It’s probably a fair assumption that many of our readers here at Sequart are fans of a certain caped superhero character named “Batman”. We have several books on the subject and lots of articles, and of course they’ve attracted a lot of interest. Although I’m the house “non-superhero fan”, I still appreciate the cultural value of such characters, and while I’m not a particularly enthusiastic fan of the cowled crusader, I do happen to be a rather large fan of Kevin Smith and his “Smodcast” network of podcasts. Though they’re all entertaining, lately my ears have been drawn to “Fatman on Batman”, Smith’s podcast that was originally meant to be the repository of all things Gotham. Lately, the podcast has evolved into a semi-weekly wrap-up and analysis of nerd culture news, hosted by Smith and Playboy editor (and sometimes comics creator) Marc Bernardin, in segments they term “The Utility Belt”.
But for a brief stretch in 2013 and 2014, Smith and Bernardin took the time to produce a rare treasure (especially when it’s given away for free): full-length commentary tracks on all four of the Burton/Schumacher-era Batman films. (For reference, these are episodes #46, 47, 49, 58, 59, 75 and 76, with all commentaries, save for the one for Batman Returns spilt over two episodes. The easiest way to get the episodes is simply to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.) Entertaining enough on their own (I often listen to them while commuting to and from my “day job”), syncing them up to one’s DVD or digital copy of the actual films provides a scene-specific commentary track in the classic Kevin Smith style: informal yet incisive, critical and hilarious, spoken from a place of deep knowledge not only of cinema, but of marketing, studio politics, comics history, cultural history and Batman love. They’re a real treat.
Some of the highlights (there are too many to recount them all) include:
- The observation that Burton’s original 1989 film is much closer to the 1966 Batman than anything made by the Nolans.
- The discovery that Batman himself is actually a minor player in three out of the four movies (with Schumacher’s Batman Forever being the only one that’s specifically about its titular character). As Smith puts it, “Don’t worry if you don’t like Clooney’s Batman. He’s barely in this movie!”
- A running joke is that Michael Gough’s Alfred is probably the worst Alfred ever, letting strange people into the Batcave and even (in a cringe-worthy scene in Batman Returns) attempting some lame “scratching” on a mini-CD. (And this being a Kevin Smith commentary, there’s lots of crude sexual innuendo, mostly speculating on the relationship between Batman and Alfred.)
- Batman Forever is, in places, better than you probably remember, and by the same token, Batman Returns is much, much worse.
- In fact, Batman Returns has a screenplay that’s almost as bad as the series’ nadir, Batman and Robin.
- Tim Burton has little or no interest in Batman, and a lot of interest in the villains.
- Tim Burton, at least based on his two Batman films, doesn’t really seem that interested in story. Neither film tells a coherent story that goes from A to B to C. They just meander around and end.
- Why are Batman and Alfred always sitting around watching TV and eating soup? (Bernardin ventures, “Maybe because his teeth are all messed up from fighting and he can’t chew?”)
- The early films are shockingly stage-bound, with Gotham having a population of about 30 people.
- Robin, played by Chris O’Donnell, is horribly cast. Robin should be nine or ten years old, but Smith variously puts his age here at “27” or “38” or “45”, and compares his costume to that of a “gay hustler, complete with earring”.
- Bernardin takes care to point out that there are no people of colour in Gotham, to which Smith gleefully points out the one or two people of that description that do pop up (thus proving the earlier point).
- By the time Batman and Robin rolls around, we’re right back at Batman ’66, Dutch tilts and bat shark repellant included.
- Of all the villains, and there are way too many, Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy is probably the worst. Ill-conceived, poorly played and executed badly. None of the actors, in fact, seem to know how to play a villain other than to go completely over the top and “big”. (Worst offender here: Tommy Lee Jones, who utterly fails to modulate his Two-Face performance.) But the real sin is that none of them have any clear intentions. None of them seem to want anything — they’re just mischief-makers.
- All the films betray a complete lack of either interest or respect (probably both) for the source material. They’re classic examples of someone using the source material to tell a different story that appeals to them (Burton) or to produce a story using the vernacular of a 1960s cartoon and thinking that somehow that aesthetic applies to comics (Schumacher).
- Still, Schumacher “gets there first”, as Smith and Bernardin point on, on several plot elements, including the use of Bane (horribly executed) in Batman and Robin.
- Some choice quotes:
- “Robin seems to be saying ‘Lips or hips?’”
- [Bernardin on Batman Returns]: “This movie is really struggling to be a movie.”
- “You’re only going to see [Batgirl] in the cowl for about 90 seconds, so enjoy it.”
- “The Gotham cops are like the LAPD: very shooty!”
- “Why is the Penguin some kind of sick pervert?”
- “What’s wrong with George Clooney’s neck? He’s like old Katharine Hepburn!”
- “Robin’s mom is Tammy Faye Grayson, apparently.”
- [Smith]: “Michael Keaton got a big salary bump for Batman Returns.” [Bernardin]: “And they gave it to him in turtlenecks.”
There’s much more where that came from, as we’re talking about eight hours of compelling commentary, with hilarious asides. It’s great to hear smart people who are passionate about something describing in detail exactly what’s wrong with a film. And Kevin Smith and Marc Bernardin offer us a great glimpse of what writers/superfans really think of Batman’s ill-fated ventures into cinema, for absolutely no charge. It’s worth your time.