This originally appeared on The Passion of Christopher Pierznik
From Deadpool to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice to Captain America: Civil War to X-Men: Apocalypse to Suicide Squad, we are truly living in the age of the comic book film. Studios pour hundreds of millions of dollars into films that try valiantly to remain true to the source material and translate the artwork of a splash page onto a movie screen.
It wasn’t always this way.
Not that long ago, superhero films were seen as something for children, a two-hour commercial to sell toys and merchandise. This is best exemplified by Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin, a movie so silly and awful that it derailed the franchise and made Warner Bros. hesitant to ever make another comic book film.
It would take eight years and the vision of Christopher Nolan to finally bring Batman back to the big screen.
Today, most people remember Schumacher as having ruined the legacy of the cinematic Batman, and with good reason. After all, he is the one that put nipples on the Batsuit, gave Batman a credit card, and showed us all the Batsmile. He took a tortured, haunted character with psychological issues and turned him into a real life cartoon.
The absurdity of Schumacher’s films also retroactively made Tim Burton’s films better in the minds and memories of fans. Compared to the colorfulness and camp of Batman Forever and especially Batman & Robin, Burton’s films were suddenly remembered as having been dark and brooding affairs that treated the material seriously.
But that is simply not the case.
Tim Burton is a legendary filmmaker, a visual genius whose work has changed Hollywood. He brings strange and offbeat but lovable characters to life within universes that look like something from our imagination. Edward Scissorhands and Big Fish alone are a treat for the eyes.
Yet his two films set in Gotham City, 1989’s Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns, were not nearly as profound – or as good – as your recollection would have you believe. They’ve aged poorly, yes, but they were not all that good when they were released. (In complete fairness, Batman is not nearly as bad as its sequel, but does have its own set of issues.)
There are multiple sites that claim Burton’s films are underrated or that he made better Batman films than Christopher Nolan.
That is simply asinine.
Batman hit theaters in the summer of 1989 and became an immediate phenomenon, dominating the box office, and ultimately becoming the highest-grossing film of the year, grossing $251 million domestically ($479 million when adjusted for inflation) and another $160 million globally ($270 million after inflation), for a total of $411 million, which equates to $749 million in today’s dollars. At the time, it became the fifth-highest grossing film in history.
In short, it was a massive hit.
A major factor in the success of Batman was the production team of Jon Peters and Peter Guber. They had been instrumental in bringing it to the big screen and giving it the treatment – and budget – they felt it deserved. Many of the elements of that film, both good and bad, came from them. They were even responsible for the film’s greatest strength.
Jack Nicholson’s performance as the Joker elevates the entire film and makes it better than it otherwise would have been, but that happened in spite of Tim Burton, not because of him. Burton wanted to cast Brad Dourif as the Clown Prince of Crime, but Peters and Guber refused, knowing that the film needed a major actor – and a big name – to give the film immediate legitimacy.
Due to those types of compromises and concessions he had been forced to make, Tim Burton had not enjoyed his experience behind the camera for Batman. Thus, he insisted that he would only return for a sequel if he were given greater creative control, a demand to which Warner Bros. acquiesced, relegating Peters and Guber to executive producers.
The result became an $80 million student art film. Fans of this film – of which there are legions – praise the film’s dark tone, but dark is not the same as creepy or just fucking weird. While there are dark elements like the threat of child killing and attempted sexual assault, there are also a lot of goofy and silly aspects, like the subplot of Penguin running for Mayor of Gotham, an idea taken from the wacky 1966 Batman television series that starred Adam West, or even offering Catwoman a giant ball of string during the film’s climax.
Both films did have great moments. Though it was unnecessary and made no sense logically, the Batwing in front of the moon in Batman is a gorgeous shot, as is Bruce Wayne standing up into the light of the Bat symbol at the start of Batman Returns. Anton Furst’s Batmobile and Batcave both look cool as hell and Danny Elfman’s score is a classic. Also, Burton’s decision that the wardrobe be classic noir with men in suits and hats and women in dresses was nothing short of brilliant, keeping the look timeless rather than consigning it to the era in which the films were made.
