The first time I saw the name Wes Craven, it was in TV Guide, around 1986. It was in the synopsis for A Nightmare on Elm Street, which read something like, “Horror maven Wes Craven’s tale of teenagers terrorized by a killer in their dreams.” The fuckers gave it two stars if I recall. In the following years, his name popped up on TV more, usually for commercials of his follow-up movies: “From the creator of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Wes Craven, comes…” Shocker. The People Under the Stairs. The Serpent and the Rainbow. As I found and read Fangoria, and other stuff about horror, I learned more about him, but it really wasn’t until I was in high school and I saw interviews with Craven that I learned really learned about him.
When I saw the news of his death last night, I was rocked. It came on the night before I was to start a new school year as Mr. Gauthier, so maybe I wasn’t as rocked as I may have been two weeks ago, when I wasn’t as stressed. Still, it was a shock and very, very sad.
I can’t say I’ve seen every Wes Craven movie because I haven’t. I feel like I only saw the original The Last House on the Left in the last eight years. I saw The Hills Have Eyes sometime in the mid-1990s. I saw Shocker and The People Under the Stairs when they first came to cable. I know I saw The Serpent and the Rainbow but can’t remember when, though I think I was in high school. Deadly Friend was viewed not long after seeing A Nightmare on Elm Street the first time, but I didn’t know who Wes Craven was and it was on cable as I was discovering horror. I barely remember any of these movies except the first two. Have I seen Swamp Thing? I don’t know. I’ve definitely seen pieces of it, just as I’ve seen pieces of A Vampire in Brooklyn.
Truth be told, I’m really quite astonished that I haven’t seen more of his movies. I really only know his creating and contributions to the A Nightmare on Elm Street series and directing the Scream movies. This upsets me.
Craven has been someone I would’ve loved to have met. When I found out he bought a house on Martha’s Vineyard, a ferry ride away from where I live, I sometimes thought it might be cool to run into him somewhere, let him know how much he meant to me, and ask if he’d have coffee with me. I know it’s crazy talk, like a deranged stalker or something, but Craven had this feel about him that he was approachable and would sit down for a conversation.
What I think was my favorite aspect of Wes Craven, other than writing and directing my two favorite Nightmares, the original and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, is that he wasn’t just a guy who was into horror for the sake of making money, but that he was actually releasing fears, his own and others. When you look at someone like Sean S. Cunningham, creator of Friday the 13th (and mentor of Craven’s), this is a guy who made horror films for a fast buck. His producing of Craven’s first film, The Last House on the Left, came about because low-budget horror movies were starting to do well. He told Craven, who was itching to direct a movie, that if he wrote a horror movie, Cunningham would let him direct it. What probably wasn’t expected was that Craven would actually make a movie that was almost too dark, too scary, too violent, a movie that became an underground classic almost immediately.
Craven loved cinema and understood how to scare. He saw it as cathartic and necessary. The creation of Fred Krueger is an amazing story of thought, feeling, and psychology. Breaking the mold of having a stunt person play the killer and instead hiring Robert Englund, who knew no boundaries to get the desired effect, Craven revolutionized the horror film bad guy. Suddenly they all had to have personalities, make quips, and find creative, supernatural ways of killing. A range of sharp objects and tools were no longer good enough, they had to have interesting weapons or a cool new way of killing.
Then in 1994, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare just knocked the whole block castle down. It’s a shame it didn’t do better business at the box office, but the movie is, I think, a masterpiece. He asks important questions. Do horror films negatively impact their viewers? What about the people who make them? This line of questioning is woven throughout his Scream movies.
Wes Craven was 76. He was an old man who lived a great life. This doesn’t stop my sadness. A Nightmare on Elm Street is up there with Star Wars as movies that shaped me. Knowing that he will never make another movie, never impart more of his wisdom, and never scare the hell out of me deeply saddens me.
“Some people ask why people would go into a dark room to be scared. I say they are already scared and they need to have that fear manipulated and massaged. I think of horror movies as the disturbed dreams of a society.” — Wes Craven
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.
When Batman Begins ended, with Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Batman (Christian Bale) on the roof of Gordon’s police station after using the Bat-signal for the first time, I was filled with excitement more than should’ve been rational for a nearly-28-year-old. Not only did the scene perfectly show the Gordon-Batman dynamic that I’d loved in the comic books, but it also ended on a teaser for a possible follow-up that probably sent all the nerds in the audience into a frenzy. Gordon talks to Batman about escalation: the cops get something to fight crime, the criminals get something even deadlier. Then he refers to a case he’s working on, with a criminal who “has a taste for the theatrical, like you.” The criminal, who has robbed and murdered someone, has left a calling card.
That Joker card was a shock. Everyone in the theater I was in cheered. Would it work, though?
Between the critical and financial success Warner Bros. had with Batman Begins, it was obvious they wanted a sequel. Not only that, they wanted Christopher Nolan to return along with the rest of the cast. Nolan wasn’t entirely sure he should–or even could–do another Batman. He was happy with the first movie and wasn’t sure if going back would be a worthwhile exercise for him. But David S. Goyer had given Warner Bros. a proposed trilogy that included The Joker and Harvey Dent in the second film, and Nolan became interested in reinventing The Joker…
In 2005, when Batman Begins came out, I was lost. In 2008, when The Dark Knight was released, I’d been found. I’d been with my fiancée for over a year-and-a-half, I had just completed my first (and I daresay, worst) year as a teacher, and I was living in Boston. A major city. A dream come true. My excitement over the imminent release of The Dark Knight was helped along by its massive viral campaign. Hell, I’d even taken part in it when an I Believe In Harvey Dent campaign van drove by me on the streets of Boston after having just seen No Country For Old Men. I chased the van down and got three campaign buttons. The summer of 2008 was like the summer of 1989 in some ways, a Batman movie and an Indiana Jones movie. Who could ask for anything more?!
Christian Bale continues to be a solid Bruce Wayne and Batman. He’s doing the best he can and pushing himself hard and one feels that Bale is doing the same for this role. He doesn’t just want to portray the character, but make the character live. This is a Bruce Wayne who has suffered from his inner demons but has mostly beaten them. The obsession that has fueled him in his crusade against crime seems to have lifted. Wayne talks about being able to hang up the cowl and attempt to live a fully-realized life. And…
Batman’s voice is great! I know that people have been especially hard on his voice in this movie, but I loved it. It’s just how I’d expect Batman to sound. For starters, Bruce Wayne wants to hide his identity, so he’s changing his voice. He also wants to be intimidating, and the growl helps with that. People suggest that it’s a little over the top, which I’d agree with if it weren’t in a movie where a guy in a rubber bat costume is chasing a clown around a city. Bale’s Batman voice is perfect, so fuck off.
Heath Ledger. I know it goes without saying, but his performance is amazing. When it was announced that Ledger would play The Joker in this film, I remember there was a lot of unhappy nerds. Perhaps because I lived through the Michael Keaton-as-Batman fiasco, or perhaps because I understand that actors are supposed to act, I wasn’t worried. Brokeback Mountain had made him and Jake Gyllenhaal critically acclaimed and I suspected that he wouldn’t take a role that wasn’t in some way challenging to him. That and because Batman Begins hit so many of the right notes, I figured Christopher Nolan could be trusted when it came to bringing new citizens to Gotham. What we got was beyond anything I could’ve hoped for. When the first trailer to reveal The Joker–and Ledger’s performance–debuted in December 2007, the hook was in. I was beyond excited to see the new movie. Ledger gave a performance that not only amazed but terrified. As Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson (and Mark Hamill, for that matter) all tapped into The Joker’s zany, terrifying ways, and there was definitely a sinister edge to their characterizations, especially Nicholson’s and Hamill’s, but Ledger pushed the character into the modern world. His Joker is terrifying and insane in a way that makes him fascinating but not fun. You’re not really laughing with (or at) Ledger’s Joker, so much as releasing nervous chuckles. It’s easy to suggest that Ledger not so much embodied The Joker but rather The Joker embodied Ledger in light of his tragic end in January 2008. There’s a sort of romanticism that goes with saying that Ledger may have gotten too into the role, that he’d allowed the character that Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan, and David Goyer envisioned as this incarnation of a beloved evil character to get too deep into his own psyche, but I’m not sure that it’s true. I think what we see in Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker is the perfect mix of a young actor with demons finding a role that appealed to those demons and truly going for it. His performance helped elevate the entire movie, which hardly needed it to begin with.
Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes is great. People have given her a hard time, saying incredibly rude things about this beautiful woman’s looks. The funny thing I noticed while rewatching Batman Begins for these essays, is that Katie Holmes and Maggie Gyllenhaal could almost be sisters. Either way, looks aside, she brings a depth and grown-up feel to the character that Holmes lacked. Gyllenhaal looks like she’s seen some bad shit go down in Gotham City but still remains hopeful. Her death is shocking a brutal.
Gary Oldman’s Gordon remains spectacular. He is mostly understated, saying more with his eyes and mannerisms than with what he says. He shows a warmth and sense of trust to Batman that remains throughout. Even by the end of the movie, when he’s frustrated and nearly crazed by what The Joker has been able to pull off, and he’s ready to shoot Batman for getting in the way, he’s more believable than most actors would be in this situation. Instead of a crazy turnaround of a character, it feels like a natural sense of frenzy, frustration, and fear.
Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent, Michael Caine as Alfred, Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, and everybody else in the film, are all perfectly cast. Nolan even gets Eric Roberts to turn in a great performance.
The new Bat-costume is great. It’s pretty bold to change it so much yet it works perfectly in the world Nolan, et al, has created. The small pieces of armor, the mask as its own thing, all of it, make this the coolest Bat-suit on film. And even better than the look of it? The fact the filmmakers actually show us a transition between costumes. Batman starts the movie in the suit he wore in Batman Begins. We then see Bruce Wayne talk to Lucius Fox about enhancing the suit. There are a few more times Batman in the Begins suit shows up, and then he’s in Tokyo in the new one. No unexplained enhancements or changes between movies. No strangely embellished suit at the end.
The Batpod is an amazing vehicle. The fact that they tied it into the Tumbler is even better. I want it. I want it. So. Bad.
The writing of the movie is great. The pace is perfect. I have heard of people, even people whom I admire like Harlan Ellison and Joe Hill, say this movie is boring. It breaks my heart but I must respectfully disagree. You get two great action pieces, some story, more action, more story, more action…you get it. And the fact that the entire movie hints at what will happen to Harvey Dent in its structure is even better. There are two introductory scenes, two major happenings in the middle, and two endings. Using Gordon’s statement about escalation at the end of Batman Begins as a jumping off point, the cornered mob turns to The Joker but can’t rein him in. He is the genie out of the bottle. One of the best lines in the movie is given to The Joker, “I think you and I are destined to do this forever!” That line always gives me chills. It acknowledges the 70 years of source material in the movie as well as the idea that this movie will live on.
But it’s not just the final showdown between Batman and The Joker that’s great, but every single showdown between the two is like it’s straight out of the comic books I read as a young teenager. The first time they meet face-to-face at Bruce Wayne’s fundraiser for Harvey Dent is chilling and has all the elements one would expect from both characters. And while some nitpickers have gone online to protest that Batman leaping out the window for Rachel Dawes was silly, let me break down a few things. I may be a nerd who’s apologetic for a movie he loves, but this is how I see it as a storyteller and an observational person: 1) Batman’s going on his guts and adrenaline at that moment. While he’s usually calm and collective, we know Bruce Wayne–and therefore Batman–can be impulsive when it comes to his personal feelings. Look at what happened when he lost his parents! So if he’s against the idea of any criminal ever taking someone he loves away from him, and The Joker has possibly done just that, and Batman thinks he can save that person, he will. It may not be the most heroic choice, but it’s in line with the character in these movies. 2) Logic dictates that The Joker will not kill anyone (else) at the fundraiser. The Joker has just thrown a woman–not just any woman, but Harvey Dent’s “main squeeze” out a window, and the one person who he thinks may stop him just leapt out the window to try to save her. The Joker must realize that someone has called the police, or will when the woman and the guy in the bat suit crashes to the ground, so he’s gonna hightail it outta there! As a matter of fact, the safest place in Gotham, at that moment, is probably Wayne’s apartment. 3) Even if The Joker stays, even if he begins slaughtering party guests, the police are on the way and no amount of bribes would keep him safe. Nope, Batman jumping out the window to save Rachel Dawes makes sense to this guy. Now the two of them landing on the cab without injury…well….
And of course, the showdown between Batman and The Joker in the interrogation room at the police station is iconic. Straight out of the comic books, it’s classic Batman and Joker. The Joker is doing his best to get under Batman’s skin, and finally pushes the right button. The rage that Christian Bale exhibits, the beating Heath Ledger takes, is right out of all those classic Batman/Joker showdowns. It is the one scene that constantly makes my heart race and gives me goosebumps. It is perfect.
Nolan’s direction of The Dark Knight is stronger than Batman Begins. His choice of using Chicago for the exteriors as opposed to sets built on soundstages made this Gotham City feel like Metropolis did in Superman: The Movie, huge and real. The use of IMAX cameras also makes for an interesting home experience while watching it on Blu-ray. The IMAX fill up the 16:9 ratio while the regular scenes will have the black bars at the top and bottom.
The music and sound effects are astonishing. That’s not hyperbole, either. I got to see The Dark Knight in the theater twice, once in its standard format, once in IMAX, not to mention the countless times I watched it on DVD, television, and Blu-ray, and I’m constantly amazed at the two audio elements of this movie. In a day and age when one expects the sound effects to be superb, something about the sound in this movie seems to tower over the rest. I’m thinking of two scenes specifically, although they’re all great.
The first scene is the chase through Gotham, where The Joker is trying to get Harvey Dent. Even before Batman shows up, the sound is incredible, but after he shows and gets the Tumbler blown away, the sound kicks into overdrive. As Batman races on the Batpod, shooting through windows, you can hear every little sound of glass tinkling on the ground. The sound the big tires make on the street, the various sounds of the Tumbler releasing the Pod, and The Joker’s post-crash walk, firing a machine gun at cars and at Batman, are all a feast for the ears.
The second scene is when The Joker blows of Gotham General Hospital. Again, it’s not just the explosions, but the sounds of debris falling all around, glass tinkling, that really helps sell the scene.
The sound effects’ biggest frenemy is the music, and Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard is phenomenal. From the very first criminal sliding on a line from a building to the roof across the Gotham skyline to the point when the sad clown reveals himself to be The Joker, the music goes from what we experienced in Batman Begins to a fever pitch that puts you on edge. Throughout the movie, Zimmer and Howard go from the heroic marches one expects for a superhero to a deranged cacophony for the Joker. It contributes to Ledger’s performance because the music is intense and nerve-fraying.
There are a few too many coincidences. I think. Or The Joker is a little too good. There’s a lot that happens in this movie and The Joker seems to be one step ahead of everyone a little too much. For a guy who claims he loves chaos, he’s always at the right place at the right time, and no one ever seems to be able to outsmart him. He knows exactly how every single police officer, how Batman, and how every major and minor character is going to think, behave, and act. Except for the ferries of Gotham citizens and criminals, those people he can’t read worth a damn.
The Nolans come through their characters a little too much. Certain phrases keep popping up, and while I do believe that the characters are reusing key phrases they heard from another character, they sound a little too much like phrases that are popular with the writers at that moment. They’re a little too neat. Nothing wrong with some of that, but when you can easily quote:
“That night is always darkest before the dawn.”
“…played that hand close to the chest…”
“You either die the hero or see yourself live long enough to become the villain.”
You get what I mean. And there are more, I’m sure, but I’m stopping there. If Bruce Wayne tells Lucius Fox that he’s playing something close to the vest, I expect Fox to say it later in the movie, not Harvey Dent commenting on Gordon’s sudden resurrection.
Harvey Dent is under-utilized. This is probably the one point in this essay that I’m going to really sound like a nerdboy, but when you have such a great character, being portrayed so well by Aaron Eckhart, killing him off so quickly is a sin. Apparently, the original treatment that Goyer submitted to Warner Bros. had The Joker helping turn Dent to Two-Face, and then Two-Face would be the main villain of the third movie, but Nolan thought Dent as Two-Face was too good to save so he included him in this story, helping with the notion that this Batman wasn’t interested in being Batman forever but hoped Harvey Dent would be the city’s White Knight and save the day. Dent’s death does help bring Batman back to fugitive status, which is kind of where the hero works best, but still feels a little too soon.
Damn, wasn’t that night really dark for the last few sentences of the last paragraph? Anyway, The Dark Knight, by setting aside Batman from its title, distinguishes itself from all the other movies made thus far, including its direct predecessor, Batman Begins. It brings the superhero movie into the present, with real-world issues, carrying on the question, “What constitutes a superhero in a post-9/11 world?” How can the people, like me, who oppose the wire-tapping dissolution of rights under the Patriot Act be cool with Batman using his cell phone sonar device to catch The Joker? If we say the end justifies the means, then wouldn’t that be an argument against our own beliefs? I think Christopher Nolan likes that. He likes to raise the questions but let you worry about the answers, without ever answering them himself, or having his characters answer for him. One could argue that the destruction of that ability would mean that as long as we go back to how it was before those rights were removed, then it’s all right. But the conflicting argument that comes out of this movie is that once the change starts, it won’t stop. The Joker tells Batman that he’s changed things, and that there’s no going back, and even The Joker doesn’t understand how deep that message has sunk until his ferries don’t blow up.
Either way, The Dark Knight made me break one of my own rules: I never talk about a movie I’ve seen in the theater until I’m in the car and on the way home. I was leaving the theater and turned to Pamela and said, “We need to see this again.”
The film was critically loved and became one of the highest grossing films of all time. It was nominated for Academy Awards and Heath Ledger’s performance won every acting award it was nominated for, including the Academy Award. Surely, with all the hoopla and love for The Dark Knight, it was inevitable that there would be a sequel.
Or was it…?
With the horrible reviews and fan reaction to Batman & Robin, Warner Bros. considered going ahead with a fifth film in the franchise, already titled Batman Triumphant, which would star the cast of the failed movie and would be directed by Joel Schumacher. Word at the time was a different director might be hired, and names of actors to play Scarecrow and whatever other villain who was being named in the rumor mill, came up every week. But Warner Bros. thought a fresh start would be best. Comic book movies just didn’t seem to be popular at that moment, and they weren’t sure how to continue. Remember, by now, the infamous Superman Lives fiasco that had caught Tim Burton, Nicolas Cage, and Kevin Smith in its web had happened and everything seemed up in the air. Funny enough, it was really Marvel that laid down a blueprint for how to proceed.
In 2000, 20th Century Fox and Marvel Entertainment released X-Men. Directed by Bryan Singer, whose previous credits included the independent films The Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil, Singer seemed like the last choice to direct a huge superhero, special effects movie. With his screenwriters, Tom DeSanto and David Hayter, Singer made a movie that was an instant fan favorite, and which also garnered positive reviews. Honestly, it hadn’t been since Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie in 1978 that a comic book-inspired movie generated so much favorable comment. In 2002, Sony and Marvel Entertainment released Spider-Man, written by David Koepp and directed by Sam Raimi, best known for the Evil Dead movies. Again, Raimi seemed like the last person who should direct a superhero movie, yet Spider-Man worked on every level.
The idea of taking an independent film director, having him/her work with screenwriters they were familiar with (or whom they chose), and then letting them loose on a major superhero movie seemed like a good idea. They were used to making smaller, more character-driven movies, and the superheroes who populated these movies were popular more for their character than because of any particular story they were in. Warner Bros. approached Darren Aronofsky, director of Requiem for a Dream and Pi, to work on a new Batman film. Inspired by Batman: Year One, Aronofsky approached Frank Miller and the two began collaborating on a new Batman movie.
Their ideas weren’t what Warner Bros. was looking for. After a few more false starts, the idea to put Batman and Superman into one movie came to them. Tentatively titled Batman vs. Superman, the movie was announced and writers and directors were spoken to. Warner Bros. was so sure they would make the movie, casting began, a logo was released, and a billboard can be seen in Times Square in the 2004 Warner Bros. release of I Am Legend. The film hit a snag when Warner Bros. approached up-n-coming indie writer/director Christopher Nolan to direct.
After receiving a load of critical acclaim with his film Memento (2000), Nolan directed Oscar winners Al Pacino, Hilary Swank, and Robin Williams in the thriller Insomnia (2002). The movie was critically acclaimed and did well. Warner Bros. approached him with the idea of directing Batman vs. Superman, which Nolan thought about. Finally, he declined to direct the major team-up for the chance to do a movie more in line with Miller’s Year One. After meeting with Blade screenwriter David S. Goyer, Nolan signed on for the new Batman movie.
Unlike previous Batman movies, I wasn’t following much of the story behind Batman Begins. By its release in 2005, I knew that Nolan would direct, that Christian Bale had been cast as Bruce Wayne/Batman, and that it was going back to the beginning. I was busy. I was going through a divorce, finishing college (five years after when I should’ve), following Star Wars: Episode III–Revenge of the Sith, dating (or trying to), being a father, and just basically trying to survive. Word-of-mouth brought me to a nighttime screening with a friend more than anything else. I wasn’t sure what to expect. The last time I’d seen Batman on the big screen, things hadn’t gone so well. I was anxious to see where Batman Begins would bring me.
Christian Bale is amazing as Bruce Wayne and Batman. Bale comes off, to me, as completely bugfuck. He’ll totally change his look and weight for whatever role he’s cast in, he’ll change his accent, and he’ll be so much in character that he’ll scream at lighting people who accidentally cross his line of vision. He is handsome and suave enough (and strangely pampered-looking) to pull off Bruce Wayne, and intense and scary enough, as well as hard-working enough, to play Batman. When I read the Batman comic books between 1990 and 1996-ish (Batman, Detective Comics, Legends of the Dark Knight, Shadow of the Bat, and the many, many one-shots and graphic novels), this is what I envisioned. Someone who would play an arrogant ass, like in the scene when Bruce Wayne shows up to a very upscale restaurant with two dates in his Lamborghini, but who is focused and driven when he’s alone. He could easily trade barbs with Alfred, but he could be relentless, and perpetually pissed-off as Batman. There’s a scene when Batman is interrogating Lt. Gordon’s crooked partner, Flass (played by Mark Boone Junior), that completely encapsulates the Batman I read and loved so much. He makes the character more believable than any of the other actors who played Bruce Wayne/Batman ever has.
