In the lead up to the debut of Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, I’m reviewing every single Batman film. Check out more Batman-related content in my Dark Knight Discussion column.
Today, most Batman fans immediately dismiss Batman Forever outright do to its link to the supremely terrible follow-up Batman and Robin. But Forever can be seen as a fun and silly new direction for The Dark Knight by director Joel Schumacher before the franchise committed euthanasia via cinematic atrocity. Schumacher’s take on Batman and Gotham City in particular are most definitely a hard break from the gothic circus found in Tim Burton’s prior films, but the big spectacle and brightly colored action have a certain charm and energy that are undeniable.
Focusing on the team of Batman (Val Kilmer in his only time beneath the cowl) and Robin (Chris O’Donnell) versus Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones) and The Riddler (Jim Carrey), there are some insane tonal issues within the majority of Batman Forever, most of it owed to the wide disparity between any scene featuring its villains and those that focus on the heroes. As Batman/Bruce Wayne, Kilmer puts in a solid job on both fronts, even if the performance is more serviceable than memorable. However, he also brings some much needed gravity to the narrative, with his story arc centering on choosing to either continue being Batman or give it up for a more normal life. It may not be the most successful arc for the character (the constant refocusing on the villains and Robin undercut any real arc for Batman himself), but his struggles with uncovering repressed memories allow a little bit of depth within the neon-lit confection that is Batman Forever.
It’s clear that the brighter and more all-ages tone of Batman Forever is a reaction to the darkness of Batman Returns, which was criticized for its violence and grim themes despite being marketed toward children. As a result, the action and characterizations seen here are far goofier, even if they do not always delve into camp. However, Batman Forever was originally written and shot as a darker film, with Bruce Wayne’s PTSD storyline in particular giving a grimmer subtext to the narrative. Unfortunately, Warner Bros. executives found the original cut of the movie to be too dark to line up with their family friendly marketing, resulting in massive edits that restructured the first act and chopped out the conclusion to Wayne’s struggle with his Batman identity. Those missing scenes include a journey into the Batcave and confrontation with a gigantic bat symbolizing Bruce’s dark persona, but its removal and general cuts of anything deemed too dark leave many pieces of the film feeling incomplete and somewhat nonsensical.
Combined with the literal brightness of the film and its reliance on low stakes, heightened reality danger, Batman Forever begins to have more in common with the Adam West TV series than the two previous movies. Unfortunately, West’s show and film had a clearly defined tone with a goal of getting intentional laughs out of its silliness. Here, Schumacher’s only goal is big blockbuster action by any means necessary, with the byproduct being a generally tone deaf narrative. A talented writer and director duo could possibly create a Batman story that contains both PTSD and a television that sucks up its users’ intelligence, but it’s not the combination of Schumacher and Akiva Goldsman, a writer whose screenplay history is like a game of Russian roulette.
Sharing heroic duties in Forever and emblematic of the series’ shift toward the family friendly is O’Donnell as Dick Grayson, the 35-year-old boy wonder whose pseudo adoption by an aloof bachelor eventually leads to his half-hearted transformation into the rubber codpiece-sporting Robin. He does karate in order to do his laundry, so it’s obvious that he’s ready to fight hardened criminals in the streets. Then again, hardened criminals in this Gotham City wear neon paint and kind of think Batman is cool, so he may have this crimefighter gig in the bag. That being said, the origins of Robin are all here in a fairly coherent interpretation, but the lack of convincing reasons behind Grayson’s transformation or his partnership with Batman cast a bad light on the character as a whole.
Beyond the far brighter tone, Schumacher’s changes to the Batman franchise can literally be seen all over the hero’s body. Matching the Greco-Roman architecture that has suddenly filled Gotham’s skyline is Batman’s costume, which has been slimmed down and chiseled to look like a Greek statue. The outfit is complete with a finely molded butt and, yes, nipples on the Batsuit. It’s meant to evoke a perfect physique showing through the suit, but instead comes off as confusingly erotic. While Batman is dressed in an all-black costume complete with yellow oval bat symbol to match the previous films, the aesthetic is far different and an attack on the Batcave leads to the suit’s destruction. In its place is Batman’s sonar suit, which adds a full chest black bat and other modifications. It’s the first and most obvious development in the franchise meant to sell toys, and it wouldn’t be the last.
