No one can mistake Joel Schumacher’s two Batman films for masterpieces. Nor can they call me a Schumacher fan, especially after I lambasted his atrocious St. Elmo’s Fire, which he took sole credit for both writing and directing. But I have to admit I have soft spot in my heart for Batman Forever and Batman & Robin.
In truth, Batman Forever came the closest of the four original films in the series to accomplishing what Christopher Nolan did in his Dark Knight Trilogy. And Batman & Robin might be one of the worst movies of all time, but it inadvertently led to a lot of positive results.
So here’s my defense of Joel Schumacher’s Batman movies.
Let’s start with Batman Forever. The original Batman remained the highest-grossing film in the series for the better part of two decades.But after the somewhat disappointing sequel Batman Returns, Tim Burton turned down the chance to direct a third Batman film and Michael Keaton pursued other film roles outside the cape and cowl. This left a huge void to fill for the third film in the series.
You can’t say they scrimped on talent. Val Kilmer was coming off an amazing performance as Doc Holliday in 1993’s Tombstone. Tommy Lee Jones won an Academy Award for his gripping supporting role in 1993’s The Fugitive. Jim Carrey had just had three huge hits in 1994. Chris O’Donnell had starred in back-to-back hits Scent of a Woman and The Three Musketeers. Akiva Goldsman had successfully adapted John Grisham’s The Client in 1994 for director Schumacher, and he would go on to win an Academy Award for writing A Beautiful Mind. And Schumacher had directed a variety of films, including the underrated 1993 classic Falling Down.
This collection of new faces in front of and behind the camera took the Batman series in a new direction that proved a solid success.
Answering Tough Questions
One thing Batman Forever really did right was to finally answer questions that the earlier films had failed to address.
What Made Bruce Wayne Become Batman?
Tim Burton’s two Batman films never explored what went through Bruce Wayne’s mind when he initially decided to become the Batman. It showed Wayne witnessing his parents’ deaths, but there’s a huge gap between a victimized child and a masked vigilante.
Batman Forever bridges that gap. It explores Wayne’s psyche in a surprisingly deep way, drudging up memories he had long suppressed. I love the flashbacks of him at his parents’ funeral when the horror of what has happened finally sinks in. And then when he falls down into a cave and sees the figure of a bat flying toward him, you get a better sense of all his sadness and anger coalescing into one frightening symbol.
Over the course of the film he faces his doubts, disappointments, and sad memories and emerges stronger from them. By the end of Batman Forever, he’s no longer fighting crime “because nobody else can,” as he said in 1989’s Batman, but because he chooses to.
Why Doesn’t Batman Kill?
In the first two Batman films, the titular character had no problem with killing criminals. He threw people off buildings, blew them up with bombs and missiles, and did other gruesome things to them to strike fear into criminals’ hearts. But something changed in Batman Forever. I suppose the filmmakers were trying to gear the film toward a younger audience to make more money, but they pulled it off by offering a good justification for Batman’s change of heart on killing.
In a pivotal scene, Dick Grayson learns Batman’s secret identity and confides in Wayne that he wants to get revenge on Two-Face for killing his parents by killing him in return. Wayne responds with these powerful words:
“So, you’re willing to take a life… Then it will happen this way: you make the kill, but your pain doesn’t die with Harvey; it grows. So you run out into the night to find another face, and another, and another, until one terrible morning you wake up and realize that revenge has become your whole life. And you won’t know why.”
This is brilliant. It shows that Wayne’s motivations have grown beyond petty revenge. He killed the Joker for killing his parents, but did that bring his parents back or ease his pain? Of course not. It might have provided a temporary reprieve from the pain, but then he had to deal with regret that he had become no different than a common thug on the street.
Christopher Nolan could hit the reset button and simply redo Batman’s motivations in his reboot series, but this film had to work within the existing framework of what had come before, and it managed to turn Batman from a killer into a crime fighter in an intelligent way.
Bruce Wayne Is a Good Guy
Before Batman Forever we had never gotten a good look into Bruce Wayne’s life. The focus was primarily on Batman while Wayne was generally pushed to the side. But in this film, we got to see Wayne in a number of situations that show how selfless and courageous he is even when he’s not wearing a mask.
When he hears that one of his employees has committed suicide (though he was really murdered) he offers full benefits to the man’s family, even though his company’s life insurance policy doesn’t cover suicide. Later, when Two-Face shows up at the circus and says he’s going to kill everyone in the tent if Batman doesn’t reveal his true identity, Wayne immediately stands up and shouts, “I’m Batman!” But his voice is drowned out by the fearful crowd. And when he fears that a psychologist is under attack behind a locked door he brazenly breaks down her door and tries to help.
