Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 30, 2019)
Although 1992’s Batman Returns made a solid $162 million, it left a bad taste in many mouths. Not mine, for I thought it offered a highly satisfying and entertaining affair that actually topped 1989’s Batman, a film I loved. However, many fans thought Returns was too dark and grotesque, especially due to Danny De Vito’s slimy turn as the Penguin.
As such, Returns left the starting gate with a fine head of steam, but its financial take petered out fairly quickly. The popularity of the original film ensured a strong enough audience to generate that positive box office, but as was also the case with 1997’s The Lost World, the sequel to 1993’s Jurassic Park, the second Batman movie faded fast with viewers and didn’t endear itself to many.
Because of these factors and others, 1995’s third Batman flick, Batman Forever, faced something of an uphill battle. Granted, the series’ name recognition meant that a certain audience share would definitely arrive, but the road seemed much tougher.
In addition, two of the main forces behind the first films didn’t actively participate in Forever. Michael Keaton failed to return as Batman/Bruce Wayne, butVal Kilmer replaced him in the role.
Although the director of Batman and Batman Returns still involved himself in Batman Forever, Tim Burton had a less significant part of the pie. He functioned as one of the film’s producers as he turned over the directorial reigns to Joel Schumacher.
I don’t know how active a role Burton played during Forever, though the fact it showed any form of Burton-esque darkness may show that he exerted some influence over the production. He had no formal connection with 1997’s Batman and Robin, which may partially explain why it was the campiest and silliest of the four movies.
In any case, this changing of the guards seemed to sit well with audiences. Despite some wariness felt by viewers, the movie became a solid hit. It took in $184 million and just lost out on the year’s box office crown; ironically. As had been the case in 1992, another Disney animated picture released over Thanksgiving weekend - Toy Story - nabbed the top spot.
Apparently audiences responded to the lighter, more flamboyant tone of Forever, though I guess Schumacher and company went over the top with Robin. That movie almost killed the series with its relatively lackluster gross of $107 million and wildly negative word of mouth. Nonetheless, the less serious aspects of Forever seemed to help break the series out of its perceived doldrums.
Time hasn’t been kind to Forever. Just as Returns gained a greater fan base as the years passed, more people began to see the flaws in Forever.
Count me as one of those naysayers. While I actually enjoyed the film theatrically and I still think it has some good moments, the more I watch Forever, the less I like it.
At the start of the film, we meet a new villain, Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones). This bifurcated baddie used to be noble Gotham attorney Harvey Dent, but a splash of acid to his puss left him scarred mentally, emotionally and physically.
We discover little backstory for Two-Face, as he simply pops up at the start of the movie and attempts to rid himself of Batman (Kilmer). This feels a little odd, for while we briefly view his origins during a later scene, Two-Face becomes the first Bat-villain to that point to emerge onscreen with Bat-hatred already established.
Batman’s Joker (Jack Nicholson) and both Returns’ Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Penguin all receive some exposition before they attempt to ban the Bat, but Two-Face simply exists without much depicted rhyme or reason.
It doesn’t get any better, for Two-Face remains a poorly drawn and vague villain throughout the movie. Despite Jones’ star power, he clearly loses some of his onscreen time to make way for the film’s second baddie, the Riddler.
In traditional Batman style, we definitely view his path to crime, though even then I thought the rationale seemed somewhat vague. Early in the movie Bruce Wayne visits a Wayne Enterprises lab, and there he encounters creepy scientist Edward Nygma (Jim Carrey), a nutbag who develops a way to have TV images beamed into peoples’ brains.
When Wayne rejects the idea, Nygma goes farther off of the deep end. He kills his supervisor Stickley (an uncredited Ed Begley, Jr.) and forms an irrational hatred of Wayne. Previously, he’d felt obsessed with his boss as a role model, but this encounter causes those feelings to take a viciously negative turn.
Nygma fabricates a scheme. He wants to dominate the world with “the Box”, his TV-related device, especially since he accidentally discovers that it can suck brainpower out of users and into him.
That would pad his intelligence as well as provide him with juicy data like credit card numbers and bank accounts. However, Nygma can’t start a huge company without capital, so he recruits Two-Face and his gang to assist. He promises the death of Batman as long as Harvey helps him collect the dough to get the Box off the ground.
All while this occurs, a new love interest appears on the scene, though this one takes a mildly unusual approach. In Batman, Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) maintained affection solely for Wayne and there appeared to be no sparks between her and Batman in their brief scene together.
Returns took a more interesting tack, however. Batman/Catwoman and Wayne/Catwoman’s alter ego Selina Kyle developed romantic attachments independent of each other but it wasn’t until late in the film that each realized the true identity of the other.
In Forever, psychologist Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman) doesn’t realize that Wayne and Batman are one in the same until near the end. She starts the film with a strong interest in Batman.
Some of this seems professional, but she clearly has the hots for him as well. Only as the flick progresses does she get to know Wayne, and we find an odd love triangle in which two of the three participants are actually the same person.
Does Chase create any element in the plot other than as the token love interest? Nope, though this also allows her to become Bat-bait at the end.
