We’re all about comics here at Panels on Pages, but a geek cannot live on comics alone. Outside the Longbox is our chance to spotlight something outside our typical four-color realm – be it movies, music, TV or whatever.
I’m a lifelong Marvel fan. Even so, I’ve always had a special place in my heart for Batman. Every comic fan likes Batman. He’s a pop culture icon. You’d be hard pressed to find a single person in a developed country that couldn’t tell you who Batman was if you showed them a picture. In his 70+ year war on crime, the Batman has crossed into every conceivable form of media, including a live arena tour coming to the US this summer. Thus with his latest film on the horizon, we embark upon a journey through film and television with the Dark Knight. If you like this, I gave your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man the same treatment last year, so check that out.
Any Batman on film is a product of its era, just as the comics are a product of their era. Be it budget, style or tone, every era’s Batman is decidedly dated, and that’s not always a good or a bad thing. It’s just true.
The Serials – Batman (1943) and Batman and Robin (1949)
In the days before Television, film serials were all the rage. Batman’s first foray into film ran in 15 parts as he and the Boy Wonder squared off against Dr. Daka… whom you’ve never heard of. This was the height of World War II, so like many other bits of American fiction at the time, Batman was pitted against a Japanese villain. Batman himself was an agent of the US government and is terribly racist. It was cool to “slap a Jap” back then, kids. Even Bugs Bunny did it, and this a-hole was making zombies for Hirohito!
Everything looks dumpy and cheap, but not only is this the first Batman on film, it’s also the first appearance in any medium of the Batcave. The serial also changed to the appearance of Alfred from a chubby butler to the thin mustachioed confidant we know and love today.
Several years later, a sequel series was produced, but it actually managed to look even worse. Batman and Robin didn’t even have utility belts. Neither series had a proper Batmobile (it was too expensive), but at least in the first series they had Alfred driving them around in a limo. In Batman and Robin, Batman drove himself around in a big-bodied Mercury, this time facing the Wizard, who basically had an RC car fetish. There’s not a lot to say about it, other than that it served as Vicky Vale’s film introduction (even though Kim Bassinger did it much hotter a few decades later).
Batman the Movie (1966)
For years, people have described the 60’s Batman show as “campy.” For a long time, I didn’t know what “campy” meant. To be honest, it still escapes me. Judging by this movie, I’m going to assume it means “awesome,” because this movie is balls-out awesome. It gets a lot of its swagger from the TV series it’s based on, but I’ll always prefer the movie because it’s all right here in one big serving. Every actor is fantastic in their roles, but none more so than Frank Gorshin as the Riddler. He’s more than enough villain for the movie, but this movie has four of them, and they all do something!
Batman is a major product of its era. It reeks of style. Everything from the colors to the soundtrack to the amazing camera shots and set dressing are uniquely its own. There’s nothing quite like it. I love it, and not in that ironic way. It’s amazing, noble porpoise and all.
So what’s it about? The esteemed Commodore Schmidlapp has been kidnapped because he’s invented a machine that turns stuff into dust… Okay. The cadre of villains then use the machine on the leaders of the United Nations and hold them hostage in little test tubes. That’s the big evil plot. Sprinkled throughout the movie is a ransom plot for Bruce Wayne wherein he falls for the Russian Miss Kitka, who is obviously Catwoman. That plot thread leads to some spectacularly pimp Bruce Wayneing from Adam West and equally awesome Dick Graysoning from Burt Ward as he averts his virgin eyes. Oh, and during the scene where Bruce Wayne is kidnapped, the Joker is wearing a domino mask. Because why not?
Twenty years later, Warner Brothers would give hot up and coming filmmaker Tim Burton a chance to bring the dark knight to the big screen. Both of Burton’s Batman films are marked with his very specific visual style and the ever-present musical stylings of Danny Elfman (his Batman theme is now synonymous with the character just as much as the cowl). They’re good looking movies, and they’ve aged really well thanks to the timeless production design. Sure, there’s cool Bat tech, but the architecture, wardrobe and cars are all out the 40’s. It’s a look that would carry over to the animated series several years later.
Jack Nicholson is amazing as the Joker. He’s easily the highlight of the movie. Michael Keaton does a fine Batman, despite the controversy when he was offered the role. Mr. Mom as BATMAN!? Never! The movie doesn’t really know what to do with Bruce Wayne, but it’s still not a bad movie. Some comic writers have a tough time with Bruce, after all. There’s a lot to like in Batman. There’s just something that jumps out as being very un-Batman about it… Oh, that’s right. It’s the scene where the Batwing unloads on a crowded street full of thugs with machine guns. Even as a kid, that took me out of the movie. But this was hot on the heels of the success of books like the Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke, so once again a product of its era, this Batman went edgy.
That aside, taken for what it is, Batman is really cool. The aforementioned Vicky Vale makes her return to movies as the poor woman unfortunate enough to be the object of both Batman and the Joker’s affections. Bassinger is really good in the role, and Robert Wuhl steals every scene he’s in with his unbridled awesomeness (I’m an Arli$$ fan. What can I say?). Overall, the cast is solid. Batman was a gothic superhero romp that took the nation by storm, machine guns or no machine guns. Bat Fever was everywhere. Naturally, a sequel was greenlit.
Batman Returns (1992)
Batman was a hit, so Burton was tapped again to direct the sequel. For as much crap as Joel Schumacher catches for his movies (more on those later), Batman Returns gets a pass it doesn’t necessarily deserve, because it is friggin’ weird. Sure, it’s got smoking hot Catwoman (a nerd sex symbol for fanboys and fangirls alike even today) and it still looks really neat, but this movie is maybe a little too dark. The opening scene has a newborn Oswald Cobblepot tossed into the sewer because he’s deformed. Fortunately, the sewer leads him to a zoo, where he’s taken in by a family of penguins. It’s like Tarzan, only terrifying. He returns as the Penguin, and since the people of Gotham are idiots, is positioned to become mayor of the city. His real plan, though, is to murder every first born child in Gotham.
Not dark enough? Mousey secretary Selina Kyle discovers that her boss Christopher Walken is a crook… So he tosses her out of a window. She survives, but has a psychotic break. So naturally, she makes herself a Catwoman suit and vows revenge, eventually teaming with the creepy-@$$ Penguin in order to double cross Walken (who is backing the Penguin in his quest to become Mayor). And then there’s Batman, being all brooding and such. Honestly, any Batman stuff in this movie is nowhere near as memorable as all of the crazy surrounding the villains. There’s more and better Bruce Wayne in this one than the original thanks to the Bruce/Selina vs Batman/Catwoman dynamic. It adds a layer to his character that was missing from the first movie. Even so, the villains steal the show here, and that’s a problem that would continue to worsen over time.
In an effort to maybe not make the audience want to kill themselves when they walk out of the theatre, Warner Bros. tapped Joel Schumacher for the next Batman film. Things are about to get ugly. Join us next time for part 2 of Batman on Film.