All of this and more shows that Wayne is more interested in helping other people than in his own welfare or even protecting his secret identity.
Plus, we get to see him do some actual detective work. He uses not just brute force but also his mind to defeat the villains and save the day. The riddles Nigma leaves Wayne over the course of the film are quite clever, and the way they come together in the end to clue Batman in to the Riddler’s true identity is nothing short of brilliant. When Alfred Pennyworth says, “You really are quite bright, despite what people say,” I feel like he’s speaking not just about Wayne but this film as a whole.
Jim Carrey vs. Heath Ledger
Jim Carrey is an extremely talented actor. From 1994 to 2003 he delivered numerous attention-grabbing performances that cemented his place as a comedy legend. Batman Forever caught him right at the beginning of his fruitful career. His portrayal of the Riddler isn’t always given much praise because it’s cartoony and over the top, but I think it works well for the most part.
Heath Ledger was also a gifted actor, with an ability to play an eclectic group of characters, from ‘90s high-school goth to American revolutionary. But the role he will always be known for is the Joker, which he got at the end of his sadly short career. He managed to make the Clown Prince of Gotham equal parts hilarious and terrifying.
- Edward Nigma is obsessed with Bruce Wayne while the Joker is obsessed with Batman.
- Nigma gets away with killing his boss and the Joker gets away with killing a Mob boss without any kind of retaliation.
- Both Nigma and the Joker want to expose Batman’s secret identity, although the Joker has a change of heart later.
- Nigma’s goal is to find out everyone’s secrets and get smarter as a result. The Joker’s goal is to reveal people’s secret violent tendencies and debase the world as a result.
- Nigma manages to outmaneuver Wayne in the business world. The Joker manages to outmaneuver the Mob bosses and take control of Gotham City from under their noses.
- In the end, Batman doesn’t kill Nigma and he sends him to Arkham Asylum to rot in his own insanity forever. Batman doesn’t kill the Joker, either, preferring to send him to a padded cell forever.
I don’t think Carrey’s performance is necessarily on par with Ledger’s, but I think Carrey deserves a lot of credit for taking a cartoony role and making it work.
Now let’s turn our attention to the other side of the coin, the atrocious Batman & Robin.
Batman & Robin
Batman & Robin is a failed comedy, plain and simple. It tried to be a slapstick version of Batman Forever and failed. To be fair, I’m sure all of us have tried to be funny and failed miserably. It’s a humiliating experience, but hopefully we learned from it and tried harder in the future. Of course, most of us don’t have access to $100 million budgets and our mistakes aren’t broadcast to millions of people.
Batman & Robin fell into the same trap as many other film series. It ran out of ideas so it decided to turn to self-parody. This worked brilliantly in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and Rocky IV but those are definitely the exception more than the rule. Die Another Day was the fourth (and mercifully final) Pierce Brosnan James Bond film. The Next Karate Kid tried to reboot a failing series to no avail.
They had already planned a sequel to Batman & Robin, called Batman Triumphant. But when Batman & Robin became the lowest-grossing film in the series, they did a very brave thing and completely called off that sequel. They could have gone ahead and tried for another Batman Forever-type recovery, but the filmmakers and the studio chose instead to stop digging the hole deeper and simply cut their losses. Good for them.
And Joel Schumacher himself took the extraordinary step of apologizing for his misstep of a film. He didn’t act indignantly and think there was something wrong with people for not liking his work. He was humble enough to admit that he had tried to make an entertaining film, but he was sorry if people didn’t like the end result.
If there were no Batman & Robin, we wouldn’t have the Nostalgia Critic’s epic Bat Credit Card rant, nor would we have Rifftrax’ fantastic commentary on the film, Cinema Sins’ long list of sins the film committed, and many other golden comedic contributions. If we’ve learned anything from Mystery Science Theater 3000 it’s that bad movies are precious gifts because they’re just so much fun to mock and talk about in humorous ways.
Joel Schumacher’s additions to the Batman series are often looked down upon as the black sheep of the family. But I don’t think Batman Forever is a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. It actually tries to tell an engaging story and it manages to succeed for the most part. It’s not perfect, but I think it’s unfair to lump it into the same category as Batman & Robin. That movie deserves all the criticism it’s received, but it spawned a lot of creative rebuttals from critics that are much more entertaining than the film itself.
To sum it all up, in defense of Schumacher’s two Batman films, they’re a lot of fun and sometimes surprisingly smart.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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