While the Bruce/Batman/Chase love triangle aspects become mildly interesting, it seems disappointing to find such an uninvolved romantic partner, especially since Meridian’s supposed to be so bright and incisive. While she helps Batman solve crimes to a minor degree, Chase exists mainly as eye candy and as someone for the villains to abuse when necessary.
Another new character materializes, though audiences will already feel at home with him. In the third Batman film, we finally meet Robin (Chris O’Donnell).
After his trapeze-artist family dies during an attempt to save circus spectators from Two-Face’s bomb, the orphaned Dick Grayson boards at Wayne Manor. There he quickly discovers Bruce’s secret, and fueled by his vengeful desire to kill Two-Face, he forces his way into the crime-fighting picture as Robin.
Although he becomes something of a liability during Batman and Robin, O’Donnell offers some of the best parts of Forever. The scene in which he takes the Batmobile for a spin is a mild hoot, and he adds a nice sense of life to our dour, loner hero.
In this flick, O’Donnell displays a spark that seems absent from the subsequent sequel and from most of his other roles. He doesn’t make Forever a transcendent piece of work, but his moments help it become more memorable.
As Batman/Bruce, Kilmer is good but unspectacular. I always liked him as an actor, which meant that I accepted him as a replacement for Keaton more readily than I might otherwise have done.
I thought highly of Keaton’s work, especially in Returns, where he seemed to feel more comfortable in the role. As such, I was disappointed that Keaton didn’t come back for the third film, but the presence of Kilmer made the transition smoother.
Actually, I feel somewhat conflicted about his work here. As Batman, Kilmer shows reasonable aplomb and depth, and he seems at home in the suit. Kilmer displays good presence and personality, so those segments of the film are fine.
On the other hand, I feel less wild about his take on Wayne. Keaton played Bruce as distracted and obsessed, whereas Kilmer goes more for a smug yuppie vibe.
I can’t claim that either portrayal is “correct” when compared to the comics’ Bruce, but Keaton’s appeared more natural and logical. Frankly, Kilmer’s Wayne seems like something of a jerk.
For his work as Two-Face, Jones apparently studied Nicholson’s performance in Batman - a lot. Though Jones lacks the flair and panache Nicholson offered, he shows similar attitudes and mannerisms.
I like Jones, but his Two-Face feels like a non-entity within the film. He seems neither menacing nor compelling, as he clearly plays second banana to our other villain.
Forever’s producers scored a coup when they cast Carrey as the Riddler. At the time, he was still a star on the rise, and he’d become a serious box office star through his three 1994 hits: Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask and Dumb and Dumber.
Each did better than its predecessor and Carrey established a solid following. Although Forever probably would have been successful with another actor in the role, Carrey’s presence helped attract an even larger audience.
He also provides some of the movie’s best bits, though unlike some of his other films, Carrey’s gags don’t get better with age. When I recently watched Liar Liar, I noticed how well his antics held up over the years and repeated viewings.
While his moments as the Riddler are still interesting, they don’t amuse me like they did during earlier screenings of the film. Carrey’s over the top attitude helps bring some spark to Forever, but he can’t make the movie a total success.
Much of the problem with Forever stems from my feeling that it’s rather disjointed. Batman was the best focused of the four films: one villain, one love interest, and that was that. We learned what we needed to know about the origins of both Batman and Joker, and the movie took a logical course.
While I loved Returns, it did become a little disorderly in its attempts to be bigger and better. Most of the film’s problems related to its third villain, nasty capitalist Max Shreck (Christopher Walken).
Max was essentially nothing more than an expository character, and he lacked much additional reason to exist. Otherwise, however, Returns nicely balanced its two main villains, and no other significant complications ensued.
Forever decreases the villain count to two and keeps us with a single romantic interest, but the extra hero does muck up the proceedings to a degree. Granted, I generally like O’Donnell’s turn, but this added element presents the possibility that the movie can go off onto too many tangents.
Batman and Robin took this to an extreme: three heroes, two villains, two romantic interests. Forever keeps things more manageable, but with Schumacher instead of Burton behind the camera, the film becomes messier nonetheless.
Admittedly, Batman and Returns weren’t always the most coherent films you’ll find, but they presented a certain panache and overriding cohesion that doesn’t appear in Forever. Put simply, elements of it seem to make less sense, and the whole piece feels more slapdash.
At least the Burton films had some depth and psychological darkness behind them. Forever, on the other hand, casts out most of Wayne’s demons, and it actually “cures” him by the end of the flick!
This seems badly out of place, for one of the aspects of Batman that makes him so compelling is his dark side. Without it, he just becomes another costumed goon.
Schumacher also starts to embrace the campiness that so turns off many Bat-fans. He keeps this within semi-reasonable levels in Forever, though I wish those elements hadn’t made the film. The self-referential comments and the homoerotic stylings of the costumes would become truly excessive during Batman and Robin, whereas they simply seem a little off-putting here.
Nonetheless, they add a silly distance to the film that isn’t necessary. Ultimately, Batman Forever offers a watchable and reasonably entertaining vision of the Caped Crusader, but it doesn’t even remotely compare with the highs seen in the first two films. Forever helped redeem the franchise with a mass audience, but it hasn’t help up well over the last 24 years, and it becomes less interesting with each subsequent viewing.