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HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: Burton and the Bat

Posted on 06 April 2012 by William Gatevackes

In a multi-part series, Comic Book Film Editor William Gatevackes will be tracing the history of comic book movies from the earliest days of the film serials to today’s big blockbusters and beyond. Along with the history lesson, Bill will be covering some of the most prominent comic book films over the years and why they were so special. This time, he talks about the film that kicked the comic book film into high gear—Batman.

I have two very distinct memories about the first Batman film. First relates to the first time I saw the film. I won tickets from a local radio station for the midnight showing on the weekend it opened. It was dark when I went into the theater, it was dark when I came out, and the movie was dark. It was a totally immersive experience. I fell in love with the movie that day.

The other memory relates to the controversy over the eventual tone of the film while it was shooting. I can lie and say that I wasn’t concerned that the film was going to turn out to be a camp fest. But you have to understand that while, in retrospect, the feeling wasn’t justified, it was understandable to be worried.

You would have to understand the conditions the comic fan was living in, especially as it pertained to the Batman franchise. The campy 1960’s Batman TV show tainted the public’s perception of comic books, comic fans and Batman. Comic books became silly kid stuff. Comic book fans above the age of 12 became people who had something wrong with them. And Batman was not to be taken seriously.

Forget about the fact that the work of Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams made Batman serious again. Forget the fact that Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers showed that Batman can be inventive and fun without being silly and campy.  Forget the fact that Frank Miller was getting written up in Rolling Stone for the awesome job he was doing on The Dark Knight Returns. Comics were silly trifles for kids or less than mature and intelligent adults.   

Just take a look at the comic book films that were made in the 80s. All of them were campy in their own way. None of them took the original material all that seriously. All pretty much promoted the comic book stereotypes.

Batman was going to be the first big test. Would producers take a look at how far the comic book Batman had come and do a serious film version of the character? Or, would they go back to the campiness of the TV show? Fans were hoping for the former, but betting on the latter.

Then Warner Brothers hired Tim Burton to direct, a man whose only major directing work was two comedies –Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice. Sure, they were good films, and Beetlejuice was dark enough that you could see the way he excelled at mood, but they were still comedies.

Then Burton hired Beetlejuice himself, Michael Keaton, as Batman/Bruce Wayne. Sure, he had just recently received good notices for his lead role in the heavy drama Clean and Sober, but he was most known for doing comedies like Mr. Mom and Night Shift.

All signs were pointing to the film being a comedy, which truly disheartened the comic book fans.  Yes, casting Jack Nicholson as the Joker was brilliance, but Batfans were certain that they were heading for a campy heartbreak. And they vocalized their heartbreak, not just in the pages of the Comics Buyer’s Guide, Amazing Heroes, and Comics Scene (what passed as the Internet back in the 80s), but also in letters to the studio. But fans had little to worry about, because Burton and Keaton gave us the best comic book film since Richard Donner’s Superman films.

Some of the luster has gone off the original Batman, as the film hasn’t stood up all that well to the test of time. But it was a serious take on the Caped Crusader. It was highly stylized to be sure, but it wasn’t necessarily campy. Sam Hamm gets credit for the script, but his work contains elements from previous scripts by Steve Englehart and Tom Mankiewicz, and was rewritten by Warren Skaaren, Charles McKeown and Jonathan Gems. It remained true to the spirit of the comic while allowing Burton to apply his unique style to film.

Keaton excelled not only as Batman but also as Bruce Wayne, who he cannily played as a scatterbrained dilettante. Nicholson was exceptional as the Joker, benefiting from a role that allowed him to be as hammy as he wanted to be.

Burton stayed on to direct the sequel, Batman Returns.

Critics usually finger the next sequel, Batman Forever, as the beginning of the franchise’s rapid decline into camp and chaos, but, if you look closely, you can see the roots of the decline in this film.

In a lot of ways, this film was Burton making the franchise his own. He was vocal about being less than pleased with the more action oriented Batman, and was given more creative control this time around. This was obvious through the look of the film, as some of the henchmen in the film look like they sprang to life directly from Burton’s sketchbooks.

However, the film suffered from the flaw that hampered many a comic book film—too many villains. You had the Penguin (played creepily well by Danny DeVito), you had Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer, great in a role that originally was Annette Bening’s and that original Vicki Vale, Sean Young, infamously broke onto the Warners lot to pursue), you had Max Shrek (Christopher Walken, good as always) and various henchmen. Add to that the fact that early versions of the script had Robin and Harvey Dent as characters; it could have been way more crowded.

