The Legacy of Joel Schumacher

Like many “nerds” of a certain age, I took my turn at the zinger cannons to lob disrespect and vitriol toward the talents of Joel Schumacher. A longtime director, Schumacher nevertheless became the focus of “fan rage” unlike any that had been seen up to that point.

A little background for the youngsters is in order. After the divisive Batman Returns came and went, fans in some circles weren’t as certain of their love for Tim Burton anymore. It had a lot of what they had liked in 1989 with the first Batman, but for some it had a bit too much Pee Wee’s Big Adventure about it. It also cemented the template of “two villains per movie” that has had a mixed track record of success.

Sure, some would be quick to point out that Batman Returns has a fairly strong rating from both audiences and critics on Rotten Tomatoes, the great arbiter site of opinion. We don’t have to get into the weeds about that, except to say that I lived through the reception at the time and while it wasn’t awful it wasn’t nearly as universally adored as its predecessor.

Again, Rotten Tomatoes “tells a different story,” if you want to read it that way. Again, having “been there,” it seems to be a bit of historical revisionism.

It doesn’t matter. The “consensus” at the time was that the series needed a new director. And we all know that a “consensus” is all that you need in order to make a plan.

In stepped veteran director Joel Schumacher.

joel schumacher the lost boys behind the scenes | kesseljunkie.com
On the set of The Lost Boys.

The Blockbuster Franchise

I’m not going to debate the merits of his two Batman entries, Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. They are what they are. Suffice it to say that I am a huge Batman fan, and that should give you a little context.

Schumacher went for something that didn’t work for a lot of people. Note that there wasn’t a big-screen Batman film for nearly a decade after his last. It was considered that he had “killed” the franchise. Only Superman had a fourth installment that paused a franchise so dramatically. (Superman still holds the record, with 19 years between fourth movie and reboot.)

What fascinates me is that Joel Schumacher was actually a good director, but it isn’t the first thing that people said about him for a long time. The first thing tended to be about Batman.

He had 35 directing credits! His long and storied career spanned everything from music videos to giant blockbusters to streaming shows. He managed to adapt through times of giant technological filmmaking shifts. Read about it all on his IMDb page.

You could even argue he was a great director, delivering the type of genre-shifting movie like The Lost Boys, which was a teen-friendly vampire flick that still managed to make vampires scary. He brought insight to movies like A Time to Kill and Phone Booth, or Falling Down. He had an eye for talent as evidenced by the cast of the cult classic D.C. Cab.

The Poison Pills

The point of me eulogizing him a bit is that as I grew older and attained some more perspective, I started to feel this weird regret about what had been done to his legacy in certain circles.

Thanks to the geeks gaining great volume in the era of the Internet, which was poised for its big breakthrough right around the time Batman & Robin was released, he became known as “the guy who wrecked Batman.”

There was no escape. His name was practically a curse.

A Batman animated series episode had a joke at his expense as well. It was a very “meta” moment.

He got lampooned on Robot Chicken, a stop-motion animation comedy show that aired nearly a decade after the fact, wherein he was declared “history’s greatest monster” and attacked during a nerd riot. (It was pretty funny, actually.)

He felt the need to “apologize” for Batman & Robin two decades after the fact. Let that sink in, if you will. Twenty years had passed.

Again, I freely admit that I gleefully took part in the mocking of him and the movie at the time. For the record, I still hate Batman & Robin. (Batman Forever isn’t too great, either.) It doesn’t work for me at all. It seems not to work for many.

The True Legacy

But Joel Schumacher created a lot of good works as well. His only “unforgivable” sin was creating something that fans didn’t like. He didn’t deserve to have it hung around his neck like an albatross.

He didn’t deserve to have nearly every headline at the time of his passing mention his Batman movies only. His legacy became those Batman movies, which was a job anyone would have been nuts to turn down.

Maybe there’s a lesson there that the mob is predisposed to focus on your missteps, and not your successes. Maybe it’s that waiting for those moments it can latch onto dysfunctionally, to drag you down however it can. Maybe it’s that people take their entertainment way too seriously.

Maybe I’m a romantic at heart. Maybe I’m just all too aware that no one has a perfect record. What matters is that they tried, and when they failed they picked themselves up and kept moving.

Either way, I will spend my time remembering the good stuff that Mr. Schumacher did. It’s how we’re supposed to honor the dead, for one day we all will be.