Tomorrow, I’m going to be posting my review of my 14th least favorite superhero film of all time, Batman & Robin. I’m expecting to catch quite a bit of flak for having this so low on the list, as Batman & Robin is nearly universally considered to be one of the worst (if not the worst) superhero films of all time. As long as I’m going to be in hot water anyway, let’s just lay it all on the table right now. So, if I told you Batman & Robin was my 14th least favorite superhero of all time, in addition to being shocked at how low on the list that is, you’d probably be thinking, “Wait. You have Batman Forever rated as worse than Batman & Robin?”
Which, of course, means Batman Forever isn’t on this list at all. I’m unlikely to escape not including Batman Forever on a list of my 15 least favorite superhero films of all time without explanation, so with these two films being “brothers” due to being Joel Schumacher’s two entries into the Batman film universe, I may as well address Batman Forever first, to inform tomorrow’s criticism of Batman & Robin.
After Tim Burton’s early-90s Batman blockbusters ignited the decade’s comic books explosion, many inside and outside of Hollywood realized that Burton’s take on the Caped Crusader was exceptionally dark (and not in a Chris Nolan Dark Knight kind of way), and probably not the most appropriate thing in the world for kids, who were a huge part of Warner’s target audience. So despite the fact that Batman Returns is practically begging for a sequel (“Batman Re-returns“?), the studio gave Burton the ax and turned the thing over to Joel Schumacher.
At this point, every Batman fan reading is already shuddering, having long ago equated “Schumacher” with “awful.” I now consider it my duty to stand up for the man. Joel Schumacher is actually a good filmmaker. Don’t believe me? Go watch The Client. You heard me. Go watch it. Now. Since you obviously listened to me and are already watching the film, at this point I can reveal that this adaptation of a John Grisham novel (prepare for unpleasant deja vu) is directed by Joel Schumacher and stars Tommy Lee Jones.
Here’s the thing: it works. It’s actually the best legal thriller I’ve ever seen. Yeah, you heard me: ever. I was so stunned by this film, it forced me to completely reevaluate everything I “knew” about Joel Schumacher. A quick glance at his filmography informed me that he directed the 2004 adaptation of Phantom of the Opera, which is one of the finest films I’ve ever seen and is certainly much more serious than his work on Batman. Further digging revealed that Batman Forever and Batman & Robin were not the Batman films he wanted to make at all. In fact, he wanted to make a much more serious film with darker themes based on Batman: Year One (if that sounds eerily familiar… yeah, we’re talking about basically what Chris Nolan did.) If Schumacher weren’t under heavy pressure from Warner Bros. to make a Batman film that would be primarily attractive to children and sell more action figures, it’s entirely possible we would remember him as the man to revitalize the Batman film franchise. It isn’t even really that far-fetched.
Was Batman Forever entirely without missteps? Of course not. I mean… look at it. But with that in mind, my entire perception of the film changes. Why? Because I did like it when I was a kid. A lot. Schumacher did exactly what the studio asked him to do, he made a film that sold a ton of action figures and helped create a marketing empire. Given his artistic sensibilities (as demonstrated in other films) and desire for a more serious interpretation of the character, it’s unlikely Schumacher himself was satisfied with the end product. That being said, he did find a way to put his own mark on the franchise by making the film not only kid-friendly, but intentionally over-the-top and campy. And all those neon colors and “comic booky” aesthetic that everyone suddenly always hated? They fit right in with the campy atmosphere of the films, they wouldn’t have looked very out of place in a lot of other superhero movies, and I’m kind of confused as to where all of this universal hatred was in 1995.
And hey, here’s an interesting thing: as Movie Bob pointed out recently, Batman Forever actually has the only interesting character development of any 1990s Batman film with Bruce Wayne briefly giving up his career as the Caped Crusader, and later deciding to continue to be Batman “not because I have to, but because I choose to.” Wait, what? Closure? A sense of optimism? And (this can’t possibly be overlooked) having Robin in his life as a positive influence?
This is the kind of turn that Christopher Nolan’s series (as much as I like it much better than Schumacher’s work, and like it in general) will never make. The reason Nolan absolutely refuses to make more than three movies is because he has no story left to tell. His Batman can’t have this sort of psychologically-healthy epiphany, he can never move on from his parents’ deaths. (Unless he does in The Dark Knight Rises and I end up looking like a giant idiot.) Optimism? Not in my Batman! (Except, you know, the character has clearly been depicted in the past as not constantly being alone and in pain and it’s worked just fine. See: the comics, Batman: The Animated Series, the Adam West live-action series which was clearly a source of inspiration here, Batman: The Brave and the Bold…)
Can you imagine a series of halfway-decent films about a psychologically-healthy Batman? Where did we get this idea that Batman is always, always, always dark and serious? Okay, Schumacher’s take on the character was far from perfect, but what if someone came along who could combine how enormous of a badass Batman is with him actually getting over his parents’ deaths? (Yeah, that’s already happened in a lot of comic book and animated iterations, but a live-action one? Can we get that Batman for Warner’s lead-in to the inevitable Justice League film?)
Okay, I’m getting carried away here, let’s bring it back in. Am I going to argue that this is a great film? NO!!! Are you kidding me??? It’s Batman Forever!!!
It does have some great elements. How about the acting? Val Kilmer could’ve been a better Batman than Keaton had he been given a more serious take on the character, and was already pretty compelling with the already-mentioned psychological exploration of the character. Nicole Kidman did great with what she had to work with. Chris O’Donnell was probably a good choice as Robin, and frankly was the thing I loved about the film the most in my childhood.
How about the villains? Here’s the biggest difference between Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. Jim Carrey was absolutely fantastic as the Riddler in an interpretation that harkened back to the aforementioned Adam West television series. Tommy Lee Jones… well, yeah, okay: here’s where the first hints of where Batman & Robin was going to go horribly, horribly wrong came in. Tommy Lee Jones is absolutely hilarious in this film. He is an over-the-top, humorous villain who channels Silver Age villain personalities brilliant. What he isn’t… is Two-Face.
If Joel Schumacher had been able to cast Tommy Lee Jones as some random Silver Age villain (or an original villain based on Silver Age aesthetics), I would actually be able to make a pretty convincing argument that this is actually a good film. But in bowing to studio pressure to feature the popular villain (who didn’t fit the film’s tone at all), the film was ruined. Yeah, I know it sounds crazy, but a Batman film that was a little silly and featured a villain and armies of disposable henchmen actually could’ve worked.
Aside from the fact that it was admittedly kind of mediocre and had some fairly substantial problems, I think the main reason most people actually hate Batman Forever is that they conflate it with Batman & Robin, and I think that’s a pretty serious mistake. But let’s talk about that more tomorrow.