Gary Oldman as Lt. James Gordon is superb. In the previous adaptations, Gordon was always an old man who looked more akin to desk work than anything else, which is pretty much what Gordon always was, until Frank Miller had his way with him in Batman: Year One. The Gordon I read in the comics was older, sure, with white hair and a mustache, a trenchcoat, and–usually–a smoking habit, but he was also Batman’s friend. The two trusted each other without ever really knowing the other, yet they completely knew each other. Somehow, in just two scenes, Goyer and Nolan, as well as Bale and Oldman, make us believe their relationship is of mutual respect, if not exactly trust…yet…with what only amounts to a few minutes of screen time. A big part of this is through Oldman’s portrayal. His eyes do more speaking than his mouth, and it sells the character completely. He’s uneasy with the corruption all around him but understands that it goes down, even though he won’t take part. With Batman’s arrival, he sees a chance to fix things and feels hope for the first time. And it’s all in Oldman’s performance.
The rest of the cast is excellent as well. Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes, Liam Neeson as Henri Ducard/ Ra’s al Ghul, Michael Caine as Alfred, Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, and Cillian Murphy as Dr. Jonathan Crane/The Scarecrow really bring it. Liam Neeson just about owns the first half of the movie, and his return at the finale, including the big reveal that he is Ra’s al Ghul, is perfect. But everyone in this movie plays it understated and realistic. The theatrics are left to Batman, and even then, there’s a certain amount of realism that makes one believe in the fiction.
The Tumbler, or Bat Tumbler, or the new Batmobile was something that I didn’t like when I saw the first pictures to come out in 2005. By the time Batman is driving across Gotham’s rooftops, I was in love. It’s a fascinating vehicle that you wish were real (yet, would be terrified if it was). It fits the tone of this Batman and this Gotham and is just fun to watch.
The screenplay by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, based on Goyer’s story, is fascinating. People often credit (or blame) Batman Begins with bringing dark, gritty realism to superhero movies. This may be true, but I think it’s more likely Goyer and Nolan looked back at the genre and realized that the best of them followed the mold set up by Richard Donner in 1978’s Superman: The Movie. Donner had a cut-out of Superman with a word bubble that read, “Verisimilitude,” and would hold the sign up whenever he felt everyone needed reminding that in order for people to believe in Superman, they needed to make his world as realistic as possible. The charm of Tim Burton’s Batman films (and even of Joel Schumacher’s films) was in their unreality. They were theatrical and bold, with little use for the real world. Nolan’s and Goyer’s decision to set this Gotham City, this Batman, in the real world would help revitalize him. Telling his origin story on screen for the first time on film would make it something to come to that would be unlike its predecessors. The best part about the story is that it’s actually about storytelling. Bruce Wayne creates the character of Batman step-by-step, using his past, his needs, his fears, and the technology at hand to make a symbol that would leave a mark on the city and, hopefully, its criminals and citizens. The criminals would be afraid of this symbol as the citizens, hopefully, embraced it. This is what every writer of fiction hopes to do, whether it’s prose of screenplays. By using Donner’s formula for Superman and having the audience slowly learn who the man who wears the cape is, they ensure that this Bruce Wayne and this Batman will distinguish themselves from those who came before. While the use of Donner’s basic formula means the title character doesn’t appear until an hour into the movie, the incidents and happenings in Batman Begins are much different, making the movie feel fresh. And while the ending, with Ra’s al Ghul’s scheme, is a little silly, I’m so sold by this Batman and this Gotham that I’d follow him anywhere.
Christopher Nolan’s direction is superb. Again, breaking from the more theatrical styles of Burton and Schumacher, he creates a world that is vast. From the mountains that Bruce Wayne navigates on his trek to meet up with Henri Ducard and the League of Shadows, to the shots of Gotham City. He also gets performances from the actors that are realistic in this otherwise insane world. His shots of Batman on buildings, watching the city, are the splash pages and panels that I grew up reading, captured in their true splendor for the first time.
The ending. Gordon’s first use of the Bat-signal, and the surprise of The Joker’s calling card, nearly made me squeal when I first saw it, and it still does.
Batman’s costume isn’t my favorite. Look, it’s better than those SuperBatman costumes worn by Val Kilmer and George Clooney at the end of their respective movies, and really isn’t all that different from any of the other costumes, but it looks best when shot in the dark. Too close a look and it falls apart. Unlike previous suits, which were made of foam latex rubber, this costume is made of neoprene and just has an odd look about it in the light. Luckily, this Batman isn’t in the light much.
Alfred stops a scene by explaining to Bruce Wayne what the Underground Railroad was. They’re below Wayne Manor, checking out the caves for the possible Batcave, and Alfred shows some hidden underground passages and hideaways. He explains that Bruce’s great-grandfather was part of the Underground Railroad, and then explains what that is. Now granted, Batman Begins doesn’t explain much about Bruce’s schooling except that he’s gotten kicked out of many schools, but surely the man who is, arguably, going to become one of the world’s greatest detectives knows what the Underground Railroad is. My real fear is that Bruce does know. That’s not a typo. I fear Bruce Wayne, aka Batman, knows what the Underground Railroad is because if he doesn’t know, then the dialogue makes sense. If he does know, then the writer, director, and/or studio thinks the audience is stupid. And that‘s a goddamn shame.
Some of the story fits a little too neatly together. But these are parts of the overall silliness that invades the latter half of this story. They’re small stuff that could ruin a lesser movie but is forgivable because of the overall quality of the film.
The title. I’ve never liked the movie’s title, and I wonder what Christopher Nolan, et al, would call it now, considering the success of the successors.
Batman Begins has a lot going for it. When I first saw it, I watched it with a huge grin from beginning to end. It’s the Batman movie I’d always wanted as a fan of the comic books. It took the character and his co-stars seriously, added to the mythos, and brought Batman back to the top of the superhero heap. And with its promise of a probable sequel, I was super excited.
And so was Warner Bros. Garnering good reviews and great box office, Batman Begins restarted the Batman film franchise. It really wasn’t a matter of if but of when there’d be a follow-up.
So with Batman Forever being a huge box office hit, and the merchandising selling ridiculously well, it was a no-brainer for Warner Bros. to ask Joel Schumacher to return for a sequel. The thing was, they wanted one quickly. Schumacher went off to direct the adaptation of John Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill, but was still involved in the preproduction for the third Batman sequel. Akiva Goldsman would write the movie, and everyone would return; Pat Hingle as Gordon, Michael Gough as Alfred, Chris O’Donnell as Robin/Dick Grayson, and Val Kilmer as Batman/Bruce Wayne. Except…Val Kilmer quit. Or was fired. Or wasn’t told about the movie and committed to the movie The Saint. Whatever happened, they needed a new Batman. Because Schumacher and Goldsman had decided to use the 1960s TV series as well as the absurd 1950s comic book stories as their inspiration, the director felt an actor who could be lighter in tone than Keaton or Kilmer would be better. Enter George Clooney. Clooney, whose star had risen considerably because of ER, jumped at the role. Working seven days a week for months between ER and Batman & Robin, he took on the dual roles of Batman and Bruce Wayne.
Sticking with Warner Bros.’s wishes to keep the franchise lighter and more family friendly, the fourth movie, Batman & Robin, would be fast-tracked to a 1997 release and star Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze and Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy. It would also feature the first film version of the new comic book villain, Bane, who broke Batman’s back in 1993, played by Jeep Swenson.
In June 1997, my world was turned upside-down. Two months away from my twentieth birthday, I found out I was going to be a father. I was stunned. Sixteen years later, I can’t remember the exact order of events. I can’t remember if I’d told my parents by the time the movie opened on June 20th, or if I told them later. I remember going to my then-girlfriend’s then-stepfather’s family’s cottage on White Horse Beach in Plymouth the weekend we saw the movie (or at least fairly closely afterward) and worrying about the baby there, and her family didn’t know about it at that point. So I guess maybe mine didn’t either…? Anyway, it didn’t stop me from seeing Batman on the big screen.
I remember my feelings as the end credits began to roll almost as intensely as I remember my feelings upon hearing that this kid was gonna be a daddy. They weren’t the same feelings, but they were both intense.
George Clooney as Batman is a no-brainer. He gets a bad rap for this movie, and it’s understandable. When compared to Michael Keaton, and even Val Kilmer, Clooney’s Batman/Bruce Wayne is another creature altogether. Still, there’s a sadness in his puppy-dog eyes that can make me believe that he has suffered. The fact that he made the choice–or Schumacher (or Goldsman) made the choice–to make Bruce Wayne less brooding makes sense. I know that if a person loses his/her parents in childhood, at the age of 8 or 10, it’s likely to haunt them for the rest of their lives. I’m also sure some people will spend the rest of their lives brooding, and maybe even trying to make a difference in some way. But I’m also sure that a part of a healthy person’s life is healing and by his mid-30s, while still hurting deeply, maybe Bruce Wayne has come to terms with his parents’ death. And in relation to Batman Forever‘s storyline, it makes sense that Clooney is less brooding.
The imagination behind this movie, like Batman Forever (and Burton’s Batman movies) is something to behold. It’s a strange, alternate world that shouldn’t exist and is a marvel to the eye.
George Clooney as Batman is very flat. Clooney’s casting is brilliant, but he’s given nothing except a larger codpiece and more defined rubber ass cheeks. Here was a guy who played such depth on TV every week in the highest-rated drama of the time being used as a carbon copy of himself. While it’s fine that Bruce may have moved on from his parents’ murders, there’s very little real emotion for him to work with in this movie. The few moments he’s allowed to actually emote are overshadowed by the silliness of the disease that’s threatening to turn his life upside-down again. Aside from that, he’s mildly more interesting than Adam West was as Batman/Bruce Wayne. Oh, and it seems that every shot of every scene has the Clooney head-bob. I know that he does that, that it’s natural, but he’s like a bobble head toy in this movie, even when he’s in the mask.
Chris O’Donnell would be faintly better in this movie than in Batman Forever if it weren’t for his lame dialogue, I think. He had crappy dialogue during his first go-around as Dick Grayson/Robin, and this time it’s even worse. And while we’re on sidekicks, this movie introduces us to Barbara Wilson, who becomes Batgirl, played by Alicia Silverstone. Silverstone became the infatuation to many adolescent boys in the mid-1990s because of her starring role in several Aerosmith music videos (“Cryin'”, “Amazing,” and “Crazy”) but became a star in her breakout role in Amy Heckerling’s Clueless. In that film, she was sassy, magnetic, and pitch perfect. In Batman & Robin she plays Alfred’s niece (as opposed to Commissioner Gordon’s daughter) in a range that can only be called mildly mentally challenged. She’s terrible. Her dialogue, her acting, her action scenes, everything is terrible.
Arnold Schwarzenegger can be charming, charismatic, funny, and just-plain entertaining. I mean, there was a time that people may have actually been willing to rewrite the Constitution to allow him to become President! In Batman & Robin, he almost pulls off charismatic. In many ways, he’s the best part of this movie, and may have been put in The Day section of this essay if it wasn’t for his makeup, dialogue, costumes, acting, and… It’s bad. He has glowing blue teeth in the costume. I had to add that. The concept of Mr. Freeze isn’t a bad one, and Batman: The Animated Series showed that it can be done well. A scientist who, in trying to save his wife’s life by freezing her until her mysterious disease can be cured, accidentally makes himself unable to live outside the coldest temperatures. The sadness of the idea of this brilliant man longing to save his wife but having to turn to crime is great, worthy of a Batman villain. But the writer and director are spending too much time putting in bad jokes, worse puns, and even worse one-liners to ever really give a shit about something so tiny as character. And with the jokes, quips, puns, and one-liners, Schwarzenegger is right at home. By 1997, his star had begun to fade. One could still expect a Schwarzenegger movie nearly once a year, but the reviews were becoming harsher, the action movie was changing, and people were just ready for something new. What they got in Batman & Robin was akin to a 1960s/1970s TV guest star playing to his typecast. Mr. Freeze adds nothing to the Batman film series, poses no real threat, and has muddled-thinking at best.
Poison Ivy, played by Uma Thurman, on the other hand, makes Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze look like Hamlet. Thurman, who’d rocked the boat playing Mia Wallace in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, hams it up so much as Poison Ivy that I felt like I was watching a bad sitcom performance. Thurman can be an excellent actress, full of swagger or innocence, depending on the role. Yet in Batman & Robin she seems to be acting in a way she believes a comic book would be played. And maybe she’s right. I’m probably just another nerdboy upset by what happened to Batman and his mythos in this movie, but I can’t escape feeling that a better script, better dialogue, and better direction would’ve given us a so much better Poison Ivy.
The inclusion of Bane in this movie should’ve been a high point, but instead is a gross misstep in a movie filled with them. As an ardent Batman comic book reader in the early 1990s, I read first-hand Bane’s introduction and story-arc in 1993’s Knightfall. Bane was an intelligent man who wanted to exact revenge on Batman (I fail to remember why right now) and, unlike most of the villains Batman faces, decides he’s going to run Batman into the ground long before they meet face-to-face. By destroying Arkham Asylum and the prison many of Batman’s greatest foes are in, he releases them all and Batman spends months bringing them to justice. By the time he’s through, he’s exhausted, has hardly slept, and walks into the Batcave to find Bane waiting for him. Bane beats up Batman, ending the fight by snapping Batman over his knee, breaking his back. This was Batman’s editors answer to 1992’s “Death of Superman” storyline.
The Bane that appears in Batman & Robin is pumped full of the mysterious Venom that appears in the comic books, but other than that and the costume, he is a shadow. A large shadow. Played by Jeep Swenson, Bane is nothing but grunts and parrot-like responses. He’s essentially Poison Ivy’s henchman and is hardly a threat. While he may have superhuman strength, he has below-human intellect and could be outsmarted by a slow toddler. While the Bane of the comic books was an instant fan favorite, the Bane of Batman & Robin became how most people knew and stigmatized the character. And not only was the take on the character appalling (and demeaning) but the makeup was atrocious.
Look, the acting in general is horrible in the movie. Michael Gough, in his final turn as Alfred, is, again, great, but even he has to stretch. Of course, he and George Clooney are given the only emotional character-driven scene in the movie. Aside from that, it’s all bad. John Glover, who plays Dr. Woodrue, a mad scientist who is working with Poison Ivy’s alter-ego, Pamela Isley, but secretly using her research to create a super-soldier serum (the aforementioned Venom), said that before each take, Joel Schumacher would shout out, “Remember, everyone, this is a cartoon!” Which leads to the main problem of the entire movie.
The filmmakers responsible for the movie didn’t get it. Akiva Goldsman’s script is terrible. Like Batman Forever, Batman & Robin begins with suiting-up (this time it’s Batman and Robin suiting up), complete with groin and ass shots. Then we go into the new Batcave where Batman and Robin stand dramatically as Robin’s motorcycle and the new Batmobile (which has only one seat and no roof!) comes from the floor. And then it’s one-liners and jokes. Welcome to Batman, kids! And it gets no better. Almost every scene in the movie has bad puns, one-liners, jokes, and dumb dialogue. Bruce and Alfred’s relationship is examined, as is the idea of what makes up family, which is all well and good, but it’s forced in the same way student writing has forced meaning because the kid knows the teacher is looking for X.
The production design is hit or miss. Above I mentioned that the world Schumacher and his team created is something to behold, and I meant it. Gotham City is loud and gaudy and crazed. The thing is, it’s a little too gaudy and crazed. I mentioned in my essay on Batman Forever that there’s way too much neon in the movie. The same can be said for this movie, as well as odd colored spotlights projecting on every surface. It’s like modern Tokyo on a steroid/acid mix. While that could be a thing of personal taste, what isn’t is the cheapness of some of the look. The ice that’s generated by Mr. Freeze wherever he goes looks like sculpted plastic. There are scenes when vehicles get hit by his freeze-ray and when a door opens, you can see the “ice” wobble in the motion, looking like cut velum on the doors. Uma Thurman’s costumes are pretty tame and lame, by most standards. Hell, the behind the scenes featurettes on the Blu-ray have a costume person actually saying that her costumes were incomplete by the time filming came. Even her demise at the end is lame, when a huge rubber plant eats her, á la Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors, it doesn’t look nearly as good as the Frank Oz movie of less than 10 years before.
The look of Mr. Freeze’s henchmen is ridiculous. And the heroes change costumes for the final showdown again. This time, instead of it only being Batman in that bulkier suit he used at the end of Batman Forever, even Robin and Batgirl have new costumes made, with silver highlights. Because if you weren’t convinced that the toy makers had a say in the production design before this, they needed to make sure you knew.
Finally, the directing is off. Schumacher had a vision. He carried out that vision. In that, he was successful. He intended on making a silly comic book/cartoon in live-action and he succeeded. That said, the performances of his actors, and his designers, and his scriptwriter were all awful. And while I understand that he was being rushed by Warner Bros., and being held to a standard that would help sell toys as much as movie tickets, there has to be something somewhere in his head that makes him see just how bad the movie is. It’s not a sin to have made Batman & Robin campy in the way the TV series was, or silly like some of the strange stories out of the 1950s, but if you’re going to invoke the 1960s TV series, at least try to be as cutting edge, biting, and smart as they were in the beginning. Batman & Robin were none of these things. And while his apology on the Blu-ray/DVD interviews done in 2005 are now as legendary as the low quality of this movie, in a large part of the interviews, I saw the same things said over and over that I’ve heard other filmmakers say on other bad sequels (I’m looking at you now Jack Sholder and Rachel Talalay). In essence, “We didn’t know that the movie was going to be as big as it was. We didn’t know the fans wouldn’t like it so much. We were trying to make an entertaining movie, that’s all.” That last was true, I’m sure of it. And maybe even the first sentence might have a grain or two of truth. But if anyone working on Batman & Robin from the start thought that the fans of this PG-13-rated movie were going to love any of it, they had to be out of touch with reality.
Warner Bros. had been happy with what they’d seen during the filming of Batman & Robin enough to hire Joel Schumacher to direct a third Batman movie (fifth in the series) which would be called Batman Triumphant and would feature the Scarecrow, Harley Quinn as the Joker’s daughter, and the Joker, as a fear toxin-induced hallucination. Mark Protosevich had been hired to write the script. Word was the cast of Batman & Robin was signed to return and negotiations with Jack Nicholson had begun.
It wouldn’t come to be. In the end, Batman & Robin had a great opening weekend and then dropped immediately as word-of-mouth began to spread. Where fans can save a movie that has bad reviews (how many Transformers movies are there now?), nobody was saving this movie. Schumacher reportedly pitched an idea to do Batman: Year One, in a grittier way as presented in Frank Miller’s original comic, but Warner declined.
I remember walking out of the movie theater shell-shocked. We’d seen an early-afternoon matinee. My girlfriend said that it was pretty good. I felt like I’d been beaten. Worse than that. I can be over-apologetic to movie franchises if I love the overall series enough, anyone reading these essays have seen that. I hated this movie. I saw it one other time before rewatching it to write this. When it finally came on Cinemax, I watched it, convinced that it couldn’t have been as bad as I’d remembered. I was right. It was worse.
It’s a shame, really. I think George Clooney would’ve made a great Batman. I guess we’ll never know.
According to Tim Burton, after Batman Returns came out and was a hit, he was willing to go back to Gotham City again. While he may have hesitated going back for the first sequel, being allowed to really let his imagination go within the Batman’s universe must’ve been to his liking. So when he met with Warner Bros. executives, he launched right into his ideas for Batman III. Except, the execs weren’t reacting in a favorable way. Burton began to realize that it wasn’t just his ideas for a Batman sequel they weren’t in favor of, they weren’t really interested in having him return. So Burton bowed out of the movie. The execs, probably realizing that some of the fans of the first two movies might get upset, signed him on as a producer.
The general idea seems to be that Batman Returns was too dark for many people. Children going into the movie were frightened by the Penguin and parents were no doubt horrified by the sexual jokes and innuendo throughout. Warner Bros. wanted to make Batman more family-friendly. Somehow or another, they went to Joel Schumacher, director of such family fair as The Lost Boys, Flatliners, and Falling Down.
Michael Keaton had been asked to reprise his role as Bruce Wayne/Batman, and seemed willing to do so when Tim Burton would possibly direct, but then didn’t seem sure. Schumacher had seen Val Kilmer in the film Tombstone, where he played Doc Holliday, and thought he would make an interesting Bruce Wayne/Batman. Kilmer accepted the role.
The basic feeling, according to the extras on the Batman Anthology Blu-ray, was that Warner Bros. wanted to reinvent the franchise. Schumacher met with Burton several times at the beginning stages of the movie.
Batman Forever came out to more media hoopla than even the first movie. The merchandising of 1989’s Batman seemed almost an afterthought. By Batman Returns, mini-Penguins appeared in McDonald’s Happy Meals. For Batman Forever, everything was marketed.
By now, I was coming to the end of my high school career. Weeks after I graduated elementary school, Batman came out. Weeks after I graduated high school, Batman Forever came out. By now, I was older, hopefully a leeeetle wiser. I didn’t need Dad to take me, I could go myself. I was rather surprised by the movie as a whole (even though I’d read the novelization, written by the great Peter David. If you haven’t read his novel Sir Apropos of Nothing, go do so! Phenomenal work).
The bat costume in this one returns to the muscle sculpt, only more stylistic. And yes, there are nipples on the suit. My reaction then, and now, is: Who cares? Why not? Well, it’s silly. Yes, it is silly to put nipples on a rubber bat suit that will be worn by a grown man in his 30s so he can fight strange people in other silly costumes. Do you get it, yet? The whole thing is silly. Calm down. Drink your juice. Anyway, I like the look of the main bat suit in this movie. It’s sleeker, it looks pretty badass. It’s fine. And Robin’s costume isn’t bad either. Within the realm of this universe, it’s fine.
