by D.W. Lundberg

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


Part Three of our Burton/Schumacher retrospective, in which we take a visual tour of the 1989-97 series' special (and not-so-special) pleasures.

The first thing you should know about Batman Forever is that Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher are friends. Or mutual acquaintances, at least, depending on the stories you read. So when Schumacher was handed the reins to Warner Bros' lucrative Bat-franchise, he immediately sought Burton's approval. Burton met with the director and screenwriters Lee Batchler and Janet Scott Batchler to discuss the tone of the film, and while this may be the extent to which Burton was involved (he's listed as a "producer" in the credits), it's safe to say he gave them his blessing.

Like 1989's original Batman, Batman Forever is a corporate blockbuster, through and through. Warner Bros took one look at the diminishing box office for Batman Returns and decided they needed a lighter, brighter take on the character. Schumacher worked under strict studio mandate to make the film more accessible to the kiddies, and to win back merchandisers who felt betrayed by Returns' sinister tone. He set out to make a living, breathing comic book, complete with vivid primary colors and a pop sensibility miles away from Burton's dark and gothic approach. He loaded his cast with several up-and-coming actors and recruited such high-profile artists as U2 and Seal to contribute to the soundtrack. It worked: Kellogg's, McDonald's and other companies jumped back on the bandwagon. Movie posters featuring Batman (Val Kilmer), Robin (Chris O'Donnell) and the Riddler (Jim Carrey) began disappearing from bus stops and subway walls. Then came the Riddler-centric teaser poster, which (to me at least) seemed to ask the all-important question Burton's movies failed to answer: "Who is Batman?"

Batman Forever debuted to a massive (for the time) $53 million in the U.S. - besting the previous record holder, Jurassic Park, by $6 million. (It went on to gross $336,529,144 worldwide - 1995's second-highest money earner after Toy Story.) I saw the movie with friends at its midnight opening on June 16, 1995, and went absolutely crazy for it. More than Burton, Joel Schumacher proved himself the ringmaster of comic book visual splendor. Of course, it helped that Batman always seemed to be doing the coolest stuff:

As a movie, though, Batman Forever is entirely "of the moment" - it pleased the status quo of the time, even if it doesn't stand the test of time. It fed into the public consciousness and gave audiences what they wanted – two hours of mindless, emotion-less fluff, designed to fix a silly grin to your face and then spit you out on the other side, unchallenged and unharmed. More than that, it re- affirmed Batman's reputation as a franchise force to be reckoned with.

Today, everything about Forever smacks of all-out spectacle, from Carrey's nonstop mugging as the Riddler (he's so over the top, he's not of this earth) to Schumacher's nonsensical action sequences (sure, I can accept a Batmobile that can scale walls - but just how does it get down from there?). Not surprisingly, most of the screenplay's initial darkness was left on the cutting room floor, to make way for the film's more family-friendly approach. Take this deleted scene, originally set to take place after Two-Face and the Riddler's end- of-Act-II assault on Wayne Manor, in which Bruce Wayne (Kilmer) awakens with amnesia and can't remember his life as Batman:

Batman Forever (1995) - Deleted Scene 1 by Amigo29_90

Yes, the staging's a little wonky, and the footage itself cries desperately for some post-production tinkering and a background score, but the logic is sound: After two (and a half) movies of moping and generally acting like a wet sponge, Bruce Wayne is finally able to set aside his guilt and become the hero his city deserves. This should ring as the big emotional catharsis of the series so far, but of course it's been dropped to "rescue" the movie from too much psychology and depth, as if any of that would send little children fleeing from theaters in terror. (In the film as released, Batman's character arc is reduced to a single line: "You see, I'm both Bruce Wayne and Batman. Not because I have to be, now, because I choose to be." Which is really just convenient more than anything else.)

To his credit, Schumacher is able to drop a few psychological breadcrumbs for us to follow along the way. The introduction of Robin, for instance. Here, as in the comics, Dick Grayson is introduced as a hot-headed circus acrobat, orphaned after the murder of his parents and hungry for vengeance. This is obviously held up as a mirror to Bruce's own personal plight, and Schumacher links them not just thematically but visually too, first in this shot immediately following the Graysons' death...

...and then later, as Bruce Wayne reminisces about his own parents' murder*:

In his original 1995 review, Roger Ebert also picked up on a separate visual motif: "[T]wo hands clasping in a firm grip. Dick Grayson is caught in such a grip by his acrobat father during a dangerous trick..."

"...and later the shot is repeated to show that Bruce Wayne is now his surrogate father":

Batman & Robin, on the other hand, is made up of nothing so subtle or smart. Barbara Ling's garish, over-the-top production design is the star here, even more so than her previous effort, and the actors are mere action figures composed within every shot. (You could argue this is all movies really are - actors posed on set, within carefully-constructed motion picture frames. But there's a problem when the art direction is every bit as obnoxious as the dialogue.)

I struggled, in fact, to find a single shot in Batman & Robin that impressed me in the slightest, and could remember only one, mostly because it's one of the few in which Arnold Schwarzenegger's mouth isn't moving:

The movie plays like Batman Forever for shorter attention spans, with bigger, bolder versions of the exact same sequences. In Forever, for example, Batman makes a big dramatic entrance by emerging from an empty elevator shaft. In B&R, he slides down the back of a giant brontosaurus:

In Batman Forever, the Caped Crusader hitches a ride on an exploding helicopter. In B&R, he stows away on a rocketship, then sky-surfs back to Earth, Robin in tow:

And instead of driving his Batmobile up a wall, Batman and Robin drive up the bicep of the World's Largest Man-Shaped Statue:

Is there anything in Batman & Robin worth recommending? Well, Schumacher is surprisingly adept at matching eye lines - so you can tell characters are actually looking at each other from one shot to the next. Like this:

Or this:

I kid, of course. You'd have to be an absolute idiot to flub basic film grammar like that.

I've said before that the movie has "an occasional whiff of honest human sentiment," and I stick by that. Most of it, though, stems from a single subplot, in which Alfred the Butler (Michael Gough) is stricken with a mysterious disease (called "MacGregor Syndrome," after B&R producer Peter MacGregor-Scott). You won't find too many Batman stories with Alfred at their center, so it's nice to see the character finally given his due. Here, Bruce Wayne (George Clooney) reminisces - three times, mind you, at specific points in the film - about his childhood with Alfred:

The screenplay by Akiva Goldsman, at least, goes to some lengths to raise the notion of family. It's why Bruce Wayne keeps welcoming members into his Bat-fold - to replace the family he never had. Here, though, Batman comes off more like an over- protective older brother to Robin (with Alfred as the impartial father figure and Barbara Wilson/ Batgirl as the rebellious live-in cousin). Of course, all this would have even greater impact if it wasn't buried under mountains of garishness and horrible ice puns.

The Dynamic Duo's constant bickering, too, comes straight from the comics. Dick Grayson lived so long under Bruce's tyrannical thumb, as a matter of fact, that he eventually broke off and became a stand-alone hero, Nightwing. (Robin's outfit in B&R, as a matter of fact, is simply a red-and-black version of Nightwing's original costume.) Here, Robin reacts to his mentor usurping him yet again:

Or perhaps he's just mimicking our contempt in the audience.


Next up: Our final look at the Burton/Schumacher Batman series. Namely, all the many things that tend to drive fans the most batty. For a look back at Parts One and Two of our Batman retrospective, click here and here. And for the Franchise Face-Off which kickstarted it all, click hereTune in yet again, folks - same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!

* To be fair, Schumacher lifts this imagery directly from Miller/ Mazzucchelli's Batman: Year One.

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