Thursday, 19 July 2012

Some Days You Just Can't Get Rid of a Bomb: Bat-Extravaganza Part One

Full Disclosure: I love Batman. I love The Dark Knight Returns, I love The Killing Joke, I love A Serious House on Serious Earth, I love giant pennies, I love the fifth dimension. I love Arkham Asylum and Arkham City. I love Adam West, I love Michael Gough, I love Michael Caine, I love Gary Oldman, I believe in Harvey Dent. I love Batman Begins, I ADORE The Dark Knight, and I have never, ever been as excited for a new film as I am about the release of The Dark Knight Rises tomorrow. To put it mildly: I fucking love Batman. Admit it, you love Batman too. Everyone does. Batman's easily the most bankable superhero, with The Dark Knight earning a staggering $1bn worldwide at the box office, the recent Arkham video games receiving widespread critical acclaim as well as commercial success, not to mention Bats' original comic form, in which he has remained in print for over seventy years. Batman is old enough to be your Grandad, and he's still cooler than anything at the cinema this month.  

With the new film about to be released, it might seem an obvious choice to do a retrospective on the previous Batman films, but, as I mentioned last time, that's already been done by better men than I. It goes without saying that Chris Nolan's about-to-be-completed Batman Trilogy is one of the most popular and successful film franchises of the last twenty years, and many remain fond of the idiosyncratic 1989 and 1992 Tim Burton films Batman and Batman Returns. The follow ups, the Joel Schumacher-directed Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, are widely regarded as two of the worst comic book movies ever made. When we think of the 'Batman' films, these are the seven that spring to mind, for better or worse. But there have actually been a total of eleven theatrical, feature-length Batman movies over the years, not including the numerous straight to video animated releases.*

This is not cool.
This is cool.

Over three very special Bat-posts, I want to discuss three of those theatrical films, beginning with the oft-derided-but-pop-culturally-brilliant 1966 Batman: The Movie. Secondly, we'll look at the 1993 Batman: Mask of the Phantasm: the only animated Batman feature to have been released in cinemas, and almost completely forgotten by mainstream audiences. This is a terrible shame, as it's amongst the very best of the Batman films. Following Mask of the Phantasm, I'll round off Bat-Extravaganza with a full review of The Dark Knight Rises. So without further bat-ado, here is:

Batman: The Movie

This may just be the finest magazine cover
I have ever seen, and testament to Batman's cultural impact.
Batman: The Movie is a masterpiece of camp, technicolour silliness. I find it bizarre that when people talk about the 'Batman films', this one is often left out, despite the huge pop-cultural impact it had as a TV show and, later, as a motion picture. Indeed, the litmus test of something being irreversibly ingrained into public consciousness is how often it has been parodied in The Simpsons. Parodying the 1960s iteration of Batman is something that The Simpsons has become particularly adept at. The reason for The Simpsons' multiple bat-parodies is that Batman: The Movie is awesome, and has affected our perception and expectations of comic-book movies more than you might think. The common reason cited for the failures of Batman Forever and Batman and Robin is that they became too camp, like the 1960s version of Batman. Unfortunately anyone who finds themselves repeating this popular but simplistic mantra are wrong, and as a result have missed the fundamental reasons that make those films terrible. I've got news for you, kids: it ain't the camp that makes Schumacher's bat-films crap. Batman Forever and Batman and Robin are vacuous, commercial turds made only to sell toys to kids without a shred of heart or creativity. It's not because they're camp. In fact, Batman Forever is less camp than you remember. Admittedly, it did introduce the infamous nipples on the batsuit, was the first Batman film to feature Robin, and included the some of the hammiest villains ever in Tommy Lee Jones' Two-Face and Jim Carrey's Riddler. But amongst all the seizure-inducing neon was a lot of Val Kilmer brooding away as Bruce Wayne, tension between Bruce and Dick Grayson and a (relatively) complex love interest in fetishistic psychiatrist Chase Meridian, played by Nicole Kidman. In fact, part of the reason Batman Forever fails is because of its identity crisis. It doesn't know if wants to be a fetish-psycho drama or silly toy advert for kids. These problems with tone don't trouble Batman and Robin: it's just a straight-up pile of dog shit. The writing is crap, the sets are cheap, sub-sy fy channel quality, the constant changing of Bruce and Dick's costumes (steady) is wearying and cynical, and the villains alternate between boring and annoying. But these problems are not because they are camp. It's because they're crapBatman Forever and Batman and Robin both fail on the levels of camp entertainment and as kids flicks because they're shoddily made, cynical cash grabs with both eyes on the merchandise and none on the script.

