In April of 1940, about a year after the debut of arguably their most popular character, Bruce Wayne/Batman, DC Comics debuted “the sensational find of [that year]”, Dick Grayson/Robin. Since then, Batman’s pixie-boots-wearing partner has changed outfits and a number of different characters have assumed the mantle as the Dynamic Duo of Batman and Robin have become an iconic staple of DC Comics. Considering my fondness for the character and those who assumed the mantle over the years, what better way to celebrate this dynamic debut than to dedicate an entire month to celebrating the character?
Released: 9 June 1995
Director: Joel Schumacher
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Budget: $100 million
Stars: Val Kilmer, Tommy Lee Jones, Jim Carrey, Nicole Kidman, Chris O’Donnell, Michael Gough, and Pat Hingle
Gotham City is being terrorised by former distract attorney turned acid-scarred supervillain Harvey Dent/Two-Face (Lee Jones), whose madness is only exacerbated when he teams up with Edward Nygma/The Riddler (Carrey), who has concocted a mad plan to absorb the intelligence and memories of Gothamites. As if all this wasn’t bad enough, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Kilmer) finds himself struggling with both the futility and loneliness of his life’s mission and his desperate need to discourage Dick Grayson (O’Donnell) from following the same dark path.
Batman (Burton, 1989) was a massively successful adaptation of the DC Comics character, whose popularity had been somewhat waning and was in the midst of a dark, gritty reinvention. Although director Tim Burton was initially not interested (to say the least) in returning for a sequel, he was persuaded when Warner Bros. afforded him substantial creative control over the film’s production. However, while Batman Returns (ibid, 1992) brought in over $280 million in worldwide revenue against a $65 to 80 million budget, the film was criticised for its far darker presentation. While the film enjoyed mostly positive reviews, Warner Bros. were dissatisfied with its box office compared to the first film, parents were outraged by the film’s dark, macabre content, and McDonald’s were equally upset at being associated with such a gruesome movie. In response to this, Warner Bros. made the decision to replace Burton with a new director, eventually settling on the late Joel Schumacher, while keeping Burton on in a token producer role.
Although Schumacher initially wanted to produce an adaptation of Batman: Year One (Miller, et al, 1987), Warner Bros’ weren’t too keen on this idea and pushed, instead, for a more light-hearted affair that would sell toys and be more akin to the popular Batman television show of the sixties. This approach held little appeal for Michael Keaton, the star of the previous two Batman movies, and the role was recast with the notoriously-difficult, but far more physically-imposing, Val Kilmer assuming the mantle. Despite the wildly different tone of the film, Batman Forever contained a number of allusions, call-backs, and references to the previous films to set it in roughly the same continuity (save for recasting Harvey Dent from smooth-talking Billy Dee Williams to the maniacal Tommy Lee Jones). Warner Bros’ new approach appeared to be successful, with the film making over $330 million at the box office and pleasing parents and corporate sponsors, though the film garnered a somewhat divided critical reception. Much has been made of Schumacher’s aesthetic choices and direction, though the film but has earned a cult following compared to its grandiose sequel, with many calling for the release of an extended version to restore many of the excised scenes that added a darker subtext and scenes to the film.
Right from the moment Batman Forever begins, you can tell it’s a very different film to its predecessors; gone is Danny Elfman’s iconic theme, the Gothic, enclosed sets, and the vast majority of the cast, replaced by an admittedly heroic and boisterous (if a bit over-played) score, a vast, near-incomprehensible Gotham City filled with neon, towering skyscrapers, and impractical architecture, a host of new faces, and, of course, a whole load of new toys.
