Film Review: Batman Forever

Let’s begin by being as clear as possible. This film sucks. It really sucks. I’m aware that people might think Batman & Robin a more memorably bad film, and it probably is, since I must admit that, in the time between my father taking me to see it in the cinema and the viewing I undertook for this review, I had pretty much forgotten everything about Forever except for one or two things, but make no mistake: this is a diabolically confused mess of no small magnitude. Initially it may have shown some promise, as Joel Schumacher wanted it to be an adaptation of Frank Miller’s much lauded Batman: Year One, one of the comics of the late 1980s that defined the modern idea of Batman, but the project was gradually transformed into something that was most decidedly not that. Batman Forever is sometimes described as a throwback to the Batmania of the 1960s, but in making that comparison people seem to forget that while that version of Batman was very silly, it knew what it was doing and carried itself with a warmth and affability that made it very fun to watch. What we have here is a charmless, directionless, oddly cold and synthetic vision of a Batman without purpose.

So, what happened? How the hell should I know. Tim Burton and Michael Keaton were originally attached for a third and probably final entry in their Batman series, with the working title “Batman Continues”, and then they ceased to be so. It seems that from the start Warner Bros. execs were actively pushing Burton to go lighter in response to the (in my view wrongly) perceived “darkness” of Batman Returns, so it’s likely that at least some of the nigh unutterable stupidity that goes on in the finished product was there from near the beginning of its production. At the very least we know the character of Chase Meridian was there in the early stages, since Burton had already cast Rene Russo in the role. So while Joel Schumacher often gets the blame for this movie and its sequel, it seems that here at least he was simply the chump they brought on board to clean up whatever mess had been left behind in the wake of Burton’s departure, and was later left fumbling even more blindly as Keaton followed suit and walked away. Of course, we know Burton later signed back on with the project as producer, since his name is pretty much the first thing you see in the opening credits, and while the question “why?” might be intriguing, I’ll leave that where it is in favour of simply discussing the mess that is the film itself rather than the mess surrounding it.

With a film as confused and scrappy as Batman Forever, it’s hard to know exactly where to begin. Normally a plot synopsis would suffice, but the plot itself may be the least remarkable thing about the film, not just because the rest of it is so misguided on pretty much every level, but also because it barely even registers as a story told. The stakes are clear-ish, but none of them has any weight. We are told for example that Riddler’s machine will suck all the intelligence out of Gotham’s citizens and pump it straight into his brain, yet at no point does this ever actually seem to happen. I mean, we see the machine working, allegedly, yet the Riddler’s level of intelligence never seems to rise above that of a small child thrown into a bathtub full of sugar at any point during the film. It’s easy enough to joke that the writers weren’t smart enough to write the Riddler as a super genius, especially since, as we shall see, they were hardly capable of writing the Riddler at all, but when you realise that they weren’t even able to write an accurate if fairly shallow elaboration on the phrase “idiot box”, that’s when you start to consider just how much of this particular iceberg’s mass is hidden below the water line.

While the film pays a little lip service to its villains’ defining traits every now and then, neither of Batman’s foes really maintains more than a passing resemblance to his namesake from the source material; Two-Face is basically “Joker with a Coin”, while Riddler is “Jim Carrey Funny Moments 10 Hour Compilation SO RANDOM!!! xD”. So when the two get together you’re essentially left with a pair of failed Joker auditions sandwiched together into a sort of villainous near non-entity, a duo of (in the sincerest mode of charity) embryonic personalities crushed under the weight of conflicting and unrealistic expectations: don’t recall Burton, but also play bigger than Nicholson. For Batman Returns, both Danny DeVito and Michelle Pfeiffer understood well enough that their characters could not simply be sartorially differentiated retreads of Nicholson’s Joker, that to step out from under his shadow they would have to find their own voices, their own physicalities. Whatever you think of them, they cannot reasonably be accused of copying their predecessor, and I suppose in their results neither Tommy Lee Jones nor Jim Carrey could be accused of resembling Nicholson’s Joker either, but it is clear enough to me from what they seem to intend to be doing on screen that they were being pushed in that direction. Indeed, I get the feeling that the goal of this film from the studio’s perspective was to spiritually retcon Batman Returns.

Perhaps the worst thing about these rather horrible portrayals is that it’s very difficult to tell who is at fault, since at least in the case of Jones I want someone else to blame. Carrey I could probably leave to the wolves, but as we see from later performances in his career, much as with Robin Williams, a good director can rein him in and channel his naturally extreme energy in the service of pathos, which on some level is a state to which most Batman villains can aspire. So there at least we might blame screenplay or direction, although it is possible that Carrey, whose star was arcing very high in the Hollywood sky at that time, was granted executive carte blanche to “Carrify” his performance as much as he liked. One thing is certain: something went very, very wrong. Whether it is the character’s totally unbelievable claim to being a genius scientist, his terrible one liners which seem to come out of some deep recess of juvenile tastelessness, so deep that I can hardly believe real grown adults actually came up with them, or his mediocre attempts at being anything remotely resembling a threat to anyone whatsoever, the Riddler is simply bad in this film. Sure, he’s supposed to be insufferable, his whole shtick by and large is that he envies Batman’s intellect and wants to outdo him by the most spectacular means possible, in one of the comics he even goes to extremes in an attempt to drive Batman insane, but the insufferability of Carrey’s Riddler seems to be almost entirely directed at the audience, so many of his cringe-worthy verbal eruptions are made when no one else is around that it is hard to believe I am not being personally targeted when he screams “joygasm!!!” after blowing up the batmobile.

