1995's Batman Forever has a funny reputation. It wasn't reviewed kindly when it was released and its viewed worse by modern audiences who prefer their Batman serious, gritty and realistic. But I think few people have ever put the film in the proper context. This was a highly anticipated and rushed sequel meant to capitalize on "Batmania". Producers wanted it to lighten up from the previous films so kids could enjoy it more. Remember that Batman Forever was meant to license toys and merchandise as much as it was made to sell tickets and please comic book geeks. Also, Tim Burton had a mapped out version of the film ready to go that was tossed out when he did not return. All of this constrains the potential of the filmmakers who actually made BF. But somehow it comes out gracefully. The film has many faults but it is more than decent, all things considered.
Director Joel Schumacher was took over the popular Batman franchise from Tim Burton at his peak. Schumacher directed much smaller and tamer films like The Lost Boys and St. Elmo's Fire. There was no way he could carry on Burton's very personal interpretation of Batman, nor could he top the excellent and ambitious Batman Returns. He certainly could have made a Batman with violence, grit, political meaning. He directed Falling Down, people. But superhero film producers weren't asking for that yet. And so he brought his own vision of Batman to audiences. Why not give them something different? And it works. Schumacher presents Gotham as a city ripped from a comic book, full of bleeding colors and vibrant city dwellers. This is not a real place. Its a dreamworld. Remember that Schumacher wrote the surreal 1970s film version of The Wiz. Whats very cool is that traces of Burton's Batman Forever are present. But Joel has made it his. And I love what he does with every set and set piece. The film is marvelously staged. Unfortunately, much of it goes unseen. Gotham is limited to only a few settings, for budgetary reasons I expect. Famously, Batman Forever was horribly edited (its obvious) and great chunks of film hit the cutting room floor. An excellent opening where Two-Face escapes Arkham Asylum is gone and sorely missed.
Like the previous two Batman features, the cast was built around the star villain. This time its The Riddler played to perfection by Jim Carrey. Carrey is very game here, as great as he's ever been. He brings The Riddler to a level of darkness and madness that is truly entertaining, but also dark and disturbing. His character work is comparable to Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger's Jokers. One could argue he is the most successful. Where Jack was "fun to hate" and Ledger was "sympathetic", Carrey is "desperate and uncontrollable". The Riddler is played as an snapped lunatic obsessed with Bruce Wayne. Schumacher, a homosexual, directs Carrey as a man who has had his love rejected by Bruce Wayne. He becomes fanatical, going so far as dressing as Wayne (wearing Val Kilmer's mole in a stroke of genius), stealing his life and literally entering his dreams to destroy him. By the end of the picture, The Riddler is left so obsessed and mad that he thinks he is Batman. His ultimate plan is the darkest of the entire series: to mentally enslave the entire world and have access to the darkest parts of their brains. Why? For mental superiority? Or to block out his own thoughts? This is all very ambitious for a superhero film, even today.
Two-Face is not as heavily written. He exists as a pawn for The Riddler to enter the criminal underworld. I understand comic book fans' disappointment that we didn't get the tragic, complex Two-Face. But this Two-Face is no slouch. Two-Face is one of a few Batman villains who never appeared in the 1960s Batman TV series. Schumacher is a massive fan of that show and directs Tommy Lee Jones to play the lost 60s Batman TV villain. Jones is obviously playing tribute to Cesar Romero throughout and its fun if you get the reference. Two-Face is also made the antagonist of Robin, which I think is clever. Batman Returns gave Batman a sidekick in Catwoman, who sought revenge on Max Shreck. Two-Face is the Shreck to Robin's Catwoman. Yes, Robin is basically the new Catwoman.
Maybe because the film was becoming overtly gay, the character of Chase Meridian is added. She acts as damsel in distress which may offend feminists, who expected more female strength after Catwoman. But she has a deeper purpose. Unlike Catwoman and Vicki Vale in Batman, Chase prefers Batman to Bruce. As a psychologist, she is psychoanalyzing Batman/Bruce in all of their scenes together, pushing against him in a psychological way. She alludes to deep problems in the character that have never been seriously discussed before or since about his split persona. Sadly, most of this is cut from the film. But enough of it exists in the finished film to warrant her existence. Chase inspires Bruce to look in the mirror and accept the side of him that is Batman, solving the main internal conflict running in Tim Burton's Batman films.
The Superhero genre is perfect for exploring the theme of duality. DC is especially geared towards this conflict in Superman and Batman. Batman's entire mythology is obsessed with duality. Joel Schumacher is a very astute director to notice this and play with it intricately. Schism becomes the motif of the entire film. As the story progresses, sets and costumes become fractured to mirror Riddler, Two-Face, Robin and Batman's split personalities. Most brilliantly, The Riddler forces Batman to choose between saving either Chase or Robin. The Riddler is the most insane character, so he is the most visibly and mentally split in every thing he does and is. From beginning to end, he transforms from one character to another. Edward Nigma dies and morphs into a bizarre freak criminal. He loses himself to his obsessions. By the climax, his very identity (and sexuality) is questionable. The question marks on his costume and his riddles allude to the question of "who am I?". Schumacher is working through his own psyche with The Riddler the way Nolan did with Scarecrow, Bane and The Joker or Burton did with The Penguin and Joker. Batman Forever is as personal as the other Batman films and just as transgressive.
Joel Schumacher explored a lot of these homosexual themes in his early work The Lost Boys and madness in Falling Down. Perhaps he went overboard in 1997's Batman & Robin. But in Forever he keeps it controlled. Some would say the Batman mythos is the wrong place to explore those taboo subjects. But obviously they are not familiar with Batman's source material and how ingrained obsession, homosexuality and insanity are to that character and his underlying appeal with the zeitgeist.
I think Batman Forever could have easily been as good as any Batman film thats been made if it weren't for editing and constraints put on the director. But what we are left with is a great popcorn movie with a lot of deep commentary beneath the costumed action figures punching and delivering corny dialogue. Like all of the Batman films, its a deconstruction of Batman from a single director's amazing mind.