First, there’s the new Batsuit; though no longer as armour-plated as the Burton-era suits, this suit seems much more form-fitting and famously included nipples to give it a more anatomically-correct look. Unlike in the previous films, where Keaton was forced to be very stiff and was heavily restricted by this suit, Kilmer (and his stunt and fight double) move much more freely. He’s still not able to move his head, sure, but he’s far more agile and capable in his fight scenes, delivering easily the best live-action Batman fights at that point in time. With a new suit comes new gadgets, a new Batcave, and a new Batmobile, all of which are far more stylised and elaborate than in Burton’s movies and are introduced in a pretty cool “suiting up” scene during the opening credits. However, as much as I defend this movie, I do feel this scene is tarnished a bit by that cringey “I’ll get drive thru” line which, while amusing and I’m sure made McDonald’s happy, is a bit out of place. A simple “Don’t wait up” would have sufficed.
I haven’t had much exposure to Val Kilmer in my life but, as much as I love Keaton’s intensity and the dark edge he brought to the role, Kilmer is actually pretty good as Batman. In Batman Returns, we saw that Gotham City was starting to become acclimatised to Batman but, in Forever, he’s very much in the public spotlight as a widely celebrated “superhero”. To clarify, I feel there’s a difference between a superpowered superhero like Clark Kent/Superman and a street level vigilante like Batman or Oliver Queen/Green Arrow. They are, technically, superheroes but I feel they shouldn’t be publically celebrated or acknowledged in-world like a Superman; in these Batman movies, though, Batman is pretty much the only masked crimefighter out there and, here, we see that he openly works with Commissioner Jim Gordon (Hingle) and appears in public, when necessary. Like Keaton, Kilmer assumes a deeper, gravelly “Bat Voice” for the role that is somewhere between a growl and a whisper. He tries to emulate Keaton’s intense glare but, where he fails in that regard, he succeeds in his imposing physical stature, appearing far more physically fit for the role than the slighter, shorter Keaton. Kilmer’s Batman is also much chattier than his predecessor, sporting a dry wit and a pragmatic drollness that would be amusing if not for the film’s excessive, over-the-top and cartoonish humour elsewhere. Kilmer is also pretty decent as Bruce Wayne; he doesn’t betray much emotion but he’s both awkward and charming when interacting with Doctor Chase Meridian (Kidman), arranges for full benefits for Fred Stickley (Ed Begley Jr) and his family after his apparent suicide, and is very patient with the fanatical Nygma when they first meet.
Speaking of Nygma, if you’re not a fan of Jim Carrey than a) What’s wrong with you? and b) This really isn’t the film for you. This was peak Carrey, with the actor riding a wave of well-received comedies, and he really gives it his all here, stealing every scene he’s in with a madcap, zany performance that is part Frank Gorshin and part classic Carrey. As Nygma, Carrey is a hyperactive and overly-enthusiastic employee who is completely obsessed with Bruce Wayne. Carrey brings a natural manic energy to the role, hogging the spotlight and stealing every scene he’s in with his rubber-faced antics and you really get that this guy is a fanatical individual who is infatuated with Bruce Wayne and desperate to showcase his mind-manipulating invention. This proves to be his downfall, however, as Bruce cannot in good conscience approve Nygma’s brain-altering invention, which crushes Nygma’s spirit and turns his heroic worship of Bruce into a sadistic mania. Nygma takes to sending Bruce threatening riddles (though Bruce is able to solve each one almost immediately, he spends the majority of the film completely stumped as to who sent them and what they really mean) but doesn’t descend into full-blown supervillain territory until seeing Two-Face in action. As the Riddler, Nygma is a completely unhinged maniac, teaming up with Two-Face to put his 3D “Box” in every house in the city to increase his intelligence and wealth. Amusingly, as Nygma transforms into a successful businessman and bachelor, he begins to borrow Bruce’s look and mannerisms but becomes increasingly unhinged as the Riddler, eventually setting himself up on a ridiculously elaborate island and freely partaking of the knowledge of all those connect to his Box.
