R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: Batman Forever

With superhero mediocrity ruling the box office at the moment with Fantastic Four in theaters, I thought it only appropriate to discuss one of its ho-hum brethren. Just as Marvel adaptations have been striking out as of late, there seemed to be a time when DC Comics couldn’t catch a break either.

In 1995, Warner Brothers’ biggest franchise belonged to the Dark Knight. In 1989, Tim Burton’s Batman was a world wide smash, toppling box office records as Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton did battle. Though not completely winning over critics and comic book purists, the film entertained audiences enough that they crowned it the highest grossing movie of the year.

In 1992, the Caped Crusader followed up his success with another smash hit. This time, Batman Returns featured Michelle Pfeiffer and Danny DeVito as rogues’ gallery all stars Catwoman and Penguin. Keaton got to make Batman more of a smart aleck, Pfeiffer stole every one of her scenes and DeVito led an army of cybernetic penguins, but none of that was able to win over critics. The film once again was the highest grosser of the year, but audiences were torn about whether the series was going in the right direction.

The series was thrown into a bit of chaos with the next installment. With the exit of Tim Burton, the film’s director, the studio scrambled to find a viable replacement. First to offer his services was director Sam Raimi. The director of The Evil Dead Trilogy had shown his love for the genre with his superhero/vigilante homage Darkman. Raimi is a self proclaimed fan of superheroes, but this was not enough for Warner Brothers executives who wanted a bigger name for their franchise.

Joel Schumacher, who had already had hits such as Flatliners and Lost Boys to his credit, was brought on by the studio. Schumacher, believing the series to be too violent, wanted to pump up the action in the film, but still make it more family friendly. Schumacher was going to introduce Batman’s ward, Robin, into the series as well as bring in classic villains Two-Face and The Riddler. This caused a stir with the cast, and believing the film to be going in an unfavorable direction, Michael Keaton left the series. This once again put the series in turmoil. Who could replace the man audiences had come to know as Batman? At first film makers considered Tom Hanks and then Alec Baldwin to take on the cape and cowl. Finally the part was offered to Val Kilmer. Kilmer, who was doing research for another picture in an actual bat cave at the time, accepted without even reading a script.

The next big casting decision would be who would play the role of Robin. Early choices included actors Scott Speedman and Michael Worth. The final two prospective Robins came down to teen heart-throbs Leonardo DiCaprio and Chris O’Donnell. Producers decided who would win the coveted role by going to Comic Book conventions and asking young boys there who they thought would win in a fight. O’Donnell became the legendary sidekick because of a majority backing of eleven year old boys.

Casting the rest of the picture was just as controversial. The character of Two-Face was a hurdle as the series’ original Harvey Dent, Billy Dee Williams, had to be bought out of his contract by the studio to get the bigger name of Tommy Lee Jones. The pictures main love interest, Chase Meridian, was originally going to be played by Renee Russo, who was fine when paired with Michael Keaton, but deemed too old to be with Val Kilmer. Nicole Kidman was then brought in for the role. Lastly the character of the Riddler had to be cast. Early choices included veteran Brad Douriff and Robin Williams, but the studio ended up choosing the most popular comic in the world at the time, Jim Carrey.

So with a brand new cast and Director, the franchise was re-launched into theaters in the summer of 1995. Would audiences accept the changes or would this film fall prey to the misfortunes that befell Superman III? That film had a new director, and employed one of the world’s most popular comics, but ended up being a failure.

Batman Forever Starring Val Kilmer and Jim Carrey. Directed by Joel Schumacher.

The film begins with Batman foiling an evil plot by Tommy Lee Jones’ Two-Face, but ending up being trapped within a vault of acid. Two-Face, blaming Batman for his disfigurement, is wreaking havoc upon Gotham robbing and pillaging where ever he goes. In the end, Batman stops the evil doer, but not before he escapes.

Meanwhile, scientist Edward Nygma perfects his work for a machine to alter brainwaves. Unfortunately for Nygma, all his colleagues shun his work, and when his idol Bruce Wayne gives his project the thumbs down, the man goes off the deep end. He kills his boss, making it look like a suicide and then proceeds to try get revenge on Wayne. Nygma takes on the persona of The Riddler, a fiendish criminal who leaves riddles and puzzles taunting and hinting at his next crime.

