Batman Forever (1995)

Batman Forever (1995) – On the multi-part making-of documentary from the Batman 1989-1997 Anthology DVD box set, one “comic scholar” posits that the different styles the movies have adopted reflect different periods of the comic book which has, understandably for a series that’s been going 73 years and counting, gone through many different stylistic phases. It rang true for me. After the unrelenting darkness of Batman Returns, Warner Brothers did not want Tim Burton back on the Batman movies (and Burton himself wasn’t particularly keen to return). They hired Joel Schumacher, a film-maker known for St. Elmo’s Fire, The Lost Boys, Flatliners, Falling Down, and The Client. He didn’t have Burton’s signature style but had directed several hits so he seemed like a solid choice. He went with a colorful (but still dark) Gotham City that somewhat reflects the 50s/60s period Batman comics illustrated by Dick Sprang. There would be giant knick knacks all over the rooftops of buildings, if for no other reason than so Batman could chase a criminal through the keys of a giant typewriter (that for whatever reason was functional). There is lots of that type of stuff in Batman Forever, like a giant neon eyeball billboard (sooooo much neon). Late in the movie Jim Carrey has a line “Was that over-the-top? I can never tell!” That could be the tagline for this movie…

Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones) is at large and Batman (Val Kilmer, replacing Michael Keaton who bailed with Burton) is out to stop him. Commissioner Gordon (Pat Hingle, one of two cast holdovers from the Burton films) has called in Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman), who specializes in abnormal psychology. Of course her fascination with duality also leads to her having the hots for Batman. Bruce Wayne is not without his own obsessive stalker, however, in the form of Edward Nygma (Carrey) a WayneTech employee who wants Bruce’s unqualified support on a new project of dubious ethics. When Bruce declines, Nygma murders his boss (Ed Begley Jr.), quits WayneTech, and becomes the question-obsessed villain The Riddler. Lest you think that two against one is unfair, Bruce talks in an orphan named Dick Grayson (Chris O’Donnell) whose parents were killed by Two-Face.

This movie’s kind of a mixed bag, but it mostly comes out on the “I like it” side. Once again it manages to be wildly unfaithful to the comic, but it’s just good enough of a movie that I can forgive it that, though the scene where Two-Face keeps re-flipping his coin still pisses me off. (Two-Face accepts the coin’s decision always! That’s his thing!) Speaking of Tommy Lee Jones is going balls-out manic in this movie. I think this movie and Natural Born Killers are the only ones he does that in (that I can recall). It’s quite a change of pace from his usual Texas deadpan. But of course, Jones can never out-over-the-top Jim Carrey. In the wake of more subtle movies like The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it is possible to forget just how crazy Jim Carrey used to get in movies. It’s on full display here during the Riddler scenes. Again kind of a departure from the more cunning and calculating version of the Riddler that has taken hold in recent decades, but there was a time when he was more of spandex-clad trickster so it does kind of support that theory that this movie is going for more of a campy Silver Age vibe…

There is a level of seriousness to this movie, though. I mean, not the stuff of serious high-powered drama (and nothing anywhere near as dark as Batman Returns) but a more introspective side of Batman. Dick’s situation of seeing his parents killed right in front of him does give Bruce a chance to reflect on his similar loss many years before. The best part of this was cut from the movie (where Bruce reads in his father’s diary “Martha and I want to stay home but Bruce wants to see a movie…” on the night they were killed) but still Wayne’s inner turmoil is done well, making this the most Batman-centric of the pre-Nolan Batman films. I rather like Kilmer as Batman (as did Batman creator Bob Kane). I still prefer Keaton but that might just be because Keaton was in better movies. His relationship with original character Dr. Meridian worked for the character in the whole Bruce vs. Batman conflict that supplies the core of some of Batman’s best stories. Plus Nicole Kidman is damn nice-looking in this movie… Also benefitting from the Dick storyline is loyal Wayne butler Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Gough, the second of the Burton holdovers). He has a great paternal vibe with Kilmer that was really only hinted at in the earlier Keaton films. It’s odd that Burton hired him because he was such a big fan of his work in Hammer Horror films, yet Schumacher is one who gave him more to do. His looking after both Bruce and Dick really helps create a sense of family for the crime-fighting duo. Actually as much as the Dick storyline works for Batman and Alfred… it doesn’t work so well for Dick. That’s probably just because Chris O’Donnell is an unimpressive actor. Also he looks 25 (because he was 25) even though, given the custody situation, he is likely supposed to be a teenager. As weird as it is in the comics that Batman pals around with a 10-year-old kid, it’s way weirder in this movie where he adopts a grown man.

So is Batman Forever the perfect representation of the campy 50s/60s period of Batman comics? Well, not totally but it hits most of the marks it goes for. Robin’s joke line of “holy rusted metal, Batman!” (it makes… SOME sense in context) I think clarifies that Schumacher was perhaps a bigger fan of the Adam West TV show than the comic books it was based on. In 73 years, there have been a lot of versions of Batman and I can’t really take issue with anyone trying to bring different ones to the big screen. I do prefer Burton’s films (and now Nolan’s) most definitely, but I like that this movie exists as a point of contrast to both… and it IS entertaining. Now if you take everything that DOESN’T work about this movie (why does the Batsuit have nipples?) and crank it all the way up to 11 you’d have an awful mess on your hands. Thank God no one ever decided to do THAT… oh wait…

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