Category Archives: TV
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.
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.
We all say that when our child is born s/he won’t watch TV. Nope. Our lil one is going to learn the treasures of play and literature early, and while the TV won’t be off-limits, it will definitely be regulated more than when we were kids. I said that back in 1997 and early-1998 when my first daughter, Courtney, was in gestation and shortly after her birth in April 1998. By the following April, she loved Teletubbies, Elmo, and Blue’s Clues. By two, she was an avid fan of Bear in the Big Blue House, the Muppets, Rolie Polie Olie, and Little Bear. Throw in Franklin as well. I hated Sesame Street back then, and Barney, too. She got those when she was with her cousin or when I wasn’t home, which was rare.
Fast forward nearly 15 years. In March 2012, Pamela found out she was pregnant. She declared not long afterward that our child wouldn’t be raised on the glass teat. I agreed, but without the force that I had 15 years prior. I knew better. After you’d gone from reading to playing puppets to playing dolls to playing blocks to reading to more blocks to running around to…you need a break. And that giant rectangle in the corner will help with that.
G is 2-and-a-half. She loves to read. She loves to draw. She loves blocks, playing, jumping, exploring, dancing, puppets, make-believe, and so much more. She also loves TV. I’m not passing judgment on myself or my wife, we do our best to limit her TV-watching, but there’s shows she likes and, damnit, we kinda like them, too. So if you’re feeling guilty about your toddler watching TV, here are some shows that we watch and I think they’re good entertainment, as well as a little (sometimes a lot) educational.
All right, I know this goes without saying, but you have to understand something: I grew up hating Sesame Street. I loved The Muppet Show, which would air on Saturday nights at 7 PM, but Sesame Street was never my thing. Even when Courtney was a little one, I didn’t like it. And by then they’d gotten Elmo. Ugh. The sound of his voice sent shivers down my spine and goosebumps over my flesh. I was in my early-to-mid-twenties. Now I’m in my mid-to-late-thirties and I’ve finally discovered Sesame Street. And that high-pitched, bright red monster? Yeah…he’s kinda cute. He’s still not a favorite of mine, and I’m no fan of Abby Cadabby, but I’ve finally discovered why Sesame Street has been around for 46 years. From parodies on Game of Thrones, Star Wars, the failed Spider-Man Broadway musical, to the simple stories and whimsical moments, I’ve become a fan.
Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood
I’ve written about how Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Fred Rogers have been there at important moments in my life. Thanks to Amazon Prime (or the PBS Kids website), the classic show is easily available for binge-watching. It’s by no means complete, but it’s still great. However, if you don’t have time for fussing with that, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is a great modern take. Produced by the Fred Rogers Company and Out of the Blue, the show is created by Angela Santomero, who co-created Blue’s Clues and Super Why! The titular Daniel Tiger is not the Daniel Striped Tiger that you and I grew up with, but rather his son. DT, as my wife and I call it in code, is a kinda-sorta sequel. It takes place in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, which has the giant clock, the castle, the treehouse and tree, and the Museum-Go-Round, and familiar characters like Daniel Striped Tiger, X the Owl, Henrietta Pussycat, Lady Elaine Fairchilde, and King Friday XIII and Queen Sarah Saturday with their son Prince Tuesday are all there. However, the new characters are the real stars of the show. Daniel Tiger, O the Owl (X’s nephew), Katarina Kittycat (Henrietta’s daughter), Miss Elaina (Lady Elaine’s daughter), and Prince Wednesday are the focus of the show. There are other new characters like Mom Tiger (the original Daniel, who is now an adult, is known as Dad Tiger) Music Man Stan (Lady Elaine’s husband and Miss Elaina’s father), Dr. Anna, and Baker Aker are all new additions. And of course, the neighborhood wouldn’t be complete without Mr. McFeely.
The show is broken into two segments with neighbors from our world (usually from Pittsburgh) in between and its focus is emotional development, just like Mister Rogers. Santomero’s work on Blue’s Clues and Super Why! comes into play as Daniel will greet us each day with, “Hi, neighbor!” and include us in the story, asking us to participate throughout. Small jingles help teach the lesson of the show. Pamela and I have found these jingles useful as we try to navigate G through the world. “Use your wor-or-ords. Use your words!” has come in handy when she’s been frustrated. “When you have to go potty, stop! and go right away! Flush and wash and be on your way” is another good one. And this past winter, with all the sickness we all seemed to get, singing “When you’re sick, rest is best, rest is best,” has come in quite handy. She’ll sing these lessons to us as well. When I made a mistake recently, G chimed in with, “Keep trying, you’ll get beh-etter!”
My one complaint is some of the creative choices that were made. Harriet Cow is no longer a resident or teacher in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, instead it’s a human woman named Teacher Harriet. And poor Anna Platypus is nothing more than…a puppet at the pre-school. Her entire family is wiped out. There doesn’t seem to be a Westwood, no mention of Lady Aberlin, and nearly no outside conflict. Lady Elaine, the biggest grump in Fred Rogers’s day, has had work done, married, and never plots, schemes, or even complains. Other than those few small things, it’s an excellent show.
Neither Pamela nor I were impressed when we first watched the PBS/Imagine Television adaptation of the classic book series by Margaret and H.A. Rey, but Curious George has grown on us and G loves it. Yeah, the plots are far-fetched and silly. I enjoy making fun of the fact that all these humans can’t seem to figure out what a monkey can, but it’s fun and, more or less, educational. Fluff, but good fluff.
A show starring an African American girl as a play doctor, whose mother is a real doctor, Dad seems to be a stay-at-home dad, and a fun little brother may seem foreign, even to Gen Xers like me, and it’s wonderfully so. I can happily turn this show on and know that, if nothing else, my daughter will see a positive female role model as well as an intelligent, beautiful, and fun person of color as the lead. Creator Chris Nee and her staff also write some great stories for this wonderful little girl with a huge imagination. The lessons aren’t just medical-based, though they often are, but they also cover the landscape of the human heart. A wonderful show if you haven’t checked it out. And if you have a boy and are afraid it’s a “girl’s show” (which I’ll get to in a little while) it’s a great show for him, too. He should also be inspired.
It’s British. It’s funny. We love it.
Sofia the First
When I first heard of this show I though, Nope. No need for Disney Princesses in this household. Now I’m a fan. So is my wife. And, more importantly, so is my daughter. The show has a feminist ideology that is proud to be “girly,” but isn’t hampered by it. What I mean is…well…let me tell you about the show and I think my commentary will make sense.
Sofia and her mother, Miranda, are commoners. Miranda is a cobbler who is hired to make shoes for King Roland II. The King and Miranda fall in love at first sight (this is Disney, after all) and they marry. Now Sofia is a princess with two step-siblings, twins James and Amber. There’s no mention of their mother that I know of. Anyway, Sofia is the average girl who’s been thrust into this new world of magic, royalty, and etiquette. She handles it well. James is a typical boy who is sometimes real nice, and other times a fool. But it’s Princess Amber, Sofia’s new sister, that I really want to focus on. Amber is the typical “princess.” I put the word in quotes because she behaves in the way a woman (or girl) who fancies herself a princess and makes demands of those around her in a fashion that is unbecoming, rude, and can never be fulfilled would behave. For instance…
I know of a couple a few years younger than my wife and I who married around the same time we did, and had their first child around the same time G was born (Pamela’s first child). The guy is a public servant. Let’s say a firefighter. Good guy. Stand-up guy. Nice guy. His wife is a “princess.” Her engagement ring not only had to have this, but this and that, as well, and it better not be under…ooohhh…$XX,000. She must have this, and have that, and she simply cannot work with two children (they’ve had another) though she’s constantly dropping them off with grandma and grandpa so she can go to yoga, or for coffee, or…. She is a “princess” and has called herself one. You know these kinds of “princesses.” Unfortunately, I’ve known a few myself. Get it?
Amber is that kind of princess. She is the kind of princess that girls growing up on a steady diet of Disney Princesses believe they should be. Of course, none of the Disney Princesses are actually like that. These Real World Princesses base their princessism on “And they lived happily ever after…” assuming that these women would become those kinds of princesses. She is full of herself, wishes to do as little work as possible, is rude, is narrow-minded, and is obsessed with appearance both in terms of clothes and what others think. This is not the complete picture of Amber. The show’s writers are very good at adding dimensions to the characters and Amber can be quite kind, giving, and selfless. She’s also quite intelligent. But the overwhelming portrayal is of the typical mythical “princess.”
