By Adam Donato
Batman Returns is a good movie. While it wasn’t a commercial success to the extent of the first movie, it still made over three times its budget and was generally favored by critics. The controversy came in the form of the dark tone that parents felt was too much for children and McDonald’s threatening to drop out of the marketing for the third movie if Tim Burton was to come back to direct. Burton dropped out to do Ed Wood, so Joel Schumacher was brought on to direct. He had a vision for the movie that was also dark and drew a lot of inspiration from Batman: Year One, but Warner Brothers insisted on a lighter tone to have more of a wide appeal. Keaton didn’t care for this direction and was replaced with Val Kilmer. The history of how this movie was made says a lot about the final product of the film. Batman Forever was criticized for being the silly commercial product that it is, while simultaneously being a fun departure from the creepy and gothic previous installment in the franchise. Twenty-five years later, how does Batman Forever stack up in the strong history of Batman films?
As a movie, especially in comparison to most of the superhero films that would be released in the next decade, Batman Forever is a cheesy romp in the best way. The action is fun and shows off Batman and his gadgets in a fantastical way. The special effects are cartoonish which matches the tone, along with some amazing sets and practical effects. The colors and tone are a refreshing change of pace as the previous installment was fully saturated in Burton’s gothic style. Not to knock the previous films in any way, but they are not as fun as this movie. The cast is great and certain member really go for it. The story introduces Robin well and gives Bruce Wayne a decent arc. The villains are definitely memorable, which is one of the most important aspects of a superhero movie. Worst case scenario, it’s not Batman and Robin.
One of the most topical points to bring up when discussing a Batman movie is who plays the titular role. It’s a hard role to peg who is the best because it is essentially two characters. Some actors are good Batmans, but bad Bruce Waynes, and vise versa. Val Kilmer certainly isn’t the best at either, but he does a serviceable job at both. His Bruce Wayne is interesting to watch solve riddles and argue with Dick Grayson. He’s very serious and handles the scenes of internal conflict well as he struggles with the death of his parents (still) and the problems with his duality of self, but doesn’t reflect the suave, playboy facade that Bruce Wayne is known for. His Batman has weird lips and makes terrible one-liners. Kilmer does succeed in being stoic and does the best with the lines he was given. While this third installment in the franchise is meant to be somewhat of a reboot of the franchise, it does make an attempt to give a sense of finality in what was a trilogy at the time. It’s nice seeing Bruce Wayne embrace both roles in his life as a choice and overcome the nightmares of his past. This happens through his rehabilitation of Dick Grayson as Bruce sees him as a younger version of himself. It handles the dynamic between Batman and Robin with dignity in a way that feels like a natural progression in the series. Batman Forever succeeds from a character perspective with its titular character.
Robin is a tough character to adapt for the big screen. How does one justify Batman taking an orphaned child under his wing to fight crime with him? Chris O’Donnell’s Dick Grayson seems to be a legal adult as the actor was 25 when the movie was released. His persistence to be partners with Batman is well developed and their relationship is one of the best parts of the movie. O’Donnell’s performance has no distinguishable faults, but fails to stand out, which is unfair considering the villains in the movie. Robin has his parents murdered by Two-Face and swears revenge upon him in the form of death. His arc finds him with the opportunity to kill Two-Face during the climax and he takes the moral high ground by saving him from falling off a cliff. Robin’s suit during his circus days call back to his original outfit in the comics, which is a nice nod that makes sense in the context of the story. His updated suit at the end is a muted version of the colors in the original suit and works very well next to Batman.
The most iconic superhero movies have memorable villains and if that’s the case, then Batman Forever is one of the all-time greats. This is very much so a matter of taste as the villains are both over the top and zany. Jim Carrey was one of the biggest movie stars of the nineties and really gave his all to the role of The Riddler. If you like Ace Ventura or The Mask, then you will love this movie because it’s just Carrey being an insane person. All of his mannerisms and speech are all done to hilarious effect. His costumes are inspired as he is constantly covered in question marks with the most obnoxious color of orange for hair. It’s cartoon-like in the best possible way, which matches the tone of such a ridiculous character. Not to mention, The Riddler found out the secret identity of Batman, which is cool because it hasn’t been done by many of Batman’s villains.
Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face is also an insane person in this movie. This is more of a shock as Jones is more often known for his dramatic work, even in his other blockbuster family movies, Men In Black, he plays the straight man. It’s great watching him really go for it as he tries to keep pace with Carrey. There’s a scene where Two-Face is repeatedly flipping his coin so that he can kill Batman, which totally defeats the point of flipping the coin, but watching him desperately fighting with himself for the right to kill Batman is a joy. The make-up and costumes are full of goofy contrast and works as a good visual metaphor for his character. The bromance between The Riddler and Two-Face is beautiful. The scenes where they go trick-or-treating and play Battleship will have you shipping them by the end credits. Batman Forever falls into the trope where if there are two villains, then one of them has to die. The Riddler rotting away in Arkham Asylum is great, but condemning Two-Face somewhat undercuts Robin’s character arc.
Rounding out the rest of the supporting cast is Nicole Kidman as Bruce Wayne's love interest in this movie. This plotline has her being indecisive on which of the two she wants to be with. This results in Kilmer making the creepiest smile while in the Batsuit. Schumacher was lucky to nab the now star actress as this movie came out right before she made it big. In the DVD commentary, the big debate over her casting between Schumacher and the studio was whether or not she was hot enough, which is as dumb as it is demeaning. Saying Kidman does a good job in Batman Forever sounds like a silly statement in comparison to the rest of her roles, but then again, it’s Nicole Kidman so she’s great. Michael Gough and Pat Hingle both return in this movie and do the same great job they always do. Drew Barrymore and Debi Mazar show up as Sugar and Spice, respectively. It’s weird seeing Barrymore in such a small role, but she makes a very good impression in her short time on screen.
Batman Forever is nowhere near the best of the Batman films, but it certainly is not the worst. It’s better than any time that Batman appears in the DCEU, but it doesn’t touch anything Nolan did with the character. It honestly just comes down to taste when putting it up against Batman Returns. The two are similar in quality, but have a stark contrast in tone. Schumacher made Batman fun and cartoonish like he was during the days of Adam West. One can say it’s disrespectful to the intended darkness of the character, or that it revels in the inherent silliness of a character who dresses up as a bat and solves riddles. Batman Forever has personality out the wazoo and deserves to be remembered fondly as one of the more delightful installments for one of the most iconic superheroes of all time. Thank you, Joel Schumacher.
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The Snake Hole
Retrospectives, opinion pieces, awards commentary, personal essays, and any other type of article that isn't a traditional review or interview.