(image from http://www.batmantriumphant.com/)
It’s easy to shrug off these demons today, but back in the 1990′s, being a Batman fan was a gruesome pass time. What started as a celebration of the pulp comic book hero in Tim Burton’s 1989 film quickly became an exercise in marketing and merchandising. I’m no fool (I guess) so I realize that these films are released in the Summer so that families looking to escape the heat can cram into an air-conditioned cinema gulping on Coke-filled cups bearing Batman fighting a super villain and escape the world for an hour or two. I greatly appreciated Batman Returns when it was released but as a moody teenager I was the target audience so it worked. The Siouxsie and the Banshees song helped too. The third film was massively successful by continuing the trend of pitting Batman against two villains played by major film super stars and also upped the ante by including Robin the boy wonder. A glitzy glam homage to comic books, it was almost passable… almost.
However, little can excuse the debacle that is Batman and Robin (the only 90′s Batman movie that I have yet to review). Star-flooded and nonsensical, Batman and Robin was a travesty. Ticket sales soared but the reviews were damning. As Joel Schumacher is a respected filmmaker and had delivered the goods for some fans and the studio in his previous effort, this was especially surprising. A smirking George Clooney, pun-dropping Arnold Schwarzenegger and foam rubber Bane ruined the franchise for fans… but Warner Bros. still cleaned up. No matter what anyone may think, this film was a major success raking in over $42 million in its opening weekend and $238 million total worldwide.
So it should come as no real surprise that a fifth Batman film was planned with Schumacher again at the helm. What is a surprise is that the director was determined to redeem himself with fans by producing a darker, moodier film than the circus extravaganza that was Batman and Robin. The loose plot of Batman Triumphant involved a split between Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson as Wayne turned his back on a crime-fighting career. It would feature Harley Quinn as the vengeful daughter of the Joker, Man-Bat and the Scarecrow. Batman would be blamed for a series of crimes perpetrated by the Man-Bat, prompted him to return to the cowl and deliver some justice to the monster.
I recall at the time hearing rumors of an adaptation of Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum in which an older Batman confronts the criminals of his career in a massive gauntlet of nerves. Clooney had openly stated that he was not happy with his performance as Batman and that any return to the role would be a further disservice to fans, so the fifth Batman film would have featured a fourth actor in the cowl (I shudder to think who that may have been).
I’m still not sure where the Arkham Asylum rumor came from (my imagination? possibly) but when the studio execs saw the daily rushes they asked Schumacher to start planning his next Bat-film. Thinking that the Scarecrow would make for a formidable foe, the director began to sculpt his movie around fear but was cut short when Warner Bros. had a re-think and decided to start over with a fresh start.
Details are starting to come out regarding the planned ‘Batman Triumphant’ which are interesting and terrifying at the same time.
“I was supposed to do a fifth one,” Schumacher says. “I was talking to Nic Cage about playing the Scarecrow. I had begged the studio for [the Frank Miller comic] ‘The Dark Knight [Returns],’ but they wanted a family friendly, toyetic thing.” Eventually, “Batman And Robin” came along, souring everyone on the franchise, and, just like that, Schumacher’s relationship with Warner Bros. dissolved, leaving behind both the “Batman” series and a third John Grisham adaptation, “Runaway Jury” (later made over at 20th Century Fox by Gary Fleder). However, Schumacher got his man soon after, as he and Cage teamed for “8MM,” which Schumacher figured, “would be the furthest thing from a summer movie.”
He ruefully adds, “And I gave up a lot of money, but, no regrets.” Not that he’s hurting for cash, as he notes, “I have awards for selling more Batman toys than anyone in the world.” In regards to “Batman and Robin,” he was convinced he made “the wrong choice” but says, “I did my job. It was more family friendly and it sold a lot of toys, and it supported the Warner Bros. stores. But I did disappoint a lot of fans.”
Regarding the possible Darren Aronofsky Batman Year One film, Joel Schumacher had some sobering advice:
I remember my friend Darren Aronofsky called me– I think he was toying with them about making a Batman movie, which I would have loved to have seen. And he called me and asked me what it would be like, and I said “I don’t know Darren, I can’t advise you. I was supporting the Warner Bros. studio, the toy manufacturers. My goal was to get a family friendly movie that kids could be taken to that would sell a lot of merchandise. The movies make hundreds of millions, but the toys make billions. I was in that business, and I said “Darren, my job was to offer merchandising.”
For all the flack he received for Batman and Robin (even the Bruce Timm animated series took a jab at him on screen), it’s interesting that Schumacher realizes the purpose of the movie, something to keep in mind as further comic book films come our way and the sequels of Batman, Thor, Iron Man and Captain America draw ever closer to the situation that Schumacher was in when directing Batman and Robin. In the end it’s all about merchandising… and that can be scary.