I can still remember when I was about fourteen years old, clear as day, being so freaking excited about Batman Forever. Jim Carrey was an up and coming star that I had recently enjoyed in Ace Ventura and I was sure he was just about to blow up into something huge, Val Kilmer was an actor with a lot of credibility (it was a very brief moment in time), and Two Face was a cool-looking villain that I knew nothing about. The tie-in soundtrack (with a big U2 track) pumped it up in my imagination as the greatest thing ever, and nothing - not even the film itself - could dissuade me from this belief.
Now, nearly twenty years later, I look at it and all I can see is Batman and Robin's unashamed campness. As Batman appears in his cool new suit at the film's beginning, Alfred politely asks, "Can I persuade you to take a sandwich with you, sir?" and Batman, who we've just seen as this brooding, dangerous hero in Batman and Batman Returns, quips back, "I'll get drive-through". It's a sobering moment, and with this snappy exchange the Joel Schumacher vision of the Batman franchise begins. This is a Batman who actually converses with Chief Gordon and psychological experts before dashing into the fray to fight the bad guys. Bad guys who gloat, snicker and curse like the ones in the '60s TV show. Instead of the fluidic scheming of the past film, the villains here team up with each other simply because they both hate Batman. That's all there is to it. They carry on alongside each other like a pair of unbalanced children terrorising the sandbox (an ironic dynamic as Tommy Lee Jones apparently indulged in his fair share of bullying and one upmanship during filming).
I'm willing to cut Batman Forever a lot of slack. After Tim Burton had successfully directed too very idiosyncratic films in the series I don't think it's unfair for another director to try and put their own mark on the franchise. I'm okay with Schumacher trying something a bit different, and there are enough residual ties to the previous films for Batman Forever to survive extended scrutiny. It's not the awesome film I thought it was when I was fourteen, it's a lot closer to Schumacher's universally-panned Batman and Robin then I'd probably like to admit, so (like I said) I can cut it some slack, and that's because it's by and large a fairly entertaining film.
We start off Batman Forever with a smash-cut introduction to Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones). Unlike the previous villains we've seen, Two-Face isn't really given an origin story (the only hint we get is a brief bit of archive footage that Bruce Wayne watches on his video player). All the plans of Tim Burton's Two-Face character arc (set up with Billy Dee Williams playing Harvey Dent in Batman) come undone with Tommy Lee Jones' embarrassing performance in a gaudy purple suit. Batman Forever's Two-Face is a rather boring villain, over-the-top and manic like a third-rate Joker, and with absolutely no back story. Weirdly, Two-Face is also reinterpreted as some kind of punk crimelord, with henchmen who wear studs and leather jackets. Is it just me or is Tommy Lee Jones one of the least punk people on the planet? I think Tommy Lee Jones and he reminds me of conservative, authoritarian figures... everything that punk isn't. Just one of the many reasons why Schumacher doesn't really know what he's doing, but at the time I think a lot of people were willing to forgive the Two-Face misstep because it was a lesser known villain and the main focus was on the Riddler.
Unlike Selina Kyle or Jack Napier from the previous films, Edward Nygma (Jimy Carrey) is kind of unhinged to begin with. His mental transformation into the Riddler actually makes him smarter, and it becomes a case of the wrong guy getting too much power rather than the usual tragic backstory. Being the mid-'90s, this was an era where serial killers had heavily infiltrated the consciousness of pop culture... Silence of the Lambs and Seven had popularised the idea of a twisted mastermind operating from some dank hovel with newspaper clippings, and at first the Riddler very much fits this mould, albeit in a comical and brightly-coloured fashion. Carrey plays it like a guy permenantly coked-out. For all I know, Carrey could've played the role while coked out. His schtick was fresh at the time, but looking back some years later the familiar gurning and dancing may seem irritating to viewers who've had their fair share of Carrey. Carrey's unhinged comedic performance kind of works, but when you've got him alongside Tommy Lee Jones' Two-Face it seems like too much of the same thing.
Now, onto Batman himself. Kilmer's version of Bruce Wayne isn't the slightly unhinged recluse that Keaton was, he's more of a straight-laced playboy-figure. When Bruce Wayne is used as a measuring stick to show how irresponsible someone like Edward Nygma is, it's a good sign that they've toned down the issues that made Batman who he was in the previous two films. They could have actually used this idea to explore a film where Batman has become too 'domesticated' to do his job properly (this is, after all, a film where a woman summons him with the Bat Signal because she wants to go on a date), but Batman Forever is more concerned with bat-nipples and throwaway quips. There's a character arc where Bruce Wayne sees his own quest for vengeance reflected back at him in Robin (Chris O'Donnell), but it's a shallow subplot that pales in light of Val Kilmer's dull and undercooked performance.
The rest of the film is fairly bland, with most of the focus on Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones trying to out-crazy one another. Gotham City's '30s art deco trappings seem blander, as if all the detail has been washed from the sets in an effort to make it all seem more like the simple line drawings of a '30s comic. There's no grit or reality to the city, it's now a big CGI art deco futureworld. And why, why, why does Batman's suit have nipples on it? This film treads a very fine line between serious Batman film and outright parody. It's a line that the next film would cross completely. I guess you could describe the overall look and feel of Batman Forever as a mix of various '90s music videos; both glossy and shadowy, colours popping out all over the place, MTV meets ADD. Anyway, it's a signal of much worse things to come...