Many people call BATMAN RETURNS the most underrated Batman film but I don't find that to be so. (Most people I've seen seem to like it) As I promised my next review would be a defense of BATMAN FOREVER. I want to make one thing clear. THIS ISN'T A DEFENSE OF BATMAN & ROBIN. Nor will I write one afterwards.
First off I'll talk about my opinions on the Original Batman Anthology. I love BATMAN 89. I really do. It's one of my favorite films ever made. To me it feels the most pure Batman of all of the originals and was a lot of fun with legendary performances from both Michael Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson as the Joker. Three years later BATMAN RETURNS was released to mixed reviews. I personally do like it. I am a big fan of Tim Burton and I did like his consistently engaging visual style with that film. Michael Keaton returned in top form, and was aided with fantastic performances from both villains. Danny DeVito played an untraditional but very well acted Penguin, and Michelle Pfeiffer played the more mentally unstable interpretation of Catwoman very well. Plus it also had Christopher Walken who is always entertaining. Many say they thought it was better than 89 which is fine, but as I said that one felt pure Batman and this one definitely felt much more Burton than the original. But after the film was deemed too dark for children by parents Burton was fired and they hired Joel Schummacher to helm the third film now known as BATMAN FOREVER. With Burton's departure Keaton also left. The film had a lighter and more family friendly tone and was released to an even more mixed critical reception, but over the years has become notoriously synonymous with BATMAN & ROBIN for many people. And I might as well put my view on BATMAN & ROBIN here to be fair. Nostalgically I really liked the movie as a kid. But after growing up and looking back I can see that it is a bad movie. But I find it to be so cheesy it's funny in a way akin to the Adam West television series. So I don't blame anyone for hating it and won't defend it. Just a guilty pleasure of mine. And be honest well all have them. For fun you can list them in the comments if you want. Heck, can't get more embarrassing than admitting you enjoy BATMAN & ROBIN. But even though I'm going to leave B&R be I will defend this other childhood favorite of mine.
So, let's begin.
1) The Tone/Style
I often feel that the original Batman films are often looked at superficially by most audiences. Many people hate on this film for its drastic tonal difference from its predecessors. As I said much lighter and more family-friendly. But here's the thing. If you look at any of the Burton/Schummacher films next to each other none of them are tonally or stylistically the same. Even the ones done by the same directors are very different from each other. (Something I find entertaining about them) Even BATMAN RETURNS to BATMAN 89. I might even say FOREVER felt just as close, or maybe even closer to the tone of 89 than RETURNS was as both were the middle ground films. FOREVER in presentation is sort of like a mix of the Batman comics from the 1940's and the 1970's. The 1940's was the early days of the adventures of Batman and Robin. The 1970's was a transitionary period for Batman comics. It had elements from the campy days of the 60's Batman, but had darker elements and dealt with more serious themes like the Batman comics of the 1980's. Even though it was lighter I still think there was enough darkness in it for a serious Batman movie.
Like the last two films this one is visually engaging to watch with the way they stylized Gotham City. Yeah there was a lot of neon in it, but I didn't think there was too much. And I thought that motif fit with the Riddler. Overall I wouldn't say it's look was bad at all, it's just different. (Just as different as the visual looks of the first two I might add)
Aside from the nipples, I liked the Batsuit in this one and it matched the motif of the Batsuits from the first two films. And while I didn't like it as much as the Burton Batmobile the Batmobile in this one was still very well done and much better than the one that followed it. I also thought the Batcave itself was cool to, maybe even better than the one from the first two.
Many people complain that there were a lot of goofy/campy moments in this one. While that's true I felt that at times RETURNS was pretty campy to. Need I mention the very idea that Penguin had in reserve the idea of sending out an army of penguins wearing rocket packs to level the city? And the fact that he had so many of them. And while they were good performances Penguin and Catwoman had some cheesy lines like, "Did somebody say fish. I haven't been fed all day." But again like with TEMPLE OF DOOM it gets a pass because it's darker. (And remember I like both TEMPLE and RETURNS).
