Val Kilmer's lips star in Joel Schumacher's alluring yet overstuffed franchise debut, which is only the right kind of stupid about a quarter of the time.
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Video courtesy of Warner Bros.
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Every week from now until The Batman hits theaters, we're watching Batman's theatrical films in chronological order. This week: A trip to the circus. Last week: Selina Kyle and Andrea Beaumont deal with difficult men. See you next Waynesday, when Alfred's niece shows up.

Calling Batman Returns the best Batman movie is not a very interesting opinion. It's what I believe, but I also used to think The Dark Knight was the best. Those are two flavors of conventional favorite — cult oddity, popular sensation — which doesn't make loving them wrong. But loving 1995's Batman Forever is a very interesting opinion, because Batman Forever is a superhero movie about sex. Unabashed, indulgent, sexually sexy sex. You cannot defend it intellectually, unless your brain lives below your utility belt. The characters are too empty for romance, but not every relationship is a love story. There are no worthwhile themes, unless the theme is "Bat-codpiece," which gets its close-up in the fourth shot. Later, the camera lingers on the Bat-butt long enough for a rubber-cheek jiggle. The Bat-nipples got the press, and don't forget how Nicole Kidman whisper-moans "Ohh!" while she caresses the Bat-pecs around Val Kilmer's Bat-nipples.

On the set of Batman Forever
'Batman Forever' stars Val Kilmer and Nicole Kidman
| Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Kidman plays Chase Meridian, a brilliant psychologist with a luxury-hotel name whose internal conflict requires an impossible decision. Bruce Wayne or Batman: Which hot hunka man will she boff? She meets the Caped Crusader at a standoff with Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones). When the hero flies down from the sky, she responds: "Hot entrance." Hot entrance. Who has ever, ever, ever said that?

He's read her work, and thinks it has minor merit. "Insightful," he says. "Naïve but insightful." Is this negging?

"Not every girl makes a superhero's nightstand," she says, with a tone of voice that leaves you wishing you were the nightstand. Keep in mind, there are well-armed bad guys upstairs, and Commissioner Gordon (Pat Hingle) is standing right next to them, the proverbial guy in a turtleneck at the orgy.

Chase is a criminal psychologist because, as she explains, she really likes bad boys. "I wish I could say my interest in you is purely professional," she tells Batman — the second time she ever meets him, when she calls him via Bat-signal to witness her moonlit cleavage. She's also helping Bruce work through repressed memories, while he takes her on glamorous dates that receive national media attention. We're near Eszterhas territory: suggestive psychobabble, constant garter belts, a criminal-sexual nexus, the whole questionable archetype of Professional Intelligent Come-Hither Womanhood, so much unethical doctor-patient hubba-hubba.

Give the late director Joel Schumacher some credit. His camera's eye wanders. Edward Nygma (Jim Carrey) is initially a dorky Wayne Enterprises scientist with multiple Bruce Wayne pin-up walls. His obsession could read as jilted fandom, but Carrey kinks up his skin-tight Riddler. In Carrey's best scene, Nygma pretends to be Bruce Wayne, complete with a phony Kilmer mole. That's an unexplored swirl of narcissistic infatuation: Single White Bat-Male. When the Riddler blows up the Bat-cave, he screeches things like "Spank me!" and "Joygasm!" Consider this lair penetrated. All this in the movie where Batman "adopts" a college-aged lad so the young man can check his engines.

Meanwhile, Drew Barrymore and Debi Mazar play characters who might as well be named Breast and Leg. And when young Dick Grayson (Chris O'Donnell) takes the Batmobile to the vaguely ethnic side of town, the cute white woman he rescues asks him, "Doesn't Batman ever kiss the girl?" The movie's big question is whether Chase will sleep with one guy or sleep with another guy who is the same guy. Keep in mind, we've already seen one Bat-film where Catwoman fools Batman into falling in love with her, and another Bat-film where Catwoman and Batman tangle their secret identities into an antagonistic romance. Forever un-deconstructs all those complexities, and removes any layer of emotional involvement. "It's the car, right?" Batman asks Chase. "Chicks love the car."

