Joel Schumacher, “Batman Forever” (1995)
After Tim Burton’s “Batman Returns” scooped millions at the box office, there was the general feeling that his films of the Dark Knight were too dark for young viewers, and that the hero did not have a place in a Gothic noir universe where everyone is compromised in a corrupt society. For the next film in this particular Batman series, Burton stepped down as director (though he still producer) and Joel Schumacher directed instead. Scumacher’s approach to the Batman / Gotham City ethos was to draw on the live-action 1960s television series and Batman comics of the 1950s in which the hero is a square-jawed muscular bulldog hero who always defeats his enemies, no matter what dangers they put him and his sidekick Robin in. The result is a mix of shadow darkness and garish fluorescent circus colours: a film that wants to be two very different things – a noirish flick that wants to be serious yet still colourful and fun for young viewers – and this notion of mirror opposites combined in the one person is a motif that pervades the film in its characters and plotting.
Gotham City district attorney Harvey Dent (Tommy Lee Jones) swears revenge on Batman (Val Kilmer) after the latter fails to save him from a vicious acid attack that leaves half of Dent’s face severely burnt and disfigured and turns him into a man obsessed with polar opposites, one of which can dominate the other through a sheer random occurrence, exemplified in the toss of a coin. Dent disrupts a circus performance in which a family of acrobats manages to divert his bomb into Gotham City Harbour instead of destroying the cirucs, but the acrobats’ heroic gesture leaves them dead save for the youngest member, Dick Grayson (Chris O’Donnell). Batman’s alter ego Bruce Wayne, struggling with recurring dreams of his childhood, invites Grayson to live with him at Wayne Manor.
In the meantime, a worker at Wayne Enterprises, Edward Nygma (Jim Carrey) demonstrates an invention to Wayne but Wayne rejects it and refuses to continue funding it. After murdering his supervisor, Nygma leaves the company and, adopting the persona of The Riddler, teams up with Dent to continue raising the money (legally and illegally) to perfect the machine, copies of which are expected to be in every home in Gotham City: the catch is that this machine will draw in every viewer’s thoughts, feelings and knowledge, and transfer all these into Nygma’s own mind, thereby giving Nygma power over people’s hidden secrets and vulnerabilities. Nygma seeks out Wayne to destroy him for refusing to finance his project and discovers his secret Batman identity.
As if dealing with two major loopy criminals partnering to destroy him were not enough, Batman / Bruce Wayne also has to try to rein in Grayson who not only discovers his secret identity but also thirsts for revenge against Dent for killing his family. At the same time, after discovering his father’s journal, Wayne starts to doubt his purpose in life as a crusader for justice and yearns for a normal life. For help with his recurrent dreams, he seeks out a psychiatrist, Dr Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman), who turns out to have the hots for Batman but considers him rather ordinary. Over the course of the film, the doctor develops feelings for Wayne but still holds a torch for Batman.
The plot is actually very straightforward though and while the scenes with Wayne and the doctor can drag, the film proceeds at a brisk pace to its conclusion. Thanks to The Riddler’s predilection for blowing things up, the film is full of explosions and noise. The sets are very good, maintaining a Gothic Art Deco look but with lots of bright garish colours and outlandish villain costumes. While Kilmer delivers a fairly straightforward dual character with just enough brooding darkness to pass muster with audiences, and O’Donnell plays a hot-headed Grayson / Robin without much nuance, Carrey and Jones ham up their respective characters. While Jones’ Dent actually doesn’t do much other than be a one-dimensional cartoon villain, Carrey goes to town painting Edward Nygma / The Riddler as a seriously disturbed and overbearing individual. While over-acting is perhaps to be expected of The Riddler and Harvey Dent – and at the time of filming, Carrey did have a reputation for playing crazed and crazy characters – over the course of the film this over-the-top style becomes very irritating and tiresome.
At the end of the film, we really do not know much more about Batman / Bruce Wayne, apart from observing that after revealing his secret identity to Dr Meridian and accepting that he needs a partner to share in his crime-fighting life – and Robin / Dick Grayson eagerly joining him in that respect – he finally accepts his dual nature and the nightmares presumably cease. It seems that by sharing something of himself with others, most of all with Robin / Dick Grayson, Batman / Bruce Wayne relieves himself of the burden of carrying his secret duality alone. It turns out that just about every significant character in the film, save for Dr Chase Meridian and Wayne’s faithful butler Alfred (Michael Gough), has either a secret alter ego or a dual nature. Interestingly, once Dr Meridian discovers that Batman / Bruce Wayne are one and the same, her interest in both of them seems to cool right off and at the end of the film, the couple go their separate ways with Bruce Wayne choosing to continue his career as Batman … forever.
In all of the fun and cheesiness and Jim Carrey’s zany antics and rubber acting that make him the real star of the film, what saves “Batman Forever” from being a camp re-run of the live-action TV show from the 1960s is Kilmer’s comparative restraint and nuanced acting as the hero wrestling with a troubling secret and a connected theme of duality and partnership. The Riddler’s quest to steal everyone’s thoughts, feelings and hidden secrets might be considered typical campy mad-scientist stuff but in the current world in which corporations spend huge amounts on social psychology and mass psychology in an effort to discover what people really are thinking and feeling, how they think and feel the way they do, and how to use this knowledge to manipulate people into certain moods and modes of thinking – and then sell all this knowledge to governments and intelligence agencies – the film takes on an eerie relevance and significance.
Seeing this film again 25 years after seeing at the cinema, I am surprised that it has lasted better than I thought it would and that Kilmer’s approach to Batman / Bruce Wayne stands up very well and might actually be the best of all the actors who have played the role in all the films centred around the character.