We have to wait a little longer to see Christopher Nolan‘s The Dark Knight Rises, and NerdBastards’ Matthew Jackson is dealing with the wait by filling his head with as many other Batman tales as possible. In the six weeks leading up to the flick’s release, he’ll be revisiting all six Batman franchise films so far (yes, even the crap ones) and writing retrospective essays on what worked, what didn’t, and what each film means to the franchise at large.
Yes, the moment we’ve been dreading is here. After Batman two weeks ago and Batman Returns last week, we’ve arrived in the Dark Ages of the Dark Knight: the Schumacher Era. Granted, of the two Joel Schumacher Bat-films, Batman Forever is definitely…well, less awful, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t hard to stomach, especially after two weeks of competent (if contentious) Burton films. But as I was taking in this disastrous flick this week, something interesting happened. I had an epiphany. Oh don’t worry, I still hate this flick. The epiphany came when I realized, for the first time, why it is that I really hate it.
Ask any Batman fan what’s wrong with the Schumacher films, and they’ll throw a few of these words at you: neon, bad jokes, butchered villains, no substance, neon, stupid puns, nipples, neon, weird butt shots and, oh by the way, neon. They’ll tell you the films are too campy, too bright and shiny, too focused on being two-hour long commercials for action figures. But as I watched Batman Forever again for the first time in a good five years or so, I realized that most of those things don’t bother me by themselves. I don’t mind campy Batman. I actually enjoy that oft-mocked TV show from the ’60s. I like puns, I like cartoonish gags, I like overly elaborate and entirely implausible supervillain schemes. Those things might not be a part of my favorite version of Batman, but they are an important part of the Caped Crusader’s history, and when they’re done right they can be quite fun. Which brings me to the real reason I hate Batman Forever: It’s not that it’s campy; it’s that it’s bad.
Now, that might not be the case for you. You might be one of those people who wish the camp era of Batman never happened at all, and that’s fine. But the thing is, I can get behind camp if it’s done well (just ask me about the eternal brilliance of Billy Madison). I don’t mind a zany, goofball superhero movie. That’s part of what made the first two Sam Raimi Spider-Man flicks so much fun (but only part; they weren’t camp through and through). Batman Forever is a reaction to the darkness of Batman Returns. Warner Bros. wanted something more family-friendly, something lighter and happier and brighter, and Schumacher and company certainly gave that to them. But what’s truly frustrating about this film in particular isn’t that it took a hard right turn away from what Burton did. It’s that it seems to do it all so lazily. Everything about it is half-cocked and second-guessed, almost fun, almost amusing, almost clever. It’s like squinting at an out-of-focus photograph. If you look at it from just the right angle, you can almost see a halfway decent, if very silly, superhero flick peering back at you. But it never comes to the forefront, and the result is a movie that’s not just bad, but infuriatingly close to somehow being good.
For the last two essays in this series, I honed in a few key elements and broke them into “What Works” and “What Doesn’t Work” sections. I’m skipping that here. Instead, I’m highlighting key elements just to talk about why they’re so damn frustrating. Starting with the star.
Val Kilmer: I happen to think Val Kilmer’s a pretty damn good actor. There are moments of real brilliance in his career (Tombstone), and a great many confident, solid performances, but his work as Batman/Bruce Wayne is an absolute dud. I don’t entirely blame him. Schumacher was running the show, after all, and Kilmer didn’t have much to work with in the way of a script, but he could have given us at least a little more. He looks good in the Batsuit, and as Bruce Wayne he appears confident and smooth, but it’s all a surface thing. When it comes to the meat of the character, there’s absolutely nothing that pulls you in and grabs you. Michael Keaton gave Bruce Wayne a hook. He added dimension to the archetypal billionaire playboy. Kilmer adds nothing. He says the lines, looks good doing it, and goes home. That’s annoying, but the fact that I know he’s capable of doing great work makes it worse. You’re playing Batman, damn it! How many times do you get that call?
