Riddle Me This, Riddle Me That: Why Does Batman Forever Fall So Flat?

Holy smokes! It’s Batman Forever. And boy does it suck!

Like the dreaded ‘difficult third’ album that can make or break a band or artist, a third instalment in a film series can often be the one that disappoints audiences, be it mildly or staggeringly so: Terminator 3, Lethal Weapon 3, Alien 3, Superman III, Return of the Jedi, Spider-Man 3, X-Men: the Last Stand — rarely have these chapters been considered to be superior to the film before it. Only when a second film has been considered a relative disappointment by some (but not me), say Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Back to the Future Part II, Die Hard 2, etc., can the third film be regarded as a comeback, or in the case of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, a peak.

However, you can also get something like Batman Forever, which isn’t so much a disappointment (though it is most definitely is that) but more a shocking U-turn for the Batman series, one so whiplash-inducing that there’s barely any tissue connecting it to the body of work that Tim Burton created in his macabre laboratory from 1989 to 1992. It’s generally accepted that Batman Forever is the third Batman instalment from this period, but the thought of lumping this and its successor in with Burton’s two films brings me out in shudders. As far as I’m concerned this is the first of two separate Batman movies. Yes, Burton produced this film, and yes we have Michael Gough and Pat Hingle reappearing as Alfred and Commissioner Gordon, but to all intents and purposes this is a reboot before the term was in popular parlance, pure and simple.

For all of Batman Returns‘ profitability, it was nevertheless seen as too many steps in the wrong direction — too dark, too kinky, too violent, that sort of thing. Plus, it had failed by some margin to outdo the success of the original. Maybe the suits were hoping to nip this commercial downslide in the bud, pre-empting the possibility of an even darker, even more perverse third instalment by going completely in the opposite direction. No more ghoulishness, no more weirdness. The result is one of the more blatant exercises in commercial cool made in the 1990s. Everything about it practically screams (and this is a loud movie) mid-nineties pop culture. You can’t knock it for its zeitgeist-tapping contemporary appeal — it was also pretty ruthless. Joel Schumacher, up until now, had proven himself to be a director of impressive versatility and canny awareness of what was hip in the mainstream. He’d already moved from musicals to comedies to twenty-something dramas to teen vampire movies to supernatural thrillers to satirical (and controversy-baiting) dramas to legal potboilers. And almost everything he’d directed had been a hit. Batman Forever would be no exception. The biggest differences here compared to the first two Batman films are tone and look, even though the first two were often hilarious (after all, there was a character called The Joker), the mood here is far more flippant and lighthearted. Weirdly though, given how many of the gags in this film fall totally flat, it’s actually far less funny than either of Burton’s movies.

Visually, the cold, haunting and spooky Gothicism of yore has given way to a garish riot of colour and overcrowded excess, with Gotham now resembling a baby-faced Blade Runner-esque cityscape, with added oversized gargoyles and statues scattered amongst the streets for good measure. It even has its own swiftly-destroyed Statue of Liberty. Colour and artificial lighting are everywhere — the Batmobile has glowing tyres, the street gangs wear glow-in-the-dark face-paint and neon is the element of the day; it’s even on the bad guys’ guns and on a house band’s guitars. It’s all undeniably spectacular. So while it may be very fashionable to knock what Schumacher did to the Batman universe (and Burton fans understandably felt betrayed), for a couple of years, the success of this film was so loud and effective that most dissenting voices were drowned out. Critics weren’t impressed, but audiences went crazy for it. It was only when Batman and Robin came out that the overwhelming consensus towards Schumacher’s approach was that of scorn and ridicule. But more on that another time.

Hit! And my favorite vitamin might I add.