Sofia, on the other hand, is Disney’s reinvention of the Disney Princess. She is kind, intelligent, imaginative, quick-to-laugh, inclusive, open-minded, strong, resilient, and human. She has faults. Sometimes she gets a little full of herself. Sometimes she’s jealous. Sometimes she does wrong. She is given an amulet that, unknown to anyone, gives her the ability to speak to all the princesses that ever were. This means that she sometimes gets to speak to Cinderella, or Belle (from Beauty and the Beast), or Ariel (The Little Mermaid), or any of the other Disney Princesses. The classic princesses aren’t in every episode, not even close, but are in enough to help move product–I meant…er…to rewrite some of the less feministic aspects of their original stories.
Sofia makes Amber a better person. Amber isn’t one- or two-dimensional. She is well-written and changes a over time.
This is a show that teaches about emotions, tolerance, how to treat people, and kindness. Like the aforementioned Doc McStuffins, it tells girls that they can do anything. I am a fan and highly recommend it.
I have to mention Arthur. The PBS series based on the Marc Brown books is great. I used to watch it with Courtney, and now G loves it. Yeah, it’s a little old for her, but she still digs it, and so do I. Their stories have skewered standardized testing, the loss of original intent with the American Girl doll line, and other topics that one wouldn’t expect in a children’s show. It’s really not a pre-school show but it’s on when I get home from work and G watches it and enjoys it.
I could go on and on, I’m sure. Sid the Science Kid (G loves it, Pamela and I don’t, though it preaches science and we’re for that, so we stomach it), Peg + Cat (also from the Fred Rogers Company; Pamela and I love it, G isn’t as fond), Dinosaur Train (fun show), Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, and Caillou (which I used to hate, have now grown more fond of, but Pamela hates; G loves it) are a few of the others. If it sounds like G consumes too much TV, it’s because that is a lengthy list, but it’s not watched all in one day, and she rarely goes above the 2 hr limit that researchers have found is bad for kids. On the rare days she does go over the 2 hr, she’s sick, I’m sick, or Pamela is sick, and it’s a good way to keep her calm while someone rests.
And if you’re thinking that a lot of these shows are girl shows, I suggest you chill out. I think Sofia the First, the “girliest” of these shows, can be great for boys to watch if they sat down and actually watched them. The stories are often filled with adventure and Prince James is a great role model for them. Basically, if they’re not interested, fine, but I think we should be beyond worrying about such things.
Now I’ll climb off my soapbox and go watch some TV. Maybe Doc McStuffins has an interesting new case, or Sofia has a new adventure.
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.
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.
Twenty-seven years after Batman first appeared on the comic book page and seventeen years after he last appeared on the silver screen, 20th Century Fox released Batman to theaters. Of course, this wasn’t a new Batman on film, but rather a spin-off movie of the popular television series, the first season of which had aired between January and June of 1966. The loud colors, tongue-in-cheek humor, and satire made teenagers and young adults dig the show, while the same colors, action, and cool gadgets made younger viewers rediscover Batman.
The popularity of the TV series, which only lasted three seasons between January 1966 and June 1968, kept it in reruns and was my first live-action Batman in the late-1970s/early-1980s. The show aired nearly every day and like The Adventures of Superman starring George Reeves, in this time before cable television had taken a grasp on the world, it was common for these holdover shows to air a lot. To me, Adam West’s Batman and Burt Ward’s Robin were Batman and Robin for a great many years. When my father brought home Batman comic books, I couldn’t understand why Batman’s ears were so long and I couldn’t see his eyes. So I drew the eyes in. I remember playing with my Mego Pocket Superheroes Batman and Robin and mimicking the horns that played every time Batman or Robin punched someone in their brawls.
Batman: The Movie seemed to air on Sundays. Not every Sunday, but once or twice a year, usually on channel 56, out of Boston. It was cause célèbre. It had four of the best Batman villains, the Batmobile, Batboat, Batcycle, and Batcopter, and an exploding shark! And don’t even get me started on the bomb!
And I sometimes wonder why I didn’t have more friends when I was a little kid.
The cast is pretty good. Adam West and Burt Ward look like Batman and Robin and Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson. Granted, West may have been able to work out a little for the role, but overall, his jaw is pretty Batmanish and he looks physically able to do some stuff. Burt Ward looked young enough to be, if not a boy, definitely a teenager. They also seem to really enjoy being these heroes. They relish the dialogue and silliness of it, but never give in to it. They play it absolutely straight.
Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, Lee Meriwether, and Frank Gorshin play the Joker, the Penguin, Catwoman, and the Riddler in a delightfully frantic way. They seem to understand what the show was about and seem to enjoy their roles, chewing up the scenery as they go. Romero as the Joker, even though he wouldn’t shave his mustache, is perfect. He represents the Joker’s lighter days from the 1950s and into the 1960s, when the Comics Code Authority were at their height. Meredith as the Penguin is phenomenal. He is the leader of the group of villains and is somehow simultaneously mean and hilarious. As the Penguin, there’s a gleam in his eye and you both fear and love him. Lee Meriwether stands in for Julie Newmar, who had prior obligations and couldn’t reprise her television role for the movie. Meriwether is excellent as Catwoman. She slinks across the screen, playing verbal ping-pong with Adam West. The Catwoman is pretending to be a Russian reporter and Bruce Wayne definitely has a thing for her. It’s great.
I actually want to single out Frank Gorshin as The Riddler. He’s the best of the villains in this movie, though he’s not given as much to do as The Penguin or Catwoman. He’s off-the-wall one moment and then very dark, even scary, the next, only to return to his hyperactive ways. Of all the villains, Gorshin makes the Riddler seem the scariest. His face can go from dead serious one moment, to insane laughter and glee. Perfection.
In terms of capturing what the TV show was about, the movie succeeds quite well. Shot at the very end of the first season, and released during the summer between the first and second seasons, it is an epic story that could easily have been several episodes, but uses the big screen to open things up. There are shots of Wayne Manor that one doesn’t see in the series, for instance. Also, the movie introduces three new vehicles in this Batman’s world: the Batcycle (with sidecar), the Batcopter, and the Batboat. Shots of the Batcopter flying over 1966 L.A. are priceless.
The small political statement that’s woven into all the silliness is also pretty cool. The writer, Lorenzo Semple, Jr., who was the head writer of the series, interjects some politics into the movie. The villains decide to kidnap the United World Orginization’s Security Council (a play on the United Nation’s Security Council), whose members spend all their time bickering and not getting much done. They argue so much, they never see the colorful villains in the room with them (see the above group shot of the villains) or realize they’ve been dehydrated into multi-colored dust and then rehydrated back to themselves, almost. There’s also a jab at then-president Lyndon Johnson, as well as the government selling old military vehicles.
The satire and parody of 1950s Batman comic books as well as the movie serials is pretty good, as well as the way comic books had to be watered down after Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent nearly destroyed the American comic book industry. Having Batman and Robin be deputies of the law, saying things like they are pro-police, and even having the police take their hats off to them as they fly by in the Batcopter, is all amusing.
I couldn’t possibly mention this movie, or the TV series, without giving some love to the Batmobile. For a generation, this was the real Batmobile. Last year I went to the Rhode Island Comic Con and saw the Tim Burton Batmobile, it was cool. But not as cool as seeing this Batmobile would’ve been. From its exterior to its interior, this car is a beauty. Love it.
For a big screen foray of an adventure series, it still feels an awful lot like the TV show. Perhaps the budget they were given for the movie wasn’t as large as it could’ve been. Maybe I’m writing this from the viewpoint of having seen Superman and General Zod destroy a huge amount of Metropolis. Whatever the reason, it’s not as big as it could be.
Some of the jokes fall flat. After recently watching the IFC marathon of the series, the movie feels watered-down. The jokes aren’t as sharp. The shark? It’s ridiculous, and I guess that’s what they were going for, but doesn’t feel very pop art funny.
The real darkness of not just the movie, but of the entire run of Batman, was its lasting impact. In the early 1960s, in response to the popularity of new comic book heroes like The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and, generally, all of the new Marvel characters at that time, DC decided to try to breathe new life into their comics. By recreating the 1940s character The Flash as a hip, young man with no ties to the original, DC spawned the Silver Age. One of the things they decided to do was to bring Batman back to his more serious roots, while changing the costume up and making him seem cooler to the kids of the time. Carmine Infantino is the artist credited with giving Batman the yellow oval.
