I know, I know. Trust me, I know. There are many things to dissect and truly dislike about Joel Schumacher‘s incredibly divisive Batman Forever film.
The 1995 superhero blockbuster was under immense pressure to continue the strong legacy. This was largely thanks to what the great Tim Burton had already established. Burton’s 1989 Batman film and the epic 1992 follow-up Batman Returns were an enormous success!
To say expectations were high for Batman Forever is an understatement.
Although successful financially, Batman Forever opened to mixed reviews from critics as well as audiences. There was an obvious tonal shift that happened between Batman Returns and Batman Forever. Yet, for all of the latter’s shortcomings, there is much more to this story than meets the eye.
In this edition of The Hard Sell, you may realize there’s more good to Schumacher’s Batman Forever than you may remember.
Think About The children!
Today, Batman Returns is a beloved classic. There is a lot for mainstream audiences to digest. And in 1992, it was bigger, crazier, and more darker than the original film. McDonald’s infamously had Batman Returns all over its marketing (pictured above) including their beloved Happy Meals with Batman toys!
After a long contractually obligated couple of months, McDonald’s finally pulled their Batman Returns related promos. Why? It was largely because the outrage of parents complaining that such a violent and disturbing film was literally being shoved down their kids’ throats!
Both of Burton’s Batman films grossed more than $800 million worldwide. So, Warner Bros. obviously couldn’t abandon their cash cow completely. However, it was clear the tragic gothic route where Burton was heading was not one the studio intended to follow.
Their more recent meddling and shortcomings are infamous. Yet, even in the ’90s, the studio was just as invasive and short-sighted. Out with the wild visionary Tim Burton. Enter Joel Schumacher, who served as an unjustified catalyst for the backlash Batman Forever was to receive.
schumacher is not “king campy”
The Lost Boys. Falling Down. A Time to Kill. 8MM. The late Joel Schumacher’s filmography may not be the most decorated. However, it is definitely eclectic and much darker than one would imagine especially after watching the atrocity we saw later in Batman & Robin.
As a fan of Batman and the Tim Burton films, I wonder what Batman Forever really could have been. If only Joel Schumacher had been given free reign on the film.
WB allowed their greed and corporate tie-ins get the best of them, and Schumacher.
They wanted a film that was more child friendly, more fun, and they especially wanted to sell more happy meals. There may or may not be a true #SchumacherCut like some fans recently have demanded. Regardless, it is clear that Schumacher’s hands were tied.
Despite all of this, Schumacher stepped into a universe Burton created and definitively made it his own.
It was blatantly apparent the second the opening credits hit, Batman Forever would be different from the others. The very names of our stars were bright, big, and flew towards the screen. Our opening street-level shot of Gotham City still had an expressionist point of view. What immediately popped off the screen was a huge splash of color. Our first full exterior of Gotham City is bathed in a beautiful red sunset versus the dark moonlight of the Burton films.
Also, the pace of the story is faster compared to the previous entry. We see Batman jump into action immediately.
Tim Burton crafted a gothic comic book fairy tale in Batman Returns. Schumacher created something more akin to a Saturday Morning Cartoon. It works both as a benefit and a detriment. The main benefit makes Batman Forever much more accessible and it is definitely more action-packed overall.
Although it comes off a bit more cheesy, Batman Forever brings to life a fun and family-friendly vibe that WB was hoping to achieve.
Aside from the drastic shift in tone, there are also two things in particular that Batman Forever does really well.
Nothing against Michael Keaton (who is still my favorite Batman), but we don’t dig into Bruce Wayne’s psyche much in his two Batman appearances. What really separates Batman Forever from those films is the focus is on how Bruce Wayne really feels.
In the first two films, Bruce is emotionally cold and it almost seems like he’s filmed from a distance. In Batman Forever, it’s much more intimate. We get pulled in closer and we see how haunted Bruce really is.
For the first time audiences got a peak into Batman’s origins, which Tim Burton notably omitted completely from his films. Anchored by a pretty strong performance by Val Kilmer, seeing Bruce Wayne dealing with repressed memories of trauma showed us more of his humanity. It brought us closer to our troubled hero which in turn gave us a real reason to cheer for him.
Driven by Obsession
Amid all the new changes, the one thing Batman Forever has in common with the Burton films is an excellent pair of villains. The original Batman showcased a man lose his grip on his sanity. Batman Returns showcased the duality of its villains. Batman Forever‘s villains are simply motivated by their obsession. The Riddler (Jim Carrey) and Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones) both feel personally slighted by Bruce Wayne. In fact, they both feel their lives were essentially ruined because of him.
Those two accomplished actors take the word over-the-top and pump it full of steroids. Jack Nicholson‘s Joker, Michelle Pfeifer‘s Catwoman, and Danny DeVito‘s Penguin all had their campy elements but more or less maintained a menacing and dark demeanor. Jones’ Two-Face and Carrey’s Riddler flip that balance of dark and loony more towards the latter.
They both are zany and off the wall, but it works for the story Schumacher is telling and the overall cartoon-ish aesthetic he creates. Their lust for vengeance is plain enough for kids to understand and nuanced enough for adults to relate. They are mean when they need to be, but most of the time are just ridiculous. And that’s perfectly okay.
On the other hand, we have a heroic character that is likable but just as equally obsessed with vengeance in Dick Grayson (Chris O’Donnell). Like Bruce Wayne, Dick wants to avenge the death of his family.
Wayne takes him under his wing and eventually Dick becomes the fan favorite sidekick, Robin. O’Donnell’s portrayal is refreshing and a key highlight in Batman Forever. Contrasted with Bruce’s stoic and deadpan delivery, his youthful optimism and energetic charm is delightful.
A Rockstar Blockbuster
The comic book pool that Tim Burton dips his toes into with Batman & Batman Returns, Joel Schumacher practically bathes in with Batman Forever. His vision for Gotham City plays more like a surreal acid dream version of Burton’s. The colorful lighting, outlandish caricatures, and overall 90’s MTV spirit drives this picture into a frenetic adventure all its own.
Due to the insistence of Warner Bros, Batman Forever isn’t as dark or violent as its predecessors. Nonetheless, it is definitely much more fun. Taken into context the troubles set before this film and just taking the movie for what it is, Joel Schumacher played by the rules and still managed to put his own unique stamp on the Caped Crusader.
All in all, Batman Forever is still an entertaining watch. Probably a lot more entertaining than most realize and that’s how it ultimately should be remembered.