Thursday 6 October 2011

Batman Forever (1995)


Eager to keep the success of the Batman films going, Warner Bros. began the process of developing a third title. However, with the third film, there was a massive shake-up in how the films were made. Tim Burton was replaced as director by Joel Schumacher, though he did stay on as producer; Michael Keaton left the lead role, which was filled by Val Kilmer; the writing team was completely changed; new villains were brought in; and the whole tone and look of the franchise was shifted to something much different to the previous two. The reaction to the film was… mixed, with a bit more emphasis on dislike. As you’d expect, I’ll look at how these changes came to be before I talk about what the result was.

Batman (Val Kilmer) has his hands full fighting the criminal escapades of Harvey ‘Two-Face’ Dent (Tommy Lee Jones), former Gotham D.A. who blames the hero for the disfigurement that split his face and personality. Meanwhile, Edward Nygma (Jim Carrey), an inventor at Wayne Enterprises obsessed with Bruce Wayne, snaps after having his work shut down and begins leaving riddles his former boss. Both Two-Face and The Riddler team up to kill Batman and ruin Bruce Wayne. Added to this are the attentions of psychologist with a thing for Batman, Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman), and Dick Grayson (Chris O’Donnell), an acrobat Bruce Wayne takes in after his parents are killed by Two-Face, but who discovers his secret.

Beyond the concerns of many critics and fans that didn’t like the first two films, there was a particular group whose complaints were heard: Parents. Obviously not all parents, but specifically those who objected the darkness of the previous films, saying that they were unable to take their children to see such films. Warner Bros., who generally believed the darkness of Batman Returns to be the reason it under-performed, took their comments on board because this was a firm chance for them to respond directly to audience opinion and make the film more marketable, opening the films up to a younger audience and with an eye on more lucrative and widespread opportunities in the toy market. The decision for these changes to take effect was handed down from on high, which then caused a major reshuffle in the production line-up. As you may have read in the last review, Burton was hesitant about doing even a second film, and was a bit more so for a third time out. What effectively sealed his leaving the director’s chair was the mandate to lighten things up, make them more colourful, more approachable for a younger audience. Although he has done some work, before and since, that had a campy feel to it, he was unwilling to make these changes to the world he had established and vacated the position, although he stayed with the project as a producer. To fill the role, Warner Bros. hired Joel Schumacher, whose most recent films (Falling Down and The Client) had done well, and who agreed to drastically shift the overall tone and feel of the project.

When Schumacher came on board, he brought with him Akiva Goldsman, the primary writer of his most recent adapted work The Client. Goldsman teamed with Lee Batchler and Janet Scott-Batchler, who had been brought on earlier to develop a story. Originally, when Burton was still considered the director of the project, the Riddler was the only villain in the film, but when Schumacher came on board, he chose to add Two-Face to the mix. It was also decided to finally introduce Robin to the films. When Tim Burton stepped back, Danny Elfman also did not return, in favour of Elliot Goldenthal. Director of photography duties were also handed to Stephen Goldblatt.

The casting also had a major shake. When Michael Keaton learned that such major changes were to be made to the new film, he decided to leave the project completely (though there were rumours that he asked for a major pay raise, and was turned down). This led to the casting of Val Kilmer, still riding the plaudits from his work as Doc Holliday in Tombstone. In fact, most of the roles were filled by people who were very hot property at the time, like Chris O’Donnell, Nicole Kidman, Jim Carrey, and Tommy Lee Jones, who had also worked on The Client with Schumacher.

Well, those were the most significant changes to the production. How did they fare?

There’s a word that comes up in Batman Forever at least three times, used by a different character each time. A word that is never used in either Batman or Batman Returns. A word that goes a long way to explaining a lot about the approach to this project as opposed to the other two. The word is “Superhero”. With that word, there comes a world of implication, of imagery, an expectation of a particular sensibility that can only be described as “comic booky”. The visualisation, the styling, the manner of how the characters act and relate is all drawn from this one word and everything that runs through it. What’s even more strange is that it seems like the word has been introduced into the series’ vocabulary not just to take advantage of audience expectations, but also to mock and satirise it. When Grayson claims to be Batman and tries to save a girl from a gang, she says to him, “Doesn’t Batman ever kiss the girl?” They kiss, the music swells in a rather insincere manner and then the fight continues. They’ve purposely acknowledged the whole superhero thing just so they can make fun of it, and that just leaves a bad taste behind.

