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.

Returning to Batman Returns

For no discernible reason, I decided to revisit Batman Returns, the 1992 sequel to the beloved Batman of 1989. For once I rewatched something that wasn’t from 1994, and therefore not in the mission statement for RetroPerspective on The Nerd Party.

This is a movie that I’ve had a conflicted relationship with since its release. I loved it when I first saw it, and considered it a subversive work of genius. Its portrait of Penguin was disturbing. Its portrayal of Catwoman was complex. Its portrayal of Max Schreck was…weird. It seemed to subvert expectations to change the legend of Batman as a hero into something more broken and

Even as I say it now, I want to believe it.  But it’s all flowery language to account for a messy script, uneven direction, dissatisfying editing, and surprisingly underwhelming photography. There are other films about which we can say these things, but it’s OK to say them about Batman Returns. So I did.

Make no mistake that this is one of those disappointments that I can’t help but revisit from time to time. That’s because in the moments when it does work, it works very well. And though it delivers those moments irregularly, it does deliver them.

If you think I’m way off on this one, let me know.

Batman's Armor is Great in Batman Returns, though, because Batman Returns features Batman's Armor in Batman Returns as if it were in Cocoa Beach.
Batman’s armor was great, though.

My Recent Review of Batman Returns, as Written on Letterboxd

This is a scattered and unfocused movie, but it is a compellingly watchable one. There is something hypnotically bizarre about Catwoman and Penguin. There’s something fascinating and awful about Christopher Walken’s Max Schreck.

The best way to think about the emotional thrust of the movie – because the logical structure is lacking – is that Michael Keaton’s Batman comes across this time as the misfit who made it through high school because he can find controlled expression of his antisocial tendencies. He’s the odd kid who can get along with the administration. As a result, he’s sympathetic to those who can’t.

Burton exceeds the limits of the script by leaning into the visual composition and absurdity that is his trademark. He feels less responsibility to make this Batman film as “rooted” as the first one and just indulge the side of him that produced works like Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Big Fish.

It’s not enough to make the movie as a whole satisfying, but it does give great expression to the emotional core from which   the movie is speaking. There are moments of high drama that resonate with those that remember what it felt like to be a misfit and what constant work it was to fit in, and the pain of seeing those that couldn’t.

It’s quite hip now to drag Batman Returns for what it doesn’t do, but I’d rather cheer it for what it accomplishes. Again, it’s not enough to give it high marks, but it does get a passing grade.

The Batman Blogs: The Car

When you hear the name “Batman,” perhaps the first thing you think of before Gotham, The Joker or killing off Robin is the Batmobile. The one and only stock car of heroism.

Superman may be able to fly, but he’s never had a rad car like the Batmobile. Much like the average male, Batman makes up for what he lacks by having a fly ride.

And who can blame him? What better way to let criminals know that they’re about to get a legendary beat-down than to roar onto the scene with a car that roars, “I am severely maladjusted socially and looking for someone on whom to lay the smack down.”

At the very least, it lets them know that you’ve got massive funding. Odds are they’ll get the point that you’re well-equipped to counter whatever they might throw.

So let’s look at the Batmobile through the ages.

TV Batmobile

The Batmobile in the 1960s was the type of car you’d expect to see cruising the beach. Open top, rad paint job and low riding. It didn’t really look like much of a crime-fighting vehicle so much as an attention getter. And with how low it was to the ground, thank goodness there were no speed bumps back then.

But it did have the jet engine. Who knows where they got enough intake to initiate a jet process? High quality Detroit engineering, that.

1989/1992 Batmobile

This redesign was fantastic. It turned the Batmobile into a sleek gothic missile, and added a turbine so that the jet engine made sense. It looked polished, new and lethal. Though the stop-motion shield animation looked like a Beetlejuice FX-reelcast-off, the end result of the shielded Batmobile was awesome.