Jim Carrey as the Riddler kind of steals the show. His manic energy starts at Frank Gorshin’s level, and then goes atomic. Just as Jack Nicholson and Danny DeVito got lost in their roles, nearly stealing their shows, Carrey’s Riddler does the same. That said, I’m going to withhold any more of my comments on Carrey’s performance for later.
The irony. Not within the script or story itself, but that the reason Warner Bros. went with Joel Schumacher is because of how dark in tone Batman Returns was, yet, Batman Forever has moments nearly as dark, if not darker. And it would’ve been even darker if they’d kept the actual characterization and personal journey that Bruce Wayne goes through in this movie. In Peter David’s novelization of the script by Lee Batchler, Janet Scott-Batchler, and Akiva Goldsman, and apparently in earlier cuts of the movie, Bruce Wayne is suffering from nightmares of repressed memories. In a metaphysical/symbolic scene, Bruce eventually faces a giant bat from these nightmares and makes the decision to be Batman…forever. See? For some reason, most of the scenes were cut. Still, the movie is still pretty dark in both tone and actual darkness.
Michael Gough as Alfred still rocks. His care for Bruce is evident, and the way he works with the newly-orphaned Dick Grayson (Chris O’Donnell) is realistic and entertaining.
The attempt to expand Bruce Wayne’s story. Apparently, Joel Schumacher had proposed doing an adaptation of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One. When Warner Bros. declined, insisting on doing a straight sequel, Schumacher had the screenwriters go back to the Waynes’s murder and expand on the story. While much of this material was cut from the final film, what remains has Bruce Wayne choosing to be Batman. The idea is that in the first two movies, and even through much of this one, he felt a need to continue. Now, facing his past and coming to terms with it means that it’s no longer an obsession so much as a job. In many ways, this is actually a good (albeit weird–who wants to dress up as a bat and fight deadly criminals?) thing for the character. It means that Wayne has come to terms with his parents’ deaths and can begin the process of healing. Whether remaining Batman forever will help in this healing is doubtful, but it’s a step to making Bruce Wayne a more fully realized character. And I’m all for that.
The acting is bad. Joel Schumacher gets a bad rap from Batman fans. They’ll call him inept, and silly, and frivolous, and that kind of thing. He’s really a decent director. The Lost Boys should’ve been silly, but it’s an effective horror movie. His John Grisham adaptations, and movies like Falling Down all have characters you care about to some degree, with fairly good acting. But perhaps too much time was spent on costumes, effects, neon, lighting, nipples and bums, neon, Jim Carrey antics, and neon to pay attention to the actors’ performances. Val Kilmer, who can turn in great performances, is horrible as Bruce Wayne and only marginally better as Batman. He’s wooden, stiff, and his voice never emotes. Nicole Kidman, who has pretty good acting chops, gives a performance one expects from a high school production (I’ve actually seen better acting in high school performances, to be fair). Her character, Dr. Chase Meridian, is one of the worst psychiatrists I’ve ever seen, and throws herself at Batman almost immediately.
Some people weren’t thrilled with Robin’s introduction to the Batman movie world, but I was cool with it. Batman had Robin longer than he didn’t. But Chris O’Donnell is pretty bad in this movie. I think he does the best he can with the script, honestly, but the role isn’t great and he’s not great in it. It’s a shame, really. I would’ve loved for Dick Grayson/Robin to have worked.
I gave Jim Carrey some props before, and he does steal the show, but when he’s onscreen, it becomes a Jim Carrey movie. An early-1990s Jim Carrey movie. So we have Batman vs. Ace Venture: Pet Detective/The Mask. (Wait…I need a ticket to Hollywood…I smell a million-billion dollars!). He overacts the entire time he’s onscreen. The subtly of his performances in The Truman Show and Man on the Moon are nowhere to be seen here. And the worst…
It pains me to do this, but Tommy Lee Jones deserves his own paragraph here. His take on Harvey Dent/Two-Face, in this movie called Harvey Two-Face, is horrible. I blame the Akiva Goldsman and Joel Schumacher. Schumacher wanted Jones to play Harvey Two-Face immediately. Jones wasn’t so thrilled. In interviews given at the time, he even says it took him a while to warm up to the idea of playing this character and that it was his son’s enthusiasm for the character and movie that really got him to say yes. There’s no problem so far, because I think Jones would make a great Harvey Dent/Two-Face. Yet, it’s pretty apparent that Goldsman’s rewrite of the Batchlers’ script lightened the tone of the characters, and Schumacher wanted things to be more theatrical. The fact that Jim Carrey’s portrayal of Edward Nygma/the Riddler was allowed to get so out of hand, it almost meant that Tommy Lee Jones had to be large. And a big part of that is…
Your definition of a “comic book” is different than mine. Throughout the documentary features on the Batman Anthology Blu-ray set, Schumacher, Jones, and just about everyone else working behind the scenes keeps referring to Batman Forever as a comic book movie. This is fine. That’s exactly what Batman Forever is. The problem is that the readers of comic books of 1995 and the filmmakers who made Batman Forever based on the Batman comic books they grew up reading were coming from totally different places. Consider this: The two comic book stories that convinced Tim Burton to take on directing Batman were Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke (1988). Both were new stories that came out right around the time Warner Bros. offered the movie to him. His initial reaction to the offer, if I’m not mistaken, was No thanks. It was upon reading those two mid-1980s stories that Burton decided he might be able to make this movie, and signed on. Those are two of the darker stand-alone Batman tales from that time period, and, along with Miller’s Batman: Year One (1986), set the tone for Batman stories for the next thirty years.
In nearly every interview that is on the Batman Forever disc, from actors to director and everyone in between, we hear about their memories of Batman comic books growing up, and how they did everything they could to make the movie like one of those comic books. Schumacher, born three months after Batman’s debut in 1939, would remember him from the 1940s and 1950s, during Batman’s more zany days. Hell, he may have even been one of those kids at the movies watching the Batman serials. Even Chris O’Donnell mentions the TV show as a fond memory, saying in an interview on the disc that he didn’t really like Batman Returns because of how dark it was.
So Warner Bros. gives Schumacher the word to tone down the darkness, and he obliges by making a comic book movie in the style of comic books he grew up reading. The people working on the movie don’t care, because their memories of Batman comic books are from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Maybe some of the 1970s, though by that time, Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams, under the stewardship of Julius Schwartz, was bringing Batman back to his dark roots.
I hate to say it, but Schumacher was doing exactly what he was told to do, in the exact way he felt it should be done. So if the movie looks overproduced, it’s because he’s making a Schumacher comic book movie. And it does look overproduced in strange ways. One last thing, though, I don’t necessarily buy that Schumacher was unaware of what was currently going on in comic books at that time. He seems like he’d have his thumb on pop culture. I’m not sure why, but that’s how it seems to me. Also, if I have the story correct, he originally pitched doing an adaptation of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, which would’ve been more in line with his filmography. Warner Bros. was more interested in doing a third story in the already-existing universe, but lighter.
The film is hypocritical. After Two-Face–sorry–Harvey Two-Face–kills Dick Grayson’s entire family (for some reason, they give him a brother, because losing your parents isn’t enough), Bruce Wayne takes the young man in. Now, Chris O’Donnell looks too old to be taken in by Bruce Wayne. Dick Grayson was originally supposed to be around 12 when Wayne took him in back in 1940. O’Donnell looks like he’s in his early 20s. So there’s that bit of miscasting I failed to mention above. Anyway, once Dick finds out Bruce is Batman, he wants to join him as a partner. His main goal: to kill Harvey Two-Face. Bruce tells him that killing Harvey won’t do any good. That he’ll be empty inside and still grieving. Now, this is touching. We know that Batman has killed his parents’ murderer (the Joker, in the first movie) and didn’t stop being Batman. He’s still solemn, dark, and brooding. And now suffers from nightmares. He’s also killed the Penguin and a whole bunch of henchmen along the way. Who knows who he’s killed between movies? And now, he doesn’t want to kill anymore. All right, I’ll buy that. Yet, guess what happens at the end of the movie? Yeah. Harvey Two-Face Dent dies. Batman does something that eventually leads to Two-Face falling to a rather gruesome (off-camera) death. And Robin is obviously satisfied. And that is the message we’re delivering to little kids.
The CGI is horrible in the movie. I know it was toward the beginning of CGI work, but you had pretty good looking dinosaurs roaming around two years prior in Jurassic Park, and Forrest Gump running through CGI work the prior year, so your Gotham City computer landscapes, and vehicles, should probably look better than they do.
The story is really pretty bad, and I think it’s the deletion of Bruce Wayne’s dark psychological problem with nightmares. It was the glue that held the story together and by getting rid of it, you lose the emotional thrust of the movie. And in an attempt to lighten the mood, the movie resorts to bad one-liners. The movie opens (after a lame CGI credit sequence that feels more like amateur filmmaking than major Hollywood movie) in the Batcave. Batman quickly suits up (nipples!) and we find the new Batmobile coming up from the floor. Batman walks dramatically, theatrically to his mark, where he stands beside the Batmobile, a perfect stop for movie stills in magazines. Cut to: Alfred standing nearby, holding a tray of food. “Can I persuade you to take a sandwich with you, sir?” Batman replies, “I’ll get drive-thru.” That’s our introduction to Batman in this movie. His first line. “I’ll get drive-thru.” It’s not like they’d planned on using footage for McDonald’s commercials. Oh…
The Batmobile is horrible! It looks like…well…a toy car! The glowing lights in the wheels? And what is it with all the strange lights, anyway? Neon and projected lights and lasers everywhere!
Batman has two costumes. This is in line with the comic books, to a degree. Especially in the 1940s and 1950s. There is a prototype costume that Bruce Wayne wears after the Riddler has destroyed the Batcave and his costumes. It’s a bigger costume that’s supposed to have some extra features, though there don’t seem to be many. It makes Batman look bigger, and Val Kilmer look silly. At least it allows him a second suit-up (butt cheeks!), just in time for the final act of the movie, when he’s about to go get the bad guys.
Overall, the movie fails not because of the nipples or ass crack on the bat suit, not because of the bad acting, not even because of Schumacher’s overproduced, overly-theatrical ways. The movie fails because the emotional core of the movie is gone. The concern is more for action figures and merchandising than on telling a good story. Even Dick Grayson’s story, which should make us care, has no real emotion to it. He’s angry and wants revenge. Who are the Grayson’s? Why should we care?
On June 16th, 1995, opening night, I saw the movie with a friend. The 10 PM showing. I remember liking it more back then than I do now. Who knows why? I certainly don’t. But I liked it enough to watch it a few times after it came out on video. Still, I didn’t watch nearly as much as the two Burton movies, so that’s probably telling.
Anyway, Batman Forever did quite well at the box office. It was a no-brainer for Warner Bros. There would be a fourth Batman, and Joel Schumacher would direct. The possibilities were endless. What could possibly go wrong?
While Batman may not have graced the silver screen between the 1966 and 1989 films, his presence was certainly available on television. In 1968, Filmation put out The Batman/Superman Hour, which featured The Adventures of Batman, an animated series that captured the tone of the TV series, yet still felt like the comic books. Olan Soule provided the voice of Batman, and Casey Kasem provided the voice for Robin. The show lasted one season. Batman and Robin made their next animated appearance in the classic 2-part story on The New Scooby-Doo Movies in 1972. The following year, Hanna-Barbera debuted Super Friends, an animated version of the Justice League, which brought some of DC Comic’s most famous superheroes (and a few created just the show) to the small screen. It was the place to get your Batman and Superman fix for a generation, and lasted in some incarnation for more than a decade. Soule and Kasem provided the voices for the Dynamic Duo for these shows. Funnily enough, Filmation put out The New Adventures of Batman in 1977, starring the voices of Adam West and Burt Ward. Like its predecessor, this show lasted one season. Except for reruns of the 1966-1968 TV series and the Filmation cartoons, Super Friends, and it’s 1984-1986 Super Powers spin-off (which was really a tie-in for the superlative Kenner action figure line), Batman was getting no love. (I will ignore the 1979 TV specials Legends of the Superheroes, in which Adam West and Burt Ward reprise their roles, which were shot on videotape with a laugh track. I haven’t seen them…yet).
When Batman was released in 1989, and became a huge hit, not only was Warner Bros. eager for a sequel, but they thought that the time was right for new animated adventures. Enter Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski. Together, they began work on what would become a series that changed animated action television. Going for a stylized look that was at the same time simple and complicated, and taking the tone from the Tim Burton films, the complicated characters from the comic books, and the excellence in animation from the Fleischer Superman cartoons, Timm and Radomski got to put the closest thing to the Batman comic books the screen has ever seen.
Debuting in September 1992, three months after Batman Returns premiered, Batman: The Animated Series became one of the Fox Network’s big afternoon hits. The show was so popular that the decision was made to produce a direct-to-video movie. Written by Alan Burnett and Michael Reaves, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm went into production. Warner Bros. executives were so impressed with what they saw, they decided to release the movie in theaters. So in December 1993, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm came out.
By December 1993, I was well into my junior year of high school. While I looked very much forward to the third Batman movie, and was a fan of the animated TV series, I didn’t get to see the movie. I wanted to, it just didn’t happen. As a matter of fact, I didn’t get to see the movie until I needed to write this. So with 21 years between its theatrical release and my first viewing, let’s get to it.
There’s a reason why Kevin Conroy has been cast as Batman so often in animation and videogames. Like Bud Collyer did for Superman on the radio and in cartoons, Conroy managed to change his voice in a believable way to distinguish Bruce Wayne and Batman. His performance his excellent.
Mark Hamill as the Joker is as legendary as Conroy as Batman. When geeks fight over who has done the best performance of the Joker, Hamill’s name is often cited. Hamill, a long-time comic book fan, truly got into the Joker’s derangement and deadliness. While his lines are sometimes far from great, he performs the role with such relish that one cannot help but be moved.
The courage it took to make the main “villain” a completely new character with the surprise ending that the Phantasm (who was a cross between Darth Vader, the Grim Reaper, and a comic book character called The Reaper, featured in Batman: Year Two) is actually Bruce Wayne’s love interest, Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delaney). It also rewrites Bruce Wayne’s history a little, having him actually propose to Beaumont. Her sudden departure helps him fully decide to become Batman.
The animation is pretty good, as is the background art. The creators went for an Art Deco feel to Gotham City that captured the feel of Tim Burton’s Gotham City while being distinctly its own.
The music is great. It’s based on Danny Elfman’s score from the films and is appropriate for the series, as well as the movie.
In the hour-and-15-minutes the movie lasts, I found myself bored at times. The movie goes back-and-forth in time, from the present to the time just before Bruce Wayne decides to be Batman. We see him try to take on criminals wearing a regular mask and getting his ass kicked (something that has become common since Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One). We see him meet Andrea Beaumont, fall in love with her, propose, realize her father is in with the mob, and lose her throughout the movie’s many flashbacks, all done with the cheesy wavy transitions that I thought had stopped being used sometime in 1983. Maybe it’s because I was chasing after a 20-month-old (who was super-excited to see Baa-Bah! on TV), but if I was bored with it, I imagine the original target audience of children may be, too. Maybe not, just my guess.
I love animation but there seems to be something with a lot of these modern superhero animated shows/movies in the sound quality. The voices of the actors are clear and concise, but they’re too clear and concise. It doesn’t sound like the characters are in a world consisting of life. And when background sound effects are added, they also tend to fall flat. Maybe it’s just me.
The Phantasm is a little lame. For a movie called Mask of the Phantasm, I expected more Phantasm. I understand that there was supposed to be the mystery of who the Phantasm was, but when he shows up, he’s really bad at what he sets out to do, and he really is no match for Batman, the Joker, or just about any mobster he comes into contact with.
Overall, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is an enjoyable enough movie, which I’m sure fits right in with the TV series (I haven’t watched the show for a long time), but I seem to remember that the series was more interesting overall.
Still, the movie did well enough that Warner Bros. made two more animated movies, though both were strictly direct-to-video, so we’ll skip over them. It certainly was a good enough placeholder, as was the overall television series, until the next Batman movie came out.
With Batman‘s huge success, Warner Bros. obviously wanted another movie, and obviously wanted Tim Burton to direct it. However, Burton wasn’t sure he wanted to direct it, and had a story of his own he was passionate about. That movie, Edward Scissorhands, became the film that is probably most quintessentially Tim Burton. Release by 20th Century Fox in 1990, it was a modern fairy tale that utilized many of Burton’s already-known quirky styling and enhanced them. It was a hit.
Eventually, Burton went back to Warner Bros. and agreed to do the next Batman. The biggest thing he wanted, though, was the kind of control he’d had over Edward Scissorhands. As such, producers Jon Peter and Peter Gubers became executive producers while Burton and longtime collaborator Denise DiNovi became producers. A script by Batman writer Sam Hamm was rewritten by Daniel Waters (as well as a ghost-rewrite by Wesley Strick) and eventually passed muster. With Burton on board, Michael Keaton agreed to resume the roles of Bruce Wayne and Batman.
When Batman came out in 1989, I was fresh out of elementary school having just finished 6th grade (in these parts, 5th grade now constitutes the end of elementary school). Junior high school (7th-8th grade, as opposed to today’s middle school, 6th-8th) was pretty bad. Some of the worst years of my life. My freshman year of high school was only marginally better. I transferred schools after 2 months, not happy with the original high school I’d attended and opting for the area’s vocational-technical high school to do art. The two things I looked forward to for the 1991-1992 school year were Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare and Batman Returns. At least one of them delivered.
The cast is quite good. Keaton’s second go-around as Batman and Bruce Wayne is more interesting than the first. Maybe it’s the redesigned suit, which features a thinner mask/cowl than its predecessor and torso armor that looks more like armor than the 1989’s sculpted muscles. Maybe Keaton just grew more comfortable moving around as the character. Either way, his Bruce Wayne is more interesting, willing to smile and actually try to be a part of his world, while his Batman kicks a little more ass, and is even more like the Batman from the comic books from that time period.
Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle/Catwoman starts off a little rocky, my guess is mostly due to the script, but quickly becomes a scene stealer. Pfeiffer is confident, sexy, and smart and it comes through. As the movie progresses, her character is more and more interesting and her performance gets better and better, no easy feat considering movies shoot scenes out of order. She is a great foil to Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne/Batman. The scene at Max Shreck’s masquerade ball is easily their best together without the masks. In masks, all their scenes together are great.
Danny DeVito’s Penguin is ridiculously over-the-top and hilariously evil. It shouldn’t work. Upon rewatching the movie for this essay, I didn’t think it would work now that I’m an adult. But I couldn’t help but laugh at the double- and triple-entendres I missed as a 14-year-old high school kid. The movie is wildly inappropriate yet most kids wouldn’t know it because the humor is above them. I found myself quite mesmerized by the character this go-round.
Christopher Walken’s Max Shreck is the true villain of the piece. A corporate do-nasty, he has plans for Gotham City and uses the Penguin as a means for more control. When Batman foils the plan to get Penguin elected mayor of Gotham, Shreck disassociates himself with the deformed man, leaving the Penguin to fend for himself, which sets up the last act of the movie. Walken plays Shreck in a way that is subtle but scary. While DeVito is chewing the scenery and give a broad performance, Walken pulls it in and allows his eyes and increasingly wild white hair to do the work.
There’s better pacing this time around. Maybe because there are so many characters that the audience has to keep track of, maybe the filmmakers took a cue from some of the negative comments about Batman, but there’s more action in this movie, and more interesting things happening. It’s actually quite insane. The costumes and shenanigans of the Penguin’s Red Circus Gang are ridiculous, but create a world that one almost wishes existed. If these were the villains we had to deal with, life may be crazier, but maybe we’d be safer in the long run.
The movie is actually quite funny in places, and appropriately so. Unlike the campy satire of the 1966-1968 Batman, Batman Returns has the aforementioned risqué humor from the Penguin, as well as cute scenes, like the one involving Bruce, Alfred, and Selina. Bruce and Selina are on a date (that in itself is funny, since a heavy make-out session–that was about to go farther–had to be stopped since they both suffered from wounds they gave each other the night before in their alternate personas) when trouble happens. Bruce, scatterbrained as usual, tries to get Alfred to tell Selina a lie so he can run off and be Batman. The moment Bruce leaves, Selina comes in and does essentially the same thing.
Another great moment comes later on and also concerns Alfred. The Batmobile has been compromised and needs repairs. As Bruce Wayne is accessing a secret way into the Batcave, via an iron maiden, Alfred reminds him that they can’t just send the Batmobile to any old repair shop.
“Hey,” Bruce says. “Who let Vicki Vale into the Batcave? I’m sitting there working and it’s like, ‘Oh. Hi, Vicki. How are you?'”
It’s a great moment acknowledging the outcry the fans made over Vickie Vale entering the Batcave and the interaction between Michael Keaton and Michael Gough helps show Bruce and Alfred’s relationship.
Which is why I’m going to give Michael Gough more accolades here. While Gough gave Batman some much-needed humanity, here he reinforces the humanity of others. Whether it’s the playful interplay between him and Keaton, or him and Pfeiffer, or it’s him alone discovering something or working some sort of Bat-equipment, Gough is phenomenal. He manages to make Alfred seem both put-upon and fatherly simultaneously.
Again, Tim Burton and his production designers, costumers, make-up artists, and prop people create a world unto itself. Gotham City in Batman Returns feels as though it belongs in the world set up in the first movie but takes it in different directions. The former amusement park where the Penguin has lived (and retreats to), Shreck’s Department Store and its offices, the rooftops of Gotham, and Gotham Square are all familiar and alien at the same time. Again, it’s hard to pin down the era in which the movie takes place, though it does feel more of its time (1992) than its predecessor, much of the costuming has a 1940s/1950s feel, except for Bruce Wayne, Batman, and eventually Selina Kyle/Catwoman.
