Batman & Robin (1997, Joel Schumacher)

batmanandrobin

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Another pair of super-villains – ice-cold Mr Freeze and eco-terrorist Poison Ivy – team up and cause all kinds of trouble for Batman, Robin and their new friend, Batgirl…

Good guys: It’s amazing this film didn’t stop George Clooney dead in his tracks. He was still in ER while filming Batman & Robin – having taken over the lead role from Val Kilmer, who was busy on The Saint – and was only a couple of years into a promising movie-star career. He’s clearly one of the world’s most charismatic actors, yet just seems embarrassed to be here. Bruce Wayne has a long-term girlfriend, but is reluctant to commit to her; he’s also worried about Alfred, who’s dying from a degenerative disease. Dick Grayson (Chris O’Donnell for a second time) is now Batman’s full-time partner-in-crime-fighting. Robin has a motorbike and everything. But he gets annoyed by Bruce’s patronising, protectionist attitude and strops off, saying he’s going to go solo (a tiff exacerbated by the film’s villain). The pair also have a new member of the team. Barbara Wilson turns up unannounced at Wayne Manor in a school uniform (“Please be looking for me,” says Dick when he answers the door). She’s Alfred’s niece and is on a break from her studies at Oxbridge Academy in London – yet has an American accent. She seems timid at first, but then sneaks out at night to take part in illegal street racing. After she open a box the dying Alfred specifically asked her to leave alone, she learns Bruce’s secret. Wanting to help, she defines herself as Batgirl and joins in during the climax, dressed in a body-fitting costume pre-emptively built by an AI programme in the Batcave. Alicia Silverstone is staggeringly awful in the role. It’s like they’ve filmed her first reading of the script.

Bad guys: Arnold Schwarzenegger gets top billing for his pitiful performance as Victor Fries, aka Mr Freeze, a scientist who has been affected by an accident that means he has to remain at a frozen temperature. He has an ill wife in a cryogenic tank, ice-skating henchmen, and a relentless need to make laborious puns at every opportunity. Schwarzenegger was a boyhood favourite of mine. I endlessly rewatched The Terminator, Predator, Commando, The Running Man, Twins, Total Recall and others, while I sneaked into a cinema to see Terminator 2 when I was only 12. It’s all the more depressing, then, to see him miscast and floundering in this garbage. Mr Freeze’s ally in the story is Poison Ivy (played by a flamboyantly rubbish Uma Thurman). She starts out as Dr Pamela Isley, a botanical researcher whose work is being exploited by deranged Dr Jason Woodrue. When she confronts him, he tries to kill her – but she’s instead swallowed by the earth and emerges as confident, flame-haired Poison Ivy. She has a grudge against Bruce Wayne because of his company’s poor record on the environment, and teams up with Mr Freeze (and a super-soldier called Bane, who Woodrue was working on before Poison Ivy killed him).

Other guys: Michael Gough actually gets an emotional subplot in his fourth and final appearance as Alfred. Elle Macpherson plays Bruce’s girlfriend, Julie Madison – it’s a role that feels like it’s been cut down in post-production (presumably because she can’t act). Pat Hingle reprises Commissioner Gordon one last time. John Glover (Scrooged, Gremlins 2, Robocop 2, and the voice of the Riddler in Batman: The Animated Series) plays Woodrue. Jesse Ventura has a cameo as a prison guard.

Best bits:

* There aren’t any.

Review: A two-hour toy advert. Perfunctory plotting, plywood performances, plastic production design, crass comedy, diarrhoeic dialogue, senseless stunts and a general air of ‘Will that do?’… Is this film some kind of elaborate practical joke? A Starship Troopers-like satire of mediocre movies? If so, I’m missing the joke in a phenomenally powerful way. It’s by no means the only disappointing ‘fourth film’ in a series – Thunderball, Superman IV, Police Academy 4, The Omen IV, The Next Karate Kid, Alien: Resurrection, The Phantom Menace, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Terminator Salvation, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, The Bourne Legacy, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides – but it’s easily the worst. Apocalyptically atrocious.

One fetishistic close-up of Batman’s vacuum-packed arse out of 10.

