In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last epoch of man, The Dark Knight Rises is hitting theaters in just a few days. The film concludes the trilogy of director Christopher Nolan’s unique take on the mythology of Batman. There are inevitably questions that come with this sort of undertaking. Will it be as good as the last one? Will it bring a satisfactory conclusion to the series? What sort of themes can we expect this one to bring us home with? I don’t have the answers to these questions yet, but what I can do is take us back about fifteen years to the last time we were in this situation. The year was 1996 and a visionary director was concluding his epic trilogy of gothic superhero films. These movies had reshaped the cinema landscape in perhaps even more profound ways than their successors in the present day, and everyone was holding their breath to see what would happen next. I’m talking obviously about Tim Burton’s Batman Lives!
To call the production troubled would be doing it a kindness. Burton’s previous effort Batman Returns had been a monster box office smash, but the director’s controversial auteur style had created concerns about public reception and its impact on what was then possibly Warner Brothers’ most valuable IP. It’s known that the studio actively considered giving Burton the boot from the third installment entirely, but at the eleventh hour someone ultimately balked. As much of a gamble as keeping Burton on was, it was determined changing horses mid-stream might create an even greater risk to the cash cow brand. That said, Warner Brothers wasn’t going to go into this without some assurances. Executive producers Benjamin Melniker and Michael Uslan were tasked with keeping Burton on a tighter creative leash, a decision which almost derailed the film from the outset. Tim Burton was already ambivalent about returning to the franchise again, and bristled at the proposed constraints. Warner Brothers’ finally agreed to green-light one of Burton’s pet projects, a remake of the 1960 horror film Fall of the House of Usher based on the Edgar Allen Poe story of the same name, as a means of easing Burton’s cooperation.
Two-Face was written as the film’s central antagonist, with Billy Dee Williams reprising his role of Harvey Dent from the original film. Burton’s second villain choice, The Scarecrow, was vetoed by the studio heads as being too frightening (an irony which I can only hope wasn’t lost on at least ‘somebody’). After much wrangling and a couple of quick screenplay revisions the character of Harley Quinn was agreed upon to fill in, having achieved popularity in the successful animated series and only recently introduced into the comics. Initially there was talk of replacing Williams as Dent with a more contemporary (and likely caucasian) actor, but director and actor dug in their heels until the discussion fizzled. All to the good, frankly. Casting only got more complicated from there on out. Micheal Keaton, after some deliberation, ultimately opted not to conclude the series as Bruce Wayne. Many potential replacements were discussed, including Val Kilmer and Burton’s friend Johnny Depp, but the leading part was finally cast for Daniel Day Lewis, another rising character actor known for intense performances and an eccentric off-screen persona. The role of Harley Quinn, here reimagined somewhat as the daughter of Jack Nicholson’s Joker from the first film, was a potential minefield for the studio, considering the very public controversy preceding the casting of Catwoman four years prior. As such, the audition process effectively became a shell game of blind readings and obfuscated parts. Finally the role was cast for Sharon Stone, still coming off of her success in Basic Instinct and Casino.
The film itself… is what it is. It’s been said that you either love it or you hate it, but I feel like I might actually fall in the middle somewhere. On the one hand, I don’t know that the movie completely has its act together. All three leads seem to be performing different scripts from one another, in turn distinct from whatever script Tim Burton was shooting off of. Each performance has its own quirks which either add to or take away from the film depending on your perspective. Williams as Two-Face is playing an unusually straight and cerebral villain, as compared to the over the top psychopaths of the first two installments, preferring to leave most of the mania to Stone as Quinn. Stone in turn can’t quite seem to figure out whether her character is supposed to be channeling Nicholson’s Joker or Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, oscillating between the two abruptly and with no real warning (as if it even needed to be said, the sexual tension in this movie is uncomfortable and awkward even by Burton’s standards). Day Lewis it’s said found a peculiar new expression of his penchant for extreme method acting. Lewis reportedly spent most of his time in character as Bruce Wayne for the first half of the production and then as Batman for the second half, necessitating that they shoot the scenes with those characters in that order with very little room for reshoots. The result though is definite grasp on the role’s bipolar dichotomy and ultimately creates a kind of Jekyll and Hyde feel, hammering home what seems to be the film’s central theme of duality.
As nuanced as these performances are, they don’t all really mesh with each other entirely. We’re supposed to gather that Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent are close friends, really a central conceit of the story, but the actors just don’t sell it. This makes Quinn’s attempt to create a love triangle between them diminished in impact and some of the subsequent character turns particularly disjointed. That said, Burton still manages to spin these disparate players into a succession of interesting and visceral scenes. The scarring and transformation of Harvey Dent into Two-Face remains horrifying to watch, and the four-way conversation between Two-Face and Batman in the climax still stands out as a watershed moment for the characters. Burton’s trademark visual sensibility, an integral part of the series’ aesthetic, is possibly at its most acute here, with lighting and cinematography almost reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, another reference to the film’s preoccupation with duality. Coherent storytelling has never really been Burton’s selling point, but he strings together enough short form set pieces that it crosses the finish line. The finished product overall isn’t quite as “dark” per se that its two antecedents, likely the mark of Melniker and Uslan’s respective influences, but its brooding sensibility just about reaches critical mass for the franchise, and one ultimately gets the impression that audiences had started getting a little bored with it.
Batman Lives! opened to an impressive box office take, but didn’t quite break the records set by its blockbuster predecessors. Merchandising fared somewhat better that it had with Batman Returns but still didn’t quite measure up to Warner Brother’s expectations. Sensing diminishing returns from the license, the decision was made to mothball the Batman portfolio for nearly a decade, until another oddball director came along to see if he could make lightning strike twice.
So many trilogies seem to be lessons in either how ‘to’ do a movie series or lessons in how ‘not’ to do them. Batman Lives! somehow manages to exist in both worlds. It had a clarity of vision, if not necessarily of purpose. It had all the swing, if not necessarily the follow-through. An ill-starred endeavor whose constellations still somehow managed to align for a fleeting moment of brilliance before losing itself somewhere in its own mind. Batman Lives! wasn’t quite groundbreaking and it wasn’t quite boilerplate. Christopher Nolan’s own trilogy ambitions pan out this friday, and he is ultimately faced with a similar set of conundrums. Will his own results be similar? Or will he overcome history? Regardless, he has some tough acts to follow, but not ones that can’t be beaten…