Monday, May 24, 2021

Bat-May: Batman Forever (1995)

In an interesting way, Batman Forever was foundational for me. It was the first Batman film I had seen in theaters and, in 1995, must have been among the first films I saw in theaters. (I was bitten in 1994 with The Lion King.) I had the poster on my wall, the action figures in my toybox, and the comic book adaptation in my collection. I lived and breathed it. It was the greatest thing I’d ever seen in my life.

Time’s gone on, and it hasn’t been kind to Joel Schumacher, who picked up the directorial reins from Tim Burton and put his own avant-garde camp stamp on the franchise. For many years, fans used Schumacher as a punching bag to defend their own aggressively macho, insistently grown-up takes on Batman. Whatever Batman is, the argument went (and I admit I was in that crowd for many years), Batman Forever wasn’t it. Now that I’m older and wiser, I know that Batman can be everything at once – the genius of the character is that he is at once immutable and simultaneously infinitely adaptable. He fits into any genre, and still he persists. And I’m pleased to see that the fans are coming around to this perspective with Batman Forever, which has undergone a kind of cult reclamation such that cries of “Release the Snyder Cut” have, now fulfilled, been followed by “Release the Schumacher Cut,” which promises a longer and darker version of Forever.


Only I don’t know that it’s necessary. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll happily watch a three-hour Batman Forever, but I’m not convinced that it’s what Schumacher wanted. My sense of Batman Forever is that Schumacher intended to update the Batman ’66 format with an inflection of the Tim Burton aesthetic, and on that count – even if I don’t love it – I have to admit he made exactly the movie he set out to make. It’s silly, it’s daft, and it’s over-the-top, but it’s also got an undercurrent of psychological complexity that gets lost in the static of Schumacher bashing.


Val Kilmer dons the cape and cowl as a Bruce Wayne haunted by the death of his parents and what he sees as a disturbing reprise when acrobat Dick Grayson (Chris O’Donnell) is orphaned by Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones). While Bruce attempts to dissuade his newfound ward from vengeance, Batman is facing a new adversary in the form of The Riddler (Jim Carrey), secretly a disgruntled employee of WayneTech who has developed a mind-control device.


Batman Forever begins, rather unfortunately, with a joke that falls very flat. Alfred (the stalwart Michael Gough) offers Batman dinner before his nightly vigil; after a strangely long pause, Batman says, in a reedy squawk, “I’ll get drive-thru.” It’s perhaps an effective table setting – we’re in for a Batman that’s cornier and more prone to one-liners, even if they don’t always work – but I suppose it’s also an indicator of how much worse the film could have been if every scene had this tone, if nothing was taken seriously. It’s also an unfortunate opener because it sells Val Kilmer short; neither the voice nor the mannerisms are quite right in this first scene, but Kilmer gets it right almost immediately thereafter. His Bruce Wayne is psychologically broken, emotionally dead, but he embodies a key interpretative theory of the character – that Bruce Wayne cannot be both happy and Batman. Instead, Kilmer finds a cold middle ground, which might read as disaffected – but isn’t that what the Bruce Wayne persona should be? Isn’t Bruce an airheaded satire on the notion of a billionaire playboy?


The only times we start to see the real Bruce Wayne – the damaged orphan boy, stunted by his parents’ murder – is in his scenes with psychologist and lover Dr. Chase Meridian, which is honestly one of the all-time great fictional names ever. Now raise your hand if you’d forgotten that Nicole Kidman was in a Batman film. (I myself forget every so often.) Her performance vamps a little bit – nowhere near what Uma Thurman would do in Batman & Robin two years later – but Kidman is pretty effective as a Jungian femme fatale. Though the film is a bit condescending with her inability to decide whether she loves Batman or Bruce Wayne, this motif of duality plays into the film’s larger investment in Bruce Wayne’s fractured psyche. Michael Keaton’s Batman recognized the disconnect between his own romantic fulfillment and his vow to avenge his parents; Chase Meridian helps Bruce to draw out the fact that he is utterly incapable of functioning as a human being while fighting crime as Batman.


