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Holy Screwed Franchise, Batman!

Superman and Batman are two of the mightiest superheroes. They've both been around for over 50 years, and have been able to vanquish practically every villain they have come up against. But, alas, there is one evil in the universe that neither of them can withstand -- the Hollywood Treatment.

This spring and summer, Warner Bros. pulled a doubly-whammy on them both. Lois & Clark, which started out as a hit TV show and had already been guaranteed a fifth season, was abruptly cancelled at the end of Season Four due to low ratings and the fact that its two major stars wanted out. A few short months later, Batman and Robin, only the fourth installment of the Batman films (James Bond is up to 18 and counting, folks) has plummeted at the box office and garnered oodles of bad press on the Internet before it was even released. Warner Bros. response? They got mad at people like Harry Knowles, who's Ain't It Cool News web site (www.aint-it-cool-news.com) let people know that the movie stunk before folks plunked down their $7.50 to find out for themselves.

So what is going on here? Should we even be surprised? The answer is no. It has happened before. Remember Superman III? Even worse, remember Superman IV: The Quest for Peace?

The basic problem boils down to two things: a lack of respect for the characters, and the lack of a single, "guiding hand" to maintain the integrity of the franchise.

It is interesting that Time Warner, which owns both Warner Bros. and DC Comics, manages to get it right and completely wrong at the same time. On the right side is DC Comics, which has nurtured these characters since their respective births. All of the Superman comics are overseen by Editor Mike Carlin (whom I've met briefly on two occasions, and is a very nice fellow, I might add). Among Mike's many duties are making sure that the Superman comics stay true to the mythos. On the Batman side that man is Denny O'Neil. These guys are the ones that make sure the stories are great, that some writer on a whim never decides to change Barbara Gordon's name to "Barbara Wilson" and make her Alfred's niece, that their origins are strictly adhered to, and that when changes are made, they are things that SHOULD be changed.

For the wrong side, let's look at the Batman films. First of all, there has been no single guiding hand, no one to make sure that what ends up on screen fits with the Batman mythos. Basically, no Cubby Broccoli (may he rest in peace). Secondly, the filmmakers immediately forgot who the main character was, and also why every comic book writer wants to write Batman. Batman is the single most fascinating character in comics and, most bizarrely, the films have practically ignored him. Finally, the filmmakers don't respect the material. They only see it as a "comic book," and figure that no matter what they do, people will buy it. It's a shame, really, because the Batman films could have been a hugely successful franchise, if only they had stayed true to the material.

A good superhero films needs creators who respect the characters. This is why Superman I and II are so good. This is also why Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (spun from the Animated Series) is the best Batman film ever made. It all comes down to respect for the material. I ran across this excellent example just the other day on the website for the upcoming movie, Steel, based on the DC Comics character (italics are mine):

When Kenneth Johnson was initially contacted about writing and directing a film based on a DC Comics' character, he shrugged. He had been offered to helm projects based on comic book-originated characters before based on his success with "The Bionic Woman," "Alien Nation" and "The Incredible Hulk." "I always turned them down," recalls Johnson, "because I didn't want to deal with childish characters in funny costumes. [Producer] Joel Simon told me that Steel was different, that he was really a knight in shining armor in a contemporary setting. I said that if I could lose the comic book cape, then maybe I could make it work."

If Ken doesn't want to "deal with childish characters in funny costumes," then that's a clear signal that he is the wrong man for the job. I'm not knocking Kenneth Johnson personally -- I happened to like Alien Nation and V. But if he has to make major changes to make Steel "work," like radically changing the costume and losing the cape, then I say find someone else.