But those are minor high points that are completely overshadowed by the multitude of problems that populate the films.
An issue that plagues both films is scale. Viewed objectively, Batman and Batman Returns are akin to theater productions. They were filmed almost entirely on an indoor sound stage, making everything feel minor.
For supposedly being one of the biggest cities in the world, Gotham has less than fifteen extras in most wide shots of the city. The only night sky that is shown is a matte painting backdrop and the scenes that were supposed to take place in daylight look like they were shot in a parking garage. Moreover, everything happens in a one or two block radius. In Batman, we see the Monarch Theater about twelve times and in Batman Returns, most outside shots occur in Gotham Plaza. For a film with a budget of $80 million ($135 million in today’s dollars), Batman Returns had glaring mistakes that made it seem even more amateurish, like Penguin making a gravestone shiver, Batman’s eye makeup suddenly disappearing, and Penguin’s diabolical plan, as a retaliation for being abandoned by his wealthy parents, of kidnapping all of the first born children of Gotham utilizing a train that could hold a maximum of twelve people. This train is going to hold all of the first born of a city that has a population between ten and twenty million?
The whole thing just feels so small.
There is also the small problem that Tim Burton doesn’t understand the main character.
Aside from the outfit, the Batman that exists in the Burton films bears very little resemblance to the one that became an icon in the pages of DC Comics. Batman opens with the Dark Knight passively watching a crime being committed without attempting to stop it and, over the course of the next two films, he does numerous things a villain may do, such as dropping a bomb in Axis Chemicals, shooting bullets and missiles from the Batwing, throwing acid at Catwoman, and taking out scores of innocent people with his Batmobile.
He also has virtually no interaction with Commissioner Gordon. Historically, Gordon, the only honest cop in Gotham, and Batman have had a strong bond, formed and fortified through their shared goal of cleaning up the city and their experiences therein, but in Burton’s films, Gordon is just another hapless cop that Batman largely ignores and occasionally tolerates.
Moreover, Batman isn’t that great at fighting. There are very few fight scenes in either film – in fact, he never once physically engages the Penguin – and those that are shown display a slow, lumbering, cumbersome Batman that throws a punch or two and maybe a kick before running away. He also loses as many fights as he wins, getting pummeled by the Joker’s henchmen and having his batarang taken away by a small poodle. Several times, he defeats the bad guys not with skill or training, but through gimmicks or luck. He also has no qualms about killing people, including putting dynamite down a bad guy’s pants before punching him into the sewer, where he blows up.
The depiction of Bruce Wayne is also puzzling and quite unlike his character in the comics. He would never hang upside down in anti-gravity boots (like a bat) while there is a woman in his bed or try to tell her, “I’m Batman” after one date or tell Max Schreck that he knows Oswald Cobblepot is involved in organized crime.
He would never scream, “You wanna get nuts?! C’mon, let’s get nuts!”
While Michael Keaton does his best, he is given very little material in both films and what he is asked to do makes almost no sense.
Burton not understanding the character of Bruce Wayne/Batman is one things, but he doesn’t even care about him. Perhaps the biggest issue with the films is that he is completely focused on the supporting characters. There are three origin stories in those two films – one in Batman, two in Batman Returns – and none of them tell the story of Bruce Wayne/Batman.
We learn the origins of the Joker, the Penguin, and Catwoman, but all we learn about Bruce Wayne is that his parents were murdered through a flashback and a scene of Alexander Knox and Vicki Vale reading old newspaper articles.
Who is Bruce Wayne? What role did his parents play in his life? When did he dedicate his life to fighting crime? How did he come up with the symbol of the bat? When and how did he construct the Batcave? Does he have any training?
We know virtually nothing about the titular character. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins goes to great lengths to explain how Wayne got his hands on all of the gear and gadgets that he would use in his war on crime, but Burton never once takes the time to analyze how Bruce Wayne turned himself into the Caped Crusader.
All of that time is spent on the baddies.
