Monday, January 25, 2010

Movie Monday - Batman Forever, 1995

Continuing our journey through the history of live-action Batman features, we come to Joel Schumacher's first outing (and I mean that literally), "Batman Forever," from 1995 (BTW, the title image above does not appear in the movie--I had to combine two sequential images to get the whole title concept in there). If you remember last week, Tim Burton's "Batman Returns" had met with some negative reaction from parents because of its weirdly dark characters. So for this installment of the franchise, Warner Brothers brought in Schumacher to lighten things up and make Batman more kid-friendly. Let's see how that went.

In his introduction to The Great Comic Book Heroes, Jules Feiffer introduced me to the concept of Batman as gay man, an idea put forth by Fredric Wertham in his anti-comic book screed, Seduction of the Innocent. Feiffer didn't agree with Wertham's assessment, and neither do I. There are always those who want to read a homoerotic subtext into any instance of male bonding, but that doesn't make it so.

Then again...

Sometimes the Batman/Robin relationship in the serials and the TV series made such a subtext easy to read, even if it was inadvertent.

But with "Batman Forever," the film that introduced Robin to the Batman series of the 90's, director Joel Schumacher took that subtext and put it front and center in a big way. And surprisingly enough, it wasn't through the character of Robin.

The film also continued that character creep that had begun with "Batman Returns." Not only did "Batman Forever" feature two main villains, but it also added Robin to the mix, plus a love interest for Batman in the character of Chase Meridian.

The film opens with a girding-for-battle montage--Batman getting dressed, then entering the new Batcave and preparing to enter the new Batmobile, just so we know this isn't the same Batman as the previous films (literally, since he's now played by Val Kilmer, instead of Michael Keaton).

And Batman's first line of dialogue is a joke, just to let us know that this Batman isn't as dark as the one before.

Batman meets beautiful psychiatrist Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman) when he is called to stop a robbery by Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones). He manages to save the money, but Two-Face gets away.

Later, Bruce Wayne meets an employee of WayneTech, a scientist by the name of Edward Nygma (Jim Carrey), who has invented a helmet that manipulates brain waves to create 3-D television images (it looks like a blender filled with packing peanuts).

Bruce turns down Nygma's request for funding to develop the helmet. Nygma snaps and kidnaps his boss, Mr. Stickley. While testing the helmet on him, Nygma learns something interesting--the device can transfer brain energy from one person to another. As Stickley gets dumber, Nygma gets smarter. Nygma kills Stickley and makes it look like suicide.

Meanwhile, Batman answers the Batsignal, only to learn that it was activated by Chase, who intends to seduce him.

Batman turns her down (because he's, what, gay? You think?), but is intrigued enough to look her up as Bruce Wayne and ask her out to a charity circus.

At the circus, Two-Face shows up with his gang and a bomb, to lure Batman into a trap. However, his plan is foiled by the Flying Graysons (whose costumes just happen to resemble Robin's costume in the comics).

Two-Face kills them all except for Dick (Chris O'Donnell), the youngest Grayson. Bruce takes Dick in (no, not like that). Soon enough, though, Grayson figures out Bruce's secret identity and wants Batman's help in killing Two-Face.

Nygma becomes the Riddler and teams up with Two-Face. Dick becomes Robin, causing Bruce to renounce crimefighting for about three seconds, until Chase is kidnapped by the bad guys. Batman and Robin ride off to the rescue.

The film is a really odd bag of stuff that doesn't hold together at all. And strangely enough for a film that's ostensibly part of a series, it changes virtually everything. The brooding Gothicism of Anton Furst and Bo Welch is replaced with neon everywhere in Barbara Ling's production design.

Gotham City's architecture is crazier than ever, with the omnipresent brooding statuary of "Batman Returns" grown even larger and more commonplace. There's virtually a statue in every scene.

The Batsuit, Batcave, and Batmobile are completely redesigned. You can't see it well in the shot above, but the Batsuit has returned to the more realistically sculpted muscles of the first film, and added nipples to the chest. The mask is not much changed from the previous film, although the sharp nose line has been blunted again.

And to make sure we can have more toy tie-ins, Batman switches to a new, improved costume for the finale.

The new Batcave looks more modern than the previous iterations. Anton Furst's retro-rust look is almost completely gone now.

And while the Batmobile still retains the basic torpedo shape and rocket exhaust of the previous model, it now sports glowing neon cut-outs, round headlights and a big central bat-fin (plus some new gadgets, of course, like this doo-dad that lets it drive up a building). The wheel hubs don't rotate, so the bat logo is always right-side up--that's a pretty cool effect, actually.

