FILM REVIEW: Batman Forever (1995)

Batman Forever (USA, 1995)
Directed by Joel Schumacher
Starring Val Kilmer, Tommy Lee Jones, Jim Carrey, Chris O'Donnell

Changing the director in the middle of a franchise can create seismic differences in the quality of the respective instalments. Sometimes this is for the better: Alfonso Cuaron lifted the Harry Potter series with Prisoner of Azkaban, bringing a real sense of magic and wonder where Chris Columbus had failed on both counts. On other occasions, such as this one, the franchise does not benefit, resulting in a film with none of the weight of Tim Burton's instalments and which is nothing more nor less than a little bit boring.The key to understanding Batman Forever lies in the relationship between Tim Burton and his replacement Joel Schumacher. Despite having left the director's chair after the mixed reception of Batman Returns, Burton stayed on to produce the third instalment at the behest of Warner Brothers. While this did not give him anything resembling creative control, it did give him a certain amount of power on the set, so that he could always step in if he felt that things were going too far off the rails.As a result of Burton's presence there is some degree of continuity between the universe of Returns and Forever. Despite its gaudier design and campier style, it doesn't feel entirely like you've switched over to the TV series right after watching the second film. Certain sections, such as the death of Bruce's parents, have been reshot so that they retain their existing composition but with the new colour scheme and editing style. By making the head of Arkham Asylum a goofy-haired man called Dr. Burton, the series tips its hat to his style and sensibility, acknowledging that without him we would never have got this far.But while we are ostensibly in the same Gotham City, the emphasis has been shifted away from expressionist architecture and dark anti-heroes, and onto something a lot more frivolous. Where Burton uses style as a means of expressing deeper themes or character traits, Schumacher is all about style for its own sake, and never mind the story. This reflects their respective beginnings as filmmakers: Burton cut his teeth in animation, creating drawings which had to speak a thousand words, while Schumacher started out designing costumes for Woody Allen's Sleeper.What we end up with is a film which is lit to within an inch of its life, but scripted to a bare minimum. Like the TV series, there is a central plot which is relatively thin and largely implausible, around which action set-pieces can be positioned and stretched out for as long as is necessary. There are big references to Schumacher's back catalogue throughout - the street gang with fluorescent make-up are a re-tuning of the vampires from The Lost Boys, while the scenes with Nicole Kidman's psychiatrist tread very close to the dialogue in Flatliners.Batman Forever is often cited as the point when the Batman series shifted from being about the comics to being about the merchandise. Many fans have cited Val Kilmer's opening lines about "getting drive-through" as the moment at which the franchise jumped the shark. There is a large amount of truth in this: the shift towards brighter colours, sillier villains and the increased hardware available to Batman points towards a desire to sell action figures and lunchboxes rather than something more grown-up.

But while there is a market-driven edge to this Batman instalment, it is not as crass or as cynical as it could have been. The plot is at best ironic and at worst duplicitous - creating an evil weapon which warps people's minds through television, when whole sections of the film resemble a commercial, at least in the way that they are lit. But it doesn't force the merchandise down the viewer's throat like Batman and Robin did, and compared to the work of Michael Bay it's totally harmless.For its first 45 minutes, the predominant reaction to Batman Forever is not betrayal or disgust but boredom. The opening set-piece, involving Two Face's elaborate heist and a safe full of acid, feels dragged out and is played for laughs way too obviously. The stunts become increasingly preposterous and the supporting characters have less personality than in the Burton films.

Whereas in Batman Returns there was a sense of all the villains and some of the bystanders having minds of their own, the security guard in the bank is confined to whining "Oh no!" with increasing desperation. There is less of a role for Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon, and Michael Gough is increasingly sidelined. During the set-pieces Schumacher's love of aesthetics becomes frequently overbearing. In the sequence on the rocks near the Riddler's lair, there is so much green on the screen that you can't see what's going on. It's like watching Flash Gordon without the wit or directorial vision.The performances reflect this sense frustration. Val Kilmer is a plank as Bruce Wayne, and has an off-putting, haughty quality which conveys that Kilmer thought he was above the role. When he's in the bat-suit, he unwittingly pouts in almost every scene, as though he saw wearing the mask as an excuse to stop acting, at least with his face. Jim Carrey does an awful lot of gurning as Edward Nigma, and he only stops being annoying when he's being reined in by Tommy Lee Jones, who genuinely gets the character and seems to be having fun.Nicole Kidman, whose character was written specifically for the film, spends an awful lot of her screen time doing nothing but wandering around in a little black dress. Like Kim Basinger in the first film, whatever attempt is made to build her character up as intelligent is eventually undone; she ends up as a damsel in distress, accompanied by a gratuitous upskirt shot as she falls out of the tube. And Chris O'Donnell never entirely convinces either as Dick Grayson or as Robin. When he pretends to be Batman while facing the street gang, we're laughing at him as much as with him.However, after we have cantered through the Riddler's backstory and drunk our fill of pouting, whinging, gurning and flirting, Batman Forever finally kicks into gear and starts to have a plot which feels like it has something to say. It stops being an overgrown kid playing with toys and becomes a film about repression of childhood memories.Where the previous two films dealt with Batman as an outsider, who may be no better than the villains he is fighting, Batman Forever asks the question of whether Bruce Wayne can ever live with himself, as Batman and as a fractured human being. There is continuity from Batman Returns in the role of women; Chase makes a passing reference to Catwoman on the rooftop, and she proves instrumental in helping Bruce come to terms with himself.The point seems to be that the central dilemma of Batman is always the same - where does the man end and the bat begin, both in terms of personality and in terms of authorit. The various villains or sideshows which Batman encounters are just different ways of asking the same questions, whether through violence (Two-Face), riddles (The Riddler) or seduction (Chase). Considering what happened with the sequel, one could argue that this is just a ploy to have infinite new villains turn up in infinite new films, but at least the film has the guts to raise one of the central issues of the comics, even if it handles it with kid gloves.Batman Forever is a noisy, incoherent and often dull third instalment of a franchise which was already showing signs of fatigue. For all its good intentions and attempts to grapple with several ideas, it never follows through enough with any of them to cut the mustard, resorting to special effects to disguise Schumacher's shortcomings as a storyteller. But despite this, it's passingly entertaining, with Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey eventually coming through with the goods as a double act. It's a consistent and inoffensive disappointment; if only the same could be said for the sequel.

Verdict: An inoffensive disappointment


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