured the feel of Tim Burton’s Gotham City while being distinctly its own.
The music is great. It’s based on Danny Elfman’s score from the films and is appropriate for the series, as well as the movie.
In the hour-and-15-minutes the movie lasts, I found myself bored at times. The movie goes back-and-forth in time, from the present to the time just before Bruce Wayne decides to be Batman. We see him try to take on criminals wearing a regular mask and getting his ass kicked (something that has become common since Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One). We see him meet Andrea Beaumont, fall in love with her, propose, realize her father is in with the mob, and lose her throughout the movie’s many flashbacks, all done with the cheesy wavy transitions that I thought had stopped being used sometime in 1983. Maybe it’s because I was chasing after a 20-month-old (who was super-excited to see Baa-Bah! on TV), but if I was bored with it, I imagine the original target audience of children may be, too. Maybe not, just my guess.
I love animation but there seems to be something with a lot of these modern superhero animated shows/movies in the sound quality. The voices of the actors are clear and concise, but they’re too clear and concise. It doesn’t sound like the characters are in a world consisting of life. And when background sound effects are added, they also tend to fall flat. Maybe it’s just me.
The Phantasm is a little lame. For a movie called Mask of the Phantasm, I expected more Phantasm. I understand that there was supposed to be the mystery of who the Phantasm was, but when he shows up, he’s really bad at what he sets out to do, and he really is no match for Batman, the Joker, or just about any mobster he comes into contact with.
Overall, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is an enjoyable enough movie, which I’m sure fits right in with the TV series (I haven’t watched the show for a long time), but I seem to remember that the series was more interesting overall.
Still, the movie did well enough that Warner Bros. made two more animated movies, though both were strictly direct-to-video, so we’ll skip over them. It certainly was a good enough placeholder, as was the overall television series, until the next Batman movie came out.
With Batman‘s huge success, Warner Bros. obviously wanted another movie, and obviously wanted Tim Burton to direct it. However, Burton wasn’t sure he wanted to direct it, and had a story of his own he was passionate about. That movie, Edward Scissorhands, became the film that is probably most quintessentially Tim Burton. Release by 20th Century Fox in 1990, it was a modern fairy tale that utilized many of Burton’s already-known quirky styling and enhanced them. It was a hit.
Eventually, Burton went back to Warner Bros. and agreed to do the next Batman. The biggest thing he wanted, though, was the kind of control he’d had over Edward Scissorhands. As such, producers Jon Peter and Peter Gubers became executive producers while Burton and longtime collaborator Denise DiNovi became producers. A script by Batman writer Sam Hamm was rewritten by Daniel Waters (as well as a ghost-rewrite by Wesley Strick) and eventually passed muster. With Burton on board, Michael Keaton agreed to resume the roles of Bruce Wayne and Batman.
When Batman came out in 1989, I was fresh out of elementary school having just finished 6th grade (in these parts, 5th grade now constitutes the end of elementary school). Junior high school (7th-8th grade, as opposed to today’s middle school, 6th-8th) was pretty bad. Some of the worst years of my life. My freshman year of high school was only marginally better. I transferred schools after 2 months, not happy with the original high school I’d attended and opting for the area’s vocational-technical high school to do art. The two things I looked forward to for the 1991-1992 school year were Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare and Batman Returns. At least one of them delivered.
The cast is quite good. Keaton’s second go-around as Batman and Bruce Wayne is more interesting than the first. Maybe it’s the redesigned suit, which features a thinner mask/cowl than its predecessor and torso armor that looks more like armor than the 1989’s sculpted muscles. Maybe Keaton just grew more comfortable moving around as the character. Either way, his Bruce Wayne is more interesting, willing to smile and actually try to be a part of his world, while his Batman kicks a little more ass, and is even more like the Batman from the comic books from that time period.
Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle/Catwoman starts off a little rocky, my guess is mostly due to the script, but quickly becomes a scene stealer. Pfeiffer is confident, sexy, and smart and it comes through. As the movie progresses, her character is more and more interesting and her performance gets better and better, no easy feat considering movies shoot scenes out of order. She is a great foil to Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne/Batman. The scene at Max Shreck’s masquerade ball is easily their best together without the masks. In masks, all their scenes together are great.
Danny DeVito’s Penguin is ridiculously over-the-top and hilariously evil. It shouldn’t work. Upon rewatching the movie for this essay, I didn’t think it would work now that I’m an adult. But I couldn’t help but laugh at the double- and triple-entendres I missed as a 14-year-old high school kid. The movie is wildly inappropriate yet most kids wouldn’t know it because the humor is above them. I found myself quite mesmerized by the character this go-round.