Next time: Catwoman gets her own movie!

Batman Forever (1995, Joel Schumacher)

batmanforever

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

It’s double trouble for Batman when he has to combat both former District Attorney Harvey ‘Two-Face’ Dent and ex-employee Edward Nygma, aka the Riddler…

Good guys: Michael Keaton jumped ship after two films, so Batman has been recast. It’s now Val Kilmer in the role and he’s absolutely rotten. There’s no charm, no sparkle, no life to the performance – at times, no expression. We see newly shot flashbacks to Bruce’s parents’ murder, then scenes of a young Bruce in mourning and being terrified by a giant bat. The present-day version sees something of himself in new friend Dick Grayson – they’ve both been orphaned – but he’s initially reluctant to have the lad as a sidekick. We first meet Dick (Chris O’Donnell) when he and his family are in an acrobatic circus troupe called the Flying Graysons. After the others are killed, Dick is taken in by Bruce. Intrigued by a locked door in Wayne Manor, Dick stumbles across the Batcave, steals the Batmobile, and pretends to be Batman to impress women. He then decides he’s going to be Batman’s partner – using his dad’s old nickname for him, Robin, and a costume that echoes the red and green of his acrobatic outfit. Meanwhile, Bruce is having a romantic subplot with psychologist Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman, bland). There’s no chemistry at all between her and Bruce. Rene Russo was originally cast in the part and would have been *much* better, but there was a worry that she was too old (41) to play opposite Val Kilmer (36). Sigh.

Bad guys: Again, there are two villains. Harvey Dent had been in the first film in this series, but Billy Dee Williams has been replaced by a more bankable star: Tommy Lee Jones. Dent was Gotham’s DA. After being attacked in court (a scene we see briefly), he’s disfigured and insane. His face and costume are split 50/50 down the middle, reflecting his new name: Two-Face. He tosses a coin to help make decisions and has homoerotic henchmen. Out for revenge, he wants Batman dead – so teams up with the film’s other big guy. Jim Carrey does his usual tiresome shtick as the Riddler. The character begins as geeky lab rat Edward Nygma, who works for – and has a man-crush on – Bruce Wayne. He’s been researching brainwaves; after he goes a bit crazy, he starts to send Wayne cryptic messages. In order to get the money to launch his new 3D TV system, which reads people’s minds, he joins forces with Two-Face. Bruce ends up using his machine, so the Riddler learns that he’s Batman. He and Two-Face then break into Wayne Manor and destroy the Batcave; they kidnap both Robin and Chase, but are defeated. The Riddler ends up in an asylum.

Other guys: Alfred and Gordon are back from the last couple of films, again played by Michael Gough and Pat Hingle. Drew Barrymore and Debi Mazar appear as Two-Face’s diametrically opposed molls: Sugar and Spice.

Best bits:

* Gotham City has had a makeover. Architecturally speaking, it’s still a masterpiece of heightened Gothic design – there are also bits of Art Deco and baroque in there too. But it’s had a pop-art infusion of colour: virtually every space has floods of red, purple, green or yellow light. It’s like a nightmarish neon-lit Tokyo.

* Batman’s escape chute, allowing him quick access from his desk to the Batcave.

* Batman, to Chase: “It’s the car, right? Chicks love the car.” Later in the same flirty banter, Chase refers obliquely to Catwoman.

* When his boss fires him, Nygma pushes him out of a window. Defenestration or people falling off a building are a recurring theme in these movies – Lois in Superman and Superman IV, Gus in Superman III, Grissom in Batman, Selina in Batman Returns

* The fake suicide note: “To: Whom It May Concern. From: Fred Stickley. Re: My Suicide. Goodbye Cruel World!”

* Nygma’s ridiculously narrow apartment.

* Bruce looking at a Rorschach test and assuming it’s a picture of a bat.

* Two-Face threatens to blow up a circus tent full of people if Batman doesn’t reveal himself. Bruce shouts out: “I’m Batman!” but no one hears him in the panic.

* A quick reference to Metropolis.

* The Batmobile driving up the side of a building.

