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Hang out a lot at biker bars, Bruce?

Batman Forever
(1995)

(SPOILERS) In theory, Joel Schumacher ought to have been the guy to take up the bat-on, embracing the spirit of ’60s Bat campery as a “new” take after Tim Burton turned Warner Bros off by making Batman Returns a little too twisted. But being versed in camp doesn’t necessarily extend to delivering successfully delivering the same. Batman Forever can boast overboard design work and gaudy excess, but it singularly lacks the presiding sense of humour that might have allowed it to attain a personality. Schumacher might have seemed like a reasonable choice on paper to plug the gaps in Burton’s approach; the latter was never at its best when dealing with action (either in the sense of spectacle or forwarding the plot). Alas, the best he can muster is a choppy, barely coherent, noisy mess – and yet, the movie’s still better than Batman and Robin!

It has been suggested McDonald’s dismay with Batman Returns at very least contributed to the studio’s decision to break with Burton. Who were said to have considered Sam Raimi and John McTiernan before going with Schumacher. Given the intended tone, however, they might have been advised to look further left-afield, perhaps reteaming Michael Lehman and Daniel Waters. How Janet Scott and Lee Batchler won the scripting gig is unclear, but they were eventually rewritten by Akiva Goldsman, a go-to for Schumacher during the ’90s and nominated for Golden Raspberries before he ever was for an Oscar; he’s now helping to desecrate the Star Trek franchise.

Michael Keaton was right to nix a return, given the queasy lurch in tone, but the mooted possible picks for a replacement has to be taken with a grain of fantasy salt. Daniel Day Lewis? Guantanamo Hanks was considered? Really? Kilmer transparently admitted to accepting the gig for the career doors it would open, but it would be one of a series of choices that decade (The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Saint being the most obvious others) where his behaviour cumulatively served only to shoot him in the foot.

Alfred: Can I persuade you to take a sandwich with you, sir?
Batman: l’ll get drive-through.

Ostensibly, there’s more Bruce Wayne here, but characterisation is entirely redundant to Schumacher’s vision (and I don’t for a moment believe an apocryphal director’s cut would mitigate that). Consequently, Val is indifferent, served the occasional, rather flat quip (the picture opens with the above crickets. The much celebrated “It’s the car, right?” is kind of painful). Kilmer brings a Bat-pout, which is new, but he’s otherwise quite anonymous, and the subplot examining Bruce’s repressed memories is a joke (but not a good one).

Bruce Wayne: Are you trying to get under my cape, doctor?

Kidman, replacing Rene Russo (deemed too old for Val, sheesh), is awful. I tend not to give much space to rumoured Hollywood inversions, mostly because those who do tend to come armed with a definitive body-proportions chart and a slightly rabid tunnel vision, but Kidman – who, obviously, has been pregnant several times, officially, but hails from a family allegedly armpit-deep in the dark stuff, so nothing would be wholly surprising – rather resembles a bad female impersonator throughout. Did Schumacher intentionally give her the look of a teenage boy in drag, or was that just a piercing insight on his part, instinctively knowing to shoot boys at their best angle? Perhaps, because everything in Batman Forever is so excessive and contrived, he calls attention to her own artifice (possibly not coincidentally, both Sandra Bullock and Cindy Crawford were also considered for Chase Meridian).

Tommy Lee Jones, replacing Billy Dee Williams – who didn’t fit Joel’s, er, vision – is also awful. A frenzied, mugging ham whose only apparent mission is a vain attempt to upstage Jim Carrey’s Riddler. Indeed, while the wretchedness of the performance is all on Jones, one wonders at the ongoing interest in returning to the well of Harvey Two-Face, as he never seems to fare very well on the big screen.

Two-Face: Why can’t you just die?

Famously, Jones did not like Carrey. Schumacher cited Kilmer as “childish and impossible” and Jones as a dick (“Jim was a gentleman, and Tommy Lee was threatened by him”). Carrey recounted how Jones told him how much he hated him one day, adding “I cannot sanction your buffoonery” (which one can readily imagine uttered in Fugitive tones). The thing is, though, Carrey’s buffoonery is the movie’s only saving grace. It’s his usual schtick, of course, but at least he sporadically energises an otherwise glossed-up, dead weight of a franchise entry. In any given scene, he’s easily the best thing there, be it leading Chase in some really bad dancing or mocking Robin and his “dreams of one day being… bare-naked with a girl!

Carrey appeared to fall out of the hierarchies of the Hollywood cult for a while (although, TM might be labelled one all its own: see David Lynch), going semi-feral and baiting wrath from on high with allusions to the Elite/Illuminati power structure; “misfortunes” duly plagued him. Including the reception of The Number 23, his personal project, in which he reunited with Schumacher; it’s as disappointing as any numerology-based movie is surely destined to be. He since appears to have recanted, hence “good old” funny-crazy Jim in Sonic the Hedgehog and his uber-politicised work for the Trump takedown brigade (this leads some to speculate Carrey has been “replaced”).

