This is where I fell off the boat. I was twelve in 1995, when the Batman blitz began again, and from the start, things felt different. For one thing, I’d started paying attention to the news. This new thing called “the internet” was suddenly driving up everyone’s phone bills, an instantaneous worldwide communication network that quickly became the ultimate gossip and pornography distribution system. And the gossip surrounding Batman Forever set all my Red Alerts ringing.
Everyone learned all the wrong lessons from Batman Returns. And I mean everyone. America’s Moral Guardians learned that Tim Burton was a demented genius, something any of Burton fan could’ve told them a decade before, had the assholes bothered to ask. They complained his film was “too dark,” that it had stained the eyes of their precious Children with twisted sexuality and Danny Devito’s idiotic one-liners. Economics compelled Warner Brothers to Think of the Children and consign Burton to a Producer-in-name-only-credit (he was off making Mars Attacks).
Replacing him, Warner Brothers hired the director of 1993s Falling Down and 1994’s smash hit, The Client: Joel…God help us all…Schumacher. And, true to his reputation as an all-around nice guy, not at all deserving of the jokes I’m about to make at his expense, Joel brought along The Client‘s writer: Akiva…fuck me running…Goldsman.
I can’t even watch this credit sequence anymore without taking immediate, serious issue with everything. After the flying flock of names assault us, we see Batman (now Val Kilmer) suiting up for a night’s work. Schumacher wastes some time fetishizing the Bat-gadgets before we notice Bats and Alfred (still Michael Gough) have apparently spend the last two years redesigning everything. The cave, the car, the suit: it’s all different, with no explanation. At least Darkman blew up his own hideout at the end of his first film (spoiler alert), and the Turtles sure as hell couldn’t go back to their old sewer din after the Foot Clan found it. Bats must’ve just had a little midlife crisis, what with all the hot blond chicks who keep walkin’ out on him. Gee, Bruce: think that might have something to do with your pathological lying?
Alright – fine. Our Hero says his Action Movie One Liner for the trailers (and the many, many Micky-D’s commercials that assaulted us through out the Summer of ’95) before blasting off. Turns out former District Attorney Harvey Dent, now known as Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones), has taken a guard hostage inside the 2nd Bank of Gotham on this, the second anniversary of the night Batman first captured him. “Didn’t see this one coming,” Commissioner Gordon (still Pat Hingle) says as Batman swings down for a pre-fight chat. In full view of the enormous crowd behind the police barricades. That sound you hear? That’s the sound of various ninja masters the world over weeping in shame for their prize student, who’s obviously stopped giving a fuck.
For one thing, he didn’t see this coming! Harvy’s plot is such a transparently obvious Two-Face plot not anticipating it could qualify as criminal negligence on Gordon’s part and it seriously calls Batman’s state of mind into question. Batman, here, seems to have lost what little crime-fighting skills he evidenced in the previous two films. Really, though, this scene only exists so he (and we) can meet the 1995 model Hot Blond, Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman), who lampshades the fact everyone in this scene should theoretically possess the knowledge, skills and resources to stop Two-Face’s crime spree. Which they never will. Why not? Because they’re all morons. Dr. Meridian’s too busy undressing Batman with her eyes and Bat’s is too busy trading lame pick-up lines. Even Gordon starts to look concerned about all this time-wasting exposition.
So let’s go upstairs and waste some more time introducing Two-Face and establishing his shtick…one the movie ignores (like so much else) whenever it fucking feels like it. Batman has a pretty nice fight with some goons and a completely gratuitous bit of action that’ll have nothing to do with the rest of the film. All it does is reveal that the giant statue population in Gotham City has increased a hundred fold, with all its members reaching daikaiju size. Should they ever come to life, the city would be doomed. Now Gotham’s even more over-built and oppressive-looking, which I’d have no problem with…if it weren’t suddenly drenched in colors. The colors! Every muted, muddied, ugly-ass shade of the rainbow shows up at some point, turning a gritty, urbanist melodrama into a Broadway musical…without any of the damn music.