Just as the new Batman was debuting in comic books, ABC aired Batman and the decision was made to make the comic book more like the TV series. By the early-1970s, with the show dead by a few years, editor Julius Schwatrz wanted to bring a more serious tone to DC overall, making it even more like Marvel. He experimented with Green Lantern and Green Arrow, two heroes that were not selling very well. When they succeeded, he moved the creative team from that book to Batman. The team, writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams, brought Batman into the 1970s by updating him and his cast. Robin was now off at college, appearing when needed. Bruce Wayne left the huge Wayne Manor and moved into a penthouse apartment at the top of Wayne Foundation, which was run by Lucius Fox. The Joker became a killer again.
Here’s the thing, though, unless you actively read the comics–and there weren’t many who did–nobody knew of these changes. Mention comic books, and it’s Biff! Pow! Whammo! Sound effects that hardly ever made their way into the actual comic books before the TV series, never mind after! Batman and Robin were planted deeply in the mind of the general audience as Adam West and Burt Ward, sliding down Batpoles, using Bat-Shark Repellent, and serving public service announcements within dialogue. The damage done to the comic book industry as a result of the constant reruns of Batman almost killed it many times over. And even as Richard Donner’s 1978 masterpiece Superman: The Movie made people aware that comic books could be brought into modern times and be relevant, one can’t help but wonder if the relationship between Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) and his sidekicks Otis (Ned Beatty) and Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine) would’ve been different without the Batman TV show still so planted in the minds of viewers. And even now, in 2014, when comic books and comic book characters have become huge business, there are still articles and news stories that insist on using silly sound effects as a lead-in or in the title.
Serious comic book fans like to bash the Batman TV series and 1966 movie (the entire Adam West/Burt Ward series/movie has come to be referred to as either Batman 1966 or Batman ’66) for its silly take on the characters but the series and the movie are fun to watch. If you were born in the 1970s, you saw the show and movie on TV all the time and Adam West was your Batman. Hell, when I was younger, I dismissed the series as silly and insulting. Of course, this happened right around 1989, the year I turned 12, and that’s a tough age anyway.
For better or worse, Adam West left his mark on the character of Batman, a mark that wouldn’t be removed until 21 years after the cancellation of his TV series.
My heart broke tonight. I’m devastated. One of my heroes is gone.
About quarter past seven, I quickly went onto Facebook and the third status update read: Not Robin Williams. The next two were news stories.
Dead, said the first.
Dead, apparent suicide, said the other. I stopped then.
“Oh no,” I said, voice cracking.
“What? What’s wrong?” Pamela asked.
I told her. And then I cried.
There have been few celebrity deaths that have made me cry just from the news. Sometimes reading or hearing about those they left behind–family, children especially, friends–and usually after the fact. I cried when Clarence Clemons died. I’d seen him twice on stage, rocking with Springsteen. I knew it meant a fundamental difference in the music, and I knew that it’d mean a lot to the members of the E Street Band, because the band has been together for around 40 years. I may have cried when John Ritter died 11 years ago this September. He was a childhood idol and one of my favorite actors. And he was so young, in his early fifties.
Tonight, the loss of Robin Williams hits me so goddamn hard.
I know I’m not the only one. I’ve glimpsed, briefly, at Facebook, and have seen similar feelings from those better than me. I think of his friends and family, his children, and I feel for them.
Tonight I lost a hero. And he did it to himself.
Look, I’m not trying to be melodramatic. I’m not crying as I type this. But Williams was a ball of lightning on stage. In film, he was excellent. My favorite roles of his were the serious ones. Dead Poets Society, The Fisher King, One Hour Photo, Good Will Hunting, and even such cameos as in Kenneth Branagh’s Dead Again. I had my first date to Mrs. Doubtfire. I owned action figures and dolls of Mork from Ork.
I have equated my teaching style to my mentor, mixed with Robin Williams. I don’t mean Dead Poets Williams, either, I mean stage Williams. Going from one side of the stage to the other, breaking into voices, grabbing whatever is around to riff off of or to make his point. I mentioned Springsteen before and I recently compared him and Williams. Both come out on stage to a crazed audience and within five minutes, they have huge sweat circles under their arms, and within fifteen minutes, they’re soaked in sweat.
When Williams was on stage, everything was on the table. If it was in his head, he used it. Word is, he would often send checks to other stand-up comics for accidentally using their material in shows. Not because he was stealing it (Dane Cook, right?) but because it was something he’d heard once somewhere and it just came out in his machine gun-like delivery.
He was the stereotypical clown who was sad on the inside. His admitted drug use in the past, recent bouts with alcohol and drugs were obviously him self-medicating. I keep seeing the term comedic genius written about him. I don’t think he was a comedic genius, so much as a genius. He got things, he understood them, and he made it so you could understand them and laugh. There’s a moment in 2002’s comedy special Robin Williams Live on Broadway when he sips from a bottle of water (there were easily two or three dozen on a table) between jokes and he lifts the bottle near his face and says, “Liquid gold. In twenty years, you’re all going to fighting for this stuff.” I believe he goes on a short riff about it. I thought of that off-hand joke in recent weeks with the news that one of the heads of Nestlé has stated that water shouldn’t be a right for everyone, and that the company is maintaining their water bottling plants in places hit by horrible droughts around the United States. Robin Williams knew, man! He knew because he’s a fucking genius.
Was a fucking genius.
He was a fan of science fiction, too. Probably of all fiction, but during his brief show, Robin Williams @ Audible.com, Williams interviewed Harlan Ellison, and the knowledge he had of the field was amazing. If you’re a longtime reader of this blog, you know how Harlan is one of my heroes*. He and Robin Williams were friends. Good friends, from what I can tell. Williams did a Sci Fi Channel special about Harlan Ellison (you can see him with his groovy Patch Adams hairdo). He also appeared in the documentary about Harlan, Dreams With Sharp Teeth. By the way, if you can find Robin Williams @ Audible.com anyway, listen to it. He had some great interviews with some interesting people. Anyway, they mention a benefit that was held for Ellison for something and Isaac Asimov was there, and this one, and that one, and you could hear the awe in Williams’s voice, all those years later (the show was done around 2000 or so). It wasn’t a shock to me when Williams made the film adaptation of Asimov’s story The Bicentennial Man.
Oh! One of the interviews on the Audible.com show was with John Irving, writer of the novel The World According to Garp, whose the film adaptation was one of Williams’s first serious film roles.
They say when you’re feeling something deeply, to write it down. That’s what I’ve done here tonight. A status update or 140-character Tweet couldn’t get my emotions through.
I’ll be looking out for his comedy specials, sure to be aired in coming days. I’ll find my own copy of Live From Broadway and watch it. I know I’ll cry as I laugh, just as I cried the first time I heard the three-minute sax solo in “Jungleland.” I’ll finally get around to watching World’s Greatest Dad and Death to Smoochie, and Popeye, which I haven’t seen since I was a kid.
Perhaps the demons that made Robin Williams kill himself are the same demons that made him a genius. Maybe it was his genius that fed the demons. Either way, Robin Williams was not a perfect man, he was troubled and caused trouble in his own life, but he also brought light to people. Friends, family, and us, his audience.
Thank you, Mr. Williams. I wish we could’ve helped you as you helped us.
* I’m throwing around the word hero, I know that I am. Influence doesn’t sound right, diggit? To say Robin Williams or Harlan Ellison, or Springsteen or Stephen King are influences is 100% accurate, but it doesn’t read as well as I’d like it to. Not right now. So I’m going with hero.
I’ve been working on these essays for two years. I began watching and writing about Batman on the silver screen back in 2012, around the time The Dark Knight Rises was to hit theaters. At that point, I’d only done this sort of thing once, for the Nightmare on Elm Street movies. The plan stalled as life got in the way. I re-posted revised versions of the Nightmare essays (which I cleverly titled A Nightmare in Gautham) and then did a series of essays about Superman on the silver screen (From Krypton to Gautham) for the release of 2013’s Man of Steel. That fall, we experienced a Friday in Gautham when I took on Jason Vorhees and the Friday the 13th movies. By now, there were two Batman essays.
This being the 75th anniversary of Bob Kane’s (and Bill Finger’s) creation, I decided to finally finish the series.
