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Non-Review Review: Batman Forever

Was that over the top? I can never tell!

– Edward Nygma, aka The Riddler

Yes, Edward, that was over the top.

“Yeah, Tommy, you got something juuuust here….”

Batman Forever is a bad film. It’s a bad Batman film. It’s just a big neon mess, not dissimilar to the big purple mess that the makeup department put on Tommy Lee Jones’ face.It really is some terrible make-up, and not really terrible in an ironic sort of way, like Edward Nigma’s wardrobe, which is at least highly campy. It doesn’t look like somebody threw acid on Harvey, it looks like he fell asleep in some playdough and nobody has had the decency to tell him he’s got something on his face.

By the way, in that thirty-second introduction to Harvey Dent (which goes “Look at me, I’m a lawyer waving an important dossier in lawyer-like manner- Argh! Acid! My fatal weakness! I’m melting, melting, oh what a world! But not so melting I can’t ham up this burning to the courtroom news reporter!”), was anybody wondering what Batman was doing there when he tried to save Dent? Does he just casually hang out at the Municipal Court, sitting in the benches, waiting for somebody to throw acid at somebody? Or maybe he just in court over some unpaid Bat-parking-tickets. (Seriously, when was the last time you saw Batman stuck cruising for a parking space? “I’ll foil the Joker’s rampage now- hold on, thought he was pulling out… em, I’m going to circle around and- wait! No… that’s a compact space.”)

Some of the movie is bat sh!t insane…

Look, we all know Batman Forever is all bad. For example, it’s not a soul-destroyingly bad as Batman & Robin. That’s a win for everyone, right? Seriously though, the movie seems to have some half-decent fundamental ideas, it’s just that none of them really tie particularly well to this lead character or to the execution given them. Take for instance the coverage the movie gives to Bruce Wayne – despite dealing with two villains, a sidekick and really weird romantic subplot, the movie actually devotes more time to the psychology of Bruce Wayne than any film up until Batman Begins.

Anyway, the movie centres itself around the idea that Batman is coming to terms with the fact that he doesn’t have to be Batman forever (see what they did there?). He can quit anytime he likes. Because dressing up like a rodent and fighting crime are the hallmarks of a mentally stable personality without any compulsive tendencies. Yes, the movie is dedicated to convincing us that Bruce Wayne has worked out all his issues, and now hangs around in a funny costume because he wants to, rather than out of any compulsion. He informs us, “I’m both Bruce Wayne and Batman, not because I have to be, now, because I choose to be.” He just chooses to obsessively fight crime, destroying any chance of a fulfilling life for Bruce Wayne and endangering his young side-kick because he wantsto.

Jim Carrey’s reaction on reading the script…

It’s one of the very fundamental aspects of Batman, and it’s an element that you really can’t remove without working really hard to justify the exclusion. I’m fairly flexible with the character of Batman. I don’t mind, for example, that Keaton’s Batman is a little indifferent to the loss of human life. However, the notion that Batman can be “cured” takes a lot away from the character. The fact that he can be cured and chooses to continue makes even less sense. Batman is a weirdo. It doesn’t matter what interpretation you look at – from Adam West to Christian Bale. The character is fundamentally dysfunctional. Sometimes it’s self-destructive (Bale), sometimes it’s tragic (Bale and Keaton) and sometimes it’s just really odd (West), but Batman is not a perfectly mentally healthy person. Because mentally healthy people do not dress up as flying rodents to fight crime.

In fairness, Kilmer isn’t a bad Batman. He’s no Michael Keaton or Christian Bale, but he’s fairly okay in the costume – and I’m not just being mean and suggesting that it covers his stoic, non-responsive face. However, as Bruce Wayne, he’s terrible. It’s as if he looked at Michael Keaton, decided his Bruce Wayne was way too emotive and then decided to “tone it down”so low that it’s hard to be sure that he’s still breathing at times.

“You can’t tell, but I’m emoting. Really hard.”

Director Joel Schumacher, who has one of the most inconsistent filmographies in Hollywood, seems to have decided that camp is the new gothic. And body stockings are the new green suit combination. And purple gloop on the side of Tommy Lee Jones’ face is the new groundbreakingly impressive make-up. To be fair, apparently the movie is a response to Batman Returns, a film so dark that Happy Meal tie-ins felt distinctively uncomfortable – Warner pushed for a “lighter and softer” Batman.

However, Schumacher simply swapped the colour palette, while keeping a great deal of the sinister horrific undertones. Sure, the Riddler doesn’t bite anyone’s nose off like the Penguin did (nor does he collect body parts), but he drains the mind of every person in Gotham and actively wants to not just kill, but psychologically torture and deconstruct Batman (“if you kill him, he won’t learn nuthin'”). This greats a weird dissonance between neon camp and fairly disturbing ideas – I’d argue that Batman can be both camp (Batman!) and dark (The Dark Knight), and that he can even manage both at the same time (Batman Returns). However, it needs to have substance. Schumacher’s film feels like cotton candy. There’s just too much of nothing substantial.

