The Case for and Against Batman Forever

Batman Forever: an overlooked Batman movie, or the worst of the lot? Two of our writers go head to head...

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

On the occasions we let the writers of Den Of Geek in a room together, Batman Forever has a tendency to come up at some stage. One or two feel it’s an underrated movie. One person in particular thinks it’s the low point of the Batman cinematic universe to date. We thus figured we might turn this one over to you. Here are the two sides of the argument (written without one side seeing what the other had to say): leave your own thoughts in the comments below…!

The case for Batman Forever

By Rob Leane

Batman Forever is a different sort of superhero film. It’s impossible to deny that it’s a brightly coloured toy-selling marketing bonanza aimed solely at kids and their deep-pocketed parents. But, it has to be said – it did a pretty good job at fulfilling that mission statement. If you look at Batman Forever’s own pre-release ambitions as a scoring system, it becomes apparent that the film succeeded on its own terms.

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related article: Why Tim Burton’s Batman 3 Never Happened

One of the biggest things the film needed to nail down was a villain that kids would love. Jim Carrey is the perfect choice, bringing the Riddler to life in a darkness-free way that families could enjoy together without fear of frightening anyone. From within the constraints of various eye-catching costumes, Carrey channels a sense of gleefulness into the film. His riddles are silly and simple to guess, admittedly, but his charm endures throughout.

For this writer at least (and, quite possibly, at most) Carrey’s euphoric delivery of cheesy lines like “it’s so you… and yet, so… YOU!” always raises a smile. This may be a B-movie take on Batman, but Carrey is very much in on the joke. It’s better to see an actor embracing the wacky stupidity than turning in a dour performance that highlights the movie’s problems.

Carrey’s Riddler epitomizes what Batman Forever is all about: fun, at all costs. His scheme – after being business-jilted by Bruce Wayne, and promptly losing the plot – is to brainwash everyone in town, steal their intelligence, and, um, steal their actual stuff, too. It’s an evil plan clearly written with younger audiences in mind – we’re not trying to scare anyone here, it’s just going to be a fun family film without many real consequences.

The film’s action sequences would also need to appeal to younger audiences. Batman Forever didn’t need gritty shootouts and mass deaths – it needed eye-catching spectacle. And the finished film had it, in spades, right from the start.

The film opens with Batman failing to thwart Tommy Lee Jones’ Two-Face in a bank robbery, because the villain escaped by clinging onto a bank safe being flown away by a helicopter. This, as a family-friendly cinematic spectacle, is enjoyable stuff. It’s a memorable image, and one that puts two of the major players in place without bothering with a dull, exposition-heavy opening.

Another thing the film needed was a character for kids to side with. A cipher they could project themselves onto. Enter Dick Grayson, and the Robin origin story that Schumacher weaves into the plot. Chris O’Donnell plays Dick as a grumpy teenager who is unhappily adopted by Bruce Wayne after his parents’ death.

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This gave children a way into the film, presenting a new young character who they could root for, and see themselves in. The introduction of Robin also helped bring more of a family feel to the franchise, making protecting Gotham seem like a shared mantle between an adoptive father and son. And, you’ve got to admit, “holy rusted metal, Batman!” is a ruddy brilliant gag.

Warner Bros would also need Batman to be a bit more personable if Batman Forever was going to have mass appeal in toy stores around the world. Val Kilmer succeeded in this task, lightening up Gotham’s Dark Knight in ways that Keaton never did.

This was a sillier Bruce, with a sense of humour (his first line in the movie is “I’ll get drive-through”, after Alfred offers him a sandwich) and a new love interest (Nicole Kidman’s psychiatrist character, Dr Chase Meridian) who wanted to pick his brains and unpack the man underneath the moody vigilante. He may not be the adult fan’s favourite Batman, but his watered-down version of Bruce Wayne helped kids embrace the character for the first time.

So, yes – the Gothic genius of Tim Burton’s take on the caped crusader was thrown out wholesale by Batman Forever, and the resultant movie will never be considered a classic Bat-film. But what Schumacher installed at the heart of the franchise instead of Burton’s vision has its own merits.

As a Batman movie aimed at kids, Batman Forever succeeded by making Batman a more kid-friendly character, introducing Robin as an avatar for youngsters, lightening up the action sequences and centring proceedings on an adored comedy star, Jim Carrey. Schumacher’s vision is essentially a kids’ cartoon brought to life, complete with wacky villains, elaborate schemes and colourful images.

This may not be the Batman film that adult fans wanted, but it’s one that kids loved. I can say that because I was four years old at the time. This is the first superhero movie I remember seeing, and – as much as I know now that it is far from the best comic book film out there – Batman Forever is the movie that got me hooked on the genre. It was a great entry-level superhero introduction for kids, and I enjoy re-watching it to this day. Burton it ain’t, but that doesn’t mean it’s irredeemably rubbish.

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The case against Batman Forever

By Simon Brew

You don’t need me to tell you that we were hardly spoiled for comic book movies in the 1990s. Superman was absent, Marvel was a good decade and a bit from getting anywhere, and Bryan Singer was struggling to get X-Men off the ground. I found occasional pieces of very mild solace in the likes of The Shadow and Dick Tracy (one of which isn’t strictly a comic book movie, neither of which are great), but it was Tim Burton’s Batman films I kept coming back to.