Riddler and Two-Face: I’m lumping both villains into a single entry here in order to save myself a little bit of pain and suffering, because honestly it’s just too obnoxious to try and analyze each of them separately. We’ll start with the changes to the mythologies. Two-Face is pretty much intact, but the Riddler goes from traumatized kid obsessed with riddles to freaky mad scientist guy who was obviously already over the edge of sanity to begin with. That’s OK. I can get behind a revised origin if it’s done right. Sadly, it’s most definitely not. Look past the Jim Carrey zaniness and the neon green unitards and just think about those early Riddler scenes, will you? Think about how he supposedly becomes a supervillain. Think about what he was like before, and then after. What’s different? The answer: a costume change. That’s it. He goes from crazy guy in a lab coat to crazy guy with bright red hair and skintight question mark wear who apparently has a plan to control the minds of everyone in Gotham City. And then he suddenly starts sending Bruce Wayne riddles for no apparent reason. There’s no motivation for it. He just starts sending riddles, and decides “Hey, I guess I could call myself The Riddler.” That’s not an origin story. That’s how you choose what to be for Halloween.
But hey, let’s set that aside. Let’s pretend that it doesn’t matter how you get The Riddler to be The Riddler. He’s The Riddler now, so we can get to the villainy, right? Well, yes, but it’s not really Riddler villainy. Nor is Two-Face really practicing Two-Face villainy. And I’m not even talking about a lack of character development here. I’m talking about a lack of character. Both villains – who in the Batverse are each distinct, fascinating psychological studies – are reduced to cackling punmonsters who by the end of the film have basically become bad Joker impressionists. And now we come back to the frustrating part. Jim Carrey: talented actor. Tommy Lee Jones: extremely talented actor. But their strengths aren’t applied anywhere in this picture.
Batman’s Psychological Torture: I honestly think that most of the time the writers of Batman Forever weren’t all that concerned about character development, but the one time they really did spend some energy on it they came up heartbreakingly short. You may remember that, throughout the flick, Bruce Wayne is engaged in a flirtation with Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman), a sexy psychologist hired by the Gotham police to get to the bottom of Two-Face and Riddler. She’s also very, very fascinated by Batman, which seems to be important, but really isn’t. Anyway, there’s a point in the story where a rose falls on the floor in Wayne Manor, and it triggers Bruce’s memory of his parents’ funeral. We see the memory in a haze of blue light (because we always remember things in blue, of course), and hear Bruce’s narration as he explains how he realized that his life had changed forever. It’s not a bad idea to revisit the origin story here. It’s never a bad idea in a Batman tale. But that’s all you’ve got? And then, for some reason, he decides it’s time to hang up the cowl and stop fighting crime? Why? For a chick he just met? All the threads of this development lead to potentially promising places, but then they all get snipped short, and I just end up frustrated again.
Neon, Neon and More Neon: This is where all that lighter, brighter, happier stuff I was talking about before comes in. Again, I don’t have a problem with a candy-colored, family-friendly Batman necessarily. Not on principle, anyway. I just have a problem when you venture out of the land of reasonable tone-setting and into the land of acid trip lunacy. It makes no sense for the Batmobile, the Batboat and the Batjet to have those weird blue neon streaks on them, but whatever. The Batmobile’s never exactly been a plausible device, so sure. Go nuts, Batman. And of course, if all those lights that turn Gotham into a Christmas tree are on all day and night, people are gonna start moving to Metropolis. But hey, we’re doing this for the kids, right? So sure, light that shit up. But then we come to a scene where Robin has hijacked the Batmobile for a little joyride. He winds up in a rough part of town, flirts with some hookers (yes, hookers), and gets into a tussle with a local street gang, every member of which seems to be covered head-to-toe in glow in the dark paint. Oh, and for extra fun, they painted their entire alleyway hangout with glow in the dark graffiti, so the cops always know where to find them. I can suspend disbelief through the blue popsicle Bat-vehicles and the neon superlights of Gotham, but when you try to convince me that the hardcore street toughs put that neon paint on every single night, I give up.
I could go on. I could talk about the lack of real development to the Robin character, or the fact that Nicole Kidman’s character – like Kim Basinger’s before her – is basically furniture (damn good looking furniture, but still), but you get the idea. None of these things on their own is enough to tank the movie, and all of these things could have worked in the flick’s favor if they’d been done well. I’ve got no problem with the neon-strewn, pun-laden, camptastic version of Batman, but I’ve got a huge problem with it if it’s a shitty neon-strewn, pun-laden, camptastic version. That’s Batman Forever‘s failing. Every time I watch it I hope that I’m wrong, and that it’s somehow going to take all of its promise and become something even halfway rewarding, and every time it sucker punches me.
Next Week: Batman and Robin. Oh, hell…