And it had freaking machine guns to blow apart obstacles. And apparently they were capable of really fine motor control since they could cut a perfect Batmobile-sized entryway in Axis Chemical’s dock entry doors. And did I mention the bombs? Because it could totally drop bombs, and it was remote-controlled by voice.

I remember obsessing over the Batmobile with the 1989 film. It was hands-down one of the coolest redesign elements of the whole film; I’d argue that it elevated Batman himself from cool to awesome.

As another blogger elsewhere has pointed out, though, when you go back to the car chase scene…it’s painfully slow. This Batmobile moves like a snail; it makes sense because of the armor, but you’d think a jet engine would have helped it move a bit quicker than that. Still, they took a good concept and made it great.

There were some minor tweaks to the design (and shielding animation) for Batman Returns, which were good. They also managed to make it move quicker. I’m not sure if they figured out how to lighten the frame, or if it’s just because they had a long section of straightaway to let it get up to speed in that scene. Either way, it was just a bit better.

1995/1997 Batmobile

Funky neon explosion. 1950s retro as imagined by a hyperactive.

Fitting, for the way the character functions in Batman Forever and Batman & Robin.

The strange thing is, I want to like the design. It’s fresh, it’s original, and it’s bold. Unfortunately, it takes that initiative into a direction that makes the Batmobile less a symbol of justice and more a symbol of pimping. Which, from what I understand, isn’t easy. But it certainly doesn’t inspire fear. Except possibly in the hearts of prostitutes.

In the words of Forrest Gump, that’s all I have to say about that.

2005/2008 Batmobile: “The Tumbler”

Obviously inspired by the tank-like creation for Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, the Tumbler (they never call it Batmobile in the film, which is in line with the move away from corniness under Nolan’s watch). We all know it’s the Batmobile, so we don’t need to call it the Batmobile.

And what a Batmobile it is. This is a Batmobile that says, “I’m not f***ing around.” If Batman needs to drive through a wall to kick your ass, he will. He’s the only one who can get into or out of the Batcave because he’s the only one with the equipment to do it.

To be honest, I was in love with it for those reasons. While it met its end in The Dark Knight, spawning the equally awesome “Batpod,” it was fun while it lasted. I believed in this Batmobile, that it would get the job done and repel everything short of nukes. If you’re going to make a habit of going into harm’s way, why not be as armored as possible?

And it’s a far cry from the television show with its airy, surfer styling. This Batmobile shows that Batman regards the world as a place fraught with brutal, forceful danger and he’s going to stack the odds however he can.

Side note about the Batpod. I think there’s a theme through the film that Batman gets stripped down to his core, the basic truth of himself, and as a result like Luke losing R2, he loses his biggest piece of technology at a crucial moment and still comes out victorious. I think there’s something to that.

Conclusion

Of course, the gas mileage on all of these is probably terrible. Greenpeace really should protest the Batmobile and the message of oil consumption it promotes. For that matter, PeTA should put out messaging that bats have just as many rights as people and encourage Batman to be a spokesman for their rights.

In fact, maybe that should be the next reboot! Batman as an animal rights activist, who uses only green technology to fight for the rights of animals marginalized by industrialization. That would make a ton of money, and you could show it in school to get extra funding from the Department of Education!

DC Comics and Warner Bros. can send me a check now for that awesome idea.

The Batman Blogs: The City

And now we turn our eye on the most critical design element of any Batman story. Gotham City.

If anything, the Gotham City you get is the biggest indicator of what you can expect from any iteration of Batman. Dark and Brooding Gotham begets Dark and Brooding Batman, Garish Gotham begets Campy Batman, Rea–World Gotham begets Realistic Batman.

And so the nature of Gotham has led to some interesting production design choices. I’m not going to bother going through the history of each, or even try to delve into the “depth” of each vision. Just examine how Gotham itself has often been our most revealing and ambitious character in any of the Batman movies.

Batman

First of course is the 1989 film.

