Review: Batman: The Movies trade paperback (DC Comics)

[Guest reviewer Zach King blogs about movies as The Cinema King. Don’t miss his month-long Bat-May review of the Batman movies at the site.]

When I reviewed Universal Monsters: Cavalcade of Horror back in March, I opened with a fairly lengthy preamble about the nature of comic book adaptations and their impact on my hobby (some say addiction) of collecting comics. Perhaps I should have saved some of that preface for this review, because the adaptations collected in Batman: The Movies were downright seminal in my childhood.

These were the days, I remind you, before home video. While I have very vivid memories of seeing Batman Forever in theaters in 1995, I can equally recall poring over the prestige format comic book adaptation, reliving the action again and again, committing the dialogue to memory like so much gothic scripture. I bought the Joel Schumacher adaptations from the stands of my local comic shop, scooping up the two Tim Burton comics much later, but all the same I was elated (as most readers may be) to discover that these four one-shots were collected in a trade paperback. It makes for easier reading than fishing through my longboxes, to be sure, but the collection of these comic book curios help to preserve what was for many Bat-fans a major venue connecting their fandom to the big screen.

This is to say nothing of the fact, perhaps forgotten by history, that all four adaptations were scripted by Dennis O’Neil. You’d be forgiven if you didn’t recall O’Neil’s contribution; even this volume’s cover makes no mention of him. But O’Neil’s steady hand, across two directors and the accompanying wildly different tones, allows the so-called “Batman Quadrilogy” to feel like it might all be one big story after all. At the same time, though, it’s hard to read these adaptations as standalone comics, with many of the panels resembling redrawn storyboards or plundered frames from the films. Moreover, O’Neil opens three of the four adaptations with direct reminders that these are movies; Batman & Robin, for example, begins with Joel Schumacher himself calling “…And — ACTION!” from behind a camera while George Clooney runs toward a green screen.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

Batman: The Movies begins with O’Neil’s adaptation of Batman (1989), illustrated by the great Jerry Ordway. It warmed my heart to see DC reprint this one-shot in 2019 for the film’s 30th anniversary, because this adaptation is as great as you’d expect from the team of O’Neil and Ordway. (One wonders if the other adaptations will get the same treatment, though I rather doubt it.) Perhaps because I’ve seen the movie umpteen million and one times, or perhaps because the creative team are masters of their craft, this is a breezy read, setting aside the occasional clunky expository dialogue added in, like “I suppose the media would label it a Batarang.” “Show, don’t tell” may be the unofficial motto of comics, but comic book adaptations often toe that line less than carefully.

Yet despite feeling the need to overexplain in some of the dialogue, O’Neil largely stays out of Ordway’s way, giving the artist control over the pacing of big moments like Batman’s debut or the cathedral climax. It’s only a shame that Joker’s “Partyman” romp through the Flugelheim Museum is omitted, though I struggle to imagine anything more playfully bonkers than Jack Nicholson vandalizing great works of art while a Prince song blares from a nearby boombox. Throughout the book Ordway finds a balance between fidelity to the film and his own sense of visual fluidity; while you might recognize individual panels, there isn’t a sense that Ordway has merely lightboxed his way through the likenesses.

Where Batman is a Batman film directed by Tim Burton, I’ve long maintained that Batman Returns (1992) is a Tim Burton film co-starring Batman; one of the only things holding the two films together is a visual continuity. In the same way, the Batman Returns adaptation looks strikingly of a piece with Ordway’s artwork. There is certainly something Ordway-esque in Steve Erwin’s pencils, but that likeness is helped ably by José Luis García-López’s heavy inks. On every page, Erwin pencils variations of a four-by-four grid, which has the effect of packing a lot into the book; it’s both more cinematic, because we have time for more nuanced action, and less, because one senses O’Neil’s pressure to preserve much of the film’s eccentric dialogue. Because this is such a faithful adaptation, one can’t help but notice how little Batman actually does in this film; there are pages upon pages where Batman either isn’t around or is standing by only to observe.

Unlike Batman, which gave space to its big moments, Batman Returns feels denser, and much of the visual details are lost. Erwin’s likenesses are just as good as Ordway, and one wishes he’d been given more space to showcase them. Still, even at a micro level, his Keaton looks like Keaton, his Pfeiffer like Pfeiffer, and so on. One thing that doesn’t make it into the adaptation, though, is the film’s oddball sense of humor. So much of Batman Returns is in the delivery, whether it’s Danny DeVito’s grunting Penguin or Christopher Walken bringing his stilted schtick to Gotham. This adaptation doesn’t effectively communicate the off-kilter sensibility of the film, especially with O’Neil softening lines; where the film’s Penguin soliloquizes, “Hell, the sexes are equal with their erogenous zones blown sky high!” this Penguin opines, “Hell, the sexes are equal blown sky high!” Fresh readers may not notice, but this offbeat diction give the film its unique edge.

After Burton left the franchise, his finely calibrated auteur senses not quite gelling with the studio, Joel Schumacher took the reins and moved in the opposite direction; where Burton went dark and freaky, Schumacher went neon and campy. Batman Forever (1995), the love-it-or-hate-it turning point in the franchise, acquits itself very well under the guidance of O’Neil and Michal Dutkiewicz, and I say that not just because I’ve already conceded my religious devotion to the book as a child. While rumors have circulated for years about a longer, darker “Schumacher Cut,” this adaptation may be the closest thing we get to it, for this issue includes some of the deleted scenes and reorganized plot points that weren’t present in the final version of the film. Here and in Batman & Robin, O’Neil tones down the camp and gives us a more streamlined Bat-experience. Consequently, the “Quadrilogy” feels unified with the more earnest Burton stories preceding O’Neil’s polished versions. (Of course, part of the charm of the Schumacher films is the camp, and in that respect diehard fans may find O’Neil’s adaptation stodgy and neutered.)

