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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Remembrances of Matinees Past

We’ve been reminded this week of how Tim Burton’s Batman, the Jack Nicholson/Michael Keaton box office smash that altered how a generation of moviegoers responded to hype and marketing, just turned 25. Discussing the Burton Batman has been quelled in recent years, thanks in part to Christopher Nolan’s trilogy with Christian Bale as the caped crusader, to say nothing of the campy and dreadful Joel Schumacher sequels (the first of which credited Burton as a producer) from the decade before that. Suddenly, this Batman is news again, and very much appreciated. In 1989 it inaugurated a renewed interest in comic books, the silly old Adam West TV series from the ’60s was suddenly back in syndication, and Hollywood studios had a fresh orchard of published ideas and characters from which to pluck and plant new franchises (the Superman series with Christopher Reeve had by this time died; and we don’t have time to discuss Howard the Duck).


Of course when we compare Batman‘s impact to how novelty characters have worked in the last 10 years, it’s a fairly limp resurgence. The first comic book movie, as I recall, to follow up was a straight-to-video Captain America. There was also a tedious television series of The Flash which could never get its pace in order and was soon canceled. Burton’s hotly anticipated all-star sequel, Batman Returns, had the indelible mark of its director, but the Wagnerian noir of the first film was replaced by fetishistic Gothic indulgences (personified by Burton’s grotesque–and doubtlessly personal–rendering of Danny DeVito’s Penguin) that could not excite the movie fanboys as much–in fact, it repelled some of them. Then you had The Shadow, The Phantom, Batman Forever, and finally Batman and Robin, which kind of crapped on everything, with a cherry on top. Batman did change hype and blockbusting (even in a summer when it was one of the few big releases that wasn’t a sequel–Ghostbusters II, Lethal Weapon 2, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade were all released around this time), and Burton’s touch broke out of the MTV music video style that became trendy with Rocky III and Flashdance. But its impact is not as powerful as Jurassic Park would be four years later, Steven Spielberg once again (as he had with Jaws in 1975 and E.T. in 1982) setting summer movies on a whole new trajectory. Whereas Batman‘s environs are somewhat retro, an artful futurism groomed with the fabric of German Expressionism, with two loudly dressed men at its center, Jurassic Park heralds the future with new creations that quite literally gobble up the human caretakers, the filmmakers, to quote Richard Attenborough’s John Hammond, “sparing no expense” in the spectacle, or as 1993′s other Spielbergian hero, Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), says, it’s less about the work than “the presentation.” The tumult within Gotham City is rather intimate when set against the non-stop propulsion of Speed, tornado touchdowns in TwisterIndependence Day‘s alien invasion, and Armageddon‘s catastrophic asteroid. The popular notion of the journeying hero–like Rocky, Luke Skywalker, Tom Cruise in Top Gun or Days of Thunder, Indiana Jones, or Batman–was, for a time (Harry Potter and Frodo arrived in 2001), replaced by extreme sound and fury (which is still here, yes, though at a kind of Ludicrous Speed kind of sound and fury).

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