In it, production designer Anton Furst established a very gothic Gotham. Just as importantly, the cinematography by Roger Pratt turns a studio lot into a grim, shadowed pararllel-universe New York City of the pre-Giuliani era. Full of rich menace and fear when the sun goes down, regardless of who you are. Looking at this Gotham, it looks like the type of place where muggings are not only common, they’re expected. Hell, it looks like you’d be disappointed if you weren’t mugged once in a while, as if it were a statement about you.

So this is totally in line with what they were hoping to portray on the whole for Batman in this film. Brooding, gothic and gritty. Also, apparently it rained all the time there when the cameras were turned off; I have trouble recalling a scene where the streets don’t look like a street–sweeper just rolled through. However, it really works to the advantage of the film as the streets look slimy most of the time. I think that’s really neat.

And to be honest, it’s the image of Gotham I latched onto through the next three films. Mentally, I refused to let go. Now let me tell you why.

Batman Returns

Batman Returns is where the production design started to slip and Tim Burton’s stranger sensibilities started to creep in through the margins. After the success of Batman I suppose it makes sense he got a little more creative control, but the road Burton would travel through Edward Scissorhands led to the redesigned Gotham City.

It makes sense that the look would be similar, because the same cinematographer for Scissorhands and Ed Wood, Stefan Czapsky, takes over from Roger Pratt. Why? I don’t honestly know. Maybe Pratt was forced on Burton the first time around and they didn’t get along. It happens after all; George Lucas and Gil Taylor notoriously disliked working together, and Taylor was reportedly a hedge from the studio to try to ensure the investment on a strange film.

Production design was taken on Bo Welch, who worked with Burton on Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice. Sadly, that’s probably due to the fact that Anton Furst died in 1990.

But the point is, Gotham changed. Instead of a very realistic–yet–Gothic city, we got our first taste of giant statuary populating the film. Combined with some off moments of cinematography, the back–lot set looked considerably less convincing. This Gotham presented a little more of a twisted and cartoonish take on the character, which definitely bears out in how the characters themselves are treated.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Batman Returns just fine, but it’s certainly a let-down after the first film. The production design and photography have a lot to do with that.

Batman Forever

Then the madness started.

Gotham City devolved in Batman Forever into a neon hodge-podge looking like Tokyo had sex with New York and made Fritz Lang the caretaker. Honestly, while it may have looked neat for a few frames, it was a definite step away from the dark reality of the first two into the fevered dream of a 5 year old with crayons. Interesting, but not functional for reality.

And while I’m a huge fan of “interesting,” this Gotham looks like it belongs more in Star Trek III (watch that scene with McCoy in the bar again) than a Batman film. This is, of course, fitting because this Batman film aspires to nothing greater than forgettable entertainment. At least, I wish it was forgettable.

The point, though, is that this Batman is starting his divorce from reality. Scaling vertical walls in cars? No problem. Shouting your secret identity in a room full of people and not being heard? No problem. Batman possessing ray-shield technology on his suit to withstand a fiery explosion? No problem.

I suppose fans sort of lost their right to be surprised after the first few shots of the credits, when Gotham City telegraphed this particular punch. And like I said, I am a big fan of “interesting,” so I’m not bashing Barbara Ling‘s design itself. I’m just saying that like the first two films, this Gotham City told us what to expect.

Shouted it, really.

Batman & Robin

And then it fell into the pit of despair with Batman & Robin. Anything redemptive about the Barbara Ling’s first designs of Gotham are gone. Completely and utterly devoid of anything except camp and giant naked statues. Honestly, the place looks like an Ayn Rand novel as interpreted by Andy Warhol.

The neon’s amped up, the statues are bigger, the geometry of the city makes less sense than Lost Highway and did I mention the black-lights that populate the entire city to make paint glow? And it fits with this incarnation of Batman and his villains. Hollow flesh automata randomly stringing sentences together and occasionally conflicting.

I’m typically a positive guy. I look for the good in people and experiences. I try to see the silver lining. I believe that, even if I didn’t like a movie, there’s typically something about it that was pulled off successfully. Usually for me, design is that thing.

