The first thing to remember about Batman Forever is that no matter what angry fan boys on the IMDB message boards say, Forever is considerably closer in content to the comic books than Batman Returns. Whether or not it is a more satisfying movie may be a whole different matter, but the argument that Burton was better because he stuck closer to the source material doesn’t ring true in this case.
When people think “comic book movie” they tend to imagine a bunch of grown men running around in silly outfits with lots things needlessly exploding and a plot line that plays second fiddle to nerdy indulgence (See The Avengers for the most compelling example of this). This is basically what Batman Forever is, but now nerds are too embarrassed to admit they liked it. But they did. We all did. I even recently saw a batman infographic depicting all of the stages of Batman in comics and film. It erroneously claimed that Batman Forever was a critical and financial failure, which is not the case at all. When it came out it made a pretty big splash.
The biggest failure of the movie is that its story takes a back seat to the visual elements which also happens to be the problem with the first two. Critics, however, reacted with less enthusiasm over Schumacher’s first bat-attempt because for some reason the overpowering bodaciousness of the neon-lit Gotham is less appealing than the overpowering gloom of Burton’s shadowy version. In the earlier incarnations the noir approach distracted viewers into believing that there was a lot more going on than there actually was. It all seemed like some sort of dark mystery that was too emotionally damaged reveal itself. In Schumacher’s Gotham-Tokyo there is no real sense of mystery. The film acknowledges too openly that what you’re seeing is just a bunch of grown-ups in a fantasy world. There is a certain charm to it but in the end it is far less satisfying.
Many of the problems with the movie’s approach first took root in Batman Returns. For example the odd statues that litter the Gotham City of Forever emphasizing the cartoonish nature of the world they inhabit are surprisingly similar to the statues seen in Returns. The more sleek look of the batsuit which is a stark contrast to the more rugged original suit worn by Keaton actually appeared first in Returns as well. Aside from the design of the film, the performances draw, at least to some degree, from a standard set in Burton’s sequel. While Batman ’89 had an obvious aversion to campy dialogue and performances, Returns was really the first Batman to allow its characters to acknowledge the fact that they are ridiculous, something that Batman Forever takes full advantage of. Though some fans may have a problem with Jim Carrey’s over the top performance and Tommy Lee Jones’s unfaithful interpretation of Two-Face they must recognize that Michele Pfifer’s Catwoman and Danny Devitto’s Penguin suffer from the same problems.
It is also important to take into account that while Danny Devitto’s odd (and quite frankly outrageous) interpretation at least made the Penguin more interesting, not less. Tommy Lee Jones’s Two-Face is far more one-dimensional than modern renderings of the character in the comics. In fact if this movie committed one truly punishable sin it is that one of Batman’s most important and menacing villains was treated as a joker rip-off. I don’t find much to complain about with Carrey’s Riddler though. My view may be slightly tainted by the fact that when the movie was first released I – like most kids my age – practically worshiped ‘ol rubber-faced Jim.
The Gotham City in Forever is a fascinating nightmare of 90’s media overload. Everywhere there are signs in Japanese (even though there appear to be no Asians anywhere in Gotham City) and neon lights. Gangsters roam around the streets in blacklight makup and even the Batmobile has a slick neon disco ball for its motor (you’d think that might be less than useful when you’re trying to sneak up on thugs in dark alleys). It’s inspiration seems to be something of a combination between a mid-90’s U2 concert and a Saturday morning version of Blade Runner. All of this is topped off with a musical score that sounds like it belongs in a circus. Makes sense I suppose.
There are many other aspects of the movie that play well. Bruce Wayne is treated as a national celebrity which is much closer to his portrayal in the comics, even though Val Kilmer gives an unfortunately stiff performance. The batsuit looks pretty cool (except for the unnecessary nipples) and they did a pretty good job introducing Robin into the whole mix. The soundtrack is by far the most important contribution of this film. Movie soundtracks in the 90’s were nothing less than an art form, and Batman Forever’s is an absolute masterpiece.
This film is also the first to really imply that Bruce Wayne is fighting crime as an attempt to reconcile his angry feelings. While the first two films were never very clear on why Bruce Wayne got his kicks from crime fighting, Forever claims it’s all a form of therapy. Making a therapist be Batman’s love interest is a fascinating choice and Nicole Kidman’s portrayal ofDr. Chase Meridian works just fine. Unlike its successor Forever actually tries to address some questions about the nature of Batman’s journey. What would it take to give it all up? Could he use some help? While the first two simply assumed Batman was impossible to understand, Forever opens him up for examination. The answers may not be terribly insightful but at least this movie has questions.
If the Burton/Schumacher films were, as some critics suggest, nothing more than extravagant pop art then Batman Forever deservesto be remembered as a worthy effort. The problem is that while the Burton films certainly focused on style over substance there was still an element of desperation and melancholy that took the viewer to interesting places. While it is a shame that this less-than-terrible batfilck will forever be associated with its universally despised and epically absurd little brother, it still remains a difficult film to defend.
Bat Rating: C+
Movie Rating: C