Danny Elfman’s score was great in the first movie and is even better here. Maybe in the three years between movies he grew more as a composer? Maybe he’s more comfortable with the subject? Either way, his score in this movie builds from Batman’s theme and goes way, way beyond. And without Prince’s crappy music to force into the movie, the music really soars. (And before you leave angry comments about me calling Prince’s music crappy, let me say that I don’t think all of his music is crappy. I actually like a lot of it. But his music for Batman was just bad, man.)
No Harvey Dent. Apparently, he was in some of the earlier drafts of the movie but was eventually deleted because they had too many characters. Even Commissioner Gordon’s role was diminished in this movie. While Pat Hingle isn’t my favorite James Gordon, Gordon is such a huge part of the Batman mythos that hardly seeing him onscreen is a little disconcerting. I think Dent’s character growing through the movie, even if it was only a few short scenes, would’ve been pretty cool. Yeah, that’s more of me as a fan-geek than as a serious critic, but that’s how I see it. Besides, I’m hardly a serious critic.
The film is a little too…theatrical? Is that the right word? One of the things that Tim Burton is known for is his distinct style. There were glimpses of it in his first three movies (Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, and Batman) but it really took shape in Edward Scissorhands. His movies are very stylized and have a specific look to them, from the use of the camera, the use of miniature sets, to the way characters enter and exit a scene. It’s all very theatrical, which isn’t a terrible thing, and is arguably one of the things that makes his movies (well, most of them) fun to watch. Here it’s a little silly sometimes. Two examples I remember from when I was 14 and noticed (and made me smile) now have to do with Michael Keaton.
In these early Batman movies (and many other action movies of the 1980s into the early-1990s), there is a scene when the hero suits up. Whether it’s John Rambo in Rambo: First Blood Part II, or Schwarzenegger in one of his movies, or Batman, there is a scene when the hero goes from being…well…the hero to the, um, hero. In this move, Bruce Wayne goes to the Batcave for the final act’s suit up. He goes into the new vault where all the Batman costumes are located (he must’ve renovated the cave since the first movie). There’s a drawbridge that leads right up to the first costume, which takes up the doorway. It’s quite apparent that you can’t go into the room with the costume where it is, yet Michael Keaton walks right up the small drawbridge and into the room–and obviously nose-to-nose against the first costume. I know what they were going for, and it would’ve been a great shot. Except that you can see at the last minute Keaton has to stop and stand awkwardly, trying not to dump that first costume.
The second moment comes closer to the end. Batman is in his new vehicle, called the Batskiboat, and rushing toward the Penguin’s lair in the abandoned amusement park. He has used a frequency changer (with the help of Alfred) to save Gotham from the Penguin’s penguins and has redirected them to the amusement park. The Penguin, quite angry, rides his motorized duck car to the surface and the Batskiboat follows, crashing from a tunnel and on top of the duck, crushing it. The lid of the Batskiboat slides open and Batman is obviously bent over, squished inside so he can stand up and get out of the vehicle. In other words, the life-size one they built for this scene was too small to fit Michael Keaton. I know I’m nitpicking, but I remember that it bothered me at 14. And that’s the thing with those small, stylistic things, as an adult I find them almost charming, but as a kid, they took me out of the story.
Gotham City feels smaller in this movie. Batman was shot in England, at the legendary Pinewood Studios, where a huge chunk of Gotham City was built. Pinewood Studios is also where portions of Superman and Superman II were shot on the famous 007 Stage. On the backlot, portions of New York City streets were recreated for the infamous fight between Superman and General Zod and his crew. In Batman, Gotham feels like a city. In Batman Returns, which was filmed at Warner Bros. Studios in Los Angeles, even though the sets were huge, it looks (and feels) like less of Gotham was built. And it’s pretty obvious that certain sets were re-used, albeit decorated differently (the exterior of Shreck’s Dept Store and the exterior of Gotham City Hall of Records). Even with the matte paintings of Gotham’s skylines, and chases on the rooftops, Gotham feels small.
Batman the murderer is on the loose. Seriously, Burton’s Batman is a killer in the same way that every action movie star of the 1980s-1990s are, and it’s disappointing. In an interview for one of the behind-the-scene documentaries on Warner Bros.’s superb Batman Anthology DVD/Blu-ray set, I believe it was Daniel Waters who said that while fans complained that Batman killed in these movies, they felt they needed to make him more modern, and in modern movies, the action heroes often kill indiscriminately. To which I say: Bullshit. Why the need to make Batman like every other action star of that time period? Batman purposely uses the Batmobile to set someone on fire, and purposely attaches a bomb to another criminal, blowing him to hell. (How many people will come to my website by searching Batman blowing? We’ll find out! Whee!). And for all intents and purposes, he kills the Penguin as well. Yet, he stands down in the Penguin’s lair, trying to convince Selina Kyle not to kill Max Shreck. He argues that they’re not like Shreck, which I read as, “We’re not killers like he is.” Except…he’s killed all those goons that worked with the Joker, the Joker, several of Penguin’s goons, and, at this point, possibly the Penguin…twice. The way I see it, if Selina Kyle/Catwoman kills Shreck, she’s doing something Batman most likely would’ve done anyway. The argument is, of course, he had no choice but to kill these people. Maybe, maybe not. But the thing that makes the comic book Batman so interesting is that he is unwilling to kill, and when he does, it messes him up.
The black gunk that comes from the Penguin’s mouth. It’s just weird. Blech.
Like Burton’s initial foray into Gotham City, Batman Returns is a tour-de-force of imaginative filmmaking. Nitpicking aside, not only do I enjoy the movie, but I like it even more than its predecessor. It’s faster paced, has more humor, and is just more fun. I saw it twice in the theaters when it came out (and still have the ticket stubs) and multiple times in the year or two that followed, once I got the videotape for Christmas.
Batman Returns was a financial hit, though the reviews were mixed. While Burton’s vision and unique storytelling prowess were often cited as plusses, they were also parts of the criticism that the movie, which was rated PG-13 (like its predecessor), was too dark and too scary. Still, it seemed inevitable that Warner Bros. would want a third adventure. And I knew, that summer in which I turned 15, that I couldn’t wait for a third movie!
A possible piece of trivia: I’ve kept movie stubs for every movie I’ve seen since June 1992. The first stub is for Batman Returns. So is the second stub, seen a month later.
1989 was a big year for Batman. It was his 50th birthday and it was the year he would appear in a major motion picture for the first time in 23 years.
Beginning in the early 1970s, Batman (and comic book) fan Michael Uslan tried getting Hollywood interested in bringing Batman back to the big screen. After pitching his idea to producer Benjamin Melniker, the two went from one studio to the next, eventually winning over the producing team of Jon Peters and Peter Guber. Still, there was little interest. Until the end of 1978.
With the success of Superman: The Movie, Warner Bros. wanted to do what DC Comics itself had done 40 years prior and follow the film up with a new superhero movie. They brought the property back to Warner Bros. (who owns DC Comics) and began the task of bringing Batman to the big screen again. However, nothing seemed to work. Treatment after treatment was pitched to Warner Bros., which would agree, and then change their minds. Tom Mankiewicz, who’d ghostwritten revisions to Mario Puzo’s script for Superman and Superman II when Richard Donner was on both projects (and given the onscreen credit of Creative Consultant), even wrote a treatment. Getting the right director was difficult and pinning down the tone of the movie, and character, was also difficult.
After his success with the Warner Bros. release of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), Tim Burton was asked to direct. Not a comic book fan himself, he was intrigued by the imagery of Batman and the Joker. More treatments were written and things weren’t official until Burton’s next movie, Beetlejuice (1988), was successful. Warner Bros. officially greenlit Batman and the stage was set for one of the biggest film franchises of all time.
I knew none of the above. I was a kid, fer chrissakes! What I did know was that in December of 1988, Entertainment Tonight promised a first look at the new Batman movie and I was intrigued. They showed a part of the trailer and I was blown away. I distinctly remember Batman turning around to face the camera, bloodied, his mask dark rubber, ears tall like they were in the comic books. I’d already heard that Michael Keaton–whom I knew from Mr. Mom, Gung Ho, Johnny Dangerously (I love this movie!), Beetlejuice, and a movie I loved called The Dream Team (I haven’t seen it since about 1990, so forgive me if it’s bad)–would play Batman, and I wondered how that would be. I didn’t understand, at that time, the controversy of the decision other than he was known as a comedic actor and Batman was an action/adventure role. I didn’t really know that Batman was supposed to be dark because, even though I had a bunch of Batman comic books from the early-1980s, I hadn’t really read them. I was too young when they came into the house. I still had them and would go back and reread them, but at this point, that was still months away. Seeing that first glimpse of Keaton as Batman got me excited, but I was still a little confused. To me, Adam West was still Batman. I was 11 years old, give me a break.
Sometime around March the marketing machine really started and Batman tee shirts, posters, lunchboxes…the list goes on…started popping up. I remember walking through JC Penney at the local mall and seeing a bunch of Batman tee shirts, for someone my size! At this time, superhero clothing was still for little kids. I was in sixth grade (my last year of elementary school, back then). Also, I was a “husky” 11-year-old.
Batman was everywhere. One of the first adult novels I ever read on my own was the paperback novelization of the movie, written by Craig Shaw Gardner.
1989 was a big year for movies, and that summer was particularly good. It featured not only Batman, but also Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ghostbusters II, Lethal Weapon 2, and A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child. I got to see Batman, Indiana Jones, and Freddy Krueger in the movies that summer. The other two I saw on VHS when they came out. Either way, it was a good summer.
We went to see Batman a week or two after its release and there was still lines going around the building. We saw Honey, I Shrunk the Kids instead. Finally, my father took me one Saturday afternoon to see it. By now, I’d read the novelization and had read a behind-the-scenes magazine. The movie still left a big mark on me.
Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman. Last year, when it was announced that Ben Affleck would play Batman and geeks cried out in a rage, I laughed at them. Maybe they were too young to remember, but I do remember the Michael Keaton fiasco. His Bruce Wayne stands apart from any that had come before or since. He is seemingly a normal guy, looks completely normal. He certainly does not look like someone who dresses like a bat and fights crime at night. Yet, it totally works because of this. As Wayne, he is scattered and scarred, trying to find some sort of normalcy but having trouble. When we meet him at a charity benefit being held at Wayne Manor to help save Gotham’s bicentennial festival, Vicki Vale (played by Kim Basinger) taps him on the shoulder and asks if he knows who Bruce Wayne is. He says no, she thanks him and walks away, and he stands there with a pen he’d been using to sign something with. He realizes he has the pen and doesn’t know what to do with it. He stabs the soil of a huge potted plant with the pen, leaving it there, to be instantaneously retrieved by Alfred (Michael Gough), who also saves a champagne flute. It’s the perfect introduction to a man who continues being the child he was when his parents were murdered in front of him. It’s only after a strange conversation with Vicki Vale and reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) that we see him in his true self, looking at a bank of monitors in the Batcave.
His acting as Batman is somewhat stilted and emotionless, but this makes sense for someone trying to conceal his identity. The costume itself provided lots of limitations. In trying to achieve accuracy between the comic books and the movie, the costume designers chose to make the mask and cowl go right down to the cape. Unfortunately, the latex foam rubber used to make the mask meant that Keaton couldn’t turn his head without ripping the cowl from the neck. Also, with the thickness of the mask near his eyes and around his head, he had trouble seeing and hearing. Taking all this into consideration, Keaton did a helluva job. Even without it, his tone was correct for the movie overall.
Jack Nicholson obviously needs to be mentioned, though I almost ask myself Why bother? Everyone knows he did an excellent job as the Joker. Yes, he may have hammed it up some, but the character hams it up. He had the energy that Cesar Romero brought to the role (mustache and all) in 1966-1968, but was sinister and deadly. And as much as I’m a Robin Williams fan and truly think he would’ve been great in the role, Jack Nicholson as the Joker seemed like destiny. Not only that, but he brought a certain amount of respect to the movie.
The production design is pretty amazing. The idea of making a wholly original city that looks like a nightmare come to life is inspired. Taking the idea that Gotham City is a tortured, sickly, corrupt city and then making it look that way in an outward manifestation was bold. Anton Furst’s designs are nightmarish and effective. Compared to the studio backlots used in the serials as well as the 1966 TV series, or the Los Angeles skyline and surrounding country roads, and unlike Superman: The Movie (and Superman II), which used New York City as its Metropolis, this film had Gotham City as its own thing, unlike any other city. It was a place you’d barely want to walk in the afternoon, never mind after dark.
The Batmobile. How do you top the 1960’s iconic Batmobile? Well, here you go. It’s sleek, sinister, and not at all kitschy. It’s a more realistic Batmobile, to be sure. Where the 1966 Batmobile (as well as most of the comic book versions before and after) were gaudy and seemed to almost be an advertisement to the city of Gotham that Batman had arrived, this Batmobile is scary.
Michael Gough as Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne’s butler (and surrogate father) is amazing. Understated, elegant, and fatherly, he is the heart of the movie. In the scene where Bruce Wayne and Vicki Vale have their first date in Wayne Manor and end up eating with him, he turns a clichéd scene into something real. Throughout the movie, he is truly the one Bruce Wayne listens to. You get the idea that while he goes along with Wayne’s idea to dress up like a bat to kick some criminal ass, he doesn’t completely agree with it. As such, one of the movie’s most controversial scenes makes sense. More on this later.
The introduction to District Attorney Harvey Dent is a great thing, and the fact that they cast a black man, Billy Dee Williams, to the part is even better. It meant that there was the idea that a sequel could be made and that one could see Dent’s transformation into Two-Face. Because of knowing for this movie, it would make the tragedy of his story that much stronger. Williams turns in a solid performance, too, though he’s not given the screen time he should be.
Danny Elfman’s score is top-notch. The opening titles music alone (a slow reveal of the bat symbol) is as good as John Williams’s Superman theme (or his Star Wars or Indiana Jones themes, for that matter). Where Williams’s Superman theme was bold and hopeful, heroic, Elfman’s Batman theme is heroic, sure, but also dark and mysterious. The rest of his music is every bit as quirky as director Tim Burton is, and bold as the hero Batman is.
Tim Burton’s direction is brilliant at times. His quirky storytelling ability that led him to direct Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice (which was originally going to be directed by Wes Craven, with a darker, meaner script) and made them instant classics doesn’t seem right for Batman, yet he does a great job with the piece. The movie could move a little faster, and the dialogue could be better, but overall Burton’s vision of the characters–and of the nightmare that was Gotham City–made the movie unique and made it a movie unlike many other superhero movies, before or since. It’s set in a time unto itself. It could be the 1940s, except the TVs are all in color, and Vicki Vale’s wardrobe and car are definitely 1980s (so is Bruce Wayne’s wardrobe). I wonder if this is his way of saying that Vicki Vale is more progressive and ahead of the curve than those around her, or if it means that Gotham is behind the times. After all, she’s a visitor. Batman’s gear could be from the future. Burton’s vision is complete and the world he provides for us is complete.
Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale is all right most of the time, and terrible at others. Of course, how she got the part has become part of the legend of this movie, but I’ll repeat it for those who may not know (which is a Good Thing, it means you have a life!). Originally, Sean Young had been hired to play the part of Vicki Vale, photojournalist. Part of Bruce and Vicki’s date was supposed to have them horseback riding on the Wayne Manor grounds. About a week before shooting, Young was getting acquainted with the horse she was supposed to ride and she fell off, breaking her arm. The producers decided to recast the part since it was so physical. The list of actresses available in such short notice, with the talent they were looking for, was short. Basinger was on the list and she could drop everything and move to England for three-to-four months, so she was hired. Again, she’s not terrible, but maybe a little more time, a better script, something would’ve helped. In scenes with Robert Wuhl’s Alexander Knox, she goes from friendly to sharp instantly. Her delivery of some of the lines is almost as though she’s practicing them. I also think the script and/or directing has her screaming too damn much. She just came back from a war, according to the story, and now she’s screaming the classic scream queen scream in every other scene? Once or twice? Yes. But….
I’m not a fan of Alexander Knox. Robert Wuhl is a gifted comedian. His HBO specials Assume the Position with Mr. Wuhl and its follow-up are brilliant, but I can’t stand Alexander Knox. I couldn’t when I was 11/12, I can’t now. He’s supposed to provide comic relief, which I’m fine with, and he’s supposed to be the audience’s point-of-view, but I find him taking away too much screen time that I would’ve loved to have seen go to Bruce Wayne, Batman, or even Vicki Vale.
The writing and pacing are a little off. Part of this, no doubt, has to do with the 1988 Writers Guild strike, which affected many movies and TV shows that year (it’s mentioned in my essay on A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master). The dialogue in places is spot-on and perfect (the Joker’s dialogue, Alfred’s dialogue), other times it’s pretty bad (most of Vicki Vale’s lines, many of Bruce Wayne’s). As far as pacing, there are some cool action pieces throughout the movie, but there are times when it’s dull and boring. I also have to wonder if getting Jack Nicholson actually hurt the movie. He was billed before Michael Keaton, who played the title role! His fee and demands are stuff of legend, as is his earning on the back end (which is quite common now), but I wonder if having spent so much on Nicholson made the movie more about the Joker. Of course, one plot point that gets fans angered is Alfred letting Vicki Vale into the Batcave, something that co-screenwriter (and writer of the original story) Sam Hamm says he had nothing to do with, pinning it all on co-screenwriter, the late Warren Skaaren. While many have been very upset with this it does fall within the realm of possibility for this movie’s Alfred. There are certainly enough hints from Alfred that he wishes Bruce would lead a more normal life, and that Vicki might be a way to that life. So I’m not mentioning that as a bad part of this movie. Because the real thing, I think, is–
Batman kills everyone. In the comic books, the one thing that separates Batman’s style of vigilantism from that of, say, Charles Bronson’s Death Wish character is that Batman will not kill. Batman will break every law in the book if it means getting the culprit, except for killing. In the stories when he’s had to kill, it often leads to follow-up stories where he’s dealing with the killing. In 1989’s Batman, though, Batman is like Rambo. Off the top of my head, Batman kills: Jack Napier (accidentally, though Jack actually survives both the fall into and the submergence in a vat of green chemicals, Batman doesn’t know that until the Joker appears); Joker’s thugs when the Batmobile drops bombs in Axis Chemicals in an attempt to kill the Joker; in Gotham Cathedral, at the end, one of the Joker’s goons leaps from a high place and falls through the floor (while Batman didn’t kill him, he didn’t try to help him, either, which I think comic book Batman would have); and another of the Joker’s goons gets dropped down the length of the cathedral when Batman swings up, grabs him with his calves, and drops him to his death; and, of course, there’s the Joker, who Batman uses the Batbolo (?!) to tie to a gargoyle as the Joker’s helicopter is trying to lift him away. Killing the Joker was a huge mistake because it meant that he couldn’t appear in any sequels. Of course, I’m sure that movie magic would’ve brought him back, as so often happens in comic books, but it would’ve been weak.
When the box office receipts cleared the air, Batman did several things: It revitalized interest in Batman in a mass way that hadn’t been there (except when news got out that Robin would be killed off in the comic books in 1988); it started a huge movie franchise for Warner Bros., who’d sold the film rights to Superman after Superman III; it gave DC Comics a popular film franchise character to capitalize on, something that hadn’t happened since around Superman III (because 1988’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was a turkey in every way); and it gave Tim Burton a shot at the big leagues. Up until this movie, Burton was the quirky director of quirky films that turned in a profit. After this movie, he was Tim Burton, the director of Batman. It allowed him to make what could arguably be called his most important movie, Edward Scissorhands.
The even bigger side effect, I think, is that the success of Batman brought a generation of kids to comic books that might have neglected them beforehand. Sure, the mid-to-late-1980s are filled with important comic books that showed the artform as something more than just throwaway entertainment. Names like Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and Neil Gaiman became household names for people who read a lot. If you were a reader, chances are you saw articles about Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen and V for Vendetta, Batman: Arkham Asylum, and The Sandman and may have been interested in them. But the huge success of the movie Batman brought kids like me into comic book shops for the first time to not only buy the various (and plentiful) Batman comics that existed, but got them interested in other titles. It even made comic books seem like a possible career path. I think that without Batman, I might not be writing this. Batman got me to look at comics again, to read them again, to go to the local comic book shop every Saturday, to want to draw and write them. This eventually got me into the local Waldenbooks, which eventually led me to buy The Shining by Stephen King, which made me want to ditch the art thing and just write.
With Batman, Warner Bros. had a new hit that could become a franchise. So of course, it wasn’t long before they approached Tim Burton about a sequel. And fresh off the success of Edward Scissorhands, he said yes.
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.
Ten years after his debut in Detective Comics #27, Batman returned to the big screen in the Columbia Pictures serial Batman and Robin. This go-around, Batman/Bruce Wayne is played by Robert Lowery and Robin/Dick Grayson is played by Johnny Duncan. Alfred (Eric Wilton) returns and Commissioner Gordon (Lyle Talbot) and Vicki Vale (Jane Adams) make their debuts. This time, Batman and Robin are up against the enigmatic Wizard, who plans on using a massive remote control to take over the world. I think. I can’t really remember what his overall scheme is.
Like the 1943 serial Batman, Batman and Robin is fun to look at nearly 70 years later as a relic of a time gone by rather than any mastery of filmmaking. As with the first serial, one gets the sense that the producers are chomping on their cigars, not worrying about plot or realism because children (boys, mostly) are the main audience.
Batman and Robin is a sort-of-sequel to Batman. In the first episode, it actually shows clips from the previous serial as the narrator explains who Batman and Robin are, yet I don’t know if it is an actual sequel. This serial was released five years after World War II and any mention of Batman and Robin being secret agents for the U.S. are gone. They are crimefighters. It was also released six years after its predecessor, which would mean many of their original target audience might have outgrown their anticipation for such a release. And with different actors playing the roles, it makes the strong case against this story being a sequel that much stronger.
Robert Lowery is a better Batman in some ways than Lewis Wilson. He’s a tad more Batmanish. The costume is even slightly better…I think. Batman doesn’t get rescued as much and he also doesn’t get his ass handed to him as often.
Vicki Vale making an appearance is good and she’s only the damsel-in-distress a couple of times over the 15 chapters.
