Summer of the Bat, Part 3

Appropriately, the third entry in this series looks at the director whose tenure began with the third Batfilm in the 80’s/90’s series. Coincidence? Completely. I hadn’t realized it until just before I wrote the previous sentence. At any rate…

BATMAN FOREVER (1995)

The difficulty in analyzing the 80/90’s Batman series is that it actually feels like two series. Batman Forever is, strictly speaking, a sequel. It has characters and actors that cross over from the earlier two films and it makes references to events from those films. But the tone, the look and the style are such a departure, it might as well be a reboot.

Joel Schumacher takes over the franchise with a clear mandate to make things more light-hearted. As a result, the series’ aesthetic undergoes a rapid change. Schumacher’s tastes run to bright lights, neon colors, drifting smoke and grotesque statues. Whereas the look of Burton’s Batman seemed to be the natural result of a dark and twisted Gotham City, Schumacher’s Batman looks a guy in a black suit at the circus (which at one point, he quite literally is.) The script, originally written by Lee Batchler and Janet Scott-Batchler and rewritten by Akiva Goldsman, is filled with enough puns and crappy jokes to please the average eight year old. The pace, at least, is brisk and Schumacher is a better action director that Burton, so the proceedings are certainly never dull.

Val Kilmer takes over the role of Batman from Michael Keaton. Sadly, in a film that’s supposed to be about duality, Kilmer dispenses with Keaton’s Bruce Wayne/Batman dichotomy and takes the same constipated approach to both sides of the character. On the bright side, the film focuses at least as much on Batman as on the villains, so we get to see a bit more of Michael Gough as Alfred the Butler and Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon. And that’s never a bad thing.

Robin makes his inevitable appearance in the form of Chris O’Donnell. The sticky wicket with Robin is that the character was originally conceived as an 11 year old boy who is orphaned and taken in by Bruce Wayne. But what was considered adding a lovable sidekick in 1940 is considered child endangerment these days. So we get an older Robin with, unfortunately, the same backstory. A few years ago, I watched the Rifftrax take on Batman Forever and when Dick Grayson watches his family die, one of the guys snarks, “I’m an orphan! A 30 year old orphan!” That pretty much sums up the trouble with O’Donnell. The guy is clearly old enough to be out on his own. Tragedy or no, he has no need to be adopted by someone who’s maybe three years older than him. Also, O’Donnell doesn’t bring much to the role. His primary form of emoting is to drop his jaw and breathe heavily (maybe heave the shoulders if he’s being really intense.) He also tries to turn Robin into an edgy punk and it does nothing to make the character more endearing. (O’Donnell’s much more convincing as a well meaning kid getting slapped around by Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman.)

The villains come in the form of Jim Carrey as The Riddler and Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face. The fun here is the very uncomfortable dynamic between them. Jones is accustomed to being the scenery-chewing center of anything he’s in and he clearly seethes with resentment when he can’t come close to matching Carrey in that department. (When Carrey revealed a few years ago that Jones hated working with him, it was a real “knock me over with a feather” moment.) Two-Face is formerly Harvey Dent, a crusading District Attorney who was hit with acid and now sports one of the worst make up jobs in Hollywood history. In a film supposedly about duality, Two-Face should be the perfect villain. However, Jones, like Kilmer, doesn’t bother finding a dichotomy to the character. He simply hams it up and collects a paycheck. Carrey, meanwhile, Ace Venturas his way through the role of The Riddler. While he doesn’t come close to touching Frank Gorshin’s complexity, Carrey fits the role well (who, other than Robin Williams, had the manic energy necessary to pull it off) and fully invests himself in what he’s doing. Any nuance to the character, though, is completely absent. There’s no compulsion to frame the crimes with riddles (it’s almost done as an afterthought) and his only driving force is to get back at Bruce Wayne for rejecting his invention. (Really, man? One rejection letter and you lose your s**t?) Still, Carrey’s performance fits the tone of the film better than just about anyone else’s and it’s typical of what you get here: a thousand miles wide and a foot deep.

Nicole Kidman gets the thankless girlfriend role of Dr. Chase Meridian, a psychiatrist equally attracted to Bruce Wayne and Batman. While I’ve never been a fan of Kidman’s (everything she does seems fairly obvious), she’s the only actor in the film that grasps the concept of duality. Unfortunately, there’s a difference between grasping it and being any good at it. Kidman’s overheated vamping whenever she sees The Bat is fairly embarrassing and not effectively balanced by the cool clinician who deals with Bruce Wayne. In her defense, she’s given very little to work with. The Batman-Dr. Meridian scenes are poorly scripted, awkwardly staged and stiffly acted (particularly on Kilmer’s part.) Dr. Meridian becomes the most forgettable of Bat-girlfriends (at least until Elle McPherson shows up as Julie Madison in the next film.)

(Side Note #1: Dr. Meridian is supposedly attracted to “bad boys”. So if we admit that the attraction is purely shallow, why is she convinced that Batman is good looking? He wears a mask. For all she knows, dude looks like Abe Vigoda under that thing.)

(Side Note #2: Kidman has the unintentionally funniest line in the movie. After visiting the now-hopelessly insane Riddler [who had stumbled on to Bruce Wayne’s secret identity], she approaches Bruce and says, “Your secret’s safe.” Really? With an increasing string of ex-girlfriends who know his darkest secret, you think he’s SAFE?)

In the end, Batman Forever falls into the category of a film that’s easy to mock, but really isn’t that bad. It’s a decidedly lightweight popcorn film that’s a definite comedown from the previous two Batfilms, but still functions as a fast-paced crowd-pleaser. It’s biggest drawback is that all of its worst elements (the campier tone, the lack of character depth and the awkwardness of most interactions) get blown up big as life in the next film. The two tend to be lumped together as “the Schumacher films” even though there’s a marked gap in quality between them. It’s a decent film that’s been damned with faint sequel.