2) Val Kilmer/Presentation of Batman
Val Kilmer has received a lot of criticism, but I actually thought he did a good job. Granted he wasn't as good as Michael Keaton (the best in costume Batman) or Christian Bale (the best Bruce Wayne). I thought that he got down the inner pain Michael Keaton managed to evoke very well. Many complain that he seems uncomfortable at parts, but I think that was the point. Bruce Wayne, and definitely the one from the earlier Burton films, was someone who was uncomfortable in his skin and around others. But I'l get more into that later.
This film had a lot of firsts that made him more akin to the Batman of the comics. First of all he doesn't kill. Except for Two-Face but if you take a look at the scenario there was no way around it and saving Dick and Chase's lives were more important than letting Two-Face live. And no I am not somebody who was very upset with him killing in the two Burton films. And I'll explain why later. This is also the first film we see him as a major public figure. Many say he was a recluse in the first two, but I saw that more in the second than 89. But that's another thing I'll talk about in more detail later.
And while in BATMAN & ROBIN they turned Batman into being too much of a public figure. Here though he still acts very much as he did in BATMAN RETURNS where he's still a figure in the shadows who does have an alliance with the police without revealing himself to the public at galas or parties.
The only real problem though is that he's given a few lines that are a bit too corny. The two main ones being "I'll get drive through" and "It's the car right. Chicks like the car." Though I don't see how they're much worse than Batman's line "Eat floor" in RETURNS.
But overall I think Kilmer's work in this film is not given nearly enough credit.
3) Chris O'donnell/Presentation of Robin
I thought they did a great job with Robin in this one. In the comics Robin was a young boy when he joined Batman, but for the silver screen I thought it made sense to play him a bit older as it would be hard to take a twelve year old robin seriously in a live action film. The only issue I may actually have is that O'donnell looks a bit too old. But I liked the idea of him being a teenager.
Many people say that he did a terrible job, but I feel that again is being lumped in with his performance in the following film where he was a whiny b*tch. Yes he had some angst here, but given the character's situation with his family murdered and wanting revenge it was warranted. But like Kilmer he is often discredited and besides being a bit to old did a very good job.
4) Jim Carrey/Presentation of the Riddler
I'll be honest, I really like what they did with Riddler. The thing about Riddler is that his character is very malleable and in every new interpretation is generally depicted a different way. In essence he is a tabula rasa. Here he was very much akin to the Frank Gorshin version of the character from the 60's television series, which was the most famous version at that time. But what I really liked about it was that they added a more demented and slightly darker edge to his personality. The big scene that comes to mind of that for me is the scene where he kills his boss Fred Stickley, and the whole stalker angle given to him. He also had some great lines of dialogue and a clever wit akin to Jack Nicholson's Joker and Danny DeVito's Penguin. Such as "Caffeine will kill ya" and my favorite is when he's speaking to Two-Face with "Your entrance was good...his was better." Yes he was comedic, but he still had a menace to him and at the very least was a very solid antagonist.
5) Tommy Lee Jones/Presentation of Two-Face
This section is more of a defense for Joel Schummacher, because here's the only part that I'm not going to really defend. Nostalgically like B&R I enjoyed it. But since my childhood I've become a rather avid Batman fan and this presentation really does miss the mark. But here's the thing. So many people unfairly and uninformed blame Schummacher and the film's writers for the cackling face gripping interpretation of Two-Face that we got. But if you do your homework that isn't the case. In the script Riddler and Two-Face were written to contrast each other. The Riddler with a demented electric personality offset by Two-Face with a more stern and brooding personality. During the 90's Jim Carrey was at the height of his popularity and when Tommy Lee Jones was hired on to play Two-Face he didn't want to be overshadowed by Carrey. If you read interviews with Schummacher BEFORE the movie's release you'll read that he and Jones had a lot of trouble on set with Jones refusing to listen to Schummacher's instruction. The reason I stressed the word before is to show that it wasn't just Joel trying to make up excuses for the negative reaction. Schummacher wanted to do a serious Two-Face, Jones didn't listen and acted as we see him in the film, and the studio wouldn't let him go. (He was a pretty big name at the time, having just won his Oscar for THE FUGITIVE) Further evidence that this was the case is if you watch the deleted opening about his escape from Arkham. The scene is very dark with a psychiatrist walking into his cell to find him gone, hung one of the guards to the ceiling fan, and we see words written by Two-Face in the guard's blood THE BAT MUST DIE. That shows how darkly the character was written, not how the actor decided to portray him. And while I'm a fan of Tommy Lee Jones you should put blame where it is deserved and it isn't with Schumacher.
