Batman Countdown: 1989-1997

One day closer to “The Dark Knight Rises.” Time to talk about the most popular Batman films back when no one knew who Christopher Nolan was.

“Batman” (1989)

Although Superman got his own film in 1978, the superhero formula for film was still in its infancy back in 1989. “Batman” was kind of a bold pioneer for the genre, which is what made it so great when it turned out to be well done.

Director Tim Burton, coming off of “Beetlejuice,” controversially decided to cast Michael Keaton in the role of Bruce Wayne. Similar to Heath Ledger’s casting of Joker, critics were easily shut up after seeing the film.

Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker gave the film a sense of legitimacy. The veteran actor was able to capture both the viciousness of his character and his appreciation for laughter. Combining Burton’s dark tone with a healthy dose of comic book camp, “Batman” is easily the best of the 89-97 series. Too bad we’ll never see Billy Dee Williams as Two-Face.

Best line: “Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?”

“Batman Returns” (1992)

According to interviews, Warner Bros. really wanted Tim Burton to return for this Bat-sequel but he wasn’t interested. So, the execs told him he could make “a Tim Burton movie” instead of just “another Batman movie.”

Makes sense, because this film is pretty much an overkill on the dark tone most Burton films take. Some people like it, but I’m not the biggest fan of watching penguin people spit up black ink.

Other than Michael Keaton, who reprises his role as Bruce Wayne, most of the cast is brand new. With Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), Penguin (Danny DeVito) and the evil Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), “Batman Returns” is at no loss for quality bad guys.

Although it’s a good movie (and I love Catwoman here), it really doesn’t have much to do with Batman. He’s in 3 of the first 30 minutes, which is weird considering its his franchise. Then again, it won’t be the only time that Batman sits in the background while villains get to have all the fun.\

Best line: (Catwoman executes series of flips, landing between Batman and Penguin) “Meow.” (Building behind her explodes)

“Batman Forever” (1995)

So long Tim Burton, hello Joel Schumacher. After studio execs deemed “Batman Returns” to be too dark, they hired Schumacher to return the series to a more kid-friendly environment.

If you watch the film knowing that it takes place within the world of a comic book, and not our world with its rules, then it’s a pretty good film. Realism is not even in this film’s dictionary.

Picking up the cape and cowl this time is Val Kilmer, who is surprisingly a really good combination of Wayne and Batman. Where “Batman Returns” had dark, grotesque villains, “Batman Forever” is more along the lines of a cartoon brought to life. There’s no human being more cartoonish than Jim Carrey as the Riddler. Also enrolling in the Over-the-Top School of Villainy is Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face.

What I really love about this film is that it actually gives Bruce Wayne something to do. The psychology of Batman is explored as he tries to deal with the guilt he feels over his parents’ death. It’s a dark side of the film that offsets the humor. I also enjoy seeing Gotham City in a more unique light. Burton’s films designed the city as a more gothic New York City, whereas this film has it looking like no other city in the world.

The film itself is a mixed bag, but “Batman Forever” is a worthy addition to the franchise (despite the guilty by association judgment it gets for leading to a certain other film).

I would also like to say that this film has some great scenes that the studio forced them to cut in order for it to be better for children. I’ve heard Schumacher has a director’s cut in mind that is about 35 minutes longer. Unfortunately, you can’t really count deleted scenes as part of the movie, so we’ll just chalk this up to the studios screwing over another film.

Best line: “Then it will happen this way. You make the kill, but your pain doesn’t die with Harvey, it grows. So you run out into the night to find another face, and another, and another, until one terrible morning you wake up and realize that revenge has become your whole life. And you won’t know why.”

Well, that’s it. There were definitely no other Batman movies after that. Huh? What do you mean Bat-nipples? Ok, fine.

“Batman & Robin” (1997)

Just like Tim Burton went overboard with the darkness in “Batman Returns,” Schumacher cranks up the camp and cheese to 11 in this franchise-killing installment.

George Clooney plays Bruce Wayne playing George Clooney, Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze, Uma Thurman takes Poison Ivy over the top and Alicia Silverstone tries to be Batgirl. What a combination.

Studios got a taste for the millions to be made off of toys and product placement from “Batman Forever,” so they pretty much forced Schumacher to make the most kid-friendly, toy-sellingest movie of all time. Although it’s a horrible, horrible film, the studios definitely got what they were looking for.

The interesting part is that the studios LOVED the dailies and were planning to let Schumacher make a fifth film called “Batman Triumphant” until critics destroyed “Batman and Robin.”

A fun game to play is Name One Thing About “Batman and Robin” You Actually Liked. So far, I can say I like the design of Robin’s suit at the beginning of the film (sans nipples). Unfaithful to the comics and a joke to the masses, “Batman and Robin” is one of the, if not THE, worst comic book films ever conceived.

Best line: “There is no defeat in death, Master Bruce. Victory comes in defending what we know is right while we still live.”

Tomorrow, it’ll be time to talk about Christopher Nolan and how he saved Batman from the dark corner “Batman and Robin” left him in.

Happy viewing.

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