Today there’s a pretty short leash with comic book movies because the bar has been raised so high. In the last 15 years, films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as well as Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy have opened up the possibilities for things like world building and scope. Now, audiences and critics alike expect these films to be great because they know they can be, and it’s done often.
However, even before this new era, there was a relatively short leash with comic book movies, but not because of high standards. It was because everyone expected them to be terrible. Most were written off before their release. There are some semi-exceptions, of course, such as Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman and 1992 Batman Returns, both starring Michael Keaton in the title role. Both films are undoubtedly great for the time, with the latter holding up much better. Even still, the reviews were only mixed-to-positive.
For the third film in the series, 1995’s Batman Forever, Burton was asked to step down by the studio because McDonald’s (?) complained that his version of Batman was too dark and scary for kids (although he’s still a producer on the project). So, Warner Bros. hired Joel Schumacher, previously known for The Lost Boys and St. Elmo’s Fire—a fairly good resume. He and Keaton, who was still attached to the project, wanted this new Batman to be more of an origins story, inspired by Frank Miller’s acclaimed arc from Year One, which Nolan eventually used for his own trilogy. The studio shut this idea down as well since they didn’t want a prequel. Eventually Keaton left the project due to concerns with all these creative changes. Val Kilmer was then cast in his place after Schumacher saw him in Tombstone. With everything shaken around for this new film, things could have been a lot worse.
It’s almost difficult to pinpoint the main premise of Batman Forever, other than “Batman fights Two-Face and The Riddler”, but that’s pretty much the best way to explain it without falling into straight summarization. The two villains team up to try and kill Batman for their own reasons. Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones), previously District Attorney Harvey Dent, has a bone to pick with Batman after he failed to stop acid being thrown on him, which caused half of his face to become deformed (although Batman’s alter ego, Bruce Wayne, was there and tried to stop it). The Riddler (Jim Carrey), previously Edward Nygma, was a former employee of Wayne’s, and perhaps his number one fan. That is, until Nygma presented to Wayne his invention, which beams TV broadcasts into people’s brains. Wayne said he would need to think about it, since brain manipulation has a lot of inherent risks. Nygma unrealistically demands an answer right on the spot, to which Wayne changes his response to a “no.” Nygma gets furious and vows revenge on Wayne. Inspired by Two-Face, he decides to become a villain himself.
Nygma, now Riddler, tracks down Two-Face and promises to deliver him Batman’s true identity if he helps him exact his brain-manipulation device all over Gotham City. What Riddler doesn’t know is that Two-Face is a terrible villain, constantly self-sabotaging and acting with far too much haste to be effective and successful. Though, the way his incompetence is presented makes it seem like he’s just a badly constructed antagonist, rather than there being a certain creative intent behind his self-sabotage. We don’t dive deep enough into his idiosyncrasies.
Meanwhile, both Bruce Wayne and Batman separately develop a love interest in a psychiatrist named Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman), who thinks she’s involved in a love triangle with the hero and the billionaire. Wayne and Meridian are attending the circus one evening when Two-Face arrives and shoots up the place in an attempt to lure Batman. He ends up killing a family of acrobats, except for one member: Dick Grayson (Chris O’Donnell). Wayne, feeling responsible for the death of his family and now relating to Grayson’s orphanage as an orphan himself, takes the teenager into his own home.
Grayson resists at first, but soon discovers that Wayne is Batman, and wants to join up with him so he can exact his own revenge against Two-Face for killing his family. Batman, who famously doesn’t kill his villains, tells Grayson—now Robin—that revenge won’t fix his pain. Although he recognizes that Grayson may have to take his own journey to arrive at that conclusion.
At times we have a hard time making sense of characters’ motives and thought processes, since there seems to be a conflict between blockbuster action and character development within the script. There’s this underlying theme of “two sides to every person,” which attempts to compare the personality disorder of Two-Face and the two lives of Wayne/Batman. The film presents some decent depth, but it’s almost always overt, straying away from much subtext or poeticism. Batman Forever lacks the franchise’s typical apparent humanity, but it’s still there underneath it all.
The cast is great, but only held back by a subpar script (written by Lee Batchler, Janet Scott Batchler, and Akiva Goldsman), a slight lack of focus on the overall trajectory, and a touch of misguided self-aggrandizement—which shouldn’t all be blamed on Schumacher. Although his slow-moving pace doesn’t help.
Kilmer is a good actor and a great Batman. Where Keaton gave us some natural quirks when he acted as Bruce Wayne, his masked alter ego lacked a certain charm. Kilmer has more character while wearing the bat suit. He doesn’t treat Batman and Wayne as two completely separate entities, but creates an overlap with their identities and gives his masked side an actual personality. You see Wayne in Batman and you see Batman in Wayne—and this is done probably better than any Batman before or since. And this overlap only helps to juxtapose the completely separate personalities of his two villains.
Jim Carrey was brought on board during the height of his career. Coming off of a spectacular year in 1994, Carrey responds with Batman Forever, and, despite your opinion on the film itself, easily makes it more watchable. Kilmer is a great Batman, but Batman is nothing without his villains. Jones does a solid job, but he wouldn’t have carried this movie alone. Carrey gives us plenty of amazing one-liners, many of which are definitely ad-libbed, and shows us how effective he is as a villain. He’s undoubtedly the selling point here.
However, the filmmakers don’t quite utilize this character’s hook well enough throughout the movie. Riddler is constantly throwing riddles at Batman, but this element is used only tangentially as part of the story. It would have been nice to get a sense of mystery revolving around these riddles to string along the plot.
The movie doesn’t deprive us of character, yet there’s somehow still a blandness to the story. However, there are flashes when Schumacher and his team of writers throw in some cool and interesting turn-of-events when it counts.
Batman Forever is less dark, but definitely just as stylized as Burton’s versions. The world created has a definite appeal, but we’re constantly suffocated by constricting shots and a lack of exploration of its universe. We don’t get immersed in these tasty sets as much as we would like to. And then gadgetry usage isn’t clear or creative enough either. During the action scenes, it’s often difficult to figure out what’s even happening.
The studio’s spirit behind the project may have been skewed from the start, as they desired for the film to have more merchandising appeal than the previous two, putting the cart before the horse as they say—not really what you want to be thinking about first and foremost. Their commercial ideals seemed to contrast greatly with Schumacher’s creative vision, even though he’s the one who gets the bad wrap.
While not a better film than Batman Returns, Batman Forever definitely feels more like a Batman movie—at least more like some of the comics and even the ’60s TV series. There’s a certain type of humor here that had been lacking in the two Burton installments. Schumacher combines old school campiness with the darker tone of “new era” Batman. The jokes are more tongue-in-cheek, with a priority on a more accessible type of humor rather than the dark comedy stylings of Burton.
Let’s take a moment to reconsider Batman Forever’s bad reputation and realize that even despite its rocky foundation, Schumacher and company manage to crank out an above-average movie, if not a solidly entertaining one, with much owed to the pieces that make up the production as a whole.