R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: The Death of Superman and Batman

Hollywood franchises seem to run in cycles sometimes. A meteoric rise to success may mean the fall from grace can be much more devastating. Perhaps no better model can be used than the DC Comics franchises produced at Warner Brothers Studios in the 1970’s-90’s. The odd thing is that both series rise and fall in nearly the exact same pattern. Fortunately for lovers of superheroes Superman and Batman, both are returning in spectacular fashion to the big screen. This is due mainly to the current boom of Comic Book Movies hitting theaters every year. Hopefully the pitfalls of the past can be learned from and avoided at all cost.

There was a time when the Superman series seemed untouchable. Superman: The Movie had everything it needed to be a smash. It had a strong cast with a top billed villain as Gene Hackman got to play legendary villain, Lex Luthor. The film also had a great Director in Richard Donner, who had just come off a major success with The Omen. Audiences reached out to the film with open arms as the picture was a huge smash and made over $300 million worldwide.

The Dark Knight was just as fortunate in his first adventure. The film had a cast that included its villain getting one of the largest paydays in Hollywood history with Jack Nicholson getting a percentage deal that wound up giving the actor around $50 million to play The Joker. The film was helmed by a maverick film maker coming off the success of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice. Lightning struck twice for Warner Brothers and DC Comics as Batman was the biggest hit of 1989 and made over $400 million worldwide. Both series were off to a fierce start right out of the gate.

Superman II was shot simultaneously with the first movie of the series and when it was released for Warner Brothers in 1980, it was the second highest grossing picture of the year. The film expanded its number of villains with the Terrance Stamp led Phantom Zone Villains, and had a darker, more violent tone than its predecessor. Batman Returns was released in 1992 and was the third highest grossing film of the year, taking in $280 million dollars worldwide. The film expanded its own rogue’s gallery to three villains with Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, Danny DeVito’s Penguin, and Christopher Walken as Max Schreck. Returns also followed Superman II’s lead with a darker, more violent tone than its predecessor.

Superman III had a director helming his first full film for the series (Richard Lester). Lester had gotten screen credit for directing Superman II, but in actuality most of that film was directed by Richard Donner. Superman III featured a popular comedian (Richard Pryor) as one of its villains to give it more audience appeal. The film also featured Robert Vaughn’s Ross Webster, who was a mere carbon copy of Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor. The film ended up being a disappointment critically and at the box office. Batman Forever added a new Director to the franchise (Joel Schumacher), and added a popular comedian to its cast (Jim Carrey). The film also featured Tommy Lee Jones’ Two- Face which was just a poor imitation of Jack Nicholson’s Joker. That film was a success financially, but faired poorly with critics and really angered many longtime fans of the Batman character.
Everything was serviceable up to this point, but then came each franchise’s fourth installment. The breaking point for each series would come from uninspired producers and film makers who would finally take these once heralded series back to the drawing board.

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace Starring Christopher Reeve and Gene Hackman. Directed by Sidney J. Furie.

The first of these disasters is Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Superman’s fourth adventure has him deciding to save the world from itself. With nuclear escalation at an all time high between Cold War combatants, Big Blue decides to take a stand. In front of the entire world, Superman (Reeve) vows to destroy all of Earth’s nuclear weapons. A montage demonstrates Supes’ commitment to his pledge as he is shown taking missiles from several countries and throwing them into a net he has constructed in space. In the film’s first laps in logic, even though Superman has made his quest public, countries are still testing missiles and shooting them in orbit, only to be stopped. Or perhaps these tests were scheduled simultaneously to his announcement, but then would there have been so many?

At any rate, a returning Lex Luthor (the irreplaceable Gene Hackman), previously busted out of jail in a completely ridiculous sequence, plans to take advantage of the situation. He has enlisted the aid of several arms dealers as they are becoming destitute due to Superman’s interference. Using Superman’s own plan to throw all nuclear weapons into the sun, Lex constructs a device that will create a second Superman with a chain reaction caused by the sun’s heat. Lex’s plan comes to fruition with Superman fulfilling his vow, only to set off the chain reaction that creates the ridiculously clad Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow).