Following the disaster of Batman and Robin there has been a tendency in popular discourse to use 'camp' and 'ironically crap' as synonyms, but we really need to cut that shit out, because it gives crap films a free ride on the back of irony, and levels unfair and unjustified criticism at good camp films. Want more evidence? Sam Raimi's first two Spiderman films are rightly regarded as high watermarks of their genre, but you can't get much camper than a man in a green Power Rangers on a flying skateboard, or a fellow with four metallic arms that talk to him and tell him to do bad things. For all its flaws, Spiderman 3** had a killer theme for Spidey's black suit: a brilliant composition in a minor key with everything thrown at it: horns, strings, percussion, woodwind and choral elements. It brilliantly underscores and gives personality to the black-suit sequences, and it's probably my favourite piece of music in the whole franchise (and that's high praise, given how great Danny Elfman's original theme is). But it's also camp as fuck. Listen to it:

Compare that to the Joker's theme in the 60s Batman and try to tell me they're not similar:

When the horns come in on the Spiderman theme they sound an awful lot like the Joker's theme, no? Not convinced? Try this one on for size:

Are you telling me the theme for Batman Forever's Two Face doesn't remind you of Spidey's black suit theme? No, of course you're not because it totally does. Primarily, character themes like these tell us something about who they represent, so with three very similar characters it's unsurprising that their music should resemble one another's. Of course, they're all comic-book movie villains, and two of them are Batman baddies at that. But more importantly, they're all a particular type of villain. You don't associate this kind of music with, for example, Darth Vader, or, tellingly, the Joker in Nolan's The Dark Knight, because those villains are not the same type of camp, dastardly foe found in Batman Forever, Spiderman 3, or indeed, Batman: The Movie. The Dark Knight's Joker is a terrifying, psychotic murderer, and we feel uneasy every time that he is on screen. In contrast, the Joker in Batman: The Movie is deliciously evil, gurning and cackling his way through absurd and comical devilish plans to undo the caped crusader. We revel in his pantomime wickedness, and his music reflects this. What is so absolutely great about the combination of panto-villain performance and music in Batman: The Movie is that its influence is still felt in modern superhero flicks. The reason that the dastardly-villain-music trope still works in something like Spiderman 3, where it's used not to identify a bad guy, but rather, to emphasise an emotional shift in the hero, is because it is already familiar to modern audiences as a trope of bad-guy-music. Using this musical trope alerts audiences to the emotional and narrative development in the scene. Spiderman 3's narrative is largely a disaster, but, here at least, the movie shines with an economy of characterisation and story telling. In the scene where the black-suited Spiderman fights the Sandman in the sewer, everything we need to know about the character, the narrative and the emotion of the scene is given to us in a few bars of music. Everything in that scene works because of a convention for which Batman: The Movie is largely responsible.

The reason that the same musical trope doesn't work in something like Batman Forever isn't because of the camp: it's partly because the tone in that film is all over the place -  moreso even than Spiderman 3. Check out Tommy Lee Jones' performance and you'll see it's far more over the top than anything Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith or Frank Gorshin did in Batman: The Movie. More importantly, it feels out of place for a film that otherwise seems to want to explore some (relatively) interesting psychological themes. In contrast, everything in the 60s version is camp and silly, and so the silly villains and music themes work in context. It's the same reason that the scripts for Spiderman 1 and 2 work well despite being, at times, extremely overwrought and on the nose: it's all to do with tonal consistency. Where Batman Forever is all over the place, the utter silliness of Batman: The Movie is nothing if not consistent.

