“Those who cannot remember [BATMAN FOREVER] are condemned to repeat it.” –George Santayana, The Life of Reason, 1905
You guys wanna see a hit summer blockbuster that was well received at the time, but has since been disavowed like a discredited ideology? The summer of 1995 gives you BATMAN FOREVER.
Just six years earlier Tim Burton had smashed open the zeitgeist with BATMAN, which had been used as somewhat of a reference point for would-be blockbusters since, clearly influencing at least the scoring and marketing of DICK TRACY, DARKMAN, THE ROCKETEER and THE SHADOW, for example. But Burton’s second one, BATMAN RETURNS (1992) was weirder, more personal, and therefore less enthusiastically received by the public. That made the studio weary about plans for a Burton-directed part 3, and they parted ways. Burton is credited as an executive producer on FOREVER, but apparently his only role was to give the new director his blessing and meet with screenwriters Lee & Janet Scott Batchler once to discuss the importance of duality in Batman characters.
Joel Schumacher was a weird but not controversial choice for a replacement. People remembered THE LOST BOYS, FALLING DOWN and maybe FLATLINERS as good movies. And he did THE CLIENT – you know, those John Grisham court room thrillers were a big deal in the ’90s, for some reason. I wonder what happened to that whole genre. Anyway, a 1993 Entertainment Weekly article said “Hiring Schumacher to direct the summer-of-’95 release is seen by insiders as an attempt by Warner Bros. to get the Batman movies back on track” because “Warner doesn’t want a repeat of the macabre 1992 sequel, BATMAN RETURNS, which frightened small children and angered many parents.” It goes on to quote an anonymous “source close to the project” as saying they didn’t want Burton to direct because “he’s too dark and odd for them.”
Yeah, because Schumacher made a real normal movie. No oddness to see here. Just a couple of bros in shiny plastic muscles driving a car up the side of a building. Don’t worry about it, fellas.
Burton and Keaton both reportedly okayed Schumacher taking over. In fact, at the time of that article Keaton was still supposed to be playing Batman. Maybe that’s why even after Val Kilmer replaced him there was enough connecting tissue that people took it more as BATMAN 3 than as what we now call a “reboot.” Michael Gough still plays Alfred (maybe the only likable character in the Schumacher movies), Pat Hingle still plays Commissioner Gordon, Catwoman is mentioned, Elliot Goldenthal’s score definitely takes inspiration from Danny Elfman’s baroque textures, and Schumacher does his own take on Burton’s mixed time periods, dark skies and big artificial looking backlots with giant statues. Also the Batman costume used for most of the movie is still designed by Bob Ringwood (with veteran Schumacher collaborator Ingrid Ferrin) and looks very similar, although it’s shinier and in at least one scene you can see that yes, it has nipples. The actual costume is currently on display in the lobby of Seattle’s Cinerama, if you want to see the nipples close up. I noticed it doesn’t have a belly button though. What’s the deal with that?
Later in the movie, though, he gets a different suit that’s lighter-colored and even shinier and has weird vents and shit on it. Batman Maxx. There’s also a different Batmobile, even bigger than the last one, I think, but now with giant fins and un-aerodynamic slits all over revealing its light-up innards. That didn’t come from the unused design they commissioned from H.R. Giger – his looked more like an intestine than a rib cage.
Schumacher’s Gotham City is less art deco and has lots of neon lights in it. And it’s a different theme song, a different Harvey Dent (Tommy Lee Jones [UNDER SIEGE] instead of Billy Dee Williams – does a three named guy always have to play Two Face?), but most of all it has a different tone. It’s much tackier and broader and jokier. FOREVER makes RETURNS, which featured three colorful villains and an army of penguins with missile launchers on their backs, seem restrained and grounded.
The opening scene seems intent on parodying Burton’s gothic grandeur. A dramatic suiting-up/revving-up-the-Batmobile scene turns out to be setup for a wacky joke about Alfred telling Batman to take a sandwich and Batman saying he’ll get drive-thru. Later a similar montage follows the usual close-ups of Batman pulling on his gloves and boots with a shot of his g-stringed bat-ass. If this was just meant as gender fair play I’d let it go, but it doesn’t play as sexy. It’s definitely timed and framed to get a cheap laugh at the expense of building up drama.
