Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, June 16, 2014

Recent Watches: Batman Forever (1995)

Warner Bros. liked the millions of dollars Tim Burton’s Batman movies made them. What they didn’t like was that parents, and more powerful parents groups, complained about the dark tone of the films, especially the kinky, nihilistic “Batman Returns.” Those complaint let to Happy Meal deals ending and millions of unsold Penguin beach towels. The studio more-or-less forced Burton out of his own franchise. Flashy work-for-hire director Joel Schumacher was brought in to replace him on the third film in the series, "Batman Forever." Schumacher was responsible for shiny, populist fare like “St. Elmo’s Fire” and “The Lost Boy” and had just come off of “The Client,” a decent sized hit for Warner Bros. Schumacher delivered the kid friendly, highly marketable Batman film that the studio demanded, dramatically changing the direction of the franchise.

Once again, villains threatened Batman’s city of Gotham. After a splash of acid horribly scars one side of his face, district attorney Harvey Dent becomes the duality obsessed, sadistic villain Two-Face. During his personal quest against Batman, Two-Face murders the acrobat family of angry young man Dick Grayson. Bruce Wayne tries to adopt Grayson, who isn’t exactly happen to be taken in. Meanwhile, inventor Edward Nygma has invented a device that can drain people’s intelligence into his own brain. Nygma is also obsessed with Bruce Wayne and, after becoming the question-oriented villain the Riddler, seeks vengeance against him. The two villains soon strike up a partnership. Even further meanwhile, sexy shrink Chase Meridian is romantically pursuing both Batman and Wayne. All of these divergent story lines eventually come together to form some sort of plot.

If it wasn’t obvious from that plot description, “Batman Forever” takes the wrong lessons from the-still-pretty-good “Batman Returns.” The movie stuffs in too many characters and too many plotlines, creating a film that feels too full and unsatisfying. “Forever” frequently feels like two movies squashed together. The first focuses on mental characteristics. Bruce Wayne’s romance with Chase Meridian helps him find the origin of his reoccurring nightmares and resolve his identity issues. The Riddler has identity issues of his own and his obsession with knowledge, riddles, and the mind feeds into this. The second movie is about Batman and Robin coming together as a team, Robin pursuing Two-Face, and the hollow price of vengeance. Either story alone probably would have made a decent third Batman movie. Both slammed together makes a decidedly not-decent third Batman movie.

Two-Face’s split personality could have potentially been a bridge between the two plotlines, fitting into the film’s themes of duality. However, the Two-Face in the film is only a vague outline compared to the character in the comic. The film spends no time on Harvey Dent before the acid attack, making his transformation meaningless. The friendship between Bruce and Dent is only giving a passing mention at the very end. No mention is made of how the violent Two-Face personality is actually a voice he’s lived with all his life and is tied in with childhood abuse. The character’s obsession with duality, and how his coin imposes black-and-white order on a chaotic universe, is reduced to a gimmick. Two-Face uses his coin sparingly. In one character-negating moment, he even flips the coin repeatedly until he gets the results he wants. The usually reliable Tommy Lee Jones doesn’t help. Jones tries to out-Nicholson Nicholson’s Joker, going far over the top, a choice totally wrong for the character. His insistence in referring to himself as “we” suggests that Jones thought he was playing Venom instead of Two-Face.

Much of the film’s advertising was focused on Jim Carrey’s role as the Riddler. Carrey’s Riddler is mostly an invention of the film. His Edward Nygma is obsessed with Bruce Wayne for reasons that aren’t expounded on. His invention of a machine that can invade people’s mind has no precursor in the comic. Though it explains the character’s genius, the Box plot device is inconsistently used throughout the film, being forgotten about for long stretches of time. The Riddler’s central gimmick, of leaving riddles predicting his crimes, only crops up a few times too. The riddles have no connection to his plans for revenge against Wayne. The idea of a character being a business rival to Wayne is an interesting angle and one under-explored. Nygma making his own fortune happens between scenes. Finally, the film makes no mention of Nygma leaving riddles as an obsessive compulsion he has little control over. Carrey, in his favor, adds a lot of energy to the film and does a fairly decent Frank Gorshin impersonation, even if his antics are sometimes hard to take. For the most part though, “Batman Forever” gives two of Batman’s most psychologically fascinating villains the short stick.

This is all the more disappointing since when “Batman Forever” stops to focus on its title character’s mental state, it actually becomes potentially interesting. Bruce Wayne is suffering from reoccurring nightmares about his parents' death and a strange book he doesn’t remember. Chase Meridian is infatuated with Batman but Bruce starts to see her as a patient, drawing her interest. Meridian accurately guesses that Bruce’s nightmares are repressed memories. When he explores these, we see the classic image of Bruce, as a small child, tumbling into a bat cave, being frightened, and realizing his own destiny. These flashbacks are moodily shot, in blacks and blues. It’s one of the few times Schumacher’s film positively recalls Burton’s Bat-flicks. By getting at the emotional root of Batman’s obsession, the movie presents some interesting story angles. By forcing these story lines to the background, it does the movie a disservice.