The Riddler

The casting seems precision-tooled to appeal to all bases — Val Kilmer for the mums, Nicole Kidman for the dads, Chris O’ Donnell for the teens, Tommy Lee Jones for anyone easily swayed by the presence of a veteran, Oscar-winning, respected actor and Jim Carrey for, seemingly, absolutely everyone. Carrey, who in the space of a year had graduated from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective to The Mask to Dumb and Dumber and had become one of the biggest stars on Earth. Having him play The Riddler, especially in this new, very-now incarnation of the Batman universe, seemed as obvious a choice as Jack Nicholson was for The Joker. I first watched Batman Forever at the cinema when I was 14, and even though it had only been three years since Batman Returns, every passing year during one’s adolescence might as well be a decade for all the changes and drama one goes through, and as such I can remember the 14-year old me sitting down to watch this new instalment thinking Batman Returns was a million years in the past. The new Batman was just the kind of candy-coloured, intoxicating buzz I wanted. I was excited. I had seen all those Jim Carrey movies and loved them all. I adored the big tie-in single — U2’s ‘Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me’ with its tremendous animated video (featuring an orchestra made up entirely of Batmen!). I was knocked out by the trailer. As for the film, I dove headfirst into its popcorn-fuelled, neon-drenched, carnivalesque vibe. And yet, that same Christmas, I re-watched the film on VHS and found myself getting bored with it. It all seemed so much more hollow on a small screen. The script felt contrived and shallow, the baggy length more obvious, its excesses more transparent and obnoxious.

Right from the start it’s clear we’re in for a new look Batman. The cast names swoop towards the screen in a manner closer to Richard Donner’s Superman than Burton’s movies, and we also get a brand new Batman theme, a strident, memorable (if not in the same league as Danny Elfman’s) refrain from new composer Elliot Goldenthal. Getting right down to business, we cut to a quick-fire montage of Batman in extreme close-ups (we haven’t seen his new face yet) putting on his costume and selecting his weapons, after which there’s a glorious reveal of the Batmobile and then, at last, the Caped Crusader himself. It’s a great intro… right up until we get the first line of dialogue, something from Alfred about asking Batman if he wants a packed lunch, to which we get the reply ‘I’ll get drive-thru’. A good friend of mine made a sharp observation that while the last Batman film had Bruce Wayne eating Vichyssoise soup (served cold, remember), now he’s picking up take-out, and a more succinct example of the difference between the last movie and this one you’re unlikely to find. Well, maybe the addition of nipples to the Batsuit.

Plotwise we’re on familar ground. There’s a new bad guy in town, the disfigured, vengeful Two-Face, formerly Gotham’s district attorney Harvey Dent. You may remember this character from Burton’s first Batman movie, as played by Billy Dee Williams. You may not. His character didn’t really have an awful lot to do, after all. It would have been interesting to see Williams reprise his role here, but given that the Batman villains have always been played by current mega-stars, I guess it made sense to replace him with someone more well known, in this case Tommy Lee Jones. Before his descent into evil, Dent was an upstanding law abider until some goon chucked acid onto his face in court, where, absolutely hilariously, Batman was also in attendance, in full costume – like, they let him into the courtroom dressed like that? What was he doing there, giving evidence? Dent ended up going crazy after his disfigurement, promising revenge on Batman even though our hero did absolutely nothing wrong.

Two-Face’s gimmick is that the fate of his victim is decided by luck, or more specifically the toss of a coin. A fascinating concept, highlighting the cruelty of chance, which was something that was explored in Christopher Nolan’s later The Dark Knight, but here it’s just a cool party trick, with no psychological depth. Two-Face is a one-note jerk, nothing more, nothing less. Batman must stop him, but there’s another new villain in town too; Edward Nygma, an ex-employee of Wayne Enterprises whose proposal to provide Gotham with a form of 3D TV that transmits entertainment directly into the viewers brain was dismissed as recklessly dangerous by Bruce. Nygma, already pretty deranged, goes fully psychotic and plots to wreak revenge on Bruce, and this being Gotham he simply has to do so in a costume, calling himself The Riddler because he likes to send diabolical brain-teasers to his prey.

