When we last left the Caped Crusader, he learned the not very comic booky lesson of moral ambiguity. By the end of Batman Returns (1992), he knew there was little difference between him and the freaks he was fighting and that due to his obsessive advocacy for the establishment, he would forever be alone. When we returned to Gotham three years later, Warner Bros. made sure it was not the same Bat-time or in the same Bat-place as before. It wasn’t even the same Bat.
If Returns was a challenging film with its yuletide tone of psychological suffering, the next one was going to be bright, colorful and, most of all, parent-friendly. The franchise had lost its merchandise enthusiasm from the previous two entries, so the first priority for the studio was to make sure that director Tim Burton didn’t let the door hit him on the way out. With Burton gone, Michael Keaton followed shortly thereafter. Rapidly, the third Batman flick became something more of a soft-reboot instead of a straightforward sequel. Joel Schumacher was brought in to direct. The new filmmaker was an up-and-coming talent with a touch for gothic camp as seen in films like The Wiz (1978), The Lost Boys (1987) and Flatliners (1990). For 1995’s Batman Forever, his mission was simple: Make it fun for the whole family.
Gotham has changed drastically in the time since Penguin and Catwoman ran amuck. Gone is the gothic Art Deco cityscape that was at once beautiful and soul crushing. In its place is a lurid melting pot of neon lights, tacky ‘80s day-glow and enough giant nude statues to make the Greeks blush. Think Studio 54 meets Prague. Still, all is not well in this world. Former District Attorney Harvey Dent (Tommy Lee Jones) has escaped Arkham Asylum after being badly burned on half of his body. The self-titled Two-Face blames Batman for his injuries and has laid a trap for the Dark Knight by robbing the Second Bank of Gotham on the Second Anniversary of his scarring. Batman (Val Kilmer) valiantly pursues the giddy criminal throughout the picture and along the way takes in an acrobat, Dick Grayson (Chris O’Donnell), after he was orphaned by one of Two-Face’s nefarious schemes. The boy reminds Bruce Wayne of his own childhood trauma that he is trying to repress with the help of the enticing Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman). Chase is the kind of psychologist who spends her nights on top of police rooftops in lingerie trying to seduce the Batman. But priorities change when Bruce’s disgruntled employee, the annoying Edward Nygma (Jim Carrey), starts wearing green and calling himself the Riddler. An untied Riddler and Two-Face figure out Batman’s secret identity and target the superhero’s home and girlfriend. Only with the help of a new partner, young Grayson aka Robin, can Batman find the strength he needs to defeat the dastardly duo and put his childhood pain to bed forever.
From the very beginning, Batman Forever lets us know what kind of movie it’s going to be. When Batman suits up for battle before the opening credits are finished, his costume is objectified like he’s an action figure (including close-up shots of his butt and the new bat-nipples). As the redesigned shark-fin Batmobile with a neon engine emerges from the depths of the Batcave, Kilmer looks deadly serious and ready for action. The operatic music blaring during all this perfectly sets up Alfred to undercut the moment with the joke, “Can I persuade you to take a sandwich with you, sir?” Batman glumly replies, “No thanks, I’ll get drive-thru.” In less than a minute, you know this will be an over-the-top affair that always leaves room for potential product placement (the same sequence was used in McDonald’s ads in 1995).
In most ways, Forever is a live-action cartoon. The opening rescue of a hostage at the bank is full Saturday morning pluck and zeal. All the characters are color-coded in costuming and lighting, such as green for Riddler and red for Robin. Interestingly, Batman seems to be lit in more of a dark blue than the color of his suit. Black is reserved for Chase, but then again those slinky little dresses are more important than the Caped Crusader’s costume in this movie. For the most part, the animated approach works. If one accepts the ride Schumacher intends to take us on, it is a fun trip for most of the running time. However, cartoons have the benefit of being half an hour long. At two full hours, Batman Forever definitely loses steam in the second half making the nightmarishly neon green climax a chore to watch.
Warner Bros. must have still missed Jack Nicholson’s manic Joker from the original 1989 film because we get two copies of him here. Unfortunately, neither works. Nicholson was hilarious in the first Batman movie, but he was also cruel, evil and occasionally scary. Riddler and Two-Face are never those things in Batman Forever and are instead about as threatening as Abbot and Costello. Jones clearly has fun in the role, but isn’t given the depth of tragedy or pathos his character contains in The Dark Knight (2008). Carrey plays Ace Ventura impersonating Jack Nicholson throughout the movie and the results are obnoxiously grating.
Bruce Wayne’s new surrogate family fares better. O’Donnell looks too old to be in need of a foster parent, but the inclusion of Robin works surprisingly well for the movie. And Kidman’s Chase, a cross between the seductive knowingness of Selina Kyle and the girlishness of all other 1990s love interests, plays the perfect foil for a Bruce Wayne looking to settle down. As the new Bruce/Batman himself, Kilmer services the role and nothing more. Rumor has it that the leading actor and director grew to hate each other during the filming of this picture. If true, I don’t know if his wooden acting was the cause or the result, but it’s safe to say the tortured brooding of Michael Keaton is long gone.
Batman Forever did exactly what it set out to do. After this movie, Batman was again every kid’s favorite superhero and the toy manufacturers were jumping at all the new opportunities the series could bring. It definitely would become an influence for the next and final installment of the franchise’s current continuity. But as a movie itself? Forever is as diverting as the cartoons it tries to emulate. When taken in a brief dose, it can be entertaining. However, its lack of interest in the potential of the comics it obviously ignored, results in a stifling film to watch through to the end. Batman’s source material has an excess of interpretations and visions for the Dark Knight. Yet, the one thing they all have in common is that they treat the character and his mythology with respect. When he is treated as nothing more than the centerpiece of a PR campaign for everything from fast food to lunchboxes, he becomes as interesting as any cipher created for 30-second ad buys.
Intriguingly, the movie does create a reason for the tonal shift. By teaching Robin not to seek vengeance on Two-Face and letting go of his parents’ death, we see a Batman who may have learned from his past mistakes. After getting revenge on Joker, he enters a dark and lonely path during Batman Returns. When he sees what it can do to him and his feline-dressed soulmate, he looks for redemption in Batman Forever through Robin and Chase…Oh, who am I kidding? As Schumacher liked to say, “It’s only a Batman movie.” If you’re looking for depth, you’ve come to the wrong Bat-place.