All of this is going on as the Daily Planet fights to keep its journalistic integrity. The paper has been bought by a sleazy tycoon named David Warfield (Sam Wanamaker) and his daughter Lacy (Mariel Hemingway). They plan on turning the paper into a tabloid to sell more copies, to the dismay of all reporters working for The Planet. Most vocal about the shift in content are old pros Perry White (Jackie Cooper), Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) and Clark Kent. Lacy takes a special interest in Clark and falls for his boyish charm. Lacy’s infatuation with Clark culminates in a goofy scene in which a supposed double date takes place with Lois and the female Warfield trying to have dinner with both Superman and his alter ego from Smallville.

The two storylines collide as Nuclear Man rampages through Metropolis and kidnaps Lacy. Superman must save Lacy and the rest of Metropolis as Nuclear Man and the Man of Steel have a gigantic battle on the streets of the city. With the combined powers of Nuclear Man’s strength and the criminal brilliance of Lex Luthor, the Last Son of Krypton may have finally met his match.

Unfortunately, the downfall of perhaps the greatest superhero of all time was not due to Lex Luthor or another costumed villain, but to the name that precedes all others in the opening credits; Cannon Pictures. As discussed in my review for Sinbad and the Seven Seas, Cannon was infamous in the 1980’s for putting together some of the worst cut rate films in history. Twice in the 1987 Cannon destroyed two popular heroes with both He-Man being destroyed at the box office with the terrible Masters of the Universe and The Man of Steel’s cinematic fate being sealed with the failure of Quest for Peace.

Instead of the high production values of the Alexander Salkind produced installments of the series, Superman IV just looks cheap. The film’s original budget of $36 million dollars was cut in half by the studio; and it shows. The same effects shots are used over and over until the film nearly seems like a parody of a Superman film. Gone forever is the subtlety brought to the series by Richard Donner, and in its place is a love story that feels forced and rehashed and action that is quite halfhearted. Nearly 45 minutes of the film was even trimmed from the production to reduce running time which included a massive fight scene in the streets of the city that cost six million dollars to produce. Apparently this footage was going to be used in another film that would launch a new Superman franchise, but Quest for Peace’s box office take halted any notions of another film.

Stoic as ever are Christopher Reeve and Gene Hackman as Superman and Lex Luthor. The two do what they can to salvage the picture, but are ultimately undone by a cast that seems to really be phoning in their performances. Mark Pillow never starred in another movie ever again. The entire production is a disaster and finally put big blue to rest.

Unfortunately DC Comic fans were in for more heartache. As bad as Quest for Peace is, nothing could prepare fans for the tragedy to come. A name even more infamous than Cannon Pictures was on the horizon. That name was Joel Schumacher.

Batman & Robin Starring George Clooney and Arnold Schwarzenegger. “Directed” by Joel Schumacher.

If a pictures opening shots had ever foretold how much a picture was going in the wrong direction, it is Batman & Robin. Instead of an opening with a major action sequence or a foreboding origin for a major villain, the fourth installment of the Batman franchise begins with a sequence in which our heroes suit up in various close-ups including showing off nipples, cod pieces and a tight close-up on their rubber clad buttocks. Then our heroes Batman (newcomer to the series George Clooney) and Robin (a returning Chris O’Donnell) proceed to bicker about their roles and their transportation to the crimes they are being called to. That crime is being committed by THE most miscast villain in history, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze.

Dr. Victor Fries is a genius scientist looking for a cure for his wife’s terminal illness. To impede the progress of the disease, Fries puts his wife into a frozen cryo-stasis until he can find a treatment for her. In a horrible laboratory accident Fries himself falls into the cryo-stasis chamber, turning him into Mr. Freeze, a madman imprisoned in a suit that must keep his body at less than zero degree temperatures. In the comic books Mr. Freeze is a noble and thoughtful villain, wanting to save his wife and doing all he must do to treat her. In the hands of Joel Schumacher, Mr. Freeze is a pun spouting juggernaut of awfulness.

