‘Riddle Me This’: 25 Years of Batman Forever

Directed by Joel Schumacher
Screenplay by Janet Scott Batchler & Lee Batchler and Akiva Goldsman
Story by Janet Scott Batchler & Lee Batchler
Release Date: 16th June, 1995
Rating: PG-13 (U.S), PG (U.K-Cut for Cinema and VHS), 12 (U.K-Uncut for Blu-Ray and DVD)

There was a perceived wisdom at the time that Batman Returns had not done the business expected of it; the box office was more than decent and Warner Bros. had made a nice return on their investment, but it was lower compared to 1989’s Batman and given the controversy over some of its more darker content, especially when it came to trying to tie in fast food meals to the franchise, the decision was made to take the series in a lighter, more commercial direction.

Time has been pretty good to Batman Returns, with the film’s Christmas setting making it a Yuletide favourite in the last few years and Tim Burton taking the gothic approach of the first one and adding in the snowy fairy-tale aesthetic of Edward Scissorhands to create a darker, subversive, and even perverted, kind of superhero movie which looks increasingly idiosyncratic as the years have gone on as the genre pretty much falls into a style of movie that makes every other superhero film the same.

In 1995, however, Batman Forever was where it was at. It made more money than Batman Returns, was one of the biggest movies of the year and actually broke the box office record for the highest grossing opening weekend established by Jurassic Park two years earlier in the U.S, and yet it’s reputation has lowered considerably and is now viewed as the Batman film that laid down the template that would eventually kill this iteration of the character and the movie franchise only two years later.

Nobody wanted a weird Batman film like the one Tim Burton delivered. Given a free reign to do whatever he wanted, and with assurances that producers of the first film Jon Peters and Peter Guber would be nowhere near the project (they retained an executive producer credit), it was seen as too much of a departure, even though if one goes back to 1989’s film, there was some pretty strange things in there too that made it more of a Tim Burton film as opposed to the kind of ‘Death Wish in a Bat suit’ film that producer Jon Peters seemed to crave.

Batman Forever was a reboot, during a time when reboot wasn’t a common term, but rewatching the film now, it’s hard to believe that this is meant to be the same world as the first two films, because it’s really not. Hell, one could argue that the world of Gotham in Burton’s second film isn’t really the world from the first movie either; Gotham was constructed and built at Pinewood Studios in the UK, but the second movie made the move to Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, and with it a more artificial sense of gothic scale, invoking a feel more reminiscent of German Expressionism than the gothic noir of the first film.

Whatever way you look at it, gothic was the key word for those first two films. When it came to the third instalment, substantially more colour was added. The kids that were allegedly distressed by The Penguin and the fast food companies that didn’t want their Big Macs or Whoppers associated with a superhero film with kinky undertones and a villain who liked to bite the noses of supporting characters while eating raw fish were to be appeased with a film where Batman’s first line is that he’ll get drive thru for dinner in a Gotham City awash with neon, neon and more neon.

We can complain about it now all we want, but audiences lapped it up considerably to the point that it became the sixth highest grossing film worldwide of the year. I was eleven years old and the previous Batman movies were rated with 12 or 15, but here was one with a PG rating meaning I could go see it on the silver screen, which I did with my mum and aunt at the long gone Curzon Cinema on the Ormeau Road on Belfast, and the VHS was near the top of my Christmas list that year also.

I liked it, but then one gets older and some movies never look as good when you were younger and of a certain age and Batman Forever was one of those movies, a fact compounded by the disaster that was its sequel.

Joel Schumacher was a director who had made a lot of his movies for Warner Bros., and while history paints him as the director who killed the Batman franchise in 1997, it’s easy to forget that here was a director who knew how to deliver great studio product; The Lost Boys and Flatliners were indicative of a hand that knew how to deliver great genre films, while his John Grisham adaptations A Time to Kill and The Client showed he could work with big name casts and adapt serious works to audience pleasing efforts, while Falling Down was a ferocious, angry beast of a film complete with one of Michael Douglas’ very best performances.

Even after the debacle of Batman and Robin, Schumacher would go on to direct Phone Booth and several episodes of House of Cards, while his career is dotted with films that helped launch the careers of some of the biggest names in front of the camera.

Joel Schumacher’s depiction of Gotham owed more to the Silver Age of Comics compared to the darker, Frank Miller leanings of Burton’s.