Unfortunately, the problems with the Batman films go even deeper. Warner Bros. has made a series of crucial mistakes, almost as if they were deliberately sabotaging the films as a viable franchise. Their first mistake was casting Micheal Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson as the Joker. Yeah, they both did a fine job, but let's face it -- neither one of them resemble the characters they were playing. The larger error of the two was the casting of Nicholson, because that set the stage for having a movie star play the villain. The end result is Arnold Schwarzenegger getting paid $25 million to play Mr. Freeze, with his name above the title. Say no more. The smarter thing would have been to have cast an actor (as opposed to an actor/movie star), like Ray Liotta, as the Joker, and not have let the character run away with the film. They should also have stayed true to the Joker's origins and maintained his mysterious origins, and even more so, not have killed him off at the end. In the comics he always mysteriously disappears, only to return again at a later date. This would have worked very well for the film series.

The next biggest mistake was this double-villain thing. Batman Returns would have been far better if Catwoman had been the only villain. Warner Bros. completely underestimated her power to carry the show (a cohesive plot would have been good, too). There are several problems that arise with the two-villain thing. First, there can't be a single plotline, as in Villain wants to blow up Gotham City and Batman has to stop him. Now we've got two villains, each with his/her own motives. Second, there's too many characters, and no one gets their fair share of screen time. In Batman Returns, every time the Batman/Catwoman/Bruce/Selina relationship starts to get going, the Penguin drops in and derails the whole situation. Finally, after only three films, they used up all the best villains. I mean, how many Average Joes out there have ever heard of Poison Ivy?

The next travesty is stupid stories. Batman is the "World's Greatest Detective," but you wouldn't know it from the movies. Aside from some minor research in Batman, he never does any detecting.

Stupid stories is what killed Lois & Clark, too. The show always danced a fine line with campy plots and hokey villains straight from the first season, but the thing that always rescued the show was the relationship between the two (or should I say three?) main characters and the chemistry between the two leads. No matter how bad the plots and villains were, the relationship aspect of the show was always solid. For a while, anyway.

In the middle of Season Two, the Producers finally realized that this was the show's strength. They did a great job with fiction's most interesting love triangle, and the ratings showed. Then they double-crossed the audience at the end of Season Two by having Clark propose when he should have revealed his true identity to Lois.

Still, all was forgiven at the start of Season III, with a terrific episode that stood out as a shining example of what promise there was to come. Little did anyone realize that it was a promise that would never be kept.

Time Warner royally fumbled what could have been the media event of the century. Lois and Clark were finally getting married! Do they do a comic book tie in? No! Do they give the audience what they want? No! Instead, Lois was switched with a frog-eating clone, and the happy couple wasn't really married after all. Then came a five episode storyline where Lois loses her memory and thinks she's "Wanda Detroit," a character from an awful, unfinished novel she has written. And just when we thought it couldn't get any worse, it did.

The actual wedding episode was this stupid dream thing, where at the end you still aren't sure if they are actually married or not. They finally did the comic book tie in, but by then it was too late. After the media hoax that was the first wedding, nobody cared. The ratings plummeted.

So what's next for Warner Bros. and their stock of DC superheroes? Well, it doesn't look good, I'm afraid. Instead of realizing that no one wants to see a BAD Batman movie, now they're starting to believe that no one wants to see a Batman movie at all. According to Ain't It Cool News, they're thinking about shelving Batman 5. My advice? Let the guys who handle the Animated Series take over. They'll spend a lot less money and make a far better film, one that audiences will actually want to see.

WB is also hard at work on a new Superman film, Superman Reborn (aka Superman Lives). Fortunately, they hired Kevin Smith to write a terrific script with terrific dialogue. Then they hired Tim Burton, the man who personally hammered in the first few nails on the coffin of the Batman franchise, to butcher it. Hey, WB, didn't you people see Mars Attacks? That was a movie that didn't need a story and he still failed! Burton is a great visual director, but doesn't know story from his backside. Worse still, he thinks he does. Now word is that Burton, with the "help" of screenwriter Wesley Strick, has bastardized Kevin Smith's script, and replaced all the great dialogue with... you guessed it, one-liners. "Holy Batman and Robin, Batman!"

WB, please, we beg you. Do whatever you can to ditch Burton and get someone else to direct this picture. Someone who respects the characters and the great screenplay that you already have. Someone like... Kevin Smith. Either that, or, if you're stuck with Burton, make him stick with what's already on the page.