There’s no broad social satire or subtle nods to noir here. Batman Forever is first, foremost and fully, a big Big Dumb Summer Movie. Thus, everything about it is Bigger and Dumber. For example, they hired Mr. Dumb and Dumber himself, Jim Carrey, to play Edward Nygma, here re-imagined as a creepy stalker and low-ranking peon in Wayne Enterprises Electronics division.
Ed dreams of inventing the first truly 3-D TV, and he’s whipped up a goofy looking helmet that creates the necessary illusions by beaming signals into the viewer’s brain. He’s also plastered his workspace with magazine covers featuring Bruce Wayne’s mug and hijacks Wayne’s inspection tour to pitch his idea to the Big Man. Bruce turns him down, saying his invention “just raises too many questions,” before the Bat-signal calls Bruce away.
It’s okay though: it’s just Dr. Meridian abusing the public trust. I love how a lone psychologist in a trench coat and some lingerie can sneak onto the top of the Major Crimes Unit…or whatever it’s called in this universe. “You like strong women,” she says, “I’ve done my homework. Or do I need skin-tight vinyl and a whip?” Well, Doc, it wouldn’t hurt. And using the Bat-signal like a beeper is more of a Catwoman-ish act than either cinematic Catwoman‘s pulled off to date. But come on…what vigilante stands around wasting time on sexual innuendo when a scarred psychopath’s on the loose? This one, apparently.
Meanwhile, Nygma kidnaps his supervisor and uses the poor schlub as a human guinea pig for the Brain Box. He discovers “a very surprising side effect: while you were mesmerized by my 3D TV, I accessed your neural energy to grow smarter.” Since this is Jim Carrey in the mid-90s, “smarter” means “dumber” and “more hammy.” I’ve heard tell Jim was trying to pay homage to Frank Gorshen with these antics, but put me firmly in the camp of those who counter with “that’s not Frank Gorshen’s Riddler! That’s Cesar Romero’s Joker!”
Most of the time, though, he’s just Carrey, not even trying to be anything other than himself. Why should he? By this point, he knew he could skate by (like a latter-day William S. Burroughs) on his Talking Asshole bit. Remember all Jack Nicholson’s deft underplaying at the start of the first Batman? Didn’t that throw his post-acid bath persona into high contrast, simultaneously making his transformation more remarkable and believable? Yep…nothing like that here. Fresh off The Mask, Carrey takes every opportunity to mug the camera, and Schumacher is happy to let him.
Nygma fakes his boss’ suicide and does the only smart thing in the film by immediately leaving Wayne Enterprises to set up his own company and put a Brain Box on every TV in Gotham City. After all, there’s no need to market these things nationally or anything. It’s not like Wayne could sue Nygma back to Stone Age for trying to market a machine he conceived and built for Wayne Tech, using Wayne Tech facilities, while enjoying a Wayne Tech salary. There’s no case there at all.
He fucks this plan up by, in true Riddler fashion, sending obvious riddles to Bruce. But since the riddles are actually meant to be deduced, forming the signature to Nygma’s grand revenge scheme, I’ll let their obviousness slide. Plenty more stupid shit to paw through in this movie.
Not that it really matters. Bruce is too busy chasing hot doctors to notice his supervillain stalker. In yet another example of “It’s Called A ‘Secret’ Identity For A Reason, Stupid,” Bruce breaks down the door to Dr. Chase’s office when he thinks she’s in trouble. Turns out she’s just got a punching bag set up in there. The fact this all takes place in City Hall makes Bruce look even dumber. One would expect this building to be full of…I don’t know…cops, or something. If you think Chase is in trouble, you could get one of them to break down the door. Or…I don’t know…find the right key on their belts if you want some fumbling, false tension. But oh-no, Mr. Playboy Billionaire in your civvies, you just gotta go charging right in there, shoulder first, like the big lommox you are. The man who tried to out-crazy the Joker and Catwoman, only to fail on both counts.