It was a daunting task. Batman, like Superman, has been in a lot of movies and TV shows. Luckily, even his most famous TV incarnations eventually made it to the movies.
That’s nearly 30 hours of Batman, which somehow still doesn’t feel like enough Batman. It’s been quite an experience.
So sit back and let’s go to Gotham City….
This will be my second time writing about Fred Rogers, the first was back in September 2011 when I was still attempting to write my ill-fated MediaBio blog. The reason I’m returning to the man the world knew as Mr. Rogers is because of his importance.
My wife and I have introduced Genevieve to TV. More precisely, our TV. I mean, the shows we watched as children. She’s been on a Muppet Show kick (which kind of sucks because the 3rd and, so far, last DVD set came in yesterday, and while the show had five seasons, only three have been released) and via Amazon Prime my wife introduced her to classic Sesame Street (being my daughter, she prefers The Muppet Show). Prime also has Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Now, I’ve known the power Fred Rogers had for a long time, but especially since the incident I related the last time I wrote about him:
It was 2005, somewhere between May and July, and things had been a little bleak. I’d been separated from my soon-to-be-ex-wife (we finalized our divorce in September 2005) and was working at a local bookstore, which I would’ve loved had they paid me what I deserved, treated me the way I deserved, and otherwise didn’t have their heads up their asses (not all of them, just those who were in charge). I sat down to eat my lunch around 11:30/noon, and I only had twenty cable channels. My choices were game shows, talk shows, or PBS. One PBS channel was running Sesame Street. Blech. Another was running Teletubbies. Barf! The last had on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. I decided to leave it on. I quickly realized that I remembered the episode from my childhood. I sat watching this show that I hadn’t seen in twenty years, mesmerized. At the end, Mr. Rogers looked into the camera and said in that way he had, “Just remember that you are special. That there’s no one else in this world like you, and that you are important.”
I can’t explain it. I began weeping.
I remember that day nine years ago like it happened yesterday. It was exactly what I needed to hear at that time.
So now Genevieve will ask to watch it and she was sick for the last few days so we put it on. She’ll end up playing, but Pamela and I are good with that, because we’re really the ones watching. I’ve seen episodes from before I was born. I’ve seen episodes from long after I stopped watching. I don’t understand why I never had Courtney watch it. I’m ashamed of myself.
The thing I keep noticing is how actually good and kindhearted Fred Rogers was. His meticulousness is evident in the show and the fact that he kept it pretty much the same from 1968 through 2001 is astounding. While Sesame Street changes with the times, Mr. Rogers’s set didn’t change in all that time. Picture Picture didn’t suddenly become a flat screen TV. The Neighborhood of Make Believe never got more complicated puppets or 3D characters. Hell, the same actors worked with him throughout!
I’ve cried several times recently watching episodes. Here’s a for instance for you:
So today, we were working our way through his 5-episode arc about work called “Mister Rogers Talks About Work.” The next-to-last episode featured him going to Wagner’s Market to buy some groceries. We get to meet some neighbors and see how a grocery store worked in 1984. While walking down the cereal aisle, he comments on how when he was a little boy, he’d want to get one of everything in the aisle, and the rest of the store, but how his parents wouldn’t let him get one of everything and he learned that people couldn’t get everything they wanted.
After getting his items, which shows him being friendly to everyone, he returns “home” and puts everything away, explaining how as a parent, there were reasons he had to say no to his children and that children can’t get everything they want. Then he announced it was time for make-believe.
So Mr. Rogers goes over to the bench where he operates Trolley and there’s a top hat there, closed. He pops it open to show his Television Neighbor, and as he takes it off and sits down says, off-hand, “All kinds of things you can think about and do in this world.” And then he sits down and gets Trolley.
The main theme of this episode is that not everybody can have everything. That choices have to be made and it’s the grown-ups in a child’s life who makes the choice. Once the child grows up, s/he can make the choice. This isn’t said with a snarl, or a wagging finger, but with love and respect. And even though that should be enough, it was the off-hand comment made as he was sitting down, “All kinds of things you can think about and do in this world,” that got me.
And there are! You and I, as adults, don’t need Fred Rogers to tell us this…but we do! How often in the busy grind of our lives do we stop and really pay attention? How often do we let life beat us down? The human mind is nearly limitless with imagination yet we begin to kill it the moment a child goes to school and is told to stand in line. Lines are important, so is order, but, as Mr. Rogers states at the end of the episode, so is play.
Fred Rogers ended his show in 2001. In December 2002, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. On February 27th, 2003, he died.
There has been no one before his death or since that has been able to sit down and speak to a child through the television without talking down to him/her but still being the adult. Some critics say his message to children, that they special, is the wrong message to send. I disagree. We are all individuals, there is no one else like the person we know ourselves to be, yet Mr. Rogers also gave us a message of love, of helping one another, of tolerance. Of peace.
I feel, in this time when 24/7 news talking heads, Twitter and Facebook hate and shaming, and mass-violence and teenage suicide rates are through the roof, Mr. Rogers’s message is needed more than it ever has been before.
Thank you, Mr. Rogers, for the love you showed me. Thank you, Mr. Rogers, for what you taught me when I was five, 28, and now 36. Thank you, Mr. Rogers, for being you. There is no one like you.
The deranged traditions of science fiction “fandom” are overwhelmingly attractive, particularly to those few boys and girls who are the outcasts of their high school classes because of wonky thought processes, a flair for the bizarre, and physical appearance that denies them the treasures of sorority membership or a position on the football team. For the pimply, the short, the weird and intelligent…for those to whom sex is frightening and to whom come odd dreams in the middle of study hall, the camaraderie of fandom is a gleaming, beckoning Erewhon; an extended family of other wimps, twinks, flakes and oddballs.
– Harlan Ellison
“All the Lies That Are My Life”
I have been a fan of comic books, science fiction, fantasy, and horror for a long, long time. Comic books began coming into the house at a very young age, as did superhero toys. Star Wars caught me quite young, as well, and opened up a lot of possibilities in both storytelling and the beginnings of science. Horror was huge in the 1980s, when I was a child, and by 1987, I was a full-fledged horror fan.
I’m not a stranger to fandom. Everywhere I look around my workspace I see something that indicates fandom. Indiana Jones, Star Wars, and literary figure action figures are to my right on a bookcase (that’s devoted almost entirely to Stephen King books). Freddy Krueger and superhero action figures are on the Harlan Ellison bookcase. There are other strange tchotchkes around my work area, too. Hell, this very blog has seen me geeking out, or being a fan many times.
After the last few weeks, though, I think I might have had my fill. I may be ready to turn in my geek card. I may be ready to walk away from fandom.
The first incidents that irked me came through the news two weeks ago. In one week, Todd McFarlane, Mark Millar, and Gene Conway essentially said that comic books have always been for guys and if a woman is interested in them, they just need to accept that. I’m paraphrasing, of course. But you can look it up.
As a parent of two daughters, one of whom is a 15-year-old who is discovering fandom, this gets me very angry. It leads to the bigger discussion that has been popping up in the last year or so about the mainstreaming of Geek Culture and, especially, Geek Girls.
The first idea is that Geek Culture exists because it is a safe haven for those whom Harlan Ellison so eloquently write about above, the kids like me, whose minds are faster, weirder, and more prone to flights of fancy that others in their peer groups. Kids to whom social interaction is a difficult thing. Kids to whom the idea of people with powers, or flying around time and space in a police box, or any number of other scenarios are more comforting than going to a party. Now, suddenly, people who were never considered geeks, or ever considered themselves geeks, are going to see the movies that feature these symbols of adolescent impotence and calling themselves geeks. They’re going to ComiCons and wearing tee shirts with the symbols of these fantasies on them. And, goddamnit, how dare they it belongs to US!
The second idea is far, far uglier. The second idea is that attractive young women aren’t allowed to call themselves geeks because they are attractive and girls. A fat, pimply, odd girl is acceptable because the Omega Moos know what it’s like to be ostracized because of their looks or their brains, but the pretty ones do not. How dare they wear superhero- or science fiction- or horror-themed tee shirts?! How dare they call themselves geeks?!
Both arguments are total bullshit, of course. The mainstreaming of geek culture means we won. It means that all those lonely nights working on whatever dreams we had are paying off. We’ve watched them and we’ve reported back on their lives and they’re giving us their money for it. The Geek Girl argument is just simple paranoia that builds when one has been bullied too much. It’s the thing that makes us not trust the pretty, the beautiful, the self-assured.