Indeed, Bruce Wayne is fundamentally unable to connect with his new ward, Dick Grayson, until he unites his own twin personas, ultimately accepting the young lad as his crimefighting partner, Robin. I have no idea how old this incarnation of Dick Grayson is supposed to be; he must be under 18, for Bruce to take him in as a foster father, but Chris O’Donnell plays him like a brash mid-20s, and there’s something in that performance that doesn’t quite work. He’s hot-headed like the second comics Robin, Jason Todd, and his Dick Grayson has a dated youthful edge that perhaps hasn’t aged well. (The contemporaneous animated series took a similar tack with Robin, but it seemed to work better there.) It might be the weakest performance in the film, because it’s not quite dialed into what this film needs of a Robin; his mood swings and impetuous plans to murder Two-Face never really connect with the audience.


Then we come to the villains. I have long maintained that the fundamental problem with Batman Forever is that both Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey are playing their characters as though they were Jack Nicholson’s Joker. I stand by this claim, because it certainly explains what keeps these performances from being truly faithful to the comics, but there are some nuances to draw out. It’s been widely reported that Jones and Carrey didn’t get along during filming, especially because Jones reportedly hated Carrey, telling him at one point, “I cannot sanction your buffoonery.” (True or not, has there been a more Tommy Lee Jones sentence than that?) Though to that point, I would have to ask Jones what he made of his own performance, because it is prancing buffoonery at its finest – again, precisely what the film needs of him, but it is a far cry from the more grounded Harvey Dent given us by Aaron Eckhart in The Dark Knight. But the cleverness of joining Bruce Wayne’s bifurcated psyche to a plot involving Two-Face is genius, and one wishes the screenplay had borne that out a little more directly. One also wishes that Jones had played his Two-Face a little more seriously; unlike Kilmer, whose first scene is a dud, Jones’s first scene is note-perfect as he monologues to a hostage bank guard about the universal fairness of luck.

As for Jim Carrey’s Riddler, it is a Jim Carrey performance from the mid-90s, largely indistinguishable from the rest (costuming aside). It’s that same manic oscillation, bounding and mugging. There’s a hearty helping of Nicholson in there somewhere, but the performance is perhaps more properly an amalgam of Frank Gorshin and Max Headroom – which may indeed be the Rosetta Stone for Carrey’s whole career. Carrey’s Riddler is overdone, his riddles aren’t great, but at least his chemistry with Two-Face is commendable, particularly if the off-set animosity was as feverish as it seems. His Riddler is gleefully vain, too, applied more to his appearance than to his genius, and there’s something in his envy of Bruce Wayne that gets echoed in Sam Rockwell’s begrudging RDJ-worship in Iron Man 2. These days, though, I’m particularly intrigued to see what Paul Dano brings to the role in The Batman, with his Zodiac-killer take wildly distinct from the gleeful tricksters we’ve seen thus far.


Batman Forever is filled with performances and setpieces that are watchable for their spectacle, and I practically inhaled a bowl of popcorn during the film’s bombastic first act. It’s an energy that never really lets up, but the script is full of things that happen only because the movie needs them to happen. Two-Face has no master plan, striving only to kill Batman in a disconnected string of death traps (more shades of Batman ’66), while the Riddler’s mind-control plot is both too outlandish and much too easy to foil. One can easily see why a seven-year-old Cinema King would have been enamored of this cartoon come to life, but there is a kernel of something greater in here that keeps the adult coming back – occasionally against my better judgment, but compelled all the same. There is something very savvy about Batman Forever, and one wishes the film had leaned harder into that aspect of the story rather than the neon pop-art comic book come to life (which was, after all, what Schumacher intended). Perhaps there ought to be a Schumacher Cut, after all.


Batman Forever is rated PG-13 for “strong stylized action.” Directed by Joel Schumacher. Written by Lee Batchler, Janet Scott Batchler, and Akiva Goldsman. Based on the DC Comics. Starring Val Kilmer, Tommy Lee Jones, Jim Carrey, Nicole Kidman, and Chris O’Donnell.

For more Bat-May action, the good folks at Collected Editions posted my review of Batman: The Movies, the comic book adaptation of the Batman Quadrilogy. Give them a click - no one reviews comics like Collected Editions!

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