Christopher Walken’s Max Shreck is the true villain of the piece. A corporate do-nasty, he has plans for Gotham City and uses the Penguin as a means for more control. When Batman foils the plan to get Penguin elected mayor of Gotham, Shreck disassociates himself with the deformed man, leaving the Penguin to fend for himself, which sets up the last act of the movie. Walken plays Shreck in a way that is subtle but scary. While DeVito is chewing the scenery and give a broad performance, Walken pulls it in and allows his eyes and increasingly wild white hair to do the work.
There’s better pacing this time around. Maybe because there are so many characters that the audience has to keep track of, maybe the filmmakers took a cue from some of the negative comments about Batman, but there’s more action in this movie, and more interesting things happening. It’s actually quite insane. The costumes and shenanigans of the Penguin’s Red Circus Gang are ridiculous, but create a world that one almost wishes existed. If these were the villains we had to deal with, life may be crazier, but maybe we’d be safer in the long run.
The movie is actually quite funny in places, and appropriately so. Unlike the campy satire of the 1966-1968 Batman, Batman Returns has the aforementioned risqué humor from the Penguin, as well as cute scenes, like the one involving Bruce, Alfred, and Selina. Bruce and Selina are on a date (that in itself is funny, since a heavy make-out session–that was about to go farther–had to be stopped since they both suffered from wounds they gave each other the night before in their alternate personas) when trouble happens. Bruce, scatterbrained as usual, tries to get Alfred to tell Selina a lie so he can run off and be Batman. The moment Bruce leaves, Selina comes in and does essentially the same thing.
Another great moment comes later on and also concerns Alfred. The Batmobile has been compromised and needs repairs. As Bruce Wayne is accessing a secret way into the Batcave, via an iron maiden, Alfred reminds him that they can’t just send the Batmobile to any old repair shop.
“Hey,” Bruce says. “Who let Vicki Vale into the Batcave? I’m sitting there working and it’s like, ‘Oh. Hi, Vicki. How are you?'”
It’s a great moment acknowledging the outcry the fans made over Vickie Vale entering the Batcave and the interaction between Michael Keaton and Michael Gough helps show Bruce and Alfred’s relationship.
Which is why I’m going to give Michael Gough more accolades here. While Gough gave Batman some much-needed humanity, here he reinforces the humanity of others. Whether it’s the playful interplay between him and Keaton, or him and Pfeiffer, or it’s him alone discovering something or working some sort of Bat-equipment, Gough is phenomenal. He manages to make Alfred seem both put-upon and fatherly simultaneously.
Again, Tim Burton and his production designers, costumers, make-up artists, and prop people create a world unto itself. Gotham City in Batman Returns feels as though it belongs in the world set up in the first movie but takes it in different directions. The former amusement park where the Penguin has lived (and retreats to), Shreck’s Department Store and its offices, the rooftops of Gotham, and Gotham Square are all familiar and alien at the same time. Again, it’s hard to pin down the era in which the movie takes place, though it does feel more of its time (1992) than its predecessor, much of the costuming has a 1940s/1950s feel, except for Bruce Wayne, Batman, and eventually Selina Kyle/Catwoman.
Danny Elfman’s score was great in the first movie and is even better here. Maybe in the three years between movies he grew more as a composer? Maybe he’s more comfortable with the subject? Either way, his score in this movie builds from Batman’s theme and goes way, way beyond. And without Prince’s crappy music to force into the movie, the music really soars. (And before you leave angry comments about me calling Prince’s music crappy, let me say that I don’t think all of his music is crappy. I actually like a lot of it. But his music for Batman was just bad, man.)
No Harvey Dent. Apparently, he was in some of the earlier drafts of the movie but was eventually deleted because they had too many characters. Even Commissioner Gordon’s role was diminished in this movie. While Pat Hingle isn’t my favorite James Gordon, Gordon is such a huge part of the Batman mythos that hardly seeing him onscreen is a little disconcerting. I think Dent’s character growing through the movie, even if it was only a few short scenes, would’ve been pretty cool. Yeah, that’s more of me as a fan-geek than as a serious critic, but that’s how I see it. Besides, I’m hardly a serious critic.
The film is a little too…theatrical? Is that the right word? One of the things that Tim Burton is known for is his distinct style. There were glimpses of it in his first three movies (Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, and Batman) but it really took shape in Edward Scissorhands. His movies are very stylized and have a specific look to them, from the use of the camera, the use of miniature sets, to the way characters enter and exit a scene. It’s all very theatrical, which isn’t a terrible thing, and is arguably one of the things that makes his movies (well, most of them) fun to watch. Here it’s a little silly sometimes. Two examples I remember from when I was 14 and noticed (and made me smile) now have to do with Michael Keaton.
