I know, it seems like I’m just trying to bait nerds, but…
If I had a choice between watching this one again and Batman & Robin, I’d pick B&R without hesitation.
It is true that some of the nerd-crimes of Batman Forever were not just repeated in Batman & Robin, but were committed on steroids. If Batman Forever was meant to be the antidote to its family-unfriendly prequels, Batman & Robin is the ultimate antithesis to everything the whole Batman franchise – most of the mainstream superhero genre, really – was supposed to be by the ’90s. It’s garish, silly, and with no pretense at all for pathos or realism. For that, B&R is often compared to the old Adam West TV show, but I think it’s better to say that it’s more directly like the often derided yet still celebrated Silver Age comics. Like those comics, B&R offers up a loud, dumb morality tale where, say, mad scientists with a giant freeze ray try to destroy a city and where butlers can build AI computers, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, even if it went against all the sensibilities comics fans had in the ’90s.
I wouldn’t go so far as comics blogger Chris Sims, who pulled off the perhaps not so difficult feat of trolling everyone who ever had an opinion about comics by declaring B&R his favorite of the 1989/ ’90s Batman series. In B&R, performances are stilted and wasted (save maybe John Glover, but his role amounts to nothing but a cameo), the script is awful by most standards of craft (the (mis)handling of the Batgirl subplot alone illuminates more than a few scriptwriting “don’ts”), and when the movie actually does deliberately try to do camp it still fumbles, like with Uma Thurman’s bizarre attempt to channel Mae West and Marlene Dietrich. But if nothing else B&R is just odd and distinctive and fantastically misconceived enough to deserve to be known as “So Bad It’s Good”, which isn’t bad for a movie that, if Joel Schumacher’s claims are true, was at least half designed by studio decrees.
Hell, I even kind of like Mr. Freeze’s puns (don’t deny that you feel the same!). At the least Arnold delivers them so earnestly…
Anyway, what exactly makes Batman Forever worse? In two words: wasted potential. Not to say that there wasn’t a moment in time when B&R might have turned out as a genuinely good Batman movie; it was probably sometime around when screenwriter Akiva Goldsman first typed TITLE SEQUENCE. Plus George Clooney might have been a pretty good Batman, and Uma Thurman could have been a really good Poison Ivy if she was actually told to play someone that resembled the character from the comics instead of a weird pastiche of classic Hollywood divas. Even so, it’s hard to imagine B&R turning out much better without some radical renovations, like “Throwing out 99.99% of the script.”
Batman Forever, on the other hand, has much more that’s salvageable, and more decent ideas that could have been the basis for a good Batman film. It’s got Two-Face, who had the most tragic origin of any Batman villain until the ’90s animated series reinvented Mr. Freeze. His backstory practically writes itself. Too bad we barely get any of…okay, sorry, we’re talking about good things for now. It takes the classic conflict between Bruce Wayne and Batman as a key part of its premise. Granted, Batman Returns had more or less the same idea, but Batman Forever actually does try to present the psychological angle of Batman/Bruce Wayne’s split personality more than the Tim Burton movies ever did. Finally, it actually does a good job of integrating Robin’s introduction into the plot. Now arguably it did take the most obvious route – having one of the film’s main villains being the one to kill Dick Grayson’s parents instead of being killed by an extortionist named Tony Zucco like in the comics – but it’s really not that badly done, especially compared to how carelessly Batgirl was hammered into B&R.
So the ingredients are all there; it’s just that the makers of the movie still made something terribly cooked out of all of them. Let’s break it down:
Now believe it or not I don’t really have any strong feelings about Val Kilmer as Batman. My favorite Batman is undoubtedly Michael Keaton, with Christian Bale as a close second, but that doesn’t mean I dislike Val Kilmer as Batman. In my mind, the real problem is actually how Val Kilmer plays Bruce Wayne. One of the things that really makes Michael Keaton’s Batman work is that he does play Bruce Wayne and Batman as distinct personalities. In the Tim Burton movies, you can actually see when Bruce Wayne becomes Batman, even without putting on the costume or starting to kick ass. Another quality of Keaton’s portrayal is that Bruce Wayne actually does have a personality apart from the old “clueless, jerkass playboy” persona from the older comics, leaving it ambiguous which is the real mask: Bruce Wayne or Batman. With Val Kilmer, you never really get a sense of this being a conflict. The film tells you it is, through dialogue and by giving flashbacks to Bruce Wayne’s childhood when he accidentally discovers the future Batcave and finally via the Riddler setting up a scenario to try to literally force Batman to choose between his life as Batman or Bruce Wayne, but almost surprisingly it never really does anything with it. There’s plenty of build-up, but no payoff, no real consequences, and no hard choices. For example, when faced with the Riddler’s dilemma of saving his sidekick or saving Bruce Wayne’s love interest, Batman simply says, “I choose both,” and saves both without really breaking a bat-sweat. Beyond that, a large part of that problem is that Kilmer just never nails down the nuances that were such an important part of Keaton’s performance, although whether that’s more Kilmer’s fault or Schaumacher’s is anyone’s guess.
Something else Forever does right is putting Dick Grayson in his late teens, which gets past the issue of why Batman would want to have a twelve year old helping him fight crime unless he wants a small but durable human shield. Besides that, Chris O’Donnell’s performance gets a lot of flack, which I think is a little unfair because, like Val Kilmer’s Bruce Wayne, there really isn’t much demanded from the character.
