Director: Joel Schumacher
Despite being a massive success, Batman Returns ultimately proved to be a financial disappointment when compared to the previous chapter in the Dark Knight saga. Pulling in almost 163 million dollars domestically isn't something to sneeze at, but it was still a whopping 35 percent less than its predecessor's American box office returns. Average moviegoers were turned off by the moroseness of Batman Returns, while the reaction from the Batman fan community was mixed. Many cried foul, unhappy with the way Batman was portrayed. They argued Batman was above the sort of grim fairytale that Burton liked to tell. Others enjoyed the movie, its fans arguing that Frank Miller's classic graphic novel "The Dark Knight Returns" was proof enough that Batman was a dark character that could be in a dark movie. Apparently siding with those who viewed Batman Returns in the negative, Warner Brothers decided to go a different route with the Batman franchise. Gone were Tim Burton's grim fantasies and the bleak, oppressive Gotham City, leaving us with a new director, a new Bruce Wayne, a new neon sheen to Gotham City, and a boy wonder.
The movie opens quickly enough, with Batman (Val Kilmer) rushing to the scene of a robbery orchestrated by Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones) at the Second National Bank of Gotham, two years after Batman first captured him and had him committed to Arkham Asylum. Two-Face was once Gotham City district attorney Harvey Dent, a man dedicated to cleaning up the city. Unfortunately for him, a mob boss threw acid at him, leaving the left side of his face hideously scarred and his psyche permanently fractured. Now suffering from what appears to be a great big bundle of mental disorders (he's a bipolar schizophrenic, at the very least), Two-Face has taken to flipping a two-headed coin to determine many of his major decisions for him. If it lands on the happy smiley side, hooray, no crime committed. If it lands on the pissed-off scratched side, there be a crime a-happenin'. Okay, enough of that, back to the plot for now. Batman thwarts the bank robbery, yet Two-Face gets away.
Shortly thereafter, Bruce Wayne is introduced to Edward Nygma (Jim Carrey), a Wayne Enterprises employee working on a new invention called "The Box," a device that taps into brain waves and allows viewers to see television broadcasts in 3-D. Wayne squashes the idea of the Box, claiming that messing with brain waves "raises too many questions." Visibly crushed by the rejection, Nygma alters the Box into something more devious: a device that can suck the contents of a person's mind right out of their head. Knowledge, memories, fears, fantasies, the sky's the limit with the Box.
Nygma promptly leaves Wayne Enterprises (after killing his supervisor and making it look like a suicide), and begins to anonymously leave bizarre riddles for Bruce, who has quite the crush on psychiatrist Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman). That name sounds more like a major metropolitan bank than a sexy Australian psychiatrist, but I'm not a screenwriter, so what do I know? Anyway, the circus is in town as a special charity fundraiser, and Dr. Meridian agrees to be Bruce's date. Unfortunately, Two-Face chooses the circus to be the site of his latest crime. He rigs up a massive time bomb and chaos ensues, but Bruce sneaks away and returns as Batman. He fights off Two-Face's goons while the circus's trapeze artists, the "Flying Grayson Family," try to dispose of the bomb. They succeed, but with disastrous consequences: they're all killed, save one Dick Grayson (Chris O'Donnell). Impressed by Dick's heroism, Bruce opens his home to the orphan, whose stubborn nature causes him to butt heads with Bruce's own stubbornness. That stubbornness leads Dick to discover the Batcave and his new host's alter ego, prompting him to petition Bruce to make him his partner so he can get avenge the death of his family and kill Two-Face. Bruce rejects the idea at first, but after a particular series of events, he finally agrees.
Meanwhile, we see that Nygma is continuing to leave riddles for Bruce, and his fondness for puzzles leads him into creating an alter ego called "The Riddler." He sees a news story about Two-Face crashing Bruce's fundraiser, which gives him an idea to enter into a business partnership with the former district attorney. That goes over like a fart in church with Two-Face, but he decides to humor the Riddler and give it a flip of the coin. Heads he agrees, tails he kills Riddler. You can guess how that resulted. Anyway, the pair go on a crime spree, and Nygma uses the profits from their robberies to create "NygmaCorp." He begins mass-producing Boxes, and they start selling like hotcakes. Everyone's got to have a Box in their house, which tickles Nygma pink because he's become more popular and wealthier than Bruce Wayne in a shorter amount of time. And as the Boxes continue to sell, his IQ balloons to astronomical heights, and his wealth and knowledge allow him to create a more advanced version of The Box that allows people to experience virtual reality depictions of their greatest fantasies. After tricking Bruce into using the new Box at a ritzy NygmaCorp gala, Nygma discovers that his rival is the one and only Batman. He and Two-Face use this newfound information to their advantage, invading Wayne Manor, trashing the Batcave, and kidnapping Chase. Using what's left of the technology in the decimated Batcave, Batman and his new partner "Robin" set into motion a plan to stop The Riddler and Two-Face once and for all.
To me, it seems as if Batman Forever attempted to retain a little of the feel from the Burton movies, yet added some comic book flair and a heaping helping of camp by way of the old '60s Batman TV show. Sure, the Riddler's puzzles here aren't as outlandishly hokey as they were on the TV show, but still, you can see the movie was at least slightly influenced by the show. There's even a cute reference to Burt Ward's catchphrase near the end of the movie. But at its chewy nougat center, the movie is a tale of Bruce Wayne's struggle to live with the inner demons created by his pointy-eared alter ego. Before, we'd only seen glimpses of what happened to Bruce's parents, but Batman Forever actually attempts to go the extra mile and show how their deaths continue to eat away at him even in adulthood. Batman Forever is perhaps the strongest character study of our Caped Crusader in the Burton/Schumacher era. We learn that Bruce at least partially blames himself for the tragic murder of his parents, and that he became Batman to not only seek revenge, but to perhaps atone for the guilt buried deep inside him. The subplot featuring Bruce being haunted by repressed memories and that weird red diary were a good way to show the evolution of Bruce into Batman, but thanks to some rather revelatory scenes being left on the cutting room floor, it wasn't as fulfilling as it could have been. They had a chance to psychoanalyze one of the comic world's most complex characters, but alas, it was not to be seen here. I understand why the scenes were cut (to squeeze it into the studio's desired two-hour time frame), but the movie suffers because of it.
