Love it or hate it, Joel Schumacher’s first take on the Caped Crusader was a neon-lit spectacle. Two of our writers debate its flaws & merits.
NOTE: this is the result of a (100% friendly, we promise) debate between Spool writers Gena Radcliffe & Chris Ludovici
CHRIS: So Batman Forever is twenty-five years old, and another nail in the coffin containing the youth of Nineties Kidz. It’s also a peek into blockbusters from the Before Time, when comic book movies weren’t complicated interconnecting sagas that dominated every facet of cinema and pop culture.
That doesn’t mean it wasn’t successful or controversial, because it was both. Batman Forever, directed by Joel Schumacher, was the second highest grossing film of 1995, and considered by many to be a return to form for a franchise that had perhaps veered a little too into weirdness with Batman Returns in 1992. It featured performances by nineties supernova Jim Carrey, Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones, heartthrobs Val Kilmer and Chris O’Donnell, and Nicole Kidman, still mostly known as Tom Cruise’s wife. It dominated the summer box office, singles from its soundtrack were all over the radio, and its Burger King tie-in mugs were extremely sturdy, and still enjoyed by mediocre film writers to this day.
GENA: Ahem, excuse me. McDonald’s. They were McDonald’s tie-in mugs. I had all four of them, along with the Flintstones mugs. I worked odd hours at the time and ate far more fast food than I care to admit, eventually acquiring the whole set. There was a certain sort of depraved pleasure in drinking badly made screwdrivers out of a Two-Face cup. But, please, do go on.
CHRIS: Batman Forever’s crowd pleasing set pieces, over the top movie-star performances and pop/camp sensibility also had more than its share of detractors. Their complaints about the film’s lack of seriousness, depth, fidelity to source material and ambiguous sexuality can easily be seen as forebearers to social media fanboy rages. Its legacy was also tainted by 1997’s Batman and Robin, a notorious disaster that was seen as both an extension, and magnification of all of Forever’s worst impulses. With that in mind, let’s take a look back and see how Batman Forever looks a quarter of a century later. Does it hold up as well as those Burger King mugs or what?
CHRIS: Let’s say, just for fun, that you were one of those people who were really annoyed by Batman Forever back in 1995. Let’s say, hypothetically, that you were a 16-year-old boy who loved Batman and loved the previous two films and loved Val Kilmer and Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones and thought the trailer looked amazing and rushed out to see it first show first day and were so crushingly disappointed that you complained about it literally every day for two solid years until your girlfriend paid for your ticket to Batman and Robin if you promised to just please shut all the way up about Batman Forever.
If you were that completely hypothetical person, and you grew up and were appalled by the state of fan entitlement and the bitter ugliness it engendered in people, it would be nice to say that hindsight and perspective have revealed that you misjudged Batman Forever. That “the fans” were blinded by unrealistic expectations and self-involved solipsism and when the movie wasn’t exactly what you wanted it to be and it didn’t treat Batman with the reverence that you felt he deserved, you threw an embarrassing hissy fit (that last part is actually unarguably true, again, hypothetically). But as nice and cathartic it would be to say that Batman Forever is a charming pop confection that doesn’t take itself too seriously and is a nostalgic throwback to when these movies could just be fun, it still just stinks.
GENA: Let’s try another completely hypothetical situation: you were a 22 year-old woman who enjoyed superhero movies, but your knowledge of and interest in comic books started and ended with the Archie Double Digests you occasionally cajoled your mother into buying when you were a kid. You loved Tim Burton’s Batman, and believed Batman Returns to be deeply underrated (at the time), but were not married to any particular image of Batman as a character (if anything, Adam West was “your” Batman). It was a time in your life when you were going to the movies upwards of two to three times a week, so maybe your expectations were slightly low when going into Batman Forever. Nevertheless, it ended up being one of the most entertaining movies of the summer for you, and you continue to truck no argument that it’s bad.