Schumacher being more of an action director than Burton, Batman Forever gives Dutkiewicz lots of room to choreograph silent action sequences. His likenesses are quite good (especially his Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey), and he has a knack for redrawing scenes from the film in a way that will please comics fans. His staging of the death of the Graysons, for one, owes more to “Robin’s Reckoning” (the animated two-parter) than to Schumacher’s own underwhelming depiction of Dick Grayson’s origin. Similarly, when Dutkiewicz draws the Riddler’s assault on the Batcave, much of Jim Carrey’s mugging and ad-libbing is stripped back, giving room for an absolutely iconic drawing of the Riddler unleashing his bat-bombs.

In a reworked finale for Batman Forever (or, if you prefer, the original ending of the “Schumacher Cut”), Dr. Chase Meridian asks Alfred, “Does it ever end?” He reminds her that it does not, “not in this lifetime,” and so the book continues on into Batman & Robin (1997). While there’s room for a redemptive reading of Batman Forever, even without the notion of a Schumacher Cut, Batman & Robin remains nightmarishly insincere and internally illogical, and there is little O’Neil can do to fix that. Ironically, in O’Neil’s attempt to give us a more straight-faced version of this story, he deletes Batman & Robin’s one saving grace – its exuberant and unapologetic camp. The dialogue is no better here, but the adaptation truly suffers from being devoid of zany line-readings and the film’s near-garish color scheme.

On art duties, it’s the stalwart Rodolfo Damaggio inked by Bill Sienkiewicz. Sienkiewicz does his usual great work on ink duties, but one wonders what might have been if he’d been given full rein to do his madcap stylized Sienkiewicz thing. Certainly the largest question looming over this adaptation is why colorist Pat Garrahy mutes the colors and goes for a more realistic palette. If ever a film lived and died by its day-glo set decoration, it’s this one. This might be a more palatable read for anyone who liked the plot of the film but not the delivery (though I question if anyone can tell me what holds this series of events together). O’Neil and the entire art team seem to be doing their level best to remake Batman & Robin into something more faithful to the comics than to Batman’66 – which is, perhaps, interesting as an experiment but not quite true to the spirit of the film.

With Batman & Robin, O’Neil ends the series with an unintentionally prescient narration box that reads, “That’s a wrap!” This adaptation also closes on a rare full-page splash panel, of Batman and Robin and Batgirl running through Gotham. It is, astonishingly, only the second splash in the entire volume, with the first being the very end of Batman '89. Whether O’Neil intended this or not, this similarity ends up being an effective bookend for the entire volume; the first chapter ends with a solo Batman indulging his vigil and concludes with his newfound family accompanying him. It’s also a fitting reminder of this book’s chief tension, that of balancing the real estate of the comic book page with the density of a Hollywood screenplay. With no room for big swings and bigger panels, these adaptations have sometimes shortchanged their artists in a Faustian bargain to cram an entire film into 64 pages. Marvel has done some interesting things of late with commissioning all-star teams to redraw classic books like Giant-Size X-Men #1 page-by-page, and I can’t help but hope DC might one day do the same for expanded remakes of these adaptations. (Can you imagine, for example, Jen Bartel taking a crack at a scene from Batman & Robin? Or Francesco Francavilla inking over Penguin’s sewer lair?)

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Zach King review without a moment to encourage DC to republish or expand this volume. There is one adaptation from this era that remains uncollected — that of Catwoman (2004), adapted by Chuck Austen and Tom Derenick, with Jim Lee doing the cover and a sketchbook section. I haven’t read the issue, but it’s hard to imagine it being worse than the movie. There’s also the stray Batman Begins adaptation (2005) by Scott Beatty and Kilian Plunkett, but then the inclusion of these two might raise more questions than DC wants to answer. No, perhaps it is better to leave the O’Neil adaptations together, and with O’Neil’s passing in June 2020, Batman: The Movies remains a fine tribute to O’Neil’s dedication to the character as writer, editor, and overall shepherd and custodian.

But there are other Batman adaptations notably missing from DC’s graphic novel catalogue. From 2014 to 2018, DC reprinted The Batman Adventures and The Batman and Robin Adventures, the supremely underrated DCAU tie-in comics. All 61 issues, four annuals, and a holiday special made it into trade, but the movie adaptations are missing. There’s Mask of the Phantasm (1993), by Kelley Puckett, Mike Parobeck, and Rick Burchett; Sub-Zero (1998) by Puckett, Joe Staton, and Terry Beatty; the Superman crossover World’s Finest (1997) by Paul Dini, Staton, and Beatty; and perhaps even Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (2001) by Darren Vincenzo, Craig Rousseau, and Rob Leigh. (Mystery of the Batwoman, you may note, never made the cut.) I’d go so far as encourage DC to double-dip and include the Batman and Robin Adventures Annual from 1996, in which Paul Dini and a murderer’s row of artists provide the now-forgotten sequel to Mask of the Phantasm. If Batman: The Movies is ever reprinted — all the more viable, given the imminent arrival of the Batman '89 continuation comic by Sam Hamm and Joe Quinones — let’s hope the animated films get their day in the sun, too.


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