The screenplay that was initially written by Janet Scott Batchler and her husband Lee Batchler was put together with Keaton in mind, with Burton potentially directing, while Akiva Goldsman was subsequently brought in to polish it. Rumours abound that Keaton was offered a massive $15 million to reprise the role, but opted out believing that the script wasn’t the best, while there was talk that when Burton was in talks to direct the film was set to be called Batman Continues.

There are elements to it that hint at a more darker, interesting film; while the film is awash with a more darkly colourful Gotham City and gangs who wear neon glow-in-the-dark paint, the inclusion of Robin into the series (after attempts to do so while writing the first two films came to nought) allows an opportunity for Bruce Wayne to explore his own psyche and life’s quest through the prism of another character.

Scenes involving Wayne visiting new love interest Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman), a psychiatrist, while also haunted by flashbacks to his own parents’ funeral and the night they were killed (the movie never names Jack Napier, but the visage of the shooter is similar to that of Hugo Blick, who played the young Napier in Burton’s first film which means the film is keeping some semblance of continuity with story elements at the very least) hint at something psychologically interesting and deeper, and it’s these elements that cannot help but make you wonder what a third film might have been like it Keaton and Burton had stayed put.

Of the original run of big screen Batman films, this is the Bruce Wayne-heaviest in terms of screen time and story, but with Val Kilmer in the role, we never get a portrayal of substance that the character deserves, a problem further enhanced by the decision to undercut any sense of drama or realism by cutting to Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones mugging their way through their scenes in an attempt to chew up whatever scenery there is.

Looking back on the film, it plays in two realms and they never really gel. The same goes for Batman and Robin; that film deals with a dying Alfred and with Michael Gough having been one of the few pieces of casting that remained consistent amongst all four films, scenes of him near death’s door reminiscing to Bruce Wayne about raising him carry a charge that gives what is an actively rubbish and stupid film some heft, and amazingly Batman Forever is the same. Bruce Wayne being constantly triggered into recalling repressed memories seems like a brilliant avenue to explore, but it’s lumbered by the fact that Kilmer can’t carry it.

He’s a more conventionally good looking Bruce Wayne compared to Keaton admittedly, and coming off the back of roles in the likes of Heat, Top Gun and Willow, he was an actor that was clearly talented and with range (he has one of the most powerfully performed moments in Michael Mann’s Heat), but he never quite makes for a charismatic Bruce Wayne, and he has little of that nervy, strange psycho energy that made Keaton’s version of the character an unpredictable joy.

For all the good work that the film tries to do, it keeps cutting back to Carrey and Jones who feel like they’re auditioning for a remake of the Adam West/Burt Ward Batman television series of the 60’s, which wouldn’t be a problem if it was anywhere near as funny as that show was (and let’s be honest, Batman ’66 and it’s big screen version were very, very funny), but it just becomes dreadful mugging, although it is the height of wit and sophistication compared to what Schwarzenegger was about to inflict on us come the summer of 1997.

Of course, it’s become well known that Jones didn’t like Carrey, despite the comedic actor, who was hitting the stratosphere at that point thanks to the huge commercial successes of Ace Ventura, The Mask and Dumb and Dumber, trying to make friendly overtures to Jones. One of the most famous stories to emerge from this antagonism was Jones telling Carrey he couldn’t ‘sanction his buffoonery’. The viewer can see that while Jones is striving for a sense of over-the-top villainy in a manner similar to Nicholson in 1989’s film, for Carrey, it comes naturally and admittedly he is fun in the way that so much of his work was during this period, while with Jones it simply comes across as dreadful mugging.

The casting of Jones as Harvey Dent was, in effect, a form of whitewashing. The character had been played by African-American actor Billy Dee Williams in Burton’s film and he had a stipulation in his contract that basically promised him that when the time came for the character to become Two-Face, the role would still be Williams’. Warner Bros. had to effectively buy Williams out of his contract so they could cast Jones in the role, who on top of having worked with Schumacher on the Warner Bros. produced John Grisham adaptation The Client, had also been nominated for an Academy Award for the studio’s The Fugitive in 1993.

Jones is a wonderful actor and would get a chance to flex his comedic muscles to better effect as the comedy straight man to Will Smith in 1997’s Men in Black, indicating that there was a wonderfully dead pan actor in there, but everything about Jones’ casting leaves a sour taste given that he was given the role over a person of colour who had established the role pretty effectively just a few years prior and who was basically paid of to allow a white person to take over from him.