While the Riddler gets much of the film’s focus, Two-Face’s tragic origins and complex relationship with Bruce and Batman is almost completely glossed over; we’re introduced to Two-Face (annoyingly and constantly referred to as “Harvey Two-Face” for no discernable reason) after he’s already suffered his horrific scarring (here rendered in a far less disturbing manner, with a ridiculous straight line literally splitting Harvey’s face in two) and there’s only ever the briefest hint towards the character’s nuance and fall from grace. Instead, we’re left with a frenzied clown, a character far removed from the dark, tragic supervillain of the source material and more akin to the Joker, for lack of a better comparison. Ruled by his obsession with duality, his double-headed coin (which he is perfectly happy to flip over and over again until he gets the result he wants), and killing Batman (since he blames Batman for his condition), Two-Face is a ludicrous, flamboyant carton of a villain who would make Cesar Romero blush. I can only assume that it was Schumacher’s decision to make Two-Face this overexcited buffoon since Tommy Lee Jones, apparently, detested Carrey’s ostentatious antics and yet seems to be going out of his way to try and match Carrey’s far more amusing and far less grating physical humour.
Two-Face’s inclusion, though, allows Batman Forever to do something I will forever hold it in high regard for and that is introducing Dick Grayson/Robin. As a kid, I grew up watching the sixties Batman TV show and reading a number of different Batman comics, many of which included Robin in various forms and I remember being super excited about Robin’s inclusion here. In a fantastic example of adaptation, Robin is a combination of Dick (name/origin), Jason Todd (bad boy attitude), and Tim Drake (costume); garbed in motorcycle gear, with a piercing in his ear, he’s clearly an angst-ridden rogue who has no time for the luxury of Bruce’s lifestyle and wishes only to avenge the death of his family. Even better, the film does a great job of retelling Batman’s origin through the parallel of the deaths of Grayson’s family, which triggers Bruce’s flashbacks of his own parents’ deaths and delivers a haunting scene where, in relating the parallels between the two events to Alfred Pennyworth (Gough), Bruce slips on his wording and mutters “I killed them”, providing a glimpse into the survivor’s guilt and responsibility he feels. Bruce sympathises with Dick and takes him in; though he is angry and hungry for revenge, Dick is convinced to stay through a combination of Bruce appealing to Dick’s love for motorcycles and Alfred guilt-tripping the troubled acrobat with hospitality. Alfred plays quite the sly role this time around, offering Dick understanding and comfort but also subtly influencing his discovery of the Batcave and transformation into his own masked persona. Dick’s first instinct, though, is obviously to steal the Batmobile and take it on a joy ride; after taking his anger and pain out on some colourful street thugs, Dick directs these same emotions towards Batman when he arrives to confront him, blaming him for his family’s murder but, having vented his emotions, becomes insistent on Bruce training him to be his partner to give him the means to bring Two-Face to justice. Bruce is angered at the very idea and discourages him at every turn, not wishing Dick to go down the same path as he, much less commit murder.
Finally, there’s Chase Meridian; Kidman is absolutely gorgeous, of course, but man is her character one horny bitch! Chase is immediately fascinated, sexually and psychological, by Batman; she, like pretty much all of the public, isn’t deterred by Batman’s appearance and is, instead, in awe of his presence and attracted to his mystery and physique and even goes so far as to use the Bat-Signal as a “beeper” to tell him things about Two-Face that he already knows and are painfully obvious and to explicitly voice her interest in Batman in her attempt to seduce him right there on the rooftop! She is overwhelmed by the sexual magnetism and allure of Batman as the “wrong kind of man” and the mystery about what drives him to do what he does but is just a enamoured by Bruce, seeing him as something of an enigma who is haunted and hiding more than he lets on. It’s not the same as her attraction to Batman, which is very primal and sexual, but it eventually grows into the more “grown up” choice on her part and she is clearly elated to find that the two are one and the same.
