How ‘Batman Forever’ Shows the Future of Batman Movies Should Be Silly

     June 18, 2020

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I simply love what you’ve done with this place. Heavy Metal meets House and Garden. Beautiful. It’s so dark and gothic and disgustingly decadent, yet so bright and chipper and conservative. It’s so you, and yet so you! Very few people are both a summer and a winter, but you pull it off nicely.

From 2005 to this present moment, Warner Bros. and their exactly two filmmakers who have been allowed to direct live-action Batman films have decided on a common tone for their big screen adaptations of the iconic comic book caped crusader. To paraphrase the lead villain from 2008’s The Dark Knight, that tone is: “So serious.”

Mind you, I’m not mad at a Serious Batman. From his inception, he’s been a noir-tinged superhero formed by trauma and vigilante justice. Many of the most influential stories in his canon, from graphic novels to the ’90s animated series to even Tim Burton‘s films, traffic in unabashed darkness to wondrous effect. Christopher Nolan‘s Dark Knight Trilogy continues to be one of my favorite film trilogies (as to Zack Snyder‘s big screen contributions to the Bat-legacy, I, uh, plead the fifth). Hell, I’m just as excited for Matt Reeves and Robert Pattinson‘s moody looking take on the material as anyone else.

And yet, still, I dream of a wider-spread future for my favorite superhero’s big screen adventures. A future that allows for various emotional and tonal explorations allowing for serious, sincere examinations of psychological traumas, yes. But also one that allows Bruce Wayne to cut loose a little. One that lets Batman be… silly. Is such a future even possible? I say yes. And all we have to do to make this dream a reality is look in the distant past.

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Image via Warner Bros.

Batman Forever celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2020. The 1995 Joel Schumacher-directed film suffered from lots of odd anomalies in its production. After the wildness of his 1992 sequel Batman Returns (wonderful), Burton began developing the third installment of his take on Batman, only for Warner Bros. to abruptly pull the plug after their blanching at the sheer, very un-family friendly audacity of Returns (again, it’s wonderful). Warner Bros. insisted on a more family-friendly, focus group-generated creative and aesthetic direction, annoying the heck out of Burton (who still handpicked Schumacher to take his place). Michael Keaton left the franchise out of frustration. Billy Dee Williams was paid off by Warner Bros. in lieu of him getting able to complete his Harvey Dent arc as Two Face (a decision I would argue is “objectively racist”). Tommy Lee Jones was cast in his place, getting into all kinds of friction with everyone on set (he notably told Jim Carrey “I hate you. I really don’t like you… I cannot sanction your buffoonery”). Val Kilmer was cast as the title character, only to behave so erratically on set that he and Schumacher could literally not speak with each other while filming for a time (Schumacher notably called him “childish and impossible”).

And yet. Despite all of these troubles, and despite the film fan hornet’s nest provoking narrative of “a dark auteur whose vision is taken away by a greed-driven studio,” Batman Forever, 25 years later, is an utter blast of joy. It’s a wild and raucous roller coaster that isn’t afraid to have a sense of humor nor to dive into the inherent darkness of the inherent duality of every character in the picture. It feels both timeless, exactly of its time, and borderline futuristically experimental in every facet of its craft, especially when compared to the muted realism of Nolan’s takes, or the blunt machismo grittiness of Snyder’s takes.

DP Stephen Goldblatt tilts and moves his camera with virtuosic flair, his style evident within the film’s tapestry in ways we simply don’t see in an average MCU entry. Production designer Barbara Ling makes every area of Gotham City a pop art chiaroscuro mash-up popping with neon colors and drenched in moody shadow; every frame is a painting, indeed. As for composer Elliot Goldenthal? The more aggressive, jazzy trumpet lip trills he stuffs in this thing, the more excited I get. There’s a sense of “letting off the leash” with every choice made by every creative crew member, a sense of freedom that comes from their ability (and desire) to be “silly.” It all results in a sterling reminder of what can happen in the sometimes boilerplate world of contemporary blockbuster filmmaking if you let your filmmakers inject their aesthetic personality into the thing; I would dare say that Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever is thus just as singular a blockbuster as George Miller‘s Mad Max: Fury Road! To paraphrase Bonnie Raitt, ya gotta give ’em something to talk about!

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Image via Warner Bros.

There’s plenty to talk about from a screenplay standpoint, too. Lee Batchler, Janet Scott Batchler, and Akiva Goldsman‘s work is eager to make its lack of seriousness known from moment one. After a supremely rad, silent, in media res introduction of Batman in his wonderfully dark and wet cave, Alfred (Michael Gough) timidly asks him, “Can I persuade you to take a sandwich with you, sir?” Batman responds, with almost as deep a growl as Christian Bale‘s oft-imitated throat-burner, “I’ll get drive through.” And look — if you don’t care for these kinds of one-liners, there’s nothing I can say to make you like them. But I find them to be a lovely balloon pop of tension, especially after such rich, luxurious, and show-offy filmmaking. They speak to an inherent truth we’re all thinking, a key cornerstone to the silliest of comedies: Ya gotta call out the unusual thing. And Batman, Gotham City, and all the people around are very, very unusual.

Here’s the thing, though: Calling out the unusual thing and being silly doesn’t mean you can’t also say something serious. In fact, by loading a film’s narrative with blunt call-outs of unusual things, and by loading a film’s aesthetics with bluntly aggressive and attention-grabbing choices, Schumacher and his team get to their serious points with startling efficiency, consistency, and palatability. Brusque, pointed, and prescient call-outs pepper the film’s entertaining screenplay — I gasped out loud when Two-Face admonishes Gotham City’s perpetuation of societal ills by saying that “babies starve, politicians grow fat” among his more traditional “action movie villain one-liners”. Nicole Kidman, having the time of her life leaning into the femme fatale elements of her character, plays a psychologist eager to cut right to the core of Batman/Bruce Wayne’s interior conflicts, delivering delicious and nutritious bon mots like “Let’s just say I could write a helluva paper on a grown man who dresses like a flying rodent.” This duality between silliness and sincerity, between light and shadow, between “a summer and a winter” purposefully permeates throughout Batman Forever‘s narrative, its texturally aggressive filmmaking, and the pieces of psychological commentary it’s trying to say about all of its characters. Batman Forever riding the line of camp and earnestness is a feature, not a bug.

There are precedents for a potential live-action Batman film that can capture some of Forever‘s effective gonzo energy. There is, of course, the wonderful Adam West-starring 1966 Batman, the underrated feature adaptation of the delicious ’60s series. There’s the litany of classic Warner Bros. gangster and noir pictures the film is in direct dialogue with, especially with all of the hammy, genre-drenched archetypes every character showers in. I was also surprised at how much this film reminded me of a Martin Scorsese picture, a combination of the wild aesthetics and performances of Cape Fear with the obsessions of duality and classic gangster movie tropes of The Departed. We’ve also recently gotten blissfully silly and raucous Batman and Batman-adjacent movies like The Lego Batman Movie and Birds of Prey — both of which combine flexing filmmaker craft with narrative-and-character-serving jokes, both of which I’d argue are the most successful Batman big screen projects since The Dark Knight.

The Caped Crusader may live and lurk in a darkened cave. But he still runs out into the world, fully aware of how much he sticks out, using this theatricality as part of his power. Batman Forever understands this at every level of its construction, and 25 years later, could very well be seen as a lovely blueprint for Batman adventures for forever to come. As Kilmer’s Batman says: “I guess we’re all two people. One in daylight, and the one we keep in shadow.”

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Image via Warner Bros.

For more on this film, check out Kilmer talking about why he quit the role right after.

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