Tragedy strikes when Two-Face interrupts a charity circus attended by Bruce Wayne, and ends up killing the acrobats performing, The Flying Graysons. The only survivor is the youngest of the Graysons, named Dick (Chris O’Donnell). Upon watching the death of the family, Bruce decides to take in the young man, seeing much of his own guilt in Grayson.
At this time, Two-Face and The Riddler combine their forces. The Riddler uses his brain-wave machine (now being mass produced) to learn the secrets of the powerful. Two-Face then follows up with his band of henchmen. The coup for the dastardly duo comes when they lure Bruce Wayne into the machine. Learning that Wayne is Batman, the villains attack Wayne Manor and destroy the Bat-Cave in the process.

Faced with having to take on the two villains alone, Batman reluctantly takes on Grayson as his partner Robin. The two find the location of the villain’s lair and ride out to take them on. In a massive array of special effects and stunts, the heroes battle the evil doers in highly colorful combat.

When one is looking for over the top, excessive film making, look no further than Batman Forever. Joel Schumacher turned the Batman series from the dark, moody scenes of Burton’s Gotham to a neon light show of campy villains and whiny sidekicks. Gone is the brooding Dark Knight, and in is the family friendly, fully deputized hero of this colorful Gotham City. Batman Forever actually owes more of its tone to the 1960’s Batman television series starring Adam West and Burt Ward than it does to its comic roots. In fact, a line of Robin’s dialogue that includes the phrase “Holy rusted metal” is a direct reference to the show. Set-pieces including Dick Grayson fighting a mob of neon gangsters and Two-Face and The Riddler attempting to kill the heroes using an elaborate game of Battleship are the film’s biggest offenses.

Not helping anything is Jim Carrey’s Riddler. Like Frank Gorshin on speed, Carrey is completely over the top as Batman’s new nemesis and often looks ridiculous. If Carrey’s portrayal was closer to Comic Book version of the character it would be much more tolerable. The Riddler is a genius criminal in the pages of DC, who uses his riddles to outwit and strike fear into his victims and opponents. Carrey’s Riddler is a man in a spandex leotard, screaming out bad puns and jokes all the while desperate for attention.

Worse is Tommy Lee Jones’ Two-Face. The character is traditionally a complex villain, his good and evil natures fighting for control of his own mind. Jones’ villain is a wannabe version of Jack Nicholson’s Joker, showing none of Harvey Dent’s real struggle. One scene in particular illustrates this as typical in the comics Two-Face forces himself to rely on his deadly coin flip to determine the fates of others. In the film one scene has Two-Face flipping his coin until he gets the outcome he’s wanting. This goes right in the face of the character’s mythos.

The heroes of the picture are closer to what they should be. Val Kilmer is actually pretty decent as Bruce Wayne. His portrayal of Wayne is much more suave than Keaton’s and fits the character quite well. Unfortunately his Batman is sorely underdeveloped and saddled with being in a picture directed by Joel Schumacher. Kilmer had the potential to be a great Batman, unfortunately he’s most remembered for Bat-Nipples.

Chris O’Donnell fairs a little better as Robin. His Dick Grayson is on the whiney side, but O’Donnell really starts to shine after putting on the Robin suit. Chris O’Donnell is probably the best bit of casting for the picture, as he takes the proceeding quite seriously and doesn’t get into the predicament of self parody as the villains do.

Nicole Kidman is a virtual non-entity as Chase Meridian. She is relegated to damsel in distress although one scene of her with nothing but a silk sheet on is a film highlight.
Too bad she doesn’t get the material that Pfeiffer did in the second film as Kidman’s involvement in the franchise is widely forgotten.

As bad as things got with Batman Forever, it was just a taste of what was to come. Fans curious to see what Schumacher had done with the film actually made it a financial success and gave him the clout to make things even worse. Thank goodness the series is finally in a turn around and these Schumacher films can serve as a warning to studios looking to just throw more money at a film instead of making a good one. The third time was not the charm when it came to both of Warner Brothers’ once mighty franchises. Hopefully studios and film makers will heed these warnings as the next installments of Spiderman and X-Men begin to rev up. Superman and Batman are both getting additional chances at pleasing fans and critics, others may not be so lucky.


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