The other new cast member is terminally bland Chris O’Donnell – instead of Burton’s pick Marlon Wayans, who didn’t fit Joel’s, er, vision – who somehow navigated the ’90s quite successfully, despite lacking any discernible personality (I see he’s now been a fixture on NCIS: Los Angeles, for… thirteen years!) Dick Grayson – of the Flying Graysons – is positioned as some kind of hip, wised-up circus/street kid, and not preppy at all, given to colloquialisms and earrings: “Hey Al, wait up!” Ironically, he gets two of Batman Forever’s best lines (the post quote and “Holey rusted metal, Batman!” – which is, full credit, pretty good). Robin’s also justifiably belittled with “That’s Bat Boy!” Various actors were in contention, and Leo DiCaprio decided not to pursue Robin after meeting Schumacher – make of that what you will (hilariously, Danny fackin’ Dyer’s name is also mentioned. Alan Cumming, meanwhile, would have been perfect).

Also featuring are Drew Barrymore (as Sugar to Debi Mazar’s Spice), Ed Begley Jr, René Auberjonois and (though I was none the wiser) En Vogue and Favs. There are returns for Michael Gough and Pat Hingle, now seeming rather out of place amid all the camp noir-fizzle. The former takes it all in his stride and has the odd decent line; he manages to spark some chemistry with both Kilmer and O’Donnell too, more than either have with each other. Schumacher takes the opportunity to tell the tale of two bachelors gay, yet conspicuously fails to lather on any ripe allusions.

As might be expected from such glorified superficiality – complete with shameless pop soundtrack – there’s little truly persuasive of note in terms of subtext or predictive programming. Bruce’s repressed memories might be seen as significant – complete with made-up Malaysian dream warden – relating to childhood trauma and suggesting MKUltra manipulation (bats rather than butterflies).

There’s also Ed’s device which “beams any TV signal directly into the brain. By stimulating neurons, manipulating brainwaves if you will, this device makes the viewer feel like they’re actually inside the show!” Rather than brainwashing or mass hypnosis, the Box is used to extract brainwaves and make Ed smarter. Jay Dyer notes parallels to the Riddler’s scheme in the ulterior motives for installing 5G in everyone’s house. He also recalls how the CIA trained Carrey to withstand torture on the set of The Grinch, and “The fact that Jim Carrey played Satan on Saturday Night Live doesn’t prove he’s High Priest of the Church of Satan”. Which is true. I was not aware that, per the Adam West show, Batman’s great grandfather was the founder of Skull and Bones. Figures.

The big problem, besides the lack of any discernible connective tissue, not just in terms of plot but internally coherent scenes, is that Batman Forever is camp yet at no point is it fun camp. Schumacher gives us bat nipples, and eccentric and/or excessive design work of both Gotham and its populace, but he has zero sense of the comedic. It’s probably no coincidence that his Batmans are an exception on his resumé, in terms of genre and tone. The picture grates on the nerves; it’s loud, often very dull and consistently disengaged. There’s lots of cutting, lots of sudden scene changes, lots of scrappy action, yet it plods along.

Nevertheless, this represented the peak of Schumacher’s Hollywood cachet, having risen – despite a string of solid performers stretching back a decade and including St. Elmo’s Fire, Flatliners and Falling Down – to the A-list with The Client. That would evaporate soon after Batman & Robin and never really return, despite a couple of high-profile projects (Bad Company, The Phantom of the Opera).

Schumacher’s Hollywood profligacy was the subject of a Vulture piece a few years back, in which he made the case that the underage action he saw as a youth was fine for him but not necessarily for others; he generally evaded the adverse rumours and press that pursued Bryan Singer everywhere he went, despite having cast both Corey Haim and Brad Renfro. Indeed, Corey Feldman made a point of saying he was one of the good guys (which doesn’t prevent a certain incriminating sign from appearing in The Lost Boys).

Batman Forever wasn’t well reviewed, but it made more money than Batman Returns. Not that much more, but presumably Warner and McDonalds were pleased with Happy Meal sales figures. The picture earned the highest opening weekend gross ever up to that point, and it was the biggest domestic hit of the year (worldwide, it had to settle for fifth place, behind Pocahontas, Goldeneye, Toy Story and Die Hard with a Vengeance). Inconceivably, Stephen Goldblatt even received an Oscar nomination for Batman Forever’s cinematography (Best Sound and Best Sound Effects Editing also had nods). And so it was that Warner Bros asked Joel back one again…




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