In light of filmmaker Joel Schumacher’s passing it’s time to revisit one of his most controversial successes.
Schumacher’s work demonstrated versatility, risk taking and visual distinction. It also tapped into the zeitgeist, particularly early successes like “St. Elmo’s Fire” and eternal cult hit “The Lost Boys.” It was his handling of The Dark Knight of Gotham City that made him an ongoing talking point with cinephiles and casual movie buffs alike.
— Deadline Hollywood (@DEADLINE) June 22, 2020
While his initial interpretation of Batman was hugely popular, movie and comic book fans remain contentious about its artistic merits and tone. With the death of its filmmaker and the 25th anniversary of “Batman Forever” enough to give the film another shot, it’s an opportune time to examine why the film’s radical vision actually enriches, instead of bastardizes, Batman’s film legacy.
Yes, I’ll lightly address the even more despised “Batman & Robin.”
It’s expected and even trendy to mock “Batman Forever.” The third of the initial blockbuster comic book adaptations of The Dark Knight went in a wild direction that changed the look of the franchise.
It also made a mint – $184 million at the U.S. box office.
The sequel also downplayed the sadistic violence and intensity of the prior two films and made the character, a somber figure to begin with, more palatable for the mainstream.
After the mega-success of Tim Burton’s wonderful 1989 “Batman” (at the time, the most successful film in the history of Warner Brothers), the 1992 “Batman Returns” (also by Burton) was popular but divisive for its vivid brutality and kinky imagery.
Most Bat-fans will recall when outraged parents spoke out against McDonalds, when they touted a Happy Meal promoting the movie where The Penguin bit off a man’s nose, lustily flirted with a young woman and gobbled a raw fish, all in a single scene.
Although “Batman Returns” was the biggest hit of its year, and, make no mistake, a terrific, personal and risk-taking work from Burton, there were enough complaints that suggested Burton’s vision was putting off some filmgoers. The sequel’s box office take was lower than its predecessor’s.
A change in director and tone (Schumacher’s wildly colorful approach and jokey spirit) made audiences embrace the Bat more the third time than with the prior entry touting “The Bat, The Cat and The Penguin.”
Exit Burton (who is still credited as a producer) and star Michael Keaton, in comes the director of “The Lost Boys” and, save for Pat Hingle and Michael Gough, a new cast. Schumacher’s retooling was a runaway smash…that most recall with a disdain saved for the likes of “Catwoman.”
Twenty-five years later, let’s give in to Schumacher’s candy-colored vision and face that dreaded C-word that defines it:
Val Kilmer took over the role from Michael Keaton, as Bruce Wayne’s tortured existence is amplified by a fateful encounter with Dick Grayson (Chris O’Donnell). The guilt Wayne/Batman feels over his inability to save Grayson’s parents only amplifies his own inner torment as a witness to his parent’s murder. Against his better judgement, he takes Grayson on as a sidekick.
There’s also the threat of district attorney-turned-raving-psychopath Harvey “Two-Face” Dent (Tommy Lee Jones, taking over for Billy Dee Williams) and the looney-from-the-get-go Edward Nygma (Jim Carrey) who becomes The Riddler and creates a brain-sucking device to be placed atop TV sets that looks uncannily like a Roku box(!).
Grand and incredibly silly, this is a perfect cinematic approximation of the Adam West/ Burt Ward-led “Batman” live-action TV series that aired from 1966-1968. If this is the movie fans feared the ’89 film would be (lots of jokes and garish visuals), then this is the only movie Warner Brothers would allow after Burton turned his sure-thing “Batman Returns” into a Freudian nightmare with a laughable PG-13 rating.
If Burton’s first two films (both the top grossing films of their respective years) leaned too heavily into the visual and psychological darkness of the Batman mythology, Schumacher went in the opposite direction.
It begins with what used to be called “a James Bond opening,” as a kidnapping becomes a Batman vs. Two-Face showdown that feels like the middle of the movie. It’s more chaotic than thrilling, which is why the film finds it footing when it becomes about The Riddler.
To no one’s surprise, Carrey plays the role broadly but with dark shades that suggest either a try out for “Cable Guy” or if Travis Bickle was played by Jerry Lewis.
Jones’ performance is kind of awful, except if you’re familiar with how Burgess Meredith, Cesar Romero and Julie Newmar (to name a few) once embodied Batman’s antagonists, then his anything goes approach seems on point.
If nothing else, it’s a novelty to see the former U.S. Deputy Marshal Sam Gerard winner go full ham.