* Nygma using Photoshop to try out looks for his new persona. He has a list of potential names too: “The Puzzler? The Gamester? Captain Kill? Question-mark Man?”

* Two-Face’s divided-down-the-middle lair: in each half, there’s a girlfriend and a different design aesthetic. (It reminded me of that Steptoe & Son episode where they cut their house in half but can’t decide who gets the telly.)

* The Riddler and Two-Face’s version of Crocodile Dundee’s “That’s not a knife!” joke – this time with diamonds.

* We see 32 TV viewers captivated by the Riddler’s 3D TV device. One of them is a dog.

* Batman crashing through a skylight, landing in a fountain and back-flipping into some bad guys. The Riddler, to Two-Face: “Your entrance was good; his was better.”

* “I need a name,” says Dick. “Batboy? Nightwing? What do you think? What’s a good sidekick name?”

* The Riddler and Two-Face playing Battleships for real as Batman and Robin approach in boats.

* “Holy rusted metal, Batman!” exclaims Robin as he notices the ground is made of metal. “It’s full of holes. You know, holey.”

* Batman getting Two-Face to toss his coin – then throwing a handful more at him.

* Oh, look: it’s Rene Auberjonois (Police Academy 5, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Warehouse 13) as a doctor at Arkham Asylum.

Review: “Was that over the top?” asks the Riddler at one point. “I can never tell!” Well, yes. Yes, it was. Batman Forever often matches the 1960s Batman series in terms of how ridiculous, outrageous and risible it is. However, that earlier incarnation had a clear underlying irony. New director Joel Schumacher doesn’t seem aware of the concept. He’s gone for a very different tone from Tim Burton’s take: more flippant, less witty; more cartoony, less plausible; more childish, less interesting. There are off-kilter camera angles, whether they suit the scene or not; there are numerous self-referential gags; and half the cast think they’re in a panto while the other half think it’s a daytime soap opera. It was a chore watching this one.

Three Bat-nipples out of 10.

Next time: Clooney. Schwarzenegger. Thurman. That’ll be good.

Batman Returns (1992, Tim Burton)

BatmanReturns

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Corrupt industrialist Max Shreck manipulates the Penguin, a former circus performer with a grudge against Gotham City, for his own ends – and also injures his secretary so much she ends up transforming into Catwoman.

Good guys: We first see Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton again) sat alone, brooding in the dark. Aside from this moment and a short action scene that follows, he’s not in the film’s opening 34 minutes – and not a huge amount afterwards. It’s hard to imagine a title character getting less screen time in a superhero movie. In a nice touch, Bruce is initially sympathetic towards the Penguin because they’re both orphans. He refers to Vicki from the previous film and tells us their relationship petered out.

Bad guys: There are two Big Bads. Danny DeVito is terrifically freaky and unhinged as the Penguin, aka Oswald Cobblepot. The character is born in the opening scene, but then abandoned by his parents because he’s deformed. The child ends up in a sewer and is adopted by some penguins. Thirty-three years later, he orchestrates mayhem from his hidden lair in Gotham Zoo; when he kidnaps businessman Max Schrek (Christopher Walken, uneven), the two end up joining forces. The Penguin wants to come out of hiding, find his parents and learn his real name. He knows about Max’s dodgy dealing because of the evidence Max throws away: “You flush it, I flaunt it!”. With Max’s help, the Penguin runs for mayor of Gotham, but when the population turns against him, he plans to kill every first-born child in the city (a knowing reference to King Herod: the film is set at Christmas). Schrek himself has mad hair, wears leather gloves to business meetings, is well liked by the public but is blackmailing the incumbent mayor. He wants Bruce Wayne to invest in a plan to build a new power plant, which will actually steal energy from Gotham City; he later learns that Wayne is Batman but is then electrocuted to death.

