Why Joel Schumacher Didn't Ruin Batman
I know, I know. Neon lights, George Clooney, cheesy one-liners, friggin' Bat-Nipples! Joel Schumacher's Batman films definitely had their issues, especially Batman and Robin. I get all of that. But I don't think that it's fair to place the blame on Schumacher's doorstep. Many fans today see the name Schumacher as being synonymous with everything bad that Batman could ever be. Quite often I would read comments back when Batfleck was a new thing that broke the internet to the effect that Ben Affleck isn't that bad, just don't let Schumacher anywhere near it. He is the Bat-plague. He's a pariah in the comic book community, and this is in a universe that includes Richard Lester and his mind altering super-kiss and giant cellophane S-shield. That truly boggles my mind. Do you really want to know how to make the internet implode on itself? Announce that Joel Schumacher will be directing the Batman reboot with Ben Affleck after Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. But you know what? I would kind of like to see that, and if you would put down the torches and pitch forks, I'll tell you why. No, I'm serious, put them down.
Who Is Joel Schumacher?
First and foremost, and this really needs to be pointed out in any discussion about Joel Schumacher being a crappy director, we're talking about the man who gave us The Lost Boys. The Lost Boys, which grossed over $32M at the box office, which might seem like a bomb by today's standards, this was in 1987 and with a production budget of right around $8M, it more than tripled its budget. It was praised by Roger Ebert, mostly for the cast and style of the film, and it has remained a sort of cult classic ever since then. The Lost Boys was a success by every standard and it currently holds a 72% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It isn't a profound movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a fun movie and has a great gothic tone to it.
Joel Schumacher also directed the adaptation of the John Grisham novel The Client with Susan Sarandon and Brad Renfro, which was one of the biggest movies of 1994. Now, there are cases of filmmakers who quickly make names for themselves with huge blockbusters, but then they go cold and seem to have nothing left in them. M. Night Shyamalan comes to mind. However, this isn't the case with Schumacher. Since his disastrous romp in Gotham City, Schumacher has made Tigerland, which despite being a financial failure (it made less than $150,000 at the box office, if you can believe it), it was critically praised and holds a 76% Rotten Tomatoes rating, Phone Booth, which was an amazing film and also holds above a 70% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and The Number 23, which was universally panned and holds a pitiful 8% Rotten Tomatoes rating, but it is still a far cry in tone from what he had done in Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. And, when you really look at it, Schumacher's first visit to Gotham City in Batman Forever really wasn't that bad. It was a far cry from the Tim Burton Bat-flicks, and Tommy Lee Jones played Two-Face way more over-the-top than he should have, but the film on a whole mostly works. So, if it wasn't Joel Schumacher's fault that Batman and Robin was such a disaster, then where does the blame belong?
A Little History
In the summer of 1989, Batman was everywhere. It was a resurgence of Batmania, which had first taken the world by storm in 1966 when Adam West's version of the caped crusader burst onto television screens. It was the biggest movie of the year, and quite possibly the biggest movie ever up to that point. 1989 was Batman's 50th anniversary, so it was the perfect year to get the character on the screen. Adam West was back in the tights in reruns almost everywhere, late night talk shows were scheduling reunions of the 1966 cast everywhere you looked and local television stations were doing Batman marathons all over the country. It was the year of the Bat, and the first Tim Burton movie benefited greatly from the hype. And the movie was good. Because of the monumental success of the first film, a sequel was quickly green lit and Tim Burton was asked back. Initially he refused, not really wanting to do a sequel, but Warner Bros made him an offer he couldn't refuse. "What if we gave you complete creative control? What if you could really make the Tim Burton version of Batman?" That idea was very appealing to Burton and Batman Returns was born out of that promise. Again, the film was wildly successful and Warner Bros was intent on doing another sequel, and because he so enjoyed having the freedom to do the character his way, Burton was very enthusiastic about being able to do it again. The problem, however, was that Warner Bros had some concerns that they had allowed Burton to go too far with it and they didn't really want him back in the director's chair.
Warner Bros, while not really willing to outright fire Burton, quickly set about trying to talk him out of wanting to direct the third Batman film. Burton took the hint and decided to stay on as producer and not direct. As producer, however, he did get to pick his replacement. Joel Schumacher was hand picked by Tim Burton to take over the franchise. Tim Burton hired Joel Schumacher because he felt that Schumacher had a style similar to his own and he honestly thought that Schumacher would have made a film similar to what he would have done. And, if left unmolested, Schumacher might have made a film that would have made audiences cheer as they had with the first two. Unfortunately, however, he was not left alone to make the film he and Tim Burton would have liked to have made.
