It’s been the better part of a decade since Batman Begins first arrived in cinemas. The first part of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, the gritty Christian Bale-starrer went along way to making up for the absolute turkey that had been 1997’s Batman & Robin – Bat credit card? Lobotomized Bane?! Incessant ice puns?!! In any case, Joel Schumacher’s camp monstrosity destroyed most of the goodwill towards the franchise that had been built up by Tim Burton’s gothic wonderlands. Regardless, I think there’s a case to be made for Schumacher’s first effort, the oft-forgotten Batman Forever, as being a genuinely decent Batman film. I know you must think I’ve been huffing Smilex, but please, hear me out.
After the strangely schlubby Michael Keaton left the role – no offence to Mr. Keaton who, I think, gave a compellingly nuanced take on the orphaned vigilante – the studio opted to replace him with the typical leading man, Val Kilmer. While some have accused Kilmer of phoning it in and having made for a wooden Bruce Wayne, I think his stare-y, haunted take on the character was just what the film required after the more idiosyncratic approach taken my his predecessors (we’re looking at you, too, Mr. Adam “Pass… me… the shark repellant… Bat-Spray” West). Kilmer’s Batman was more in line with the comic books, more outwardly heroic, and his billionaire alter ego felt, for the first time, like a real public figure. While Kilmer never truly plumbed the depths of the character, you could definitely believe that this was a guy who went out partying during the day and threw down with criminals come nightfall.*
Again, though, it’s never so much about Batman as it is his villains and Batman Forever had a couple of doozies: Jim Carrey’s zany Riddler and Tommy Lee Jone’s hammy Two-Face.** Neither, admittedly, bring much by the way of subtlety to the parts: after a short stint as the nebbish Edward Nygma, Carrey grins maniacally and laughs like a lunatic (as one might expect) upon becoming a super-villain while Jones gurns through heavy makeup and still remains gruffly charming. Nicole Kidman appears as love interest Chase Meridian, a seductive psychologist who’s fascinated by the prospect of Batman as a case study, but mostly just gets to play the part of damsel in distress. And finally, we get Robin in the form of Chris O’Donnell’s Dick Grayson, who… yeah, is mostly obnoxious. He steals the Batmobile and picks a fight with a gang of glow-in-the-dark punks, but he was at least, in keeping with the comic books, an acrobat who watched his parent’s die at the hands of maniac, so some points for loyalty to the source material (hint, hint, Mr. Chris “His middle name’s Robin” Nolan).
It might not having anything to match either Jack Nicholson’s or Heath Ledger’s Joker (whether you fancy watching the world burn or just dancing with the devil in the pale moonlight, both are superlative), but Batman Forever, let’s remember, came out back in the mid 90s when there was no expectation of a superhero film other than to be fun, and, for the most part, it manages that. There’s an evil scheme that doesn’t revolve around having the good guys catch you and then do exactly what you need them to (looking at you The Dark Knight/The Avengers/Skyfall), though it does have a villain obsessed with his own intelligence. There’s a few half-hearted swipes at the so-called idiot box and it’s effect on society (which in those days probably counted as biting social commentary) and a few good-natured callbacks to the 60s TV series (“Hole-y rusted metal, Batman”, anyone?) Kilmer and Jones may have been difficult to work with – indeed, according to Schumacher he hopes never to again – but, all in all, it’s good, clean fun. As Norville Barnes would say, “It’s, you know, for kids.”
It’s not high art and it would never be anyone’s pick of the crop, but Batman Forever is well made, serviceable, and entertaining. It’s camp, but not too camp. The relationship between Batman and Robin hits just the right note of homoeroticism. It’s all spectacle, no substance, but it’s good spectacle. As Roger Ebert noted in his review, the great Batman movie still remained to be made. Whether or not you feel it has been yet, Batman Forever is the Pepsi Cola of comic book movies: tangy, refreshing, but not too sickly. You’d never serve it at your wedding, but it’ll do for a night in. Batman Forever came just before Batman became complete shit, then completely serious. So, sit back, watch it again, and let it riddle you this: isn’t it better than you think?
* If you want proof of Kilmer’s acting prowess, I’d suggest watching his first major outing in The Doors, in which he plays front man Jim Morrison, as well as the languid, crazy-eyed Doc Holliday in Tombstone, and, more recently, witty asshole Gay Perry in Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (which also stars a pre-Iron Man Robert Downey Jr.).
** At this point I’d ask you to spare a thought for poor Billy Dee Williams who appeared briefly as DA Harvey Dent in Burton’s Batman with the hope of playing Two-Face ina sequel. In this regard, though, he is still more fortunate than Dylan Baker who stuck with the role of unassuming one-armed scientist Dr. Curt Connors through Spiderman 2 and 3, presumably awaiting his villainous transformation into The Lizard, only to be ousted by Rhys Ifans in The Amazing Spider-Man.