Friday, April 13, 2012

"Batman Forever" (Joel Schumacher, 1995)



Directed by Joel Schumacher
Story by Lee Batchler and Janet Scott Batchler
Screenplay by Lee Batchler, Janet Scott Batchler and Akiva Goldsman
Based on the DC Comics Characters Created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger

Executive Produced by Benjamin Melniker and Michael E. Uslan
Produced by Tim Burton, Peter Macgregor-Scott Mitchell E. Dauterive and Kevin J. Messick
Cinematography by Stephen Goldblatt
Production Design by Barbara Ling
Art Direction by Christopher Burian-Mohr and Joseph P. Lucky
Costume Design by Bob Ringwood and Ingrid Ferrin
Editing by Mark Stevens and Dennis Virkler
Original Motion Picture Score Composed by Elliot Goldenthal

Val Kilmer ... Bruce Wayne/Batman
Tommy Lee Jones ... Harvey Dent/Two-Face
Jim Carrey ... Edward Nygma/The Riddler
Nicole Kidman ... Dr. Chase Meridian
Chris O'Donnell ... Dick Grayson/Robin
Michael Gough ... Alfred Pennyworth
Pat Hingle ... Commissioner James Gordon
Drew Barrymore ... Sugar
Debi Mazar ... Spice
Elizabeth Sanders ... Gossip Gerty
Rene Auberjonois ... Dr. Burton
Ed Begley Jr. ... Fred Stickley
Ramsey Ellis ... Young Bruce Wayne
Michael Scranton ... Thomas Wayne
Eileen Seeley ... Martha Wayne
David U. Hodges ... Shooter
Jon Favreau ... Assistant
Don 'The Dragon' Wilson ... Gang Leader

Conflicted by his thirst for justice and desire for happiness, Bruce Wayne finds redemption in orphaned acrobat Dick Grayson. Taking the boy in, the caped crusader forms an alliance with Robin the Boy Wonder, just in time to tackle the dual threat of the schizophrenic Two-Face and the psychotic Riddler.

In the aftermath of fall out following “Batman Returns,” Warners decided to collectively bend over and take the parents’ arguments to heart, resulting in Burton’s immediate dismissal and the choice to completely reinvent the franchise with a bold new aesthetic and artistic direction.

Perhaps 'bold' is putting it mildly.

Enter "Lost Boys" and "ST. Elmos Fire" director Joel Schumacher with 1995’s "Batman Forever."


Some time has passed since the events of "Batman Returns" (for the sake of appearances we’ll say that so much time has passed that Gotham has since undergone a 'structural make-over'). Reaching an almost mythic status as the city’s sole protector, Batman (Val Kilmer) continues his battle against the forces of evil, this time tangling with current adversary Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones), once esteemed district attorney and Batman’s ally Harvey Dent, Two-Face now swears vengeance on Batman for his disfigurement.

The ensuing conflict, plus the introduction of sexy psychologist Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman), brings Batman’s crusade into question until Bruce is faced with a weary youth named Dick Grayson (Chris O’Donnell) who, like Wayne himself, witnesses the murder of his family at the hands of Two-Face but, also, at those of Batman’s psychological hang-ups.


Adding to the stakes is electronics wizard Edward Nygma (Jim Carrey), a lowly employee of Wayne Enterprises' electronics division who idolizes Bruce Wayne. Nygma has created a device dubbed 'The Box,' which utilizes carrier wave signals to influence and stimulate neural activity in order to create self-imposed virtual images into ones brain. When the radical invention is rejected by the very man he covets, Nygma's newly scarred psyche uses that paranoid betrayal as a means of creating a criminal persona called the Riddler, whose idolization has turned to a volatile obsession with a personal vendetta against both Bruce Wayne and Batman.

Despite his efforts to keep Gotham City’s infrastructure and the minds of its very citizens from falling into the Riddler’s hands, Bruce has allowed both the threat and the presence of young Grayson to make him reconsider his crime-fighting oath altogether.

Now, Batman must struggle to undergo a psychological reckoning; one that could either end his war on crime or give it the new meaning (and a new ally) necessary to make Batman Forever.

In an age with the forthcoming advent of the Internet and MTV’s dominance over youth through bombastic music videos reaching a fever pitch, the studio felt that in order for the caped crusader to find solace in the current generation, the character and his exploits would benefit from being designed in a tradition of more artistic pop and flair.