The plot of Batman: The Movie finds Batman up against four of his infamous rogues gallery, in which the Joker, Penguin, Riddler and Catwoman have a weird ray-gun thing they use to dehydrate the members of the council of the United World (a transparent  parallel of the UN) into dust. This, apparently, is the best way of kidnapping the council and thereby taking over the world. The fearsome foursome are hiding out in a submarine, which is inconspicuously disguised as a giant penguin, complete with yellow rubber flippers. The villains spend most of the film alternating between skipping around gurning at each other, blowing up sea creatures and sending Batman and Robin riddles, generally in the form of rockets that can write in the sky. In one of the film's most hilarious scenes, Batman finally realises that the woman he has fallen in love with (over the course of a single evening, mind), 'Miss Kitka' (Kitka, geddit?), is really Catwoman. In a moment of paralysing grief, he stares bong-eyed into the middle distance as distant music plays, before he gathers himself, burying his grief and declaring, 'It's just one of those things in the life of every crimefighter. It means nothing. Snap on the batcuffs'.

Holy heartbreak, Batman! Adam West gives it his all in the film's most emotionally charged moment.
One can only assume this is the expression Bruce Wayne exhibited when as a boy his parents were brutally gunned down in Crime Alley. Batman's boyish vulnerability is juxtaposed with the silliness of, well, everything. Adam West plays the scene absolutely straight, with the whole thing coming together as a wonderfully crafted piece of comedy. This scene, I think, encapsulates precisely why Batman: The Movie works so beautifully. Absolutely everything in the film is daft, silly and funny, from Batman's painted-on eyebrows, to Cesar Romero's joker moustache, the brilliantly ridiculous punning riddles, and of course, this magnificent sequence:

If these things don't bring joy to your bat-heart, then I really think you need to wipe that dull, grey scowl off your face and get a fucking clue. Batman: The Movie is a wonderful, hilarious, thrilling pleasure, and I mean that without irony. Let me be clear: 1966 Batman is not a so-bad-it's-good-movie: it's a brilliant movie. It's just a different kind of brilliant than Burton's gothic aesthetics or Nolan's existentialist grumbling. Batman Forever and Batman and Robin are hideous, cynical, heartless cash grabs, made as a marketing ploy to sell toys, and it's utterly unfair to lump Batman: The Movie in with them. Even on a technical level, Batman: The Movie is far superior: the cinematography is sharp and bright. The whole film is colourful and snappy, brilliantly evoking its 1960s era. For those who complain that this is the Batman that destroyed the character's grim and gritty origins in favour of camp pop art, I direct you to 1) pull your heads out of whatever orifices they are inserted, and 2) check out the sci-fi-centric Batman comics of the 1950s, which at times make Batman: The Movie look like an episode of The Wire. If you still cry foul, the episode entitled Legends of The Dark Mite, from the deceptively smart animated show Batman: The Brave and The Bold, should succinctly point out your embarrassing error in judgement.

Every scene in Batman: The Movie involving the villains is full of over-the-top Dutch angles, and as we already know the score is fantastic. The performances are uniformly brilliant: by turns intentionally hammy, dastardly and heroic. In contrast, the Schumacher Batman era is characterised by obnoxious, neon-infused  visuals that add nothing to either the art-deco gothic architecture of Burton's films or the technicolour spectacle of the 60s version. The performances, particularly from the villains, are terrible. Jim Carrey, for example, clearly draws inspiration from Frank Gorshin's 60s version of the Riddler, but while Carrey aims for camp and funny all he hits is irritating in that distinctive mid-90s Mask / Ace Ventura / Dumb and Dumber flavour of grating. Where the sets of Batman: The Movie are full of sight gags, colour and iconic design, Schumacher's sets are crammed with ugly neo-gothic vomit and an overabundance of glow-in-the-dark paint and blacklights. Adam West's Batman inhabits a world of bright colour schemes and composition; a visual style that complement the narrative content. The aesthetics in Schumacher's films are the visual equivalent of a migraine: bright lights flashing at you that serve only as a nauseating visual distraction from the confused and incoherent narrative.  

