What the hell were any of us thinking making the terrible Batman Forever a huge hit?

Photo: Ralph Nelson/Warner Bros. (Getty Images)
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You can see how it happened. The executives at Warner Bros. didn’t set out to destroy the Batman mythos or to make unwatchably shitty Batman movies that would put both the character and the superhero movie genre at large into a state of prolonged stasis. They just wanted a hit. Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, from 1992, had been a hit, but it hadn’t been enough of a hit. The movie made significantly less money than Burton’s original Batman, and parents’ groups complained about its dank, depraved tone. (Parents’ groups complained about everything back then, and big film studios, more often than not, listened.) In Joel Schumacher, Warner found someone who might plausibly be able to keep some of Burton’s mythic, expressionist vibe intact but who would be primarily concerned with making accessible, lucrative entertainments.

Schumacher had started out as a costume designer on movies like Woody Allen’s Sleeper, so he’d clearly be comfortable with the pageantry and theatricality that a superhero movie required. He claimed that he’d grown up with comics. And as a director, he’d made plenty of movies—The Lost Boys, Flatliners, Falling Down—that were messy and often stupid and incoherent but also visually stylish. His movies were about sensation. He’d play ball, and he’d make something that was fun to look at.

And it worked! It’s crazy to think about it now, but Batman Forever, Schumacher’s first stab at the character, was generally considered to be a big success. It definitely made money, more than $300 million worldwide. It out-earned Batman Returns and ended the year as one of the highest grossers. Reviews were mixed, but reviews had been mixed for Batman Returns, too. And anyway, this was the pre-Rotten Tomatoes era; reviews were just not a part of the calculus for studios. Audiences seemed to like the movie well enough. Kids were entertained. Toys were sold. And those same executives presumably high-fived one another before green-lighting another Schumacher sequel.

I saw Batman Forever. I paid money, and when the movie was over, I did not feel like I’d thrown away either my money or time. I don’t remember too much of my reaction to the movie, but I definitely walked out of the theater thinking the movie was fine. Pretty good, even. I liked Jim Carrey, who’d just become a supernova movie star specifically by targeting people in my exact demographic. I liked Drew Barrymore, who gave a whole lot of presence to a role that basically could’ve been played by a mannequin. I liked the soundtrack, which had PJ Harvey and Method Man and “Kiss From A Rose.” (That those songs didn’t fit together, and that they didn’t actually appear in the movie, didn’t bother me. I’d been conditioned by soundtrack-album tracklist coolness level, the same way I imagine younger people today are conditioned by music-festival posters.) I liked the part where the helicopter crashed into the Statue Of Liberty’s face.

What the hell was I thinking? What were any of us thinking? I was 15, old enough to know better. And yet I, along with untold millions of other Americans, plunked down summer-job money to see a movie that regarded both me and its own hero with absolute, all-consuming contempt. Watching Batman Forever today, it’s a fucking nightmare, a jarringly irritating pileup of blockbuster tropes and frantic mugging that doesn’t succeed on any level whatsoever. It has a star who clearly wishes he were somewhere else, a sidekick whose idea of rebelliousness is to wear an earring and to call the butler Alfred “Al,” a love interest who’s supposed to be a brilliant psychologist but whose role is basically limited to breathing heavily and putting her hand on her chest, and two villains who seem to be locked in a mortal struggle to see who can overact most obnoxiously. Summer blockbusters were not in a great place in the mid-’90s, but were they this bad? Were things so bleak that I could really pay money to see this oozing sore of a movie, and just shrug and think “good enough”? I guess so!

In a lot of ways, Schumacher’s version of Batman evokes the Burton movies. The sets are grand and dark and full of gothic statues, but Schumacher’s Gotham City is cleaner and brighter and shittier. He throws neon-pink and slime-green lights and projections all over everything, making it look distinctly Broadway. The music recalls Danny Elfman’s scores for the Burton movies, but without the sweep or majesty. It’s clearly meant to be in continuity with the Burton movies; Michael Gough and Pat Hingle return as, respectively, Alfred and Commissioner Gordon, while Nicole Kidman’s hilariously named Dr. Chase Meridian makes reference to the Catwoman. (Even so, Batman apparently has no problem taking a date to a circus, even after fighting an evil clown in one movie and a circus-themed gang in another.) But while Batman Forever has all the silliness of the Burton movies—more of it, even—it has none of the grandly ridiculous silent-film panache.

A lot of the problem is Val Kilmer. Kilmer could’ve been a good Batman. He’s probably the foxiest actor who’s ever taken the role, and when correctly deployed, he had an icy weirdo charisma that made him stand out. (The same year that Batman Forever came out, Kilmer was excellent in Heat.) But in Batman Forever, Kilmer looks cold and dead. He reportedly didn’t get along with Schumacher, and he put absolutely nothing into the role. Kilmer’s studious blankness almost works as an artistic choice unto itself. There’s a funny moment where Kidman tells Kilmer that he looks sad, and he turns to her, looking exactly the same as he’s looked for the entire rest of the movie.

