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Thursday, June 23, 2005 08:59 pm

flicks 6-23-05

Batman definitely has issues, but that’s what sets his character apart from other comic-book heroes. Superman has powers far beyond the capabilities of the mere mortal Bruce Wayne, who moonlights as the crazed vigilante in a bat suit, but there has never been a blander hero in all of fiction. Give me crazy anytime. Batman is back on the big screen with Batman Begins, ending a sorely needed eight-year hiatus, and that is cause to reevaluate the four earlier films.

Bob Kane created the Batman character for DC Comics in 1939, and it became one of the most popular and longest-running of comic books. The first attempts to put the character on film came in a pair of serials from the 1940s, which included one major restriction. Vigilantes couldn’t be presented as heroes back then, so Batman and Robin became agents for the FBI. (Well, perhaps “vigilante” would look better on a résumé today.) Batman was given a major boost in the 1960s with the spoof TV show and movie spinoff, but this franchise tarnished the integrity of the character to the point that a serious film treatment had to wait a few more decades.

Fantasy maestro Tim Burton took on the project and unleashed his creative energy on Batman (1989), a grand expressionistic epic that is part science fiction, part gangster film noir, and part psychological character study. This first Batman movie is a classic; just one other comic-book film approaches its brilliance. Michael Keaton seemed an unlikely choice for the twisted hero, but his quirky aloofness was just what the character needed, and Jack Nicholson, demonstrating psychotic dementia as the Joker, was his perfect foil.  Burton and Keaton reteamed in Batman Returns (1992), the one film in the genre that is nearly the equal of the first film. I am still baffled by the negativity surrounding the sequel. It remained true to the spirit of the original.

The departure of Burton and Keaton ended the first series, which was taken over by and damaged by director Joel Schumacher, starting with Batman Forever (1995). Val Kilmer was a good choice for Batman, but everything around him was comically over the top. Schumacher stripped the story of its sense of danger and removed Batman’s soul in the process, then sunk the series even deeper with Batman & Robin (1997) by turning Batman (George Clooney) into an ordinary, stable guy who just happens to don a costume for his night job. The worst aspect of the second series is the introduction of Robin (Chris O’Donnell), adding a new dimension to the word “annoying.”

Although Batman Begins appears to be headed back in the right direction, it remains to be seen whether the new film can ignite a new series. If the sidekick Robin is promised for any future episodes, be forewarned of possible doom.

DVDs scheduled for release Tuesday (June 28): The Pacifier, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Overnight, and Gunner Palace.

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