Remember when a big-budget superhero film was a rare and risky endeavour? When the genre attracted both bona-fide directorial visionaries and some of the most disastrous flops in movie history? If not, this week’s restored re-release of the original Batman films doubles up as a history lesson – not just in the genre that has come to rule at the multiplex but in blockbuster film-making in general.
The first two – Batman and Batman Returns – were directed by Tim Burton, and what’s striking from a modern vantage point is how easily they combine the defining traits of today’s rival studio monoliths. The wisecracking levity, since repossessed and hallmarked by Marvel, is all there in a deadpan millionaire-messiah who’s not unaware of his own absurdity (Michael Keaton was doing the smart-alec superhero long before it was cool, just not earning quite so much for it). But also present is the brooding mood and noirish production design that the DC franchise has sought to claim as its own.
However, while the current DC movies mistake low lighting for high art, Burton’s steaming, decaying Gotham is an ugly thing in all the right ways. Like the LA of Blade Runner or the outer space of Alien, it’s a hand-built enterprise that looks all the better in an era of digital visuals.
While the first film effectively laid the groundwork for an entire epoch of mega-budget movies by forcing us to take its spandex-clad saviour seriously – and became the fifth highest-grossing film ever in the process – it’s the second film, enriched by the sheer unhinged grotesquery of Danny DeVito’s feral Penguin, that’s more arresting. Batman Returns is an infinitely weirder and more offbeat blockbuster that would be sanctioned today. The Penguin is a gleefully foul creation – you couldn’t dream up a villain in starker contrast to Josh Brolin’s anodyne Thanos – while Michelle Pfeiffer’s sexpot Catwoman, her outfit an open homage to BDSM fetishism, is a reminder of how miserably celibate our superheroes have been left by the age of mass appeal.
Burton’s films are far from perfect but they do succeed in being both serious and silly, and without the headache-inducing mania of Zack Snyder’s latter-day films or the self-importance of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy. (Though Nolan’s movies did their best to engage with the issues of the day, Batman Returns is about a seedily repellent loudmouth making an audacious bid for public office.)
Most notable, though, is how they are so clearly the vision of one person. As a slobbering DeVito readies his army of torpedo-wielding penguins for Batman Returns’ climactic battle, you realise that studios used to respond to a big hit in a simple manner: by loosening its director’s shackles along with their own purse strings. Today’s lab-engineered cinematic universes leave little room for such creative indulgence – how many of the franchises’ 21 directors can you name?
Batman Returns might give you a few clues why that protocol might have changed. In doubling the outlandishness of its predecessor, it took $150m less at the box office, despite costing twice as much to make. In return, Burton was forced to hand over the keys to Joel Schumacher.
The resulting two films, Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997), could be said to have aged terribly if it wasn’t for the fact that they were reviled at the time. “What lends the movie cohesion is how all those involved come up with their worst imaginable performances,” sobbed the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane of the latter. Schumacher issued a personal apology for the film two years ago.
Certainly as exercises in deafening neon-lit delirium, they have plenty in common with their recent descendants. (When Jim Carrey’s Riddler yelps “I’m sucking up your IQ! Vacuuming your cortex!” it’s one of cinema’s truest lines.) But they are still relics of their time, not least in the way they are beholden to the stars of the day: Val Kilmer and Carrey in the third, George Clooney and Arnold Schwarzenegger in the fourth. Even their posters seem old-fashioned, the actors’ names plastered across the top as the films’ central selling point. Billboards for the current Marvel/DC fare tend not to stoop so low – these days, it’s the films that are doing their stars a favour.
One thing the four movies do have in common is an inability to deliver a decent action sequence: Burton’s are plodding and tame, Schumacher’s simply incoherent. Both could learn plenty about the art of the fight scene from the elevator punch-up in Captain America: Winter Soldier. And the overwhelming whiteness of inner-city Gotham, as well as that fact that all the women bar Pfeiffer are left to wallow in pitiful temptress roles, is something that has been rectified by their progenies.
Overall, though, these four films help us chart the modern history of the popcorn blockbuster – from top-down directorial vision, to star vehicle, to bolt-on franchise extension. And in their best moments they pose a question that has never been more vital: are these caped crusaders truly worth their place in the world, or are they doing more harm than good?
• Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever and Batman & Robin are re-released in the UK on 17 May