Yes, Nicole, it is that bad a film…

The aesthetic is perhaps an indication of the internal conflict at the heart of the film. The movie is torn between Adam West’s take on the Caped Crusader and Burton’s more morbidly fascinating construction. The set design, however, finds itself awkwardly attempting to fuse the gothic fascist overtones of the earlier films in the series with a science fiction sheen that calls to mind Blade Runner. While the earlier Gotham could not have existed for purely historical reasons (the entire city would need to have been erected in the nineteen-thirties, in an ominously consistent art deco style), Schmacher’s Gotham is physically impossible.

Buildings contort and bend around one another, the city’s geography seems to be in flux. The city never has a distinct identity, because its locales (the industrial estates where Nygma sets up his factory, the skyscrapers of the opening sequences, the dingy nightclubs of Nygma’s product launch, the harbour at the finale, the seedy neon side streets where Robin goes cruising in the Batmobile) are dictated by the film, rather than by any overarching design theory. The city, like the film, never feels sure of what it wants to be.

Did somebody say “dance-off”?

There’s a weird cartoon-y vibe which runs through the production. From the most easily scared neon thugs ever (there’s an army of them, but Batman shows up to collect his stolen car and suddenly they’re terrified) to the simple fact that Nigma is able to cycle up to Wayne Manner, leave a threatening riddle, and get away with it (because it’s not like Batman would have a security system on his estate at all – he doesn’t even have one installed when Two-Face and the Riddler come back to rampage through the place).

Then there’s the simple fact that the characters are perfectly capable of acting like idiots the whole way through (particularly Bruce stepping inside the Riddler’s brain-wave-extracting device – even though he’s the one who figured out that it steals people’s thoughts, but for some reason he trusts Nygma’s date not to backstab him, perhaps because she’s played by Drew Barrymore in white satin).  Add to this the fact that Jones and Carrey have a weird campy chemistry as they compete to steal each individual scene, and it’s a bit of a mess.

Jim Carrey sparkles…

Still, the main problem with the movie is that it just has too much going on. What makes Batman’s eclectic selection of villains so wonderful is that they are each so distinctive – the public is familiar with each bad guy’s motif and method of operating. So it seems really odd to see Two-Face included just so he can basically do a poor Jack Nicholson impersonation. There’s no attempt to mirror his position with that of Batman, his coin is reduced to a cheap gimmick (which he flicks until he gets the answer he wants – if you thought shooting the driver was cheating in The Dark Knight, this takes the mickey) and the sole nod to his psychological condition, beyond his stylised “duality” (here reduced to camp set and costume design), is referring to himself as “us”.

Literally any other character in the Batman mythos – even Crazy Quilt – could have fulfilled his function in this movie. It’s even more irritating since Tommy Lee Jones chooses to play the character as the bastard son of Jack Nicholson’s Joker and a Looney Tunes character. Seriously, he dances around stomping his feet when he fails to hit Batman, and proceeds to make monosyllabic exclamations instead of bothering to act. (“Argh!” and “ahhhh!” seem to be chief among them, but I was just waiting for him to exclaim “fooey!”at one point.)

The movie is Riddled with plot holes…

Robin is… Robin. Seriously, what age is that kid? They’re talking about sending him to foster care (well, at least he’d be bigger than the other kids)? Chris O’Donnell looks about the same age as Val Kilmer, but we’re asked to accept that he is younger because he wears an earring. And earrings are cool, like the kids, aren’t they? Given the movie plays his origin as a “lighter and softer” version of Batman’s – complete with the hilarious for all the wrong reasons scene where he goes cruising in the Batmobile (wow, Wayne really needs to beef up his security, doesn’t he?) – it can’t help but come off a little strange.

Bruce is still moping about his parents being shot by a man he threw off a building nearly a decade ago, but Dick’s parents get blown up by a bomb by a man looking for Batman and he’s pretty cool by the end of the film. In fairness, if Tommy Lee Jones killed my parents between picking lumps of scenery out of his teeth, I’d probably try to get over it as quick as possible. Still, there are moments which just don’t work – Robin doing his laundry in a “cool” manner by using kung-fu – which just fall flat on their face (doing laundry is one of those activities that can never be “cool”).

Face-off…

I do quite like the idea that Bruce has actually been changed slightly by his experiences in the first two films. There’s a scene where he explains why Robin can’t kill Two-Face (“… but your pain doesn’t die with Harvey, it grows. So you run out into the night to find another face, and another, and another, until one terrible morning you wake up and realize that revenge has become your whole life. And you won’t know why.”), which suggests that he might actually still be thinking about throwing the Joker off that cathedral. However, it’s somewhat hard to take that moment at face value, given how little respect the film throws at its predecessors in other ways. Still, it is nice that Batman and Robin manage not to kill both the bad guys at the end the film (and, a scene in Batman & Robin suggests, they might not have killed either).