On the heroic side, we get the belated arrival of Robin to the series. Presumably absent from the first two because his incessant, boyish wholesomeness would have been at odds with Burton’s vision, here he fits into the new-style Batman like a glove, although now he’s got more what I imagine the marketing department would have considered ‘attitude’. You know, a bit rebellious, a bit vengeful. He wears an earring and handles the laundry like Bruce Lee. He’s definitely not lovable Burt Ward. There’s even a bit that references Robin’s most famous and adaptable catchphrase that got everybody laughing at the time when, upon stumbling onto treacherous island terrain during the climax, he exclaims ‘Holy rusted metal, Batman!’ — you know, because the ground is metal and full of holes…you know, holey. True to the form of the comics, Robin starts off as Dick Grayson, youngest of a family of circus acrobats who is the only survivor of Two-Face’s self-proclaimed ‘Massacre Under the Big Top’ — seeking revenge, Grayson is taken in by a concerned Wayne and the seeds for this future ward are sown. Oddly enough, given that the presence of Robin would seem to personify the more juvenile approach this series has taken, Chris O’Donnell is one of the best things in this film, giving a solid performance. Faint praise, but there you go.

Of course, it can’t be a Batman film without a bit of lovin’, and here we get, in a considerable step-down from the electric chemistry between Batman/Bruce Wayne and Catwoman/Selina Kyle, insatiable (and Batman-fixated) criminal psychogist Dr. Chase Meridian, played with appealing if shallow sexiness by Nicole Kidman. She’s perfectly fine in the role, but Meridian’s a dud character, sorely underwritten. The idea of someone having a sexual and psychological fascination with a costumed superhero could have been interestingly kinky but it’s barely touched upon, and the romance angle between her and Bruce is utterly rote. She brings up ‘skin tight vinyl and whips’ in reference to Catwoman and it’s callbacks like this that remind me that, far from being a reinvention, Batman Forever is closer to a devolution. What once was for adults and discerning children is edging closer towards a toddler-friendly audience.

One thing that also felt like a step back at the time was that in the UK this was certified PG, not a boundary-pushing 12 certificate like the first two. However I didn’t realise then that the version I saw at the cinema and on video had been cut by a whopping 1 minute and 38 seconds, edits voluntarily made by Warner Bros. so that the lower, more family-friendly rating could be acquired. Saying that, even in its uncut 12 version (the cuts were waived in 2005), the film still feels far more child-friendly and less adult than before, with most of the cut footage (spoken references to death, slightly more prolonged violence and threat, close-ups of Two-Face’s scarred visage and of course, the dreaded use of a headbutt) coming off as pretty harmless, more proof of the BBFC’s hysterical, over-reactive tone at the time rather than any genuinely questionable content.

The action scenes are bigger and brasher than before, but often they’re utterly superfluous to the plot — one involving a rocket launcher and the Batmobile scaling up the side of a building was totally irrelevant and added nothing. The ending too is a lot of chaotic madness. It would be very churlish of me to ask how on Earth the Riddler managed to create an island fortress so quickly, so I’ll ignore that, but the Battleship shenanigans, Batman’s handy supply of spare change (never mind ‘where does he get all those toys?’, more where did he get all those coins? The Deus ex Machina store?) and yet more Carrey mugging, including his ‘was that over the top?’ deflation of what was an almost-effective moment of madness when he declares himself to be a god. Bad guys are eventually vanquished, equilibrium is restored, lessons are learned, new partnerships are consolidated and let’s all go for a Happy Meal afterwards.

Ooooo, nice form, but a little rough on the landing. He may have to settle for the bronze.

Edward Nygma

Val Kilmer does a fair job as Batman. There’s nothing overtly wrong with his approach at all. It’s serviceable. He looks great (on a rudimentary level, he has more obvious sex appeal than Michael Keaton), has good comic timing, he’s physically up to the job, but he seems too young for the role, given he’s meant to be so much older and wiser in relation to his new sidekick. The Robin angle is a fresh element to the series, and it would have been fascinating to have had Keaton’s Batman, burned by love after the second film, instead focusing on a paternal relationship, coming to terms with his fear of seeing too much of himself in the similarly bereaved Dick Grayson, but having newcomer Kilmer thrown into this role is too much. We haven’t had time to get used to him in the role and we’re already being asked to see his world shaken by the introduction of a new sidekick.

