No, this is not about the impending sequel to Man of Steel. This is a collection of my rambling thoughts on the original sets of four movies for both Superman and Batman. Despite the differences between the superheroes themselves, the movies ran an oddly parallel course as far as initial inspiration, execution, and eventual decay.
Superman vs Batman
In my opinion, the first installments were the best.
The crew for “Superman” wanted to make a movie that was, I believe, sincere. There is a lot of potential silliness in the concept and the bar to suspend disbelief is pretty high. Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, fly, shoot heat beams from his eyes, ice breath, capable of keeping up with the Flash, nigh invulnerable, and only weak to a glowing green rock and magic (which wasn’t in the movie). But the crew, especially the director Richard Donner, was committed to making the audience, as even the movie tagline said, “believe a man could fly.” And it worked. The movie made a man flying believable as well as making Clark Kenting believable (frankly, I’m not sure which was the more difficult task). Overall the cast did a great job (see if you can find the old “Saturday Night Live” sketch where Christopher Reeve is trying out for the part of “Superman”). Where there some plotholes? Yes. Was there a big flaw with the ending? Yes. But it is still an excellent film.
The crew for “Batman” wanted to return Batman to his dark gothic roots, and director Tim Burton was an ideal choice for that. In truth, there is a lot of potential silliness in the concept of Batman as well, which was demonstrated in the 1960s television show and much of the Silver Age comics. The casting was initially quite controversial, as Michael Keaton was more well-known for his comedic roles. No one was arguing with Jack Nicholson though, but from what I’ve read, he extracted a heavy price for his participation. While Superman was set in a modern world, Batman was set in what appeared to the 1940s/1950s, which means this was as close to real-time as the franchise has ever been (as Batman’s original inspiration was the 1930s movie The Mark of Zorro). And it worked. Batman was vengeance; he was the night; he was BATMAN! Overall the cast did a great job. Where there some plotholes? Yes. Was there a big flaw with the ending? Yes. But it is still an excellent film.
Superman 2 vs Batman Returns
Lex Luthor was a great starting villain for the first movie, so the next threat level was other Kryptonians. Additionally, Clark Kent had made the decision that he would rather be human than an alien god so he could really be with Lois Lane. Naturally, he suffers some pains of being human, but nothing compared to the problem of Zod! Sadly, executive meddling started before the second installment of “Superman” was finished, so the director’s cut is a bit different from the theatrical release. Still, a pretty good movie.
The Joker may have been too good a villain to start with, so the next movie upped the stakes with two villains, kind of. This was the introduction of Catwoman, although not with the same backstory as the comic books. The problem with this movie was too much of Burton and not quite enough Batman. It was just a little off in tone and story, and while still a good movie, it had more problems than the first.
Superman 3 vs Batman Forever
And here executive meddling dominated both movies. The original directors were off the project.
The same actors were signed up for Superman, and that was one of the few enjoyable aspects of this movie. Superman had now been turned into a parody of the character with a plot as ridiculous and campy as any 1960s Batman episode. Heck, Richard Pryor was a lead character. The plot was convoluted and contrived, and the only part I enjoyed was Superman fighting with Clark Kent to pull himself together. Sadly, the potential of that metaphor was lost in the slapstick-fest that was the rest of the movie.
Michael Keaton extracted himself from the franchise and I honestly don’t think Val Kilmer was a bad choice; I think he didn’t have anything to work with. This movie upped the stakes with two outright villains, Two-Face and Riddler, although we get practically no backstory on Two-Face and what we get of Riddler is ridiculous. To be fair to Jim Carrey, I think he was really trying to channel Frank Gorshin’s Riddler from the 1960s series, who actually was by far the creepiest villain in that show (which I know isn’t hard) and honestly pretty creepy in his own right. He had that thousand-mile stare… But if two villains wasn’t enough, the people behind the movie decided to reinvigorate the franchise with Robin. Fine, I guess. This movie was already too campy for what had come before, and the focus was clearly more on merchandising (“where the real money from the movie is made”) than the story.
Superman 4 vs Batman and Robin
Oh, my lord, the franchise killers.
The last installment of “Superman” still had the original cast, whom I hope was paid very well for their efforts. There were subplots that went nowhere, a heavy-handed main plot that would have been too heavy-handed for a “He-man” moral, plotholes even a four-year child would pick out (there is no air in space) and an anti-Superman villain who clearly should have been played by Dolph Lundgren (hey, two “He-man” references) but sadly was not (although I’m not sure that would have helped). The special effects were laughably bad, and a bit of Google Fu leads me to believe that’s because the studio that produced this was kind of infamous for stealing the funds (no, it wasn’t Bialystock and Bloom, but I could see them producing this…). It was awful and sad and I felt sorry for all the actors involved in it.
Fourth movie, third Batman/Bruce Wayne, and clearly the worst of the lot. Two new villains, a new sidekick, more bad one-liners, and more Bat-gadgets clearly designed to be sold in children’s fast food meals. I’m thinking Barbara Gordon was only added to sell a female action hero to little girls. I’ve pretty much said all there is to say about this movie and where it went wrong.
I believe they tied. The first movie was the best, the second was pretty good even if there were some oddball bits (for “Superman” it was due to executive meddling and for “Batman” it was due to Tim Burton being a very strange man), the third was a sharp turn downward in quality on every level, and the fourth was just scraping the bottom of the barrel.
However, if I want to bring in long-term impact, I would say “Batman” edges out “Superman” here because the movies (at least the first two) directly led to the creation of the excellent Batman: The Animated Series. Sure, there was a Superman animated series too, but it just wasn’t quite as good, although enjoyable enough.
There is a lesson to be learned from the rise and fall of the two original sets. Both sets succeeded because the production crews put forth an honest effort to reproduce the source material. The risk paid off in box office dollars but someone high up thought they could make more money, or make the movies more cheaply, or probably both. Both sets failed because the production crews failed to be true to the core of the main characters. Superman became slapstick-y and heavy-handed, and Batman became, well, slapstick-y and heavy-handed. Superman is hope, and Batman is justice. Production crews that understand such simple amalgams will most likely produce successful movies. Those that don’t understand, well, the results are obvious.