I remember when this one was announced. The media made a huge deal about how this one was going to be a lot more modern and “hip” than the previous Batman outing, which many felt had been too scary for children (whereas today, it’s considered too childish for adults). Batman was going to be younger and Gotham City was going to be more dangerous. They oohed and aahed about the visual style and everyone was really excited for it to be released. I remember watching a TV special about the special effects for the movie and everyone involved basically talked about how this movie would redefine superhero movies for the next decade.
In that, the weren’t wrong. This movie is so 90’s, that I’m pretty sure it’s the Dorian Gray painting for that entire decade. As the years roll by, our memories of the 90’s are of a perfect decade bursting with wholesome nostalgia and world peace, but then this film seems to grow more excessive and gaudy as we move away from the 90’s, its fashions and fetish for black light bodypaint suddenly seeming so ridiculous to those of us who conveniently forgot that the first half of the 90’s revolved around the “splattered neon paint” aesthetic that informs this version of Gotham. The 90’s is guaranteed eternal life because of this film.
The new direction didn’t sit well with a lot involved during production. When Tim Burton let the WB execs know what he had in mind (a treatment that involved Micky Dolenz as the Riddler and Marlon Wayans as Robin), they weren’t interested, and so they brought on Joel Schumacher. Schumacher’s original plan for the film actually sounds really cool. It would have been a more introspective film that explored Bruce wrestling with whether or not he wanted to continue being the Dark Knight, probing the darker side of the character, but the studio wanted a happier, more family friendly film. So Schumacher took inspiration from the 1950’s and 1960’s Batman comics, which were more colorful and lighthearted. Schumacher gets a lot of flack for his version of the Dark Knight, but we should be aware that this was the studio’s baby, and they frequently overrode the creative team’s decisions in favor of selling tickets and merchandise.
This new version of the story didn’t impress Michael Keaton who declined to reprise the title role shortly after Burton left as director. This also threw a wrench into Billy Dee Williams’ plans who took the role of Harvey Dent six years prior so he would eventually get to be Two Face if the character was ever used (and I think he would have been brilliant). Schumacher had worked with Tommy Lee Jones on The Client and so he was always his first choice for Two Face. This meant that Williams’ contract had to be bought out (which saddens me immensely). Marlon Wayans had actually been hired during production of Batman Returns for the part of Robin when Burton was involved, but the studio, hoping to to play things as “safe” as possible, decided to cast a white actor instead. I also have to mention that we ALMOST got an H.R. Giger-designed Batmobile, which would have been SO COOL, but the studio execs thought it was “too sinister,” which cracks me up because why would they even ask Giger to design something if they weren’t looking for sinister??
But anyways, the movie was released and it was a success. It received mixed reviews, but the fans liked it enough that the studio kept Schumacher on for another film.
Watching this, I found myself of two minds (much like Harvey). Half my brain was frowning at the colorful excess of the set design and the wild swings from dramatic to cartoon goofiness while the other half was going, “You know, this is a really fun movie.” It’s never boring, that’s for sure, and everything is so kinetic that you can’t really look away. I never thought anyone could make Tim Burton look restrained and proper, but Schumacher definitely manages that. Everything is dialed up to a hundred, lit by spotlights and lasers, and framed in wildly careening Dutch angles. It definitely suggests a comic book world as well as the style of Saturday morning cartoons, so in that respect, it’s a success, but audiences are so protean in terms of what they like about Batman that “good” is far more relative than when we’re discussing other superheroes.
This version of Bruce Wayne is interesting to me because he seems to be a naive 50’s era guy who’s suddenly faced with a more modern world. Restrained, proper, and committed to a quaint confidence in the power of “traditional masculinity,” he’s baffled by confident, direct women (Chase Meridian is as direct as an avalanche) and Dick Grayson’s more youthful “hip-ness.” In many ways, Val Kilmer is a better Bruce Wayne than a Batman. He’s smart, introspective, and, for the first time in the series, a businessman, but once he puts on the batsuit, he becomes a bit underwhelming. Michael Keaton, suited up, was like a tank that just punched his way through crowds of enemies, but Kilmer’s Batman is more acrobatic and delicate looking. In many ways, he feels more like Terry McGinnis’ Batman in Batman Beyond, a sharp lethal instrument instead of a blunt object. He’s a lot more kinetic, but he becomes less imposing as a result.