The film was loaded with dark humor which spilled over to camp. The only thing that kept the army of penguins with missiles strapped to their backs from being full on camp was the fact that the film was so dark and bleak. The scene seems a bit out of place. I don’t know if the penguin army scene was written by main scribe Daniel Waters or Wesley Strick, who was hired to rewrite Waters’ script and added the Penguin’s baby-killing final gambit.

Batman Returns would be the last time Burton and Keaton worked on the franchise. The film does have the dubious legacy of inspiring a spin-off for Pfeiffer’s Catwoman character, a film that resided in development hell until finally making it to the screen in 2004 in a far different, quite awful form.  But it does have one positive legacy in inspiring Batman: The Animated Series, which made its way to the silver screen with Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. That’s what we’ll be talking about next time.

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HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: You Will Believe A Man Can Fly.

Posted on 18 November 2011 by William Gatevackes

In a multi-part series, Comic Book Film Editor William Gatevackes will be tracing the history of comic book movies from the earliest days of the film serials to today’s big blockbusters and beyond. Along with the history lesson, Bill will be covering some of the most prominent comic book films over the years and why they were so special. This time, we’ll look at Superman’s return to the movie screen.

Jaws showed us that a blockbuster could make a lot of money in the summer. Star Wars taught us genre films could do very well at the summer box office. So, it was natural that audiences would be clamoring to see if a man could fly…again. And in the 1970s, Ilya and Alexander Salkind knew the exact way to turn Superman into a summer blockbuster success—make it as campy as possible, just like that Batman TV show.

For those of you who have seen Superman, you’ll know that it wasn’t all that campy. Well, anytime that Otis came on the screen, maybe, but overall, no. There’s a story behind that. It didn’t come out in the summer either, but that’s part of the story, too.

Superman was one of the first films I remember seeing as a child. Even though the film came out in December of 1978, I remember seeing it in the summer. It was at a local drive-in, so, maybe the summer of 1979? I remember my dad packed up our blue Ford Mercury station wagon, put a huge orange and white cooler full of RC Cola in the back, and drove me and my mom to the drive-in. I remember the comic book opening. I remember Marlon Brando’s big head staring at me as we walked to the concession stand. And I remember being flat out captivated.

The reason for this has to do with director Richard Donner, screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, and, especially, the unknown actor chosen for the lead. But it was a long road before they got there.

The Salkinds acquired the rights to Superman in 1974 and began their master plan to get it on the big screen. They went to screenwriters William Goldman and Alfred Bester before hiring Mario Puzo, he of The Godfather fame, to write the script for two movies which they would film simultaneously. Puzo delivered a 550-page script for the two films combined. The task of whittling it down fell to husband and wife team David and Leslie Newman, with some early assistance from Robert Benton.  Directors ranging from Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Richard Lester, Sam Peckinpah and William Friedkin were approached before the producers settled on Guy Hamilton as director.

Copyright L.A. Times

This might have happened if Eastwood was willing to take the role.

Gene Hackman was cast as Lex Luthor and Marlon Brando cast as Superman’s birth father, Jor-El. But the lead role was harder to cast. Any man between the ages of 28 and 55 who had a modicum of fame in the early to mid 1970s was considered for the role. Some choices were intriguing (Muhammad Ali), some were obvious (Steve McQueen, Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood), some were mind-numbingly bad (Neil Diamond, Charles Bronson, Arnold Schwarzenegger). As interesting as some of those choices were, it is hard to think of anyone but Christopher Reeve in the role. However, the only reason he was even considered was because of problems Marlon Brando and Guy Hamilton had with the shooting locations.

The film was originally set to shoot in Italy. This was bad for Brando because he had an arrest warrant out for him in the country due to his role in Last Tango in Paris. The production was then moved to England, which was bad for Brit Hamilton because he was living as a tax exile from the country, and couldn’t set foot in the country for longer than 30 days. In a sign of which one was more important, the production was moved to England and Hamilton was out of a job.

The producers chose Richard Donner as a replacement because they liked his work on The Omen. When Donner signed on, one of his first orders of business was to rewrite the script that was provided to him. Donner felt the script was too campy. He hired Mankiewicz to rework the piece into something more somber and serious (due to Writer’s Guild regulations, Donner couldn’t give Mankiewicz credit for writing the new script. He made him an “executive consultant” instead). Donner’s next decision was to cast an unknown in the role of Superman, thinking a star would be too distracting in the role.