In these early Batman movies (and many other action movies of the 1980s into the early-1990s), there is a scene when the hero suits up. Whether it’s John Rambo in Rambo: First Blood Part II, or Schwarzenegger in one of his movies, or Batman, there is a scene when the hero goes from being…well…the hero to the, um, hero. In this move, Bruce Wayne goes to the Batcave for the final act’s suit up. He goes into the new vault where all the Batman costumes are located (he must’ve renovated the cave since the first movie). There’s a drawbridge that leads right up to the first costume, which takes up the doorway. It’s quite apparent that you can’t go into the room with the costume where it is, yet Michael Keaton walks right up the small drawbridge and into the room–and obviously nose-to-nose against the first costume. I know what they were going for, and it would’ve been a great shot. Except that you can see at the last minute Keaton has to stop and stand awkwardly, trying not to dump that first costume.
The second moment comes closer to the end. Batman is in his new vehicle, called the Batskiboat, and rushing toward the Penguin’s lair in the abandoned amusement park. He has used a frequency changer (with the help of Alfred) to save Gotham from the Penguin’s penguins and has redirected them to the amusement park. The Penguin, quite angry, rides his motorized duck car to the surface and the Batskiboat follows, crashing from a tunnel and on top of the duck, crushing it. The lid of the Batskiboat slides open and Batman is obviously bent over, squished inside so he can stand up and get out of the vehicle. In other words, the life-size one they built for this scene was too small to fit Michael Keaton. I know I’m nitpicking, but I remember that it bothered me at 14. And that’s the thing with those small, stylistic things, as an adult I find them almost charming, but as a kid, they took me out of the story.
Gotham City feels smaller in this movie. Batman was shot in England, at the legendary Pinewood Studios, where a huge chunk of Gotham City was built. Pinewood Studios is also where portions of Superman and Superman II were shot on the famous 007 Stage. On the backlot, portions of New York City streets were recreated for the infamous fight between Superman and General Zod and his crew. In Batman, Gotham feels like a city. In Batman Returns, which was filmed at Warner Bros. Studios in Los Angeles, even though the sets were huge, it looks (and feels) like less of Gotham was built. And it’s pretty obvious that certain sets were re-used, albeit decorated differently (the exterior of Shreck’s Dept Store and the exterior of Gotham City Hall of Records). Even with the matte paintings of Gotham’s skylines, and chases on the rooftops, Gotham feels small.
Batman the murderer is on the loose. Seriously, Burton’s Batman is a killer in the same way that every action movie star of the 1980s-1990s are, and it’s disappointing. In an interview for one of the behind-the-scene documentaries on Warner Bros.’s superb Batman Anthology DVD/Blu-ray set, I believe it was Daniel Waters who said that while fans complained that Batman killed in these movies, they felt they needed to make him more modern, and in modern movies, the action heroes often kill indiscriminately. To which I say: Bullshit. Why the need to make Batman like every other action star of that time period? Batman purposely uses the Batmobile to set someone on fire, and purposely attaches a bomb to another criminal, blowing him to hell. (How many people will come to my website by searching Batman blowing? We’ll find out! Whee!). And for all intents and purposes, he kills the Penguin as well. Yet, he stands down in the Penguin’s lair, trying to convince Selina Kyle not to kill Max Shreck. He argues that they’re not like Shreck, which I read as, “We’re not killers like he is.” Except…he’s killed all those goons that worked with the Joker, the Joker, several of Penguin’s goons, and, at this point, possibly the Penguin…twice. The way I see it, if Selina Kyle/Catwoman kills Shreck, she’s doing something Batman most likely would’ve done anyway. The argument is, of course, he had no choice but to kill these people. Maybe, maybe not. But the thing that makes the comic book Batman so interesting is that he is unwilling to kill, and when he does, it messes him up.
The black gunk that comes from the Penguin’s mouth. It’s just weird. Blech.
Like Burton’s initial foray into Gotham City, Batman Returns is a tour-de-force of imaginative filmmaking. Nitpicking aside, not only do I enjoy the movie, but I like it even more than its predecessor. It’s faster paced, has more humor, and is just more fun. I saw it twice in the theaters when it came out (and still have the ticket stubs) and multiple times in the year or two that followed, once I got the videotape for Christmas.
Batman Returns was a financial hit, though the reviews were mixed. While Burton’s vision and unique storytelling prowess were often cited as plusses, they were also parts of the criticism that the movie, which was rated PG-13 (like its predecessor), was too dark and too scary. Still, it seemed inevitable that Warner Bros. would want a third adventure. And I knew, that summer in which I turned 15, that I couldn’t wait for a third movie!
A possible piece of trivia: I’ve kept movie stubs for every movie I’ve seen since June 1992. The first stub is for Batman Returns. So is the second stub, seen a month later.