I don’t think either Batman or Batman Returns are perfect beasts, but I do feel that the forces of trying to do something interesting far outweighed the forces of movie studio accountants in both cases.

Come Batman Forever, then – seen as a recovery of the Batman series in Warner Bros’ eyes, and the biggest grossing film in the US of 1995 – and I was accepting it’d be a different kind of film. But what I wasn’t expecting was for the ambition to be so low. That a new team could come in, pick up challenging ingredients, and blend a concoction so blatantly targeted at McDonald’s Happy Meals that even eating half of dozen of the firm’s artery cloggers would have made me feel less sick.

The problems, for me, with Batman Forever are multiple. I believe it to be a worse film than Batman & Robin (and, to be clear, that’s a movie I’m hardly taking a bullet for), a film where ‘that’ll do’ became an accepted mantra in the Batman series. At a point where animated films such as Mask Of The Phantasm and Sub-Zero were at least trying, Joel Schumacher not only fumbled what made Batman and Bruce Wayne interesting, but even worse, he delivered a turgid, dull blockbuster.

Its biggest crime: it fails as a piece of entertainment. Batman had become boring.

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That’s some achievement. Schumacher had one of the biggest box office stars of the ’90s, Jim Carrey, as The Riddler. He had Tommy Lee Jones, also at the height of his acting powers, as Harvey Two Face. And he also had room to redefine the whole series, courtesy of being able to recast the not-that-Dark-anymore Knight.

At the time, I wasn’t a Batman comics addict, so I could cope with those changes. But as I sat watching the movie, everything seemed to be missing. The opening sequences, of a safe landing back exactly where it had to go, felt plain daft. Already, I could barely hear a word that Two Face was uttering (I put this down to the cinema that day, but the problem’s followed the film wherever I’ve tried to rewatch it).

Then, even before it became the trend to redo the origin story of a character, Batman Forever decided to see Val Kilmer face the angst, just far less impressively than had been done before or since. Schumacher lets his villains bumble in from the nearest pantomime, none of them registering. And even in the moments where you sit and admire the occasionally exquisite production design, the usually excellent Eliot Goldenthal’s score attacks your ears, reminding you promptly to cross the CD off your Christmas list.

Batman Forever‘s failures are numerous. None of its characters stick (I’ve not even got near Nicole Kidman’s love interest/doctor), but then it turns out the film has nothing interesting to say or do with them anyway. Action, meanwhile, proves not to be Schumacher’s forte, whilst the comedy – where he’s usually been more adept – induces cringes rather than chuckles. 

Furthermore, the film never justifies the decision to introduce Robin in any meaningful way (did you ever feel the impact of Dick Grayson’s speech where he tells Bruce why he needs to get Two Face? This should have been one of the emotional heartbeats of the movie), and thus each of the paper-thin characters has to shuffle over for another one.

Even Chris O’Donnell would surely admit his Robin is not his career’s best work. Heck, Alfred gets in on the act at one stage, telling Bruce Wayne that “I have some rather distressing news about Master Dick.” Wise man, Alfred (the late, glorious Michael Gough, giving by distance the best performance in the film). He’d clearly seen a rough cut.

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I don’t like penning pieces where I struggle to find anything redeeming about a film, but I fear it’s films such as Batman Forever and Batman & Robin that led to us accepting middling blockbusters as better than they are. That it was the starting point for when the merits of large films were pumped up far beyond what they deserve, leading to a trend for films getting wildly enthusiastic reviews on their theatrical release, before more realistic ones arrived in the cold light of day when the VHS/DVD turned up.

Batman & Robin, clearly, is a bad film, but it’s hard to find too many ingredients as to its mediocrity that weren’t planted in Batman Forever. Had Batman Forevernot got away with cheapening what a Batman blockbuster could be, then Batman & Robin could never, and should never, have happened. At least with Batman & Robin we got some really superb production design, and better YouTube mash-ups.

To this day, Batman Forever looks and feels like the corporate boardroom comic book movie it clearly is. Lots of big stars! Family-friendly rating! Nothing to say! But it sells toys and tickets and stuff! I can’t find an interesting creative risk in it. I do always wonder if I’m being too harsh on it, and thus every three or four years, I dig it out and give it another go (I’ve bought the film on disc more than once). I take no pleasure in realising it’s as undercooked and vacuous as it always was.

Still, finding a positive, it did give us the majestic exchange off-camera between Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey where the former told the latter that “I cannot sanction your buffoonery”. A line a zillion times better than a single piece of dialogue that made it to the final script.

After all, who can forget its zingers? “Holey rusted metal, Batman,” quips Robin at one stage, something that led many people to seek out world wide web access for the first time, just to type the letters ‘WTF’. Or what about when Batman brings the house down with “It’s the car, right? Chicks love the car?”

Then there’s the bit where Kilmer’s Batman cracks “I’ll get drive through.”

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You do that, Val. Get one of those Happy Meals, then just keep driving. Might be wise to put in a warning call to Clooney if that car phone is working….