And the most disappointing thing is that the first moments we see of Two-Face shows how great Jones could've been in the role had he taken it more seriously. His opening with his talk about chance was great, but afterwards it falls apart. I like this movie a lot the way it is and think to an extent for what it is his performance was fun (it's amusing to see him try to out-Jim Carrey, Jim Carrey. And I always have to crack a smile at the scene where Two-Face is teaching Riddler how to punch), but I would've loved the movie even more if we had gotten the darker Two-Face that had been intended and that we deserved if Jones had been more professinal.
And on the race thing, yeah the character changed races and that is weird. But its Hollywood, and we're talking about a series of comic book based films that never took themselves too seriously. He could've gotten comic book world plastic surgery for all we know. Though I do often wonder if Billy Dee Williams would've been more on board with Schummacher, and we could've gotten the Two-Face that was originally envisioned.
6) The Music
Yes, I agree that Danny Elfman's music is still the best Batman movie music, even better than Hans Zimmer's music for the Nolan films. But the work done by Elliot Goldenthal for this film was still very good. It's not as dark or operatic as Elfman's, but is to me sounds a bit more heroic.
7) The Trilogy Comes Full Circle
Many people complain about how loosely connected the original Batman films are. But I now want to talk about how I view the BATMAN ANTHOLOGY. While as I said I enjoy BATMAN & ROBIN as a guilty pleasure, I like viewing 89, RETURNS, and FOREVER by themselves as a trilogy. And let me explain. But first read this exchange of dialogue between Bruce and Dick, especially to the monologue Bruce says.
Bruce: "So you're willing to take a life."
Dick: "As long as it's Two-Face."
Bruce: "Then it will happen this way. You make the kill, but your pain doesn't die with Harvey it grows. So you run out into the night to find another face, and another, and another until one terrible morning you wake up and realize that revenge has become your whole life. And you won't know why"
Dick: "You can't understand. Your family wasn't killed by a maniac."
Bruce: "YES THEY WERE. WE'RE THE SAME" (Key)
Dick: "Then if we're the same Bruce help me. Train me to be your partner."
Bruce: "No. I can't. You still have a choice."
I may be reading too deep into this (see any of my comparison lists and you know how over analytical I am) but I see a very good character arc with Batman over the course of those three films. And the monologue he says here fits in line perfectly with the first two films. In the first film we see him in his earlier days as the Dark Knight, still being an urban legend. While the films are generally liked many complain about Batman killing in them. And while I don't blame them I think it works in the character arc I find here. What people don't seem to realize is that Batman doesn't kill anybody until the third act of the film after he discovers that he's up against his parents' murderer (the Joker). Sure there was the story the two muggers talked about with Johnny Gobbs, but remember that's when Batman was still only an urban legend. And even one of the muggers just dismisses it as a drug caused accident. It is never clearly indicated that Batman was the one who did it. Further evidence that he wasn't at least too much of a killer was when Batman confronted the muggers and didn't kill either of them and told them to send a message to the other criminals of the city. And it takes only one person to send a message. Now as I said he only started killing a ton of his enemies in his attempts at revenge, and eventually sates it by killing the Joker. As with his speech of self-experience stated that Dick's pain wouldn't die with Two-Face, but it would grow.