Speaking of which…

BATMAN & ROBIN (1997)

Well, here it is, folks. A film so gawdawful that it torpedoed a heretofore lucrative film franchise, destroyed the reputation of a previously respected director and dealt a mortal blow to the film careers of Chris O’Donnell and Alicia Silverstone (so it wasn’t all bad.) If Burton’s Batman is the Citizen Kane of superhero films, then Batman & Robin is the Heaven’s Gate.

I’ll be honest, when I watched these films for use in this blog entry, I kept a notebook next to me and marked off two columns: one with stuff I liked and the other with stuff I didn’t. The stuff I didn’t like nearly opened a branch notebook, so I’ll quickly dispense with the stuff I liked.

Michael Gough.

That about covers it. Whatever emotional quality the film fumbles toward is largely due to Gough. The best of George Clooney’s work (and there isn’t a lot of “best” to choose from here) are the scenes between Bruce and Alfred. By this point, Gough had worked with three different Batmans and managed to make each of the relationships interesting. In fact, he had been so good through the four films that when Alfred appears to be mortally ill, I was actually hoping he’d die so that Gough would be spared the indignity of appearing in more Joel Schumacher-directed movies.

Over the years, I’ve also found myself defending Arnold Schwarzenegger’s work as Mr. Freeze. It’s not that he’s good (quite the opposite) but I’m not certain he deserves to be vilified to quite the degree he has been. In a sense, his performance is no worse than Tommy Lee Jones in Batman Forever. Both guys are hammy and over the top. But I get the feeling Arnold is actually TRYING to be good, whereas Jones is basically phoning it in. There’s the sentiment that another actor (Patrick Stewart most prominently) would have been better in the role. I’m not going to argue that, but I will say: what actor could have done ANYTHING with lines like “Okay, boys, let’s kick some ice”?

The problem with the film, in general, is that it is so wrong-headed in its approach, you find it hard to believe it was conceived by somebody who DIDN’T suffer a massive brain trauma. Schumacher is utterly tone deaf, in that he wanted to make a modern version of the 60’s Batman without understanding that the 60’s version was something very much of its time and place. Trying to transfer that aesthetic to the 90’s simply wasn’t going to work. During filming, Schumacher kept reminding the cast and crew, “We’re making a cartoon here.” Ironically, an actual cartoon, the animated Batman: Sub-Zero, was a better take on the Mr. Freeze story than this thing. Clearly, Schumacher misread the success of Batman Forever. The audience might have been okay with a lighter tone. It did not want to see Batman turned into a laughing stock.

George Clooney takes over the role of Batman and isn’t any more successful than Val Kilmer in creating an interesting difference between Batman and Bruce Wayne. Nor does he appear to be making much of an effort. Some of my friends have wondered if Clooney would have continued with the role had there been a fifth Batman in this series. But looking at Clooney’s level of disinterest, it seems only a 50/50 proposition that he’s going to make it to the end of THIS film. If a cardboard cutout had suddenly been used instead of Clooney, the difference would have been minimal.

Uma Thurman brings a little femme fatal vamping and almost nothing else to the role of Poison Ivy. The villains are ill-suited for a couple of reasons. First, Poison Ivy wants to save the Earth, Mr. Freeze wants to turn it into a frozen tundra. You’d think those goals are mutually incompatible (and you would be right). Second, once you’ve killed off or rendered insane all of Batman’s best villains, you’re consigned to working with the B-team. Bane was probably the only compelling villain left and here he’s reduced to a grunting, incoherent monster. (Chris Nolan thankfully gave Bane his due 15 years later.)

Alicia Silverstone joins the cast as Batgirl for absolutely no more compelling reason than, “We decided to add Batgirl.” Like most of the cast, Silverstone isn’t given much to work with (“I’ve come to save my uncle Alfred from this demeaning life of servitude”) and, like most of the cast, doesn’t do much with it. She delivers her lines like a court reporter who’s been asked to read back the last question. Chris O’Donnell is back as Robin and is so forgettable, I couldn’t really think of anything to write about him. Contrary to my earlier statement, I can’t be certain that Silverstone’s and O’Donnell’s film careers were killed by this movie, but it certainly couldn’t have helped.

Strangely, two of the prime perpetrators of this garbage got off scot free. Clooney bounced back from this debacle to become one of Hollywood’s most respected leading men and filmmakers. (And to his credit, has never attempted to justify his performance or call it anything but lousy.) Scriptwriter Akiva Goldsman went on to win an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind (which is also a lousy screenplay, but only when you think about it for a minute. Here, the lousiness is front and center.)

The main victim is, rightly, Joel Schumacher. In one fell swoop, Schumacher went from a respected director who had helmed both taut thrillers (A Time to Kill, The Client, Falling Down) and quirky action flicks (The Lost Boys, Flatliners) to the Guy Who Put Nipples on the Batsuit. His time as an A-list director came to a screeching halt and his career never recovered.

For a while, it looked like the Batfilms were destined to go the same way. Thankfully, Christopher Nolan was able to reboot the series after an 8 year break. I always thought it was a strange decision to (temporarily) end the series with this film rather than simply fire Schumacher and go with another director. Batman and Robin drew 42 million dollars in its opening weekend and dropped off sharply when word of mouth went around. To me, that proves that Batman still had box office appeal, but people didn’t want to see a crappy movie. The public didn’t need a temporary break from Batman so much as Batman needed a permanent break from Joel Schumacher.

COMING IN PART FOUR: BATMAN BEGINS….AGAIN.

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