Kilmer has no chemistry with Kidman, who at least is game enough to attempt the movie’s version of sexy repartee. And he has even less with Chris O’Donnell, as the newly introduced sidekick Robin. O’Donnell brings a whole new set of problems. His origin story checks out; the scenes of him with his acrobat family are fun, and Two-Face’s attack on the circus might be the movie’s best-shot sequence. But the way O’Donnell processes trauma is to act like a 90210-styled brat. He wears an earring and enthuses about vintage motorcycles, and that’s supposed to tell us all we need to know about the kid. And the part where he joyrides in the stolen Batmobile, blasting Offspring and doing a fake Mexican accent for no reason, is everything wrong with this movie in a nutshell.

And that’s before we even get to the villains. Tommy Lee Jones had just won an Oscar for his masterful portrayal of the no-bullshit antagonist cop in The Fugitive. A better movie could’ve found chilling use for his brisk efficiency and folksy authority. Instead, Batman Forever opts to turn him into a cackling lunatic. It’s like Jones watched Jack Nicholson in the first Batman movie and decided to see if he could do all the exact same things as that performance, except even more so. He gibbers and howls and lets loose with peals of maniacal laughter and speaks entirely in broad catchphrases. He has two girlfriends, Drew Barrymore and Debi Mazar, who are supposed to represent the duality of light and dark, or something. He’s supposed to represent that same duality, but the movie never gets that across in any coherent way. He’s just one more force for randomized, chaotic evil, doing bad stuff because the movie needs someone who does bad stuff. His makeup isn’t chilling, either. It’s just ass-ugly.

But if Jones were trying to seize the movie through the sheer force of his personality, he never had a chance, not while circa-1995 Jim Carrey was there. Carrey played The Riddler, a role originally written for Robin Williams. Screenwriter Lee Batchler has said that the Carrey version of the character was “a little more straight” than what he’d had in mind for Williams, which is terrifying to contemplate. Because Carrey never bothers to act; he just hyperactively mugs his way through the movie. Even before transforming into a supervillain, Carrey is a rubberized gag machine. There’s a decent chance that he ad-libbed his entire role, barking out giddy non sequiturs (“Spank me!” “Joy-gasm!”) that I think are supposed to function as jokes. But they’re not funny. None of it is funny. I don’t know why I, along with the rest of America’s 15-year-old boy population, ever thought this guy was funny, other than maybe the lingering Fire Marshall Bill goodwill. (He’s good at twirling a cane, at least.) Jones, it’s worth mentioning, hated Carrey. Carrey has talked about how Jones told him, to his face, that he hated him. And when Carrey asked why Jones hated him, Jones simply answered, “I cannot sanction your buffoonery”—a line better crafted than anything in the Batman Forever script.

No writing could’ve saved that Carrey performance, but the writing in Batman Forever really is fucking appalling. Batchler and co-writers Janet Scott Batchler and Akiva Goldsman clearly thought they had things to say about Batman’s duality, but that only manifested in characters constantly mentioning that duality. It never adds up to anything. Nothing adds up to anything. Bruce Wayne, with no buildup or foreshadowing, suddenly decides to quit being Batman just because Nicole Kidman likes him. He implies over and over that he’s Batman before this supposedly brilliant psychologist finally figures it out. The Riddler’s dastardly plan to steal everyone’s brainwaves or whatever fails because he kidnaps Batman and brings him to his lair without making sure that his brainwave-stealing machine is Batarang-proof. The Riddler sneaks into the Batcave and blows up everything he can find but somehow misses the enormous plane in there. Schumacher and the writers couldn’t even figure out a way to end the movie, so they just closed on a shot of Batman and Robin running at the camera in slow motion.

And we all thought this was fine. It’s remarkable that the superhero movie managed to recover from this era, that it became a world-dominating force. Because we really had to make it through some shit to get to where we are now.

Other notable 1995 superhero movies: The summer’s other comic book offering was a movie every bit as gallingly dumb as Batman Forever. Judge Dredd, the great hard-boiled British dystopian comic book series, was transformed into a witless vehicle for post-relevance Sylvester Stallone. The Stallone movie understands exactly none of what makes the Dredd character work. He shows emotion, he takes off his helmet, he learns his own origin story, and he falls in love, all while saving Mega-City 1 from a parade of indistinguishable Euro-accented bad guys, one of whom, I guess, is supposed to be his brother? Rob Schneider appears in comic relief form, and there’s also a big robot with guns for fists. Don’t watch this movie.

The straight-to-video sequel Darkman II: The Return Of Durant doesn’t try especially hard to live up to its predecessor. Director Sam Raimi and stars Liam Neeson and Frances McDormand don’t return, but we do get Larry Drake reprising his role as Durant, the first movie’s secondary villain who very much got killed. We also get Darkman finding a dead friend and then staring up at the camera and screaming Durant’s name.

Roger Corman produced the intentionally campy made-for-Showtime movie Black Scorpion, in which the former model Joan Severance plays a detective who becomes a costumed vigilante to avenge the murder of her father. The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers series got its own cash-in movie, which probably falls into the superhero genre. And while none of them were exactly superhero movies, Tank Girl, Crying Freeman, and Tales From The Crypt: Demon Knight all served, in one way or another, as comic book adaptations.

Next time: The Phantom represents Hollywood’s final attempt to turn a pulp-era hero into multiplex fodder, and maybe also to turn Billy Zane into anything other than a cackling villain.