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Back to basics

Christian Bale stars as Batman in Warner Bros. Pictures
Christian Bale stars as Batman in Warner Bros. Pictures "Batman Begins." (David James / The Spokesman-Review)
Desmond Ryan The Philadelphia Inquirer

With a strong first two weekends, “Batman Begins” has proved that starting over and getting back to basics is one of the best ways to jump-start a troubled movie franchise.

If “Batman Begins” goes on to sustained success (never a given in the fiercely competitive summer months), it will also have solved the many problems that arise when a series comes back from a long hiatus (eight years in this case). After all, moviegoers have short memories and fickle tastes.

When Tim Burton’s “Batman” (PG-13) launched the current series in 1989, it marked the 50th anniversary of the comic strip created by Bob Kane and was an attempt to match the blockbuster numbers enjoyed by the “Superman” films. At the time and amid all the ridiculous hype surrounding the film, Kane could be forgiven for saying, “It’s a phenomenon that keeps rolling downhill like a snowball, getting bigger and bigger. Fans have become practically hysterical.”

It was to turn into a bumpy ride. Burton’s “Batman” gave us Michael Keaton as the Dark Knight, and the choice didn’t sit well with many Batfans. The film is noteworthy for its sumptuous production design and bleak vision that fit Keaton’s restrained, brooding performance. Jack Nicholson, who stole the picture as a permanently grinning Joker, provided Keaton’s criminal opposition. You can argue with Nicholson’s over-the-top reading in the context, but it’s a funny and lively piece of work.

You can make the case that a Batman movie is only as good as its bad guy and things took a downturn in the glum second outing – “Batman Returns” (PG-13). Here the Caped Crusader’s triple-threat opposition comes from Danny DeVito as the Penguin; Christopher Walken as the grasping tycoon Max Schreck; and Michelle Pfeiffer as a slinkily erotic Catwoman.

Keaton’s subdued reticence is quite effective, but you look in vain for the second film to take the opportunity to deepen and expand our knowledge of the hero. Once again, the strong suit of the film is its opulent design.

Ten years ago, Burton stepped aside as director and served as a producer of “Batman Forever” (PG-13). The new director, Joel Schumacher, made a conscious and welcome effort to brighten and lighten things up. Val Kilmer took the cape and fashioned a more accessible Batman. Jim Carrey is unleashed as the Riddler, but I think Tommy Lee Jones as the vengeful Two Face is funnier.

Before he tried to put a chill on spending as the governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger warmed up as Mr. Freeze with lines like “The Iceman cometh” in “Batman and Robin” (PG-13). The movie, once again directed by Schumacher, brought in a miscast but game George Clooney as Batman, and segments of it seemed to be made to exclusively appeal to the clientele of upmarket leather bars. The obsession with the costumes of Batman and Robin (Chris O’Donnell) bordered on fetishism.

“Batman and Robin” was the low point in the series. With “Batman Begins” and Christian Bale in the cape, the franchise now has a new beginning of some promise.

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