As if that weren’t enough, Chase proves to be a competent shrink when she’s not trying to throw herself at costumed vigilantes. So Bruce – either because he’s smitten or because she’s asking “too many questions” – invites her to the Gotham Circus…home of the Flying Graysons…including Dick Grayson, age….um…yeah, we’ll get to that. But wouldn’t it bet sweet if I got to spend the rest of the review calling him “Dick Grayson: Age Twelve”?
Two-Face interrupts the Flying Grayson’s performance and Bruce’s date, threatening to blow the Big Top unless the assembled best and brightest of Gotham City hand over Batman. “Surely one of you knows who Batman is. Hell, odds are one of you pasty-faced twits is Batman!”And here’s where Batman Forever‘s schizophrenia comes to the fore.
Already we can tell this is easily the worst in the series (so far). I was just about to let my last hope for this flick slink off to die a quiet and peaceful death. Then Bruce does something I never expected this Bruce Wayne to be capable of: he stands right the fuck up and shouts out his “secret” identity to “Harvey.” Even though Bruce’s confession’s lost in the crowd’s shouts, the fact he stood up at all is the most heroic thing he’s done in three films that didn’t involved killing someone. He couldn’t get it out to Vicki when it was just the two of them, but with a whole crowd of people in peril, he’s ready and willing. So kudos to Batman Forever for this – the most character development Batman’s had in three films – even if it was only by accident.
And kudos for proving Dick Grayson’s hero cred right off the bat…so to speak. While Bruce sneaks around taking out thugs at ground level (his default back-up plan whenever a confession goes south), the Flying Graysons decide (as a family – establishing that Dick comes from heroic stock and automatically creating sympathy for his family, even though they’re barely given three lines between them) to climb into the tent’s rafters and defuse Two-Face’s bomb.
They succeed, with Dick getting it outside seconds before detonation. Two-Face takes exception to this and opens fire, killing Dick’s family in front of both Dick and Bruce.
This is why I don’t hate Robin as a character…at least not the way some do, in that great abstract sense. Yes, the idea of a child sidekick does raise all kinds of hay about child abuse and reckless endangerment, to say nothing of all the illegitimate subtext psychologists with dirty minds like to read into these relationships. Like everything else in his universe, Robin is a reflection of Bruce Wayne, and the film goes out of its way to establish this parallel and make it a central dramatic axis…something any retelling of Robin’s origin story must do if it wants anyone to care about their relationship at all. (Past the point of making gratuitous “Ambiguously Gay Duo” jokes. Everybody cares enough to do that.)
That’s what this is, even if elements of it make no sense now that Robin’s twenty-five instead of his usual age (twelve). Gordon tells Bruce, “Thanks for taking him in – he’s got no one now,” but knowing what I do of circus folk, I call bullshit on that last part. And what do you mean, “taking him in”? He’s an adult for Christ’s sake! Is this some freaky kind of witness protection program? There’s no reason for Dick to be in Bruce’s house, aside from the fact that he’s going to be Robin. Dick underlines this by trying to leave before Gordon’s even pulled out of the driveway. Only the power of Guy Bonding over hot motorcycles and burgers saves Dick from a quick death on some Quest for Revenge.
A little later, Bruce tells Alfred, “I killed them,” before catching himself and saying, “Two-Face killed that boy’s parents,” and it’s been a long established bit of Batman continuity that Bruce blames himself for his parent’s death, either consciously or subconsciously. He was the one who wanted to go to the theater that night, placing his parents in the path of their murder. He tells Dick “Killing Two-Face won’t make the pain go away,” and, having killed the Joker in the first movie, he really does speak from experience. He takes Dick under is wing, as it were, for the same reason he’d prevent someone from falling off a bridge without a cape/parachute/hang-glider. If Bruce weren’t around, Dick would go right off, try to kill Two-Face, and probably die doing it. By training him in the ways of sociopathic vigilantism, Bruce gives Dick the tools he’ll need to survive and turn his selfish desire for vengeance toward socially-beneficial ends.
