Revisiting BATMAN FOREVER - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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After Joel Shumacher's recent passing, Matthew Kresal revisits the director's first Bat-movie, 1995s Batman Forever.

Conventional wisdom (if there is such a thing) has it that the Batman franchise of the 1990s suffered from diminishing returns. Primarily, that the opening two Tim Burton-directed installments were better than the entries directed by Joel Schumacher. While there is little doubt that Batman & Robin was the nadir of the franchise in this incarnation (if not in the Dark Knight's cinematic career), can the same be said for Batman Forever?

This reviewer thinks not.

With Burton's Batman Returns having been viewed as too dark and maybe a bit too odd for its own good, it's safe to say Batman Forever was a course-correction picture by those making it. Watching the film again, it's clear that was the case. There are still traces of Burton's influence in the themes and designs, but, from the opening minutes set to Elliot Goldenthal's rousing but Danny Elfman theme-less score, it's clear that this will be a different kettle of fish altogether. It's abundantly clear as Schumacher takes the viewer from the Batcave into a brighter, flashier version of Gotham City than the grimy 1980s NYC inspired depiction Burton's films gave us, one that has a life, an ethos all its own.

Indeed, what was the case for Gotham is also the case for the film as a whole. From its action sequences and production design to the Goldenthal score, Forever often eschews the darker edge of Burton for something lighter, pacier, perhaps more playful in places. Yet, it doesn't lose sight of the gothic elements introduced in the earlier films, as the character exploration for Bruce Wayne/Batman, and the twisted duality found in those he faces off against can attest. Forever also goes a step further in exploring Bruce Wayne's headspace, of a hero tiring of being a masked vigilante and perhaps harboring guilt about the event that set him down this path. More than anything else, the film charts a path between the extremes of the two films time would see it sandwiched between in the form of the dark oddness of Returns and toyetic over the top cringe-inducement of Batman & Robin.

It's also clear from its Batman. With Burton gone, Michael Keaton left the role of Batman behind, with Val Kilmer stepping into the part. Whereas Keaton had a quirky quality alongside a brooding intelligence, Kilmer brings both intellect and a sense of vulnerability. The latter required for a film that's occupied with Bruce Wayne's headspace, as discussed above. While Forever never quite explored this in-depth (though further explored in deleted scenes on the DVD release), there's still a sense of wheels turning behind Kilmer's eyes that brings a new dimension to the part. Kilmer also looks good in the Batsuit, a prerequisite, and there's no denying his chemistry with Nicole Kidman's Doctor Chase Meridian either. Watching Kilmer as Batman is like watching George Lazenby playing James Bond: there's a lot of potential in the performance, but it's a shame there's not more of it in later films. Here, though, one gets the sense of a Batman film actually interested in Batman, rather than using him as an excuse to feature villains one feels Burton might have been more interested in including.

In some ways, however, the villains are the weak point of the film. The biggest mistake Batman Forever (and Batman & Robin for that matter) makes is that both of its antagonists are over the top. Tommy Lee Jones's Two-Face not as much as Jim Carrey's Riddler, for obvious reasons, but there's a need for a more anchored threat to be there, the straight man, to use a comedic term. Instead, viewers get a duo who seem to be trying to upstage each other, leaving the film feeling out of balance. Jones, though, has some solid moments on his own early on, particularly his opening lines, before the role descends into theatricality. It's Carrey who steals the show, and how could he not with his antics on full display, even if they're not generally to the film's benefit.

Over the last two decades, it's become easy to lump Batman Forever in with Batman & Robin, writing off both films. While fair in the case of Schumacher's second Batman film, it is not something Forever deserves. For it charted a path all its own, bringing a lighter sense to proceedings while also picking up the pace a bit. Yet, unlike the installment that followed it, it didn't lose sight of the Gothic roots of the character, and the cinematic works that proceeded it. The result might not be up to the heights (dizzying for some) of Burton's 1989 film, but it's an immensely watchable piece of work.

And one can think of nothing better to say about the late Joel Schumacher's first, and best, Batman outing.

Matthew lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.

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