That’s the first piece of ugliness.
The second piece of ugliness is only 48 hours old. Thursday night, Warner Bros. announced that the actor chosen to play Batman in Zack Snyder’s follow-up to Man of Steel, joining Henry Cavill as Superman, would be Ben Affleck. I wrote about the decision here. I like it. I think Affleck is a fine actor, a very good director, and he will be fine in the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman.
Well, it seems the fanboys/-girls don’t agree. Online petitions have been started trying to oust the actor from the project. Memes ridiculing the actor have gone viral. The sad thing is, these fuckers will be buying the goddamn action figure in droves in 2015 (as my friend RJ Sevin said). These numbskulls don’t remember the hoopla surrounding 1989’s Batman when it was announced that Jack Nicholson would be playing the Joker and Michael Keaton would be playing Batman. Nicholson sounded great, but Michael Keaton?! Mr. Mom?! Beetlefuckinjuice?!
I was too young to know the severity of it in Xeroxed fanzines and letter columns of various magazines, but I’ve heard stories. I remember the mainstream media was also shocked and dubious. No one thought Michael Keaton would make a good Batman. And yet…the fans were so very sad when it was announced that he would not be reprising the role in the third Batman movie, 1995’s Batman Forever. Even after the disastrous Batman & Robin (1997) fans held out hope that Keaton would return to the franchise. A few years back, these same fanboys were upset about the casting of pretty-boy Heath Ledger as the Joker, and look how that turned out!
The brouhaha over the casting of Ben Affleck would be amusing to me if it wasn’t so vicious and coming from the “professional” websites of the comic book industry. And on the coattails of the other two problems I wrote about above, it’s enough to make me think that maybe…maybe…I’ve had enough.
I mean, I don’t have to stop liking the stuff I like. Maybe I don’t even have to stop writing about the stuff, though I have to wonder if my essays on the Nightmare on Elm Street and Superman movies are a teeny, tiny part of the problem. I like to think that they’re not unnecessarily mean, but let’s face it, they’re written by a fan for a fan. But maybe it’s time to leave the reading about such things behind. Maybe it’s time to unfollow Newsrama, and the Batman sites, and the other sff sites that have this attitude. I’ve already decided that there will not be any more money given to Todd McFarlane (though I made that decision back when I found out how much of a liar and thief he actually is).
The problem is that the fans of these types of stories will talk at length about heroism and strength, of openness and inclusion, of progressive action and of harmony among all. And yet, when it has come time for them to act as the fictional heroes they worship, they have failed. Not all of them, but a vocal segment that seems to be, well, quite large.
Groucho Marx used to say that he wouldn’t want to be a part of any club that would have him. I’m thinking that this might now apply to me and fandom.
Prove me wrong.
With barely a year having passed since Atom Man vs. Superman finished its 15-week story, the Last Son of Krypton made his return to the silver screen in Superman and the Mole Men, released by Lippert Pictures. According to my research, the film was meant as a test for a planned Superman television series. Since the late-forties, televisions had begun popping up in homes, and while it still wasn’t considered a mandatory appliance like a refrigerator, it was well on its way. The success of the serials no doubt made National Publications (later DC Comics) and producer Barney A. Sarecky think that television would make a great home for the Man of Steel.
Superman and the Mole Men introduces the two most important cast members of the 1952-1958 series The Adventures of Superman, notably George Reeves as Superman/Clark Kent and Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane.¹ The runtime is only 58 minutes, which (in my mind) shows that it was conceived as a way to get two episodes for the series in the future.²
For many, George Reeves was the first Superman they knew. He was my first live-action Superman, though he’d been dead for 18 years before I was born. The Adventures of Superman were still rerun all the time when I was little. While Christopher Reeve donned the cape a year after I was born, it took awhile before his movie to come to television so was essentially unknown to me. George Reeves in his badly padded suit with the cape that, for some reason, had a neck that hung down to mid-back, was the first “real” Superman I experienced. He was the reason my mother felt the need to tell me that Superman wasn’t real, that he was played by an actor named George Reeves who wasn’t really flying, but was lying on a table and made to look like he was flying. And before anyone decries my mother as being a party-pooper who was trying to kill the magic inside me, please note that she was trying to save herself the heartache of attending her little boy’s funeral, or visiting his broken body in the hospital, after he’d put on his blanky and jumped off the second floor porch trying to fly.
I wasn’t much older when I found out Reeves was dead. Still, this is his first go at the Man of Steel and worthy of a looksee.
George Reeves is Superman. That’s the thing with this character, it seems every actor who has portrayed him has done so perfectly for the time in which their doing so. Well…almost every actor. But George Reeves definitely catches the 1950s Superman perfectly. He gives this vibe of being the uncle you love and who will always have the right answer for you, but will also kick some ass if needed. Reeves was 37 when he first donned the cape in 1951, which is actually a year younger than Kirk Alyn in the first Superman serial. Reeves’s Superman wasn’t as enthusiastic as Alyn’s, though. Reeves was cooler, laid back. When I watched Alyn, his Superman had a look that said, “I’m Superman, mofo! Let’s dance!” Reeves’s Superman is more, “Yes, I’m Superman, and heed my warning. If you don’t, I will easily and nonchalantly kick your ass.” In Superman and the Mole Men, his Clark Kent is seen onscreen almost as much as his Superman and Kent is no bumbling fool. He is intelligent and sure of himself. If he happens to be a little cowardly, well…who can blame him? Superman is as wise as he is powerful, and acts as a counsel to humans as much as a one-man police force.
Phyllis Coates is very good as Lois Lane. This Lois is much more serious in this incarnation than she was for the serials. She exhibits intelligence and strength. I would think that playing Lois Lane would be something actresses at this time would appreciate.
Superman flies! Briefly, anyway. It’s said that the filmmakers behind the Kirk Alyn serials tried having him fly using wires but it didn’t look good, so they went with the animated flying. In Atom Man vs. Superman, they showed Superman flying in close-ups, meaning, Alyn was in front of a light-colored wall/screen with smoke being blown at him. In Superman and the Mole Men, George Reeves flies away on wire. Now, this apparently didn’t stay the norm. Reeves had a bad experience with the wires, falling and nearly suffering a concussion early in the series. He swore off ever using the wires again afterward and the series resorted to Reeves using a springboard to jump out windows or off screen and then was matted into various backgrounds as he lay on a table or something, arms and legs out before and behind him. In this movie, though, the wires are still in use and the audience gets to see, albeit briefly, Superman fly on film.
The story by Richard Fielding (apparently a pseudonym for Robert Maxwell and Whitney Ellsworth, producers of the series) is actually pretty good. Yes, there are some silly things that I’ll get to in a bit, but there’s a definite message in this tale. The Mole Men of the title are beings that live far, far, far below the Earth’s surface and are found through an oil well that has drilled deeper than any other drill ever. They come up and frighten the people of Silsby, a small town in Texas. A lynch mob is formed to kill the Mole Men and Superman it there to talk sense to the lynch mob and stop them. In the days of the Red Scare, and a decade before the Civil Rights movement would really do their thing, this tale is about acceptance and reason. It is actually a good message for today, in a world where the Pat Robertsons and Westboro Baptists use their 1st Amendment rights to preach hatred in the name of god, in a world where people with dark skin and beards are often harassed for fear of being terrorists. Superman, in 1951, is telling people to chill out. He stops a lynch mob in a time when things like this happened because of the color of one’s skin. Keep in mind, this movie came out less than four years before 14-year-old Emmett Till was brutally murdered in Mississippi. Superman’s insistence that the townspeople, the lynch mob, leave the Mole Men alone is all-too-real.
No Jimmy Olsen or Perry White. No Metropolis, for that matter. What the hell? This is Superman, right? Yet, we’re in a small town and country (read: a backlot) with Clark Kent and Lois Lane investigating the weird happenings around the oil well. Of course, both characters (and the city) would appear in the TV series, played by Jack Larson and John Hamilton, but for Superman and the Mole Men, neither is present.
The Mole Men are, sadly, pretty lame. I’ll give it to the filmmakers that the actors they chose to play the Mole Men are sympathetic–even cute. But the strange bald-cap/wigs and the zipper-visible-in-the-back “furry” suits for their bodies are laughable. Considering how important they are to the movie, it’s sad. Again, there’s a feeling that because this is a movie aimed at little boys the production values didn’t need to be great. The feel isn’t much better than that of the serials, and the Mole Men look almost as lame as Atom Man’s strange bucket helmet.