Since the beginning of the Bat-franchise, the studio has been wanting to include Robin. At certain points during the production of both “Batman” and “Returns,” Marlon Wayans was going to play Robin as a street kid Bruce befriends. The Robin seen here has nothing in common with that idea. His origins are similar to the comic character, a circus acrobat whose family is murdered in front of him. Beyond that, there aren’t many similarities. Dick Grayson, as portrayed by Chris O’Donnell, is a college age smart ass who rides motorcycles, actively resents Bruce, stumbles onto the Batcave, and is consumed by revenge. He is annoying, as his tough guy act grows short quickly. His prickly relationship with Bruce isn’t very likable. He is also absurd. Grayson first displays his martial art mastery while folding laundry. When he takes the Batmobile out for a joy ride, it’s probably the most ridiculous moment in a fairly ridiculous film. In TVTrope parlance, he is what we would call a Scrappy, an obnoxious character that takes up too much screen time and adds little to the story.

The Joel Schumacher Batman films are most notorious for how different they are, visually, from the Burton films that precede them. This is very true and, at first, makes for quite a harsh culture shock. Compared to Burton’s Expressionistic Gotham, Schumacher’s Gotham is day-glo. Every thing is covered with neon lights or glowing dark-light paint. Burton’s gothic industrial nightmare is traded out for a cartoonish city that doesn’t even seem possible within the film’s universe. Schumacher’s direction matches his exaggerated visuals. He frequently employs Dutch angles. The characters, from the main cast down to Two-Face’s henchmen, are broad caricatures too simplistic for even a comic book.

It’s clear that Schumacher’s main inspiration were not the gritty Batman comics of the eighties but the Adam West TV series of the sixties. I actually love the West series but Schumacher seems to be emulating the wider pop culture conception of that show, as simply a campy spectacle, instead of the frequently subversive satire it also was. The film’s forced campiness is most evident in two scenes. The first is the street brawl Dick gets into after jacking the Batmobile. He drives the car into a cartoonish part of town, accosting a group of exaggerated hookers. He then fights a street gang that would be too over-the-top for “The Warriors,” guys in neon face paint who swing mops around and are led by an overdubbed Don “The Dragon” Wilson. The last act is when the movie’s production values go insane. The Riddler and Two-Face hang out on a secret island base, shaped like Nygma’s invention. They attempt to kill Batman and Robin with a weaponized game of Battleship. The entire island is a death trap. Batman even gets dropped into a pit of lowering spikes. He survives the trap by shooting fire on of his boots, seriously. For a fact, Schumacher seems to have confused Batman with Roger Moore-era James Bond, as the Batman suit and utility belt are filled with all sorts of scenario specific tools.

Schumacher’s movie is even more notorious for something else. Yes, I’m talking about the nipples on the Batsuit. Both Batman and Robin’s suits look awful, as they are overly muscled and rubbery looking. The emphasis on Batman’s chest, codpiece, and rubber-covered ass are just the most prominent example of the film’s gay subtext. Dick is a walking young gay stereotype, right down to the earring in his ear. His relationship with Bruce is laced with gay subtext. The moment when the two finally agree to become partners is hilarious, perhaps unintentionally, for how obvious it makes the homoerotic content. Two-Face has a pair of scantily clad female henchmen but his relationship with the Riddler seems awfully gay too. The two are frequently touching each other. They appear to be living together and spent most of their screen time together. The Riddler himself prances around in skin tight leotards and even goes full Ziggy Stardust at the end, with glitter, styled hair, and a question mark over one eye. Schumacher is openly gay but you wonder what his intentions were when he decided to make “Batman Forever” the gayest superhero movie since “Zorro the Gay Blade.”

The disconnect “Batman Forever” has with Burton’s film is also obvious in its recasting. Val Kilmer, on paper, seems like a more natural choice for Batman then Michael Keaton. He’s actually a pretty good Bruce Wayne. The scenes where he’s out of suit and sleuthing around work fairly well. However, whenever Kilmer’s in the suit, his performance completely falls apart. First off, his face looks ridiculous in the cowl. Like Keaton, he can barely move in the suit, making the hand-to-hand fight scenes absurd. The few remaining cast members from Burton’s film, like Michael Gough’s Alfred or Pat Hingle’s Commissioner Gordon, look increasingly out of place. Even Wayne Manor looks totally different.

All of this is overlooking the blatantly stupid stuff in the movie, like Alfred letting the bad guys into Wayne Manor, the Riddler blowing up the Batcave, or the dramatic dive that somehow saves both Chase and Robin. “Batman Forever” is not without its moments but the film, overall, is incredibly shallow. It’s a triumph of meaningless style over substance and meandering camp. Warner Bros. got their family-friendly Batman movie, their McDonald’s tie-ins, action figures, and beach towels. It was not for the good of the franchise. [5/10]

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