The decision to go with Schumacher, an openly gay man with a penchant for the flamboyant, was certainly a means to that end. I don’t make this statement as a disservice to Joel’s sexual orientation. Quite the contrary I feel that to this day, Joel, more so than Tim or Chris, very much understood the undercurrents of eroticism that DO course through comic books whether we acknowledge them or not. Superhero titles, by in large, are following a bunch of gorgeous men and women bound in skin-tight and alluring costumes.


Besides, sex sells. Both of these observations are fact. I’m always game for one of Heath Ledger’s brilliant monologues, but every once in a while it’s nice to check out Kidman’s cleavage. It’s primordial, laced in the genetics and the hormones. It can’t be helped so much as tempered.

Comics ARE a serious art form for the most part. But there will always be a whimsical edge of fantasy to them that I think Schumacher nailed quite impressively in this first go-round (clearly having Warners allow him to fly off the handle with his sequel would create quite intriguing results later).

But for his initial foray into Gotham City, Schumacher pulls off the creation of a fun-fueled Batman spectacle, packed with wild eye-popping visuals and a wonderfully kitsch-culture sensibility that makes "Batman Forever" an entertaining watch at least.

There’s an aspect of Batman and of comics that is exactly like that. Comics have a realm of possibility that can afford, if need be, to not take itself deadly seriously; a realm that can be over the top and exceedingly visual.


To date, I’ve always felt that “Batman Forever” really puts the 'Comic Book' in ‘Comic Book Movie,’ and I think it’s arguably the most 'Comic Book' esque of the entire sub-genre. There are different films that claim this concept for various forms of the format ("The Crow" captures the visual essence of the 'dark, gritty' graphic nature, for instance), but when it comes to the bombastic, four-color world of costumed super heroes, dastardly villains and visual splendor, "Batman Forever" does it for me.

The angle of giving Bruce a more psychologically based character arc to traverse through seems like a good fit for the third film of the series and it works well for the most part despite the fact that it’s flying in the face of the film’s overall style and tone. Ultimately “Batman Forever” isn’t nearly as psychologically dominant as “Batman Returns” or “Batman Begins” and that has more to do with the cuts that were made to the film prior to its release. Had the film’s story remained more intact to what its initial incarnation was, especially involving the deleted scene of Bruce’s return to the cave where he first fell as a child, I don’t think "Forever" would get nearly the flack it tends to receive now.

Although, thankfully, people have begun to realize that "Batman Forever," on its own merits, isn’t that bad and shouldn’t be aligned with "Batman & Robin" just on the basis that Schumacher directed both. If you put the 2nd film aside, you’ll see that "Forever" really does have a lot of terrific elements going for it.

The foremost being, I suppose, the expansion of Batman’s world on film. Not just in terms of characters (notably the inclusion of Robin), but of the aspects to Batman’s overall landscape.


Two films later, "Batman Forever" finally gave us our first live action depictions of both Wayne Enterprises and Arkham Asylum. To this day, I still feel that Schumacher’s Arkham visually blows Nolan’s out of the water. To bring these elements into the series does render "Forever" in more of a comic tradition as opposed to Burton who, despite making a great impression on the character and his supporting cast psychologically and atmospherically, didn’t make such moves (if you notice in Burton’s films, Bruce Wayne’s role in society is never clearly defined. His name, despite being synonymous with Gotham and high society, isn’t given that corporate anchor). The film, pre-dating "Batman Begins" by a decade, also introduced movie audiences at large to the first live action depiction of the component of Batman’s origin that involved young Bruce falling into the cavernous grotto where he comes face to face with the bats that reside beneath the Manor.

This leads into one of the redeeming scenes of the film as Bruce recounts this traumatic event to Chase in an attempt to reveal his true identity to her. Kilmer brings tremendous conviction to the role in this scene and it's a beautiful interpretation of Wayne's inner turmoil as he faces the simultaneous tragedy of the past and the dark uncertainty of the future when the bat reveals itself to him.

The cast of "Batman Forever" is a mixed bag personally. They’re tremendous actors all and I think their respective careers outside of the film showcase that far better. In "Forever"s defense, I do think the intent was noble.

Acting as Keaton’s successor, Val Kilmer gives a very impressive take both as Bruce Wayne and his iconic caped counterpart. His Batman doesn’t have the psychotic edge of Keaton's, but what he lacks in edgy pathos he makes up for in physicality. Late creator Bob Kane had gone on record saying that Kilmer was a perfect physical choice for Batman, and I can agree with that. He fills the stature of the role quite well.