The story has returned to a campy, over the top manner that the TV series adopted in the 1960s and that the previous films actively tried to distance themselves from. The primary narrative drive comes from the Riddler building a giant “box” through which he can steal people’s thoughts, memories and ideas. Right away, this is a million miles away from the more realistic concerns of the Joker, who just wanted to kill people, and the Penguin, who wanted to steal an election and rise to power. And whilst we’re talking about this, over how long a period does this film take place? It would take a very long time for Edward Nygma to build his company, manufacture products, have them in every household, build his giant island complete with death-traps… Seriously, there’s only one mention as to what time of year one particular scene occurs (Halloween), but even that’s just a trite plot device to get the Riddler and Two-Face into Wayne Manor. The part of teaming the Riddler and Two-Face to kill Batman itself is really just an excuse for destructive action scenes. Then there’s Bruce Wayne’s remarkably unsubtle psychological breaks, which have him randomly spouting lines about his parents being murdered right in front of him and how he promised it would never happen to anyone again and how he wanted to strike fear into the hearts of blah blah blah blah blah… good lord. Then there’s the convenient arrival in town of a hot psychologist with an interest in Batman. The actual introduction of Dick Grayson is probably the plotline most competently handled, although the manner in which he finds out Bruce Wayne’s secret and becomes Robin is hamfisted nonsense.

There’s also a use of the most ridiculous pop psychology. Psychological terms like “neuroses” and “scarred psyche” and “alternate personality” are dropped in every now and then to make it seem like it all makes sense, explaining the careful construction of each character’s motivation, but it’s all just surface. A moment like when Wayne sees a bat in a Rorschach test is played to have way more significance than it actually does. Even then, this notion of split identity, with Two-Face and Batman and Chase and that little sleep doll thing, was territory already covered by Batman Returns, and much better.

The characters themselves have simply become caricatures. Batman is still brooding, but he’s no longer the darkly introspective type. He has suddenly developed a desire to openly discuss his traumatic past. This immediately sets itself in opposition to the character of the first two films. In Keaton’s Bruce Wayne/Batman, he was a fairly dark guy, but he at least owned his own trauma and used it to drive him forward. Here, he seems to be just looking for an excuse to tell someone about it. He’s also been given more one-liners to make it more fun for the youngsters (“Can I persuade you to take a sandwich with you, sir?” “I’ll get drive-thru.”). Really, who is this guy? As it is, Val Kilmer does his job perfectly adequately, but that’s part of the problem. He portrays Bruce Wayne as written, but nothing more. He delivers the one-liners well, gets the humour and holds a nice charm, but he’s always much more convincing as Bruce Wayne than Batman, mainly because he’s never really a threatening presence, which is what Batman is meant to be.

For someone who is meant to be the living embodiment of split personality, Two-Face doesn’t have one personality, let alone two. He’s meant to be driven by revenge, but controlled by the whims of chance, hence the constant flipping of a coin, however this is just adopted as an affect rather than a compulsion. There’s a moment where he sits on a couch, flipping the coin to see if he will shoot Bruce Wayne or not. He flips; it lands on the good side. Annoyed by this, he continues to do it until he gets the bad side, where he then promptly pulls out his gun and shoots… this isn’t Two-Face. When the Riddler tells him that he has a “serious impulse control problem”, this is a clear indication that the writers have fundamentally misunderstood the character. Two-Face has supreme impulse control - the coin always makes the decision; he just acts on what it tells him, regardless of what happens. And Tommy Lee Jones is quite bad, spending the whole movie over-acting to the point of aneurysm, desperately chasing Jack Nicholson’s show in Batman. For such a usually bankable actor, this is a far cry from what we know he can do.

