In this week’s Throwback Thursday, I wanted to do a piece about the third ‘Batman’ movie in the original run from the late 80s and 90s, because it seems like it’s the forgotten film in the series and even worse, often gets attacked wrongly by those who maligned its follow-up ‘Batman & Robin’ simply because they were directed by the same person, Joel Schumacher. The two movies are quite different and what no one remembers is that ‘Batman Forever’ was a huge hit that blew away the one before it, ‘Batman Returns.’
Allow me first to set the stage. 1989’s ‘Batman’ directed by Tim Burton which featured Michael Keaton in the lead became the highest grossing film of all time when it was released. Unfortunately, Burton, an eccentric director who’d previously directed ‘Beetlejuice’ and ‘Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure’ indulged his quirky nature when it came time to direct the sequel, ‘Batman Returns.’ He changed the Penguin from a normal, pudgy crime boss into a deformed mutant, whose henchmen were a grotesque dark circus. The bleak film was a hit, but fell far short of expectations. After the success of the first film, it was a let down.
Burton was on the fence about even doing a sequel, so he naturally stepped down after ‘Batman Returns’ and Warner Brothers selected ‘Lost Boys’ director Joel Schumacher to succeed him. (Burton remained attached as a producer.) After the dark and disappointing ‘Batman Returns’ Warner Brothers wanted some changes, so Schumacher created a brighter, more action oriented film. Burton’s biggest influence was ‘The Dark Knight Returns’, Frank Miller’s bleak apocalyptic graphic novel. Schumacher chose to embrace Batman’s entire publishing history, remodeling Gotham City to pay homage to the comics of the 50s and 60s, with huge advertising billboards. The brighter, lighter take was a huge smash, grossing over $325 million in its initial run.
But over the years, the glow has dimmed. Schumacher’s dreadful follow-up, ‘Batman & Robin’ got even bigger and louder, and less faithful to the comics. Warner Brothers forced him to make the movie appeal to kids and even to incorporate multiple costume changes and vehicles just so they could make toys of them. The fourth Batman was so bad, it killed the franchise, scrapping plans for a fifth film ‘Batman Triumphant’. It wouldn’t be revived until 2005’s ‘Batman Begins’ which was devoid of every ounce of flash and humor that had marked Schumacher’s films.
For years, I’ve been getting into fights online with other “fans” who wrongly dismiss ‘Forever’ as being the same campy mess that ‘B&R’ was. They’re not alike at all. Well, maybe a little. But at the time, most fans found ‘Forever’ to be a welcome breath of fresh air after the darker, disappointing ‘Batman Returns.’
I just sat down to rewatch it, partially to make sure I was right and it was actually good. Sometimes you like something only to later figure out that it was really terrible the whole time. I wanted to make sure that after all that arguing that I was actually right. So what did I think, all these years later?
There’s good and bad. The movie is bloated. It’s two hours long and it takes a long time to get going. They could have trimmed the first hour quite a bit. It’s also convoluted and somewhat nonsensical at times. (Why did Two-Face and The Riddler blow up the Batcave and kidnap Chase, but leave Bruce/Batman behind?)
The performances can be excruciating, even among the bit players like the annoyingly hysterical security guard at the beginning and the over-the-top “Gossip Gertie.” Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey seemed to be competing to see who could out-overact the other. On the other hand, Nicole Kidman’s Chase Meridian overdoes the bombshell role. She tries too hard to come across sexy, but she is a real turn-off.
But there are bright spots, the biggest of which is Val Kilmer as Bruce Wayne/Batman. Kilmer got it right. Michael Keaton brought a dark edge to the role and was a great actor, but at the end of the day, does he really look like he could be Batman? Debatable. Kilmer also exuded darkness, but as Wayne, exhibited a James Bond swagger that really sold the role. He was a great choice for the role. (Unfortunately, he and Schumacher clashed and he ultimately did not return for ‘Batman & Robin.’ If he had, could it have turned out differently?)
And the WASP-y Chris O’Donnell actually made it work as an edgy street smart Robin. That role could easily come across as corny and he managed to stay credible. I’m sure he was probably using a stunt double, but this Robin came across as very nimble and acrobatic, which is how he should be.
And it certainly helps that the majority of the excellent supporting cast from Burton’s two films reprised their roles, including the perfectly cast Michael Gough as Alfred and Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon. (Also, fun fact: The four hookers that approach Robin when he’s out joyriding in the Batmobile are the 90s R&B/pop divas En Vogue!)
The movie has its flaws, I must admit. Like I said, it’s bloated. After ‘Returns’ upped the ante by including two villains, I guess they felt like they had to keep going with that trend, so you have two heroes, two villains and a love interest, plus Alfred. I honestly found Two-Face and the Riddler redundant and could have settled for just one or the other. Two-Face’s past is just hinted at, but Riddler gets the full origin treatment as one of those “only in movies” bumbling mad scientists, Edward Nygma, who invents a device that creates a fully immersive interactive device, making users feel like they are inside of a TV show or movie. Here’s the problem. If someone really invented that, they’d be a millionaire. And indeed, the device is a massive hit, causing riots when stores sold out of it. So… why not just enjoy your millions? Why do you have to put on a spandex catsuit and go after Batman? That’s just… stupid. The rubbery Carrey clearly drew inspiration from Frank Gorshin’s giddy portrayal of the villain on the 60s ‘Batman’ TV show, bouncing around like a living cartoon.
Tommy Lee Jones hams it up in a role he probably should never have been offered. Jones just doesn’t strike me as the comic book movie type. He sinks his teeth in, though, matching Carrey’s manic performance step for step. The problem is, Two-Face is rarely depicted as being over-the-top. He’s more of a strategist. A quieter, more tragic figure. Perhaps had that approach been employed, it would have helped balance out the Riddler’s bountiful energy. Instead we get dueling wackos.
As for the positives, despite being trapped in another chunky suit of armor, Kilmer’s Batman is more physical than Keaton’s lumbering version. When we first see him in action, he swings down from a rooftop in true comic book style. There are several more instances of Batman swooping and leaping the way the comic version does throughout the film, so that’s welcome.
For its somewhat nonsensical plotting, at least the movie is fun. ‘Batman Returns’ was simply too weird and indulgent. Schumacher eschews a lot of Burton’s oddness and goes for a more straightforward approach. There are still the set pieces though, like Robin’s battle with glow-in-the-dark street thugs or the opening helicopter battle between Batman and Two-Face. And there is still some darkness and drama, inspired by Batman’s tragic origin as well, so it’s not all fun and games.
Overall, if your definitive Batman is Christian Bale, this is obviously not the movie for you. That version is set in a world much closer to our own. But if you enjoyed Burton’s quirkier take, give ‘Batman Forever’ another shot. Yes its sequel, ‘Batman & Robin,’ is simply dreadful and tiny bits of what sank that movie, like the camp and humor, do start to pop up in ‘Batman Forever,’ but it’s not quite as full-blown and outrageous yet.
While I do see the flaws, and did cringe at the overacting, I can still take this as a lighter, more energetic Batman and considering how many different versions there have been in the comics and other media through the years, I think this take works.