Image: Warner Bros.

By 1995 the Batman movie franchise was on life support. Although Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman was well received by both critics and audiences, 1992’s Batman Returns proved divisive. The movie still did well, but in comparison to its zeitgeist-defining predecessor it was less successful by every metric, pulling in “only” $266 million at the worldwide box office, next to the original’s $411 million. This disappointing performance was generally laid at Burton’s feet. The sequel was strangely both too dark and too campy, more explicit in terms of both sex and violence than the original, and even less concerned with paying lip service to the source material.

A reset was in order. Neither Burton nor Warner Bros. were interested in returning for another sequel together. There was resistance to the idea of even making another Batman movie. But there were many at Warner Bros. who still believed in Batman, or at least, they believed in Batman’s ability to sell toys. Sewer mutant Penguin and BDSM Catwoman notwithstanding, it was believed that there was still room in the world for a movie that could present a more family-friendly version of Batman to the world at large, the better to sell toys and Happy Meals.

The man chosen to direct the third Batman film was Joel Schumacher, a journeyman director then on something of a roll, coming fresh off a series of relatively inexpensive mid-budget films that performed well both critically and commercially: 1994’s John Grisham adaptation The Client, 1993’s Falling Down, 1991’s Dying Young, and 1990’s Flatliners all made considerable returns on their relatively small investments. His early career as a director was defined by hits like Brat Pack drama St. Elmo’s Fire and the enduring teen-vampire saga The Lost Boys. Schumacher was far from a temperamental auteur. With experience working in a wide variety of commercial genres, he was a smart choice for a company searching for a more pliable, versatile, and consistent figure than the brooding Burton.

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The results succeeded better than they could have expected. While still not approaching the commercial heights of Burton’s first, Schumacher’s entry was nevertheless domestically the second-highest grossing film of 1995, coming in just behind Toy Story. However, it is inarguable that despite its success Batman Forever has left the smallest footprint of the first four modern Batman films. Burton’s two entries remain popular, and Schumacher’s time on the series is often dismissed with reference to the reviled Batman & Robin, which amplified Batman Forever’s already toyetic atmosphere to ludicrous extremes. And while a few brave souls in the last 20 years have dared to suggest that the audaciously weird Batman & Robin may deserve a more nuanced reevaluation, there has been no similar call to rediscover the deeply mediocre Forever.

To be blunt, Batman Forever is not an overlooked gem. Many massively popular movies effectively disappear after having left little impact on the world, and it’s to be expected that in the history of blockbuster filmmaking there are a lot more examples of fleetingly popular films, such as Batman Forever, than genuine classics, such as Toy Story. It’s interesting inasmuch as it’s a weird and not completely on-model Batman film, offering in its own way as liberal an interpretation of the central character as Burton’s previous entry did for Batman’s second- and third-most popular villains. But what is most striking about Batman Forever after 21 years is the degree to which it reflects the era it was made. Both of Burton’s films—as with much of Burton’s work—feel untethered in time, contemporary in some superficial ways but otherwise timeless. Batman Forever, on the other hand, has Jim Carrey in a spangled unitard flirting with Val Kilmer while Nicole Kidman’s life hangs in the balance. The ’90s had arrived.

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The author includes this photo as proof that a physical copy was purchased for this article.

Hold Me, Thrill Me

Of all the bits of merchandise flotsam spawned by the film, none seem as strange in hindsight as the soundtrack album. This is not to be confused with the original score by Elliot Goldenthal. That is a perfectly serviceable score that, while never approaching the heights of Danny Elfman’s excellent work for the two previous entries, manages a decent job of matching Schumacher’s brighter tone. Batman Forever [Music From And Inspired By The Motion Picture] dropped on May 23, 1995, a few weeks in advance of the mid-June release of the film. It was quite successful. There is a good chance that a used record store will have a copy of the album for $2 or less.

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This is a puzzling package only partly because most of these songs do not appear in the movie. Anyone who ever bought a Music From And Inspired By record knows how this works: Maybe a few of these songs appeared in the film, in some truncated or altered form (for the record, five out of 14 of the tracks on the Batman Forever soundtrack album appear in the movie). Maybe one or two of these songs were popular singles, with music videos built around clips from the film. If the soundtrack compilers were extraordinarily lucky, one of these songs might even have gone on to become massively huge, eventually outstripping its connection to the original film as it became one of the biggest hits of the decades.

Anyone who came of age during the era of the CD well remembers the agony of paying $15 or more for a full-length CD that actually only contained two or three listenable tracks—if you were lucky. The Music From And Inspired By album was a logical outcome of this kind of bait-and-switch retail model. The rules were simple: Assemble a mix filled with a dozen or more completely unrelated songs, some of which (but by no means all) needed to maintain some tangential connection to a popular film, push the tracks by the highest-profile artists as singles, and wait for the money to roll in as millions of people rush out to buy a glorified sampler.