Other guys: A victim as much as a villain, Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is the star of the show. The character starts out as Selina Kyle, Schrek’s lowly secretary (“Lowly assistant,” as she puts it), who gets caught up in the opening action scene and meets Batman. She owns a cat called Miss Kitty and has an unseen boyfriend who abandons her at Christmas. “I guess I should have let him win that last racquetball game,” she laments. After she finds out about her boss’s evil plan, he pushes her out of a skyscraper window. She lands in an alley, cut and bruised but alive, where a pack of cats swarm around her. Heading home, she goes through some kind of psychotic episode: she trashes her flat, constructs a tight-fitting, black, leather outfit and creates a new persona: Catwoman. As her alter ego, she clashes with Batman and teams up with the Penguin to get rid of him – but at the same time, Selina is attracted to Bruce Wayne. Annette Bening was originally cast in the role, but then became pregnant. Sean Young campaigned for the job, famously turning up unannounced at Tim Burton’s office in a homemade Catwoman outfit. But Pfeiffer got the call, and she’s sensational as both the dowdy Selina and her erotic alter ego. Returning from the preview film are Michael Gough as Alfred and Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon, while the most notable member of the Penguin’s gang is played by an underused Vincent Schiavelli (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ghost, Tomorrow Never Dies, the Humbug episode of The X Files). Pee-wee Herman cameos as the Penguin’s dad, reportedly replacing 1960s Penguin Burgess Meredith, who was too ill.

Best bits:

* The baby Oswald, unseen in his cage, pulling a cat through the bars and presumably eating it.

* Another masterpiece of a score from Danny Elfman.

* Selina meekly pouring coffee, and trying to not get in the way, at the board meeting.

* The Batman logo shining through the window at Wayne Manor.

* Vincent Schiavelli and the collection of macabre, grotesque henchmen dressed as skeletons, devils and clowns.

* A goon holding Selina prisoner. Batman fires a dart attached to a wire at him, which imbeds itself in the wall. “You missed!” the bad guys says. Batman pulls on the wire, detaching a huge chunk of masonry, which clobbers him.

* Selina finding a taser and testing it on the unconscious henchman.

* Selina enters her flat. “Honey, I’m home!” she shouts. Then, to herself: “I forgot, I’m not married.” She then listens to her answerphone messages. The fourth one is: “Hey, Selina, this is yourself calling to remind you, honey, that you have to come all the way back to the office unless you remembered to bring home the Bruce Wayne file because the meeting’s on Wednesday…”

* Selina, after her accident, returning to her flat and – in a daze – going through the same motions as the earlier scene.

* The Penguin, on his parents: “I was their number-one son and they treated me like number two.”

* The first appearance of Catwoman. “Be gentle,” she says to a mugger she’s confronting. “It’s my first time.” She beats him up, then says: “I am Catwoman. Hear me roar.”

* The Penguin, huffing and wheezing and eating a raw fish, being introduced to a room full of election campaign staff.

* Catwoman going mental in a department store – using her whip to first knock the heads off mannequins, then as a skipping rope.

* Catwoman back-flipping up to Batman and Penguin and saying, “Miaow…” The building behind her then explodes.

* Batman knocking Catwoman off a roof… and her landing in an open truck full of kitty litter.

* The Penguin finding Catwoman on his bed. “Just the pussy I’ve been looking for!”

* Catwoman straddling Batman and licking his face. Oh, my.

* The Penguin taking remote control of the Batmobile.

* Bruce chastising Alfred for letting Vicki Vale into the Batcave in the previous film – a scene that feels like it was included to explain away a plot hole.

* While dancing at a party, Bruce and Selina each figure out the other’s secret identity. “Does this mean we have to start fighting?” Selina asks.

* The Penguin’s army of actual penguins.

* Max pleading with an angry Catwoman: “I don’t know what you want, but I know I can get it for you… Money? Jewels? A big ball of string?”