This would’ve been a great movie if Schumacher had allowed that dramatic axis to really take center stage. But, thanks to Villain Squeezing, we’ve got to give Two-Face and the Riddler time to overact. And if you thought out-crazying the Joker was madness, watch Tommy Lee Jones try to out-overact Jim Carrey…with only half a face!
The rest of it’s covered with the ugliest, laziest makeup appliance to ever come out of Rick Baker’s FX shop. I’d feel sorry for Jones if his manic turn as Harvey Dent weren’t so unforgivable. At least Carrey’s honestly cruising on autopilot, secure in the belief that he’s giving the people what they want. Jones actually put effort into turning Two-Face into a ten-year-old.
But those aren’t the film’s real problems, most of which flow from one source: an Akiva Goldsman script. While this isn’t the complete exercise in set piece set-up, like Goldsman’s later work on Lost in Space or I Am Legend, it still tosses everything over the side in its rush to get to the next Action beat. They come like clock work every fifteen minutes, the cinematic equivalent of a two-page splash in a comic book you have to turn on its side to read, derailing any of the themes and story elements that might actually keep you interested.
All of which is compounded by the monumentally stupid decision to cut a key scene from Batman Forever‘s back end. Fans of Peter David’s movie novelizations (what? I can’t be the only one. This is the Internet, for God’s sake, someone else must’ve read the damn thing) know what I’m talking about. Throughout the film, Bruce is haunted by visions of his younger self reading a passage from his father’s diary, before falling down a hole that eventually led him to the Batcave and the bat that inspired his adult fashion sense. In early drafts of the script, Bruce’s therapy sessions with Dr. Meridian allow him to recall what he read on that day, realize he was not responsible for his parent’s death, and achieve a sense of inner peace. Having Reconciled with his Father, Bruce would’ve exited the film all set to become a father figure to Robin, capping off this trilogy in a nice, neat, Joseph Campbell-shaped package.
But that might actually be interesting, and it would’ve certainly got in the way of a fight scene. So to hell with that bit of character resolution. We’ll just leave Our Hero’s inner conflict unresolved so he can jump in his Bat-plane and his twenty-five-year-old sidekick can jump into the Bat-boat. The toy companies love shit like that. They made bank of the last film, even if it was creepy as hell. This one, though…it’s just…there. A whole lot of nothing. It’s bland, which is worse than bad, though parts of it are downright Godawful.
Two-Face wants to kill Batman. Why? Because Batman couldn’t save half his face that one time in court? Why was Batman even hanging out in a courtroom, in full costume, in broad daylight? It’s not like he can testify in that suit. Joker wanted to take over the mob and teach the city about beauty. Penguin wanted to do the same thing, while Catwoman wanted personal revenge. Riddler’s arc skips across this trend, but at the last second he chickens out, kidnaps Chase Meridian, and sets up the Climactic Action sequence in his Island Fortress…which comes complete with lasers, torpedoes and elaborate death traps that make no sense…except as padding.
As should be no surprise to you by now, I’m of two minds about Batman Forever. It’s everything certain people asked for in a Batman film, and simultaneously nothing we really wanted. It got Robin’s origin more-or-less right, using it as an excuse to finally explore Batman’s motivations and underlying psychology. That’s why Chase is more than an Obligatory Love Interest, and had the story stuck to the three of them, this movie might actually be about something.
Instead, it’s about thirty minutes too long and padded with neon fluff. It shook our hope for the entire Bat-franchise, but its commercial blitz drove so many kids into theaters, Warner ordered a sequel made and made quick. We all know the result of that: a two hour toy commercial and the end of a Golden Age for American Superhero film.
Not that I’m bitter.
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