As the world waits in anticipation of a new Batman to hit the big-screen with Ben Affleck as the caped crusader in next year’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, it makes one harken back to the last time the pointy-eared mask changed hands between franchises. 20 years ago, the world was exposed to a new vision of Batman on the big-screen, a vision that included statues, puns and of course…bat-nipples.
June 16, 1995 was the release date of Batman Forever, the first Batman film directed by the now-infamous Joel Schumacher and a pivotal turning point in the Batman franchise. Under Schumacher’s direction, the film focused more on big action and popping visuals than previous installments. It was a box-office hit, but critics and fans were mixed. Today, Batman Forever still has fans and critics, with some enjoying the more campy elements and visuals but others citing it as the warning sign before 1997’s nefarious near-franchise killer Batman and Robin.
Let’s rewind the clocks to 1992 and Batman Returns, Tim Burton’s second and final turn directing Batman on the big screen. Despite being a financial success (over $266 million at the worldwide box office), Batman Returns was met with some criticism for being too dark. Kids had nightmares, parents whined and even McDonalds canceled their promotional line of toys for the movie (THE HORROR!). In reaction to the backlash, Warner Bros. studios politely asked Burton to step away from the camera and stick to a producer’s credit. Warner Bros. wanted Batman to come off more family-friendly and accessible to others. Enter Mr. Schumacher, whose previous credits at the time included A Time to Kill, The Client and The Lost Boys. Schumacher actually wanted to adapt Frank Miller’s graphic novel Batman: Year One, but Warner Bros. wanted another sequel instead of a reboot or prequel.
Warner also had to deal with an AWOL star after Michael Keaton decided not to return for a third time in the batsuit (in a recent interview he said the script for Batman Forever “sucked”). But Schumacher happened to catch the hit western movie Tombstone and took a liking to one Val Kilmer. Without even reading a script or knowing that Schumacher was helming the film, Kilmer took the job and would shoot to superstardom (1995 also saw Kilmer in the acclaimed heist movie Heat). Schumacher’s hand also cast Tommy Lee Jones as Two Face, after working with Jones on The Client. Jones was actually hesitant to take on the role, but did it after his son wanted him to take the job. There was also the inclusion of Robin, who reportedly was in the shooting script for Batman Returns but ended up being scrapped. The role supposedly was between Chris O’Donnell and (brace yourself) Leonardo DiCaprio, though DiCaprio left after meeting with Schumacher. The real casting draw seemed to be Jim Carrey, who came off a red-freaking-hot year of 1994 with The Mask, Dumb and Dumber and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Carrey’s work in The Mask and TV’s In Living Color caught the eye of the production, seeing how physical he could be with the role.
So with all of these pieces in place, what was the final product? A loud, spazzy, over-the-top circus act (ironic since there’s a circus scene in the movie) that was awesome when you were a kid, but is surprisingly limp when analyzed as a thinking grown up. Plot wise, it’s pretty standard: Batman must take on the deranged duo of Two Face and The Riddler, the later wanting to suck out the smarts of Gotham City and destroy Batman in the process. But then there’s Robin’s origin story, where Dick Grayson’s family is murdered by Two Face after he tries to blow up a circus. Then there’s Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman, the hottest woman to ever be in a Batman movie in my opinion), the obligatory love interest in the movie. Then there’s Riddler’s origins, and Two Face’s origins. Then there’s……well you get the idea.
The obvious complaint about Batman Forever is the overhaul of atmosphere. Whereas Tim Burton’s Batman movies had themes of noir and nightmares, Joel Schumacher brought in ludicrous and light. Everything about Batman Forever is blown up and thrusted in the viewer’s face with nothing left to the imagination. Even the subtle moments when Bruce Wayne is reflecting on his life-changing encounter with bats is blown up to ridiculous proportions (like the slow-motion bat flapping toward young Bruce in the scene).
The same can be said for the villains of the movie, especially Jim Carrey. Clearly taking cues from Frank Gorshin’s portrayal from the 1960s TV series, Carrey’s Riddler is bouncing off the walls from his very first scene and doesn’t stop until he’s locked up in Arkham Asylum. Granted, The Riddler has always been depicted as a flamboyant madman and Carrey nails the character. In fact, Carrey’s all-in performance is one of the best parts of the movie. He’s not meant to be intimidating or scary, because The Riddler is not that scary of a villain. He’s a mad scientist with a taste for the extravagant, so who better to play him than a guy who uses every ounce of his body on screen? Carrey is great, but his casting may have cost us a great Tommy Lee Jones performance. Jones, a normally sullen but firm actor, goes over the top in his portrayal of Two Face clearly trying to outdo Carrey. As Aaron Eckhart would perfectly portray in The Dark Knight, Two Face is a bitter, vengeful man looking to avenge the proud life he had before he was (literally) scarred for life. Jones actually could have pulled that off, but with Carrey in the cast and Schumacher conducting the madness around him, Jones succumbs to cartoon goofiness that’s entertaining at face value but disappointing in the long run. The actors are pulling overkill clearly to match (or one-up) the likes of Jack Nicholson’s Joker, but they miss the menace and hone in on the madness.
Another common complaint about Batman movies is the villain overshadowing Batman himself, and Batman Forever is no exception. Val Kilmer, though not bad, is mostly forgettable as the caped crusader. He knows as Bruce Wayne to be closed off and appear intellectual, but he doesn’t bring any new depth to the character. In his defense, he doesn’t get that much screen time to develop himself as Bruce Wayne, what with all the villains to cut back and forth between. Batman Forever is another example of a Batman movie that’s barely about Batman. The film does try to dig deep into the psychology of how Bruce became Batman and how he deals with it, but it gets shuffled in the bombastic mix of everything else. The same can be said for Chris O’Donnell’s Robin, who’s barely worth a mention.
Batman Forever’s plot is of little concern to the viewers and the makers of the movie. If anything, Batman Forever is like a crazy theatre production, the singular scenes matter more than the whole. Each main actor gets his own moment or two in the movie, especially Jim Carrey. When characters are together, like the final showdown between Batman, Riddler and Two Face, the sets are so large and distracting that they drown out the actors involved. It’s understandable that Schumacher wanted to make the Batman universe bigger and more grand in comparison to Tim Burton’s grim noir, but what Schumacher added in size he subtracted in soul. Much like a touring Broadway show or a traveling circus, Batman Forever was made to grab your eyes while it secretly grabbed the money out of your pocket.
Not only did Batman Forever signal the beginning of the end of Batman on the big screen, but it may have also started the near death of the comic book movie. Some of the comic book movies that followed are considered some of the worst comic book movies ever made. Remember Steel, The Phantom or Barb Wire? The financial success of Batman Forever was the notification that comic book movies had to be nothing but camp and comedy, something easy to swallow. Not until the likes of Bryan Singer’s X-Men and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man did superheroes get some real style and dignity back in cinemas. It would be a whole decade before Batman would be redeemed at the movies with Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, the movie that the late Roger Ebert referred to as the first Batman movie “to get it right,” meaning to get the style, attitude and delivery of Batman on the big screen correctly. Batman Forever on its own is flawed, but nothing harmful. Unfortunately, it was the first tentpole in the idea of how to do comic book movies wrong. A brief joygasm, but a long comedown.