No uncomfortable racism. Political correctness may suck sometimes, but what was going on in the first serial was over-the-top.
The overall storyline isn’t that bad, I guess. I’m stretching here…
Robin is too old. Douglas Croft looked like a kid in the first serial. Johnny Duncan looks like a man in this serial, but is forced to be the Boy Wonder. His voice is almost as deep as Batman’s! His acting is all right, maybe even better than Lowery’s, but it’s odd seeing this man play Robin.
Batman is an asshole. I mentioned in the last essay that Batman/Bruce Wayne plays mean jokes on Alfred, and is very flippant about his girlfriend’s concerns. She needs help and he comes up with some lame reason for not helping her so he can run off and help as Batman. In this serial, Batman is just…well…an asshole. His (ass-)holiness pops up throughout. An especially great asshole moment is in episode 8. Someone points to Vicki Vale and asks, “Who’s this?” Batman smiles and responds, “Oh, don’t mind her. She’s always taking pictures nobody ever sees.” I mean, how much more of a douche can you be? Well, this Batman has ways. Alfred is the butt of jokes again. He ribs Vicki Vale tirelessly. He’s just an asshole.
Vicki Vale is a fairly strong woman character in this serial, but she does very little. There’s a point when The Wizard has turned himself invisible that Batman and Commissioner Gordon ask if she can use her camera to take The (invisible) Wizard’s picture with an infrared bulb. She asks, “And just how do you focus on someone you can’t see?” To which Basshole–I mean Batman–replies, “That’s up to you to figure out.” And she accepts this asshole’s “help.” She does what’s she’s asked to do, even so far as being able to have the picture not only see the invisible Wizard, but through his mask as well! Still, I wish she had more to do.
Plot inconsistencies. Of course. Moving on…
Guns. Again, there are guns that no one uses except for sometimes.
Batman and Robin are horrible at hiding their identity and the world around them are morons for not figuring it out. They drive Bruce Wayne’s car. At one point, they pull into his driveway, and jump out, running into the house. They are spotted several times in and out of costume. The bad guys do believe Wayne is Batman at one point, only to get thrown off when Alfred dons the batcostume so Bruce can escape. The funny thing is that Alfred also manages to change his body to wear the suit perfectly. Well…as perfectly as this suit fits anyone.
The costumes are horrible. All of them.
The city streets (i.e., the Columbia backlot) never has anyone walking on them. All the cars are the same, Mercuries, even the police cars, which don’t look any different than civilian cars. The backroads and country around L.A. is as prominent as in the first serial, and…and…and…
The mind spins. Again, the fun of watching these serials is seeing a piece of cultural history on display. These are not perfect films. The acting is shoddy, the writing is bad, and the production has little value or art. I can recommend this only to the hardcore Batman fan who wants to see a piece of the character’s history. After these 15 chapters played out, it would be seventeen years before Batman hits the silver screen again. Inspired by…these serials.
Four years after Batman’s debut in Detective Comics #27, Batman and Robin hit the big screen for the first time in a Columbia Pictures movie serial. The story is told in 15 chapters and is amusing to watch with 70 years distance. The plot concerns Batman (Lewis Wilson) and Robin (Douglas Croft) trying to foil a scheme by the evil Dr. Daka (J. Carrol Naish).
This movie serial came out at the height of World War II and there is quite a bit of propaganda and outright racism. Dr. Daka is a Japanese spy whose goal is to use a radium-powered ray gun to help overthrow the United States. Batman is employed by the U.S. government to stop Daka’s plan. This involves Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend Linda Paige (Shirley Patterson), her uncle, and zombies. Not risen-from-the-dead zombies but mind-controlled people controlled by Dr. Daka. Batman triumphs with the help of Robin and his butler Alfred Pennyworth (William Austin).
(Did I spoil that for you? I’m sorry. But in my defense, this is a 1943 movie serial aimed at kids and featuring a comic book superhero. This is 43 years before Frank Miller’s game-changing Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One stories where anything could–and does–happen).
Until I decided to do these essays, I’d never seen this version of Batman. I knew of it, of course, but hadn’t seen it. (Nor had I ever seen a movie serial). So my first viewing of this serial was as a 34-year-old adult.1 It must have been pretty cool, though, to be kid in 1943 and seeing these chapters. Yes, there are some changes from the comic book (Batman as government agent is but one) but it must have still be pretty nifty (or whatever the slang was back then) to see Batman and Robin fighting bad guys on the big screen. Let’s get into the nitty-gritty.
Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft seem to work well together as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Dick Grayson/Robin. You get the sense that they’ve been working together a while. Wilson is pretty good as Bruce Wayne, giving him an arrogance that is almost mind-blowing at times. Croft gives Dick Grayson/Robin just enough boyish charm to appeal to the boys in the audience but is tough enough to hold his own. As a matter of fact, Robin tends to save Batman more often than the other way around in this serial.
William Austin as Alfred Pennyworth is also quite enjoyable, though not in a serious manner. Alfred is the comic relief of this story which is essentially about the Japanese taking over the United States, turning Americans into zombies.
Shirley Patterson as Linda Paige, Bruce Wayne’s oft-suffering girlfriend. Yes, she has moments of eye-rolling “I’m a woman and am therefore helpless” but she doesn’t hold back from putting Bruce Wayne in his place. Her uncle had just been released from prison and is kidnapped and she wants to look for him. When she asks Bruce for his help, he essentially tells her he can’t because he has some sort of inconsequential thing to do. She gets angry, tells him to buzz off, and then leaves. More on this later.
The action. Ranging from 26 minutes to 13-and-a-half, every chapter has at least one fist-fight, some have two. And because they comprise a serial and they wanted the kids to spend their dime next week, too, each chapter has a cliffhanger that puts Batman in some sort of jeopardy.
For modern audiences, this serial is an interesting look back on an artform that helped inspire what television series would become. It is also an interesting look at that time period and what entertainment was like. One of the charms of the serial is the low-budget feel. In one fight scene, Batman’s cape falls off in one shot and reappears on him in the next. In another chapter, Batman is climbing off a fire escape and some stuff falls out of his cape. After rewatching it multiple times I still don’t know what it is. This is low-budget, let’s get it done filmmaking.
Lewis Wilson may have been pretty good at getting Bruce Wayne’s “devil-may-care” attitude down, but he also plays Wayne/Batman as a jerk. This is not his fault, though, rather the writers Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, and Harry L. Fraser, as well as the director’s (Lambert Hillyer). By the end of the first chapter (“The Electric Brain”), Batman and Robin have gotten their hands on Dr. Daka’s ray gun. In the second chapter (“The Bat’s Cave”), Bruce Wayne decides to scare Alfred, winks and nods at Dick Grayson, and then blasts something right near Alfred. The older man looks like he may have a heart attack while Bruce and Dick yuk it up. This kind of behavior happens throughout. Alfred is often the butt of the joke, or Linda is basically told she’s second fiddle to whatever plans Bruce has that day. Her uncle is missing and she keeps getting in trouble, but Bruce shrugs it all off so he can run off and be Batman. And as Batman, he’s kind of weak.
More than weak, Batman sort of sucks. While it must have been great to see the comic book character on the big screen for the first time, I wonder how the boys (and girls?) in the audience took to their hero being so ineffective. Batman is picked up by the bad guys and either thrown over the edge of something or nearly thrown over the edge of something in almost every chapter. In chapter 14 (“The Executioner Strikes”), Batman is trying to save Linda in an obvious trap (he knows it’s a trap) and the thugs walk in. One thug immediately walks up to Batman and hits him with the butt of his revolver, knocking Batman out, quicker than it took you to read this sentence. I understand this is a movie serial and putting the hero’s life in danger at the end of each chapter is supposed to get kids involved enough to want to come to next week’s show, but making your hero look no better than the average man goes against why you’d do a Batman story anyway.
The racism in this serial is mind-blowing, especially in the ultra-politically correct 21st century where one is offended by anything. The first chapter begins in a desolate part of Gotham City known as Little Tokyo. The narrator assures the audience that it’s safe because the “shifty-eye Japs” have all been “rounded up.” The narrator is referring to the Japanese-American determent camps that the U.S. government forced its own citizens to live in during WWII in case they decided to align with their former homeland. Of course, there were no German-American determent camps because it was harder to tell those of German ancestry than those of Japanese. Dr. Daka is played by a Caucasian man á la Warner Oland’s portrayal of Charlie Chan. His headquarters is hidden within a cave-of-horror funhouse-type ride that depicts wax Japanese people performing atrocities to White people. In chapter 8 (“Lured By Radium”), going out to the country, the thugs stop by a Native American on the side of the road selling “Indian Artifacts”. One thug says, “Hey, Sittin’ Bull,” before asking whatever question he needs to. Chalk that up to the thug being a bad guy and all. But when Bruce, Dick, Alfred, and Linda stop, the old Native American speaks in that Hollywood Indian dialect, “Me don’t know…Me this and Me that.”
Plot consistency. I know, this happens all the time (and will pop up throughout these essays) but they’re pretty bad here. At one point, one of Daka’s thugs say, “Hey, what if this Bruce Wayne is Batman!” Daka replies that Bruce Wayne couldn’t possibly be Batman because he’s too stupid and this and that. But by the 14th chapter, Daka says something about the possibility that Bruce Wayne may be Batman. Now, if this kept coming up, it wouldn’t have been a surprise, but it just came out of nowhere. Oh! And there’s the Radium ray guns plotline. After the small ray gun is confiscated by Batman, most of the serial is about Daka scoring more Radium to build a bigger, better ray gun to overthrow the United States. He eventually gets his Radium and has a ray rifle/cannon/thing. And then…. I couldn’t tell you what happens because it seems to be forgotten, either by me or by the filmmakers.
The fights. Oh, man, the fights. They are refreshingly not as slick as we’ve come to expect from Batman, but they are almost too realistic. If Batman is supposed to be one of America’s great secret agents, we’re in trouble. The fights are sloppy and usually end with Batman having his ass kicked so he can be saved by Robin in the next chapter.
Guns! Robin, the Boy Wonder, is given a gun at least twice in this serial. He usually fires into the air to scare the thugs working for Daka but in at least one chapter he holds the gun on them to keep them at bay. Now, it’s well-documented that Batman sometimes used guns in his early days, but by 1943 he hadn’t used a gun for 3 years, and Robin definitely wouldn’t have.
Speaking of guns, this is another thing I noted that can be placed in this section, the thugs only seem to have one pistol between them, and they use it to shoot only when Batman and Robin can find cover. There are several times in this serial when they have knocked out Batman (see above) and just leave him for whatever the cliffhanger will be. I know, I know, this happens all the time in movies and on TV, but considering their orders are to kill Batman, you’d think they might, well, kill Batman when they had the chance.
I found Batman to be rather enjoyable, though not for the reasons the filmmakers meant. It’s a slice of history and made me think about what going to the movies must have been like for my father’s generation. It’s apparent that Columbia made the serial to cash in on the comic book craze that was in its infancy but didn’t really care about the source material. There is no Commissioner Gordon, instead there’s a Captain Arnold. There are no villains from the comic books and Batman and Robin are government agents, not just crime fighters. There’s no Batmobile. Batman and Robin are actually chauffeured by Alfred most of the time (or drive around as Bruce and Dick and then change in the back seat). However, this serial introduced the Bat’s Cave, which we all know now as the Batcave. It may have even had Alfred in its planning stages before he appeared in comics and may be the reason Alfred was in the comics. If you’re a modern viewer who is easily offended by the mistakes of our forefathers in terms of race and ethnic portrayals, then this serial isn’t for you. But as a way to view Batman in a way you probably haven’t yet, check it out. The serial is available on DVD, though I watched it here. Just don’t expect to do so in one sitting. The entire serial is about 4 hours 15 minutes.
1 I originally wrote this essay a year before I did the Superman series of essays, so while the two Superman serials appeared on this blog over a year ago, it was two years ago that I watched this first Batman serial.
After the mixed and bad reviews that Superman III received, as well as the same for Supergirl (1984), Alexander and Ilya Salkind sold the film rights to Superman to Golan-Globus Productions, which were working with Cannon Films. Interested in bringing Superman back to the big screen, they approached Christopher Reeve, who had pretty much sworn off playing Superman again. They made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: If he signed on to reprise his role as the Man of Steel, 1) he could help come up with the story, 2) they would greenlight any project he wanted, 3) if Superman IV were a success, he could direct Superman V. Reeve signed on.
The story came from an actual letter he received from an actual little boy who asked how come Superman didn’t get rid of all the nuclear weapons in existence. For those reading this who were born after 1990, keep in mind that while the shadow of nuclear holocaust still envelops us all, back in the 1980s, with Ronald Reagan as President and Gorbachev in power of the Soviet Union, it felt like there would be nuclear war at any time. I remember being a little boy and aware of this, terrified of it. By 1987, the year I turned 10, I’d been living with the understanding that the kind-looking old man we called President was really a lunatic with a charming smile, and so was the dude with bird doo on his head. So the idea that a little boy would write the actor who was Superman for a generation of youth isn’t surprising. The fact that Reeve wanted this to be the basis of the fourth Superman movie is surprising.
I saw some pretty earth-shattering movies in 1987: A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and Beverly Hills Cop II that were personal favorites. I also saw Three Men and a Baby and The Secret of My Success, because I was a big Michael J. Fox fan. Even though I wanted to see it, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace wasn’t in my cards. I had to wait until it came on HBO/Cinemax.
The movie that Reeve got Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus to produce was 1987’s Street Smart, which earned Morgan Freeman an Oscar nomination. As far as Superman V is concerned, well….
It’s 90 minutes long.
All right, all right. I’ll try harder.
The concept isn’t bad. The credit for story belongs to Christopher Reeve, Lawrence Konner, and Mark Rosenthal. Moving into a direction where Superman decides to go against the rule that he should not interfere with humanity on such a grand scale was done in the first movie, but it’s something that’s bound to come up again and again if you’re Superman.
Also, Christopher Reeve is still a real good Superman/Clark Kent. He still plays the part with earnestness and takes the character seriously. That’s important. He even dyed his hair this time around. The scenes of his I like the most are at the beginning when he’s on the Kent farm, just looking around. There’s a scene where he’s brooding on the couch of his apartment when there’s a knock at the door. He looks up, surprised, and grabs his glasses. It’s subtle but it never feels put-on. He’s even good as he’s sick from radiation poisoning (though I find this scene chilling since the makeup isn’t too different from what Reeve looked like as he began to lose his hair after his accident).
The acting is pretty bad by everyone else. Margot Kidder’s role is once again fairly prominent, Marc McClure returns as Jimmy Olsen (though his part is even less existent than in Superman III, where they at least gave him stuff to do other than stand in the background). Jackie Cooper is firing on all cylinders as Perry White in this one, though he seemed to have aged quite a bit in the four years between movies. Finally, Gene Hackman returns as Lex Luthor, which should be a welcome thing considering the watered-down villains of the previous installment. Newcomers include Mariel Hemingway as Lacy Warfield; Sam Wanamaker as her father, David Warfield; Jon Cryer as Lenny Luthor, Lex’s nephew; and Mark Pillow as Nuclear Man. With the exception of Cooper, all the acting falls flat. Kidder should be a welcome return but the dumbing down that began with Lester’s rewrite of Superman II continues here. As I mentioned, Jimmy Olsen is barely involved in this movie. The Warfields are boring, Wanamaker is the typical 1980s tycoon who cares only for money and Hemingway is the typical 1980s-spoiled-rich-girl-who-finds-there’s-more-to-life-than-money (that may be the longest hyphenated title I’ve ever written. May be). You’d think that Gene Hackman’s return would up the ante but he pretty much phones in his performance. There are maybe one or two good moments, but they’re brief moments. The rest of the time he’s hamming it up. Jon Cryer, one of my favorite actors of the 1980s, is horrible as the silly Lenny Luthor. Horrible. Uck. He actually calls Superman “The Dude of Steel.” I know that’s the writers’ fault but the fact that he agreed to say it…. And don’t get me started on the piece of cardboard called Mark Pillow. Maybe it’s because a decision was made that he’d sound like Lex Luthor (which doesn’t make sense), his acting is wooden. Or it could be that he was a terrible actor. His IMDb résumé shows that this was his only film role, and he only acted twice afterward on TV.
I think there’s a good reason for the bad acting: bad script and direction. The screenplay is by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal (I’ve already mentioned they worked with Reeve on the story) (and now I’ve mentioned it again), and Sidney J. Furie directed. Now, Furie seems to have been around forever and has done some good work, but Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is not among the good. I’ll be talking about the budget for the movie, which was low and seems to be the thing blamed most for the poor reviews and earnings of the movie, soon enough, but I think the small budget is only a fraction of the issue. Sure, you may not be able to have great special effects or shoot on the locations one would like, but that doesn’t excuse sloppy acting, writing, or directing.
I mentioned above that this movie is only 90 minutes long. Superman: The Movie runs at 2 hrs 23 mins (the Extended Edition runs 2 hrs 31 mins), Superman II runs 2 hrs 7 mins (I’ll add the Richard Donner Cut only because you may be interested: 1 hr 54 mins, but keep in mind that this really isn’t a finished film, but rather as finished as it could get nearly 30 years after shooting began), and Superman III runs 2 hrs 5 mins. At 90 minutes, it’s the shortest of the Christopher Reeve series. That was not the intention. The original script went much longer and there was much more footage shot. Word is that Cannon Films cut nearly 45 minutes from the film during the editing phase. Part of it was due to budgetary issues, a lot of it was because it was just bad. There are several places for more information about this, including Mark Rosenthal’s commentary on the DVD and Blu Ray releases of this movie. The Superman Homepage is one such place, as is Caped Wonder. If you’re interested but don’t feel like going to hardcore Superman websites, then Wikipedia will do. No matter, the extra 45 minutes would’ve brought the movie up to 2 hrs 15 mins, the second longest movie of the series. Rest assured, having seen some of the cut material on the Superman Anthology Blu Ray of the movie (if my reading is correct, there’s actually more deleted goodness on a DVD version of the movie), no one is missing anything.
And it goes back to story. As the movie opens, The Daily Planet is being bought by David Warfield, who is planning on turning the Planet into a tabloid and letting his daughter, Lacy, run it. So it pokes fun at the Rupert Murdochs of the world, as well as every other businessman who performed hostile takeovers of companies and destroyed them. As this is happening, arms talks fail and it’s announced that both the United States and the Soviet Union are going to expand their nuclear weapons, which could lead to, well…BOOM! A school somewhere is watching this where two of the worst actors of the movie are. One is a school teacher and the other is the boy, Jeremy, who will write Superman despite the taunts of classmates. He wants to know why Superman doesn’t just collect all the nuclear weapons of the world and destroy them. After some back-and-forth and public humiliation, Superman, Jeremy, and a crowd that includes Lois Lane, Lacy Warfield, Jimmy Olsen (I think), and many others, go to the U.N. (not the real U.N.–not even close) where Superman announces to the world leaders that he will be ridding the world of all nuclear weapons. And, just like it happens in real life, every world leader agrees to let this alien from another planet, who could kill them all with a fart, take the weapons they’ve spent decades and billions of dollars building and accumulating and destroy them. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor breaks out of jail with the help of his nephew, Lenny. Luthor devises a plan to stop Superman by taking some of Superman’s hair from a museum exhibit, grinding it up, using some science, and launching it into the sun on one of the missiles to create…(music)…Nuclear Man! There’s fighting and this and that and Superman wins and gives a speech. The end.
If you skipped over the above paragraph, or skimmed through it once you realized it was the movie’s story, I don’t blame you. But you have to understand that it’s that kind of movie. The kind that you feel compelled to retell in detail because you’re not sure it could be that bad. Watching the movie is painful at times, and it’s the story. It often feels like the screenwriters took pieces from the previous Superman movies and threw them into this one because they knew fans enjoyed them the first time around. One of Superman’s earlier appearances in this movie is when Clark misses the subway but Lois gets on. The driver has a heart attack and Superman has to save the train. He literally stops rescue personnel from getting to the driver to tell the crowd that the train is still one of the safest ways to get around the city. Just like he told Lois in the first movie that flying was, statistically speaking, the safest form of travel right after the helicopter she was in nearly killed her. Speaking of Lois Lane…. Remember that scene I mentioned where Clark is brooding in his apartment until a knock on the door? Well, it’s Lois. They’re going somewhere together and he’s not ready. He takes her by the hand, goes onto his balcony with her, and they walk off the building with her protesting and screaming. He changes to Superman in front of her and she suddenly remembers Superman II. Then, like Superman: The Movie, Lois and Superman fly around. Only this time, he actually lets go and she keeps flying (more on this later). Finally, they return and he feels better. He kisses her and as she stands, out of it, he quickly changes back to Clark Kent and she awakens, having forgotten that Kent and Superman are one and the same. You know, like Superman II. Of course, Lex Luthor is back and there’s a supervillain with many similar powers. There’s a return to the farm in Smallville and the Fortress of Solitude with holograms. It’s all familiar and so bad the second time around. There’s very little original in this movie and when there is, it’s bad.
Take the double date between Lacy Warfield and Clark Kent and Lois Lane and Superman. It’s supposed to happen at Lacy’s apartment where Lois is cooking for them. What happens in this scene is some fun slapstick for a kid, where Kal-El keeps changing between Superman and Clark Kent, doing things to trick the women so they don’t know the two are the one (I wrote that purposefully confusing). I remember particularly enjoying this scene at the age of 10 but now, at 35, I find it pretty mean. Why schedule both “dates” on the same night with women who will be together? Lois needs to interview Superman, and Lacy has the hots for Clark. Okay. So why allow them to happen together? The same night, a few hours apart? All right. But together? No. Only a dick would do that. No logic.
