I had the misfortune of sitting through Batman Forever a few weeks ago. I also stumbled upon it at the weekend with the better half, who was curious to know what a “terrible” Batman film looked like. We got as far as the intimate “Bat-ass shot” before we simply gave up and tried to wipe our short-term memories. However, I found myself sticking up for a most unlikely part of the production: Jim Carrey as the Riddler.
Okay, let’s face it, being the best part of Batman Forever isn’t that hard. Between its just plain ugly neon design, it’s wooden Batman, irritating Robin and Jack-Nicholson-impersonating Two-Face, there really aren’t too many interesting facets of the production. Now, I’ll concede that Jim Carrey is over-the-top. Hell, I’ll accept that – to many – he’s a profoundly irritating physical comedian. On the other hand, he’s also a stunningly effective dramatic actor when he sets his mind to it. I won’t pretend his work as the Riddler is up there with his performances in Man on the Moon or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but he is easily the best actor in the film. When he’s not remarking “spank me”.
However, the Riddler as a character – as presented in this film – addresses several of the problems with Schumacher’s Gotham. Burton’s gothic horror in Batman Returns had ‘upset’ some parents (apparently their kids did not react well to Danny DeVito biting the nose off a random bystanders), so Warner ordered his replacement to tone the menace right down. Now, Batman is a character who lives in gothic horror. He breaths the stuff. Hell, he dresses like a giant bat and threatens to throw people off rooftops. So ‘light and soft’ only really works with him under a very specific circumstances.
Ignoring the fact that we look back nostalgically, Adam West’s Batman! was perhaps the most successful of these lighter and softer interpretations. And even then, most of us look back and roll our eyes. However, the series most defining gift to the greater Batman mythos was the character of the Riddler, brought to life by Frank Gorshin, an obvious (and admitted) influence on Carrey’s performance. While he’s not my favourite iteration of the character, he’s certainly the most iconic. The impact that this version of the character had on the greater Batman mythology can be gauged by the fact that the Riddler had only made a handful appearances (three times in two decades) before the series, and became a staple of it afterwards.
And, as interesting as a more complex depiction of the character might be (over the years he’s been reimagined as a detective rival of Batman, for example, or a mastermind manipulator of Batman’s foes), that Gorshin style fits Batman forever perfectly. After all, the Riddler is never a capable physical match for Batman. He’s never going to randomly execute somebody to make a point like Jack Nicholson’s Joker, nor collect grotesque body parts like Danny DeVito’s Penguin. He doesn’t count on you believing that he can kill Batman, so there’s no really physical menace.
Instead, he’s at his best deconstructing Batman. And, for all its flaws, Batman Forever allows the character to do that. Sure, there’s some unnecessary mind-control thrown in (which is, in fairness, the gimmick of another Batman foe), but Edward Nygma is really the only antagonist in the six Batman films over the past twenty-five years to serve as a counterpoint to Bruce Wayne. The Riddler is inherently flawed as an adversary to the Caped Crusader – you never believe that he could kill Batman (even before he stops Two-Face from doing so – “if you kill him, he won’t learn nuthin’”) because he’s really deeply and disturbingly in love with the character.
Somehow, in the midst of that mess of the movie, Schumacher and Carrey manage to hit upon the co-dependence of Batman and his selection of villains. Sure, the Joker and Batman created each other, but Batman seemed unlikely to mourn the psycho when he was gone. Here, instead, Nygma develops a complex based around Bruce and Batman (“you were supposed to understand,” he creepily suggests in a stalkerish voice), ending with the Riddler enjoying the crazy idea that he is Batman. It’s as close to a love story between a superhero and supervillain you are ever likely to get – even Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman has nothing on Carrey’s Nygma. Even in Carrey’s over-the-top style, it’s fun to see the character painted as a counterpart to Bruce, even asking his date to his product launch to check his Val-Kilmer-inspired “mole”.
So, that’s what I like about the portrayal, hidden as it is beneath a gratuitous performance and disturbingly tight bodystalkings. I’m not going to dare to suggest that it singlehandedly redeems the film, nor that it is a lost gem in Jim Carrey’s back catalogue. What it is, though, is the best thing about a terrible film. With all the talk about the Riddler featuring in Nolan’s Batman 3, I don’t dare suggest it should look anything like this. That would be a disaster. However, for what it was, it wasn’t half bad.