Batman Forever is a loud, bombastic action film; essentially, it’s a live-action cartoon, with every set and action sequence having a garish, over-the-top presentation. The film starts off, as Two-Face says, with a bang; the sequence of Batman hanging from Two-Face’s helicopter looks pretty shit but I can appreciate the blending of practical stunts, early-CGI, miniature sets, and the age of the film, to let it go and the entire set piece of Batman’s chase after him is explosive and frantic and really helps open the film with a huge amount of energy, albeit energy that screams “live-action cartoon featuring a lauded superhero” rather than a dark, broody piece about an urban vigilante. Also, people think that Schumacher’s Batman films were all light-hearted and campy and, yes, they are but while Batman isn’t as vicious or brutal as before and is much more of a “superhero” than a brooding vigilante, he still directly and indirectly causes a lot of death and destruction, including the death of Two-Face (something he specifically ordered Dick not to pursue).
Easily the star of the show, for me, is Jim Carrey as the Riddler. While I think Batman Forever would have benefitted all the more if Nygma had been the only elaborate comedic element in a film full of straight men, I am a massive fan of Carrey and his work in the nineties and the way he hogs every scene is just fabulous to me. I just love his many garish costumes, his elaborate movements, the way he emulates Bruce Wayne, and how he switches between manic energy and a sinister glee on a dime. Ultimately, neither Riddler or Two-Face are much of a physical threat to Batman and, far from the master of puzzles and conundrums of his comic counterpart, Riddler opts to force batman into making the now-cliché “choice” between the love of Bruce’s life and his crimefighting partner. Having faced his demons throughout the film and been reminded of why he became Batman, Bruce chooses to save both, reducing Nygma to a gibbering, crazed wreck in the process and finally putting to rest the demons that have haunted him all his life.
Of course, it’s naïve to pretend like Batman Forever is perfect; it’s mindless entertainment for kids, to be sure, but is maybe a little too loud, bombastic, and slapstick for parents or hardcore Batman fans. There are a few narrative inconsistencies as well, such as Bruce inexplicably deciding to retire Batman and settle down with Chase. I never quite got the logic here; Bruce seems to think Batman is no longer needed but it also seems like he’s willing to give up his crusade to be with Chase since he can’t justify being Batman anymore (despite the fact that, as Dick says, “there’s monsters out there” like Two-Face and the Riddler). Then there’s the ridiculously cartoony security guard from the start of the film, the garish new Batmobile, the way in which the Batcave opens up and comes alive every time there’s an intruder, the ludicrous moment where the Batmobile drives up a wall to safety (how the hell did it get down from there?), the sheer ineffectiveness of Gotham’s police department (seriously, the cops are completely useless and call for Batman at the first sign of any trouble), and the overly cartoony sound effects that punctuate a lot of Carrey’s scenes and the fight sequences.
For me, though, the weakest part of Batman Forever is clearly Two-Face; he’s just a grating, annoying villain who goes way, way over the top at every moment. He’s also an absolute idiot; he holds the circus hostage under the belief that Batman is present or that someone there knows who Batman is, which is a bit of a reach, constantly goes against his modus operandi, and ends up being tricked to his death in the simplest way possible. The only positive to his inclusion is that it fuels Dick’s need for vengeance; Bruce lectures Dick about how killing Two-Face won’t take away his pain, how he’ll end up becoming an obsessed vigilante taking his anger and pain out on countless others if he kills Two-Face, but Dick’s only wish is to kill Two-Face for what he did and it’s only in sparing Two-Face’s life that he (Dick) comes to evolve into the same selfless hero we saw him to be when he risked his life to save the circus from Two-Face’s bomb.