And speaking of logic, because of the cuts made, and the poor budget, there are some ridiculous leaps from logic and science. At the end, Nuclear Man sees a picture of Lacy Warfield and decides he must have her. He goes to the Daily Planet building and lands on the street outside, because that’s what a guy with super powers would do, as opposed to busting through an exterior wall. He wreaks havoc and suddenly Superman re-appears (he was nearly killed after his last fight with Nuclear Man) and shouts, “Leave her alone!” or something like that. Huh? How does he know why Nuclear Man (oh, how it pains me to write that name) is there? Well, it’s in the cut scenes, which actually make things more complicated. Anyway, Nuclear Man finally gets Lacy and flies her into space. Go back, reread that sentence. I’ll wait. Good? Good. Yeah, Nuclear Man takes Lacy Warfield into space sans spacesuit. You know, he takes her into the freezing vacuum of space unprotected. And Superman is okay with this. He saves her, but… Ugh. Need I go on? I know it seems trivial to be upset about her not having a spacesuit since, by all rights, even Superman should, technically, have one. I’m willing to buy that Superman (and his kind) can survive in space without a suit, fine, but not a human. Not no way, not no how. And there’s the science of Lois’s flying alone. It happens for a few seconds in the film (the deleted scene had her flying alone for far longer) but is ridiculous and goes against what happens in the first movie when Lois’s hand slips from Superman’s and she begins plummeting. And there are more instances, I’m sure, but time is running out and I still have more bases to cover.
The budget was miniscule. As I mentioned before, the budget is the thing that seems to get the most blame for the quality of the movie. That’s horsepucky. Yeah, the effects suck, but they were already on the decline in Superman III. Now they’re even worse. Apparently, Cannon Films had many movies in development that, for a small company, ended up hurting all the films. They simply didn’t have the funds to make the movie they’d intended. Consider the costs of making the prior three movies:
- Superman: The Movie – $55 million
- Superman II – $54 million
- Superman III – $39 million
When you take into consideration that the first films were begun simultaneously and one of the reasons that the Salkinds fired Richard Donner was that he went over schedule and over budget, it should come as no surprise that the third film’s budget is lower. Most likely, that’s probably closer to the budget wanted for each of the first two movies. Now, according to the Wikipedia article on the Superman series (and they give the source as Empire), the original budget for Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was $35 million. That was cut, though, due to all the other films Cannon was trying to do. The final tally for the budget of the fourth film of one of the most popular franchises of the 1980s was…(drumroll)…$17 million. We’re talking low-rent Superman in a time before rampant digital effects. Still, that doesn’t excuse poor writing, poor directing, or poor acting. Hell, let’s throw the editor under the bus, too. Poor editing. The reason the budget was probably cut wasn’t only because of all the other movies Cannon was trying to make at the time, but probably because the Powers That Be saw the script, saw some of the crap that was coming in from dailies (like the first Nuclear Man. Yes, there were originally two. The first one is like Bizarro and is destroyed the first time he fights Superman), and said, “Hells no!”
After the Battle
Look, I could keep going. I’m at nearly 2,800 words at this point, though, and you want to go back to your life. Needless to say, this movie is bad. The only charm this movie has to offer is that it’s so 1980s. When I did a similar essay on A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, another movie I hate that comes from a much-loved franchise, I mentioned one of the only redeeming factors of the movie is its 1980s charm. The same can nearly be said about this movie. The shoulder pads, Nuclear Man’s hair, the corporate greed thing as well as the nuclear arms thing–these all give the movie some charm, but it’s taken 26 years.
As a 10-year-old when I watched it on HBO/Cinemax, I was shocked by how bad it was. Yeah, some of it entertained me, but most of it was bad. My opinion on it hasn’t changed in that regard, and has only become more venomous. I never understand how people who get the ability to take the reins on such a good franchise would hurt it so much. I know that wasn’t anyone’s intention, but it still angers me. Maybe it’s that inner-9-year-old who still dreams of being a filmmaker, but when things go so wrong like this, it gives me pause and makes me angry. Give me the keys to the goddamn car and let me drive! Alas, that will not be.
Due to the failure of this film, the Superman franchise died. There was always talk of the possibility that maybe, possibly, someone would come along and rejuvenate the franchise. That Christopher Reeve would don the blue spandex and red cape and fly once again. But you and I know that would not happen. You and I know that it wasn’t Kryptonite that would kill this Superman. It was almost 20 years before Superman would fly across the Silver Screen again, and my, how things changed in that time.
One Last Word
If you’ve been reading these essays since the beginning, then you surely noticed that I mentioned Christopher Reeve’s performance in each of his movies. I struggled about whether or not I should do so. After all, death tends to sweeten such a performance. The thing is, that’s not the case here. Reeve was a great actor who never really got the credit he deserved in his screen career. His comic timing was great, his energy always came through, and he was classically trained and able to do drama. His way of speaking his lines and his acting was unique. I sometimes think about what would have happened had he not fallen off that goddamn horse in 1995. I like to think he would’ve had a career upswing sometime in the 1990s, one that would’ve brought him along to us today. It looks as though his career was already on an upswing when the accident happened.
The thing about Christopher Reeve as Superman was that he was always approachable, and I think that’s because Reeve himself embodied much of that same spirit. Kirk Alyn’s Superman was eager to fight bad guys and be Superman. George Reeves was the wise uncle. Sure, he’d fight the bad guys, but he always had good advice. Christopher Reeve’s Superman was earnest, honest, and had true beliefs and morals, and was flawed. He was our brother, our friend. One of the successes of Superman IV, that I purposely waited until now to mention, is its politics. In that way, it’s a brave movie. Greed, war, fear are all bad and government-sanctioned in some capacity, but Superman is able to still see the good in everyone and uses his kindness to sway others. He acts as a role model, not out of a sense of being better than us but by trying to be us. Reeve surely brought a lot of that into the role.
As a child, Christopher Reeve was a hero. Not because he was Christopher Reeve, but because he was Superman. As an adult, Christopher Reeve was a hero. Not because he was Superman, but because he was Christopher Reeve.
In 2000, I went in for an appendectomy and woke up with much more done to me. My appendix had been fine when they removed it and further exploration led the surgeon to discover that my intestine had ruptured due to undiagnosed Crohn’s Disease. This led to a temporary colostomy bag. What was supposed to be “three, four months,” became a year-and-a-half. During that time, whenever I’d fart in public because I couldn’t stop it, whenever I’d have an issue with a colostomy bag leaking, whenever I felt bad for myself because of my situation, I’d tell myself, If Christopher Reeve–Superman–can find a way to stay positive and keep fighting, then I can get through this.
Reeve’s accident happened days after I signed out of high school.
I learned of his death in an apartment I lived in a few months after my separation from my first wife. I think I cried. I don’t remember. I remember, though, the feeling that this man had lived. He’d done good for others. He was…well…Superman.
One last, brief, thing. The story of Superman IV can work. In 1998, DC Comics published an oversized graphic novel called Superman: Peace on Earth. It was written by Paul Dini and painted by Alex Ross. In it, Superman decides to rid the world of nuclear weapons. However, instead of all the nations of the world cheering him, many are offended and threaten war. It’s a beautifully written and illustrated book that I highly recommend.
1983 was a big year for me. I turned six in August. I was finishing up kindergarten that spring and going into first grade that fall. And, most importantly, the third film of my favorite movie series was coming out: Return of the Jedi! I was also excited that there was a new Superman movie. I only got to see one of them that summer, though, and the honor went to Return of the Jedi. Still, I was very much aware of Superman III and even watched the hour-long Making Of special that aired on TV to promote the movie. What a delight for a six-year-old that special was! Superman was going to go bad! That funny dude from The Toy (which had been on HBO), Richard Pryor–whom Mom said told dirty jokes for adults–would be in it. There was a lady named Lana Lang, and Clark Kent would go back to Smallville. And, the coolest of all: Superman would fight Clark Kent…in a junk yard!
When the movie finally came to HBO, I was not disappointed. I thought it was strange that Lois Lane was only in it at the beginning and at the end, but I thought the movie was funny and full of adventure. Sure, even at six/seven I knew it wasn’t as good as the previous movies, but I liked it well enough. So much so that when Dad brought me to an auto salvage yard, I re-enacted the fight scene. Alone. It gave the guy to whom my father spoke a great laugh. And imagine my shock when I discovered, on the dirt next to some scrap metal, a pair of broken glasses. Unaware of just how big the world was, I thought that maybe–just maybe–they shot the movie in that junk yard.
The Salkinds and Spengler rehired their screenwriters from the first two Superman films, David Newman and Leslie Newman, as well as director Richard Lester, to return to the franchise for Superman III. Most of the original cast returned, too. And with Richard Pryor on board, the movie was sure to be a winner. Right?
Christopher Reeve’s return as Superman is the best part of this movie. After all the time playing the Man of Steel from 1976 through 1980 for the first two movies, by the time he returned for 1983’s film, he had it down. Of course, the reason most people are even willing to rewatch this movie is when Superman turns bad. The bad guys give Superman synthetic Kryptonite with one wrong ingredient (this actually happens in 1950’s Atom Man vs. Superman) that turns him bad instead of killing him. As a result, we get to see him leer at and try to pick up Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole), be mean to people, have sex with the bad guy’s squeeze (played by Pamela Stephenson), and become a drunk. His suit gets darker, too; the same shade as the suits in Superman Returns (2006) and Man of Steel (2013). The best part, though, is the fight between Superman and Clark Kent. It’s pretty deep when you get right down to it. The Bad Superman is a symbol of the feelings that Superman surely puts to rest while Clark Kent is the symbol of the wholesome goodness he tries to live by. Does Superman literally break into two people? Is it just in his mind? Who cares? Even though the special effects are somewhat dated now, it’s fun to watch. Of course, I’ve always loved the idea of an actor playing off him/herself onscreen. It probably goes with my love of dual personalities and the like. Either way, the Bad Superman parts of this movie (which go longer than the Powerless Superman parts of the prior movie) are fun, if not somewhat silly. And you can tell Christopher Reeve is having fun. Not in a silly, slapstick way, but he’s digging his teeth into the chance to go dark.
As a matter of fact, Reeve is the only serious thing in this movie. He takes the character(s) seriously and it shows. And as much fun as it is to see him as Bad Superman, for my money, I think his best performance in this movie is as Clark Kent. It’s established in the first scenes that he would like to return to Smallville for his high school reunion (Class of ’65 representin’!). At the reunion he runs into Lana Lang, his high school crush (she’s actually featured in the first film). Lana is divorced and raising a little boy on her own. There is an attraction between Clark and Lana almost from the go and it plays out slowly through the movie. Unlike the romance between Lois and Superman, which became quite intense, the romance between Lana and Clark is simple, much more innocent. Of course, the big thing is that Lana likes Clark for Clark, whereas Lois accepted Clark as Superman but was pretty dismissive of him beforehand. Reeve understands this and it’s in his performance. Around Lana, Clark isn’t stumbling around. He isn’t the joke. He’s a real man, though he still has to throw people off the scent of Superman.
Annette O’Toole is also pretty good as Lana Lang. She’s not a Lois Lane 2.0, which is a direction the producers, writers, or director could have gone. She’s more innocent but wants to move on, wants to leave her life in Smallville for a life in Metropolis. Fear holds her back, as it does to so many. O’Toole plays the role earnestly. Plus, I just think she’s beautiful. I love her. Don’t tell my wife.
As I write this, I am at about 960 words. I never intend for these essays to go much past 1,000 words. However, the more I dislike something, the longer the essay gets. I’m going to try to keep this minimal, but it’s really not my fault. It’s the goddamn filmmakers’ fault. So….
The move opens, pre-credits, on Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor) standing in a jam-packed unemployment office. He’s being kicked off unemployment after a year or so because he can’t hold down a job. When he asks another patron for a light, he sees an ad on the matchbook cover for a school for computer programmers. He grunts as though this might be a good idea, and we’re off.
Think about that opening for a moment. This is a Superman movie. There’s no Krypton, no crime, no Superman. Just Richard Pryor doing Richard Pryor (and doing it well, I might add) and then the loose set-up. If the prologue is supposed to set the tone for the rest of the movie (which it should) then this isn’t a promising start to the third Superman adventure. But okay, cut them some slack. Once the titles are streaming by us in space and we get to Metropolis and Clark, Lois, and the rest of the gang at The Daily Planet, surely things will go back into normal territory and we’ll be on our way. Gus Gorman will prove to be an important villain or ally for Superman and everything will be right. After all, these are the people who made Superman II.
So imagine the surprise that befalls the viewer when the opening credits don’t stream past us in space, but rather in blurry places at the top and bottom of the screen as a slapstick comedy opening ensues. We’re talking mechanical toy penguins running amok (one has its head on fire and is extinguished by Clark Kent), a blind man chasing his seeing-eye dog, a man who’s had a paint bucket fall over his head and then crashes into a gumball machine, the gumballs of which roll under the feet of a mime. There’s even a cream pie in the face of some poor schmuck who’s been weaving his way through this mess since the beginning. Oh! And there’s a bank robbery that goes unchecked and a guy who almost drowns in his car after it strikes a fire hydrant and fills his car with water until Superman rescues him. And that’s not all of it, either. Not by a long shot.
It’s the humor in the movie that essentially hurts it. Superman‘s humor came from character and life. Sure, Lex Luthor and Otis were a little silly, but you had no doubt that Lex Luthor would happily murder millions and not give a damn. Superman II began camping it up under Richard Lester’s control, but with a movie that still had quite a bit of Richard Donner’s (uncredited) work in it, the slapstick campy humor didn’t drown out the drama. Superman III does not have Donner’s or Mankiewicz’s touches on it at all. The script is all David and Leslie Newman, whose script for the first two movies were pretty distasteful to Donner, which is why he brought Mankiewicz on to rewrite them (uncredited, see the first Superman‘s essay). The movie is all theirs and Lester’s, and this is the heart of the problem. It keeps going for the laughs when it shouldn’t, because their laughs aren’t funny. It’s like watching two movies playing simultaneously, a Superman movie and a Richard Pryor movie.
Which leads me to Richard Pryor, a man–a legend–whom I admire a great deal. Richard Pryor has an Every Man way about him that really comes across on film. He was a great actor. Some of his scenes in this very movie are wonderful. Just not when he’s being funny. When he breaks into the Pryor persona, it falls flat. This is not the right kind of vehicle for him or his comedic talents and it sticks out and hurts the movie. I think he would’ve been great had they dropped some of the silliness and had him play it straight. The premise for his character is pretty cool, really. He’s a down-on-his-luck guy who finds out he’s a savant with computers. He makes a mistake by trying to rob his boss (Robert Vaughn) who catches him and is evil in his own way. He decides to use Gorman’s talents for bad and Gorman goes along out of fear. There could have been a really good human story here. Instead, we have Richard Pryor pretending he’s other people, from a salesman to a general, to trick people. We have strange, funny hand gestures. We have him skiing off a building and surviving.
The villains are pretty shabby, too. The rumor is that Gene Hackman refused to work with the Salkinds again after the firing of Donner (it’s said he refused reshooting scenes for Superman II) so instead of Lex Luthor we got Robert Vaughn. I have to look up Vaughn’s character’s name, hold on. He played Ross Webster. Annie Ross plays Vera Webster, his sister. Rounding out the villains is Pamela Stephenson who plays Lorelei Ambrosia. Now, I had to use Wikipedia for those names because I didn’t know them, not through the movie, not now. Vaughn, who’s been around forever, plays the evilish Webster in the way one might expect, sneering, overly dramatic, very different than Hackman’s matter-of-fact villainous ways. Pamela Stephenson’s character is sort of Otis mixed with Miss Teschmacher, only not good at either. I find that they make her pretty intelligent at moments but she hides it whenever her man and his sister is in the room. She’s conning them, and that’s the best part about this trio. There’s no real scheme they’re plotting. After Webster discovers Gus Gorman stealing from him by being a savvy computer guy (remember, this is 1983) he decides to use Gorman’s talents to ruin the Colombian coffee crop for a reason I have since forgotten. Gorman takes over a computer that runs a satellite that has the power to control the weather and–I don’t know. It goes from there to them wanting to control the oil, and there’s a super computer that suddenly becomes alive and Vera Webster becomes a cyborg and–
I know. It’s crazy. Let’s move on.
Lois who? Margot Kidder is convinced that the producers were punishing her for being vocal in the press about firing Richard Donner so they gave her what amounted to a walk-on part. Ilya Salkind refutes that. I say, who cares? She’s not in it, and when she is she isn’t all that great. If she was embarrassed by it, why sign on? Was the paycheck that good? I don’t know, but it does feel strange to have her gone and Clark Kent seemingly fall for someone else, when the last two films were about Lois and Clark/Superman’s love.
Superman doesn’t have black hair. I don’t know if Reeve didn’t want to dye his hair black this time around, but his hair is his dirty-blonde/light brown color. With the stuff they use to style the hair of both Superman and Clark Kent, it’s hard to tell completely, but for a lot of my life, I thought it was gray hair showing. It took the remastered Blu Ray to realize it was dirty-blonde showing. Continuity, man.
It’s mean-spirited. I found quite a bit of Superman III mean-spirited. Maybe it’s the 1980s vibe in this movie, maybe it’s that David and Leslie Newman and Richard Lester are just mean-spirited, but I was unhappy with some of the jokes. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe there should be limits on humor. Everything is game, if it’s funny. But from the bumbling blind man at the beginning, to the silly happenings as the computers malfunction and we’re shown the effects of these changes on citizens, there’s mean-spirited stuff. Sexist, too. One example of the sexist humor comes during a montage of shots when Gorman has used the computer to create havoc. A man and woman, husband and wife, sit down for breakfast. The man is older, with a mustache, wearing a jacket and tie. The woman is a mousy housewife type. Both have grapefruit in front of them. The man opens an envelope from Bloomingdale’s and finds he owes something like $175,000. He takes the grapefruit and pushes it into his wife’s face. She just takes it and then gives a Lucy-type eyeroll! What the hell? And then there’s Lorelei Ambrosia. She is supposed to be Webster’s Miss Teschmacher and she’s definitely got big boobs that are flaunted as much as possible in a PG-rated kid’s movie. Unlike Valerie Perrine’s performance as Miss Teschmacher, though, Pamela Stephenson plays Ambrosia as trampy, stupid, and selfish. The few times we see that she’s actually pretty intelligent, she quickly hides it for Webster and his sister. And when she seduces Bad Superman, it hits a new low.
After the Battle
I can’t say that I hate Superman III because I don’t. There are some people who do hate it and I understand why. While it never really hits any of the heights of the first two movies, Superman III does have some good, watchable moments. It’s really the performances of Reeve and Pryor that make this movie. The supporting cast ranges from real good (O’Toole) to unwatchable (the lottery winners) but it definitely is a step down from the previous movies.
Coming out a month after Return of the Jedi to lukewarm reviews, Superman III disappointed all around. The Salkinds would try one last Super- adventure on the big screen (1984’s Supergirl) before bringing Superboy to syndicated television in the late-1980s/early-1990s. In interviews to promote the movie, Christopher Reeve said he doubted he’d ever do another Superman movie. If only he’d stuck to his guns….
I don’t remember when I first heard/read about the fiasco between Richard Donner and the producers of the Superman movies. It may have been in issues of Entertainment Weekly or Starlog or even online. Either way, I was in my teens or early twenties. Maybe my mother read or heard it somewhere and informed me. Either way, there was a Eureka! moment for me, when it made sense that the feel of Superman II is different than Superman: The Movie and Lois Lane is hardly in Superman III. I know that the documentaries that came on the 2000 release of the Superman movies on DVD, along with the special extended edition of the first movie, went into it a little. And like Superman fans around the world, I wondered what could have been. By the time I really knew about Donner’s firing, Christopher Reeve was already paralyzed from the neck down and the idea that there was, apparently, a load of unused footage of him in his most famous acting role was heartbreaking. If only Warner Bros. or the Salkinds would release the footage. If only someone would go by Donner’s notes and try to piece together what was filmed for his version of Superman II (surely Donner, who’d moved onto The Goonies, the Lethal Weapon series, and other successful films, wouldn’t want to come back) it would be such a great thing to honor Reeve, the late-Marlon Brando, and the hard work put in by everyone involved in those movies.
In 2004, Christopher Reeve died. It wasn’t a surprise. Still, it broke my heart.
I don’t remember when I first heard/read about the release of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, but I was excited. As a matter of fact, it was one of the first DVDs I got from Netflix when I joined.
Due to demands made by fans worldwide (and I wouldn’t be surprised if Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns being on its way toward theaters at the time was a big influence) Warner Bros., who now owned the sole film rights for all the Superman movies, went to Richard Donner and asked if he wanted to do a special edition. He agreed, bringing his friend and collaborator Tom Mankiewicz back into the fray. Using remastered footage from the original shoot of both Superman and Superman II, along with some Richard Lester footage, two screen tests, and even a few brand new shots, Donner told the second chapter of the Superman story as it was originally written. Or at least as close as he could manage under the circumstances.
The DVD came during a particularly dark period for me. I was living with my parents again, not long after the divorce from my first wife. I was depressed. This movie made me very happy, while it also hurt a great deal.
It’s essentially the same story as the theatrical Superman II. General Zod, Ursa, and Non are freed from the Phantom Zone and come to Earth. Superman and Lois Lane consummate their relationship and he gives up his powers for her. He gets his ass kicked and finds out about Zod, goes back to get his powers back, fights Zod and crew in Metropolis, and finally leads them back to the Fortress of Solitude where he defeats them. Lex Luthor even escapes jail the same way, finds out info about Superman the same way, and sits in the background the same way. By the end, Lois has forgotten that Clark Kent and Superman are one and the same and everything is status quo again.
Yet, it’s very different.
I intend to keep this one short. I don’t wish to get as carried away by this movie as I did with the original version. Let’s see what happens….
