Revisiting Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever

Our Joel Schumacher retrospective arrives at one of his commercial highs and critical lows - it's the pretty woeful Batman Forever...

“Riddle me this, riddle me that, who’s afraid of the big, black bat?” – The Riddler

The Recap

After back-to-back successes with the gritty Falling Down and the tense thriller The Client, Joel Schumacher’s next project was slightly off the bat (sorry, we’ll get our own taxi). Taking over the reins from Tim Burton, he was about to change the direction and tone of the series, as well as start a downward spiral that would lead to the end of the franchise and almost-certain death knell to any future Batman movies.

Following on directly from Batman Returns, the audience is flung straight into the action as soon as the movie starts with Batman (Val Kilmer) facing Harvey ‘Two-Face’ Dent (Tommy Lee Jones), Gotham City’s ex-city District Attorney, who, after having acid thrown in his face, contracts a split-personality disorder and becomes one of Gotham’s most feared criminals. Having taken hostages during a bank job, Batman opts to save them, thus giving Two-Face the chance to escape.

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Back in his day job as Bruce Wayne, Wayne Enterprises carries on to be a growing and successful business. On a visit on one of his factories, Bruce is cornered by Edward Nygma (Jim Carrey), an inventor who has come up with a machine that inputs television signals directly into the brain. Worried about the implications the machine may have, Bruce dismisses the invention, causing Edward to kill his supervisor, quit his role at Wayne Enterprises and, with revenge on his mind, turns into The Riddler.

Outside of the Batcave, Bruce’s life seems to be going along nicely. Having met psychiatrist Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman), the two begin to date, but a trip to the circus goes horribly wrong when Two-Face shows up demanding to discover who really is Batman.

With Bruce’s cries going unheard in the panic, a family of acrobats, The Flying Graysons mange to remove the giant ticking bomb that Two-Face has placed in the centre of the circus ring. The bomb makes it out of the tent, but costs the lives of all the family bar Dick Grayson (Chris O’Donnell).

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Feeling guilty, Bruce takes Dick in, but his curiosity soon gets the better of him and, after discovering the Batcave and Bruce’s alter-ego, he demands to become his sidekick known as Robin and avenge his familiy’s death.

Having allied up with Two-Face, The Riddler begins to use his brain machine to steal business information and soon becomes a successful businessman himself. At the launch party of his new device, he sets up a larger version of his machine to look into people’s minds. Having discovered Bruce’s secret, Two-Face joins him in breaking into Wayne Manor, destroying the Batcave and kidnapping Chase.

Having solved the riddle left behind, Batman and Robin locate The Riddler’s lair. Splitting up, Robin faces Two-Face and after a fight realises he is unable to kill him, giving Two-Face the upper hand and taking him hostage.

Meanwhile, Batman makes it to The Riddler and is faced with the option to save either Chase or Robin, choosing between either Bruce Wayne or Batman. Tricking The Riddler with a simple problem, Batman manages to destroy the brain machine, forcing all the information into The Riddler’s brain and turning him totally insane, but not before he ensures both Chase and Robin begin a drop to certain death.

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Having managed to save them both, the trio then come across Two-Face, who decides to flip a coin with regards to their fate. Just as he does this Batman throws many coins, causing him to panic and fall to his death.

Committed to Arkham Asylum, The Riddler claims to know the identity of Batman. When Chase is sent to him, he claims he is Batman, keeping the secret of Batman once again a mystery.

Thoughts & Reaction

Coming across totally the opposite of the previous entries in the series, Batman Forever is a loud, colourful, action lead piece which places visuals over story and suffers because of it.

So why did the Batman series change so radically? Looking back, the problems really started to arise when Batman Returns came out. Although making a very tidy profit, the studio behind it, Warner Bros., felt it could have made more and figured that, by making it less dark and more mainstream, the franchise could become the cash cow that kept on giving. Burton could not agree to the changes and his role was reduced to producer and Schumacher was brought on board to direct.