But even those strange choices concerning the heroes’ appearances are not the worst pieces of the film. Rather, the biggest misses of Batman Forever can be found in its villains, who add gigantic personalities and memorable moments, but consistently miss the mark in their ham-fisted and flailing performances.
As The Riddler, Jim Carrey isn’t just chewing the scenery, he’s devoted to getting every single line between his teeth and shaking it to death like a rabid dog. Given that his character changes from creepy inventor to psychotic super villain, his line delivery widely ranges in quality of execution given its ever-changing context. As loser inventor Edward Nigma, Carrey’s delivery is supremely awkward, feeling like a cosplayer trying really hard to make someone laugh outside a convention, but it does improve once he dons the Riddler garb. Decked out in ever-changing green suits (the bowler hat and three-piece suit is by far the best look here), the brightness of the character and his plans matches the actor’s delivery far better. However, even that doesn’t last long, as The Riddler eventually becomes a power-mad dictator, complete with light up throne and sparkly outfit. By the end of Batman Forever, you just want everything about this Riddler interpretation to be locked away in a vault for eternity.
While Tommy Lee Jones’ Two-Face may not be as blatantly off-key as The Riddler, his performance is sure to send any fan of the villain into a fit. Gone is the duality of physically and psychologically scarred Harvey Dent, whose interplay between his two sides is only glimpsed at the beginning of the film. Instead, Jones brings Two-Face to life as a one-note rip off of Jack Nicholson’s Joker from Batman. It’s a performance filled with never ending cackles, zany one-liners, and line deliveries that stretch every syllable to their breaking point. It’s clear that Jones put the last remaining vestiges of his energy as a human being into playing Two-Face, but his spin on the character and Schumacher’s direction never once touch any sort of human or sympathetic note for this great Batman villain.
Outside these main players are the dutiful Michael Gough as butler Alfred Pennyworth, the increasingly useless Pat Hingle as Commissioner James Gordon, and Nicole Kidman as Dr. Chase Meridian, the thirstiest therapist you’ve ever seen. They each add some needed character interplay to the narrative, but the storylines here are nothing you have not seen many times before.
But don’t misconstrue the many ups and downs of Batman Forever as it being a terrible film. Rather, it’s fun in a middle-of-the-road action blockbuster sort of way, which can frankly be applied to most big budget films that arrived in the mid to late ‘90s. But given its placement in the franchise and the many elements that it introduced to the series, Forever is clearly marked as the moment where Batman films slid from Burton’s uneven yet artistically focused entries to the dismal pit that is Batman & Robin. Neither does it benefit from featuring both heroes and villains who have been done so much better in other interpretations both before and since, leaving the versions here as pale reflections of what could have been.
In the end, Batman Forever is less a pillar in Batman’s cinematic history and more a footnote. An entertaining one, but a footnote nonetheless.
Best Batman Moment: Batman interrupts Two-Face’s bank robbery as the film begins, escaping his acid-filled bank vault death trap and climbing aboard his escaping helicopter. Batman doesn’t just want to stop Two-Face, he wants to help rehabilitate him to become Harvey Dent once again. That’s an idea that is lovingly true to the dynamic between these two enemies from the comics, but it’s unfortunately dropped after this opening scene.
When They Got Batman Wrong: Nipples on the Batsuit. They may not be as prominent as the suit that would follow in Batman and Robin, but it’s still an egregious addition to the character.
Comic Book Inspirations: While there are no direct storylines adapted for Batman Forever, the inspiration for much of The Riddler’s look and attitude clearly comes from Frank Gorshin’s tights-wearing interpretation in the 1960’s television show. In addition, the origin of Robin is taken from his first appearance in Detective Comics #38 in April 1940, where his circus acrobat family was killed mid-act by a criminal as Bruce Wayne watched.
Fun Fact: Marlon Wayons was originally cast as Robin when Burton was set to direct the film, but was replaced by Chris O’Donnell when Schumacher came onboard and the film was overhauled. Wayons was paid in full for his contract as part of his dismissal.