Should I even waste the space mentioning Christopher Reeve as Superman? I think I do. I think his performance is even more impressive in The Donner Cut than in Lester’s version. While a lot of Donner’s footage was used in Lester’s movie, a lot wasn’t. Most of the Daily Planet scenes in Superman II were rewritten and reshot, which led to the continuity errors mentioned in the last essay. That said, the idea that Reeve, Kidder, and the rest would shoot a scene in Perry White’s office for Superman, then go change, come back, and shoot a scene for Superman II where there seems to be a higher comfort level for Clark and the rest is pretty amazing. Reeve brings a certain intensity and seriousness to the role that seems even more on display with Donner behind the camera than with Lester. Maybe it’s comfort. I don’t know, but while he’s great in the 1980 Superman II, he positively shines in the 2006 Donner Cut. The scene when he returns to the Fortress of Solitude after getting his ass kicked is so much more powerful in this version, with Reeve playing it not only as desperate but terrified, because–
Brando returns. By the time Warner Bros. approached Donner to do his cut, Brando was dead and his family had given consent to use footage of him as Jor-El. This meant that the story of Jor-El and Kal-El continued to its logical, and heartbreaking, conclusion. I don’t want to give anything away in case you’ve skipped this version of Superman II, but suffice it to say that the scene is great. To know that greed triumphed over this scene back in the original is a sin.
The movie is less silly. Even the scenes that needed to be kept that Richard Lester shot have been re-edited to excise superfluous silliness. If you’re from Krypton, you’re taken seriously. If you work for the Daily Planet, you’re taken seriously. The humor in this movie comes from the same place as the first film: Lex Luthor and company, as well as the simple things that come out of life, best personified by Clark Kent. The rednecks, the silly army stunts, Non’s silliness, Lois Lane’s screechy stupidity, and the people of Metropolis’s odd comments and sight-gags are all gone. That’s not to say that everything is dead serious. Lois and Clark still have witty banter, Otis still almost brings the balloon down, and other funny moments pepper the film, but they’re from character, not set-ups.
The story makes more sense because the continuity is kept in better check. From first-to-second movie, to the scenes within this movie itself, it just flows better. Let’s look at an example.
In Richard Lester’s Superman II (1980), Superman takes Lois Lane to the Fortress of Solitude. They have dinner, falling deeper in love as they do. Finally, he decides he wants to be with her, so he calls on Lara (Susannah York) and is given a speech. A chamber comes up and he steps inside. Red light shines and there’s a pretty cool special effects shot of the breakdown of Superman. The audience sort of goes into Superman and watches him become (gasp!) normal. In a strange turn of events, Superman’s costume and hair fade to street clothes and simpler hair, and he leaves the chamber as Clark Kent. Then he and Lois sleep together.
As a kid, I wondered: How the heck did his clothes change? Why did his hair suddenly change? It made no sense.
Now, Donner’s cut (2006): Superman still takes Lois to the Fortress of Solitude. They still have dinner, falling deeper in love as they do. Finally, he decides he wants to be with her, so…they sleep together. Now, let’s ignore the science of interplanetary coitus for a moment, and how someone who is called the Man of Steel might accidentally kill his lover when he…well…you know. It’s a beautiful scene, done the same way as in the theatrical version. Now, though, he awakens and leaves Lois in the shiny silver bed. We next see him dressed in a white shirt and dark pants. He is talking to Jor-El, the same basic conversation he has with Lara. And this time, not only is Lois watching, but she’s watching him wearing Superman’s shirt! It’s a subtle touch, but so effective. Even more effective, the holographic head of Jor-El looking at Lois in an accusatory way as Kal-El becomes Clark Kent. Again, the drama in the situation is heightened and makes more sense. When Clark Kent steps out of the chamber, sans special effects of him coming apart on the inside, he is wearing the street clothes he went in wearing. His hair is the same. He’s just…different. Another superb moment by Christopher Reeve.
The biggest problem with this movie is, of course, that it isn’t really the sequel to Superman. Because it wasn’t finally put together until nearly 30 years after it should’ve been, it looks like a rough cut of the movie in some places. I got the sense that this is a good outline, in some cases, of the way the final film would’ve looked. That it was mostly the best thing they could come up with based on what they had. Which is exactly what it is. The joy of watching this movie isn’t getting Richard Donner’s definitive vision, but rather as close to it as we’ll ever get, which is pretty damn close. In that way, this movie works wonderfully.
The ending. I could’ve this in the 1980 Superman II essay but chose not to because I was already very long. The deaths of Zod, Ursa, and Non. Superman tricks them out of their powers and then beats the hell out of them. Well, out of Zod and Non. Lois takes care of Ursa. They fall into the nothingness of the Fortress of Solitude and, we presume, their deaths. In the Donner Cut, the same thing happens. They up it, though, by showing only Superman and Lois Lane leaving the Fortress. They lands miles away and Superman turns around and uses his heat vision to destroy the place. Unlike Lester’s Superman II, Lex Luthor is not shown leaving with Superman and Lois, so one must assume that he’s still in the Fortress. A cut scene in the Special Features section of the Blu Ray shows the three Kryptonian villains and Luthor being taken away by the U.S. Arctic Patrol, presumably to jail. I’d understand why this was cut. If the Fortress of Solitude was supposed to be a secret, how would they get there? Of course, it also helps understand why Superman would destroy his little piece of Krypton. In the theatrical version of the movie, Superman leaves with Lois and Luthor and the Fortress of Solitude remains.
The ending, part 2. As I mentioned in the my essay on Superman: The Movie, the scene of Superman changing Earth’s spin, and thereby changing time, was supposed to end Superman II. In The Richard Donner Cut, the movie begins with what Donner wanted for the original ending of the first movie (and a much better scene of the Phantom Zone Prisoners’ escape) and ends with the Earth-spin-time-changing sequence. I feel like this is even more confusing than it was in the first movie. Did this whole second movie not happen? Isn’t that akin to saying it was all a dream? I don’t know. I really just don’t like this ending, either way. If this is only to make Lois forget about their romance, it’s kind of douchey. Speaking of which–
The ending, part 3. This is the ending of both versions of Superman II, shot by Donner. Superman saves the world and goes back to the diner where he got his ass kicked in the few days he went without power. There’s Mr. Wonderful himself, the truck driver who kicked his sorry ass. And, being the hero we all aspire to be, Clark Kent/Superman shows just how human he has become by humiliating and, essentially, kicking the bully’s ass. Now, I’m torn on this part. As a kid who was bullied, and who has some great stories about me getting my ass kicked, I still cheer that Superman/Clark Kent teaches the bully a lesson. Still, it is unbecoming for a hero who should be teaching by example. In essence, by teaching that lesson, he sorta kinda becomes the bully himself. Do you disagree?
After the Battle
Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is a beautifully executed case of What Might Have Been. This is not the movie that Donner would’ve released, but is as close as we’ll ever get, and it’s fine. It is a labor of love and the love seeps through. It’s also a fascinating thing to watch for those wanting to be filmmakers. To compare and contrast the two versions of Superman II shows how you can get two very good movies with the same basic story, but how the minor details can make or break aspects of it. Which do I prefer? I don’t know. Both have things I love, both have things I’m not fond of. Either way, it’s worth seeing whether you’ve seen the original Superman II a million times or only once.
Based on the success of Alexander Salkind’s, Ilya Salkind’s, and Pierre Spangler’s The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974) being shot together as though they were one movie, when the rights to Superman were bought in 1974, the decision was made that they’d make two movies together. So their original screenwriter, Mario Puzo, wrote one massive script that was eventually rewritten by Robert Benton, David Newman, and Leslie Newman into two screenplays. When Richard Donner was hired to direct the films, he brought in his friend Tom Mankiewicz to overhaul the screenplays, though his credit on the film was as creative consultant. In April 1977, filming commenced on both Superman: The Movie and Superman II. However, due to the production of both films going over schedule and overbudget, as well as clashes between the producers and Donner, the production of Superman II was halted to focus on finishing and releasing the first film.
Because it was known that a sequel would be made, Superman: The Movie introduced its sequel’s villains in its opening scenes. Brando is putting General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and Non (Jack O’Halloran) on trial for treason against Krypton. The council votes them guilty, with Jor-El’s vote the deciding factor. Zod announces that because Jor-El’s was the vote that sealed their fate, that he and his heirs will pay and kneel before him. The three criminals are placed in a flying piece of glass which holds them in the Phantom Zone. It’s one of the more jaw-dropping moments of the first film, with a giant dome opening on the crystal planet and a ray of light shooting up into the night sky and space. Superman II opens on Krypton with the three criminals going bad, getting caught, and being put to trial…without Jor-El.
It is the first change an audience member would have noticed sitting in their movie theater back in 1981. They may or may not have heard why Brando was suddenly not in the scene, I wouldn’t know, I was only three years old and knew of Superman II only through trading cards. Of course, with the huge success of Superman, one would think that the producers would have happily returned to shooting Superman II with all the original cast and crew, but that’s not what happened.
Of course, the story is legendary and if you’re here reading this, you probably know it. Still, in case you don’t know the story….
Because of the clashes between Donner and the Salkinds (I’m hoarding Spengler with them), even though Superman: The Movie was a huge success, Donner was not asked back to finish the sequel, effectively being fired. The Salkinds went with their friend, director of their Musketeer movies, Richard Lester. In order for Lester to get sole credit as director (so the story goes), he would need to shoot more than was actually left of shooting on Superman II when Donner and company left off. So more rewrites were done and in 1979, shooting (and in some cases, reshooting) began on Superman II.
I eventually saw it on HBO or Cinemax when I was about five or six. I knew about it, though, and I knew of the horrible happenings in the story: Superman and Lois Lane “get married” (that’s how it was explained to me). I was horrified. The two things the main heroes–my main heroes–could not do, under any circumstances, were: 1) Fall in love/get married, or 2) cry. When I get to the Star Wars Saga (if I get to the Star Wars Saga) you’ll hear more about that rule. Kissing was all right, but actual falling in love and marriage? Absolutely not. Still, I liked the rest of the movie at that age, even more than the first movie, which had slow moments. But I’m not a kid anymore (despite writing ad nauseum about kid’s fair), so, let’s take a look at Superman II.
Superman returns! It’s the common complaint of these kinds of movies and it started with this series: The first movie may be great but it’s always a build-up until the superhero we’ve paid money to see finally makes it onscreen. Nearly an hour goes by in Superman: The Movie before we finally see Superman, and it’s another 15 minutes or so before he saves Lois Lane in the helicopter scene, his coming out party. In Superman II, he pops up in the first 20 minutes, probably even sooner. Lois is at the Eiffel Tower trying to get a story on a terrorist situation and is in trouble and Superman shows up to rescue her (and set up the rest of the movie). Because a lot of the movie was shot at the same time as the first movie, and because Reeve’s embodiment of Kal-El is so pitch-perfect, it doesn’t feel like anything’s changed. I daresay, he’s the most consistent part of this movie. Or at least one of them. He has some of the real anguish that was only hinted at in the first movie when it comes to having to choose between maintaining his dual identity or becoming human for love. When Clark Kent, sans super powers, gets his ass kicked, the look of fear and shock on Reeve’s face is perfect. Looking at his own blood for the first time is terrifying. His helplessness and anguish as the realization dawns on him that no matter how much he may want to be human, he can never be so, is simply short of amazing. The whole performance, whether it’s Donner-directed or Lester-directed, is pretty much perfect.
The Phantom Zone criminals. Zod, Ursa, and Non bring some actual danger to Superman’s world. No matter how great Lex Luthor is in this incarnation, without the green rock, he’s essentially powerless over Superman in any physical way. Sure, using Lois Lane and the Daily Planet folks can get to him, but physically, he’s no match. General Zod and company is a match…a match to be taken very seriously. They are roles that could have been too big, too much, except that casting Terence Stamp as Zod was the right choice. He is cool, calm, and venomous. He says more with a look than just about anyone else in these movies. I suspect that Sarah Douglas took her cue from Stamp and played Ursa under Zod’s spell. Non is a little too silly at times, but when is up to evil, a formidable villain that is quite dangerous. Their costumes are cool, too, though a little strange.
The battle scenes at the end are every little boy’s dream fight. Or at least it was in 1980. Earlier that year, little boys got to see Luke Skywalker finally duel with Darth Vader…and lose. Six months later, Superman took on three equally-powered villains. Before CGI effects dominated the cinema with huge, grandiose battles (that often last far too long), children of the 1970s (1980 was barely the ’80s) got to see a battle like that without any CG effects. Christopher Reeve, Terence Stamp, Sarah Douglas, and Jack O’Halloran were actually on the streets of New York beating each other up using wires, camera tricks, models, and ingenuity. And the kicker? They weren’t even in New York! Instead, a set that looked like New York-as-Metropolis was built in (I believe) a studio in London. Re-watching it in the age of CGI, where just last year I saw The Avengers fight space bad guys in New York, doesn’t hurt the fight. The emotional resonance between Superman and Zod is still there.
The adult theme of the romance is another super thing about this movie. They really don’t sugarcoat it but never get graphic. Superman is giving in to his human feelings and being selfish and we root for him (while the little boys surely do not–they know what Superman should do!). We understand because we would do (and have done) the same goddamn thing for love. And this is where Superman: The Movie and Superman II succeed. “This is no fantasy” is still in the back of the mind. The beautiful sequence where Superman and Lois Lane fly together and begin to really fall in love is brought to a head here. They have an official date and then Superman chooses to give up his powers despite the hologram of Lara (Susannah York) warning him not to. It was a decision that troubled me–maybe even offended me–when I was between four and six but that I understand 30 years later. Like its predecessor, it brought Superman to the big screen not just for the kiddies, like the previous incarnations of Superman did, but also for their parents. Unlike the Kirk Alyn Superman serials (Alyn and Noel Niell appear as young Lois Lane’s parents on the train in Smallville in the first film) and the George Reeves movie, the Christopher Reeve Superman movies came out when the cost of a ticket got you movie trailers, the feature, and that was it. No cartoons, no newsreels, not endless viewings just by staying in the theater all day. This was the post-JFK assassination, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-Star Wars world and the parents needed something to hold onto, too. And this aspect of the story delivers.
Marlon Brando, now known for his arrogance and laziness as much as for his talent, wanted more money–a load more money–to appear in Superman II and the Salkinds, now known for the stupid arrogance, decided not to pay. Suddenly, Jor-El was no longer convicting Zod, Ursa, and Non. Suddenly, the holograms were of Lara that Kal-El spoke to. Jor-El hardly gets mentioned until the end. It’s a shame because it’s jarring for the viewer to go from the story of the father and the son to suddenly go to the mother and the son. It’s even more jarring when a famous, perfect scene loses its key player. Jor-El placing the final guilty verdict is the reason for Zod’s rage, and in the sequel it’s excised. Foolish.
Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor is under-utilized. He’s nearly as sinister as in the first movie, especially in the way that he tries to use Superman’s friends against him and to win favor with General Zod, but he almost gets lost in the shuffle. And his escape is ridiculous. Ned Beatty is once again the oafish Otis who is roommates in prison with Luthor. There’s a plan where they fool prison guards by placing a hologram of the two of them playing chess in their cell (apparently, in whatever state Metropolis is in, they allow convicted friends to share a cell). They then attempt an escape by hot air balloon, piloted by Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine). Luthor gets on but Otis begins to bring the balloon down as he tries to climb the ladder. Luthor eventually throws the ladder over and Otis stays in jail. The scene is ridiculous and one I’d like to blame on Lester’s touch (which I’ll get to very shortly) but can’t. All of the Hackman scenes are said to be shot by Donner. While bringing Luthor back definitely helps bridge films, he spends most of his time making wiseass remarks and watching the Phantom Zone prisoners be evil. Maybe he’s there to bring some lightness to Zod’s seriousness. Maybe the intention was to utilize the knowledge Luthor gains when he finds the Fortress of Solitude in a future film (the end credits begin with a notice that Superman III will be coming soon). Either way, Hackman’s talents are wasted as the comic relief to Zod and gang.
Continuity is an issue with this movie. It’s pretty apparent that Superman and Superman II are supposed to be one long story, or two chapters of a long story. However, because of the issues between the Salkinds and Donner, because of the money issues with Brando, because of Richard Lester’s insistence on rewriting the story to suit his direction (which was probably needed if he were to take sole credit, according to the Director’s Guild), continuity between the two chapters is very loose. It begins right away, on Krypton, where we see Zod, Ursa, and Non murdering a guard to a red crystal to suddenly be jailed in the rings. The Kryptonian Council heads float above them on the dark dome and go through who they are, and then find them guilty. I mentioned this scene two paragraphs ago. For fans of the first movie (which I’d assume would’ve been everyone in the theater seeing the sequel), it rewrites history and lessens Zod’s motives.
Another thing that bothers me is: What happened to Miss Teschmacher? True, we’re not sure what happened to her in the first movie, but she shows up to help Lex Luthor escape from prison. She goes with him to the Fortress of Solitude. She sees the holograms of a man teaching poetry and of Lara telling Kal-El about General Zod and his friends, but then…? She’s never seen or mentioned again.
Another continuity thing is the Daily Planet offices. Their basic set-up is the same, only now Lois has an office. It was pretty blatant in the first movie that she didn’t have an office, but had her desk with several other reporters, including Clark Kent. Now, suddenly, she has an office. It could be argued that she received one because she’s such a good reporter in between movies, but the way the office looks it makes one believe she has been in it a while. Of course, there’s no mention about how much time passed between the chapters of this story, but we know two years passed between the release of Superman and Superman II, so perhaps shortly after the events of the first movie, Lois Lane received an office. Still…
Richard Lester’s decision to bring more camp into the movie, and to give Superman, Zod, and the other Kryptonians ridiculous powers hurts an otherwise really good movie. Now, this is the 35-year-old talking. At five, six, or seven I thought these powers were great, but I didn’t realize that they were very much not powers Superman had. The first movie took his powers fairly seriously. With the exception of his turning the world, and time, backward, every power Superman displays is in the comic books. Superman II gives the evil Kryptonians the ability to make people levitate. Superman has the ability to broadcast himself throughout the Fortress of Solitude at the end, making some versions of himself holograms, others statues, all to throw the villains off. Don’t forget the S he takes from his chest and hurls at the villains. The S grows and becomes, essentially, cellophane and wraps around Non. The camp of the first film remained mostly with Lex Luthor and his goons, but in this one, it’s all over. From the silly doorman at Niagra Falls, to Lois’s attempt to out Clark as Superman with the falls (albeit, Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder are great in the scene, even if it is silly), to some of the people of Metropolis, Lester’s world is sillier. A little too much so. Again, I don’t want to be one of those fanboys who believes that everything in these kinds of movies must remain serious, it’s just that compared to the first movie, the tone is a little off.
After the Battle
Despite such a long list in the Kryptonite section, I actually enjoy Superman II quite a bit. After I found out the story behind the story, the firing of Richard Donner and everything else, I wondered what Richard Donner’s version would have been like, but that doesn’t hurt this movie that much. The cast still turns in strong performances, there’s still plenty of action, and it feels like a satisfying conclusion to the story begun in Superman: The Movie. As a child, I really enjoyed this movie and loved how the two movies went together. As an adult, I’m impressed by the work that went into both movies at a time when movies like these were huge gambles.
Superman and Superman II set the template for the superhero (or comic book) movie. It’s been used again and again, but hardly ever as well. Spider-Man, Batman Begins, and Iron Man are the closest to the feeling of the pure joy of discovery that Superman: The Movie provides. Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2, and Batman Begins and The Dark Knight the left-right punch of that Superman and Superman II delivers.
I feel like Superman II has gotten a bad rap because of the controversy behind the Salkind-Donner feud. When you get right down to it, it’s a pretty good movie. In some ways, it’s less than in its predecessor, in others, it’s better.
June 1978 marked the 40th anniversary of Superman’s debut in Action Comics #1. By now, Superman was more of a joke than anything else. Considered a square Boy Scout in tights, he chugged along in his comic books, trying hard to still be relevant. He was still on TV, though not in a live action series. After George Reeves’s death in 1959, live action Superman just didn’t happen. There’d been a Broadway show, which had been televised as a special, and a few small attempts in kiddie-fair specials, but mostly Superman had been relegated to cartoons on the small screen. He had his own cartoon from 1966 (the year another DC Comics megastar returned in live action) to 1970, and was a star in Super Friends, beginning in 1973, but live action? No. The late-1960s belonged to Batman, with Adam West bringing the Caped Crusader to the small screen, as well as the big screen for one movie. That show never even made it to the 1970s. Between the high camp of Batman and the general sour disposition of the Vietnam War, not to mention the civil unrest that was going on in the United States at the time, who cared about Superman?
Well, Ilya Salkind, that’s who. The young movie producer convinced his father, Alexander Salkind, and Pierre Spengler to purchase the film rights for Superman in 1974. At that point, the task was to make the movie. I’m not going to get into the rest of the story. It’s readily available (and, honestly, fascinating) throughout the Internet as well as a myriad of documentaries for various versions of the movie. Suffice it to say that five months after the 40th anniversary, on December 10th, Superman: The Movie premiered.
I was aware of this movie before I saw it through Superman II trading cards. Because I was almost a year-and-a-half when the movie came out, I wasn’t aware of it, nor did I see it. It wasn’t until the movie debuted on TV that I saw it the first time. I feel like it was a yearly Movie the Week until home video killed that tradition. I feel like it ran for three hours on TV. I feel like George Reeves stopped being Superman for me at the moment of watching t this wonder-to-the-eye of special effects and…well, wonder, and the man my mother told me was Christopher Reeve, who was also not really flying, but was hanging by wires, and lying on tables, became Superman.
Like Star Wars the year before it, Superman: The Movie may have failed if had come out sooner. It may have failed had the producers gotten a Big Name Star to fill in the blue spandex. But it didn’t. Oh, boy, it didn’t.
