This month marks 20 years since Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever first graced movie screens, which means it’s high time for a re-evaluation of this much-maligned entry in the cinematic Bat-canon.
Most of you are probably rolling your eyes at this point; after all, it’s pretty much taken as a given that both Batman Forever and its sequel, Batman and Robin, are irredeemably terrible, and most fans would much rather ignore them in favour of engaging in (pointless) debates that pit the Bat-films of Tim Burton against those of Christopher Nolan (unless you’re like me, and enjoy all the various screen incarnations of the Dark Knight to differing extents).
Now let me just say that when I argue the merits of Batman Forever, I’m not by any means suggesting it’s a great film, or even a good one.
On the acting front alone, there are plenty of sins to consider. Both Jim Carrey’s Riddler and Tommy Lee-Jones’ Two-Face are so over the top they might well be in orbit (particularly egregious in the case of Two-Face, who is stripped of any trace of pathos). At the other end of the spectrum, Val Kilmer’s performance as Batman lacks any weight (he’s neither overwhelmingly heroic or menacing) and his Bruce Wayne is equally bland.
Moving down the roster, Chris O’Donnell’s turn as Robin is obnoxious in a way only the ’90s could provide, and Nicole Kidman is never quite able to make sense of love interest Dr. Chase Meridian (sidenote: when did this become a Bond movie?) as her personality shifts from sexually aggressive to emotionally nurturing.
Beyond the thespian troubles, other disappointments include plot holes big enough to drive a truck through (Riddler builds a big blender-thing that can suck visible brainwaves from people, and no one notices?) and several distracting filmmaking choices (there’s too much neon in Gotham City, I could have gone my whole life without a close up of Bat-ass, and the nipples on the Batsuit are just…strange).
That said, there’s also a lot to like about the film (including not one, but TWO great tie-in songs), so read on for five reasons why Batman Forever is better than you remember (as always, spoiler warning, in this case for a film released in 1995).
5. It’s like an updated version of the 1966 Batman TV show
How you feel about this one relates directly to how you feel about the campy (yet iconic) Adam West adventures of the ’60s.
Certainly, Batman Forever is less cynical than its small screen predecessor (the villains might ham it up, but there’s no real attempt to poke fun at Batman or Robin for their earnestness), and it’s much deeper in an emotional and thematic sense (that doesn’t mean it’s deep by the standards of the genre as a whole, of course), but the colourful visuals, over the top production design and gimmicky archfoes make the film instantly recognisable to fans of the classic TV show.
For mine, this one really comes down to whether or not you want to argue that there’s only one true interpretation of Batman (there isn’t), and how you feel about having the inherent silliness of the superhero concept made explicitly clear.
Me, I enjoy bright, goofy Batman as much as dark, serious Batman, and I’m comfortable enough in my love of the superhero concept that I can accept a bit of spoofing, so if you’re simpatico with this approach to the characters and genre, Batman Forever emulating Batman ’66 will put a smile on your face as well.
4. It’s got an unabashedly heroic tone
While we’re on the subject of tone, in addition to taking a lighter approach to proceedings, Batman Forever also does a great job of presenting an out-and-out heroic take on both Batman and Robin.
As I’ve already made abundantly clear, I enjoy a dark take on the Caped Crusader (The Dark Knight is one of my favourite films), however Burton’s interpretation of the character skewed a bit too much towards a violent, high-functioning sociopath for my tastes, so I welcomed Schumacher casting Batman and his faithful sidekick in a more positive light.
In fact, the film actually makes a thematic point of pushing Bruce past being an obsessive vigilante addicted to his quest for self-serving vengeance into becoming a man who overcomes his own pain and chooses to fight crime as its own reward (more on this later).
Whilst we’re talking about fighting crime, it’s also worth noting that Batman Forever is also the only film to date to show Batman actively doing detective work.
Whereas other films in the franchise have included Bruce flicking through news clippings, scanning through computer data or running ballistics reports using sonar technology (a beer to anyone who can explain how that last one works, by the way), Batman Forever dedicates multiple scenes to the Dark Knight Detective actually living up to his name by solving riddles and cracking his enemies’ master plan.
3. The plot (mostly) works
Yeah, I know I said there were plot holes (boy, are there some plot holes), but compared to the muddled narratives of Batman and Batman Returns, Batman Forever is at least straightforward and focussed.