But what an interesting sampler! Here’s the track listing:

1. U2 – “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me”

2. PJ Harvey – “One Time Too Many”

3. Brandy – “Where Are You Now?”

4. Seal – “Kiss From A Rose”

5. Massive Attack With Tracey Thorn – “The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game” (Smokey Robinson cover)

6. Eddi Reader – “Nobody Lives Without Love”

7. Mazzy Star – “Tell Me Now”

8. The Offspring – “Smash It Up” (The Damned cover)

9. Nick Cave – “There Is A Light”

10. Method Man – “The Riddler”

11. Michael Hutchence – “The Passenger” (Iggy Pop cover)

12. The Devlins – “Crossing The River”

13. Sunny Day Real Estate – “8”

14. The Flaming Lips – “Bad Days”

Under other circumstances, any compilation stuffed with peak mid-’90s work by the likes of PJ Harvey, Massive Attack, Mazzy Star, Nick Cave, and The Flaming Lips—all then at or near the height of their powers and in the middle of the fertile creative periods that would define their careers—would be memorable. But all those great critical-darling acts were, from the perspective of the men and women compiling the album, essentially filler next to the singles by U2, Brandy, and Seal.

U2’s “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” was an obvious attempt to replicate the James Bond model of commissioning an official theme song for each film. This lasted one more movie, when Smashing Pumpkins produced “The End Is The Beginning Is The End” for Batman & Robin. (When Christopher Nolan resurrected the franchise in 2005, the practice was not continued.) The Latin-flavored “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” is a strange song, far more a product of U2’s mid-career crisis than any actual desire to produce a song for a Batman movie. One of two singles released between 1993’s eccentric Zooropa and 1997’s underwhelming Pop (the other being the oddball Pavarotti collaboration “Miss Sarajevo,” recorded with Brian Eno under the pseudonym Passengers), it’s as close to paint-by-numbers as the band could get in the mid-’90s, a period in which the band was fully committed to sounding like every other kind of band but themselves. It was a moderate success, and the video featured the band performing in Gotham City while Bono fought The Fly, his alter ego from their Zoo TV Tour. But ultimately it was little more than a mediocre U2 song, a tepid callback to the glam sound of Achtung Baby that probably deserved its original fate as a scrap from the Zooropa sessions.

Fresh off the success of her 1994 self-titled debut album, Brandy’s contribution “Where Are You Now?” is a Lenny Kravitz song that sticks out in the context of the rest of the CD, a stripped-down example of mid-’90s R&B with a throwback ’70s-funk feel. It was released as the album’s fourth single, but by then the album had already spawned one incredibly popular R&B crossover hit, and was unlikely to hit twice in the same spot.

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Although now he’s an institution, in 1995 Method Man was still practically a kid with only one solo album to his name, 1994’s Tical. As with almost all of the Wu-Tang Clan’s early solo work, “The Riddler” is a RZA production that stands of a piece with the group’s grimy aesthetic. As the song actually mentions the titular villain, it’s one of the few tracks on the album that references the movie, and hearing Method Man rapping about meeting Batman is, in hindsight, both incredibly corny and also still quite on-brand considering the comic-book themes that run throughout much of the Wu-Tang Clan’s work both as a group and as solo artists. It’s the only rap track here, and like Brandy’s “Where Are You Now?” it sits uneasily with much of the rest of the album.

Anyone who bought the album on the virtue of Brandy or Method Man could be forgiven for scratching their heads at the inclusion of tracks by bratty pop-punkers the The Offspring or emo pioneers Sunny Day Real Estate. (Obviously the same goes for anyone who bought the album on the strength of Sunny Day Real Estate’s 1994 debut Diary and was rewarded for their devotion with Michael Hutchence’s bizarre cover of Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger.”) The Offspring were coming off their 1994 breakthrough, Smash, and tracks such as “Self Esteem” and “Come Out And Play” were still in rotation. “Smash It Up” was the soundtrack’s fifth single and received only moderate airplay.

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However, the success of the album—and its place in music history—was secured by the inclusion of Seal’s “Kiss From A Rose.” Although it wasn’t a new song, as it had already been released on Seal’s self-titled second album in 1994, the first attempt to release the song had stalled. Batman Forever came out almost a year after the song’s original release, but here the second time was the charm.

A kiss from a rose on the gray

Batman Forever doesn’t quite work as a movie for a number of reasons. In the first place, both villains are horrible: Tommy Lee Jones accepted the role because his son talked him into it, and is clearly pained by every moment spent in front of the camera under heavy makeup as Two-Face. Jim Carrey, however, represented a stroke of luck for the film’s producers. Signed to the film soon after his breakout in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Carrey quickly followed that film with the massively successful career-making one-two of The Mask and Dumb And Dumber. There was no one hotter than Jim Carrey in 1995, and much of the film’s success can be laid at his feet. The problem is that, much as Tommy Lee Jones’ casting might make sense on paper, in practice the results were loud, dumb, and singularly unpleasant.

