Monday, December 9, 2013

Batman & Robin (1997)

I got through a whole review of Batman Forever without once mentioning Robin.

No great loss, though.  I confess that I have little use for Robin as a character, at least in the movies.  As written he seems meant to be just what the comics character was meant as: an audience surrogate for adolescents, and a way to lighten up the Batman.  But I'm definitely of the camp that says Batman is at his best when he's at his darkest:  he needs no lightening up.  And the third movie didn't need an adolescent surrogate:  every character was one already.

Plus, the film was hopelessly confused as to what Robin was supposed to be anyway.  As written he was an adolescent, but Chris O'Donnell looked every day of his 25 years when he played the part.  Nobody - not a single person - bought him as a teenager.  I mean the very next year he'd play a lawyer, right?  And so the chemistry between Batman and Robin - hell, let's leave chemistry out of it:  the story makes no sense.  ...Of course, leaving chemistry out of it was probably exactly why a grown man was cast as Robin:  fear of the skeevy overtones that the once-(probably-)innocent pairing would inevitably take on in 1995.  Especially when the suits have nipples.

There was a potential there for an interesting deepening of the Batman character, though.  I mean, even as Val Kilmer's playing him, he's the definitive loner, but the entry of Robin demands that he become part of a team.  And it's clearly against his will:  what Bruce Wayne is having to deal with is the inevitable consequence of his success.  He's breeding imitators.  They're his responsibility whether he likes it or not.  The vigilante inspires other vigilantes - is he okay with that?  I don't say that this theme was handled with any more subtlety than the others, but it could have been.

Okay, I've delayed long enough:  we have to get to the fourth movie now.  And in the fourth movie, they've stopped even trying to put in any interesting subtext.  They've completely dropped any shadow at all from the Batman character.  Now he's the dad in The Brady Bunch - a harried pater whose familias is growing in unexpected ways.  Batman is a mildly reluctant team player here.  And so he has no meaning whatsoever.

In its own way, Batman & Robin is as big a disaster as Superman IV was.  The production values are infinitely higher, which means it does provide some intermittent cheap thrills, but it quite intentionally reduces Batman and the whole enterprise to a joke.  And not a very good one.

What's happening here is what happened 'round about the third or fourth Roger Moore 007 film:  everybody involved decided they could no longer take seriously this thing they were doing, and assumed audiences felt the same.  They disrespected it.  And the result is just pointless.  It's an unthrilling action movie, and an unfunny comedy.

It's not the fault of the casting.  It's the fault of the writing and directing.  To be sure, the casting has some real problems.  Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl is a mistake;  she was clearly cast because she was that girl in that Aerosmith video, so the kids must like her.  Meanwhile that very year Sarah Michelle Gellar was showing how you create a girl-power hero, putting Silverstone to shame.  But Batgirl is not as big a problem as Ahnold is.  I'll own up to having less use for Schwarzenegger than I have for Robin - his appeal is just as lost on me, and always has been.  But even if you liked him in Terminator or Total Recall it's just painful to watch him here, barking out oversimplified punch lines like they were marching orders.  He's a big sucking sore in this movie.

And the thing of it is...I actually like George Clooney as Batman.  Let me qualify that.  Of all the actors who have played Batman he looks most like Batman, with his square jaw and his easy mastery.  Now, he's a comic actor, and I'm not sure how he would have done with the darker scripts his predecessors were given.  But he does the best he can with what he has, and almost pulls it off.  It's not his fault the movie around him is what it is.

Then again, I like George Lazenby, too.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Batman Forever (1995)

The superhero genre has a complicated relationship with the sequel.  From a comic-book standpoint,  
it's natural that any movie about a given superhero will be followed by another, and then another, and then another.  Superhero comics, after all, go on forever - there's no end, just the occasional decision to reboot.  From a Hollywood standpoint, too, the sequel is a no-brainer, but for a different reason:  a superhero movie is an action movie, and ever since Rocky, Jaws, and Star Wars, Hollywood has been addicted to action-movie sequels.  The business model is predicated on them.

So why is it that no superhero movie series to date has lasted for more than four films?  (The only exception, I believe, is the X-Men movies;  the original series only lasted three films, but the spin-offs take place in the same continuity.)  The James Bond series lasted forty years and twenty movies without a reboot, proving that movie audiences would accept a comic-book style endless continuity.  But superhero films don't do that. 

Maybe someday I'll set about seriously watching all the TV superhero things;  I suspect the superhero model might be more suited to the medium of television, which (in America, at least) is similarly open-ended.  In modern big-budget filmmaking, with only one installment every three years, there's too much riding on any one installment to risk failure, so there's more pressure to stick to proven formulas, meaning proven villains.  And so we've had two modern film Two-Faces, two Jokers, two Lex Luthors (in a total of four films);  and the hero's origin story gets told again and again. 