"I have often been criticized for objectifying men and women sexually in my films," Schumacher admits on Forever's commentary track. "I have yet to find out what the bad part of that is." He also says anyone upset about the Bat-nipples should "get out more often," which is an amazing double diss. He's saying not to stress so much about superhero costumes — and also suggesting that all the lame people go explore a little, and maybe try their own Bat-nipples on for size.

Schumacher's cheeky hedonism made him a great interview. His stock will keep rising, because contemporary blockbuster directors are such dutiful bores. It's possible to watch Forever with your arms crossed, but I wonder if the world is turning in its randy direction. Everyone seems to be celebrating the bygone era of Erotic Thrillers, and all the hubbub over Bridgerton and Normal People prove there's still a market for prestigious humping. Forever is often an impersonal '90s studio project — fog, fans, one-liners — but Schumacher's gaze can light up the screen. When Batman saves Chase from some thugs, she kisses him and makes him an offer: "My place, midnight." He runs off to fight more thugs. There's an energetic cut back to Chase, watching him with voracious awe.

Batman Forever
Nicole Kidman in 'Batman Forever'
| Credit: Warner Bros.

Kidman wound up with the best career of anyone on the cast, and she's bringing Kubrick-level work to sub-Austin Powers gags. She and Carrey are both fully committed to their terrible characters, and it's kind of wonderful to see them dance together for three seconds. They should be two points in a five-sided romantic triangle: Chase, Batman, Bruce, Riddler, Edward. Kilmer looks so bored and so handsome, which could be authorial intent. "One of the great things about Val in the Batman suit," Schumacher explains in his commentary, "is Val had a terrific jaw and lips." Jaw, lips, terrific: What more do you need? That should be Forever's place in the Bat-canon: The one with the raw seductive desire, all slinky thrills and hot bods, with enough cheap thrills (they crash into the Statue of Liberty!) to sustain 90 minutes of fun.

Unfortunately, it's a two-hour movie with two other main characters who are just awful. Jones turns both sides of Two-Face into a limp wannabe Joker. O'Donnell looks like a very nice camp counselor doing a James Dean impression. (He also does martial arts laundry.) Dick and Bruce spend the movie having the same conversation: Don't kill Two-Face! But I wanna! Much of Carrey's dialogue sounds like failed catchphrases. A movie-length investigation of Bruce's repressed memories reveals… he was sad about his parents' death and then got frightened-inspired by a bat. These are not mysterious Bruce Wayne memories! These are the Bruce Wayne memories that Estonian 3-year-olds know about!

BATMAN FOREVER
Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey in 'Batman Forever'
| Credit: Everett Collection

Lee Batchler, Janet Scott Batchler, and Akiva Goldsman wrote the screenplay, though the pileup of characters suggests a co-writing credit for Predicted Toy Sales. Two-Face's whole role is to barge into scenes with a machine gun. Too much of the production design is the same vomitous shade of Syndicated TV Pilot green. Nygma's plan is to invent the metaverse a quarter-century early, with a TV device that "makes the audience feel like they're inside the show!" Points for prophecy, but the script forgets the very fun notion of Riddler as a brain-absorbing personality parasite.

There's a sense that the big money is taking over. This Bruce has a fleet of motorcycles for Dick to ogle over (a 1917 Harley! A Vincent Black Knight!) and Master Wayne can't figure out if his ward stole his Jaguar or his Bentley. Keaton's consumption was never this conspicuous — and now Bruce is a cover boy, too, with his face on multiple magazines. CEO Bruce is cinema's first Executive Batman, which might explain why Forever feels so much more consumerist, its cinematic world sold all over town. The product placement can be palpable, and Kilmer's very first line turned into a McDonald's ad.

In his memoir, the actor termed Forever "so bad, it's almost good," and openly regretted the "kitschiness." He also says "Batman could be a character out of Ovid's Metamorphoses," which is such a safe and lamely intellectual thing to say. I don't think kitsch was ever really a problem for Batman. The bigger issue was the character's expanding importance to his parent company's financial bottom line. His stories get bigger with wallet size, inevitably too big. Joker and Penguin terrorized city blocks. Phantasm was, like, killing a few gangsters. Now Riddler is mind-robbing half of Gotham. Story gravity is carrying us away from personal intimacy and stylistic eccentricity. This is not a problem that goes away when the villains stop being goofy. Batman Forever makes a hot entrance, but the future it promises looks ice cold.

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Batman Forever
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