Yet, considering how much attention is paid to them, it is shocking how little sense the villain original stories make. Take Catwoman, for example. After being pushed out of a (tiny) window from the top floor of a building, Selina Kyle plummets to the concrete…only to be brought back to life…by cats? And then she goes home in a zombie-like state, rips her clothes apart, shoves her stuffed animals down the sink, spray paints her dollhouse, and sews together her suit?
This is important, but knowing how and why Batman came to be doesn’t matter?
Catwoman is a sleek, deceptive cat burglar, but Tim Burton decided to take the name literally, turning her into a half-cat, half-woman that drinks milk, eats birds, has nine lives, and doesn’t steal anything. At the same time, Burton took Oswald Cobblepot, an overweight, but well-dressed criminal mastermind with a large vocabulary, and turned him into a dirty circus sideshow, an “aquatic bird-boy.” His vision of the Penguin bleeds black and green, has flippers for hands, lives in the sewer, wears a filthy onesie, rides a giant rubber duck, and is obsessed with sex.
He also wants to murder sleeping children, but not before blowing off their genitalia: “Male and female! Hell, the sexes are equal with their erogenous zones blown sky high!” That’s an actual line of dialogue, trumped only by Max Schreck convincing Penguin to run for mayor by offering him, “unlimited poontang.”
Overall, the films don’t make much sense, either. Neither film has a concrete plot. Instead of coherent stories, there are just scenes of slow car chases, television viewing, awkward fighting, and bad puns all patched together.
There are set ups for potential conflicts – the bicentennial celebration in Batman; the building of the power plant in Batman Returns – but they are mentioned early and then largely discarded in favor of the storyline of a villain abandoning all plans in favor of taking someone prisoner – Vicki Vale in the tower; Max Schreck in a giant birdcage – and waiting for Batman to arrive.
But there is no suspense, particularly in Batman Returns, which Burton controlled from beginning to end. What if Penguin had defeated Batman? What would have happened? Why should the audience care if Max Schreck, the man who tried to kill the female lead, is not rescued? There are no stakes. At least in Batman, there was the threat that if the Joker escaped with Vicki Vale, he would disfigure her the way he had Alicia Hunt.
Still, there are a multitude of questions surrounding the story in Batman: Why did falling into the vat of chemicals turn Jack Napier crazy? Why did Bruce Wayne bait the Joker into shooting him while in Vicki Vale’s apartment? And why does the Joker just leave her apartment after shooting him? When the Joker cuts into the newscast, why do the anchorpeople turn to look at him as if he’s sitting next to them ? Where does the Joker get the $20 million that he tosses away? Why does Alfred bring Vicki Vale into the Batcave? How does Joker take down the Batwing with a single gunshot? Why does Batman trudge up the stairs like one of the Ghostbusters instead of using his grappling hook to get to the roof of the cathedral?
There are even more questions surrounding Batman Returns and they are even more ridiculous: What causes the Penguin to hate Batman? Why does Catwoman fight Batman in their first meeting? Why does Max Schreck choose the Penguin of all people to run for mayor? How does Batman manage to get monogrammed stationary and a minidisc player with the bat symbol on them without arousing suspicion? Where does the crowd get the fruits and vegetables that they throw at Penguin during his press conference? How does the Red Triangle Circus Gang obtain the blueprints to the Batmobile? How do the penguins understand the speech near the end of the film? Why does Schreck try to kill Bruce Wayne? How does Selina electrocute Schreck? How does Batman rip off his cowl, which is supposed to be bulletproof, so easily?
The meandering plots. The baffling questions. The stiff and awkward dialogue. The nonsensical character motivations. All of it adds up to a couple of confusing films that fail to convey a clear narrative, build drama or make the audience emotionally invested in the characters.
Batman and Batman Returns were important in that they laid the groundwork for other superhero films that followed, but their legacies are more about what they represented rather than what they actually are.
Joel Schumacher’s Batman films were awful, but Tim Burton’s weren’t much better.
Christopher Pierznik’s eight books are available in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Medium, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.
Published by Christopher Pierznik