Review: What an odd film. It often feels like key bits of it are missing – especially when it comes to dramatising events and explaining characters’ motivations. But maybe that’s just because the film isn’t too concerned with story. The plot is simply a fake Christmas tree to hang some nice decorations on. Those decorations are the film’s design work and its guest characters. The former is dazzling. Sets, props, costumes and lighting are simply glorious. We get hints of German Expressionism mixed in with a bizarre fairy-tale world. It’s even more heightened and surreal than the preceding film. The villains, meanwhile, take all the focus. The Penguin and Catwoman form an entertaining double act about halfway through, while Batman himself is generally sidelined. It struck me, actually, that there was a massive missed opportunity here: to do a superhero film totally from the villains’ point of view. We do get close to that, but I suspect not on purpose. Also, the lack of any roots holding up the tree – no genuine emotion, no rigorous plotting – is a serious problem. The dialogue falls flat more often than it takes flight. And the longer the movie goes on, the less it all means. While watching the opening half-hour or so, I wrote ‘8?’ down in my notes as a score out of 10. A little later, I crossed that out and put ‘7’. By the time the movie crawled to an unengaging climax, I’d changed it to…

Six references to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari out of 10.

Next time: Batman goes animated.

Batman (1989, Tim Burton)

Batman89

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

In Gotham City, the Caped Crusader comes up against a maniacal master criminal called The Joker…

Good guys: Bruce Wayne – a multimillionaire philanthropist who has a secret crime-fighting alter ego – is played by Michael Keaton. It’s a quirky casting choice and is all the more interesting for it. Keaton can do both light and pensive. Early on in the story, Bruce meets photographer Vicki Vale and falls for her. After they sleep together, she wakes to find him hanging upside-down from a metal bar – it’s almost like he wants her to guess his secret identity. He’s tempted to just tell her, but she works it out before he plucks up the courage. Bruce is haunted by a childhood memory of his parents being killed in front of him. In a clever twist on the established Batman continuity, he soon works out the Joker was the murderer. We see Batman in action a fair amount, usually with ingenious gadgets and cool vehicles. Vicki, meanwhile, is played by Kim Basinger. (Sean Young was originally cast, but was injured early into filming and couldn’t continue.) We first see her legs, propped up on a desk as she reads a copy of the Gotham Globe. She’s come to the city to investigate the rumours about the Batman and teams up with a journalist called Knox, who ticks the friend-who-fancies-the-girl-but-isn’t-a-serious-option-for-romance box. Vicki meets Bruce Wayne at a benefit party and, after an initially awkward date, they spend the night together. The Joker develops an obsession with Vicki and she’s often in danger.

Bad guys: Jack Napier, aka the Joker, is played by Jack Nicholson, who gets top billing and was paid tens of millions of dollars. He’s fantastic. “Wait until they get a load of me!” Jack boasts at one point: he’s off-the-chart mental, unpredictable, dangerous and dominates the frame. When we meet Napier, he’s a gangster who’s sleeping with his boss’s girlfriend and bribing cops. After he’s set up to be killed by his angry boss, he falls into a vat of corrosive chemicals. He survives, but with a reconstructed face now stuck in a rictus grin and his skin burnt white. Driven insane by his experience, he kills his boss, reinvents himself as the Joker, and takes over the mob business. His diabolical plan involves flooding the consumer market with toxic beauty and health products. (In the flashback scene to Jack as a young man, he’s played by Hugo Blick, who went on to write TV shows Operation Good Guys, Marion & Geoff, The Shadow Line and The Honourable Woman.)

Other guys: Michael Gough plays Bruce’s butler, father figure and general confidant, Alfred. Pat Hingle appears as Commissioner Gordon. Jack Palance plays mob lord Grissom. Billy Dee Williams cameos as District Attorney Harvey Dent, a character deliberately being seeded for a larger role in a sequel (when, in the event, he was recast). Robert Wuhl plays journalist Knox and Jerry Hall plays the Joker’s moll, Alicia.

Best bits:

* Danny Elfman’s macabre incidental music.

* The title sequence: sweeping camera moves across an ornate Batman logo, which I learnt last week my friend Fraser’s housemate helped build.

* The realisation of Gotham City. It’s an Art Deco/Gothic/retro/futuristic/industrial masterpiece, an equal of Blade Runner’s LA in terms of how darkly beautiful it is. It’s fascinating, textured, detailed and strange. The film’s art direction won an Oscar.

* Oh, look: it’s Garrick Hagon (Biggs Darklighter from Star Wars) playing a bloke struggling to find a taxi. I met Hagon once and pestered him with questions about Star Wars.

