Ross Douthat made a rather curious comment in regards to the Batman movies:

I say something very similar in my own review, forthcoming in the next NR, which takes the possibly daft point of view that over the long haul, Tim Burton’s interpretation of the Batman saga – especially Batman Returns – will hold up somewhat better than Nolan’s mega-grossing effort. (And the box-office numbers are stunning: Watch your back, Titanic.) This is not to say that The Dark Knight isn’t a remarkable achievement in certain ways. But I think you can feel the strain as Nolan labors, sometimes successfully but more often not, to transcend the genre he’s working in, whereas Burton was content to have fun within the lines, making the most of his material’s essential two-dimensionality rather than struggling against it. His Batman movies don’t kinda-sorta want to be The Godfather; they just want to be Batman movies. And I think they’re slightly better for it.

There are, I suppose, arguments to be made that Tim Burton’s Batman movies, Batman (1989) and Batman Returns, were better than Nolan’s current efforts are. But the notion that Burton’s has staying power while Nolan’s won’t is betrayed by the fact (or I guess the perception on my part) that Burton’s really didn’t have staying power at all. Yeah, the first one launched three sequels, but the last two in that series pretty much undid everything that Burton did. Further, I find the notion that Burton was comfortable making a Batman movie while Nolan wasn’t to be equally strange. Nolan knew Batman while Burton mostly re-invented him in his own imagery.

I used to say of the Burton/Schumacher movies:
Batman was a good presentation of a good concept. Batman Returns was a bad presentation on a good concept. Batman Forever was a good presentation of a bad concept. Batman & Robin was a terrible presentation on a terrible concept.

It’s funny what time does to movies sometimes. It used to be common wisdom that Batman was a great movie and Batman Returns fell short of its mark. As time has passed, though, it’s actually the latter that has more staying power (on that part Douthat is right) while the 1989 original has lost its luster. In both cases, however, Burton’s shortcomings have been exposed. Joel Schumacher and Adam West made him look great in comparison, but the animated movie chinked the armor and Nolan’s first movie dealt a fatal blow by making a movie wherein Batman doesn’t even appear until the second half more interesting and exciting than a movie where he appears in the first scene.

Once you get beyond the compelling visuals of Burton’s films, what’s left? More in Batman Returns than in Batman, which is why the latter has fared better both in my mind and in the minds of more than a couple people that I’ve talked to (a lot do stick to their original assessment, though). In both cases, though, you’re left with Jack Nicholson playing Jack Nicholson in make-up and a purple suit dancing to Prince with a boom box on his shoulder. The Joker is reduced to a common mobster. Then in the second movie you have the twice-evil Max Shreck.

None of this is to say that both movies aren’t good. They are. The concept is good. The visuals are fantastic. Michael Keaton and his portrayal of Batman and Bruce Wayne are surprisingly good. Catwoman and The Penguin are interesting characters. Unfortunately, on repeat viewings, the first movie is incredibly slow and the second movie seems kind of aimless. If I were asked to watch a pre-Nolan Batman movie, I’d be as likely to choose Batman Forever as either of Burton’s. It’s inferior in so many ways, but it never gets as tiring or difficult to watch as does Burton’s movies.

Much more strange to me than Douthat’s assessment of the longevity of Burton vs Nolan is his rationale. Batman was comfortable being a comic book movie? Nolan wasn’t? I’m not sure I agree with either assessment.

Another superhero movie that didn’t stand the test of time (with me, anyway) was X-Men. The main reason for that is that X-Men never seemed comfortable in its own skin. On one hand, it was trying not to be a superhero movie even going so far as ditching Wolverine’s distinctive costume. Instead it wanted to Make a Statement or somesuch about tolerance and understanding (which, it should be noted, the comics accomplished even with costumes). Yet at the end they were reduced to a plot with a death ray emanating from the Statue of Liberty. I’ve heard the sequels are better, though I’ve never gotten around to seeing them.

So I’m somewhat sensitive to Douthat’s comment about the perils of a movie trying to be more than it is. Iron Man was such a success largely by trying to be the best movie that it could be for what it was. The first Hulk movie allegedly tried a bit too much but the newer one allegedly got it right (I’ve not seen either). I appreciate it when a superhero movie realizes that it’s a superhero movie and works its way from there.

Unlike Douthat, I thought that’s exactly what Nolan did. Burton, not so much. Burton essentially made a Tim Burton movie with Batman in it. Those aspects of Batman that he was less than thrilled with he simply threw out. Catwoman and Penguin were completely revamped away from being supervillains in any classical sense. The Joker was a common thug-turn-mobster with makeup and a scarred face. He essentially took the style and the essentials of the backstory (only the essentials) and made something that he thought would be interesting and gripping. And for the most part I quite liked it. But it’s not what I would considering being comfortable being just a superhero story.

I don’t think that Nolan ran away from Batman and comic books in quite the same manner. It’s possible that he pushed to make it more than just superhero movies, but he stayed firmly in the context of the subject-matter. He used the superhero genre as an engine to explore some questions about duty and the self-deceptions of modern society, but the questions as they were presented lost most of their bite when taken out of the context of superheroism. The questions and points remain, but by and large the questions were most interesting to me as they pertained to superheroes and the Batman Mythos. That’s where I part company with boosters that argue that The Dark Knight was thoughtful on its own merits. I’m not sure it was and I don’t think that it was meant to be.

It was, I think, as it was intended to be: A Batman story.

Category: Theater

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3 Responses to Batman Movies

  1. Barry says:

    I’ve blogged about the new Batman movie separately, also, so I won’t rehash it. Suffice to say I don’t see what the big fuss is about. I’ve not been particularly enamored of the two Nolan films (I did think the first one was more enjoyable overall as a Batman film. If I want to see a movie about mob wars, I’ll rent one of the Godfathers).

    To me, though, the Burton/Schumaker film that best captures the spirit of what Batman is about is Batman Forever, as he meets and starts to raise Dick Grayson and sees the parallels with his own turbulant youth. I also liked Val Kilmer as Batman, too. Even with the over-the-top Tommy Lee Jones and *shudder* Jim Carrey, it’s enjoyable to watch. The dismal, dark Batman Returns is still fun, too, because Danny DeVito is a great Penguin. You’re right, the first Batman is very dull though I enjoyed Jack Nickelson’s Joker 10x as much as Heath Ledger’s dreary, unfunny clown prince of crime.

    I don’t know. It’s all over the board for me. To be honest, I much more enjoy the great Animated Series to all of them.

  2. Barry says:

    Nolan knew Batman while Burton mostly re-invented him in his own imagery

    I forgot to mention this – while Burton obviously takes that whole “Gothic” concept and runs with it in his own unique way that he’s famous for, the inspiration for the “new” Batman look and feel falls squarely on the shoulders of Frank Miller. Before “The Dark Knight Returns” I don’t think Batman had ever really been portrayed in popular culture as anything but a blue-caped crimefighter with a utility belt, a youthful sidekick and fighting wacky costumed villains. It wasn’t until the comic series and more popularly the graphic novel appeared on the scene in 1986 or so. The producers of the first Burton Batman apparently decided that was the direction they wanted to go with the mythology, and that’s what we’ve had ever since.

    And I like it, to a point. It can go overboard though with all the dark and gloomy and oppressive (Mark Evanier says it perfectly: “Who would want to live in Gotham City??”) but otherwise it really fits what Batman is. Tim Burton took Frank Miller’s concept and ran with it.

  3. Willard Lake says:

    X-Men 2 is superior to the first in every way. I recommend you give it a go. Skip the second… too many mutants making cameos to keep anything straight, but I did like Wolverine’s adamantine pants.

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