Sunday, November 13, 2011

"Back to the Batnipples" or "The Neon of Batman"

 If anything or things are remembered about Joel Schumacher's oeuvre in the Bat-movies, they tend to be these.

Thus begins our descent into the underworld.

As much as mainstream bat-fans treat the 60's series as a memory best repressed, they'd probably, given the choice, reserve the brain bleach and mindscrubbers for the late nineties films, "Batman Forever" and "Batman and Robin". In the context of the the mid-nineties Schumacher actually makes perfect sense as a director to take up where Tim Burton left off. After all, in The Lost Boys he shows a love for comics and mid-century youth culture in general, and in 1993 he released Falling Down which comes pretty close to being the cinematic equivalent of a Frank Miller comic, albeit with less satire, pulp, and prostitution. Unfortunately filmgoers had reacted poorly to the semi-sour cynicism of Batman Returns. (Probably my favorite of the nineties films, by the way.) The studio wanted Schumacher to take things in a more family friendly, less grotesque direction. Makes perfect sense that they chose Two-Face to be the first villain we see in Batman Forever, huh? Anyway, this is the milieu that led to the creation of these films. Keep Batman full of action and gadgets, maybe fewer birdmen drooling bile and trying to drown babies. These movies are easy to make fun of. Many people on the internet do. I have to admit I haven't seen either movie in ages. I tried watching Forever for this post, but the onslaught of light and sound gave my brother a headache, and I'm not going to watch Batman and Robin just for this. However, this is not a mere attempt to heap more derision upon a franchise that spent itself more than a decade ago. This is an exploratory expedition to see if anything useful can be dredged up from the wreckage. Despite the weak plots, over the top 'acting', and a fetishization of gadgetry (in some cases to make the movies more toyetic) there are certain aspects of these films that capture an oft neglected element of the Bat-verse.Though he turned it up too loud, way too loud, Schumacher showed us all the Neon element of Batman's world.

Let's start with the heroes of these pictures.

So, yeah. We've got nipples and Bat-cods. On one level though, the color scheme here brings to the surface the drab by contrast, color schemes of the heroes in contrast with the villains. In Forever Val Kilmer played Bats. Not a bad choice, I usually like Kilmer in movies, but I don't think Batman is quite the right hero for him. I almost wouldn't have minded seeing him in a faithful adaptation of a lesser known character, say Booster Gold or Animal Man, something like that. I did notice that in scenes where he plays Bruce Wayne, Kilmer plays the role with a good dose of Adam West style in terms of delivery and attitude. As for Robin and Batgirl, it's Clueless and that guy who didn't do much anything after playing Robin. In Batman and Robin George Clooney takes on the cowl, but it turned out he made a better escaped convict than a superhero. The heroes aren't whats important here anyway.

The villains were the most important part of Batman on film from the sixties until Batman began again. In Batman Nicholson got top billing, after all. So let's have a run down. The first villain we meet in Forever is Two-Face.

A rather Technicolor Two-Face to be sure.The purple-red of his bad side almost radiates into the air around him. Compare to our last onscreen Harvy Dent.

Grey and pink in place of glaring violet. I'm not completely against some level of 'realism' in a Batman story. I just think it doesn't take that much of a dose to make it work, and if there's an overdose it can get just as ugly as the overdose of neon and camp in these films. As much as I like Eckhart's portrayal of Two-Face in Dark Knight as an almost sort of avenging crime spirit, there is something about Tommy Lee Jones's performance that rings true in a different way. In Dark Knight we're seeing one of the moments in which a Harvy Dent becomes a Two-Face and it's immediate aftermath. In Forever, this is a Two-Face who's been on the job for more than two years. This is the Two-Face who is completely at home with his life as a supercrook. Jones plays it a little too wacky, but all we really needed was one or two small moments of pathos to make it more workable.

Then there's Riddler.

It's hard to believe they found a way to have Ol' Eddie Nygma more garishly dressed than he is on the left, but they found one. Several times over in fact. Jim Carrey as Riddler is basically a Jim Carrey character in a Riddler costume. In the comics Riddler is like the Joker in that he's a sort of vicious sprite who seems to ultimately come from nowhere. In both the acclaimed Animated Series and Batman Forever, however, they make him a disgruntled employee who strikes back at an uncaring boss and world. The animated series is good, but I have to question this a little. If any character, besides the J-man, benefits from being kind of origin-less it's Riddler, who has taken the question mark itself as his personal brand. Anyway, in Forever Riddler and Two-Face get along famously.