New Batman, new Batmobile, new style of Gotham; for all intents and purposes, Batman Forever was something of a reboot of the franchise before the word became popular.

The way the film would rather spend more time with its villains is reiteration of the problem that many have with the earlier Batman films. Batman Forever may very well be the most Bruce Wayne-centred of these movies, but it’s still a film in which the two biggest stars are playing the antagonists.

As for Robin, for anyone who has ever had a problem with the notion of a man of Bruce Wayne’s age adopting children and then having them utilised in his fight against organised crime and some of most dangerous psychopaths in all of popular culture, then Batman Forever makes the interesting decision to never actually point out Dick Grayson’s age. The fact that Bruce is adopting him would suggest he is young, but Chris O’ Donnell looks like he is in his twenties and really shouldn’t need to go through an adoption system despite the tragedy that befalls him.

Some Batman comics have pointed out the notion that Bruce Wayne constantly recruiting children to his fight is a pretty awful notion, something compounded in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns where Batman constantly refers to Carrie Kelley’s Robin as a ‘good soldier’ but a clearly more older version of the Robin character (who at one point does considers Nightwing as a name in one of the film’s nicest and most subtle jokes) means the film doesn’t have to deal with one of the most problematic elements of the character or his role in the larger Batman story.

The film does touch upon the effect that Bruce’s life could have on someone else living in that mansion, although it begs the question as to why in the hell they would want to adopt an orphan and have him live in the mansion where he could potentially discover the Batcave and all it’s gizmos and gadgets, thus discovering that Bruce is really Batman..

Then, maybe it’s better not to ask of too much dramatic heft from the film. Where Burton took his cues from Moore with a touch of Miller, and subsequently Nolan would take inspiration from Miller’s works, as well as Jeph Loeb’s The Long Halloween, with Zack Snyder grasping Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns with both hands, Schumacher was going for the era of Dick Sprang with more emphasis on fantasy and outlandish stories. The Riddler’s plan to steal confidential information from the citizens of Gotham via a brainwave device that he has invented (if he’d waited ten years, he could have just invented a social media platform) complete with its swirly green lights, smacks of silver age comics and the 60’s television series, and it’s this change in course that reminds one of how often Warner Bros. and their attempts to make films based on DC Comics can often be reactionary rather than creatively driven.

While Christopher Nolan was allowed to make a big budget Batman series that was very much his style of filmmaking personified, the fact they were blockbuster successes meant that he not only got to make his three Batman films with little interference, he has also gotten to make his own brand of big budget intelligent genre films the same way, but while he might have gotten to put his own brand of filmmaking style on to a DC Comics character, the same cannot be said of many others.

Batman Forever was a response to the perceived failures of Batman Returns; out with the dark and in with the light, or neon in this case, and sadly this would not be an isolated incident. The nostalgia of Superman Returns and the lower than expected box office and middling reviews would give way to a darker, more violent reboot, itself influenced by the success of The Dark Knight Trilogy, in the shape of Man of Steel. When that film was used as a means to launch a shared DC Comics universe, its follow up became Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, itself a response to the commercial success of Marvel Studios’ output. When Zack Snyder’s darker, more subversive and deconstructive sense of storytelling failed to gross a billion dollars (although it’s extended cut is well worth watching), once again Warner Bros. opted to lighten the mood by making its follow-up, Justice League, a lighter, frothier concoction with dreadful jokes and an eye to trying to keep the masses happy.

The by product of that of course has been the announcement of a director’s cut more in line with what Zack Snyder tried to make before being replaced with Joss Whedon.

The point is, Batman Forever is perhaps a more important film, or indicative one, than we realise. It being one of the highest grossing films of its year alongside Toy Story, Goldeneye and Apollo 13 puts it in esteemed company. Warner Bros. is a studio that knows how to produce great movies and has played a massive part in the history of filmmaking, with that distinctive WB shield, or even the Saul Bass logo from the 70s and 80s, being the curtain raiser to some brilliant pieces of work, but when it comes to making movies based on the comic book company it owns, it sometimes reacts rather than allowing interesting, brilliantly made films to be made based on them and maybe Batman Forever is the greatest example of that.

Batman Forever is available to stream on HBO Max in the U.S and NOW TV and Sky Cinema in the U.K.

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