Though shooting mostly in the dark, Schumacher treats Batman with more Adam West era camp than before. This is a Batman who appears during a trial, stands openly on the sidewalk talking to people, gives a thumbs up from the batplane, and has a comically large smile in one scene because a girl likes him. It also has some explanatory dialogue as if it’s a radio play, like when Two Face pours some sort of hot, corrosive liquid into the safe that Batman and a security guard are locked in and the guard yells “OH NO! IT’S BOILING ACID!”
The movie is peppered with groan-worthy gags, but it’s the overall tone and style that’s most grating. Jones and Jim Carrey (THE DEAD POOL) as the Riddler are in a high level competition to see who can best make Jack Nicholson’s Joker seem subtle and underplayed. Jones puts in some serious effort, going mega but not in a way that can make the character appealing. Instead of half good, half evil this version of Two Face is half regular, half outrageous. So he’s Tommy Lee Jones on his right and a purple monster guy with a zebra striped suit on the other side. Half evil, half party animal. In that poster we can’t see his left arm but I’m almost positive he’s giving a high five to Spuds Mackenzie. He also has two young, pantsless girlfriends, Sugar (Drew Barrymore) and Spice (Debi Mazar), who stay on opposite sides of his apartment, which is split into good and evil or something, and compete for his attention. Not a healthy relationship in my opinion.
His binary gimmick isn’t explained very well, and I think once his coin landed on the good side and he re-flipped it like a cheater. The only part where I liked his performance was near the end when he interrupts his evil plot to quickly admit that Bruce Wayne has always been a good friend, then gets back to it.
In the scene-chewing contest Carrey comes home with the gold and 12 endorsement deals. Even as regular citizen and Wayne Enterprises employee Edward Nygma he won’t let a line come out of his mouth without doing a funny voice, a goofy face, a random shout or dance move or a weird pose or gesture or (usually) several of the above. The funny thing is Robin Williams was offered the role and must’ve been shown the wrong script, because supposedly “He believed the character was too intellectual and not as comedic as the Riddler played by Frank Gorshin on the TV series.”
Carrey, who had become a surprise movie star with ACE VENTURA just a few months before being cast, seemed to think the role was all about Williams-on-a-talk-show style riffing. He’s like a jazz musician who got a horrible head injury and now only knows how to play the squawky parts of the solos, and not in the proper sequence.
Of course he’s doing his thing, and nobody else could do it quite the same. But for my tastes it’s not even close to funny or an interesting portrayal of a character, even a larger-than-life one. This is not so much acting as “spazzing out.” At one point he yells out “JOY-GASM!”, so maybe we should call this style joygastic acting. And sure, he got good at spinning that cane around, but so did Michael Sheen in TRON LEGACY. He still sucked.
In 1995, though, Carrey got some pretty good acclaim. Mick LaSalle wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle, “This is in marked contrast to Jim Carrey as the Riddler, who is even more way-out than Jones’ Two-Face yet always seems grounded in understandable emotion. The Riddler’s lust, child-like vindictiveness, insecurity and screaming-preening narcissism are always right near the surface in Carrey’s performance, which is the film’s main delight.”
By the way, Schumacher says that Michael Jackson wanted to play the Riddler. That would’ve been interesting.
The plot, one of the messiest in any super hero movie, involves Nygma’s invention of “the 3D Box,” which looks like a blender with a bunch of random crap welded to it, and people put it on their TVs to make TV shows look like parts of them are floating out of the TV, but actually it’s stealing their brainwaves to make Nygma smarter, or at least that’s what he keeps saying, although I’m not sure there’s any evidence to support that. And really I’m surprised the FCC let this thing through. He’s also obsessed with Bruce Wayne and creates the secret identity of The Riddler so he can send him riddles that over time piece together to reveal his real identity, which Batman should’ve known from the beginning having been exposed to this weirdo in and out of disguise within a couple of days.
The Riddler teams with “Harvey Two-Face” to rob banks and one of those big charity circuses, where some careless tommy gun fire takes out acrobat Dick Grayson (Chris O’Donnell, MAX PAYNE)’s mother, father and brother while he’s getting rid of a giant bomb. Bruce Wayne, meanwhile, was there on a date but the cumbersome rubber batsuit is back at home I guess so he’s running around in his tux trying to reveal his identity.