Think about it. Here Dick Grayson goes through – or is supposed to go through – an even more dramatic character arc than Batman, but the movie in its ADHD nature flips through every single dramatic moment. Grayson’s family is brutally murdered by Two-Face while they do something heroic; then he’s doing acrobatic tricks in Wayne Manor. He blames Batman for his parents’ death (for a pretty stupid reason, I might add); then after trying to punch Batman a bunch of times he gets over it. He helps Batman just so he has a shot at killing Two-Face and then refuses to kill him when he has the opportunity; Batman kills Two-Face for him (okay, allegedly indirectly, but come on, Batman totally knew what he was doing when he threw all those coins while Two-Face was standing precariously over a death pit). At least all his endless whining over Poison Ivy in B&R was (kind of) leading up to something.
Get it? Because she’s chasing Batman, and she’s offering a meridian between Bruce Wayne and Batman, or something.
As far as superhero love interests go, Chase is…well, she’s not screaming in every other scene and doesn’t become the thing that the hero and villain fight over like drunk frat boys (probably because Two-Face and the Riddler here seem more into each other, if anything) like Vicki Vale in Batman, nor does she really fall into cliched Strong Independent Woman (TM) territory. However, she does spout some of the worst examples of “sexy” banter I’ve seen in any film:
Chase: Well I wish I could say that my interest in you was… purely professional.
Batman: You trying to get under my cape, doctor?
Chase: A girl can’t live by psychoses alone.
Batman: It’s the car, right? Chicks love the car.
Chase: What is it about the wrong kind of man? In grade school it was boys with earrings, high school; motorcycles; college, leather jackets. Now, black rubber.
Batman: Try firemen, less to take off.
Chase: I don’t mind the work. Pity I can’t see behind the mask.
Batman: We all wear masks. [Get it?!]
Chase: My life’s an open book. You read?
Batman: I don’t blend in at a family picnic.
Chase: Oh, we could give it a try. I’ll bring the wine, you bring your scarred psyche.
Batman: Direct, aren’t you?
Chase: You like strong women. I’ve done my homework. Or do I need skin-tight vinyl and a whip?
Ugh, who wrote this?! God, give me Mr. Freeze’s puns any day. And way to end by reminding us of Batman Returns, awful dialogue writer. I know it’s getting kind of fashionable to bash Batman Returns now that Tim Burton is way off of his career highs and that you fans got your precious dark and gritty Batman films back with the Christopher Nolan movies, but at least Batman and Catwoman’s relationship and its exploration of that movie’s themes of duality and dark secret lives were written with some notion of nuance and some idea of the need to write characters that at least sound like actual human beings.
Speaking of love interests…
I know it’s a cliche to mock Schumacher for the homoerotic themes he brought to these movies, but – and I mean this earnestly – I thought it was rather daring to imply that the Riddler had a repressed gay crush on Bruce Wayne. And don’t tell me that it’s not what Jim Carey is thinking too while he leaps around the screen, trying to show Bruce that he’s totally over him with his new fling Harv.
Anyway, the villains are easily the most wasted part of this movie. Jim Carey was still in the midst of his wildly successful but narrowly typecasting successes, so he was more or less playing the exact same character he played in other movies of the time. Still, there are clues – buried, but still there – that he was capable of playing a darker, more intense Riddler, and in spite of studio interference might have been able to under a different director. The scene where a still quasi-sane Edward Nygma growls, “You were supposed to understand. I’ll make you understand” is the one moment where the movie comes dangerously close to having an edge. Again, though, once we dispense with the origin story any idea that the Riddler has a deeper motivation is long forgotten. Still, it’s not nearly as bad as what they do with…
Why, Tommy Lee Jones? Why? Did Joel Schumacher bribe you? Did the studio bosses threaten to hurt you? What could have made you repress your every instinct as an actor?
Really, the misuse of Tommy Lee Jones and the character of Two-Face is so inexplicable, so clearly, objectively, unquestionably boneheaded that it’s astonishing and would tempt even the most mild-mannered, casual fan of the franchise into going into a full nerd-rage. It isn’t just that this interpretation of Two-Face is far more cartoonish than the version that was presented in the animated series – ostensibly for children – that was going on at the same time. It isn’t just that Two-Face’s backstory, even with the added scenes at Arkham Asylum that were cut from the theatrical release, is almost completely ignored and his psychological motif is boiled down to nothing but his thing with making decisions by flipping a coin, even though the movie’s entire theme is supposed to be about struggling with identity and finding a compromise – a meridian, if you will – between two seemingly conflicting personas. It’s that they cast Tommy Lee Jones – who can do grim, uncompromising warriors of justice and can do grave, relentless villains equally well which makes him so damn perfect for playing Harvey Dent/Two-Face as long as he’s allowed to do a portrayal that at the very least resembles the source material – and they make him do some watered-down, fourth-rate copy of Jack Nicholson’s Joker, but using Two-Face’s coin, for some reason.
Is there even a term for that? There’s definitely bad casting choices, but this is making a really good casting choice and then completely screwing it up so bad that it’s like the Hollywood equivalent of a toddler that tries to push the plastic star through the square-shaped hole – and actually “succeeds.” Honestly, the catastrophe that is Tommy Lee Jones’ Two-Face alone should be why the movie is worse than Batman & Robin, but, as unspeakably terrible as that is, there’s more to it than that. Batman & Robin is a bad movie through and through, but it’s impossible to watch Batman Forever without hearing the muffled, desperate cries of a decent, and likely even good, movie, and that just makes it the more unpleasant experience.