A lot of people knock on the rampant neon in the movie, and I have to agree. I have nothing wrong with the filmmakers wanting to have a lighter tone, but they really erred with the neon. Gotham City is supposed to look grim and gritty, not look like someone was throwing the world's biggest rave. If it was just an excuse to justify the scene where Batman and Robin fight a bunch of thugs wearing fluorescent clothing and makeup while underneath a blacklight, then it's really, really weak. No matter what your opinion on the two Tim Burton movies, it's safe to say that at least his Gotham City looked far better than Joel Schumacher's. I have nothing wrong with a director wanting to make a comic book come to life, but this was just stupendously inane. He also drove all the special effects into the ground. There's only too many times you can see an outlandish stunt before you start to grow numb towards them. When you have a helicopter crashing into Gotham City's version of the Statue of Liberty and the Batmoble driving up the side of a building (!) within the first hour of the movie, that's what I call overkill. And don't even get me started on the nipples on Batman's suits or the awkward closeups of Batman's posterior. I did, however, like the slanted camera angles, so I won't fault Schumacher or cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt for that. I enjoyed the script by Lee Batchler, Janet Scott Batchler, and Akiva Goldsman for the most part, but unfortunately, they didn't seem to get the character of Two-Face. He's actually one of the more tragic and compelling characters in Batman's rogue's gallery, and unless you're really familiar with the character's history, you'd have no clue why he hates Batman so much. In the movie, you'd just believe he hated Batman because Batman had arrested him in the past. His origin story is almost non-existent, and unless you paid attention during Batman '89, you'd never know that Two-Face was once a good guy.
What holds the whole film together is the acting. The character relations give the movie a leg to stand on, despite the insane amounts of special effects. While Michael Keaton is my favorite out of the three Bruce Waynes in the Burton/Schumacher era, Val Kilmer is a fitting substitute. I wasn't too keen on Kilmer's performance the first few times I saw the movie, but I've since warmed up to him. His Batman is both heroic and conflicted, almost an improvement over Keaton's portrayal of Batman as a borderline psycho. Kilmer's performance definitely proves him to be a worthy successor, but as always, your mileage may vary. Meanwhile, Chris O'Donnell is better than expected as Dick Grayson, Batman's boy wonder, and actually turns out to be quite important to the film as a whole. The origin of Robin is handled excellently, making him a hero in the face of adversity. The character is central to the movie's true core storyline: Bruce Wayne seeing almost a mirror image of himself in his young ward. Robin's family was murdered, and his first thoughts were to seek revenge and kill the man responsible. This leads Bruce to confront his inner demons, and make him question if what he's done in the past is truly right. O'Donnell's performance is actually pretty good, and I don't know if I could really see any other actor in the role. Fun fact: Casting the role of Robin came down between Chris O'Donnell and Leonardo DiCaprio. The producers asked groups of 11-year-old boys at a comic book convention who would win a fight between O'Donnell and DiCaprio, and the kids overwhelmingly picked O'Donnell. Imagine Leo DiCaprio as Robin. Blows your mind, doesn't it?
Nicole Kidman is watchable here, in what is perhaps her breakout role. Sure, she had Days of Thunder under her belt prior to this, but Batman Forever quite possibly made her a star. I loved Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face, but thanks to the script, he ends up becoming like a bipolar version of The Joker, and overacts to the point of seemingly trying to over-Carrey Jim Carrey. Like I said, I enjoyed Jones, but I wonder what it would have been like to have Billy Dee Williams as Two-Face. Y'see, Williams had a clause in his contract for Batman '89 that said he had the right to reprise his role as Harvey Dent should Two-Face be used in a future sequel. Warner Brothers really wanted to cast Jones, so they simply bought out Billy Dee's contract. Nothing against Jones, but I do wonder how different things would have been. But perhaps the brightest star of the movie is Jim Carrey, who does a fantastic job in his dual role of Edward Nygma and The Riddler, playing the character like an evil genius version of his character from The Mask. Carrey's Nygma begins as a groveling little toadie with dreams of greater glory. As he becomes more and more extroverted and confident following his transformation into The Riddler, Carrey's performance becomes more and more over the top, but still manages to be almost equal to Jack Nicholson's Joker in terms of the on-screen portrayal of Batman villains. And all of it is set to a fine score by Elliot Goldenthal. While I'd pick Danny Elfman's brilliant music any day of the week, Goldenthal's score is inoffensive and can hold up on its own. But on the non-score musical side of things, I'd take the songs over the score. From rock (U2's "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me") and punk (The Offspring covering The Damned's "Smash It Up"), to R&B (Seal's "Kiss From A Rose" and the Lenny Kravitz-penned "Where Are You Now?" by Brandy), the soundtrack is great.
While not the definitive Batman movie, Batman Forever is a spectacle to behold. The movie succeeds at entertaining both adults and children, something that Tim Burton's live-action "Batman by way of the Brothers Grimm" stories don't do. Here, Batman is nothing but hero from beginning to end, the way it should be. Batman Forever gets three and a half stars. Good stuff.
Final Rating: ***½