His Batman is also treated with far more flippancy than before. With lines like, ‘it’s the car, right, chicks dig the car’ and the aforementioned drive-thru reference, we were suddenly being asked to treat Batman as a bit of a joke. This would reach its zenith/nadir in the next movie, but most of what’s wrong with Batman and Robin can already be found here. And yet simultaneously Bruce Wayne is saddled with a hell of a lot of emotional baggage: his desire to hang up the Bat suit, his feelings for Dr. Meridian (he even says he’s never been in love before – if this is supposed to be a sequel to Batman Returns, this is a baffling confession) and his primal moment as a child when he fell underground and developed his fear of bats (far better developed later on by Nolan) – that’s a lot of potential drama here and it’s all touched upon, but the effect is hollow. The dialogue’s there and the actors are playing their parts, but the effect is bizarrely uninvolving.

Tommy Lee Jones has very, very little to do with the role of Two-Face, by far the most underwritten main villain in any Batman movie. All he can do is cackle, wail and point guns. Carrey, meanwhile, proves utterly exhausting as The Riddler, overplaying to such intense levels that he borders on unbearable. His Riddler is not a character at all, merely an extended Carrey stand-up routine, with any potential squandered thanks to a relentless parade of dismal puns, goofy faces and ghastly one-liners, the worst of course being his ‘JOYGASM!’ as he destroys the Batcave. We’re simply watching Carrey doing his Carrey thing to the max, which is what I guess we all apparently wanted back in 1995. The soundtrack was also a big seller. Having U2, Mazzy Star, Seal, PJ Harvey, Method Man, The Flaming Lips and Eddi Reader (not all of whom have their songs in the actual movie) all jostling for space on one CD seemed rather incongruous, but it was all part of the film’s ‘something for everybody’ appeal. The problem with this sort of thing is that by attempting to appeal to everybody, there’s a good chance you won’t be wholly embraced by everyone either. The first two Batman films remain beloved because they had a particular vision and embraced it entirely, whereas Schumacher’s approach is closer to a variety act or revue (it makes sense that one scene is set at a circus) – full of razzle dazzle, glitz, showbiz. There’s even a character called ‘Gossip Gerty’, for gawd’s sake.

Oddly, despite both films being cut from the same cloth, it’s usually Batman and Robin that gets the lion’s share of criticism, maybe because at the time nothing else had been quite so bad as it, at least not for a long time in the world of the summer blockbuster. Yet Forever shares a hell of a lot of its successor’s problems, and in fact, since it doesn’t go as far into the abyss, since it doesn’t trip over the line marked ‘outstandingly bad’, Forever, in retrospect, is actually a lot less fun than its successor, more a mediocre bad than anything catastrophic. Up on a big screen, its Vegas spectacle was quite intoxicating to this young viewer, and the mechanics of the plot and the dialogue were overwhelmed by all those colourful lights and snappy direction.

Ultimately, Batman Forever was a fizzy pop rush of a beverage back in 1995. It was pretty bad for us, but it tasted very nice nonetheless. But the bubbles have popped, and this drink now tastes awfully flat. Despite the insistence of its name, this particular Batman has turned out to be sadly finite.

Director: Joel Schumacher
Screenplay: Lee Batchler,
Janet Scott Batchler &
Akiva Goldsman
Music: Elliot Goldenthal
Cinematography: Stephen Goldblatt
Editing: Dennis Virkler

1 comment

  1. Batman Forever is all brash action set pieces with little or no plot to really hold it together. It’s an ok action film, but Riddler and Two Face are a strange duo of villains that never really mesh like Penguin and Catwoman did. Kilmer is rather one note as Batman, and nowhere as good as Keaton in the role, but Odonel is a good addiction as Robin. This could’ve been great possibly if Tim Burton had directed it, but Suchmacher sadly warps everything into a cheesy irreverent mishmash of style over substance.

    Liked by 2 people

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