Classic Film – Batman (1989)

Batman

Directed by Tim Burton, U.S., 1989

I recently revisited 1989’s “Batman,” the film that arguably changed how Hollywood makes movies.  Sure the Spielberg and Lucas films earlier in the decade and in the late 1970’s started the idea of the summer blockbuster, and there had already been several Christopher Reeve Superman films, but Batman seemed to make Hollywood understand that summer + taking an established property seriously = $$$$$$$.

Tim Burton’s Batman films are often placed behind Christopher Nolan’s in quality, and with good reason.  The Dark Knight (2008) is not only the best Batman film, it may be the finest super hero film period.  Still, I’m not so hasty to rank Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) ahead of Tim Burton’s efforts.

All four movies have problems when compared to The Dark Knight (let’s not even get into the other two Batman “movies”).  Batman Returns (1992) has too many characters crammed into too short a run-time.  The Dark Knight Rises has the opposite problem in that it feels about an hour too long.  Batman Begins suffers from Christopher Nolan’s weakness for repetitive dialogue (we get it – he needs to be more than just a man).

Batman compares more favorably to The Dark Knight.  It is certainly a Tim Burton movie in that it joyfully indulges in the Gothic and grotesque, and Burton was clearly more interested in the early Batman comics than the more recent adaptation of the story.  The modern Batman of the Dark Knight Detective comic book era pretends to be a ridiculous playboy during the day, will not kill his enemies no matter how heinous they are, and at least has some logical basis for owning his collection of bat-toys.  The original Batman from the 1939 comic book was an aloof, mysterious millionaire, who had no problem dispensing fatal vigilante justice and seemed to pull expensive vehicles and gadgets out of the ether.  Burton’s Batman is far less logical and, to the extent that Batman can be realistic, less plausible.

Another key difference is that the first Batman movie could just as easily been entitled “Joker.”  Jack Nicholson’s Joker gets more screentime than Batman, better lines than Batman, and a more extensive backstory than Batman.  It is also the only Batman film where Batman faces only one adversary.

I remember when Heath Ledger was first cast as the Joker there was an uproar.  People wanted Nolan to cast Nicholson again, or at least his modern equivalent.  Interestingly enough, when the character is inevitably played again, that actor will immediately be unfavorably compared to Ledger.

Nicholson and Ledger give different interpretations of the same character, and it is up to the audience to decide which one they prefer.  Ledger’s Joker is more outwardly psychotic and has no backstory, making him a gleeful agent of chaos.  He’s dangerous because he’s unpredictable and he lacks any motive beyond the creation of mayhem.

Nicholson’s Joker is more calculating and has clearer motivations.  He’s no less dangerous, and just as much in love with destruction.  But his goal behind the destruction is to instill fear and gain recognition, whereas Ledger’s Joker is only interested in laughing while he watches the world burn to the ground.

Finally, Batman is a lot shorter than today’s superhero blockbusters.  Coming in at a little under two hours, it’s 40 minutes shorter than Nolan’s bloated “The Dark Knight Rises.”  Longer doesn’t always mean better or more entertaining.

As the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, there will be more Batman on film.  In two years we’ll get “Batman v. Superman: the Dawn of Justice.”  After that the inevitable stand-alone Batman movie.  It will be interesting to see where the adaptations are going next, and how they differ from the Burton and Nolan versions of the story.

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe

Man of Steel (2013)

Man of Steel

Directed by Zack Snyder, 2013, US

By D.G. McCabe

My kingdom for a decent Superman movie.

When I last checked Rotten Tomatoes, Man of Steel was sitting at 56%.  I don’t know what movie those 56% percent of critics were watching, because it certainly wasn’t the same one I saw this evening.  It’s bad.  How bad you say?

It starts off promisingly enough.  With Christopher Nolan working on the screenplay and production, you get a little bit of Batman Begins…oh wait, Superman isn’t Batman.  Superman doesn’t walk the Earth like Caine in Kung Fu.  There is enough complexity in the character already without having to turn him into Bruce f’ing Banner already, and a lot of that complexity is hereto unexplored in film.

Still, I could get behind a reluctant, nomadic Superman if the director, Zack Snyder, would have followed through on that concept.  It’s too bad he doesn’t.  And after two hours that feel like five, you realize that Snyder should stick with ridiculously stylized movies about shirtless, ancient Greek meatheads.

The second half of the movie consists of nothing but smash smash, boom boom.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve defended smash smash, boom boom at times, but usually I expect that crap from Michael Bay films not a Superman movie.  There’s a difference between “all I want to see is giant robots fighting each other” and “I’m looking at my watch to see how long this never ending action sequence is.”

And the dialogue.  Maybe this crap was fine on TV’s Lois and Clark, oh wait, that show is bloody Shakespeare compared to this crap.  Now, Nolan’s scripts sometimes hit you over the head with exposition a bit too much (“That’s why the military invented dream sharing” from Inception for example), but I expected more of him.  After plenty of mustache-twirling villain exposition and lots of “release this against Superman” or “unleash that against Superman” I started laughing like I was watching friggin’ Anchorman.

Apparently, Nolan and Snyder decided to farm out the second half of their screenplay to an eleven year old who got into the coffee again.  So Superman fights the bad guys and smashed up the town, then they move to the city and then he’s gotta fly to the other side of the world and fight this other thing and then he’s gotta go back to the city and fight Zod in the big climax and boom!  Boooooooooom!

After sitting through this BS, it made me want to do to this movie what a completely out of character Superman does at the end of it.  Apparently there are two sequels on the way from these clowns, let’s hope they learn from their mistakes instead of doubling down on crappy dialogue, complete lack of romantic chemistry, and stupid jokes like Star Wars Episode II did.

You might like Man of Steel if: You have no interest in the Superman character, or wish that he was Batman, or you have completely merged video games and movies in your mind.

You might not like Man of Steel if: You have any knowledge at all about the character of Superman or you just don’t have the endurance to sit through a ninety minute action sequence that doesn’t even look all that great and never f’ing ends.

(c) 2013 D. G. McCabe