Finding a relative unknown would be a difficult process. Hundreds of candidates were auditioned, including Christopher Walken and Nick Nolte, but with no luck. Donner and Salkind decided to test a 25-year-old actor whose audition packet had been recommended to them no less than three times before. Christopher Reeve’s main claim to fame was co-starring with Katharine Hepburn in the short-lived Broadway  comedy, A Matter of Gravity, but he was a classically trained actor. A meeting with Donner and Salkind set up a screen test, and the screen test got him the job.

It’s easy to beatify Reeve because of his unfortunate health issues at the latter part of his life and his tragic death, but it is not hyperbole to say that many comic fans consider him to be THE Superman. He had the square-jawed, All–American look to him, with just a touch of something alien about him. His Superman was wholesome without ever being corny. His Clark Kent was fumbling and clumsy without losing dignity. He played both roles in such a way that us theatergoers who had the inside information would obviously know they are the same man, but that the other characters in the film would not. That kind of balancing act takes skill and talent. Reeve did it superbly. It is an underrated performance from and underrated actor.

For the role of Lois Lane, Donner would choose Margot Kidder over actresses such as Stockard Channing, Anne Archer and Lesley Ann Warren (who portrayed Lois in the TV adaptation of the Broadway musical, It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman). With his cast set, Donner went immediately to work on the film. And that film was…Superman II.

Next time, the Superman soap opera continues as Donner’s decision to film the sequel first leads to friction between Donner and the Salkinds and to there being two Superman II’s.

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DVD Review: THE ANDERSON TAPES

Posted on 30 September 2008 by Rich Drees

andersontapes1Released in 1971, director Sidney Lumet’s thriller The Anderson Tapes shows that concerns over illegal wiretapping and eavesdropping by the government on its citizens is not a concern that was born with the passage of the Patriot Act.

The movie opens with Sean Connery, in one of his attempts to separate himself from his iconic role of James Bond, as Duke Anderson, a con just being released at the end of a ten year stretch in prison. As would any red-blooded male would do after such an incarceration, he heads directlyto his ex-girlfriend Ingrid (Dyan Cannon) who is now living in a swank apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, her expenses paid by one of her current lovers. As he checks out her cozy and posh surroundings, he hatches a plan to rob the entire building using a group of handpicked men. However, as he goes about recruiting his gang, he is unknowingly being audio and videotaped by various government agencies. Fun trivia note- The Anderson Tapes was released on June 17, 1971, exactly one year to the day before the break in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters which resulted in the Watergate scandal and the revelation that President Nixon often secretly recorded conversations in the Oval Office.

The Anderson Tapes may be one of Lumet’s lesser remembered titles, but is still a capable little thriller. It moves along at a good pace and tension builds you begin to wonder whether the various government agencies will piece together Anderson’s plan. When they do realize what he has been up to, their reaction just may draw a cynical laugh.

Lumet has assembled an interesting cast for the film. In addition to an early film role for a pre-Saturday Night Live Garrett Morris, the film also features the debut of Christopher Walken as one of the team of thieves assembled by Connery. Conversely, Margaret Hamilton makes her final film appearance here with a character whose disposition is not far removed from her Wizard Of Oz role of Miss Gulch.

The Anderson Tapes arrives on DVD as one of the inaugural titles in Sony Home Entertainment’s new Martini Movies series. Unfortunately, though Sony has gone to the trouble to launch this line, they aren’t going out of their way to make these titles anything special. To describe the extras on the disc as minimal would be a charity. Outside of the film’s original trailer, the only thing else the disc sports are two short featurettes under the umbrella of “Martini Minutes.” Basically, these two spots – titled “How To Play The Leading Man” and “How To Hold Your Liquor” – are nothing more than promos for the other titles in the Martini Movies line with a martini recipe tacked onto the end.

The DVD sports a pretty clean transfer and is definitely recommended for Connery and Lumet completists. While not either of the two’s best work, the film still has some value to be found in watching. At worse, it is good for a rental.

A closing note- The Anderson Tapes is currently set for a remake, though presumably it is still in the scripting stage. Given its subject matter and today’s political clime, this might be one of the few times where a remake has the opportunity to truly add something new to the story.

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