What a wonder it was to see a movie so joyously unconcerned with appealing to its typical audience. It wasn’t until Birds of Prey that we would again see a comic book movie that tried to break all the rules of what a comic book movie should look like. That it was met with resounding, often ugly complaints by male audience members because the heroines weren’t sufficiently unclothed enough for their liking explains why more filmmakers don’t try it. Joel Schumacher took over for Tim Burton and turned Gotham from a dark, occasionally dreary haunted house into a candy-colored carnival ride. Everything is very big, very bright, and very, consciously silly. I’d take Batman Forever any day over the grim self-seriousness of Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
CHRIS: Well yeah, but dysentery is preferable to MoS and BvS:DoJ. Birds of Prey is a fantastic movie, and there are traces of Forever in its DNA, but it had a much more measured tone, great action, and most importantly, it committed to the bit. The thing about Batman Forever is that it’s of two minds about what kind of movie it wants to be. On the one hand, it’s a gaudy spectacle with a nonsensical plot, outrageous action, and over the top performances. On the other, it wants to be an exploration of a man trying to move on from childhood trauma. It’s a balance Batman Forever can’t pull off, so what we get is two unsatisfying halves stitched together into a frustrating and kind of grotesque whole.
GENA: I do think the serious “Bruce Wayne comes to terms with the rage and sorrow he still feels years after his parents’ deaths” subplot doesn’t really work. That’s mostly because the audience doesn’t need to be told yet again how Bruce Wayne became Batman, but also, yes, it’s a jarring tonal shift, like leaving a rave and entering a chamber music concert. That whole subplot could be cut, and the only difference it would make is that the movie would be shorter. Like Ridley Scott and the last two movies in the Alien franchise, it’s clear who Schumacher is really interested in as a character, and it’s not the hero.
CHRIS: One hundred percent, everything’s one big party and the mopey boys at the center are killing the vibe. Schumacher’s vision of Gotham is “What if The Acropolis was also Studio 54?” and it’s never not great to look at. It feels like a fully imagined fantastic place, with its own customs and subcultures. Two setpieces, one at the circus where Dick Grayson witnesses his family’s murder at the hands of Two-Face’s goons, and another where he steals the Batmobile and has a run-in with some neon face painted Gotham hoods are particularly striking. Bruce Wayne’s network of underground pneumatic tubes running beneath Gotham giving him access to the Batcave from anywhere is also right out of an eight year-old’s dream.
Gotham seems like a lot of fun, until you meet the people that live there. Batman Forever represents the height of Carrey-mania and he’s unbearable as Edward “The Riddler” Nygma. Carrey’s Riddler is an unceasing hyper-manic collection of all of his worst impulses as a performer, all tics and mugging and voices and thrusting. Even worse is Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face. Jones works best when he’s dry and laconic (see The Fugitive and Men in Black ). His strength is underplaying, and here his attempt to out Carrey Carrey is disastrous. He shouts and stamps and cackles and when he and Carrey are together it’s like someone put a megaphone in front of an amplifier.
GENA: And here is where we must wildly part. I love Jim Carrey in Batman Forever. Now, true, this was peak Carrey, when he wasn’t directed so much as just told “action” and “cut,” and here he takes full advantage of it. But I love his performance, I love his look, particularly the glam rock orange pompadour and bedazzled unitard at the end of the film. I love how gloriously, unself-consciously queer he is in it, a daring move for the mid-90s, when mainstream movie audiences were far more comfortable with gay characters in theory than in practice.
The only performance I love more than Carrey’s is Tommy Lee Jones. Despite his refusal to sanction Carrey’s buffoonery off-screen, they have blistering chemistry here. There are moments when they look like they’re about to start making out, and it’s such a wild, unexpected element that I don’t know how you can’t at least admire the audacity. Mostly, though, Jones just looks like he’s having fun, and the minimum I expect from a comic book movie is that the actors enjoy themselves.