Superman…flies? Yes, it seems contradictory to have Superman’s flying in both sections, but if you’ve followed me long enough, you know that I do this kind of thing from time to time (dear oh dear). While seeing Superman take off (with the help of wires) must’ve thrilled the little boys in the theaters across the country, never actually seeing Superman fly except for one shot that lasts less than five seconds must’ve been a huge letdown. His “flying” is implied by the camera looking down at people on the streets as the camera flies overhead, with a few pedestrians looking up and pointing. And that one scene where we see Superman actually flying? He’s catching a falling Mole Man in midair. Cool, huh? But both characters are animated. Just like in the serials. It quickly goes to a shot of George Reeves on wires catching the falling Mole Man (an obvious dummy on a wire). Luckily, they worked this out for the series.
After the Battle
Overall, Superman and the Mole Men is pretty entertaining, and at just about an hour long, it’s the right length. It doesn’t suffer from the bloating that the previous Superman serials had, and the story is actually pretty clever. There’s no supervillain in this. The enemy is the frightened, ready-to-kill people. George Reeves debuts as Superman with aplomb and the feeling that he’s not only watching out for us, but is there to advise and teach us. It makes for a good introduction to a Superman who would last until Reeves’s death.
¹ Coates only played Lois Lane for the first season. Apparently, it was unsure the series would survive past its first season and came out nearly a year after its initial shoot. When the series was picked up for a second season (and beyond), Coates was unavailable to return. The producers went to Noel Neill to reprise her role from the two previous serials.
² This is, of course, exactly what happened. The last two episodes of the first season of The Adventures of Superman were the only two-part storyline of the entire series, entitled “The Unknown People.” The movie was edited down for television and any reference to “Mole Men” was edited out.
Growing up, there were only a few superheroes I really knew: Spider-Man, Batman, the Incredible Hulk, and Superman. I knew there were more, one of my favorite cartoons was Super Friends, which was a very kids-friendly version of the Justice League, and there were the other comic book heroes in the ads that ran in the comic books my father brought home with the milk and bread, but for me, those four superheroes (and I include Robin in with Batman) were the ones I really knew. And the head of them all, the most important, was Superman.
At least until I was about 10 or 11. Which makes sense, in a way. It’s around 9 through 11 that childlike wonder begins to dull as The System has its way with children and with that wonder, the idea of a man flying around saving the world from aliens and robots and mad scientists while all the time hiding behind a pair of glasses is preposterous and obviously something only a baby would believe. It didn’t help that 1989 was Batman’s year, with him popping up everywhere you looked. And so Batman moved in as my favorite superhero.
Batman kept that title until about three, four years ago. I bought the 700th issues of both Superman and Batman and found myself walking away with a renewed interest in the Man of Steel. And so it went. If you were to ask me who my favorite superhero is now, it’d be a toss up between Supes and Bats.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of Action Comics #1, the comic book in which Superman debuted. There have been many incarnations of the character over the last three quarters of a century. Just in the pages of the DC Comics comic books the modern Superman is very different from the original that was created by two very young Jewish men. What Joe Shuster and Jerry Seigel created was a god for the 20th (and now 21st) century. It doesn’t matter if you’re a fan or not, without Superman, there’d be no…well…any of them.
Superman became so popular upon his debut in 1938, that by 1940 he had his own comic book and his own radio show. It wasn’t long before Hollywood came knocking. In 1941, the first of Superman’s silver screen adventures played out in theaters around the world.
This year marks not only the 75th anniversary of this literary and film icon, but it also marks the release of the much-anticipated new adaptation of Superman on the movie screen: Man of Steel, written by David S. Goyer, directed by Zack Snyder, and starring Henry Cavill as Superman.
For the next 11 or so weeks, I’ll be posting essays about Superman in the movies. I will be mostly skipping over his television years because I only have so much time to devote to this, though I will touch on George Reeves as the Man of Steel, I promise. I’m afraid that the 1990s Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Smallville, and the 1980s-1990s syndicated Superboy shows, not to mention the plethora of animated shows and direct-to-home-video movies will also be skipped (though the animated movies produced by Warner Animation will be looked at some time in the future, though not in as much detail). In other words, this is hardly a complete series of Superman on film, but it will do the job for a free enterprise on a website that’s not, technically, about superheroes or movies.
So let’s get this show started, shall we? Up, up, and awaaayyy!
I was ten, I guess, when I first learned of A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, though it came out days before my eleventh birthday. I wanted to go to the movies to see it as I had the third movie but didn’t have the chance to. My first viewing of the movie was on VHS, rented from a video store (a local chain, I believe). I liked it a lot. At eleven, I loved that Freddy said all these sarcastic one-liners and that the movie was visually fun to watch. I liked that he was just so big, larger-than-life. I also liked that this movie had so many special effects, effects that were all over the tv.
Again, its place in American culture is important. The Horror Boom was at its peak. There seemed to be shows on tv every other weekend about horror special effects, including a special that aired in syndication called Stephen King’s World of Horror, a special that gave me the first hint of who this Stephen King guy was as well as showed me how some of the effects that garnished The Dream Master came to be.
MTV was at its height. It had changed the culture and was, at this moment in time, the place kids went for entertainment, news, and information. Freddy Krueger’s ascension was as much a result of MTV as it was the Horror Boom. Freddy had a very rock n roll/punk persona. He didn’t care about social norms or what was appropriate. He was a big ol’ Fuck You to the establishment at the end of the Reagan era and the kids, damnit, were listening. I may have only been 10/11, but I was one of them.
Wes Craven was officially off the movie. For some reason, New Line didn’t go with Chuck Russell or Frank Darabont to write/direct. I suspect it was a financial decision. With Dream Warriors a success, it probably would have cost more to rehire them than it was to go with new talent. One problem, though, was a writers strike that made the screenplay difficult to pin down. They went with Finnish director Renny Harlin to direct. The movie was shot in early 1988 and released that August.
Character continuity. Freddy’s Revenge kept Nancy’s house (and diary) but bailed out on any other character (except Freddy) from the first movie. Dream Warriors bailed on its predecessor and returned to the first movie without any mention to the second movie. The Dream Master takes place sometime after the events of its predecessor and re-introduces us to the survivors of Dream Warriors: Kristen Parker (this time played by Tuesday Knight), Joey (Rodney Eastman), and Kincaid (Ken Sagoes) in all his stereotypical glory. Freddy even returns from the junkyard grave he was placed in by Dr. Neil Gordon and Donald Thompson.
Lisa Wilcox as Alice. Her acting in this movie could be better, but the character isn’t supposed to have much personality in the beginning of the movie, so it sort of works. If she’d had a stronger script and a better director, her performance may have been better. She’s in the dream section because I find her purrrrty.
The overall acting. Look, there are no future Johnny Depps or Patricia Arquettes or Laurence Fishburnes in this movie, but for the third sequel to a low budget horror movie (and being a low budget horror movie in its own right), the cast is pretty good. The teenagers are believable enough. Nicholas Mele as Alice and Rick’s father is very good. I believe in the characters, which is all one could hope for. Another standout is Alice’s brother Rick, played by Andras Jones. Part wise-ass, part martial artist, part caring brother, he brings a certain level of realism to the part and helped make this movie a cut above the typical horror movie sequel.
Robert Englund as Freddy. By now, Freddy Krueger was more than just the bad guy in some horror movies, he was a genuine pop icon, up there with Lugosi’s Dracula and Karloff’s Frankenstein’s Monster. Englund is able to infuse Krueger with glee as he tortures and picks off the teenagers in this movie. Krueger looks like he’s having fun because Englund is having fun playing him. More on Freddy later on, though.
The special effects and the visuals. Renny Harlin may have won more Razzies than just about any other director, but he brought a certain style to The Dream Master that some of the other movies didn’t have. With the success of the previous three Nightmares, there was also more budget for more effects, which were interesting and fun.
The late-1980s charm. Like Freddy’s Revenge, it’s pretty easy to see where in American culture this movie takes place. From the music (this is the second Nightmare to have a real soundtrack, but the first for it to have its soundtrack so entwined with the movie) to the hair styles to the clothes, this movie reeks of the late 1980s. And like Freddy’s Revenge, it’s taken twenty years for that charm to surface. Hardcore fitness? Check. A nerd like Revenge of the Nerds? Check. A karate kid like…well…. Check. MTV reference? Absofuckinglutely!
