The Dark Knight is one of the biggest releases of this summer, if not the year. How do you prepare yourself for such a monumental picture? By watching previous depictions of Batman in movies, of course. We’re making our way through ten feature length incarnations of the Dark Knight’s stories, from Adam West to animation. We invite you to join us for the ride as we analyze the good, the bad, and the Bat.
(And yes, we’re actually re-watching all of these old flicks rather than just relying on our memory, so we can honestly evaluate each of them in preparation for The Dark Knight).
Day Five: Batman Forever (1995)
I have a confession to make. When I saw Batman Forever in theaters in 1995 I thought it was a good movie. Actually, I thought it was a great movie and I remember raving about it for days. Obviously I must have been taken in by the spectacle of the thing. As a summer popcorn flick, Batman Forever is the perfect example of a spectacle blockbuster, full of style but lacking substance. The sad thing is, even that style has almost nothing to do with the decades of the Dark Knight that were there to build upon.
Taking over the reigns from Tim Burton, Joel Schumacher’s version of Batman has a lot more in common with the campy series of the ‘60s than the darker style of Burton’s conceiving. It lacks the crumbling feel of the gothic world that pervaded the previous two films, and really doesn’t belong in the same series as the previous films. Gotham isn’t as decadent. In fact, with all of the statues sitting around it looks like a pretty fair city to live in, at least until the picture gets about halfway through and the whole place suddenly turns into a giant rave with dark light paint and ever-present intelligent lighting.
Even the knockout soundtrack by Danny Elfman is gone, replaced by a composition by Elliot Goldenthal that even resembles the jazz music of the ‘60s series at times. You have to wonder if Schumacher even gave his predecessor’s films a look, and what Burton really did as producer on this picture.
Instead of a story that reflects Batman through his villains, like the other movies, here the theme explores the duality of Wayne and the other key characters. The problem is the writers don’t get that duality anymore than Schumacher gets what Batman should be stylistically. Two-Face is an obvious villain to use to explore duality, but the character is hardly true to his comic book nature beyond half of his face being scarred. We see the Riddler transform from a standard scientist to a madman, but there’s really no duality there. Meanwhile, the characters explore Batman’s duality as both Bruce Wayne and Batman, not getting that the character has grown to a point where Batman is the true identity, and Bruce Wayne the alter-ego (or the “mask,” if you will).
Nope, none of the characters here are very true to their origins and a mostly talented cast is wasted on them. Warner Brothers spent a pretty penny buying Billy Dee Williams out of his contract (he played Harvey Dent in Batman and was contracted to return as Two-Face) in order to get Tommy Lee Jones into the role, which is a waste. There’s no acting or subtlety there. It’s just over the top manic behavior, even going so far as to ignore that fundamental coin toss until it gives him the result he wants. Meanwhile Jim Carrey isn’t challenged in his role as Riddler at all, just doing what he was known best for at the time - over the top elastic antics. The character never changes, except for his costumes, which become increasingly flamboyant to the point that neither Elton John or Liberace would be seen wearing his getup. For a series that took traditional Batman villains and transformed them to Burton’s dark vision, this is a sad departure to make the comic books work on the screen.
Then you have Robin, the Boy Wonder - a character that was pushed out of the previous two movies, only to appear here as a character too old to be Bruce’s ward. Instead of having a younger, more appropriate actor, the story tries to play up Bruce’s sympathy for Dick’s situation by having Wayne struck by repressed memories from his parents’ death. It actually wouldn’t have been a bad storyline, if it actually led somewhere other than linking Bruce in with Dr. Meridian Chase, yet another woman to discover Bruce’s secret life of caped crusading. On the heels of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, which got a Bruce Wayne romance so right, this one is dreadful, leaving one dead-end storyline to link together two poorly developed relationships for Bruce.
With a story that’s full of holes (just what is the Batsignal being used for toward the end of the movie?) and a style that makes no sense (why would Two-Face’s goons have neon on their tommy guns?), Batman Forever is definitely the weakest of the Batman films we’ve looked at so far. As a summer spectacle it might not have been so bad if it wasn’t using a decades old character - change the hero’s and villains’ names and you could have a better film than Hancock. As a Batman story, however, Schumacher fails to deliver on a series that had been very good until he got involved.
The Good: At least you have pretty people playing the parts, from a gorgeous Nicole Kidman to Val Kilmer for the ladies (who my wife says is such a vastly superior Bruce Wayne, even if he can’t play the depth of the character Keaton did).
The Bad: The story is so convoluted it isn’t even funny, and the style robs Batman of everything good Burton did for the franchise. I think I’ve said enough about that above.
The Bat: Batman gets new modes of transportation with the Batboat and Batplane. He also gets a new Batmobile which features a light up engine and none of the sense of Batman’s true purpose here. Hell, it can’t even handle its own engine, popping a wheelie if revved too hard (although that does give it the ridiculous ability to position itself to scale walls). We get a new Batsuit as well, with butt shots and those stupid Bat-nipples added for effect.
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