As Alex in A Clockwork Orange would say, this is the real and like tragic part of the story beginning, O my brothers. After Batman Returns undergrossed Batman by $90M in the US, Warners, you might say, freaked out. Although everyone was careful to agree that Tim Burton and the studio had mutually parted ways, and Burton retained a producer credit on the next film (possibly for contractual reasons), it’s clear that Warners dumped Burton’s dark and perverse vision of the Batman franchise for something more family-friendly. (Michael Keaton reportedly considered making a 3d movie without Burton, then decided against it, whether for artistic or financial reasons–or both.) The result was 1995’s BATMAN FOREVER, directed by Joel Schumacher.
To give Schumacher his due, he was more fluent in the language of big-studio action adventure than Burton was, and the set-piece sequences in Forever, while conventional, are considerably less awkward and cluttered than Burton’s attempts in the first movies. Also, while there was plenty to complain about in the script by Lee Batchler, Janet Scott Batchler and Akiva Goldsman, the introduction of Dick Grayson/Robin, and his desire to avenge the killing of his family, provided Forever with a narrative engine that Returns, in particular, badly lacked.
That being said, the tone of Forever is established in the movie’s first minute, with this bit of dialogue after some quick cuts of hands putting on the iconic costume. Alfred to fully-costumed Batman: “Are you sure I can’t persuade you to take a sandwich with you, sir?” Batman: “I’ll get drive-thru.” Then the Batmobile roars away, and we know we’re in for exactly the kind of campy spoof that people dreaded Burton would deliver before they saw his Batman.
The picture has 2 villains, both of whom don’t battle Batman as much as they compete to be more over-the-top. Jim Carrey’s entire performance as The Riddler is shtick–every time the camera is aimed at him, he seems to be trying to supplement the movie’s blooper reel. And Tommy Lee Jones’ Two-Face may be the worst work of his long and distinguished career, probably because he’d barely even done comedy before, let alone played this kind of exaggerated, stylized role (the closest he’d come was a small part in Natural Born Killers, and that was a documentary compared to this) and he was, clearly, continents away from his comfort zone. Neither Carrey nor Jones is remotely menacing or a believable threat, and although Forever moves more quickly than the Burton films, and the narrative has an arc, there’s no suspense in the story.
The good guys aren’t much better. Val Kilmer is dull as both Batman and Bruce Wayne; he has much more to do than Burton gave Michael Keaton in the 2d film, but he doesn’t have any of the coiled, suppressed rage or desolation that Keaton brought to the role. (A quick test for whether you’re talking to a poseur is if the person swears Val Kilmer was the best Batman.) Nicole Kidman certainly does better than Kim Basinger in the first movie, but her Dr. Chase Meridien is a thin role compared to Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, defined solely by her lust for Batman and/or Bruce, and Kidman isn’t the kind of actress who adds warmth to underwritten parts. Of Chris O’Donnell’s Dick Grayson/Robin, let’s just say he was competent and move on.
Part of Schumacher’s mandate was clearly to make the Batman franchise far more colorful and “fun” looking than Burton’s expressionistic palette had allowed, and Schumacher went at it with a vengeance. Everything in Forever, as shot by Stephen Goldblatt and designed by Barbara Ling, is neon and pastel and flashing lights–there’s one ludicrous fight scene where O’Donnell fights a gang wearing phosphorescent make-up on streets with phosphorescent graffiti–and it all looks like a theme park more than a city overrun by crime. Elliot Goldenthal’s score follows in Danny Elfman’s epic footsteps, but without Elfman’s idiosyncracies. Then there are the notoriously form-fitting costumes for Kilmer and O’Donnell (those shots of Kilmer’s Batsuit hugging his ass probably weren’t there for the kids).
Forever brought the Batman franchise down the wrong road, but it’s flashy and mediocre rather than terrible. The fact that it was more successful than Batman Returns (even if only by $20M), however, empowered Schumacher and Warners to go even farther down that road the next time around. The result would kill the studio’s goose and golden egg for almost a decade.