Batman Forever represented an attempt to take the superhero movie in the direction of the Bond films.  It adopted the theory that you could change the director and lead actor, and audiences would still buy it as long as there were enough other, smaller continuities to sell it.  Q and Moneypenny, Alfred and the Commissioner, stay the same, and we accept it as still the same Batman.  Doesn't matter if Batman himself is different.

In real time, this worked with Batman Forever.  It made a lot of money.  But of course Batman and Robin didn't, and in fact it stunk up the joint badly enough to retroactively erase Batman Forever's success:  ever since, every time the lead actor has changed in a superhero franchise, the whole thing has been rebooted.  I'm not in favor of this.  I think this film and its sequel are flawed, but I don't think it has anything to do with Val Kilmer and George Clooney not being allowed to face the Joker, or have their own origin stories.  The flaws like elsewhere.  But Hollywood, like America, always wants to pretend that history started today...

The problem with this movie is just that it's big, loud, and dumb.  The next one would be bigger, louder, and dumber, though, and much worse.  This one (with Tim Burton producing) has just enough of an artistic conscience to keep it acceptable. 

For example, the all-important subtext.  It tries.  Or maybe it doesn't try, but it at least pays lip-service to the idea that Batman should be about something more than just stomping baddies.  It looks deeper into Bruce Wayne's past, explaining things that the first two films had left unexplained - things that maybe never occurred to you as needing explaining, but that's the point.  It at least tries to develop the character further.  The traumatic childhood encounter with the giant bat:  that's good.  It locates Bruce's motivation somewhere deeper than in just a desire for revenge, or justice.  He's a little bit disturbed. 

The problem with this film, in comparison to the first two, is how it handles this subtext.  I mean, it's all laid out for us in the first scene, the first conversation between Batman and Chase Meridian.  The dialogue, here and throughout the film, is painfully, brutally on-the-nose.  You can sense the director's (or somebody's) impatience with the whole notion of subtext here in how gracelessly and inelegantly it's handled.  I mean, this is what is meant by the phrase "dumbing-down," right?  This is that principle in action.

That's not the only problem.  As a Hollywood style, as opposed to a comic-book style, sequel, it's preoccupied with mimicking the original with as little difference as it can get away with, with predictably diminishing returns.  The Nolan series proved how much potential there is in the Two-Face character;  here he's just a cheap knockoff of the Joker.  In fact, put the Riddler and Two-Face together and you just about have the Joker.  Similarly, the idea of a lovers' triangle between Batman, Bruce Wayne, and the Girl had been done twice already;  definitively with Vicki Vale in the first film, and with intriguing variation in the second one (because Catwoman/Selina Kyle made it actually a lovers' quadrangle, or a bit of perverse and schizoid partner-swapping).  

The movie's not a total loss.  It's effective at being a big, loud, dumb movie.  Which is to say it's fun.  In true Hollywood sequel fashion you're never unaware that it's an inferior imitation of the original, but it's not so inferior that it bothers you;  the increase in bigness and loudness distracts you from the increase in dumbness.

And it does a few things very right.  The casting, for the most part, is excellent.  Tommy Lee Jones was quite a meta choice to play the ruined D.A. Harvey Dent, since Schumacher had directed him playing a U.S. Attorney just the previous year in The Client;  the meta-ness was probably lost on most people in 1995 (I certainly didn't notice it), but Jones proves suprisingly capable as a raging villain.  He manages, through sheer physical violence, to hold the screen against Jim Carrey's Riddler, surely the most jaw-droppingly over-the-top performance of the decade.  And Nicole Kidman, as dumb as the lines she's given are, is incandescent as the femme fatale.

But again, they're all written as imitations of earlier characters.  Two-Face as presented retains almost nothing of the former crusader for justice that the character is supposed to be;  he's just Jack Nicholson's Joker's violent side revisited.  And while the Riddler character is promising at first, as an enraged science geek, Jim Carrey's physicality transforms the character into into Jack Nicholson's Joker's theatrical side personified.  And more is less:  put them together and they're still not as charismatic as Jack.

What about Batman?  Val Kilmer brings nothing to the role that I can see.  Out of costume he's too heroic-looking (or acting) to sell the character as a nerd-in-body-armor like Keaton did, but he's not heroic-looking (or acting) enough to reinvent the character as a square-jawed cool Daddy-figure like Clooney would.  He's a placeholder.