There’s a fair amount of controversy and debate about the current slate DC Comics movies, and Batman specifically. Things were different a decade back, when there was nigh-universal acclaim for at least two out of three Christopher Nolan Batman movies.
Before that, though? Most people draw a descending line of quality from 1989’s Batman to 1997’s Batman & Robin. Setting aside debates about whether Batman Returns is better than Batman, most people agree that both of these Burton-directed Batman movies are good, and that the Schumacher movies to follow are not. This, I would argue, is incredibly unfair. Sure Batman & Robin is a wantonly silly movie with bad dialogue, but lest we forget 1995’s Batman Forever? Twenty-five years later, let us not jump down its proverbial throat without giving it a fair shake.
This isn’t so much a trailer as a very slow-paced sizzle reel of outtakes from the movie. Watching it in isolation, removed from the era, it feels leaden and dull. But in the spring of 1995, this movie was the hottest thing running. At least it was to me. I turned 11 in May of that year and had been living that Batman: The Animated Series life since it premiered in 1992. Batman Forever also coincided with my fawning adoration of Jim Carrey’s comedy career. Ace Ventura and The Mask were on heavy rotation in my house; now he was playing my favorite Batman villain?! Surely you jest!
Pretty much every frame of Batman Forever is seared onto my subconscious from endless rewatches on VHS; I’m pretty sure we legitimately broke that tape. This was the first movie I ever paid for myself, my aunt and uncle there for moral support; this soundtrack was the very first CD I ever owned and I listened to it nonstop. What I really wanted to own was the score, turns out, and this is when I learned the difference. I had posters, the novelization. I was even Two-Face for Halloween that year (only because my little brother got to be the Riddler). This was everything to me for about a two-year span.
And because of that, I’ll never fully dislike it, even though it’s not the best. But, having watched it recently, I’d actually contend it’s a better movie than a lot of us snooty critic types might concede. I would contend this movie is the perfect melding of the dour Burton films and the ’66 aesthetic Schumacher wanted to employ. But even if you remove all the campy performances, the bright day-glow scenery, and super weird CGI, you actually have a pretty solid story. It’s there, I promise you! The script is no worse than either 1989’s Batman or 1992’s Batman Returns.
Batman Returns made multiple villains compulsory; that trend continued all the way through the Nolan movies. (Also, spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises, I guess.) But Forever uses its pair the best. Jim Carrey’s Edward Nygma gives us one of the only movie villains to actually challenge the World’s Greatest Detective’s skills. Sure, the riddles are fairly silly and easy to solve, but we finally get a scene of Batman and Alfred breaking down clues. Tommy Lee Jones’ Two-Face is a lot zanier than he is in the comics or cartoon—surely to match Carrey’s manic energy—but he does justice to the character’s base elements.
And while we’re on the topic of cast, I’m gonna go ahead and say it: I think Val Kilmer is good in this movie. Apparently he was a nightmare to work with, but I think he pretty much nails the performance of both Bruce Wayne and Batman. Most actors can only do one effectively. We can’t blame the silly Bat-Nipple suit on him. And I love how this movie actually delves into Bruce Wayne’s psyche with his strange relationship with Nicole Kidman’s Dr. Chase Meridian. A character who only appears in this one movie, she has a Bond Girl-level name, but there’s nothing wrong with wanting to get at Batman and thinking a billionaire playboy is a drip.
If there’s one character I think doesn’t work all that well, it’s Robin. Chris O’Donnell is way too old to play the character, if you ask me, but I appreciate that they decided to make the relationship something other than “Insane rich man risks life of child.” But he always feels like a second thought, a digression in the way of the main storyline. It was a good move to tie his story and fight for revenge to Two-Face, but it never feels like he has anything more to say to him than, “Oh, now I’m Robin so I can kill Two-Face.” And then he doesn’t even get to do that. But he does say, “Holy rusted metal, Batman,” which…you know, fun.
But for as often as Schumacher gets raked for the campiness of his two movies, let us not fail to recognize just how astonishingly gorgeous their art direction is. Batman Forever changed Gotham from a matte painting of an overly-cramped slum to a fully-3D model full of neon lights and insane Gothic architecture. Gotham City feels like a nightmare of Objectivist excess, where design and ingenuity have choked the citizens into poverty. There’s so much more of a story behind this vision for it, and one that makes sense to spawn lavish costumed psychopaths.
Okay, so you’ve got a solid plot, a mostly great roster of actors, and visuals that no other Batman movie can match. But you know what else Batman Forever has? It has this guy:
I don’t know who this man is, but I’m so happy this happened. The shot is, of course, Batman crashing through the ceiling to foil Two-Face’s raid of the Nygmatech launch party. The camera pushes in on Dr. Meridian as her infatuation for the Dark Knight intensifies. But for reasons I’d love to know, an extra—I don’t know this guy! Who’s this guy?!—points and says, “Batman! Aaaah!” And then Schumacher made the line louder, to really draw attention to it. I know a lot of people think he’s saying, “Batman! Yeah!” but he’s clearly just kind of generically shouting. Not, “Look, it’s Batman,” but more like, “I recognize Batman,” and that’s it. Whatever else you may think is wrong about Batman Forever, that moment is perfect.
Nobody here is arguing that Batman Forever is the best version of the character, nor the best movie full stop. It’s got some dumb in it for sure, but it’s always delivered with a knowing nod and a careful hand. It unfairly gets lumped in with Batman & Robin under the “the Schumacher movies are bad” banner, when really it deserves much more credit than that. It’s a sharply plotted, densely populated adventure with outstanding visuals and a killer soundtrack. So what if it gets a little hokey and a lot horny? It was the ’90s!
Featured Image: Warner Bros