Film Review: Batman Forever (1995)

batmanforever

A lot of people forget that Batman Forever was an enormous hit when it was released back in 1995. But it has since fallen out of public favor. I’m convinced more than a few critics have gone back on their word, because every review I read during its theatrical release was a positive one. I even remember reading director Joel Schumacher regarded as ‘the Picasso of blockbusters.’ And sure enough, Batman Forever was one of the top five highest grossing films of the year. I worked at a movie theater when the film opened, and I saw how audiences reacted. By and large, they really liked it.

But a few years later, Schumacher directed a fourth installment — the legendarily awful Batman and Robin. I strongly feel that most people confuse the two films, or maybe see them as the same film. I’m positive this is the main reason for the drastic swing in public opinion regarding Batman Forever. Batman and Robin shames its predecessor, almost negating its existence.

Into the Dark - Film Review: Batman Forever (1995)

Nicole Kidman has a new Bat-toy.

Don’t get me wrong. If you call Batman Forever a turd, I’m not necessarily going to disagree with you. But it’s a turd that I personally happen to enjoy. The flaws are many, from the general madcap tone to some way-off base character depictions. If you’re a loyal fan of Bob Kane’s source material, Tommy Lee Jones’ potrayal of Harvey Dent/Two-Face as a joyful psychotic will give you seizures. Even if you’re not a purist, Schumacher’s irreverence for the material and hyper-stylization may grate on your nerves. His version of Gotham’s Dark Knight is non-stop whiz-bang cartoon miasma. Schumacher has freely admitted that he saw the film as his opportunity to bring a colorful comic book to life. He was neither aiming for realism, nor the dark tone of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight, a four-issue comic series that was released in 1986 and which greatly influenced Burton’s 1989 film. No, the realistic approach would be left to Bryan Singer (X-Men) and Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight) to tackle several years later, and with tremendous success.

Schumacher’s rendition is garish, campy, manic, and unabashedly homoerotic (Schumacher is an affable, grand old queen).  It explodes across the screen in dayglow colors, a jolting contrast to the chiaroscuro viewpoint of Tim Burton.  Anton Furst’s gothic-industrial production design is replaced by Barbara Ling’s neon surreality. Danny Elfman’s brooding, carnivalesque music is replaced with the skillful bombast of Elliot Goldenthal. In fact, the only carryovers from Burton’s legacy are two actors, Michael Gough as Alfred the Butler and Pat Hingle as Comissioner Gordon, and costume designer Bob Ringwood.

Into the Dark: Film Review - Batman Forever (1995)

This Batman is ready to spank all the bad boys of Gotham.

And let’s talk about that costume, because I think it’s speaks directly to the heart of Schumacher’s intentions. The original Batsuit was supposed to be designed to strike fear in the hearts of criminals. Schumacher’s Batsuit, on the other hand, seems to have a different target. When Val Kilmer shows up in his panther suit, with bee-stung lips, ‘Tom of Finland’-sized nipples and a pronounced codpiece,  you can be sure that fear is being struck all right… in the hearts of insecure, heterosexual men everywhere. And also fanboys who don’t like queered up versions of their revered comic book idols. I totally get that most fans abhor Schumacher’s sexualization of Batman. Me? I love it. Did I buy my first Batman poster back in 1989 because it was Batman, or because he had a codpiece the size of a melon? Hmmm… maybe a little of both. But as irresponsible as it may have been for Warner Brothers to have let Schumacher run wild with his (now) unpopular take on the material, why not take a step back and evaluate Batman Forever for what it is?

I think Batman is big enough to weather reinvention and reinterpretation, and there’s always been an undeniable undercurrent of homoeroticism in the mythos. I have no doubt Bob Kane had nothing but squeaky-clean intentions, but there’s another way to read it. It’s always been there — grown man, boy wonder, alone in a mansion, playing in a cave, dressing up every night together in tight-fitting clothes. With a flamboyant gay director at the helm, Batman Forever isn’t afraid to poke and prod this alternative reading.

Into the Dark: Film Review - Batman Forever (1995)

That this interpretation was given a massive Hollywood budget and released to a broad, general audience comes at quite a surprise. Kilmer’s feelings on the matter might reflect most of the audience’s. The actor and director fought fiercely on the set of the film. Kilmer would ask about motivation and psychology, and Schumacher would tell him to shut up and look pretty. So, yeah. It’s not a deep film. It’s all very surface-level. But I can’t look away from that gorgeous veneer.

Sometimes I see a movie that I can’t defend, but I love it anyway. This is one of those guilty pleasures, a film where style wins out over substance (and stomps its corpse into the ground). I feel the same way about David Lynch’s Dune, Ridley Scott’s Legend, and even Jim Henson and Frank Oz’s The Dark Crystal to some extent. While it’s always preferred to have style and substance rolled into one, sometimes — at least for me — one or the other can be enough.

In other words, I openly admit that I can be distracted by shiny objects.

Or codpieces.

Rating: 3.5/5 ★★★½☆ 

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About Scott_S

Scott studied film and sociology at Indiana University and is currently the video producer for a large publishing company. He is the director of several independent films, including "House of Hope," "Off the Beaten Path," "The Day Joe Left," and "Found." For more about Scott, visit www.scottschirmer.com. Scott is also one of the principal organizers of the Dark Carnival Film Festival. (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com)

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