Usually.

Batman Begins and The Dark Knight

I combine these two because they’re the first f*ing time in the entire series they used the same people in the key design and photography roles. And it shows.

They used a real city to film these two, so maybe Chicago shows through too strongly in some moments. But by and large, the use of a real city – albeit with a heavily altered skyline in establishing shots – give us a route by which we can recognize this Batman and therefore his world. Whereas the previous films varied from heavy gothic sensibilities to cartoonish nightmare, these films offer a subtle visual reassurance that dismisses the need for establishment. We know this world because it looks like the one in which we’re living.

And that’s fitting here because this Batman deals with the same issues we face. We demand a higher sense of reality in our fantasy now. We don’t want just to accept that a thing exists, we want to know how it works. And if we find out how it works, we need to know that it’s in line with our expectations of science (as most of us understand it). Just look at a Star Trek technical manual, or guidebooks to fictional places, to see our new demand to see how it can be explained and believed.

So in a sense, while Nolan’s Gotham delivers a believable Gotham for Batman, it also anticipates the need for the nerd audience to believe that it’s a world in which they could live, too. This is present in the comics, why not in the films now as well? We all want more reality in our fantasy, for better or worse.

I suppose that’s a good thing overall. Tolkien labored to make his worlds believable enough to have us buy into Hobbits, elves and orcs, why not make Batman’s reality just as rich?

The Batman Blogs: The Villains

Is there anything better than a great villain?

Batman has had his share of terrific villains. Anticipating a certain commenter’s video reply, Egg Head does not count in that list and never will. I’m a reasonable man, but I’m not budging on that.

Batman’s villains are reflections back on the main character, showing what he could be if not for a few different decisions or circumstances. When you’re dealing with a character already straddling the line between law and anarchy, you get some interesting results.

The most interesting thing about Batman villains is that, whereas our hero wears a costume, they often wear their psychological issues as physical attributes. Two–Face wears his black–and–white view of the world on his face; he can never get the two to reconcile. The Riddler is an egomaniac with great intelligence; he is a scrawny wimp, the prototypical nerd. Catwoman is voluptuous and sensual; she is the feminist using sexuality as a weapon.

So after looking at what the different iterations of Batman tell us about our mind-set through time, can his villains do the same?

While it would be fun to continue run through the whole roster, I’m going to focus instead on the two best villains to demonstrate the evolution of our perceptions of evil. It’ll keep things brief(er) and they’ve both been reborn in Nolan’s reinventions, making them the most relevant to the conversation.

Joker: 1989

The Joker is the exception here; he puts on paint.

I’ll be fair to the 1960s show from here on out, and at least mention it. The Joker in the TV show wasn’t frightening; he was a challenge to be overcome. Perhaps that is a larger statement of the cocksure nature of our society at the time: we needed to believe no one could ever pose an insurmountable challenge to us.

Later re-imaginings of the character have deformed him. The comic books in the 1980s had him become a failed comedian turned to criminal acts to pay the bills, the “victim” of a heist gone wrong at the hands of Batman. This was the first time the character became physically deformed (at least that I know of) and made it not paint, but chemical staining that turned his skin white; the 1989 movie picked this up and ran with it. The Joker became a narcissistic career criminal who lose his sanity in the face of his deformity (get it?). The deformity was expanded by having his face get torn by a bullet and a permanent smile grafted onto him.

Jack Nicholson’s Joker was Moriarty to Batman’s Holmes. They were engaged in a game of wits motivated as much by pride as competition. the game itself was thrilling, regardless of the outcome. This pairs with the interpretation of Batman for this time, a man sure of his role as the hero strong enough to withstand his schemes.

Joker: 2008

Twenty years later, Nolan’s treatment of The Joker returned to the paint but retained the deformity, but it simply is. As our world has become more sinister and chaotic, reasons for evil have become secondary. We’re all accepting that even if we get an explanation of causation, there are some levels of evil we can never comprehend truly.