The Riddler is also one that has been rather misrepresented. He begins the film in a manner that’s rather appropriate: highly intelligent, massive ego, huge inferiority complex. However, things change as the film continues. Part of the Riddler’s personality was always that he believed he was smarter than everyone else and sought to prove it over and over again, hence all the puzzles. For his plan to revolve around making himself more intelligent by stealing other people’s minds is ridiculously over the top and somewhat contrary to his regular modus operandi. What’s even stranger is how he decides on his Riddler persona. When he first uses his machine on his supervisor and discovers its brain-enhancing power, he yells at him “Riddle me this!”… okay, fair enough. After this, he leaves two separate riddles for Bruce Wayne, each in envelopes adorned with a question mark… once again, okay. However, it’s only after this that he decides on both his costume and name. Why wasn’t that the first thing he thought of? Why did he consider the Puzzler (dressed in crossword robes), the Gamester (dressed as a giant chess piece) and Captain Kill (dressed in army fatigues) before deciding to name himself after the very puzzle he has already used and dressing like the question mark-covered figure that sits in his apartment and workstation? It’s bizarre. Jim Carrey does at least give you something to watch without being too grating, though that line is crossed a few times.

Dick Grayson is… well, he’s okay actually. His motivation is clear, and can at least be both sympathetic and a bit of dick. He’s impulsive, brave, strong-willed, though often infuriating in his ability to not think things through… so, he’s a pretty decent portrait of a young man with vengeance on his mind. It’s rather a shame that he never has any decent moments after actually putting on the Robin costume. Seriously, go and watch it. Before he gets his new duds and cape, he’s adept and handy; afterwards, he makes a bad joke, crashes a boat, gets beaten, kidnapped and then rescued. Weird, isn’t it? Chris O’Donnell’s performance is actually pretty well suited to the brash young man, though this does mean he becomes kind of an ass to the audience.

And Dr. Chase Meridian is, well, she’s quite fickle and a bit of a tramp. Yes, she’s smart because she’s a doctor and she’s tough because she knocks hell out of punch bag in her office, but the most prominent personality trait that shines through is that she’s really quite promiscuous and indecisive. She doesn’t know if she wants Batman or Bruce Wayne, generally deciding she wants to be with the one who isn’t there. And Kidman looks very pretty… that’s about all you can say.

Joel Schumacher’s handling of the film, though no doubt in keeping with what Warner Bros. wanted (i.e. an enormous toy advert), is such a visual and aural assault that it’s difficult to think of where to start. Put in the most all-encompassing terms, it all looks like a cartoon. The colours are all neons and piercing lights, so it’s like Gotham has relocated itself to the main dance floor of a nightclub; action scenes, and some regular ones, are filled with inane stings and sound effects, like tings and squelches and boings; and the character design is ludicrous. One of the most regularly decried decisions was to put nipples on the Batsuit, and it’s a fair complaint. Schumacher said that he wanted to give the suit a more “anatomical” look, which is all well and good but makes no sense in the practicality of the film world. Imagine the conversation between Bruce and Alfred on the reality of that choice:
            Bruce: Alfred, I’ve decided I want nipples on the Batsuit.
            Alfred: What for, sir?
            Bruce: I want it to look more anatomical.
            Alfred: Well, Master Wayne, in that case, how about I put a bellybutton on it,
            Bruce: Well, I…
            Alfred: And perhaps some eyebrows on the face? And some people ears?
How about a birthmark for good measure? You’re meant to be a symbol of
fear to the criminal underworld, not a freaking go-go dancer. You tossbag.

The same goes for the decision to give Robin an earring to “make him look hip.” Okay, kids may think he looks like a rebel, but all it takes is one evildoer to rip the thing off in a fight and he’ll be in trouble. Again, it’s a decision that holds little practical weight in the reality being presented. And when it’s more plausible for a street gang to go around caked in neon face paint than it is for a particular character to wear an earring, you know there’s a problem somewhere.

There are some things Schumacher did better than Burton. As I have said before, Burton was never particularly adept with action sequences, but Schumacher is. The fights and chases do look much faster and more dynamic, although the first fight sequence has an editing rhythm more suited to punching the audience than Henchman #3. However, giving it its due, compared to the previous films, this one is much more explosive and fast-paced. It’s just that everything that surrounds these scenes is pretty bad.

Really, the worst thing you could do before watching Batman Forever is watch the previous two Batman films, since it just highlights the massive gap in style and approach. By comparison, this film comes off as noisy, stupid, cheap and kind of heartless. Even when taken on its own terms, it still falls flat with absurd characterisation, a ridiculously overblown story and a general style that makes it all feel so flippant and disposable. The toys that were sold on the back of this film were more solidly made than this.

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