Which is as good an excuse as any to bring up the 'camp' aspect of Batman. It sort of fits alongside the Neon aspect I'm exploring here. A lot of people are uncomfortable with the camp aspects of Batman. I dpn't entirely get it, but I guess they feel that it doesn't take the character as seriously as they would prefer, or it shatters the illusion of a fourth wall, in some way it ruins the escapism. As I said above, I don't entirely understand the enmity, which is funny in a way, because if you had talked to me in the late nineties early aughts, I'd have felt much the same way. I submit that just as deconstruction can be said to be a demonstration that the text has already dismantled itself, camp could be said to be a demonstration that the text has already distanced itself through irony. Even the Dark Knight, as concerned as the movie is with making the audience take it seriously, gives us this.

Back to the bad guys.
There's Arnie all lit up. It's a sad thing. After being rescued from obscurity by the 
Animated Series, it's a shame to see Victor Fries reduced to a pun spouting mad science buffoon.

He and Bane probably suffer the most in terms of being made to look dumber than words. And then there's Ivy. Uma Thurman would be a logical choice in a better movie. Here we get a near repeat of Catwoman's origin from Batman Returns, except with plants.

As usual, Ivy is reduced to being a tawdry temptress threatening to split up Batman and Robin's bro-mance. There are more interesting and original possibilities for Ivy than tend to be explored in the comics or, well, anywhere. Her transformation is played in the usual science-rape style. Personally my favorite depiction of her has to be the "Hothouse" two parter in Legends of the Dark Knight illustrated by P. Craig Russell. At one point Ivy delivers her kiss to Batman which drags him into a  hallucinogenic underworld where Ivy reigns as a psychedelic May queen goddess. Here's a taste:

Which brings me to my main point. Since the beginning Batman has had a neon element to it.

In 1938 Batman prepares for battle as a starburst of red explodes behind him. Batman's brightness has been lost somewhat in recent years.I've been playing Arkham Asylum and, although the game is enjoyable, I have to admit that the art direction has a certain joylessness to it. It's saving grace, visually, is that detective mode turns everyone into glowy skeletons. It makes me think about the last Batman video game I played before Arkham, Lego Batman. Lego Batman is, oddly enough, one of the few things Batman I've read, seen, or played that gets the the visual balance between dark and gloomy, and raving loony neon almost perfect. It is right that Bat-villains and the environments they inhabit should give off a mind breaking glare. It is right that evil and madness are accompanied by a miasma of  threatening colors.

Batman snuffs the glow that threatens to send the city spiraling into the villain of the week's power trip by countering with reason and subdued blue and grey, maybe a touch of yellow for hope. When that's not enough, he glows back as fiercely as anyone.

Schumacher's movies are a place where this guy can exist:

I heartily endorse this guy. This is what lower level Gotham mooks ought to look like at times. It makes sense that less creative small fry crooks would attempt to emulate the gaudy aesthetics of their underworld betters.

Maybe we shouldn't be so quick to condemn the Schumacher films entirely. True they're not good, or in the case of Batman and Robin watchable, movies, but some would argue they served a function beyond being enjoyable entertainment. At least Schumacher apologized for the whole fiasco:

Now more of what I'm sure you came here to see:

Next: Jean Grey (I know I promised Cyclops and Wolverine, but I decided to do Jean first.)


  1. Nice. I should be angry at you for reminding of the existence of these movies. And for making me want to watch them again, just to see how bad they were.

    Have you thought about doing an entry about the two movie Jokers?

  2. It's a thought. Nostalgia Critic already compared the two in an Old vs. New segment on Batman vs. Dark knight.

    I guess I could compare them to Ceaser Romero if i really wanted to. Anyway, I have the next few articles mostly figured out already.

  3. I'm aware of that video, yes, but I'm always interested in what you have to say.

  4. Well, my opinions are roughly the same as Nostalgia Critic's in the video. I actually don't think that Nicholson is all that great a Joker, there are only about two or three scenes in the first movie that really capture the Joker's essence. Mostly his commercial and his invasion of the art museum.