Batman & Robin
Akiva Goldsman, Bob Kane, and Joel Schumacher, 1997

I could never understand why people hailed Tim Burton's Batman movies as a departure from the campiness of the 1960s TV series — Danny DeVito in flippers? Michelle Pfeiffer magically licked back to life by alley cats? — until I saw the first half hour or so of Joel Schumacher's Batman Forever, which took a franchise that was already pretty weak and then removed everything that wasn't stupid. For a while I called Batman Forever the worst movie I'd ever seen, but no, it wasn't exactly that — I've seen movies that offended me more, movies that were more incompetently made, even movies that pandered more to the least common denominator. No, what struck me about Batman Forever wasn't that it lacked quality so much as it repudiated quality — that the fundamental premise of the project was, "No, no, no! Don't you get it? You're doing it all wrong! It's Batman! It's supposed to be crap!"

Anyway, Batman & Robin is more of the same, with one additional insight on the filmmakers' part: for maximum stupidity, you really need to add Arnold Schwarzenegger. That said, the lion's share of the brickbats need to go to Uma Thurman, whose terrible acting is actually on purpose; Arnold is just doing what he always does, as his gubernatorial career has shown. Seriously, I don't know how this made it to #5 in the 2008 Skandies, because it's—


"The Dark Knight," you say? That's different, then?

Um. Never mind.

Batman Begins
David S. Goyer, Bob Kane, and Christopher Nolan, 2005
#19, 2005 Skandies

Figured that before watching The Dark Knight I should watch this one. The project here is to redeem the ludricrous, i.e., to take source material that had devolved into camp both on television and on the big screen and try to sell it as something to be taken seriously. Batman is a tempting target for such a project because he has no actual superpowers, and thus in Batman Begins the filmmakers go down the list of "what makes Batman Batman" and try to justify each item as plausibly as possible. World's greatest hand-to-hand combatant? Years of ninja training. Endless array of weapons? He owns a munitions company. Outlandish costume? High-end body armor. Distinctive automobile? Actually an experimental personal tank. Bat-Mite? Silently omitted.

What you end up with at the end of all this is an order of magnitude more realistic than most other superhero franchises and even many other renditions of Batman. The question is whether that's actually desirable. I'm reminded of John Byrne complaining when Marvel declared, for the sake of realism, that dragons in the Marvel Universe communicated via telepathy rather than speech, "Cuz, you know, a 200 foot long telepathic dragon is so much more realistic than a 200 foot long talking dragon." There is a school of thought that argues that you're better off embracing a wild, impossible setting for stories like these, because the closer you get to the world outside your window, the more inherently ridiculous a billionaire ninja wearing pointy ears is going to seem. But, well, that's not the school of thought I belong to. I say telepathic dragons are more realistic than dragons that speak English. So there.

I think the fundamental divide here is that there are some people for whom an uncanny valley exists between fantasy and reality. They're perfectly happy to follow the adventures of billionaire ninjas in a world where Amazons twirl magic lassoes and aliens can turn back time by flying really fast around the world, and perfectly happy to watch a gritty urban crime drama, but stick the billionaire ninja into the gritty urban crime drama and the mismatch between the levels of reality throws them out of the story. I, on the other hand, find that valley the most fun place to set up shop. In fact, I thought I'd already added this to my patterns list, but I'm not seeing it, so away we go:

33 I'm quite fond of the uncanny valley between realism and fantasy. I like fantastic milieux to be treated naturalistically, with careful attention to mundane detail, and I like real-world stories to be full of people with extraordinary qualities and abilities.

That said, the very title of Batman Begins suggests that it's less a story in itself than a setup for its sequel, much as this article is a setup for the Dark Knight writeup that I'm now too tired to do, so, uh, more in a couple of days probably.

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