This is, again, somewhat diminished by the returning casual indifference to human life the Batman shows here. It’s wrong for Robin to kill Harvey, but Batman can use his stylish Batmobile to get Harvey to bazooka his own goons? I’ll accept casual indifference to the lives of henchmen where the movie doesn’t specifically state that heroes need to be careful lest their indifference turn to an empty driving force inside them, but it’s weird to hear Batman lecture his sidekick about killing one psychotic mass-murdering criminal mastermind when Batman has been responsible for the deaths of dozens of anonymous mooks.

A Val-iant effort?

I actually like Jim Carrey as the Riddler. His performance is hugely (and admittedly) influenced by Frank Gorshin’s performance in the Adam West television show, which might explain why he fits in so well with the camp here – and Gorshin’s portrayal is iconic enough that it doesn’t feel as “wrong” as Two-Face’s presentation or any of the villains in the movie’s direct sequel. I’m not mad about the origin, or the mind-stealing schtick (that feels like the domain of another Batman villain, to be frank), but he manages to provide the right level of threat for a film like this.

There’s only so much direct menace a villain can put a hero under in a film as tightly aimed at kids as this one, so the Riddler embodies a less direct and more abstract threat. I like the Riddler as presented here, and I think it might be the one endearing facet of the film. Still, I’m not sold on the body stocking – the television series did, after all, introduce his slightly more respectable “suit” look (and I don’t mind the neon here – “Like the jacket? It keeps me safe when I’m… jogging at night!”).

It’s by no means perfect – Carrey tends to go over the top between the quieter moments that he picks the scenery out of his teeth. However he also pulls of the finest performance of the film, and the part is written better than just about any other aspect of the film. Indeed, his version of the Riddler, I’d argue, belongs with Danny DeVito’s Penguin and Jack Nicholson’s Joker as the best villain of the original franchise. In short, he’s the one element here which doesn’t feel distinctly out of place.

He’s as mad as a… wait, wrong Batman villain…

Speaking of the Riddler, I love how you can clearly pick up the influence of the sixties Batman on the script. There, Adam West and friends work their way through one of the fiendish character’s puzzles:

Batman: Pretty fishy what happened to me on that ladder.
Gordon: You mean, where there’s a fish, there could be a Penguin.
Robin: But wait! It happened at sea! See? “C” for Catwoman!
Batman: Yet — that exploding shark was pulling my leg!
Gordon: The Joker!
O’Hara: It all adds up to a sinister riddle… Riddle-er. Riddler?

And in this particular film:

Bruce Wayne: Every riddle has a number in the question and they arrived at this order: 13, 1, 8, and 5.
Alfred Pennyworth: 13, 1, 8, and 5. What do they mean?
Bruce Wayne: Perhaps letters of the alphabet?
Alfred Pennyworth: Of course, 13 is M.
Bruce Wayne: 1 would be A, 8 would be H, and 5 would be E.
Alfred Pennyworth: M-A-H-E.
Bruce Wayne: Perhaps 1 and 8 are 18.
Alfred Pennyworth: 18 is R. M-R-E.
Bruce Wayne: How about Mr. E.?
Alfred Pennyworth: Mystery.
Bruce Wayne: And another name for mystery?
Alfred Pennyworth: Enigma.
Bruce Wayne: Mr. E. Nygma. Edward Nygma. Stickley’s suicide was obviously a computer-generated forgery.
Alfred Pennyworth: You really are quite bright, despite what people say.

Yes, Alfred, yes he is. In a special sort of way.

The film is riddled with errors…

All in all, it’s a bad film. It has a few half-decent ideas, but none of them fit together (or at all, to be honest). In fairness, if you watch Batman & Robin afterward, this particular film seems like a bloody masterpiece. And that’s the biggest complement I can give it.

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4 Responses

  1. “There’s a weird cartoon-y vibe which runs through the production.”

    I couldn’t have said it any better myself. The whole film really does have the vibe of a cartoon and based on the comics yet with real actors in the roles.

    If I can remember correctly a quote from Robin about holy rusty metal, cracks me up every time.

    • Yep. I think that might just be the smartest line of the movie. But I do like Carrey’s “Was that over the top?” It sums up the whole damn film.

  2. I’ve always hated Batman Forever. Watching it, you can clearly see how they got to Batman & Robin. All of the foundation is there. Schumacher and co. only cranked it up a little (and I really mean only a little) to get to where they got in the next film.

    • Yep, I hate it with a burning passion, even more than Batman & Robin, because I had no reason to suspect Forever would be bad.

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