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Where the movie partially redeems itself is, unusually, the central love story between Bruce Wayne and psychologist Chase Meridian, played by Kidman at the height of her popularity. Romance in Batman stories is usually doomed, perverse, or both, such as the Keaton Batman’s relationship with Pfeiffer’s Catwoman in Batman Returns. Forever upended the audience’s expectations that Batman should be a damaged loner by making the movie’s main driver be Batman’s desire to construct a new nuclear family to replace the one he lost when he was a child: He ends the movie in a committed relationship with Meridian, “raising” the newly orphaned Dick Grayson as Robin. Batman & Robin has to write Meridian out before the film even begins, because otherwise the idea of a healthy and happy Batman threatens to jeopardize the hero’s very existence. By psychoanalyzing Batman and seducing Bruce Wayne (surely a professional conflict?) Chase Meridian represents an existential threat to Batman, whose rationale collapses the moment he actually gets over his primal trauma and becomes a psychologically whole adult.

Officially the lowest point in Tommy Lee Jones’ career and life. (Screenshot: Batman Forever)

Given that the movie was unusually romantic, it makes sense that the soundtrack’s breakout hit would be one of the decade’s most memorable romantic ballads. Schumacher personally fought for the song’s inclusion on the soundtrack, although it was ultimately cut from the film, appearing only in the final seconds of the closing credits. The video, directed by Schumacher, is a better version of Batman Forever than the movie itself. It barely features the villains, for one, and presents a tight focus on the romance between Wayne and Meridian. Although it wasn’t written for the film, it’s an oddly perfect fit for a Batman-themed love song: You can easily imagine Batman humming supremely goth lyrics such as “There used to be a gray tower alone on the sea / You became the light on the dark side of me” while puttering around the Batcave on a lonely night.

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Although Seal needed Batman Forever to catapult the song back onto the radio, the song soon became much larger than the film. It won three Grammys in 1996, for Record Of The Year, Song Of The Year, and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. It entered cultural ubiquity in a way few songs do, and can still be heard playing over the loudspeakers at your nearest CVS. Anyone doubting the song’s continuing potency need only check out the critically lauded first season of American Crime Story, where the song was used to devastating effect in the episode “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.”

Bad Days

Batman Forever is not a great film, and is probably the least memorable of the nine live-action feature films that have been made with the character. The film is interesting largely for its status as a pure artifact of the 1990s. With nostalgia for that decade in full bloom (as evidenced by the success of the first season of the aforementioned American Crime Story), few films capture the spirit of the times quite so well. It’s difficult to imagine two actors less suited to share the screen than Carrey and Jones, for instance, and yet they were both huge in 1995. Kilmer was a compromise pick after Keaton bowed out and a number of other actors declined, but a canny one given the success of 1993’s Tombstone. None of this worked, and the result was a train wreck, but people loved it.

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The Batman Forever soundtrack is interesting for much the same reason: Very little thought has been given to the album as a cohesive or coherent unit, but a great deal of effort has been exerted to gather up some of the most popular artists of the day (and, er, The Devlins) for the purpose of piggybacking on the release of a Batman movie made for the express purpose of selling Happy Meals. In 2016 Batman Forever is old enough to drink, and certainly the album sounds drunk, careening between half a dozen different genres with the reckless confidence of the world’s worst party DJ. That so many of these tracks are good is pure gravy, that a few of them are awful is only to be expected.

They still make albums like this, cobbled together from spare parts left around the studio offices and pressed together under the logo of a popular movie, but not very often. Most superhero films, especially, eschew the Music From And Inspired By The Motion Picture strategy that worked so well for Forever and even Batman & Robin (the well-curated soundtrack of which was far better received than the movie itself). These types of projects skew younger now, with tweens and teens buying recent successful soundtrack albums released for movies like The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1 and Fifty Shades Of Grey. Superhero movies are serious business now, with every fight seemingly tailor-made to be accompanied by Barber’s Adagio For Strings. The exception of a film like Guardians Of The Galaxy, whose pop-music score was crucial to its success, was still premised on older songs that could be repackaged, not newer material.

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The only real coherent theme to be found across these 14 disparate tracks is an idea that still exists in the popular imagination about the ’90s themselves. The ’90s were defined at least partly by the breaking down of barriers between previously separated notions of genre, and the generic hodgepodge on display here, while jarring and seemingly nonsensical, actually makes sense as a fair approximation of an attempt to appeal to as many audiences as possible without actually satisfying any of them. This was a time when the marketing arm of a multinational entertainment conglomerate could flex its gargantuan promotional budget and accidentally end up producing one of the era’s most representative musical artifacts. Those were the days.