The first encounter with the Dynamic Duo has Freeze stealing a huge diamond that will help power his suit. The sequence has the Caped Crusaders fighting Freeze’s goons in a frozen museum. Fortunately, the heroes have skates that have been installed into the bottom of their boots, and then go on to fight Freeze’s minions in a game of hockey using the diamond as a hockey puck. The sequence ends as the heroes chase Freeze onto a rocket, where the villain promptly escapes using wings that the character has never had before. Fortunately Batman and Robin are able to escape the plummeting vessel by using the doors of the rocket as surfboards to glide their way to safety. As ludicrous as this sequence is, the film only manages to get worse.

The rest of the film follows this pattern. Mr. Freeze causes mayhem and Batman and Robin bicker on their way to stopping the crime. The introduction of Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy, a villainess who’s skin is poisonous to the touch, serves to only guide the picture further on its downward spiral as her campy acting tries its worst to outdo Schwarzenegger’s. The inclusion of Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl is mostly superfluous as she really brings nothing to the proceedings.

Not helping is a subplot to save steadfast butler Alfred (Michael Gough in the film’s only decent performance). Alfred is apparently suffering from the same disease as Mr. Freeze’s wife, but the handling of the plot thread renders it null and void. Instead of focusing on saving the only father figure in their lives, Poison Ivy’s allure causes Batman and Robin to simply bicker even more.

The film culminates in the three heroes fighting off Mr. Freeze, who plans on using a gigantic telescopic device to freeze Gotham City, in a series of ridiculous and under-whelming chase and fight scenes. The film comes to a merciful end as Freeze and Ivey get their just deserts.

Batman & Robin has been called by some “perhaps the worst picture in any genre ever made.” If it is not, it is definitely the worst of the worst when it comes to Comic Book Films. From beginning to end, Joel Schumacher conjures up one of the worst excuses for a blockbuster ever made. Perhaps even the worst schlock from Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay can’t touch this picture in the sheer audacity of its horridness. To go deeply into errors of DC continuity, character motivation, acting problems, ludicrous art design, atrocious costume design, this column would have to devote itself to this “film” for the next six months.

Once again Batman and Robin are relegated to supporting characters in their own film as Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze gets top billing. There’s over the top and then there is Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze. Every other line from the actor’s mouth seems to be a pun as he spouts Shakespearean-esque dialogue like “In this universe, there’s only one absolute… everything freezes!”, “I’m afraid my condition has left me cold to your pleas of mercy”, “You’re not sending ME to the COOLER!”, and the immortal, “Cool Party!” Originally the studio apparently wanted Patrick Stewart for the role, which would have been a much closer fit to the classic character, but Schumacher wanted the Austrian Oak instead. The rest is Hollywood infamy.

George Clooney does himself no favors in this film as his Bruce Wayne/ Batman is more bland than bad. It really isn’t his fault as he just happens to appear in this horrible movie and has scene after scene yelling at Chris O’Donnell’s Robin. This film would effectively kill off O’Donnell’s budding career as he was never able to recover the way Clooney has. With the multitude of horrific creative choices in this film, these two get off light compared to the stigma shared by Schwarzenegger and Schumacher.

Schumacher turned the Dark Knight into the campy crusader he was forty years ago. The difference is when Adam West was Batman the character differed little from his television persona. Batman has grown up along with his fans. Audiences don’t want a gaudy disco Gotham City, but a realistic setting for Batman’s adventures. Batman’s adventures should be mature in their tone, not aimed at seven year olds.

In the end, these films were able to do what the Joker and Doomsday couldn’t do, kill Batman and Superman. These films stand as a warning on how not to do a film about superheroes. Audiences do not want to be insulted with cheap productions or horrid dialogue. Fortunately, Comic Book Films have rebounded so well, that the Dark Knight and the Man of Steel are both getting chances at redemption. The bar has been set high with Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, which is the most faithful adaptation the Caped Crusader has ever had in a live action film. In 2006, Bryan Singer is bringing Superman Returns to the screen as a sort of sequel to Richard Donner’s original films and treating Superman III and Superman IV as if they never happened. Both franchises seem to be on the right track to returning the World’s Finest back to where they should be, on the top of the heap.


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