The cast is superb. You know this, I know this, I should just stop. But I won’t. Brando is convincing as Jor-El, member of the Kryptonian Council as well as major scientist. Susannah York as his wife Lara isn’t in much of the movie but her pathos is undeniable. She does not want to give up her only child, no matter the consequences, but does so anyway. Jackie Cooper and Marc McClure as Perry White and Jimmy Olsen also shine. And while she’s a little goofy at times, Margot Kidder as Lois Lane is spot-on. It’s really a surprise her career didn’t take off after this movie. Gene Hackman is an interesting, diabolical, and sometimes chilling Lex Luthor. The inferiority complex that Luthor must have in shown with his choice of sidekicks, the bumbling oaf Otis, played by the always-great Ned Beatty, and the sultry, sexy Miss Teschmacher, played by Valerie Perrine. Her outfits and very presence would be enough to send many boys into puberty, even in this movie. And don’t forget Glenn Ford or Phyllis Thaxter as Jonathan and Martha Kent. Ford’s death scene chilled me as a little boy (and, truth be told, does so now, too). All these actors are great in their parts, chewing up the scenery and getting the viewer to believe in the world of Krypton, Smallville, and Metropolis. But the center of the movie, the spoke on which this wheel turns, is–
Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent and Superman. I went back on forth about giving Reeve a paragraph to himself instead of lumping him in with the rest of the cast–after all, Kirk Alyn and George Reeves were both placed with their casts–but I had to. The choice of the unknown, too-skinny classically-trained actor to embody the Man of Steel in the flesh was a bold one. When Christopher Reeve was cast as Superman/Clark Kent, George Reeves was still planted firmly in everyone’s mind as Superman, even though he’d died when Reeve was only six years old. Reeve portrayed Clark Kent as a classic screwball klutz, think Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby. Yet, Kent never really feels like a farce. There’s a real-world simplicity and charm to him that sells him. Reeve had said that one of keys to playing Clark Kent in the way he chose was to make sure he didn’t walk into every door, but to make sure Clark got through the door with aplomb nearly as often. If anyone has ever been able to sell that Clark Kent and Superman were two different people, it was Reeve. As far as Superman is concerned, Reeve gave him an earnestness that was almost dorky, but never made it seem like he was better than anyone. Reeve’s Superman wanted to be human, and it could be read on his face. But this Superman wasn’t simply the do-gooder as presented in previous incarnations, and he was nobody’s wise uncle. He was the older brother you trust, but he also had an edge. Take the following exchange: Lois is interviewing Superman on her balcony and says, “Clark said you were just a figment of somebody’s imagination…like Peter Pan.” After some back-and-forth on who Clark is, Superman replies, “Peter Pan flew with children, Lois. In a fairy tale.” Who knew that Superman had game? The implication, of course, was that they weren’t children. This was no fairy tale. The line would be a hard sell but it works, and I give credit to Reeve.
Still, someone had to write that line, and the writers were Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, and Robert Benton. And after Richard Donner came onto the film as director, Tom Mankiewicz did a tune-up to the script, though his credit is “creative consultant.” The story and script are great. Because the producers wanted to film Superman and Superman II together, the original story was quite large. With Richard Donner on as director, the feeling that this was a fantasy for children went away. The director of the horror classic The Omen might be doing Superman, and he knew it would be seen by children, but his intelligence and that of the writers was not to make a kid’s movie. They took Superman fairly seriously. After a great black-and-white prelude that features a little boy speaking and opening an issue of Action Comics, as well as a Daily Planet building with rotating globe, after the opening credits with John Williams’s wonderful music, the first line of the film is Marlon Brando as Jor-El saying, “This is no fantasy.” Brilliant. We’re reminded of this throughout the movie. This is no fantasy, no fairy tale. Superman is made plausible and, in some ways, is the most realistic character in the entire movie.
And while I’m talking about Richard Donner, his direction is great. The actors inhabit the roles entirely and seem at ease. Technically, the movie looks great and has Donner’s touches as an activist as well as a storyteller. One rather adult moment that I caught (that may only be in the extended version) happens in the scene when Lois Lane meets Clark Kent. Lois’s desk in outside Perry White’s office amongst six other desks, three facing one way, three facing the opposite so the occupants can look at each other over their typewriters. Lois shows Clark where his desk is, which is across and kitty-corner to her own. In typical Clark Kent fashion, he needs to squeeze behind her in the tightly packed, busy newspaper office, just as she bends over. He brushes against her and she shoots up, eyes wide, shock on her face. Clark mumbles something, pushes his glasses up, and quickly gets to his desk. Her look at him is over in an instant, but it’s a priceless scene that proves that he is the Man of Steel…everywhere.
John Williams once again creates a classic theme. As he did with Star Wars, he created a symphonic story that matches the beauty of some of the scenes, as well as the heroism of the character. The music is as important to this story as anything else in the film.
Superman flies! The tagline on many of the posters and advertising of this movie was, “You’ll believe a man can fly.” And for the first time in live action, that was a promise nearly kept. Using masterful wirework as well as technology developed for Star Wars, Superman really appears to fly, which not only serves the story in general, but gives us one of the classic scenes of cinema: Superman and Lois Lane flying. It is a scene that is beautiful and filled with wonder. Sure, 1978’s special effects don’t hold a candle (or an iPhone) to what is capable now, but its beauty isn’t in its realism but in what goes down in the scene. Two people are falling in love though they know they can never really be together. For the first time, Clark Kent actually has found someone he can be comfortable with, and Lois Lane has found something that’s more important than her career. It’s a scene that should be silly, hokey, but works.
Otis is a bit too dumb. Don’t get me wrong, I love Ned Beatty and his role as Otis, but it’s a bit of a stretch that Lex Luthor would keep around such an idiot. I like the idea that he would have those he deemed lesser than him as henchmen but Otis seems borderline retarded. Even Miss Teschmacher is a little too dumb for Lex, though she has much more realism than the bumbling oaf. Now, I hope I’m not coming across as one of those fanboys who feel that every superhero/science fiction/space fantasy/nerdmovie should be serious with no comic relief, but I think it’s a little much. The joy of this movie is the decision to move away from the 1966 Batman‘s camp but Otis almost belongs there. As a result, so does Lex Luthor. That said, I’m writing this from the perspective of a 35-year-old. The 5-year-old thought Otis was great, so I guess that really settles this minor gripe.
The ending. The idea of having the movie end with Superman changing the rotation of Earth and thereby changing the course of time brings the movie straight into fantasy, which is great considering the first line of the movie. That said, I leaves too much open. When the world went back and saved Lois, did everyone get saved? Did the missiles not hit anything? Because it seemed that Superman didn’t bring time back far enough to erase their launch. And if he did, and there was no launch, when Superman picks Lex Luthor and Otis up, do they even know why, or are they befuddled because they never launched their plan? And if they launched the missiles, then wouldn’t they strike anyway? Or did Superman in essence make a copy of himself that took care of the East Coast missile and then is erased when time catches up again with post-Earth spinning Superman? Because if that’s the case, then maybe he disposed of the West Coast missile offscreen and understood the other one would vanish and become him.
You see what I mean? Time travel is not for the faint of heart! Only aliens in blue police boxes and teenagers in Deloreans should attempt it! It feels like a cop-out. Originally, this was to be the ending of Superman II. The ending for this film would have Superman getting the missiles in time and sending them into space, where they’d explode and meet up with the Phantom Zone inmates, General Zod, Ursa, and Non, and free them. The final shot of Superman was supposed to be the three evil Kryptonians flying toward Earth, which is why they’re at the beginning of this movie. Richard Donner was convinced by others that his original ending was too small and to put the Earth spin at the end of the first film.
And speaking of offscreen, we never actually see Superman get Lex Luthor or Otis. He is overjoyed to see he saved Lois (who is upset that her car ran out of gas and that he couldn’t be her taxi service or something), then flies away. Suddenly, Luthor and Otis are carried into the penitentiary’s courtyard. What about Miss Teschmacher? Well, if you happen to own the 2000 extended cut of Superman, you get the answer about Luthor, Otis, and Miss Teschmacher…in the bonus features. In the nearly 10 minutes of restored footage to the actual movie, that was kept out. I received the Superman Anthology Blu-ray set for Christmas last year so saw this feature, though it may be on the 2000 DVD (I’d need to check but am way too lazy).
After the Battle
Superman: The Movie is a masterpiece. It’s one of the first adaptations of a comic book character that took the whole thing seriously. It was a movie not just for the kids but also for the grown-up kids who’d been fans at all in the forty years Superman had been around at that point. When the movie came out in 1978, it was big. Suddenly, Superman was cool again. It had intelligently set up the second movie in its first few scenes. It couldn’t be long before Donner and the rest would provide Superman II. With the way this movie turned out, what could possibly go 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.
Based on the overwhelming success of 1948’s serial Superman, Columbia Pictures and producer Sam Katzman decided to get the gang together for a sequel. So in 1950, children found that the Man of Steel had returned to their local movie houses in Atom Man vs. Superman. With a screenplay by George H. Plympton, Joseph F. Poland, and David Matthews, and directed by Spencer Bennett, the original cast joins with Lyle Talbot as Luthor to tell a sprawling new story.
Like its predecessor, this is an interesting look back at a time when entertainment was more innocent and more naïve. This is a serial that is unabashedly for children and says “To hell with the adults!” It makes me wish I’d been a child back then to see it and other serials of its ilk.
Once again, the cast is really good. This shouldn’t come as a shock since Kirk Alyn, Noel Neill, Tommy Bond, and Pierre Watkin return as Clark Kent/Superman, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, and Perry White. With the exception of Ms. Neill’s hair and hat (her hair is shorter and black this time, more like her comic book persona) nothing about the actors has changed in two years. Most of their performances are as good, if not better, than they were in the previous serial. Alyn once again dons the cape with gusto and enthusiasm. This is a Superman who revels in being Superman. Clark Kent is just as lazy and cowardly as before, with that twinkle in the eye that lets the kids in the audience know that Superman is just around the corner.
Lyle Talbot as Luthor is possibly the closest Lex Luthor has been to the comic book version on the silver screen. He’s intelligent, mean, and more than willing to do what it takes to become powerful and destroy Superman. While everyone gets hung up on Gene Hackman’s portrayal of Lex Luthor, Talbot’s is certainly not going to surround himself with the likes of Miss Teschmacher and Otis.
The story is once again quite epic. I guess it’s difficult not to make an epic story at 15 chapters of 15-to-20 minutes in length (nearly four-and-a-quarter hours). With the mysterious Atom Man to contend with, and the newly “reformed” Luthor suspected to behind him, Superman is kept busy. The story is grander, including a place called The Empty Doom (which is a lot like The Phantom Zone) that we actually go to, a spaceship for Luthor’s escape from Earth, a flying saucer that shoots Clark and Lois down (cliffhanger!), ray guns, synthetic Kryptonite (that’s missing one element to truly work–sound familiar?), and– Well, you should just trust me on this. It’s massive.
All right, in the last essay, I pretty much bashed the writing and direction of Superman (1948). In many ways, the same problems persist. While there are very entertaining parts of Atom Man vs. Superman, there are some show-stoppingly bad parts. The serial is off to a pretty fast start, since Superman’s origins were told in the last movie (chapter 1), so we get to see our Metropolitan friends going about life and our Kryptonian hero do heroic things. Somewhere around the halfway part of the series, though, things begin to go wrong. Chapter 7, “At the Mercy of Atom Man”, the story stops dead as Luthor tells his aide the story of Krypton and Superman’s origins. Now this came as a shock because the way the story was told in the first serial, even Superman was unaware of where he came from. He suspected it was the planet Krypton because Kryptonite had an ill effect on him. Not only does Luthor retell the origin, but the audience is given much of the Krypton scenes from the first serial’s first chapter all over again. If you didn’t see it the first time back in 1950, this was probably great–especially if you were a kid–but even back then, an adult would’ve rolled their eyes at the strange nature of the backstory. And how does Luthor know? He was the only person on Earth who was able to decode a message from Jor El, sent out across the universe to get help for his doomed planet. From this point, the story gets weird. Lois Lane quits the Daily Planet after one insult too many from Perry White and she goes to work for Luthor, who now runs the local TV station. He says he’s reformed but Lois and Clark and Jimmy and Superman have spent the first half of the serial not believing him. But now she believes him. To make matters worse, her journalistic integrity is thrown to the curb because she’s a girl-on-the-street stopping pedestrians to ask them about the weather or if they prefer country life or city life. The one news story she’s sent on as a TV reporter–a major flood in the upstate town of Lawnville–she messes up because she refuses to take heed when the police tells her to move, the flood was on its way. There are other strange things, too, and stupidity on the part of the characters so the story will keep going.
Lois Lane isn’t herself in this serial. Look, Noel Neill is Lois Lane. She played the reporter through these two serials and all but the first season of the 1950s TV show The Adventures of Superman. And she was spunky and dead-on in the first serial, but in this serial I think she could have been better. Not only is the part written pretty poorly, but she sometimes goes through scenes as though she’s sleepwalking. Now, I don’t think it’s her. I think she was directed poorly. Maybe it was the huge amount of work filming a serial for a low budget took. I don’t know, but this Lois Lane is good sometimes, and other times she’s just blah. I wanted to like her but just didn’t care. Again, I think it was the way she was directed. I hope it was.
Atom Man was lame. His costume was horrible and he was confusingly lame. The big reveal on his secret identity was silly, too (thought surprising).
The reusage of footage got to be annoying. In the last few chapters of the first Superman serial, I noticed that when Clark changed in the Daily Planet closet, it was the same shots used. The same can be said for Superman’s take-offs out the Daily Planet’s window. This serial uses it, too. Over and over and over. They reuse a lot of footage from that first serial, actually. I guess over two years and 15 weeks, a child wouldn’t notice it. Still, I think it’s lazy.¹
The budget seems better on this one than on the prior one, though not much. It could just be a trick, though. Either way, lack of a budget means silly-looking stuff. The animation is even greater this time around. Though I give kudos to them showing us Superman flying up-close, so Kirk Alyn could be seen “flying.” The animation doesn’t only go to Superman flying, but also the flying saucer and spaceship I mentioned.
After the Battle
My feelings of Atom Man vs. Superman are pretty similar to my feelings on 1948’s Superman. They’re both great fun if you go into it with the sense that you’re time-travelling. If you’re looking for a deep, modern Superman adventure, you’ll hate these. If you want to see adults essentially do with Superman what you would’ve done with your action figures at six or seven years old, then you’ll enjoy them.
I’m really glad I watched these serials. They were only the third and fourth serials I’ve seen and they made me want to see more. They’re also fun to see from a historical perspective, like when Lois Lanes is annoyed with her “newfangled typewriter,” which looks like a manual office model except is electric. Also, seeing an early TV is pretty cool, too.
Overall, I recommend the serials, but only if you’re willing to play along. Take them for what they are: stories meant for young fans in a different world, a world before John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Vietnam, Nixon, Reaganomics, terrorist attacks, and overt cynicism.
¹ In rewatching The Incredible Hulk TV series for the past year (I’m almost done!), I noticed footage reused over and over again, sometimes completely out of context.
Ten years after Superman made his historic debut in Action Comics, and five years after his final Famous Studios adventure “Secret Agent,” Superman returned to the big screen in his first live-action adventure. Simply titled Superman, Columbia Pictures released fifteen chapters of Superman’s struggles with criminal mastermind the Spider Lady. Unlike the animated adventures before it, which were not just meant for the kiddies who went to the Saturday matinees but also for the boys World War II, Superman was meant to appeal to the kiddies in the movie theaters waiting for whatever adventure they’d paid their 40¢ to go see.
I don’t know when I’d become aware of the Superman movie serials, maybe my teen years, but I’d never seen them before I’d decided to write these essays (and as of this initial writing, I’m only four chapters into the subject of next week’s essay, the second Superman serial Atom Man vs. Superman). I wish I’d seen these as a kid, a young kid, before Star Wars ruined simple special effects for me, before seeing Christopher Reeve in the suit. Still, it was interesting to see this, only my third go at watching a 1940s movie serial (the other two will be subjects in a future essay series and involves a different DC Comic hero) and it was interesting. So, here we go….
The main cast is pretty good for serial actors. Now, not to put the form down, but movie serials are not known for their acting but rather for their adventures and cliffhangers. Still, Superman‘s cast isn’t too bad. Noelle Neill as Lois Lane is spunky and fun to watch. Tommy Bond as Jimmy Olsen is appropriately a pain in the ass. Even Pierre Watkin as Perry White, who mostly sits behind a desk and snarls at Clark, Lois, and Jimmy is good (though Perry White does get to see a piece of the action. He even gets his own cliffhanger!). Still, without the right person in the lead, this whole dog-n-pony show would fall apart, so enter Kirk Alyn as Superman.
Alyn played both Superman and Clark Kent differently and did a pretty good job with each. He will never go down in history as the Best Superman (or Clark Kent), but I daresay he’s better than Dean Cain. Alyn is tall with dark hair and has a heroic air about him. He even does “This is a job for Superman” (or they may have just used Bud Collyer’s voice, because it’s always in voiceover). As Clark Kent, he enjoys playing ‘fraidy cat and pulling off the secret over his friends. Almost too much (but I’ll get to that later). As Superman, Alyn gets an enthusiastic look in his eye, as though he’s having a good time playing the role. In this day and age of morose superheroes, it’s refreshing. While he is padded under the suit, he won’t be the last to be so. And if there are any criticisms I have, I don’t think they originate in his performance.
The nostalgia. Now, I’m hesitant to use this term because having come out in 1948, Superman is 29 years older than me. Still, watching the serial brings one back to a different time period that I’d be interested in visiting. Not living, no way, but visiting. I asked my father, who would’ve been seven when these came out, if he’d seen them and he said he didn’t think so. What a shame. Imagine being seven in 1948, before TV was mainstream, never mind cable, and seeing Superman in live action for the first time! Damn! Here’s a guy you read about in the flesh, being super. This is a Superman for a simpler time, a time when comics were kids’ stuff, a time when all it seemed to take was a man in a cape to solve things. The simplicity in this serial attests to that.
The scope. I’ll hand it to the filmmakers, they didn’t let a small budget stop them from trying to deliver an epic. With a story by George H. Plympton and Joeseph F. Poland, and a screenplay by Arthur Hoerl, Lewis Clay, and Royal Cole (according to the credits, adapted not just from Action Comics and Superman comic books, but also from the radio show), producer Sam Katzman and directors Spencer Benett and Thomas Carr really try to give the fans a sense of who Superman is, much more than the filmmakers responsible for the Batman serials of 1943 and 1949 (okay, I gave it away). The serial begins on Krypton and follows Kal El to Earth, where the Kents find him and raise his as their own until Clark, as an adult, heads off to Metropolis to try to be a reporter as he also saves the world as Superman. With the Spider Lady trying to take over the world (or something), the scope of this tale is pretty big.
The direction. Or the screenplay. Or maybe it’s the budget. Or maybe it’s that it’s 1948 and a serial made for kids about a guy with a cape and so isn’t taken seriously, but I felt like there were a lot of missteps in Superman. Kirk Alyn played Superman rather well, but I had a few small problems with him that I think stem from story and/or direction. Superman can be kind of a jerk sometimes. In hiding as Clark Kent, he occasionally likes to make Lois Lane seem like a lunatic. Considering she’s a star reporter in a major metropolitan newspaper in 1948, she shouldn’t be as dumb as she sometimes is, and Clark Kent/Superman really seems to enjoy fucking with her. He also beats up the bad guys. I mean, here’s a guy who can stop bullets, but he punches bad guys out on several occasions. The kicker is, the punches only hurt the bad guys as much as a normal punch would. So that’s just silly. Superman’s favorite move, though, is picking two villains up by the back of their jackets and smacking their heads together. Another issue I had with Alyn’s performance was that sometimes, he wasn’t very super. He had a tendency to run or walk with his arms out, as though on a highwire. I’m sure this had more to do with direction than interpretation. Either way, the direction and screenplay are sometimes lousy. No nice way to put it.
It’s too simple, too. I know the serial was made for kids, but come on. The simplicity of the story defies logic. A precocious child would surely see problems in logic, even in the “innocent” days of 1948. There is a ray (there’s always a ray) that does something that the Spider Lady wants. And then there’s…there’s… All right, I don’t remember much about the plot, mainly because it’s pretty bad. The intention of the serial, I think, wasn’t to tell a long story so much as to get Superman in live action onscreen. Since 15 chapters were what these serials were about, the story–pretty flimsy to begin with– is stretched to near breaking. Take into account the limits to the serial by budget and quality of special effects, and you have a story that is sometimes too naïve and takes great leaps in logic.
The budget is a problem. I don’t know what the budget for this serial was (I will revise this later should I find out) but I assume that it wasn’t a lot. First off, most serials didn’t have great budgets. Second, this doesn’t look as good or as polished as movies made earlier, like James Whale’s Frankenstein, which was released in 1931. Third, the actors are all B-actors or character actors. They all do well enough but are obviously not going to win any awards any time soon. More than all that the budget hurts because Superman really isn’t a character who is cheap to do. Because of his super powers, he should be larger than life, yet he never really gets there. Yes, Kirk Alyn helps in this department with his enthusiastic portrayal, but everything around him hurts, including–
The special effects. Superman’s powers are abysmally lame in this serial. The first time Superman arrives, he saves a train with Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen on it by fixing the track–off screen. There are jail bars he bends at one point that are laughable easy (they continue to rotate even after he is through the window). And then there’s the animation. We have grown used to seeing animated special effects. The main difference between 2013’s animated special effects and 1948’s is that we have CGI realistic looking effects while they used hand-animated effects. So when a thug shoots at Superman, the cartoon bullets that bounce off his chest are laughable. And when Superman flies away, the cartoon Superman that takes Alyn’s place takes you right out of the story. Even the sets leave room for improvement. The Spider Lady’s electrified web looks like something out of a suburban Halloween party, all glitter and cheap.
The locations. These serials were obviously shot in and around Hollywood. The same Columbia backlots are used and re-used, and a lot of the action leaves Metropolis for the desert around L.A. These serials aren’t about getting the feel of Metropolis right, they’re about telling a Superman adventure. But the day-for-night that changes between poorly filtered daylight to straight-out daylight is silly.
After the Battle
It’s not difficult to make a Superman story for the big screen, but it’s damn difficult to do well. Superman succeeds in some areas and fails miserably in others. Still, I look back on the experience of watching this 15-part serial with a smile on my face. I’m looking forward to watching its follow-up, Atom Man vs. Superman for discussion next week (or when I can finish it and write an essay about it). I recommend this serial in the way I’d recommend looking into any historical piece, and that’s what this is: history. It is the first time Superman appeared in live action on the big screen. And even though it’s pretty bad, it’s not bad, either.