Nicole Kidman, playing Dr. Meridian Chase, is too good for this movie but she does what’s required. O’Donnell’s great at infusing as much gravitas as he can into a role that requires comic book hero posing as much as it does actual character development.
Carrey, indeed, gives a turn that is in-line with Frank Gorshin’s televised take on The Riddler. Actually, it’s even better than that. Unlike Jones’ forceful preening, Carrey’s spectacular work is completely in unison with the film’s overall tone and flashy visualization.
When Jones and Carrey are onscreen together, it’s too much; the recent Oscar winner for “The Fugitive” comes across like a vaudeville act alongside his superstar co-star, who IS a ham but also smart enough to elevate his pun-heavy dialogue into hip parlance.
For all the outsized sets, it’s an actor’s movie, one that provides a contrast of different performance styles. Kilmer wisely underplays, even in his comic inflections, and comes across like the coolest man in the room by not trying so hard. Had this been Kilmer and Carrey’s movie, it might have resulted in a work even better than the overdone guilty pleasure that it ultimately is.
The scenes that are truly out of place are the serious ones, which deal with Wayne’s psyche and the burden of feeling responsible for the death of Grayson’s parents. Once again, we get the death of the Wayne’s flashback, complete with (what else) Martha’s pearls bouncing off the pavement as she hits the ground. In Schumacher’s hands, it appears staged for a Vegas show, complete with flash bulbs of light in place of gunshots.
Gotham City, once a bleak, rotting world out of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” now resembles Las Vegas. “Batman Forever” (the title is as nonsensical as the plot) is part Looney Tunes cartoon, part superhero send-up and the most lavish Adam West episode ever produced.
There’s even a quick throwaway joke (where Batman causally knocks out an assailant with a handful of weapons) that’s clearly a nod to that great moment in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” where a single gunshot ends a sword duel.
If the artistic low point is the you-must-kidding inclusion of Two-Face’s sidekicks, Sugar (Drew Barrymore) and Spice (Debi Mazur), then the high point (and it’s a big one) is Carrey’s closing scene. Set in Arkham Asylum, it’s a worthy punchline and a fitting final bit.
Otherwise, the straight-faced moments aside, this is a comedy. Tonally and visually, it’s a farce about the absurdity of hiding in plain sight behind an alter ego. Considering how famous Kilmer, Jones, Kidman and Carrey were at this point, they were in on the joke.
The surreal life of “playing” characters onscreen and in their movie star personas, aren’t all that different from the duality of their roles in Schumacher’s film.
Quick, name another movie where we see Batman smiling.
Bat-fans seemingly cannot forgive Schumacher for this movie and “Batman & Robin.” It seems that even as DC Comics writers and the creators of the live action “Batman” TV series were permitted to dip the franchise in a thick vat of campiness, Schumacher must be eternally punished for his sins.
Actually, each film in the Batman film franchise reflects a particular time in the character’s history: the Tim Burton-directed “Batman” (1989) is of the character’s lean, mean Frank Miller renaissance, “Batman Begins” is akin to the celebrated “Batman: The Long Halloween” graphic novel of 1996, and “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” (1993) an extension of the great “Batman: The Animated Series” (1992-1995), itself a thematic extension of Burton’s initial film.
The full embrace of camp here is commendable and bold, in light of the success of “The Crow” (1994), which led the march for grittier, grown up comic book film adaptations (like the subsequent “Blade” in 1998).
Today, “campy” is the toxic buzzword all big budget comic book adaptations avoid at all costs. The few that have tried to embrace it, like “Frank Miller’s The Spirit” (2008) are labeled hopelessly out of touch. Campiness has a way of catching up with everything. Even the early “Star Wars” films have a scent of camp. Note how we can now all finally admit the hospital scene from “The Dark Knight” (2008) is totally silly.
This isn’t a condemnation of camp, though fanboys are loathe to embrace most, if not all, comic book movies that are fearlessly silly. What they’re missing out on is how brave that choice actually is.
Quick, name another movie where we see Batman smiling.
Complaining that “Batman Forever” isn’t a dark enough “Batman” movie is like saying “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” isn’t scary enough and fails as a horror movie; both films are to be embraced for what they are as well as what they’re sending up.
Schumacher’s take on this character lasted just two movies (and make no mistake, “Batman & Robin” is the lesser entry and quite insufferable). Yet, as every Batman movie deserves it place as a representation of the iconic character, “Batman Forever” is a both very-’90s and an effective, purposeful ode to the character’s small screen legacy.
It’s also a wildly entertaining camp classic, but don’t let that scare you.