A fairly long time ago, in 1966, Batman – the Caped Crusader himself – returned to live-action media, and not just in serial films. Adam West will always be remembered as the first “Batman”, but let’s not beat around the bush, the show – terribly campy and ridiculous (West termed the show “farcical” in his memoirs) – was not at all becoming of Bruce Wayne.
Fast forward to 1989: Warner Bros. begins a new series of Batman films, directed by, oddly enough, the Master of Odd himself, Tim Burton. Casting Michael Keaton – who had only been in comedies, and ridiculous ones at that (he played the title role in Beetlejuice, for goodness sake) – as Bruce Wayne – a greatly dramatic character, a multifaceted and at times tragic hero – and Jack Nicholson as The Joker, it was a master-stroke. Having the darkness of the original comic books and a $48 million budget, Batman had mystery and panache – setting the stage for not just other superhero films, but a new type of film – the summer blockbuster. To put it plainly, a crapload of Batman merchandise was sold in that summer of ’89. The film had its problems – The Joker instead of Joe Chill killing the Waynes?! – but the feel was back. Things got darker (and flightless-bird-er) in Batman Returns in 1992, which was really creepy.
Then, it just got pretty crappy – Joel Schumacher took directorial control with Burton taking a backseat as producer – Keaton was replaced with Val Kilmer (and then George Clooney), and then came a bunch of bad villains – Tommy Lee Jones as a purple Two-Face, Jim Carrey as The Riddler, and (oy) Arnold Schwarznegger as the horrifically-bad Mr. Freeze in Batman and Robin. Batman, as much as Warner Bros. tried, would not be picked up for a fifth film…
Having the right amount of darkness, a great origin story – even better than the first film, in my opinion – and an interesting choice of villains (Cillian Murphy as Scarecrow and Liam Neeson as Ra’s al Ghul) Chris Nolan brought Batman back from the brink in the first of the reboot films, Batman Begins. The casting for both Batman Begins and its 2008 sequel, The Dark Knight, has been impeccable (well, except for Rachel Dawes – I thought both Katie Holmes and Maggie Gyllenhaal were both lacking, but it’s not like she’s a huge character). The theme of fear in both films – especially present in the first film, which takes place in a dark, grimy Gotham (compared to The Dark Knight, which seems to take place in a less shiny version of Chicago) – rings both true and incredibly fruitfully.
Of course, The Dark Knight blew up the world, earning $158 million in its first week alone and is the fourth highest-grossing film of all time at over $1 billion worldwide. The choice of Nolan – who really designed everything else in the film, from the music, to the special effects, to the decision to film several scenes in IMAX – to have the Joker – the prime enemy of Batman, his foil – in the second film, rather than the first, was a good move. It was made even better by the incredible portrayal of the role by the late Heath Ledger, who not only mirrored, he bested Nicholson in the original film.
As had these films over their originals.
Join me next week as we continue our three-week series of the Saturday Night Stuff I Like on films with a celebration of Tom Hanks.