01 November 2009

The Most Important Comic-Book Movie Ever?

Earlier this year Kevin Feige, production president at Marvel Studios, said that the 1997 movie Batman & Robin “may be the most important comic-book movie ever made.”

Although Feige made that remark back in June, as paraphrased by The Geek Files, it doesn’t seem to have gotten much attention until late October, when Geoff Boucher quoted him in a Los Angeles Times article.

Feige wasn’t praising Batman & Robin. In fact, he said about that movie:

It was so bad that it demanded a new way of doing things. It created the opportunity to do X-Men and Spider-Man, adaptations that respected the source material and adaptations that were not campy.
Feige isn’t paid to praise the competition, but we can also acknowledge Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, as well as less successful but thoughtful adaptations like Superman Returns.

The problem wasn’t that Batman and Robin was bad, as far as Hollywood was concerned. The problem was that it made so little money, compared to its costs and to the preceding Batman titles: “only” $107 million in the US, less than 60% of the take of its immediate successor (not adjusted for inflation). It also seemed to poison the well for any new Batman movie, at least for a few years, thus breaking one of Warner Bros.’s summer franchises.

Director Joel Schumacher went back to making small- and medium-budget movies. Screenwriter-producer Akiva Goldsman had to “beg” producer Brian Grazer for the assignment of adopting A Beautiful Mind for the screen, according to the LA Times article.

Of course, it was logical for Grazer to ask whether a specialist in adapting bestselling thrillers (particularly by John Grisham) was the best choice to dramatize the life story of a schizophrenic mathematician, but Goldsman’s experience as the child of psychiatrists running a group home had prepared him for that challenge.

Goldsman won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay, and then went back to working on popcorn movies. He’s even planning a return to superhero stories through Marvel. But, as the profile indicates, with a different approach:
“What got lost in Batman & Robin is the emotions aren’t real,” Goldsman said, picking his words carefully. “The worst thing to do with a serious comic book is to make it a cartoon. I’m still answering for that movie with some people.”
Now I’ve never seen Batman & Robin all the way through—just enough on television to confirm that I don’t want to see more. I did go to the theaters to watch Tim Burton’s Batman and then Schumacher’s Batman Forever, which brought Dick Grayson into that version of the story. And I didn’t think either of them got the tone of the Batman and Robin legend right. They felt fairly campy and emotionally false from the start.

So I don’t blame Goldsman or Schumacher for Batman & Robin. I blame the American moviegoers who paid nearly $600 million to watch the preceding three movies. Given that track record, of course the studio was going to serve up more of the same until we got tired of it. And in 1997, we finally did.

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