Whereas Nicholson’s Joker was evil, he had cartoonish methodology. Deadly hand buzzers, conversations with corpses and mime-act assassinations had a dramatic flair to them that showed us evil as frightening, but recognizable.

By contrast, the newest imagining of The Joker is anarchic. He relies on subtler machinations, using charisma to appeal to the baser emotional sensibilities of people, his philosophies spreading like an infection from within. It’s not any accident that in The Dark Knight, The Joker is referred to as a terrorist. Much like al Qaeda leaders like bin Laden, he gathers his followers from among the disaffected, themselves unaware that they’re nothing more than fleshy tools. He has sold them on the idea of a greater cause, when the cause itself is merely a talking point for his own gain.

And of course, there’s the layer where The Joker here actually is a solid representation of the Devil. But I’ve spoken about that before.

Two-Face:1995

And then there’s Harvey.

I have to admit that growing up, Two–Face was more of a personal favorite than The Joker. The character always seemed so sad; by his nature, he was aware that what he was doing was wrong. But his anger at his shattered sense of what justice cripples him as much as his scarred visage.

I remember a story where he had his ex-wife in their burning home, and wound up with her and Batman dead to rights. Mrs. Dent (and Batman) escaped. The last panel showed Two–Face holding the scarred side of the coin; he’d broken his rule because he couldn’t kill his love. That’s powerful, man.

So when Two–Face was finally slotted as a villain for Batman Forever, I was thrilled. When the heady fog of Ace Ventura: Riddler Villain wore off, the sins of the character’s interpretation were overwhelming.

If he didn’t like the result of a coin flip, he’d simply flip it again until he got the result he wanted. This is hugely and grossly wrong. That violates the core of Two–Face’s character, and makes any decision to controvert the coin later completely pointless.

But it is an accurate reflection of the prevailing social attitudes of the 1990s, when we learned that even the definition of the word “is” is flexible. If you just want to play games of semantics, then nothing is outside the scope. In fact, rules themselves would appear to become completely meaningless then, if all you did was ignore them when convenient. This Two–Face was more 1960s Joker than anything else. Which, given the sensibilities of the director, makes sense; unable to use the Joker, he approximated a stand–in.

Two-Face: 2008

Then once again, the character was brought back by Nolan and ironically enough, tied to the Joker. Interestingly this time, he served as a very important foil.

The Joker’s anarchy creates Two–Face, who is too rigid in his pursuit of fairness. After his tragedy, he sees only one result or another, with no room for mercy or hope; still the lawyer, he has justice that’s either enforced or not. It’s just that his rules have become simpler.

Dent becomes an expression of the old school vigilante at that point. I invite you to watch Death Wish, a film rooted in the frustration with crime. Personal vengeance becomes the motivation; this is where Batman has always been set apart. He’s not seeking revenge on those who have wronged him; he’s seeking to change lives and spare suffering. He carries a code of ethics – his own legal system – with him; by contrast, Dent’s legal code merely shrinks. There are no more bargains, no more deals and no more appeals. There is only Either/Or. And the judgment is brutally enforced.

And here’s where Harvey becomes a reflection on us. Broken by tragedy, it’s easy for someone to turn to despair, to lose faith and hope and treat the world as nothing more than a random series of unfortunate incidents. As Nietzche said, looking into the Abyss carries a price.

Maybe that’s why I see the character as so valid. I think he’s the most understandable, the most human. He’s not motivated by pride, but by pain. We’re all still scarred by September 11, and how hard has it been not to rationalize torching the world for the sake of our hurt?

Conclusion

So I guess I realize also that I picked Two–Face and Joker because they were always my favorite Batman villains growing up. I can say that I’m interested to see what happens with Bane in the next film, since so far as I’m concerned he hasn’t really existed before on film. What happened in 1997 was a mass hallucination.

Here’s hoping 2012 carries a little more of a dream come true.