Grayson looks like an adult but they treat him like he’s supposed to be a minor and send him to stately Wayne Manor to live with the rich guy. He whines about not being a hero and saving his family, which is very humble considering he saved everyone else in the building by disposing of the bomb. And he never holds it over Bruce that he lost his entire family, not just his parents. (Bruce only mentions the parents when feeling sorry for him. The brother is invisible to him.) Otherwise, though, he’s an obnoxious dick whose idea of rebellion is calling Alfred “Al,” and other lines that could’ve been written for a Corey Feldman character in the ’80s.
Of course Grayson becomes the iconic comic book super hero sidekick we know as Robin. Conventional 1995 wisdom dictated that a kid in a colorful outfit helping Batman was totally stupid, but this was much cooler: an adult man with an earring wearing dark maroon plastic He-Man muscles and complaining about stuff. This is not your father’s Boy Wonder. He namedrops rare motorcycles, does a complicated series of flips to sneak into the Batcave and, most incredibly, does… well, check out this scene where he does laundry, that’s all I can say.
This might have the worst love story of any super hero movie to date. Young, hot Nicole Kidman, in the same year as her acclaimed leading performance in TO DIE FOR, plays psychiatrist Chase Meridian, who aggressively hits on Batman right at the beginning, talking lustily about rubber suits and psychological trauma. Then she uses the bat signal in an attempted booty call, forcing Batman to scold her with the notorious line “the bat-signal is not a beeper,” then sit in the Batmobile for a beat and grunt “Women.”
But he goes to see her briefly as Bruce Wayne (she’s practicing kickboxing when he gets there, but never uses it for a fight, let alone to do laundry, so I don’t know why that’s in there) and on a quickly interrupted date to the circus, then all the sudden he’s telling Alfred he’s never been in love like this before and wants to confess and quit being Batman. He barely knows her! He’s like a kid who touched a boob for the first time and can’t think straight. He’s gone boob simple. I guess to be fair he did climb into her window as Batman and try to fuck her and she turned him down because she likes Bruce now. That’s sweet, but it’s “try a second date” stuff, not “give up the crusade that you’ve invested decades of your life and millions of dollars into” stuff, in my opinion.
A good symbol for the difference between Burton’s approach and Schumacher’s is the soundtracks. Burton didn’t want the Prince songs in BATMAN, but still, he got a one-artist soundtrack, by a great artist, doing a very consistent and interesting concept album thematically intertwined with the movie. For RETURNS he used a song by Siouxsie and the Banshees during the masquerade sequence, but otherwise it’s only Elfman’s score. Schumacher, on the other hand, did the disposable-studio-bullshit approach of hiring 14 popular artists to hand over a patchwork of songs that don’t remotely fit together or with the movie. What the hell are U2, PJ Harvey, Brandy, Seal, The Offspring, etc. etc. songs doing in Gotham City? Fuck if anyone knows.
Also it turns out there’s a Method Man song about The Riddler?
Oh shit, that’s good! Tical era Method Man. I have no idea if that’s really in the movie somewhere. I didn’t notice it.
Looking at the Rotten Tomatoes’s and what not, FOREVER doesn’t register as a critical hit. Reviews I can find from the time were mostly mixed, but some would describe it in an excited tone that seems funny now that almost everybody agrees it’s a tacky piece of shit. Owen Glieberman’s review in Entertainment Weekly, for example, flattered the movie with this passage:
“Yet Batman Forever is funkier and more satisfying than the scattershot Batman Returns. Although the film’s frenetic rhythm is reminiscent of an Indiana Jones picture, visually Schumacher directs it like a musical, turning each image into eye candy, weaving one lush set piece into the next, as if he were the Vincente Minnelli of blockbusters. It’s not just that the sets (Edward Nygma’s demented pad, the charcoal Batcave) are entrancing; the moods they create define the characters.”