The ending. I like the ending. The church set is pretty cool. The idea of evil looking at itself and dying is a nice one. The souls on Freddy’s chest introduced in Dream Warriors coming out and getting their revenge is a nice touch.
Who’s that girl? Ooohh…it’s Kristen. Patricia Arquette, who so famously squealed her way into our hearts as Kristen Parker in Dream Warriors, is replaced by singer-actress Tuesday Knight. According to The Nightmare on Elm Street Companion, producer (and Freddy’s Dead director) Rachel Talalay said that Arquette was never approached to reprise the role. Since it wouldn’t really be until 1993’s True Romance that Arquette would become a star, the only reason I can think of is the same reason I figure for not bringing back Chuck Russell or Frank Darabont: money. Arquette would probably have wanted a lot more. The other reason, and even more likely, is that Arquette probably would have said no. Coming from a family in the business, she might not have wanted to have been pigeonholed as a scream queen. After all, Joey, Kincaid, and even Kristen’s mother (Brooke Bundy) all returned to Elm Street for this movie. And even though Talalay says New Line never approached Arquette, I’m not sure that I’m convinced.
Either way, Tuesday Knight’s turn as Kristen Parker is okay, but there is a certain disconnect between her and the audience. She was a strong character in Dream Warriors and while Knight’s portrayal of Kristen is definitely more hard-assed, the character doesn’t feel right.
Again, stereotypes. Kincaid is written exactly as he was in Dream Warriors. Sheila (Toy Newkirk) is supernerd. Brooke Theiss plays Debbie, the hot fitness girl. You get the idea. Alice longs for Dan (Danny Hassel), the popular jock. In other words, A Nightmare on Elm Street is heading down typical 1980s slasher movie territory. Luckily for us Fred-Heads (I swear I didn’t make that term up), it’s not there…yet. But it’s damn close. I’ll get to the reason below.
Who wrote this thing?! The Dream Master was worked on during a writers strike. As a result, the story is by William Kotzwinkle and Brian Helgeland, and the screenplay is by Brian Helgeland and Jim and Ken Wheat (under the pseudonym Scott Pierce). There are also rumors that other people worked on the script and added things as well. Post-Dream Master, Helgeland went on to be nominated and win Oscars for such movies as L.A. Confidential and Mystic River, has written the upcoming Ridley Scott-directed movie Robin Hood, and directed Payback and A Knight’s Tale. (He’s also from my hometown, which is pretty cool). I guess the fact that the movie is good at all is a surprise, but the story is definitely lacking. It’s the kind of movie that if you’re watching it and not thinking, just being entertained by the cool camera angles and flashy effects, you don’t notice the holes in plot and logic. There’s a blurring of the nightmare/waking world in this movie toward the end that is major. At eleven years old I thought certain tricks, like Alice and Dan repeating a scene several times, was cool. At thirty-five, it doesn’t make sense. Are they awake? Are they sleeping? If they’re sleeping, where are they sleeping? They’re in an accident from sleeping at the wheel, but would that happen if they’re running to go save Debbie? And how come Nancy’s house is now very much Freddy’s house? And how come none of the three survivors of Dream Warriors mentions Nancy or Dr. Gordon, two people I would think they’d believe to be nearly saintly? And how does Joey get stuck inside his waterbed? And how come Kristen’s mother doesn’t know her daughter’s bedroom is engulfed in flames until her daughter’s boyfriend and his weird, mousy sister show up? And if what happens in your dreams happen in the real world, does that mean that Debbie’s parents are going to find a giant squished cockroach in their attic or will it just be Debbie’s crushed body? And…. Get it?
Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger. Yeah, that’s right, I said it. This is the first Nightmare that Robert Englund gets top billing, before the title no less. Not too shabby for the nerdy alien from V. By now, Freddy Krueger had become one of the 1980s answers to the Universal Monsters. Robert Englund had done interviews as Freddy, had hosted movies on HBO and music videos on MTV as Freddy. Freddy Krueger was on tee shirts, posters, yo-yos, albums, toys, pins, Halloween costumes…you name it. He was in music videos:
And where Freddy was, Robert Englund was. Freddy’s appearances became a sort of hammy, kitschy thing where Freddy would make quips at people, spin puns, and be a general friendly neighborhood child killer. I mentioned in my essay for Dream Warriors that Chuck Russell and his lighting people lit Freddy mainly outside of the shadows. In The Dream Master, Freddy is always lit very well. Not only that, but Freddy breaks the fourth wall!
You see, Freddy Krueger (and Robert Englund) is no longer just the bad guy in the Nightmare movies, he is the Nightmare movies. Teenagers are no longer paying to see whether or not the kids will escape Freddy, they’re paying to see how Freddy kills them, which makes The Dream Master different than the other movies of the series so far. However it’s the template created in Dream Warriors that starts it. More on this later. You see this in Kincaid’s nightmare where Freddy is reborn. The bones that were left in the junkyard at the end of Dream Warriors come together in The Dream Master (thanks to some flaming dog piss) and Freddy is born again. There’s a poorly dubbed moment when Freddy is posing, backlit, and says, “You shouldn’t have buried me…I’m not dead.” [Is this the best line they could come up with?!]. And then the camera, which means we, follow Freddy as he looks for Kincaid. We’re surprised when Kincaid, from nowhere, drops a car on Freddy. This isn’t the only time where it seems as though we’re following Freddy’s adventure. When Debbie becomes a cockroach stuck in a roach motel, we’re then outside the roach motel with a midshot on Freddy, who’s peeking into the small box with tiny screams coming from it. Freddy squishes it, ending the tiny screams and then says, “You can check in, but you can’t check out.”
Not only does Freddy become the star, but with all the zany camera angles, Freddy also becomes a model. Every line is accentuated with a flick of the finger-knives, or some pose that deals with the glove and knives. In other words, Englund’s performance as Freddy Krueger becomes too big. Though it’s still rather restrained compared to where it’s going (remember, I still have the worst of the movies to come), Freddy has officially stopped being the villain and has become the sarcastic 1980s antihero. Freddy becomes to the monster movie what Eddie Murphy became to cop movies around the same time.
The Morning After
A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master opened on August 19, 1988 (almost a week before I turned eleven) and was a huge hit. It was the highest grossing of the original Nightmare series. That summer, Freddy was everywhere. Every entertainment magazine had a story about the movie or Freddy. He was on television and the radio. He had his own 900-number. Freddy was more than just the bad guy in a horror movie now; he was a star. The template had been set by the previous movie, Dream Warriors a year before. The anticipation for the third movie was pretty big and there were more photoshoots starring Freddy than previously done. With the success of that movie, the PR on The Dream Master worked overtime. Generally, the makeup job most people think of when they think of Freddy is the makeup job done for The Dream Master, even though this one is, again, different than its predecessors and successors. It’s very similar to the makeup used in Dream Warriors, only has more color to it. But I digress….
With Freddy the star, the teenagers are now automatic victims. Dream Warriors, trying to get away from Freddy’s Revenge, basically introduced us to teenagers whose purpose was to last only so long before Freddy picked them off. However, those teenagers were pretty well thought out and the audience could buy into them (though not as easily as Wes Craven’s original cast). With the fourth movie, even though we begin with three survivors from the previous installment, we get the sense very early on that most of these characters will not make it through. The reason: We never learn about them the way we learned about prior Elm Street characters. As a result, we have more stereotypes cast only for flashy death sequences and a villain who is now the hero.
This puts the Nightmare movies on track to become just another slasher series. Its saving grace is its imagination. Because Freddy haunts the dreams and nightmares of his victims, the audience is always given the treat of interesting and bizarre sets and imaginative terrors. Only, there are no terrors at this point in the series. There are no horrors. There’s some gross-out and a lot of eye candy, but nothing that really gets under the skin. The original Nightmare was full of horror and terror. Freddy’s Revenge has a few (albeit too brief) moments of horror and at least one of terror (again, Jesse fighting to keep the basement door closed but losing, only to turn around and find the monster right there). Dream Warriors had several creepy moments and, with Nancy and her father central characters, definitely had moments that qualify as horrifying/terrifying. The Dream Master has no real horrifying moments and certainly never terrifies us. It’s unsettling in a few minor moments, but mainly it’s fantastic (in the true sense of the word), gory, and over-the-top.