CHRIS: And then, on the other end of the spectrum, there’s Chris O’Donnell bringing all the charisma and intensity that made him the co-lead of the third NCIS spin-off as Dick Grayson, a/k/a Robin. The thing about Robin is he tends to work best when he’s a child. Batman was orphaned by crime, and he compensates by trying to help other orphaned kids channel their grief and anger. O’Donnell, however, looks every bit of his 24 years as Grayson, and so his characterization as an angry punk kid plays as weird and stunted. He pouts and whines and generally behaves like a snotty 12 year-old, all while looking like a sexy Calvin Klein model, and confusing what exactly he’s supposed to represent to Bruce.
GENA: If Wikipedia is correct, we could have had Marlon Wayans, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, or, funnily enough, Christian Bale as “Master Dick,” and, for reasons unknown, they went with Chris O’Donnell, the human equivalent of non-dairy frozen vanilla dessert. O’Donnell is neither convincingly tough, nor convincingly vulnerable. He’s not even particularly good at being eye candy, unless your type is “aggressively bland.” That so much of Batman & Robin focused on Robin is why, despite being similar in tone and style to Batman Forever, it was far less enjoyable, but that’s a piece for two years from now.
Look, I’m not going to try to convince you that Batman Forever is a secret masterpiece, or even that it’s underrated (it made roughly a bajillion dollars at the box office, it’s rated just fine). It’s far from a perfect movie. Nicole Kidman, as Bruce/Batman’s love interest Chase Meridian (boooooooooooooo), has to recite some absolutely atrocious dialogue. Like a lot of movie psychiatrists, she’s terrible at her job, using her medical expertise to try to lure Batman into bed and satisfy her numerous fetishes. She at least fares better than Drew Barrymore and Debi Mazar, who get a combined total of maybe six lines of dialogue as Sugar and Spice, Two-Face’s girlfriends who service his dual personalities.
CHRIS: People freaked out about the homoerotic subtext in Batman Forever, and that’s really the only interesting part. Bruce used to be Edward’s role model, and that hero worship curdles into psychosexual obsession. Since it would have been impossible at the time (not that it would go over much better with traditional comic book fans now) to just allow the character to openly express the lust they feel for each other, a female love interest had to be introduced for Bruce. The hetero “love story” here feels manufactured, with Chase portrayed as almost clownish in her pursuit of Batman.
Kilmer and Kidman do a fair amount of under-playing in their scenes together so they appear like actual human beings with thoughts in their heads. They’re both terrific actors so they’re easy to watch, but that’s totally at odds with a movie where Jim Carrey has a lair shaped like a gigantic glowing green blender just off the Gotham coast that no one seems to notice until the climax, and an extended riff on the game Battleship when he and Two-Face try and repel Batman’s attack by water. You can’t have repressed memories of guilt relating to a child witnessing his parents murder and Jim Carrey saying “joy-gasm” when he blows up the Batmobile in the same movie. It’s like mixing spinach and M&Ms.
GENA: Fine, the straight love story doesn’t work, and Chris O’Donnell is a black hole from which no charisma can escape. Nevertheless, I cannot resist Batman Forever’s charms. I love how it’s a little Looney Tunes, and even has the occasional Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker sight gag, like when Two-Face attaches a Club to the steering wheel of a helicopter. I love that there’s a scene in which Edward Nygma designs his costume, like he’s preparing for Comic-Con. I to this very day listen to the soundtrack, one of those strange “only in the 90s” soundtracks in which half the songs don’t actually appear in the movie. Sure, there’s “Kiss From a Rose,” but we shouldn’t overlook the other end credits song, U2’s “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me,” which wasn’t even written for the movie, and yet somehow goes perfectly with it anyway.
The accompanying comic book-style video, in which Bono goes up against (and is eventually consumed by) his sleazy “MacPhisto” alter ego from U2’s Zoo TV tour, ends with an entire orchestra of Batmen playing violins, and it’s as weird and wild and deliriously silly as everything else about Batman Forever. I love it. I love it all, and if loving it is wrong, then I don’t want to be right. I won’t even tell you where I rank it as far as Batman movies are concerned, because I’d have to turn in my film writing card, but there it is. We need our joygasms in this very long, very hard life, and this is one of mine.