Batman has not always been the “Dark Knight”. In the comic’s early days, when comic books were aimed exclusively at children, he was dark only in comparison to that all-American Boy Scout, Superman. In the 60’s and much of the 70’s he was a goofy parody of the square authority figure, as he was in the popular, Adam West starring television program. Really, it wasn’t until the 80’s and the one-two punch of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, that Batman took a turn for the dark. As evidenced by the tremendous popularity of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, fans like a dark Batman. Joel Schumacher’s 1995 Batman Forever does not, in any way, deliver for fans wanting a Miller-esque Batman, it skews far closer to the Adam West version of the character. Campiness is clearly Schumacher’s intent and by that metric Batman Forever is a success.
Campiness colors almost every element of Batman Forever (almost, star Val Kilmer isn’t having any part of it), the script, the set, the costumes, the music, but it starts with the film’s dual villains: Tommy Lee Jones’ Two-Face and Jim Carrey’s The Riddler. Jones is introduced first, chewing the scenery as he speechifies for a hostage:
Jones is an actor of incredible, understated skill as he has proven time and time again over the course of his lengthy career. So when he leans this hard into camp you know that he and Schumacher are trying to do something. Specifically, they’re trying to recapture the spirit of the once beloved 60’s show on which Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, Julie Newmar, and Frank Gorshin played the villains to the hilt. With Batman Forever, Jones is hamming it up in a way that is unprecedented in his career, and he’s the reserved one…
At the time when Batman Forever was released, there was no hotter force in entertainment than Jim Carrey who, when the film was shot, was riding high on the success of 1994’s Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask, and Dumb and Dumber. The choice to cast Carrey as Edward Nygma, aka The Riddler, must have seemed obvious to the filmmakers and, given the desired tone of the film, Schumacher had no reason to rein in Carrey‘s trademark zaniness. At times it seems like the only direction Schumacher has given Carrey is “Just do what you did in The Mask, just not so subtle.” Take this scene in which Nygma, just prior to his transformation to supervillainy, first tests his “device” upon his Wayne Enterprises supervisor (Ed Begley, Jr.)
Yeah, he goes pretty big with it, but it’s in keeping with the comic tone that Schumacher and Goldsman were going for. The distance created by time and irony make it difficult to remember that Jim Carrey was once the king of comedy, but in the mid-nineties, audiences were eating this stuff up.
Batman Forever is described as an “action-comedy” but really is definitively a “comedy”. Even though the action is present, in a big way it takes a back seat to the wacky humor. Fans who criticize Batman Forever for going for laughs may be misremembering Tim Burton’s Batman films. Neither Burton’s Batman (1989) or Batman Returns (1992) lacks for gags. The chief difference between Burton’s Batman films and Schumacher’s is that Schumacher goes for camp and Burton imbues his movies with his characteristic dark irony, which for some viewers (this one), can be tiresome. Now, through the lens of Nolan’s Dark Knight films, it is easy to see the entirety of the Burton-Schumacher Batman series as comedy. Burton really does not have any more respect for Batman, the beloved comic-book character, than Schumacher did.
It seems that much of the vitriol directed at Batman Forever comes due to its being lumped in with Schumacher’s other Batman vehicle, the legitimately awful pun-delivery machine Batman & Robin (1997). It is true that Batman Forever was the gateway to Batman & Robin, but this is, obviously, because after the goofy tone of Batman Forever proved an unqualified success, earning $336. 5 million against its $100 million budget and becoming the highest earning film of 1995 behind Toy Story, Schumacher, Goldsman, the producers, and the studio, were emboldened to go even goofier. At the time, fans, and a number of major critics, liked Batman Forever. It was seen as a return to a Batman that children could enjoy after the overly dark second Tim Burton Batman film, Batman Returns.
Even for defenders of Batman Forever it is hard not to see one-and-done Bruce Wayne/Batman Val Kilmer as a weak point. Kilmer does not seem to be in on the joke or, rather, he was not allowed in on the joke. All of Batman Forever’s humor is reserved for the villains, with just a little left over for Chris O’Donnell’s Robin who gets at least one laugh line with a reference to Burt Ward’s 60’s incarnation of the character with “Holy rusted metal Batman!”. Batman himself is humorless and not in a way that seems like the filmmakers are playing upon the seriousness and square-ness of The Caped Crusader for laughs. Kilmer’s Batman seems intended to be kind of a sensitive dreamboat who is trying to come to terms with his haunted psyche with help from his sexy psychiatrist love-interest Chase Meridian, played by Nicole Kidman. The scenes that Kilmer shares with Kidman are like an entirely different film from the ones in which Carrey and Jones appear, and this is where Batman Forever falls short. If they were going to go for comedy, they should have gone all the way.
Batman Forever seems destined to be remembered as a curiosity for Batman completists, with Burton’s Batman being the only iconic film of the Burton- Schumacher franchise. It will also be recalled, incorrectly, as inferior to Batman Returns, a film that is unfairly lumped-in with Batman just as Forever is unfairly tied to Batman & Robin. But Batman Forever is not a failure. It is an interesting and singular vision. Schumacher, who will likely never be counted amongst the great directors, could have coasted by aping Burton’s vision. But he boldly put his own Gotham City on the screen and much of the time it works. It’s loud, campy, zany and even where it falls short, it’s never not interesting.