Perhaps the best bit of casting at the time was up and comer Jim Carrey, whose star was on the rise following "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" and the Dark Horse Comics adaptation "The Mask." Channeling Frank Gorshin on all cylinders, Carrey’s Riddler seems to be quite the suitable foil for Kilmer’s Dark Knight. To see him go to town on a film of this size, doing what he does in a style only he can pull off is a wonderful example of seeing an actor 100% in his element and he makes the film that much more fun in that regard.

What’s also interesting about this version of Nygma is the dichotomy created between him and Bruce Wayne.
It’s established early on that Edward is all but infatuated with Wayne or, more specifically, what Wayne represents. Here we have two men who, through circumstance, are outfitted with fractured psyches from which extreme alternate personalities emerge. It’s tremendously handled when you consider that Nygma idolizes Bruce to the point of wanting to be him and when he begins hating him and resenting what he means to Gotham both as himself and as Batman, Nygma begins to hit the same beats, albeit darker and evil. Instead of Wayne Enterprises, he creates Nygmatech. Instead of Batman, he creates the Riddler. It’s a very fascinating parallel between the two adversaries.


On paper, Tommy Lee Jones seems like an excellent choice for Two-Face given his intense characterization and performance in "The Fugitive." But the issue comes from the fact that he was clearly doing his best to out-Nicholson Nicholson and in that regard, he fails. Because the aesthetic of the film is over the top, the responsibility falls to the actors to try and keep the reality of the piece as grounded as they can. Jones decides to chew up scenery left and right instead and it almost gets to the point of self-indulgent obnoxiousness. Apparently there were scenes of subtlety that reflected Dent’s schizophrenia, one in particular of his destroying half a mirror in his lair in a fit of rage but again, it’s clear that such angst and subtlety were not Warner Brothers' intent for the picture.


The film’s romantic interest doesn’t hold a candle to Selina Kyle, but Nicole Kidman’s exuding sexuality makes her instantly, um, likeable. Though it works in a comic-pop way, it’s quite hilarious that the one psychologist willing to figure out our hero just so happens to be a statuesque hard body with perfect blonde hair, full pouting lips and a push up bra. Not that I’m complaining by any means (although you can see clearly that Kidman’s presence here, much along the lines of Jessica Alba in the "Fantastic Four" films, is for little more than eye candy). True the purist in me will always condemn her for using the sacred Bat-Signal as a means of seduction. Then again if I were Batman, that kind of flirtatious aggression is probably exactly what I would find attractive in a woman.


Oh who am I kidding; I’m not Batman and that’s exactly what I would want in a woman. That took guts. And guts are something a woman after a heart like Batman’s needs.

That leaves us with Chris O’Donnell; our first flesh and blood Robin since Burt Ward.

Maybe that's a little harsh. I mean Robin's presence is definitely something to look forward to and while Robin IS an integral part of Batman’s history and his involvement in the films was ultimately inevitable, O’Donnell’s presence (as well as the character’s) just ends up coming off quite forced, in the same vein as Batgirl in the next film.

Chris has physicality in the role and admittedly it's pretty cool to see a modernization of the boy wonder and the infusion of mythology and nostalgia that his entering the fray brings.
But just like Kidman for guys, O’Donnell is there to exert some youthful energy for the ladies in the audience. Aside from that, he comes off like a total whiner (did the studio accidentally send him all the comics with Jason Todd?) and unfortunately it only becomes heightened in the next film.
Perhaps if they had gone with a younger Robin; maybe that would’ve worked better. As you can see it’s quite difficult to figure the entrance of a character that people don’t really care all that much for to begin with. I don't mean a disservice to Robin, not at all. But it’s clear that Robin, while being important to the myth, isn’t a determining factor in the success of a film (so far Batman’s most successful films haven’t featured the Boy Wonder) and it’ll be interesting to see if someone can come in one day to interpret Robin in a far more inventive way.

The supports don’t manage a whole lot here and I’m really speaking for the ever loyal Michael Gough and Pat Hingle, who respectively stuck with their portrayals of Alfred and Commissioner Gordon through the first four films.

In what little time he has, Gough is just as charming as ever and a part of me will always relish in his approach to Alfred. To be fair, his delicate guidance and handling of Grayson through the film is quite enjoyable and it’s exciting to see Gough be put in a new situation like that. Hingle, on the other hand, gets goofier in Joel’s depiction, hardly the mark of a competent Police Commissioner and Batman’s strongest ally in the department.