With Jones, you might be tempted to exclaim “who the fuck knows”. It may be that an actor used to playing fairly down to earth dramatic roles might struggle to walk a mile in the larger than life shoes of a comic book villain, but really his delivery matches the garbled lines he has to work with, so in that sense at least he did a good job. Indeed, short of walking off the set while telling the writers to shove their dialogue up their arses in whatever form should prove least comfortable, Jones could probably not have done any better. Two-Face is a complicated character, on the one hand he is still Harvey Dent, a former District Attorney, much closer to the kinds of roles Jones had usually played up to this point; on the other he has succumbed to a sort of scarring of the mind equal to the scarring of his face, such that the ideal of blind justice is taken to extremes with the aid of a defaced coin, pure chance, a fifty-fifty split. The character is then dramatically compelling fare for a film, a dark mirror of Batman’s own dual nature to match Returns‘ Catwoman, yet here he is, as I said before, treated as “Joker with a Coin”. Jones is not really given the basis of Harvey Dent to expand from, and any sense of Two-Face’s actual character is subsumed into a shambolic medley of cackles, mumbles, and circus ringmaster pomp, yet the gravest crime committed is not that he barely resembles himself, but that for all his gun-waving, coin-flipping antics he is about as threatening, about as compelling, and about as tragic as a slightly misshapen Werther’s Original.

Now might be the time to mention that this film, and indeed its sequel, are intended as continuations of the Burton films. The only real on-screen confirmation of this is the presence of Michael Gough as Alfred Pennyworth, the stalwart and stately butler of Wayne Manor. Of course, he too has not survived the transition from Burtmania to whatever the hell this is. He is reduced to playing a doddering old man who is easily fooled by the buffoonery of fake trick or treaters that couldn’t have been less convincing even if they had been dressed up as the titular villains from Killer Klownz from Outer Space. He is at his best in his few scenes with Dick Grayson, here played by Chris O’Donnell, forming perhaps the only relationship in the film that comes close to resembling genuine human interaction. O’Donnell is probably the most likeable major screen presence in the film, and while his Robin is more akin to the wayward Jason Todd than your typical Dick Grayson, he doesn’t do too badly with the fairly shoddy material he has to work with. But the inclusion of Robin at the halfway point of the film immediately comes across as an unnecessary addition to a stage that is already overcrowded, albeit by a bunch of cardboard cut-outs and other non-entities, and it is through this perpetual narrative greed that the film’s confused identity is matched by its confused focus. There’s a reason Two-Face essentially retreats behind Riddler later on in the film, this being that the writers, or perhaps meddlers from the darker recesses of the studio system, began to realise that the film was trying to contain too much stuff and basically jamming it in any which way it could, such that the audience is left trying to navigate a room where two thirds of the doorway are blocked by furniture and the floor itself is totally covered with stacked chairs, tables, and garishly upholstered sofas, none of which can be sat upon or at with any comfort. Forever lacks any of the sense of proportion, balance, tonal continuity, or purposeful storytelling that grounded and propelled the action of its predecessors.

Possibly the most notable difference when comparing this film to the previous two is the near total absence of Gotham City itself. In the Burton films we are often treated to shots of its bustling streets, political and social events, alleyway robberies and so forth. Batman feels for all his high-tech gadgetry like a street level crime fighter; he has amassed his formidable arsenal essentially to save people who, just like his own parents, take a wrong turn on their way home from the theatre, to fight the rot that festers in the dark corners of the city, and to instil fear in the hearts of the cowardly and superstitious lot that lie in wait in the long shadows. Because we see almost nothing of Gotham except for some rather unappealing CG cityscapes devoid of so much as even Lowry-esque stick-figure crowds, Batman’s crusade is made to feel like a vanity project, this sense not being helped by his ludicrously flashy vehicles and, yes, his overly sculpted suit, replete with injection moulded nipples and “dummy thicc” rear end. Bruce Wayne of course first donned the cowl for personal reasons, but Batman do what he do with a view to upholding values that actual human beings tend to hold as universal: justice, crime and punishment, rehabilitation, mercy. Here the entire world seems to exist for a handful of characters, anyone else who might happen to appear in frame is so much ephemeral, almost accidental decoration, you might even take them for ghosts from the previous films still haunting select interior spaces of a now largely abandoned Gotham. Along with the art design, this feeling would be surreal were it not so eminently forgettable.

