Welcome to our Is Cinema series. Here, we spotlight films that receive far from universal approval. Despite mixed feedback, they refuse to fade away by holding a unique spot within pop culture. This chapter is on Batman Forever.
If you have acquainted yourself at all with the fandom surrounding comic book movies, you’ll know that arguments are constantly being thrown around on the subject of what these movies should be like. One side will preach that they should be light and funny, meant for the whole family, while the other side will tell you that these films need to be emotional, depressing, and somewhat bleak, representing “reality”. The answer to this conundrum is rather simple: neither side is right. A movie should be as the storytellers intend it, whether it’s funny or bleak.
And is it too much to ask for both?
In truth, there’s always been a stigma when it comes to what fans think the tone of these movies should be. Part of that stems back to 1995 when Warner Bros. wanted to depart from Tim Burton’s “overly dark” Batman films in favor of something lighter, intended to bring in a wider audience. Thus, Batman Forever was born, a film that employs the best of both worlds, and is actually much smarter than audiences originally gave it credit for. Distracted by the infamous Bat-nipples, people missed many of the actual beats that this third entry got right.
The late Joel Schumacher took the reigns of the Batman film franchise and spun it towards an entirely new direction without completely abandoning Tim Burton’s previous two films, even though it was a direction that Michael Keaton, the Batman at the time, didn’t want the character to follow. In turn, Val Kilmer stepped seamlessly into the cowl as Keaton’s replacement, and while it is a very different type of performance, the character progression felt natural, and it was still very much the same character that audiences had been introduced to in 1989.
Schumacher and Co. ask a question that has always been integral to Batman’s history: can a broken man truly heal? Though the backdrop of Batman Forever is the team-up between Jim Carrey’s Riddler and Tommy Lee Jones’ Two-Face, the main focus of the story is to explore what trauma can do to people and how they choose to deal with it. Trauma has always been a part of Batman as a character, but Schumacher takes a different approach, deconstructing the emotional complexities of the vigilante and how he deals with the deaths of his parents.
Early in the film, we are introduced to Chase Meridian, a psychologist played by Nicole Kidman. At first glance, people could think of her as just another standard superhero love interest, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Over the course of Batman Forever, Meridian’s role is to tear down the walls that Bruce Wayne set up between himself and his identity as a caped crusader. This works on both a literal and figurative level as Bruce and Chase grow closer with each passing act, Chase being interested in both Bruce and Batman. Chase actually succeeds in having Bruce open up to her as a person instead of as a superhero, which is not a side of Batman we usually get to see.
Interestingly enough, this exploration of trauma continues via the introduction of Chris O’Donnell’s Dick Grayson, the first Robin featured in live-action since Burt Ward in 1966’s Batman, and the last one until Brenton Thwaites in Titans.
And no, Joseph Gordon-Levitt in The Dark Knight Rises does not count.
“You see, I’m both Bruce Wayne and Batman, not because I have to be, now, because I choose to be.”
Another often-recurring theme in the various incarnations of Batman over the years is that of Robin making Bruce a much better person. So, rather than going with the “I don’t play well with others” plot line that was later used in Batman & Robin, Bruce attempts to appeal to a vengeful Dick Grayson after the murder of his family by offering him a home and a better path. Bruce does this because he knows that Dick would go down the same self-destructive path that grew him into Batman if left alone. This brings Bruce to the realization that even though Batman was created out of some twisted sense of obligation, he continued to do it because it made him a better man. The only real mask in his life was the one that he used to hide his trauma from himself. Once he was free of that mask, Batman became a part of him that Bruce could willingly accept. “Which is the real identity? Bruce Wayne or Batman?” Schumacher answers this question by saying that the two of them coexist. Bruce sees that even though he doesn’t need Batman, he and Gotham are all the better for the hero’s existence.
Outside of that deconstruction, Batman Forever brings a lot to the table. We get Riddler and Two-Face, both representing thematic challenges for our protagonists. Played to perfection by Jim Carrey in the film’s standout performance, Edward Nygma is a loner with a superiority complex that mirrors Bruce Wayne’s own. Two-Face, on the other hand, is a very literal approach to the “two sides of the same coin” idea often thrown around in superhero stories as a way to tie together the hero and villain – he’s the character that brings Bruce and Dick together not only as partners, but as necessary figures that both were emotionally lacking in their respective lives.
Another prominent use of parallels in Batman Forever is that of the antagonists’ motivations. Two-Face is only interested in revenge against Batman throughout the course of the movie while Riddler wants to prove that he’s better than everyone, especially Bruce Wayne. Eventually when the two team up, it plays well against the already prevalent theme of Bruce Wayne and Batman willingly becoming one entity rather than two separate identities, even if Two-Face himself already largely represents the duality of man. It’s a theme that Schumacher displays subtly in the beginning and much more directly as it continues, but it works since the very nature of the film is to be flashy and attention-grabbing.
With that said, we circle back to how Schumacher blends darkness with campiness. Batman Forever is very self-aware, it knows that it’s a Batman movie and it doesn’t shy away from that precious fact at all. Instead, it embraces the nature of Tim Burton’s preceding edgier, larger-than-life superhero story, while adding the fun show-y elements of the 60’s Batman television series. These two mix together and don’t create something that’s too silly or too edgy, but rather something perfectly in the middle. They blend to create the emotionally mature Gothic fantasy that is essential to Batman. The good guys tell corny jokes, the bad guys do evil, but the real darkness stems from the twisted psychological aspects that are brought to the forefront by Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson, and Edward Nygma.
“Holey rusted metal, Batman!”
Does this largely differ from other Batman films in the last 30 years? Well, yes, Robin is in it. But what makes Batman Forever truly special is that it takes a very cynical character and shows us that he doesn’t have to be cynical at all. Batman doesn’t have to be a brooding burden on Bruce Wayne, but rather a part of his life that strengthens Bruce and the people around him. Despite the existence of the famous Batman Forever: Red Book Edition, a darker fan-edited cut that even has Schumacher’s stamp of approval, the theatrical version still stands incredibly well in its own right as a true deep dive into Batman, and is more unique and effective as a character study than any following iterations of the iconic character.
We have yet to have someone in this genre replicate the way Joel Schumacher told this story, mainly because most are not willing to give this surprisingly ambitious angle on superheroes a shot. Embracing camp while remaining true to Batman’s history is exactly why Batman Forever is, in fact, cinema.