Make no mistake about it, this is a great film if you’re a fan of Robin and
Stephen Amell O’Donnell perfectly encapsulates the “mad, broody youth” vibe they were going for. After Dick forces himself into Batman’s business, Bruce is livid at Dick’s recklessness and continually attempts to talk him out of pursing the same life as him. In the end, though, with Chase in need of rescue and his motivations resolved (Bruce remembered that he promised his parents that no one would ever have to suffer like he would, that he would take his revenge upon all criminals to safeguard others no matter the cost), Batman throws on his “sonar” suit and is in the middle of choosing between his Batwing and Batboat (all new toys for kids to buy/pine for) when Dick, now Robin, arrives and the two reconcile. Personally, I love this moment; the two basically acknowledge that each other were right, that each of them has their own path, and that they have converged into one destiny. Robin even admits that he can’t promise he won’t kill Harvey but Batman accepts this, and that Dick must walk his own path, and they solidify their partnership with a firm handshake…only to immediately be separated upon reaching Nygma’s island. Regardless, I’m continually entertaining by film’s smart use of Robin as a thematic parallel to Bruce. I’d love to see this concept revisited in a new Batman movie one day; skip retelling Batman’s origin again and, instead, have a darker, more jaded Batman begin to stray from his path but be brought back from the brink by adopting Dick, whose origin can be used as a direct analogy for Batman’s. Sadly, it doesn’t look like we’ll be seeing that in a film any time soon but Titans (2018 to present) has done a really good job, in my opinion, of exploring similar ground with an even better version of Dick/Robin and taking that to its logical conclusion (the debut of Nightwing).
Batman Forever is a hugely entertaining kids’ movie which has a lot of potential that is sadly squandered by its execution. A lot of time is spent exploring Bruce’s psyche and motivations; not as much as was originally intended but far more than we had seen in live-action up until that point. The film suggests that Bruce has become so lost, so blinded by his pain, anger, and guilt, that he’s forgotten why he became Batman in the first place (to protect the innocent) and is, instead, lashing out at criminals out of habit. Dick is expertly used as a parallel to Bruce’s life and background; his anger is raw and in need of guidance. Bruce was guided by the bat he encountered as a child but Dick simply wants to kill Two-Face and has no clear focus beyond that. Bruce knows first-hand that killing the man responsible won’t bring Dick the peace or closure he so desperately seeks and that he’ll end up exactly like him, “Running out into the night to find another face. And another. And another!” It’s not massively dwelled upon but the film suggests that Bruce can use his experience to guide Dick in such a way to focus his rage and pain in a more productive way, one that sees him walk the same path but not so tainted by darkness and heartache. This turns out to be the case as Dick refuses to kill Two-Face, turning away from becoming a mindless killer and towards being an agent of true justice, which is something Bruce also learns to do through his relationship with Dick and Chase, which finally sets him towards a more productive path.
Sadly, though, the film’s themes and explorations are hampered somewhat by the madcap nature of Schumacher’s world; thanks to several subtle references, this is clearly the same world as Burton’s Batman movies but much bigger, grander, and more…operatic. Gotham City is awash in garish neon and giant, impractical statues and skyscrapers and the film has a manic energy thanks not only to Carrey’s scene-stealing antics but the infantile characterisation of Two-Face and his goons. Cartoonish sound effects permeate many of the film’s action sequences and I can’t help but think the film would have been more appealing if everyone played it entirely straight except for Carrey. Clearly, Schumacher is leaning heavily towards the sixties television show, which is fine since that is a classic in every way and a guilty pleasure, but what made that show work was that everyone played it straight, which only served to make the ridiculousness more entertaining. Here, it’s ridiculous for the sake of being ridiculous so when there are moments or genuine humour (mainly from Batman and Alfred and Carrey’s less zany moments) they get drowned out by the overabundance of cartoonyness and Tommy Lee Jones’ grating performance as Two-Face.
What are your thoughts on Batman Forever? Where does it rank against the other Batman movies of its era, or even now? What did you think of the cast, particularly Kilmer, Carrey, and Jones? Were you excited to see Robin brought into the franchise or do you prefer Batman to “work alone”? What did you think of Schumacher’s version of Batman, his world, and his rogues? Would you like to see an extended cut of the film or do you think it’s best left as it is? Whatever your thoughts, go ahead and drop a comment below and be sure to come back next Tuesday for my review of the much-maligned sequel!