Batman (1989) It’s easy to forget just how new Batman was when it arrived twenty-three years ago – or, for that matter, how fresh it remains. While the idea of a comic book film for grown-ups is now familiar, Tim Burton’s funhouse style is still one of a kind, blending art deco, German expressionism, and urban decay into its own brand of demented fantasy. This idea of Gotham at its most Gothic is more than a visual gimmick, though. The exaggerations of the film (in both its look and its plot) actually enhance the the psychology behind the characters; in this revisit, Michael Keaton’s take on Bruce Wayne felt more brutal, more damaged, and more compelling than it had for me in past viewings, adding an edge to an already edgy story. When Keaton’s Batman tells the Joker “I’m going to kill you,” it’s a threat not in line with comic book continuity but completely in line with Bruce Wayne as this movie makes him: armed, dangerous, and burning with anger. (Nicholson, meanwhile… hot damn.) Whereas Christopher Nolan uses a real world setting to explore his characters’ pain, Burton allows the broadness of his comic book universe to amplify that pain through distortion. It’s a daring move that paid off in one of the smartest, boldest, and most unique adventure films ever made.
Batman Returns (1992) The sequel, however… It’s hailed by some as a better film than its predecessor, but those fans are only half right. Part of Batman Returns is indeed a richer, more ambitious, and more dynamic story, in which two lonely souls are drawn to each other in both sets of alter egos. Keaton and Michelle Pfieffer bring heartbreak to their performances; it’s quite lovely and haunting, a nice continuation of themes presented in the first film. But Returns is also a lesser picture, in which Burton’s increased creative control results in something visually exciting but a bit of a disaster plot-wise. The screenplay is a total ramble, full of storytelling dead ends (remove the Penguin’s mayoral campaign and you affect nothing but the run time) and set pieces inspired more by their look than by their logic (pretty much anything involving the circus gang). The lack of cohesion keeps the movie from becoming the grand opera it desperately wants to be; it is instead uneven entertainment, a film that works on a scene by scene, hit or miss basis. Fortunately, it hits more than it misses, but only just.
Batman Forever (1995) So here’s the part where I tell you I think Batman Forever is a better film than Batman Returns. For the most part, though, it’s apples and oranges: while Forever certainly has a heavier, more serious side (Bruce’s dreams; Dick’s quest for vengeance) which follows nicely with the previous movies, it’s inspired much more by Returns‘ dark comedy, with Joel Schumacher amplifying the camp to deafening levels. (It’s especially telling that most of the seriousness was edited out of the final film; while such moments would’ve made for richer characters and a more cohesive plot – and I’d certainly love to see the original cut some day – such sobriety hardly belongs in a movie where cartoon sound effects play as Jim Carrey grabs his crotch.) The result is a DayGlo explosion, a neon-colored, Dutch angled parade of outrageousness that’s not just over the top, it’s twenty stories worth of top*, as if Schumacher saw Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon and thought, “needs more camp.” There are moments of sheer lunacy and oddball beauty here that genuinely thrill me, not only because they’re unlike anything you’d find anywhere else, but because we actually get them in a major studio production that became one of the biggest moneymakers of the decade, and how often does that happen?
Batman & Robin (1997) And it comes to this. You might hate Batman & Robin, but I’m strangely obsessed with it. I love this movie. It is, of course, a bad movie, but it’s not quite the disaster its reputation suggests, merely because it’s always so freakishly watchable. Its outrageous ambitions, embarrassing though they might be, make it far more interesting than ninety percent of the superhero flicks that have followed it. Those films play it safe; Batman & Robin swings for the fences. And whiffs. Beautifully. This is a grand catastrophe of excess, an attempt to push the limits of camp that pays the price of taking one step too far, a step that’s hypnotic in its own lunatic way. Here is a movie where Arnold Schwarzenegger sings the “Cold Miser” song, where Coolio leads a gang of street racers, where Uma Thurman crashes a party in a gorilla costume, where the titular heroes sky-surf away from an exploding rocket. Also, this happens. Find me a studio tentpole release that would even consider topping (or even attempting) such nonsense. In the middle of all this nuttiness, Schumacher and writer Akiva Goldsman try to shoehorn in some semi-serious subplots about family and trust. These bits almost work, but not quite; like in Forever, the moody scenes are earnestly presented (with some legitimately good performances from George Clooney and Michael Gough) but are never given enough room to breathe. Which is fine, since we’re better off when the movie paints with the broadest brush it can find, flinging awful one-liners and benippled costumes and whatever the hell this is at us. This is pure, unfiltered crazy. How can you not want to watch this stuff?
Night Must Fall (1937) Here’s an odd duck: a thriller with few thrills but a terrific sense of unease. Robert Montgomery plays a smooth-talking handyman who charms his way into the home of wealthy but ailing Dame May Whitty shortly after word spreads of a recent murder. There’s something off about the guy, so when the dowager’s niece (Rosalind Russell) finds herself drawn to him, we can’t help but squirm. The film is chatty and unassuming, with little action (it’s based on a stage play, and looks it), but it uses such simplicities to its advantage, turning the story into one long slow burn. By the later scenes, just the sight of Montgomery’s dark smile is enough to shatter our nerves.
One Crazy Summer (1986) Written in a weekend, disowned by John Cusack, featuring Bobcat Goldthwait in a Godzilla suit. Just to name three reasons to love the second chapter of the Savage Steve Holland trilogy.
*(Apologies to House on Haunted Hill.)