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Schumacher and the studio did not automatically see eye to eye on the project, though, with Schumacher wanting to make a prequel rather than a sequel and wanting to base much of the script on Frank Miller’s Year One graphic novel. Not wanting to visit the back story, Warner Bros. put its foot down, but did allow some brief visits back to Bruce Wayne’s past.

With the pieces in place, Schumacher and Burton agreed to hire Lee and Janet Scott-Batchler to write the script. Unfortunately, Warner Bros. were still not happy and, although the story almost remained unchanged, it was lightened down significantly to try and appeal to the broadest of audiences.

This is really the worst decision I, personally, think could have been made (and one that Warner Bros ultimately paid quite a heavy price for). The fact is people enjoyed their Dark Knight exactly as that, dark, interesting and tormented. Making him lighter and without real villains to be pitted against (one would call them more comedic than frightening or scary) the role of Batman becomes almost redundant within his own movie.

It is all about the Wham, Bam, Boom, and no story can be based upon that. Even his romance with Chase and her finding out his secret is about as appealing as a wet fish across the face.

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With director and script in place, production was fast-tracked and the casting process could begin. The first real hurdle the film came across was losing its leading man. It seems a change of director and a change of story was all a bit much for previous Batman, Michael Keaton and he left the project, despite being offered $15,000,000 to put the cape back on, to be replaced days later with Val Kilmer, who didn’t even read the script or learn who the director was before signing on the dotted line.

With Kilmer on board, the search for his leading lady began in earnest. Rene Russo was first cast in the role of Chase, but it was deemed she looked too old against Kilmer so, after much searching, Nicole Kidman was cast.

Schumacher decided to look close to home with the casting of Two-Face, deciding to offer the role to Tommy Lee Jones after working with him on his previous film, The Client. This put the nose out of joint of actor Billy Dee Williams who had played the role of Harvey Dent in the previous films with the intention to take in the role of Two-Face with gusto.

The role of The Riddler was offered to Robin Williams, who felt the story wasn’t strong or dark enough and thus paved the way for Jim Carrey to come aboard.

On the good guys side, the role of Robin had been cast back during the production of Batman Returns, with Marlon Wayans donning the tights and mask. However, it was felt at the time that Batman Returns already had too many characters and Robin would be introduced later on.

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When Schumacher came on board he decided to re-open the casting with Chris O’Donnell and Leonardo DiCaprio as front runners for the title. As we all know, O’Donnell won out, with DiCaprio going on to make a little movie called Titanic

With the cast in place, shooting began on the autumn of 1994. Keeping to the new style of the film, Schumacher decided to ditch the Gothic grandeur of the previous movies and went for the bright and loud colours of the Batman comics of the 50s and 60s.

The style of this film has to be a decision that Schumacher must mark up as one of his worst, as whenever I discuss his style of filmmaking with anybody, they assume he has always been involved in these bright, over-the-top productions. Yet if you look at his history, he has always been more reserved and in many cases has produced some beautiful cinematography. His style here is more popcorn than high art and does, in many ways, feel like a cartoon come to life and not in a good way.

Opening in the Summer on 1995, Batman Forever became the summer blockbuster to see and it went on to make pots of money for the studio. But this did come at a price with the critics, who had been favourable to the series beforehand, ripping the movie to shreds claiming it was a movie for kids above anything else and was far too commercially driven.

The soundtrack could be heard for months after the release and the music videos from Seal and U2 were played on constant loop on TV. The success would lead to a further sequel being green lit, which would, in turn, become one of the biggest disasters in recent Hollywood memory.

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Until then, with another major hit under his belt, Schumacher’s next project would see him again tackle a John Grisham book, this time looking at the issue of race in rural Mississippi.

Next time, I will be looking at A Time To Kill.  

Batman Forever Key Info:

Released: 16th June 1995 (US) / 14th July 1995 (UK)Distributed By: Warner Bros.Budget: $100,000,000Box Office Gross: $336,530,000Best DVD Edition: Batman Forever Two-Disc Special Edition