But we’re talking about an era when the hit summer blockbusters included THE FLINSTONES, STARGATE, INDEPENDENCE DAY, TWISTER, ERASER and SPACE JAM. My memory is that the average person on the street accepted FOREVER as great summer entertainment, and what a comic book movie was supposed to be. A defense of the Schumacher movies on the websight Batman Online explains, “Back in a time when a film’s entertainment value was what mattered most, BATMAN FOREVER rose to the top of the box office food-chain to dominate its year of release.” Though he prefers the Burton movies, he blames internet hyper-criticalness for FOREVER’s bad reputation, which I think translates to the same “leave your brain at the door” defense people used back then. But I don’t see how that even works on this one. You’d have to leave your taste at the door too. Yes, this is dumber than most dumb movies by several orders, but that’s low on its list of crimes. I would rank stupidity below ugly design, poor stortyelling, obnoxious acting styles, embarrassing humor and overall lack of cohesiveness in tone or style.
When young people today tear into what I think is a decent if imperfect super hero movie, like MAN OF STEEL or THE AVENGERS 2: REVENGE OF THE AVENGERS or the IRON MAN sequels or THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, it’s fair of course. But it’s hard for me not to think jesus kid, you don’t know how good you have it. In my day the most popular comic book movie was the one where an actor who didn’t seem very invested in the role wore plastic muscles with nipples on them and talked to a guy who did kung fu laundry about fighting a purple zebra man and a hyperactive guy with orange hair in a rhinestone-covered leotard who used a blender to suck green beams out of people’s brains.
AND WE LIKED IT.
In the U.S., BATMAN FOREVER was the highest grossing movie of the year (the rest of the world chose correctly, DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE). FOREVER made $337 million worldwide, about $70 million more than BATMAN RETURNS, so by studio logic they succeeded in their goal of “getting back on track.” Of course, that success led to giving Schumacher free rein on BATMAN AND ROBIN, which made alot less and was so widely hated that it took them 8 years to figure out how to make another Batman movie. Schumacher’s second BATMAN is more extreme than FOREVER, and honestly more fun because they’re both garbage but at least the other one has Arnold Schwarzenegger in a robot suit sliding on dinosaur tails and making ice puns.
The Seal song “Kiss From a Rose” won three Grammies: Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, Record of the Year and Song of the Year. (But it was on his self-titled album before it was on the soundtrack so I’m not sure which one gets credit here.)
Screenwriters the Batchlers have only had two other feature credits in the 20 years since – the Scott Spiegel-directed DTV movie MY NAME IS MODESTY: A MODESTY BLAISE ADVENTURE (2004) and Paul W.S. Anderson’s POMPEI (2014). Akiva Goldsman, however, who rewrote their script to Schumacher’s specifications, has become an extremely prolific writer and producer and won an Oscar for writing A BEAUTIFUL MIND. He is responsible for A TIME TO KILL, BATMAN AND ROBIN, LOST IN SPACE and THE DA VINCI CODE, among other things. He directed the apparently insane A WINTER’S TALE, and he’s overseeing plans for a “TRANSFORMERS cinematic universe” which, I’m guessing, means TRANSFORMERS 5 and one or zero unsuccessful spin-offs. He has become buddies with Will Smith, so his movies that I’m okay with are I, ROBOT and I AM LEGEND.
The assaultive terribleness of the 1997 followup killed any notion of Schumacher as a trustworthy director of blockbusters. He started going smaller and got great reviews for TIGERLAND, which was a breakthrough role for Colin Farrell (much as his A TIME TO KILL had been for Matthew McConaughey). He worked with Carrey again on THE NUMBER 23, which was not well received and I’ve heard Carrey has a saxophone around his neck that he never plays. I should watch that. Since then Schumacher has verged on straight to video with movies like BLOOD CREEK and TRESPASS, and directed two episodes of House of Cards.
I do honestly believe that Schumacher’s gawdy approach to Batman did have kind of a phoenix effect that led to the modern era of comic book movies. His choices were so uniformly terrible that they destroyed the public’s taste for the genre and temporarily killed it. Their unparallelled awfulness made it possible for the executives who thought this was “getting back on track” to throw their hands in the air and let somebody try something different. Without this we never could’ve had Christopher Nolan re-beginning Batman, but I think it also helped make the opening salvos of the modern comic book movie like BLADE and X-MEN seem really refreshing.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.