Batman Cinematic Universe Retrospective: Batman Forever

Of all the Batman movies that I watched over and over again when I was a child in the mid-90s, Batman Forever was the cinematic entry that I was most excited about revisiting for this series. Okay, not excited, call it a morbid curiosity, since Batman Forever is supposedly the best entry director Joel Schumacher made in the franchise. Thanks to Schumacher’s second, and deservedly last movie, the punishing-with-a-capital-PUN mess that was Batman and Robin, Batman Forever tends to be either forgotten about in the larger conversation of the Caped Crusader’s cinematic efforts, or merely held up as better only by comparison. I remember enjoying it immensely as a child but, alas, we all have to grow up sometime and realize that what entertained us as children can be put into an entirely different context as adults. The Tim Burton movies stand up quite well in terms of this shift, as does the brilliant Mask of the Phantasm, and hell, even Adam West’s effort has some value when taken as the light-hearted spoof that it is. So where does this leave Batman Forever?

In short: it fucking blows. Now it’s my job to try and unpack that harsh statement, and as I was watching the movie in the throes of a full-body cringe, having my senses assaulted with Schumacher’s tacky aesthetic, and downright gasping at the wall-to-wall sexism, I was tempted to throw an exploding Riddler duck at the screen and move on to Batman Begins before the tenuous grip on my sanity finally gave way. Then I realized what my main problem is with Batman Forever: it tries to tell a compelling character-based story yet fails in every respect. Batman Forever may well be Schumacher’s, and the character’s, silver screen nadir because at least Batman and Robin is confidently cheesy and downright shit, but Batman Forever tries to have its cake and eat it by trying to merge a deeper look into the duality of Batman and Bruce Wayne, as well as every other bloody character, but also wants to be light-hearted and sell fucking toys.

I knew I was immediately in for a bad time as soon as the Warner Brothers logo turn into the bat symbol, as Elliot Goldenthal’s belligerent new theme tune smacked me in the face as the camera pushes right into Val Kilmer’s dead eyes as he quips about getting drive-through. That’s the movie we’re getting, the movie where The Dark Knight’s first line reminds you that the kids can get a crappy tie-in toy if their parents took them to McDonalds afterwards. I realize that Burton’s movies also existed in part to sell Batman merch, but that never got in the way of the world he built and the stories he wanted to tell. At this point, mainly because Batman Returns was definitely not suitable for children, Warner Bros turned the franchise into an advert for other things, like the dreadfully designed Batmobile.

Everything about this movie is either ugly, painful, or completely overblown, except Val Kilmer. To date, there hasn’t been a worse Batman or Bruce Wayne than Val Kilmer. His performance as two warring sides of our main character lacks the depth that Schumacher was obviously going for; any time he tries to emote, or crack a joke, or move at all, it just looks like he has trapped wind (which might have something to do with the skintight suit he wears, seriously, that must cut off ventilation). The rest of the performances, apart from the ever-reliable Michael Gough as Alfred, are just as bad. Tommy Lee Jones is downright embarrassing as Two-Face. Jim Carrey is the personification of the worst-noise-in-the-world gag from Dumb and Dumber, but in green tights. Chris O’Donnell would be much worse in Batman and Robin, but he doesn’t cover himself in glory here. Yet, if I’m completely honest, none of them were given good characters to play in the first place.

Batman Forever’s themes (that’s right, there’s themes) present the seeds for a really interesting story about the destructive nature of duality and obsession. As with the last three movies, trauma plays a big role as well, yet Batman Forever can never maintain any sense of the nuance needed to explore these themes properly. Tim Burton is no one’s pick for the deepest director, but Batman and Batman Returns found an easy balance with the gothic setting and operatic storytelling, and a genuine sense of humor, while still honoring the themes that are the bedrock of those stories. Sure, on the page Bruce has genuine turmoil as he tries to come to terms with his dual identities, and Schumacher actually pulls off some genuine artistry in the flashbacks to the traumatic parts of his past that he has been repressing. Burton gave us the death of Bruce’s parents, but Batman Forever completes the picture with Bruce’s fall into the Batcave and discovery of the symbol that he would use to fight for justice. The symbolic significance of Bruce’s father’s journal is a nifty motif, but Kilmer stinks up each sequence with his wooden acting.

Two-Face and The Riddler are the true failures of the movie because, despite Schumacher’s efforts, they have no duality. The best Two-Face stories always have the battle between Harvey Dent’s personas, signified by his coin, but this version is a cackling madman and nothing more. Harvey Dent is, apart from his hilarious origin scene (where Batman leaps to the front of a crowded courtroom, in the middle of the damn day, in full costume. Was he just hanging out there waiting for an opportunity?), nowhere to be seen in this movie. Also absent is The Riddler, and I mean that literally, thanks to Jim Carrey doing his level best to murder every scene he’s in with his overblown schtick with a 100% success rate. As Edward Nigma, Carrey tries to sell the obsession with Bruce Wayne but his performance is so offputting that any character consistency gets lost in all of the noise. Carrey actually manages to be the exact opposite of the character he is trying to mirror: he’s too loud and Kilmer is too quiet. What’s so galling about this is that I’m a huge fan of both Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey, both of whom were lucky not to have their careers torched by this monstrosity.

The same cannot be said for poor Chris O’Donnell as the edgy Robin. What is so surprising about Dick Grayson’s arc is that it’s buried under the weight of the rest of Batman Forever’s plot. At best Dick’s transformation from tragic acrobat to superhero sidekick is a c-plot. He doesn’t even get a cool entrance in his costume: he just shuffles down the stairs for god sake. I’ve heard that a lot of said transformation was left on the cutting room floor, with many deleted scenes dealing with Dick’s training. The question becomes: what did Schumacher think was so important that he had to clear half of Robin’s origin story to keep it in?

The answer is a metric fuckton of sexism. It’s sadly no exaggeration to say that Batman Forever hates women. It starts with the mandatory love interest (never a strong part of these movies) Dr. Chase Meridian, the psychologist sexpot who uses the Bat signal, that thing that tells Batman people are in danger, as a tool for a booty call. Nicole Kidman is an incredible actress: I only have to look as far back as last year for at least three brilliant performances (Big Little Lies, The Beguiled, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer if you’re looking for suggestions) but here she plays a truly terrible doctor. Is it standard practice to kiss the guy who is about to reach the crucial point of his repressed memories? Didn’t think so. The rest of the female cast are merely playthings for the villains, with Drew Barrymore and Debi Mazar as Two-Face’s girlfriends called Sugar and Spice (kill me!) completing the cavalcade of vacuous sex kittens. The movie’s most egregious sin in this regard comes in the form of Dick saving a girl who is about to be either mutilated, raped, or both, who of course thanks him by kissing him. Because, you know, damsels, man, all horny after they’ve been threatened with rape. Hope the kids enjoyed those happy meals.

Much like The Riddler’s masterplan, watching Batman Forever feels like getting your brain sucked out of your head and put in again, only backwards. Joel Schumacher’s attempt at making a deep superhero character drama mixed with a cartoon show that would have been cancelled before the opening credits finished has me finally understanding what the direct opposite of a joygasm is: this fucking movie.

If you enjoyed this retrospective, please be sure to tune in next week for our look at the next Joel Schumacher Batman movie. You can also take a look at our other cinematic universe retrospectives, for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Jurassic Park movies! And, as ever, if you enjoyed this and want to see more stuff like it, please consider supporting us on Patreon.

By Kevin Boyle

(header image courtesy of Pinsound)

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