For starters, the villains have clear motivations (Riddler wants to outsmart Bruce Wayne and Two-Face wants to kill him; both are acting out of a misguided need for revenge) and their plan kinda makes sense (but only kinda!).
Similarly, both our heroes have compelling dramatic conflict that is linked (Batman is haunted by the ongoing pain of his parents’ deaths and seeks closure; Robin is much the same, but his pain is fresher and he hungers for revenge), and the romantic interest actually supports the plot as more than just a damsel in distress (Chase not only assists the Gotham City Police Department and Batman by providing psychological insight into the two villains, she also works with Bruce to confront his ongoing emotional issues).
Sure, the final cut of the film suffers a little from some edits that lessen the impact of Bruce’s storyline (again, more on that later), but by the time the end credits roll, not only have the bad guys been vanquished, but Batman has reclaimed the mantle of the Bat on his own terms and Robin has moved beyond being a vigilante and become a full-fledged superhero, which means everything is wrapped up pretty neatly in both a thematic and narrative sense.
2. The action scenes look great
This is something that often gets overlooked, but it must be said that the fight sequences in Batman Forever (and Batman and Robin too, for that matter) are really well staged.
Certainly, these scenes are more dynamic than anything in the Burton films, and are also a lot more fluid and clear (if less hard hitting and quasi-realistic) than most instances of Bat-Fu that appeared in the Nolan trilogy 10 years later.
It’s impressive just how slick a lot of the choreography is, and the Dynamic Duo move as gracefully as a heavy latex suit allows. I’m not quite sure how Schumacher and his crew pulled it off (even with the lighter suit developed for his two outings as director) – a safe bet would be to put it down to a combination of cleverly selected camera angles, lighting, edits and costuming (I’m guessing that different suits were built to specifically allow for certain types of kicks and the like to be performed).
Whatever they did, the fact remains: Batman Forever has superhero action to rival any other film in the franchise.
1. Batman and Robin both have character arcs
It’s hard to include a satisfying character arc in a superhero film; given the sequential nature of both comic books and franchise films, general practice is to focus more on plot progression rather than character development, in order to allow for continuing adventures with an unchanged hero.
Batman Forever isn’t the only superhero film to provide character arcs for its lead characters; Superman and Superman II, Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight Trilogy, and Iron Man all do so with a gusto (and there are many more examples you could cite as well).
Still, it’s always worth applauding the efforts of filmmakers who strive to go beyond telling a simple adventure story and try to burden their characters with a bit of emotional as well as physical struggle, and this is certainly something that the team behind Batman Forever have attempted.
As I’ve already hinted at earlier, the film ultimately revolves around the idea of justice versus revenge, and as part of that, it explores Bruce Wayne’s rationale for fighting crime. Over the course of the story, Bruce comes to realise that he is a man in conflict with himself: part of him wants to move on with his life and enjoy a relationship with a woman like Chase, whilst another is still compelled to wage war on the criminal element that robbed him of his mother and father.
Ultimately, when faced by the choice to commit to a life as either Wayne or Batman (as symbolised by saving either Chase or Robin), Bruce realises that this dilemma is a false one; in actuality, he’s both Bruce Wayne AND Batman, and by choosing to be both (by saving both hostages, natch), he’s now in control of his quest for justice rather than a slave to it.
(Frustratingly, in the original cut of the film Bruce more clearly overcomes his sense of guilt over the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne; he also suffers from amnesia at the start of the third act and ends up being reborn as Batman in the ashes of the destroyed Batcave – this would likely have made Bruce’s character arc better fleshed out, and even if the elements of the cave scenes that have surfaced look a bit sketchy, it’s definitely more interesting than what was shown in the theatrical release of the film.)
Similarly, Robin also has a solid dramatic journey. After his parents are murdered by Two-Face, Dick becomes consumed by the desire to avenge their deaths. Bruce counsels Dick against killing as means of trying to find closure, as he himself did that exact thing two films earlier and is still tormented by his grief.
When placed in the same position as Bruce, with his parents’ killer at his mercy, Robin finally chooses justice over revenge, and by not killing Two-Face, joins Batman as hero dedicated to a higher pursuit than personal gratification, which makes for a simple yet effective finale.