Friday, March 18, 2016

Batman Forever

It's FlashBack Friday (for real this time)! Today I'm continuing my series of Batman films in preparation for next week's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice by reviewing the third theatrical outing for our hero, Batman Forever. Oddly enough (particularly given my history with the first two films), this is the very first Batman movie that I saw in theaters, and I watched it many times at home when it came out on VHS. However, there was a period of my life where I didn't really watch any Batman movies, which allowed me to more or less forget about the details of Batman Forever until this viewing. What led to my hiatus from watching Batman? We'll get to that next time. What do I think of this movie after over a decade away from it? Let's get into it!

Batman is still engaged in his nightly war against the criminals of Gotham, being summoned to a downtown bank where the villainous Harvey "Two-Face" Dent has infiltrated the building and is holding the manager hostage. While he beats up Harvey's goons and is able to reach the hostage, he's quickly trapped in a bank vault that is quickly filling with boiling acid. Borrowing the hostage's hearing aid, Batman cracks the combination just after Two-Faces extricates it from the building on a helicopter. Somehow, Batman manages to return the vault back into its original position... with the hostage riding safely atop it. He then climbs up to Two-Face's helicopter as it careens into the statue of liberty... or a Gothamized version of it... and has to dive into the water below to survive, allowing Dent to get away on a parachute. Though he was unsuccessful in catching Two-Face this time, Dr. Chase Meridian, who works as a criminal psychologist... I'm guessing... well, I'm not sure what her role is. Does she have information on Dent? Is that why Bruce Wayne sets up an appointment with her? I'm a little hazy on that... 

But anyway, prior to that, Bruce does a routine inspection of the factory where Edward Nigma works and declines to fast-track his invention without the proper precautions. This turns the psychotic Nigma into the Riddler, who teams up with Two-Face after seeing the bifurcated villain terrorize a charity circus where Bruce is in attendance with Chase. There, Harvey doesn't manage to blow the place up, but settles on the murder of "The Flying Graysons" (minus their college-aged son, Dick) before escaping through a trap door in the center of the floor. Because he feels bad, Bruce offers to take Dick back to the mansion and offers him room and board. Of course, he quickly discovers Bruce's secret identity and demands to be Batman's sidekick.

I was going to go through the rest of the plot, but I just can't do it. For as inconsistent as Batman Returns was, it at least was somewhat coherent and had a visual style I could get behind. Here, I was immediately taken aback by the garish neon permeating every square inch of this production. What happened to the gothic, almost noirish quality of Burton's vision? Oh yeah, I forgot... Joel Schumacher took over. From my memory, this relentlessly colorful art direction only increases in the next movie, but it was one of the most disappointing changes of this new production team. Not only that, but the iconic Batman theme from Danny Elfman was replaced by a less atmospheric score that lessens the mood substantially. The score actually isn't bad, but it definitely suffers in comparison to the Elfman original.

Another major change was the actor behind the cape and cowl, Michael Keaton, who apparently wasn't interested in returning after his friend and collaborator Burton wasn't brought on to direct this movie. While I enjoyed what he brought to the character of Bruce Wayne (for the most part), I found his Batman to be a little weak. Surprisingly, I actually found Val Kilmer to be an improvement in that way. He's far more physically intimidating than Keaton ever was, and it helps tremendously that his Batman is given so much more to do as well. Where Keaton occasionally punched a mugger, or kicked a circus gang member off his bike, this Batman is acrobatic and lethal in his fighting style. I also really enjoyed the fact that Batman faces Two-Face multiple times throughout the movie, heightening their rivalry while making me wish that Two-Face was the only villain in the film (and that he was played straight by a usually superb Tommy Lee Jones). While his Bruce Wayne is a little wooden, I think his physicality and charisma would have eventually made him one of the better Batman we've seen.

So what holds him back from being one of the best to play the caped crusader? Joel Schumacher. This director is absolutely terrible. I'll expound on it more next time, I'm sure, but even here he does his best to ruin what would have otherwise been a pretty solid Batman movie. Not only did he destroy the visual aesthetic of Burton's moody Gotham City, but every time there's a cool action scene he has to punctuate it with obnoxious and juvenile "comedy". Plus, the performances are almost universally atrocious, starting with the two main villains. I don't know what Schumacher was thinking, but he gave carte blanche to Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey to be as silly and over-the-top as they wanted, when this story was begging for a more grounded and serious mood. Had this been taken on by even a moderately competent director, this movie would have been at least as good as the first Batman. As it is, it's probably the worst of the series so far.

The character of Robin is probably the best thing about this movie, apart from the sparse, but occasionally great, action scenes. His parallel with Bruce Wayne should have been a lot more emotionally resonant than it was, and if we had a director that cared more about the story and emotion than about how "stylish" he could make the camera shots and the background lighting, it could have paid off. The potential of this film is probably my biggest take away, and the missed opportunities of the seriously misguided director make me angry and disappointed all at once. Instead of moving emotion and adrenalizing action, we get incoherent character arcs, confusing motivations, irritating attempts at comedy, and an unfulfilling romantic subplot that never even resolves itself.

I could make this entire post about the illogical execution of an interesting idea (so, Bruce Wayne decides not to be Batman anymore because Chase likes him more than his superhero alter-ego...? Despite the fact that two major criminals are still at large...?), but instead let me wrap this up by saying that I didn't always dislike this movie. In fact, there were moments of this film that I actually found myself enjoying... until Two-Face cackled like an idiot, Riddler pretended to play baseball in the batcave, or Robin did karate-laundry. I don't know how anyone could mess up a Batman movie so badly, especially when the foundation was already laid by a singular vision from Tim Burton in the previous movies. I liked this movie as an eight year old, and I would recommend it someone of that age. But whatever you do, don't go back later on expecting it to hold up. It doesn't. Batman Forever is a pretty sad endeavor all around, and I have to give it a well-deserved two stars.

BATMAN FOREVER is rated PG-13 for strong stylized action