Yet, its popularity has cemented this movie’s version of Freddy Krueger into our minds.
It also helped get horror fans ready for Freddy on television. In the fall following the release of The Dream Master, an anthology television series called Freddy’s Nightmares — A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Series came out. Freddy was a character in a few of the episodes but was mainly the host, a la Rod Serling in The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The first season (which has Brad Pitt in an episode) was the more “popular” season and had Freddy in his Dream Master makeup.
At this time, between the movie (which I didn’t see until its home video debut), the press, and the tv series, I was in full horror mode, renting such gems as Hello, Mary Lou: Prom Night II and other classics (as an aside, give me the money and I’d happily write/direct a remake of Mary Lou). I watched some of the Friday the 13th movies if they came on HBO, Cinemax, or Showtime, and saw Halloween IV and V (the first one was difficult to come by, for some reason), but Freddy Krueger and the Nightmares he inhabited were the poison of choice in the monster category. I also became aware of the movies of Stephen King, Pet Sematary being the more recent of his movies released at that time.
Today, I still hold The Dream Master in my heart, not for any reason of quality but because it was part of the building blocks of what made me who I am today. I wish that the filmmakers/studio had had the interest/ability to get Heather Langenkamp back as Nancy. With her death at the end of Dream Warriors, and Kristen’s promise to “dream her into a beautiful dream”, it would have been interesting to make Nancy the anti-Freddy. This idea was done in the early 1990s in a comic book series (Nightmares on Elm Street) written by Andy Mangels and published by Innovation. It would have gone with Craven’s symbolism of Freddy as evil incarnate and Nancy as good. Alas, it was not to be.
The Dream Master stands out for all the reasons above and for being Freddy’s swan song for a bit.
But not our swan song, for we still have four more movies to get to, including what I think is the worst Nightmare in the series, and the second best (and on some days, the best) Nightmare. So stay tuned, folks. This nightmare is nowhere near over.
So the response seemed pretty good to last week’s posting of my first essay in the Nightmare in Gautham series. I will begin revising the second essay tonight or tomorrow to have up on Thursday.
In case you missed it, last Friday I posted my short story “Snow Day” to the site. If you haven’t checked it out, please do so. People seem to really enjoy it. It’s a favorite of mine to read aloud because you can usually hear the audience react. Very cool.
Work on the novel continues and while I’m sure you’re sick of hearing about this faceless novel, I assure you that I’m making headway on it. And just to make stuff more interesting, I’ve begun a novella for fun. I don’t know if it’ll go anywhere, but I’m having fun with it.
Winter is finally winding down and I’m happy for it. It’s been a busy one. The baby is now 4 months old and the teenager turns 15 in less than a month. Talk about vertigo.
I finally finished The Twelve, Justin Cronin’s follow-up to The Passage. I enjoyed it but not as much as the first book. I’m interested in seeing where he goes for the third book.
My teenager has gotten me (finally) into Doctor Who. I’m in the 4th series (the Tenth Doctor) and am enjoying it, as I’m sure all of you have.
That’s pretty much it right now. Talk to you later.
I’d begun writing this heartfelt piece about my daughters and I stopped, realizing that I’d pretty much already covered that territory in “The Happiness My Girls Bring Me.” The reason I wanted to write about my daughters is because my new daughter, Genevieve, was born two-and-a-half weeks ago. For a guy who is still amazed at the incredibility of having such a beautiful, intelligent, and cool 14-year-old, looking at this new, amazing baby is mind-numbing.
So I guess you can figure that I’ve been pretty busy, between being Dad to Courtney, New Daddy to Genevieve, Bill (or Honey Bun) to my wife, Mr. Gauthier to my students, and Bill Gauthier as I edit the novel, I haven’t had much time to sleep. Or blog. But here I am (and there I was, sleeping). I decided I’d just give you a buffet of thoughts and likes. Grab a plate, pull up a chair, and let’s dig in.
I’m reading Justin Cronin’s The Twelve, the much ballyhooed sequel to his bestseller The Passage. The hoopla surrounding The Passage drove me to read it and I was swept into Cronin’s world. There were some things that made me stumble at first (the change from the near-almost-present-future to the far future) but the book was solid and I enjoyed it immensely. So I waited eagerly for The Twelve and even pre-ordered it for download. I’m just over a third of the way through and am loving it. Cronin employs a similar technique with this novel as with the first, going back to the beginning of the vampire/zombie apocalypse (the first novel shows where it begins) but then jumping ahead quite a bit. I’m entranced with the writing and with the story. It’s an epic tale being told in a non-linear way that I’m happy to go through. See this smile? Yeah. That’s because of the book.
I began reading John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War in the hospital but didn’t get very far. I’ll return to it once I’m through with The Twelve. I liked what I’ve read, though, and recommend Scalzi’s blog, Whatever.
I went for a while (2000-2007) without watching much TV, but in that time, things have changed. TV has gotten better. Right now I’m absolutely charmed by Don’t Trust the B— In Apartment 23. It’s insane and makes me laugh. Suburgatory is pretty good, too, and I’ve been a fan of Modern Family since it’s first season (though I missed half of it). But the one show I cannot miss is Boardwalk Empire. The quality of the writing, acting, and production is astounding. I’m not a huge gangster guy. Though I like crime novels and movies, organized crime flicks don’t do much for me. Boardwalk Empire is so much more than that. This season introduced audiences to Gyp Rosetti, played by Bobby Cannavale, one of the scariest characters out there.
Before you ask me about The Walking Dead, the answer is no. I haven’t seen it. It’s on my Netflix queue. I’ll get to it and I’m sure I’ll enjoy it, but for now, I spend my Sunday nights in Atlantic City, circa 1924.
So, that’s what I got for ya. Nothing amazing this time. Except for the daughters, but you already knew that.
This past weekend I got to meet up with two of my best friends, Toby and Jorj. They feel like they’re my oldest friends but that’s not the case. I met Jorj in 1997/98, just before my daughter was born. He introduced me to Toby in 2000, a week after my first wedding, and Toby and I became fast friends. I got to experience a lot of things I’d longed to do in childhood with Toby and Jorj. I helped create a comic book. I wrote while Jorj and Toby handled the art. It was submitted to one place (and rejected) but it was a great time. We made a movie together (which I’m still editing, even though it’s been 11 years since production) that is a cross between Star Wars and Looney Tunes. I spent an afternoon reading comics with Toby. Naturally, our conversation turned to those things and stuff from our childhoods. We didn’t know each other in childhood. Jorj and Toby met in college. I met them shortly after that. Yet, there was a certain amount of collective memory that was great. Comic books (Toby and I), movies (all three), favorite cartoons (all three) Transformers (Toby and Jorj), Masters of the Universe and Star Wars (all three)…it was great.
Now most of a week has passed and I still think about our conversations. It’s funny how much we–and now I include you in this–are pieced together with the media we grew up with. Who knew that 25 years later I’d look back at Moss Man with such happiness? It’s one of the reasons I started my other blog MediaBio (which I’ve neglected but plan on going back to sooner than later). I’ve seen it with my students, too, how quickly the older ones (mostly graduated now) look back on Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers (I shiver just typing those words together in that string) and smile. These shows, cartoons, and toys become major strands in our cultural DNA.
It makes me smile, but I also worry a little. It seems with each generation, these things become more important than they were. And I have to wonder if they hinder more than help. As someone who was raised obsessed with media, I can see how my life is where it is because of it. What happens with 24/7 television, and entertainment on the ‘net, and the steady stream of media that is there for you all the time? When I can turn on TV and find several shows on pawn shops, several on hoarders hoarding everything from massive collections to trash to animals, several shows on ghost hunters, on children going through dance competitions and beauty pageants, families of rednecks, religious psychos, and crazy people, I have to wonder if the sums we’re putting out there aren’t going to hurt.
An argument can be made that there’s always been garbage to consume via media, but the amount of garbage is horrifying. On the flip side of that coin, there is more quality television than there ever has been. Television series that are like novels in their complexity of character and storytelling. I haven’t seen Breaking Bad but know that’s a favorite, as is Mad Men and Sons of Anarchy (neither I’ve seen, all I want to). Boardwalk Empire is a favorite of mine, as was Lost. Even sitcoms like Modern Family make their traditional counterparts seem like hack writing and acting.
I guess it’s because I love it so much that I worry. What will today’s children sit and remember fondly in 25 years? What will we think about then?