You hear this story all the time. Studio execs are constantly trying to micro-manage movies and the movies are very rarely made better for it. Studios traditionally even have final cut of a picture. This is actually where the term "Director's Cut" comes from. When a picture is put together in post-production, everyone gets their turn to muddle with it. The director turns in his cut, then the producer gets to make changes and you get a Producer's Cut, then the studio gets to make final changes and the Studio Cut is what goes to theaters. Sometimes a director with clout can negotiate for final cut, but that rarely ever happens. The studios like to be involved in every aspect of the picture, and you really can't argue with them. Studio execs are spoiled little children who often know very little about actually making a movie and they always get their way. And that was the downfall of Joel Schumacher's tenure as Batman director.
On Batman Forever studio interference was very present, but it wasn't all consuming yet. The studio mandated that Schumacher make a lighter film, not just in tone but in ambiance as well. This is where all the neon comes from. How do you make a film that takes place mostly at night brighter? Well, you have to put extra light sources into the scene. Because on a lot of levels Batman Returns was seen as being grotesque, Forever was required to distance itself as far as possible from Tim Burton's films. There was to be nothing to remind audiences of the previous movies, and that's why we didn't get Danny Elfman's great theme in Schumacher's films. I don't know for sure, but I would bet money that the inclusion of Robin was also a studio mandate. I know how studios think and it makes a lot of sense to me that they would want Robin in the movie as a character kids could identify with. Which brings me to another thing the studio did to hurt the film: they just simply didn't understand the material or the potential of the character. They saw Batman as a kids movie and they felt that Tim Burton did a disservice to the kids and they made sure the next one was kid friendly. And anytime you set out to make something overly child friendly, you run the risk of alienating your adult audience and I think, to a point, Batman Forever did that. It was certainly the first step towards that.
Now, as I said, Batman Forever was mostly still a good movie, while being wildly different than the fist two, and it is. And it was successful, tripling its $100M budget and bringing in around $100M more than its predecessor had made at the box office. So from the studio's perspective, their new strategy worked. It reinforced the idea that they knew what was best for the franchise, and that is something you never want to tell a spoiled child. They kicked up all of their mandates three notches for Batman and Robin. Tim Burton abdicated his producer's role and nothing stood in the studio's way of making the film they wanted to make. And the film they wanted to make was one that would monetize the property to the highest degree. It was to the point where Warner Bros actually brought in toy designers to design sets and costumes so that everything in the film would lend itself to the toy market. They pushed the film even further into the realm of children's entertainment and we ended up with what we ended up with. An incoherent mess. A two hour toy commercial. Nipples on the batsuits. Sigh...
Well, the fulfillment of their strategy backfired. Batman and Robin more than recouped its production costs, so it didn't lose money, but it fell about $50M short of doubling its production costs, which is generally what it takes for a movie to be considered profitable. Batman and Robin was universally panned by critics and audiences alike, garnering an 11% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Batman and Robin fell flat on its face, and Joel Schumacher was the scapegoat that got stuck with all of the blame. And to his credit, he took it. Joel Schumacher has never tried to deflect the blame for the direction Batman took under his watch, and he has admitted numerous times that he accepts all of the responsibility for how that film ended up coming together. He even issued a very heartfelt apology on the 2-disc DVD of Batman and Robin. Honestly, I feel bad for Joel Schumacher. He knows that those movies aren't what he wanted to make, and when he talks about them you can see the regret in his eyes for what could have been. And with the Dark Knight Trilogy, it looks as though Warner Bros has finally gotten their act together and realized that the director might know best after all.
Joel Schumacher had another film in his back pocket. It would have flied in the face of all of the studio's mandates from the previous two films. Batman Triumphant was going to be a return to the darker Batman of the Tim Burton films. It was going to be a direct sequel to the 1989 film, introducing Harley Quinn as the daughter of Jack Nicholson's Joker, seeking revenge against the Dark Knight for her father's death. The fifth film might also have seen the introduction of the Scarecrow, which would have brought an element of terror into the film. Batman Triumphant was going to be Joel Schumacher's way of proving that he could do this right. Unfortunately, after the abysmal performance of Batman and Robin, a fifth film was not given the green light. Soon after, Warner Bros began entertaining the idea of rebooting the Batman franchise. Again, Joel Schumacher was there with a pitch. He wanted to do an adaptation of Batman: Year One by Frank Miller. He would have kept it very true to the graphic novel, but again, it was not in the cards. Joel Schumacher's reputation as the man who ruined Batman had already been cemented in the public consciousness. I sometimes wonder what could have been, and I would be more than supportive if Warner Bros was inclined to give Joel Schumacher his chance at redemption. Zack Snyder is going to be the next director to get his hands on the Dark Knight, but eventually Batman is going to get some solo movies again and If Schumacher is inclined to direct it, I would be more than happy to see it. I believe Joel Schumacher could have done better, and I would love to see Joel Schumacher's real interpretation of the character.
What are your thoughts? Given the rest of Joel Schumacher's body of work, would you be interested in seeing him given a chance at doing it right?