* Batman glides silently into view in the background as two muggers divide their loot.

* “What are you?!” “I’m Batman!”

* Jack admires himself in the mirror. His girlfriend says, “You look fine.” He glares at her: “I didn’t ask.”

* Oh, look: it’s Denis Lill playing a newspaper hack.

* Our first sight of Vicki Vale. Wowzers.

* Vicki and Knox ridiculing Bruce Wayne as he listens behind them.

* Jack’s acid-burnt hand reaching out of the water.

* Bruce and Vicki having dinner while sitting at a different ends of a ridiculously long table. When Vicki asks if he likes eating in this room, Bruce admits he’s never been in it before.

* Jack at the back-street plastic surgeon. When he sees his rebuilt face, he wanders off laughing uncontrollably.

* The reveal of the Joker as he gleefully shoots Grissom dead.

* Jerry Hall’s faint when she sees that Jack’s not dead.

* The Joker shaking a colleague’s hand and electrocuting him to a crisp. (“I got a live one here!”)

* Oh, look: it’s Red Dwarf’s Mac MacDonald as one of the Joker’s henchmen.

* The Joker throws a tantrum: “Can somebody tell me what kind of a world we live in where a man dressed as a bat gets all my publicity?!”

* Oh, look: it’s Trinity Wells from Doctor Who as a TV director.

* The scene at the museum/restaurant. Vicki thinks she’s meeting Bruce, but a waiter brings a box to her table. In it is a gas mask and note that reads: “Put this on right now.” Smoke fills the room, knocking everyone out (or killing them?), then the Joker and his goons burst in. They hit play on a ghetto blaster and, to the sound of a Prince song, delight in defacing the museum’s artwork.

* Vicki throws water in the Joker’s face and he acts like he’s in agony, then turns to her and says, “Boo!”

* The Batmobile.

* Bruce’s ham-fisted attempt to tell Vicki who he really is.

* Bruce confronts the Joker in Vicki’s flat. The Joker simply doesn’t know what to make of him.

* The flashback to Bruce’s parents being murdered – and the revelation that Jack Napier was the shooter.

* Vicki turns up in the Batcave.

* The Joker refers to Batman as the ‘junior birdman’. Apt, given Keaton’s most recent film.

* The Joker dancing away to a Prince track on the carnival float.

* The Batwing.

* Forcing Vicki to dance with him, the Joker says into her ear: “It’s as though we were made for each other. Beauty and the Beast. Course, if anyone else calls you Beast, I’ll rip their lungs out.”

* Trying to distract the Joker, Vicki pretends to flirt with him and even ducks down towards his trouser department. The Joker has an expression of serene expectation… until Batman punches him in the mouth.

Review: Nineteen-eighty-nine was a busy year for geek cinema. There were new adventures for Indiana Jones, Marty McFly, James Bond, the crew of the Enterprise, the Karate Kid, Riggs & Murtaugh and the Ghostbusters: manna from heaven for a 10-year-old fanboy like me. But Batman still stood out and felt like an *enormous* event. There was a smart advertising campaign built around an ubiquitous logo and a tie-in album from Prince. There was talk of a dark, serious take on a character I only knew as campy and cartoony. And there was a sense of danger from the fact the film was one of the first to get the new ‘12’ certificate. Well, over a quarter of a century later (Jesus, really?), it absolutely stands the test of time. It sweeps you along right from the start. The dialogue’s crisp and the story’s never dull. It’s an origin story, but done economically with flashbacks and illusions rather than a drawn-out opening act. It’s dark, but also has a huge sense of fun. What especially impresses me is the film’s sense of timelessness. It partly looks like the past – men wear 1950s suits, coats and hats; there are newspaper hacks in busy, vibrant offices; and the cars look retro. But it’s all mixed in with 1980s glamour, technology and TV news crews. It’s also mostly a black-and-white world, so any splashes of colour – especially when connected to the Joker – pop out. Director Tim Burton may have been coasting lately (last great film? Sleepy Hollow?), but he used to be something special. And this is one of his best.

Ten wonderful toys out of 10.

Next time: Miaow!