Although the plot of Batman: The Movie is really a by-line to get the dynamic duo into a series of scraps with the Penguin, Joker, Catwoman and Riddler, the pacing of the film is great, bouncing from exposition to action with a quick and engaging sense of rhythm. The script is hilarious, full of preposterous, alliterative declarations, which are a marvel to listen to. The absurdist 1980 film Airplane! is often credited with cramming more gags into its running time than any other film, but consider that almost every line in Batman's script is written with perfect comic precision. It's really difficult to beat corkers like 'Kindly activate the remote control Penguin magnet', 'Batman, we're helpless in this monstrous invisible grip', and my personal favourite, 'Gosh Batman, the nobility of that almost-human porpoise [...] it was noble of that animal to hurl himself into the path of that final torpedo. He gave his life for ours'. These three whizzbangers are all delivered in the space of four mere minutes. The scene that immediately follows has Batman ring up the navy to bollock Admiral Fangschliester(!) for selling a 'pre-atomic' submarine to a certain 'P. N. Gywnne'. It begins, as every scene should, with the line 'Hello, Batman speaking', as the Admiral and his perky assistant are interrupted playing a game of tiddlywinks. In just ten seconds they've made a visual gag with the tiddlywinks and gotten in another cracking line from Batman, before concluding the scene with another of Riddler's baffling, nonsensical riddles written in the sky by a missile, 'from that submarine, no doubt', as Batman cunningly deduces. Not a single moment or line is wasted in the effort to keep the story ticking along and the jokes flowing. You might not notice it, but the economy of the whole thing is brilliant, and it really shows up Schumacher's Bat-entries for the flabby, shoddy productions that they are. More to the point, where Batman Forever and Batman and Robin are remembered largely for the fact they buried the Batman film franchise for almost a decade, Batman: The Movie, along with the TV series, remains an iconic piece of pop culture. Nicholas Cage did a great impersonation of Adam West's performance in his role as Big Daddy in  Matthew Vaughn's 2010 superhero spoof Kick-Ass, and even Nolan's Batman series has been influenced by the 60s iteration. Despite Heath Ledger's terrifying take on The Joker in The Dark Knight, there is undoubtedly a touch of Cesar Romero's mania in Ledger's rendition of the Joker's iconic laugh, and check out Anne Hathaway's Catwoman costume and compare it to the 60s version:

Julie Newmar looking very slinky
in a still from the 60s TV series. 
Anne Hathaway in The Dark 
Knight RisesLook familiar?

In short, everyone remembers the swinging, technicolour Batman, immortalised by Adam West's brilliant performance, terrific theme tune and score, memorable, manic villains, and iconic set designs and art direction. Pointing out that Batman: The Movie is hammy and camp is as redundant as pointing out that Batman Begins is dark. Just because something is camp doesn't mean it isn't good, and Batman: The Movie is a fantastic, unique and blisteringly entertaining addition to the cinematic Bat-canon. Long may it be remain so!

Next time at Magnificent Tramp:
In the next post, which will be appearing in the next few days, I'll be looking at another of the 'forgotten' Batman films, the 1993 animated feature Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, followed closely by a review of Batman's latest derring-do in The Dark Knight Rises.

What can a Batman spin-off from a kids' cartoon possibly offer a modern adult audience? Can Christopher Nolan's new film hope to live up to the Elevated Expectations of the Maleficent Magnificent Tramp? Find out in the next exciting instalment of the Tramp's Bat-Extravaganza, same Bat-Blog, same Bat-Time!

* The complete canon of Batman films released in cinemas, if you're interested, is thus: Batman (1943), and Batman and Robin (1949) - these two were released in cinemas as fifteen-part serials; Batman: The Movie (1966); Batman (1989); Batman Returns (1992); Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993); Batman Forever (1995); Batman and Robin (1997); Batman Begins (2005); The Dark Knight (2008); The Dark Knight Rises (2012). If you're still interested, there have also been loads of animated films and crossovers with Superman and other characters from the DC comics. The non-theatrical films and shorts featuring only Batman are Batman and Mr Freeze: Subzero (1998); Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (2000); Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman (2003); The Batman versus Dracula (2005); Batman: Gotham Knight (2008); Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010); Batman: Year One (2011). 

** I promise that one day I'll stop bringing up Spiderman 3 in every single article I post. It's just that's it's so rich as an example of a film that potentially had so much going for it, yet went so utterly wrong. Spiderman 3 is a fascinating disaster because it tries until its sticky little gives heart out, but still fails at almost every turn.

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