Over the past 25 years, Batman has become cinema’s new James Bond. A number of actors and directors have rotated their interpretation of the Caped Crusader created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane. This month alone we are expecting the eighth Batman movie since Tim Burton’s 1989 movie, with Ben Affleck being the fifth actor to take up the cape and cowl. For fans of Batman, there is typically no worse representation than Joel Schumacher’s 1999 camp fiasco Batman & Robin. Say what you will about Batman & Robin, at least it has a consistent tone. That could not be said about 1995’s Batman Forever, Schumacher’s first attempt to further pull Batman from the shadows of darkness and into the candy-colored neon lights. Just because it’s not as in your face as Batman & Robin doesn’t mean that Batman Forever is the better film. In fact, Batman Forever is the worst Batman movie ever made.
In order to understand how Schumacher came to transform the character of Batman following two successful films by Burton, look no further than the controversy that followed Burton’s sequel Batman Returns. Parents groups thought the film was too dark in its portrayal of Gotham City, with Danny DeVito’s repellant take on the Penguin causing viewers to squirm. Meanwhile, McDonald’s was dissatisfied with the darker turn on Batman, fearing that the film’s subject matter would negatively affect Happy Meal sales. Batman Forever opens with a mea culpa aimed at the fast food giant, as Val Kilmer’s first line as the Dark Knight is tailor made for an advertisement – “I’ll get drive-thru.”
But Batman Forever isn’t the worst Batman film because it openly panders to its corporate overlords before it even starts, it’s the worst Batman film because of its conflicted tone, alternating between camp and stern seriousness. This is a movie that follows the formula of Batman Returns, with one of its two villains terrorizing the citizens of Gotham in the opening scene and the other being formed following some late night malfeasance at a corporate office. Also like Returns, Forever presents us with the origin of villain while the other exists before the movie starts, though it shows the origins of the wrong character for reasons unknown. But Batman Forever even goes even further in its awfulness by rendering its female lead Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman), a capable professional, with a streak of fetishism for the Caped Crusader. All of this adds up to a film with its own fractured personality.
So Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones) has been terrorizing Gotham with the intention of destroying Batman, who left the former district attorney scarred physically and emotionally. At the scene of his latest rampage, Batman comes swooping in amid neon lights and fanfare to the bombastic score by Elliot Goldsmith. Waiting beside Commissioner Gordon (Pat Hingle) is Dr. Chase Meridian. After complimenting Batman on a “hot entrance,” the esteemed psychologist is all but fawning over the hero with all the subtlety available in a Joel Schumacher film.
Meanwhile at Wayne Enterprises, Edward Nygma (Jim Carey) is obsessed with Bruce Wayne in his own right, his cubicle lined with images of the billionaire. He’s devised a new television device that will project images directly into the minds of viewers, but Wayne finds the invention morally problematic and orders it shut down. Nygma, though, refuses to take no for an answer and kills his boss before taking up the mantle of The Riddler. Before long, The Riddler and Two-Face join forces in order to line their pockets with stolen money and carry out the task of killing the Batman.
Because this was the third Batman movie, Schumacher and writers Akiva Goldsman and Lee & Janet Scott Batchler shoehorned Robin (Chris O’Donnell) into the story, because the absence of the Boy Wonder is what has been holding back these movies. So we’re forced to witness the death of poor Dick Grayson’s family at the hands of Two-Face. This leads the young acrobat on his own quest for vengeance, one that mirrors the family issues that Batman goes through on a daily basis since the murder of his own parents – you know, the same old tired aspect of the Batman. (Darkness. No parents.) Perhaps none of this is remotely interesting because there’s no real difference between Batman or Robin – they’re both orphans driven into a lives masquerading as vigilantes. They should look each other in the eyes and proclaim in unison, “We’re the same, but different.” The only true difference between the two is the fact that Robin is younger than his counterpart, carrying himself with much more energy than Kilmer’s borderline sedated Batman. Perhaps the only thing that could explain Kilmer’s performance is supposing that the years of violence have taken its toll on Bruce Wayne, and the billionaire playboy liberally ingests a cocktail of painkillers multiple times a day. Kilmer is by far the worst actor to ever don the cowl.
The same way there’s seemingly no difference between Batman and Robin, there’s little to differentiate The Riddler and Two-Face. Both Jim Carey and Tommy Lee Jones were extremely hot at the time. Jones had just won an Oscar for his performance in The Fugitive and Carey was coming off a record-setting year at the box office in 1994. Casting these two actors was not the problem. The problem lies in the fact that each actor is playing their roles to 11, hooting and hollering in equally campy and loud performances. For the life of me I can’t figure out why Joel Schumacher would include the origin story of The Riddler over Two-Face, whose origin is much more crucial to the character. The two actors playing villains didn’t get along on set either, with Tommy Lee Jones reportedly saying to Carey, “I cannot sanction your buffoonery.” Sadly for Jones and everyone watching, Batman Forever requires buffoonery from everyone involved.
Director Joel Schumacher tried to have it both ways with Batman Forever, delving into the dark psychological aspects of the character while employing the high camp of the great ’66 series. Those two interpretations are wildly divergent, not exactly jibing well together. It is possible to blend camp and pathos, but Schumacher doesn’t have that deft touch. He’s loud and bombastic in all that he does, and it shows loud and clear throughout Batman Forever. But Batman & Robin is the easy target for the detractors of Schumacher’s Bat-films, pointing the Batman credit card and the cheeseball one-liners spewed by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Batman Forever is even more cringe-worthy than its successor, featuring Robin performing a unique brand of action laundry and steals the Batmobile to fight a group of neon-colored Misfits fans.
After this movie, Schumacher chose to take Batman further into the direction of camp with Batman & Robin, but at least that movie made up its mind about what it wanted to be. Batman Forever features the Caped Crusader and the Boy Wonder ruminating on the deaths of their families while the villains prance about in colorful garb spewing one-liners in what has to be one of the most schizophrenic superhero movies ever constructed. This is a fiasco that somehow wound up being the second highest grossing movie of 1995. Obviously, the film rode the momentum of its stars and the success of the prior entries to a wave of unenthusiastic financial success.
Neon and rubber nipples represented a fundamental shift in the public’s demand for Batman. Actually, it should be argued that Schumacher’s Batman films did more harm to the genre, forcing a demand for the darker characters even when the stories didn’t call for it. With Batman Forever Joel Schumacher laid the ground work to kill off any campy iteration of Batman on celluloid forever. The high camp of Schumacher’s sequels created a demand for the darkened edges of Batman that Christopher Nolan would bring to the screen. It’s quite apparent that Batman will be a part of cinema for the rest of our lives, rotating actors and directors like the never-ending Bond carousel. Yesterday it was Joel Schumacher. Today it’s Zack Snyder. We may not know who’s next in line, but they’ll have a hard time reaching the flashy depths of darkness that is Batman Forever.