Also notable for its absence, the brooding neo-Wagnerian score that Danny Elfman provided for the two Burton films. Elliot Goldenthal was brought in to try and unify through music the fecklessly assembled budget caterer’s buffet of half-baked characters with some of that good ol’ leitmotivic special sauce. Goldenthal sort of apes Elfman here and there, but his themes are not as memorable, and we are at no point given the impression of a Batman, a crusader who roams the night seeking justice, but rather being told “look, it’s Batman, there he goes, being Batman”. It has the slimy wool-over-the-eyes quality of a carpetbagger. We can never really quite believe that what we’re hearing is the soundtrack to Batman, and like the film itself the soundtrack reads like a knock-off competitor hastily rolled out to make a buck. Things do not get better when we look at the attempts to lend weight to the villains through scoring. Two-Face’s music, which Goldenthal has rather bafflingly claimed was inspired by Prokofiev and Shostakovich, fails to ground Tommy Lee Jones’s messy performance with thematic stability because it is itself a complete mess of noisy effects, only serving to heighten the incoherence of the portrayal. Meanwhile, the Riddler is mismatched with a theremin heavy throwback to old science fiction scores, attempting to play up the intended mad scientist character, but instead hammering home just how little Carrey’s performance matches anything of that description.

But what of Batman himself? This is after all a Batman film. Well, sad to say, this iteration of the caped crusader, played by Val Kilmer, is neither equal to the task of succeeding Michael Keaton nor recalling the light-hearted straightman act of Adam West. I bring up West because, by all accounts, Forever is supposed to be the return of Batmania. As I said in my review of Batman Returns, Burton was already doing Batmania, especially in that film, but apparently cheesy rhymes about mistletoe and DJ scratching CDs are just too dark for kids. Pouty-lips Kilmer is not dark, but he is hardly light either, being at best a neutral earth tone, inoffensive at the side of his garish counterparts. It is only when you see him away from the obscuring presence of these paltry interlocutors that you realise he might as well be a potted plant, for that is basically the level of expressivity he manages to reach in any given scene. He’s cracking a joke with Alfred, he’s bashing down a door to try to save a life, he’s in a bank vault that is suspended from a helicopter and inexplicably filling up with acid; his plain and immutable foliage of an expression is not so much a reassuring anchor of calm and stability as it is the face of a man who is trying not to show how bewildered he is by the fact that he is in Batman Forever. This makes the scene in which he turns to camera and smiles quite surprising, but probably not in the way the director intended. It is surprising not just because Kilmer’s face has been in a single and completely different configuration the entire film up to that point, but because the change occurs over the non-person that is Chase Meridian.

Meridian, played by Nicole Kidman, is a woman what gets kidnapped, and that’s basically the entirety of who she is. Meridian succeeds only in making me nostalgic for Vicki Vale, who was easily the weakest part of the 1989 Batman, but there are some interesting points to consider when comparing the two love interests. Vale is essentially a bystander who is rescued by Batman, and their relationship deepens as the Joker begins to take a perverse interest in her. Vale is a fairly typical damsel in distress, but there is a developmental line that is established and followed over the course of the film, and it begins with her resisting her colleague’s fascination with the Batman myth. Meridian is the opposite, she is already possessed of a consuming obsession with Batman, and she thrusts herself into his path as often as possible. She makes herself the damsel in distress, but at no point in the film is this questioned, critiqued, or even so much as addressed in passing. Unlike the villains, I can’t even criticise Kidman for turning in a bad performance, she has almost no character to portray, and the most consistently surprising thing about Meridian’s relationship with Batman and Bruce Wayne is that he continues to fall harder and harder for what can at best be described as a cardboard cut-out of a woman. While it is a lazy criticism, the entire “why” of the romance subplot may be best explained as follows: because it’s in the script.

So that’s Batman Forever, two hours of people you’re never given a reason to care about doing things that make no sense because Warner Bros. wanted a kid friendly Batman movie, or rather because they desperately didn’t want another Tim Burton Batman movie. The film has the sense of having been guided so much by what it was to avoid, rather than by what it was to aim for, that it spends most of its duration in the violent throes of an identity crisis that is only resolved in the end by the realisation and acceptance that it in fact has no identity at all. Its synthetic, contrived narrative, character portrayals, and locations all combine into an offensively bland mush, and even the most refined of gourmands would be hard pressed to identify even one flavour in this broth spoiled not by too many cooks but by a disorganised kitchen led by a head chef who didn’t even know the recipe. It is not in thrall to the crass commercialism that permeates its infamous sequel, but its lack of even this as some kind of defining characteristic leaves it shambling in a pile of its own mess, miserable and forgotten down in the shadowy sewers where lie yesteryear’s most fleeting of pop cultural dalliances.

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