#14 in my ranking of theatrically released Batman films.
And so the franchise machines goes on. The studio didn’t want Tim Burton back to continue infecting their movies about an orphaned child who grew up to beat up criminals in costume with gothic darkness, so they brought in Joel Schumacher to lighten up the affair. The leaving of Burton caused the departure of Michael Keaton as well, and Val Kilmer was cast in his place. So, what did Warner Brothers manage to get produced here? Essentially a confused toy commercial because the merchandizing scene from Spaceballs was pretty much how studio executives learned to think through the 80s and 90s.
I’ll say this upfront: I do not dislike this film because its visual palate is more colorful and its tone less serious. I dislike this movie because its script is a complete hodgepodge of nonsense while the end result film is edited together to make things that shouldn’t go together stand right next to each other. I would be very open to a Batman film that took the world and story less seriously with an emphasis on crazier villains for our hero to fight. I don’t need my Batman movies to be somber and serious explorations of duality, loneliness, and vigilantism. I could do well with a film that is just another in a series of Batman adventures where he has to put weird villains in Arkham Asylum. That is not actually what Joel Schumacher achieved in Batman Forever.
The film starts with an audacious action scene where Harvey Dent/Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones) sets a trap for Batman in a bank high up on a tower at the center of Gotham. Using lots of neon colors in garish ways, we get our new view of the city in which the Dark Knight stalks. It’s an expansion on the gothic designs Burton had put forward in the first two films with huge statues of Greek god-like figures holding up buildings. It’s garish, but I can dig it.
The scene sets for a couple of things. The first is that Two Face wants to kill Batman as his motivation for the film. The second is the presence of Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman), a psychologist brought in by the police department to analyze Two Face (she never really does beyond a quick diagnosis in this scene) who develops a quick infatuation with Batman when they briefly meet. The action itself is big, bold, largely nonsensical, and entertaining. I’m okay with this. It’s a thin way to start a film, perhaps trying to replicate a certain James Bond-esque action opening in a continuing adventure, but it’s fun enough.
The film makes it obvious that it’s a complete mishmash when it introduces Jim Carrey’s Edward Nigma. Carrey approaches the part from the start like a maniac, giving him no place to go in terms of his performance. Nigma has developed a new technology that enhances television signals for the viewer. As an employee of Wayne Enterprises, he wants Bruce Wayne, visiting on an inspection, to promise further funding of the project over the objections of his immediate supervisor. Wayne refuses because of the unanswered questions (get it?) about the device’s effect on brainwaves. Nigma takes it badly, forces his boss into a human trial that ends with a side effect of Nigma absorbing his brainwaves, making him smarter (how this manifests is never really clear). He kills his boss, fakes the evidence to make it look like a suicide, and then leaves the company.
Two Face attacks a charity circus where Bruce Wayne has taken Chase on a date, and at this circus are the Graysons, a family of acrobats who work together to move the bomb that Two Face brings (and attaches to a wire that ascends to the ceiling where the Graysons can do it while never bothering to try and leave the building that’s about to blow up himself), and the youngest, Dick, is the only to survive when the rest fall to their deaths. Nigma watches this on television and becomes enthralled with the idea of becoming his own supervillain.
Nigma figures out where Two Face’s hidden base is, somehow, through the use of the Box, his television device. He appears and says that these things on a side table showed him where the place was, but it doesn’t seem like anyone’s used them yet. Anyway, they decide to team up with the Riddler using his technology to try and figure out who Batman is and then humiliate him before Two Face gets the chance to kill him. The Riddler’s motivation is thin, essentially amounting to hating Wayne because Wayne wouldn’t fund his research. It works well enough.
At the same time, there’s the only element that feels like it’s supposed to be a direct follow up to what came before in Batman Returns, the relationship between Wayne and Chase. Wayne is confronting the ideas from the last movie about having two sides of his life, and he ends up deciding by the end that he can live with both because he chooses to. This supposedly happens through his relationship with Chase, but the stuff is so lost in the noise surrounding it that almost none of it registers. This is a sign of a script driven by executive notes over artistic intent.
The plot resolves with the Riddler figuring out that Bruce Wayne is Batman, kidnapping Chase, and having a big showdown on his island fortress. It really does feel like a modified concept from a Moore era Bond picture. Dick Grayson (Chris O’Donnell who looks like he’s thirty) gets taken in by Bruce, figures out his secret identity, and then gets a highly custom Robin suit seemingly out of nowhere to help Batman fight. The showdown is as garish and over the top as anything else in the film with knowing nods to the 60s Batman show. It’s big and loud and thinly entertaining as spectacle, but what’s come before has been so overstuffed with characters, events that never mattered, and plot movements that it’s hard to see how there’s supposed to be any relief beyond the purely sensory when it all winds down.
Speaking of random events that don’t matter, there’s an action scene relatively early that could literally be hard cut out of the film, saving 6 minutes or so, and the film would suffer none at all. Batman is driving around, Two Face and his men approach in cars with guns blazing, Batman gets away. That’s it. That’s the scene. It includes a bit where Batman uses the Batmobile to climb up the side of a building (in another supposed nod to the television show), but how he ends up getting down is never explained. It’s just there, and it doesn’t change anything from beginning to end. I’m sure it stayed in because it was expensive, but it really could have just been hard cut and no one would have noticed. In another sequence, the attack on Wayne Mansion that leads to the kidnapping of Chase, the scene is cut and scored in a way to demonstrate danger, but Schumacher let Carrey be Carrey. So, when the Riddler is blowing up the Batcave, everything stops so that Carrey can do a bit pretending that one of his little bat bombs is a baseball and he’s a pitcher, complete with sound effects.
Another thing is that this leaves so much on the table in terms of ideas. At one point, pretty much out of nowhere, Bruce decides that he’s done being Batman, telling Dick that he can’t do it anymore (it supposedly has something to do with his relationship with Chase), and then the Riddler destroys the Batcave. Is there any contemplation about how Batman is necessary? No, it just continues with hidden toys (I mean, prototypes) as though this were just another adventure story. You don’t include the idea of Batman hanging up his cape and cowl if it’s just another adventure story.
Like the first two films, this was a victim of executive meddling at an extreme scale in the scriptwriting stage. Several different ideas from different drafts got thrown together without any real concern for what actually worked for the story. There was an effort to appeal more to children and sell toys that overrode everything else. However, you can still make essentially a two-hour long toy commercial that feels of a piece, and this isn’t it. I don’t know how much to lay at the feet of Schumacher, he was essentially a hired hand to fulfil the wishes of metaphorical children with loaded guns, but it still feels like a Schumacher film through and through. I don’t like it.