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
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
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
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.