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The Batman Movies in Retrospect: Cinema Theory
I am going to pose two very simple questions and give two very simple answers. They will be questions and answers so simple that I will only need a single capsule to put across this essay; indeed, perhaps we might even be so ambitious as to imagine carrying the whole thing off in under one thousand words.
Question #1: Why were the first four Batman movies---Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever, Batman and Robin---such miserable artistic failures? How did this happen?
Question #2: Why were the last three Batman movies---Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises---all starring Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman considerably more worthy offerings? How did this happen?
Answer to Question #1:
The reason the first four Batman movies were such miserable artistic failures is because they were so clearly adapted for the big screen, using the original 1960s television series as a template. This television series had long ago---and I mean long ago---already become a parody of itself. This being the case, anyone adapting Batman for the big screen, would automatically import the series' self-mocking, self-caricaturing energy into the film.
This is fine if it is your conscious intent to create a Mel Brooks-style farce. But it is not okay if you see yourself as actually putting on a relatively serious superhero movie. Indeed, the words "serious" and "superhero movie" seem as oxymoronic as "jumbo shrimp," if we were only left with the first four Batman movies.
What does the phrase "parody of itself" mean?
What I---the person writing this---mean by it is this: A fictional work of some kind, which, over time becomes a mockery of itself, by going to an absurd extreme with some critical aspect of itself.
Another phrase for "parody of itself" is "jumping the shark."
The phrase "jumping the shark" comes from the television series Happy Days (1974-1984), set in the American Midwest of the 1950s. The central character was Arthur ("Fonzie," or the "Fonz") Fonzarelli played by Henry Winkler.
The Fonz was a leather jacket-wearing, motorcycle-riding cool cat (think a cross between James Dean and Frank Sinatra). The thing to understand about the Fonz was that his "cool" conquered all. He had these strange "cool" powers, if you will. I won't go into to all of that here, just know that his "powers" of cool were, in some way, sort of used as a dramatic counterpoint to, occasionally, discuss social issues. I'll talk about this more in the comment section, if you like, but let's keep it moving.
Anyway, with the Fonz, his cool conquered all and he always wore that black leather jacket of his (that and the white t-shirt and jeans was his basic uniform).
There came a point when America saw that the creative team had run out of ideas for the show. This moment came, for all the world to see, when Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli actually got on a pair of water skis, pulled by a speedboat, and hit a ramp and jumped over a shark in the water.
When you saw that you rolled your eyes and said something like this to yourself: Yeah, sure, why not just send him into outer space or forward in time or something, with that leather jacket of his?!
When that reaction was inspired, its like America had outgrown the show.
The Batman television series basically jumped the shark from its premier. Indeed, if Wikipedia can be considered authoritative, it would appear that the show was deliberately constructed as "camp" fare.
Answer to Question #2:
The reason that the last three Batman movies were considerably better is simply because they, apparently, relied on the more evolved, up-to-date, more sophisticated, and far darker Batman tradition as drawn out in the comics books. In following the tradition of said more evolved, up-to-date, more sophisticated, and far darker comic books, the producers of the last three Batman films with Christian Bale in the lead, offered something far more substantial and satisfying to people who really care about the character of the Dark Knight from the comic books (and perhaps some of the cartoons).
Again, if Wikipedia is authoritative, it seems that for the original sixties television series, somebody read a few Batman comics, and after some twists and turns concerning casting and other matters, decided upon the "camp" approach, in which Batman and Robin look like they're having a dress up pajama party or something.
My point is, regardless of where the comic book tradition of the character was at in the early-1960s, that tradition had certainly evolved by the late-1980s. But that template was not used for the first four films; instead, as I've said, the creators of those movies, for some reason, went "retro" and used the early-1960s television series as there template.
In retrospect we can see that the approach used for the first four Batman movies was bound to disappoint all fandom concerned. If your my age, 44, and you grew up watching the original television series (when nothing better happened to be on, a little before the age of cable), you probably processed the first four efforts as basic 'B' movies, despite the star power involved. I must say, I was impressed with the dramatic performance of Michael Keaton (a comedian/comedic actor) in the role of Batman.
I remember when I first became aware the he---"Mr. Mom"---Michael Keaton would be playing the Caped Crusader, I thought to myself: Come on, really? But after the first movie was over, I then thought: Wow, who else but Michael Keaton could have pulled it off? What can I say? I'm fickle.
Well, we ran a little bit over, but we came close.
Thank you so much for reading.