This month marks 20 years since Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever first swooped into theatres, so it’s high time for a re-evaluation of this much-maligned entry in the cinematic Bat-canon. I suspect you’re rolling your eyes at the very idea of this, since it’s pretty much taken as a given that both Batman Forever and its sequel, Batman and Robin, are irredeemably terrible. But trust me: Batman Forever has its good points.
Now, 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’re practically in orbit, while Val Kilmer makes for a disappointingly bland Batman and Bruce Wayne.
Then there’s Chris O’Donnell’s turn as Robin, which is obnoxious in a way only the ’90s could deliver, and Nicole Kidman’s love interest Doctor Chase Meridian, who shifts gears from sexually aggressive to emotionally nurturing so rapidly she’s at risk of whiplash. Seriously: those looking for nuanced performances have come to the wrong place.
Other shortcomings 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 production design choices (Gotham City’s neon skyline, nipples on the Batsuit) which are beyond distracting.
Yet despite these major drawbacks, 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!
5. It’s like an updated version of the 1966 Batman TV show
Whether you see this as a pro or a con relates directly to how you feel about the campy (yet iconic) Adam West adventures of the ’60s. Admittedly, 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 (which doesn’t mean it’s particularly deep by the standards of the genre as a whole, of course).
Look past these differences, though, and Batman Forever‘s colourful visuals, over the top production design and gimmicky archfoes mean there’s a lot to love here for fans of the classic Batman TV show. So if, like me, you enjoy bright, goofy Batman as much as dark, serious Batman and are open to a bit of superhero spoofing, Batman Forever emulating Batman ’66 will put a smile on your face as well.
4. It’s got an unabashedly heroic tone
Speaking of tone, Batman Forever also does a great job of presenting an out-and-out heroic take on both Batman and Robin. Tim Burton’s interpretation of the character in the 1989 Batman film and its sequel Batman Returns occasionally skewed too much towards a violent, high-functioning sociopath for my tastes, so Schumacher casting Batman and his faithful sidekick in a more positive light is a welcome change.
More impressively, Batman Forever actually works this shift in characterisation into its narrative. A key plot and thematic element is Bruce’s transition from an obsessive vigilante addicted to his quest for self-serving vengeance to a man who chooses to fight crime purely out of altruism, resulting in the kind of character arc rarely seen in a superhero movie (more on this later).
And while we’re on the subject of 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 focused. 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.
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, and Robin is much the same, although his pain is fresher and he hungers for revenge. Heck, even 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 to 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 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 they’re 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), although a safe bet would be to put it down to a combination of cleverly selected camera angles, lighting, edits and costuming.
However they pulled it off, all that really matters is that 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, 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 an emotional as well as physical struggle, and this is certainly something that the team behind Batman Forever have attempted.
As I 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, while the other part is 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 and ends up being reborn as Batman in the ashes of the destroyed Batcave in suitably mythic fashion.)
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 a way of finding closure, as Bruce did that exact same thing two films earlier (when he killed his parents’ murderer, the Joker) 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. By not killing Two-Face, he joins Batman as hero dedicated to a higher pursuit than personal gratification, which makes for a simple yet effective finale.