An interesting but short lived performance is delivered by Ed Begley Jr. as Nygma’s boss Fred Stickley; too short lived to make much of an impact but he does well to flavor the cast.

Schumacher also manages to throw in a hefty bit role for Bob Kane’s wife Elizabeth Sanders as Gossip Gerty, who quickly wears out her welcome as the character (don’t worry though; we get a whole other film with her to!).

From there we get bit appearances from Don 'The Dragon' Wilson as a the leader of Gotham’s resident Neon-Gang and a quaint walk on by "Iron Man" director Jon Favreau (!) as one of Bruce Wayne’s shirt-tucking posse during his trip to Wayne Electronics.


In terms of the art aesthetic and design, "Batman Forever" certainly stands out among the caped crusader’s incarnations.

Gone are the Gothic stylized visions of Anton Furst and Bo Welch as Gotham City is rendered through the work of exemplary production designer Barbara Ling. Here, Batman’s stomping grounds are depicted as more of a melting pot of styles based both on ethnic and cultural backgrounds. The design combines elements of Art Deco with hefty industrialization, the hyper neon landscapes of Tokyo and the slums of Hong Kong. Barbara’s take on the Batcave is very well executed (finally getting that hydraulic turntable in there is a nice touch) and her approach to Batman’s vehicular arsenal is a take on combining mechanical components with a horrifically organic finish, very much inspired by the work of famed artist H.R. Giger. I’m not a fan of the giant lone fin that she took from the late 40s/early 50s comics for the Batmobile, Batwing and Batboat but it’s valid I suppose.


One of my favorite sets is the Riddler’s inner sanctum on Claw Island; a complete 180 from the grimy under dwellings of the Joker or Penguin. It’s like a giant pinball machine come alive with strobing green neon and metallic surfacing. It’s a prominent set to be sure. Two-Face’s dichotomous lair is a bit on the nose but it’s decent enough.

The action of the film is pretty well done, though at times it can seem tame and overtly staged. Things kick off to high voltage with a kinetic chopper chase following the botched Gotham Bank robbery, which works as a great 'Indiana Jones' type prologue for the film and sets up the flair and tone of the piece from the get-go.

There’s the kick ass Batmobile chase that leads to one of the films prominent visual key points as the Batmobile fires a grappling hook and proceeds to drive up the side of a skyscraper (!). No explanation of how the 'mobile' got down, but oh well. Watching that scene still gets me revved.

One of the other visual key points is one of my favorite moments in the film. Sure it’s incredibly cheesy, almost to the point of parody. But c’mon, seeing the Batwing fly through the Riddler-ized Bat-Signal and return it to normalcy as Gordon cheers his ally on. I get chills from that moment even now. Awesome!



It’s all capped by a spectacular free fall finale as Batman saves both Chase and Robin from a watery death in the Riddler’s fortress. Right out of a comic book, it’s a wonderful moment of brash heroics and it’s scenes like that that’ll make the kid in you jump up and down with anticipatory joy.



Taking over the symphonic reigns from Danny Elfman, "Alien III" composer Elliot Goldenthal delivers a wonderfully bombastic and brassy score; in some ways brassier than the original "BATMAN" score (although certainly not as memorable). Goldenthal’s romp of a theme is light and fun with a twinge of heroic menace; probably attempting to make a worthy foil for Elfman’s own march. While it doesn’t live up to that, it’s still a pretty kick ass theme. In many ways it might be the most 'super heroic' musical theme for Batman in his entire history.

Aside from the theme itself however, the score can feel a tad repetitive with its busy action material and techno-meets-brass hullaballoo. The Riddler’s theme is enjoyable and I do like the refreshing string motifs used during Bruce’s flashback.

All in all, "Batman Forever" is a substantial action film and a hearty example of the 'Summer Blockbuster' vernacular.

It’s everything about popular youth culture rolled up into a sweeping display of extremity and theatrics in a way no other character aside from Batman could possibly be afforded.

In hindsight, "Forever" is far better than the reputation it’s often laced with, with time it seems more people and more Batman fans have come to be more accepting of this notion. Little by little, it feels as though fans are taking the narrow-minded glasses off and seeing how naive it is to lump the film with "Batman & Robin" just on the principle of Schumacher's involvement.

Spectacle at its flashiest, "Batman Forever" is an exciting ride through Gotham City headed by a visionary filmmaker who, despite the claims of many a Batman fan and movie goer, is quite good at what he does.

Simply put, it’s just a fun motion picture experience.




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