Another things many viewers generalize about both Burton films is that Bruce was a complete recluse in both, but he doesn't really seem totally that way to me in 89. HE HELD A PARTY AT HIS HOUSE. He was also apparently supposed to appear at the Harvey Dent press conference. Something a recluse wouldn't sign on to do. In RETURNS we see both complaints more fully. We see Bruce at the beginning of the film just sitting in his study brooding and waiting for the signal like a hollow shell. And as Batman throughout the film he's seen killing villains left and right. Even seeming to take a dark glee during the killing of the fat strongman with with the bomb when he gave that dark grin. Essentially after killing the Joker he kept killing. Searching for another face, and another. Becoming a shell of a man, with revenge becoming his whole life. But I see there as being two factors within RETURNS that account for his change of heart in this film. First off is when he finds a kindred spirit within Selina Kyle and developed feelings for her. But later on he discovered that she, someone he cared about, was a criminal. And he figured out she was not a criminal out of being evil, but was a tortured soul just like him. There was also Penguin's line, "You're just jealous because I'm a genuine freak, and you have to wear a mask." In essence Batman was being compared to his enemy. I view it as helping him realize that through his murderess tendencies he was becoming just as bad as the villains he strove to stop. And after both instances (or at least the Catwoman one, the Penguin part may be stretching it) he decided to change his ways to how he is in FOREVER. It could explain how he at the end tries to stop Catwoman from killing Schreck even though he had taken many lives by that point.
In FOREVER he has become more of a public figure again and doesn't seem as empty as he did before but still has that inner pain as he hasn't completely come to grips with the murder of his parents. But an important new factor into this arc I'm presenting was in Dick Grayson. A young man who witnesses his parents murdered in front of him by the maniacal Two-Face, just like how the young Jack Napier had killed his parents before his eyes. That is what allowed Bruce to sympathize, and probably what drove him to take Dick in. Many people wonder why he starts suddenly having nightmares about his parents' death so long later at this time. It was the very fact that he had witnessed history repeated what it had done to him to Dick and made him think back to it. Anyway he sees himself in him and tries to set him down the right path before he makes the same mistakes he made by killing Two-Face. Not only does Bruce feel this is the right thing to do, but I always viewed it as him finding a way to find redemption in order to atone for his earlier actions. He gives Dick his guidance and eventually Dick like Bruce comes face to face with his killer, thrashes his around a bit, but is then given the opportunity either to kill him or save his life. Though through Bruce's guidance he unlike Bruce makes the right choice and saves Two-Face's life. Putting him down the right path, and Bruce redeeming himself by saving someone else. And by the end of the film he is shown to be past his personal demons and I think his helping Dick was a large contributing factor. His solace is shown in the scene where he gives Chase Meridian the dream doll back saying he doesn't need it anymore. And what was also important about Dick is that he was proven wrong. The he didn't have to be a loner in his crusade for justice. He also decided it would be his choice to be Batman rather than an obligation. While that wouldn't work in an ongoing comic book series, I think that would've been a fitting conclusion for a film series. And this would've been a great ending. He had found inner peace, found a love who in the end did choose him for Bruce rather than Batman, and had also gained a son. (If anyone tries to say that Schummacher made them gay in this film they clearly aren't paying attention.) And from what I hear Burton (don't quote me on it) was going to do many similar things in his BATMAN 3 as far as Bruce dealing with his pain and stop killing, etc. The connections would've definitely been stronger if Burton were in the director's chair and Keaton were playing Batman, but I think the movie is still pretty strong. And this development of the character was probably the basic problem with BATMAN & ROBIN. The torture of the character was basically gone. He was at peace, and he was a team player who was much more comfortable in his skin. It was near impossible to tell another deeper and darker psychological story.
Overall I really like this film. I don't like it as much as 89, but I might actually like it as much as like RETURNS. My main issue is that most people seem to hate it just because it lacks Burton and Keaton, and that it's from the same director as B&R. LET IT GO PEOPLE. The grudge has been held for far too long, and BATMAN & ROBIN was ruined by studio mandates not Schummacher. Check out some of his other films before calling him a terrible director. This is definitely one of the most underrated sequels ever made. Sometimes fans have to realize that just because a film has flaws doesn't mean it's automatically a bad movie. Films aren't black and white.
My next defense will be of another superhero threequel. This time SPIDER-MAN 3.