One thing I do find really interesting about this take on the character (even if it is a bit cringeworthy at times) is how Batman is treated the way every contemporary female action hero is treated. The story flips a lot of the gender roles (at first) and for much of the film, Batman is this sexual object who’s being pursued by Chase who is so into him even though her attentions clearly make him uncomfortable. Throw in some nipples on the batsuit and a blatant shot of Batman’s bum (pictured because reasons) and the character becomes more of a teenage sexual fantasy than a superhero. There’s even a bat booty call where Chase, in a breathless voice, tells him to meet her at midnight where she intends to fullfil her fantasy of finally getting it on with Batman. In a way, it robs the character of a lot of his power, BUT it does make you think about how women in action films are so often just physical objects to be won at the end, which is interesting. Ultimately, the script forces Chase (who the script makes clear early on, is not a damsel in distress) awkwardly into a damselly situation at the end almost as a consolation prize for Batman’s fragile masculinity (sigh). I wish they’d carried the reversed sexual dynamic through to the end with Chase and Robin rescuing Batman, but alas. What remains, though, is actually an interesting deconstruction of the character that is often lost in the chaotic colors and hammy acting of the villains.
Jim Carrey is a great Riddler at first, though the character becomes so unhinged and over the top by the end that the charisma of the character is lost. He becomes more of a child in awkward form-fitting spandex who giggles a lot as opposed to the eccentric genius he is when he first dons the green outfit. His first appearance really harkens back to Frank Gorshin’s iconic Riddler from the Adam West era, but that is soon lost in a sea of excess.
Tommy Lee Jones is always over the top. In fact, he’s often more over the top than any of his animated counterparts, which is hard to do. At times, it works, but it burns away any chance at getting at the tortured heart of the character, which ultimately makes him not very interesting. He’s a cold-blooded killer, but he never really feels threatening because he’s so predictable (which Two Face, as a rule, is supposed to NOT be). Ultimately, it’s the Riddler who does the most damage, even though he acts as though he’s playing second fiddler to Two-Face’s plot. I think the script would have made for more interesting villains if it had focused on one or the other. And since Billy Dee Williams never got to be Two Face, I would have wanted a Riddler-centric film. Sigh.
I do like Robin, though (and it has nothing to do with Chris O’Donnell being a total babe…although…that does factor…somewhat…). His journey is the most interesting as he goes from hothead to hero, finding a way to temper his anger and enthusiasm into something constructive. His revenge quest against Two Face is cliche, but it’s the deepest this film gets. Though I’m completely baffled how, at the end, Robin defeats Two Face who says, “I’ll see you in hell” and Robin replies, “I’d rather see you in jail,” which is the moment where you see that he’s grown up and learned how to be a hero . . . and then Batman straight up kills Two Face later on (???). Batman has a no-killing rule and, while Burton’s version ignored this, I kind of hoped Schumacher (going for a more family friendly Batman) would have re-instituted that rule. But no, Batman contradicts what he made sure Dick learned and just murders Two Face.
Like, way to go, Bruce. Geez…
This film has some great moments, and I wish it had found a more consistent tone. A friend of mine pointed out that this film seems to be a parody of Tim Burton instead of a tribute to the campy fun of the Dark Knight’s mid-century adventures, and I’m inclined to agree. It treads a fine line. I don’t think of it as an action comedy, even though it veers into that territory on several occasions. And Bruce’s recurring dream of the red book feels more suited to Tim Burton’s era than Schumacher. It feels more like a stepping stone between the two directors.
Next week’s outing embraces the Adam West camp far more effectively, even though fans now consider it a terrible dark time in Batman history. We’ll make up our own decision.
Also, we meet Batgirl!