Batman Forever
directed by Joel Schumacher
(Warner Brothers, 1995)

Warner Brothers was less than thrilled with the performance of Batman Returns. Critics and parent groups complained that the film was too dark and violent for children. The surreal sequel proved hard for the studio to market so they opted for change, retaining Tim Burton as executive producer for the third Batman film and hiring director Joel Schumacher.

Schumacher was a studio favorite. He had a reputation for making hit films under budget. His work on Lost Boys and Flatliners showed he was capable of creating his own visual style, which Burton had established as an important element of a Batman film. And his controversial hit Falling Down showed he could handle dark material. It only remained to be seen whether Schumacher was ready to handle a big-budget franchise film like Batman Forever.

Burton wasn't the only departure from previous films. After reading the script and meeting with Schumacher, Michael Keaton decided not to reprise his role as Batman. After an extensive search that included just about every young actor in Hollywood, Val Kilmer was chosen to don the cowl. Kilmer, who electrified audiences with his haunting portrayal of Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone's biopic The Doors and was a scene stealer as Doc Holliday in Tombstone, certainly had a resume worthy of the role.

Unfortunately, Kilmer did not bring the same energy to his portrayal of the Dark Knight. While he looked the part in the Batman costume, his scenes as Bruce Wayne were cold and flat. Kilmer seemed to be sleepwalking through his lines. There were reports of feuding on the set. Schumacher accused Kilmer of shoving him during an argument. Perhaps the tension hindered Kilmer's performance. Whatever the case, the talented actor was a lackluster Batman.

As is typical with this series, the villains were the central focus of Batman Forever. Rising star Jim Carrey was cast as the Riddler -- a role once written for Robin Williams. Carrey was still best known for his appearences on In Living Color and his break-out movie Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Batman Forever was the first film to showcase his range as an actor who could do more than physical comedy. Naturally, Carrey chewed up the scenery and stole the show. His performance also paid loving tribute to Frank Gorshin, the original Riddler from the 1960s TV show.

The other villain, Two Face, was played by Oscar-winner Tommy Lee Jones. In the comics, district attorney Harvey Dent is one of the most complicated villains in Gotham. But the movie reduces Two Face to a cartoonish caricature. Rumors circulated that Jones felt he was being upstaged by Carrey. Perhaps he felt it necessary to one-up the comedian by driving his performance even further over the top. Whatever the case, Jones miscalculated horribly in his performance. What should have been a frightening villain turned into another manic comic stereotype -- a great opportunity missed.

Batman Forever also introduced the character of Batman's sidekick, Robin. In the dark, sophisticated days of grim-and-gritty Batman, many believed Robin had no place. He was a colorful throwback to the sillier 1960s Batman. That image changed once audiences saw Chris O'Donnell as a buffed-up, buzz-cut Boy Wonder who rode motorcycles and talked back to Batman. The reinterpretation of Robin as a tough, rebellious teen worked well -- the character was so popular that the next Batman sequel would be titled Batman & Robin. Unfortunately, O'Donnell's performance in that movie would be so one-note that Robin came across as a whiney, ungrateful brat.

No Batman movie is complete without a love interest for the caped crusader. When Keaton was still attached to the project, Warner Brothers wanted to bring back Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale from the first Batman film, but they decided Kilmer and Basinger, who lacked chemistry in the 1993 film The Real McCoy, were an unlikely pair. So instead Nicole Kidman was cast as Dr. Chase Meridian.

Chase Meridian served no real purpose in the film except to offer a pretty face. She was Bruce Wayne's psychologist who had a strange and unprofessional obsession with Batman. She even goes so far as to light the Bat Signal to summon him for a rooftop seduction. Despite the unneccessary nature of the character, Kidman portrays Dr. Meridian with such verve that she comes across surprisingly well. Of the damsels in distress, Kidman certainly holds her own with Basinger.

Like both of the previous Batman films, Batman Forever's greatest weakness is the story. Once again, the screenwriters fail to offer a compelling plot. Instead, they string together a series of subplots that do not add up to a compelling whole.

Schumacher delivers an interesting visual style. But he relies heavily on colorful neon lights. During some scenes, such as Robin's fight with a neon-colored street gang, this proves distracting. The same color scheme would become obnoxious in the Schumacher follow-up Batman & Robin.

Batman Forever was more family-friendly that Tim Burton's dark and weird Batman Returns. But it was also a step in the wrong direction for the series. It represented a step towards the silliness of the campy old Batman TV show. On its own, it is still an entertaining Batman film. It ranks up there with the satisfactory-if-flawed Tim Burton films. But one can see the seeds of the disasterous fourth Batman film are sown here. All of the flaws of Batman Forever would be exemplified in the unwatchable Batman & Robin.

[ by Greg Laber ]
Rambles: 16 June 2002

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