There's a weird bit mid-way through the film, though, where Dick Grayson steals the Batmobile, and that central fin is suddenly a double fin in a V shape. No idea what that's about.

And for even more potential toy sales, there's also a new Batplane and Batboat, both sporting the same common design elements of neon cut-outs, central rear tailfin, and glowing rocket exhaust.

Robin gets a high-tech make-over, too, with his circus leotard changed out for a rubberized sculpted bodysuit in bronze and green. It's hard to make out in this shot, but there is never a clear, well-lit shot of it in the entire movie, so make do.

But the changes go deeper than the gadgetry. Danny Elfman's iconic score has been replaced with new music from Elliot Goldenthal. We even have new actors in the roles of Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent (who was played by Billy Dee Williams in the first film and missing from the second film). And by the way, Val Kilmer makes a dapper Bruce Wayne, but he looks awfully young in the role sometimes.

But at the same time, both Pat Hingle and Michael Gough reprise their roles as Commissioner Gordon and Alfred. Alfred is the movie's calm anchor, as usual.

And in one scene, Chase Meridian mentions Catwoman (though not by name) in a callback to the previous Burton film. It's as if all the films in the so-called "series" actually exist in slightly different parallel universes.

One other thing that the Schumacher films do is name-check more recent developments in the comics. For instance, this is the first film in which Arkham Asylum makes an appearance.

It's frustrating for a fan, because on the one hand, you're saying, "Cool, they're actually using the mythos," but on the other hand, they end up mis-using the mythos. It is a nicely dramatic image, though.

But I was talking before about the homosexual not-so-sub-text of this movie. And it's not so much Robin who brings it out as Jim Carrey's Riddler.

When Edward Nygma first meets Bruce Wayne, it's clear that Nygma has a crush on Bruce, talking about how he has saved his hiring letter with Bruce's name on it, and describing him as "so intelligent, witty, and charming." When he first meets Two-Face, he spends a full thirty-five seconds doing an extended riff about how Two-Face's pad is decorated. Some of that is just Jim Carrey not knowing when to stop (which kills the movie dead in several spots), but still...

I don't think Blogspot allots me enough memory space to post shots of all the girly, hipshot poses Carrey adopts in his Riddler tights. But here are a few.

He and Two-Face giggle and hug constantly. He wears a diamond tiara while counting his money, and changes outfits constantly, including his final outfit, that fabulous bodystocking in Liberace white covered with sequins above. Yes, he does borrow one of Two-Face's girlfriends for one party sequence, but only to look more like Bruce Wayne (and maybe to make him jealous?). Even the arms of his throne in the shot above are two nude male figures.

But then, look at Gotham City above. Nearly all of the omnipresent statuary in the film consists of nude male figures. And just in case that's not blatant enough, we get a close-up of Batman's codpiece in the opening montage and a close-up of Bat-buns in the second girding montage just before the big finale.

It's not that I'm against fan service for the girls or against gay characters done well. I just think it's odd that, when Warner handed Schumacher this multi-million dollar franchise and said, "Make it more family-friendly," Schumacher's answer was "More homoeroticism! Batman needs nipples!"

You could argue that this is just Schumacher trying to make it campy, like the 60's series. Just like the constant wisecracks, the scenery-chewing by the villains (hell, Tommy Lee Jones doesn't just chew the scenery, he seizes it in his jaws then bangs his head against the wall until pieces break off--and even then, he can't keep up with Carrey, who is just out of control), and if you'll notice in the shots above of Gotham and the Riddler on his throne: the 60's Tilt-A-Cam has returned. Holy Deja Vu, Batman! (which reminds me that there's a really lame shout-out to that particular habit of Robin's from the series, as well)

So does the movie do anything right?

Well, yeah. I mean, I like the design of Gotham, though it's campy and over the top. And the movie manages to give the impression that Gotham is actually a big city, in a way the two Burton films (both shot on backlot sets) don't. And though Batman still has some ridiculous gadgets (including a grappling hook gun that can punch all the way through a thick stone wall), the movie actually features a Batman who's not afraid to get his hands dirty beating up a few thugs. The action is handled better in this one than in Burton's films.

The script, by Lee and Janet Scott Batchler and Akiva Goldsman, revisits Batman's origins again, and indulges in a bit too much therapy speak, but toward the climax, we get this impressive image, in a scene lifted from Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.

So even though it's bad, it's not all bad. And it's certainly more watchable than, say, the "Batman and Robin" serial from 1949, simply because it's less boring. It could be worse, is what I'm saying.

As we'll see next week, when Seth Gecko faces off against Harry Tasker and Beatrix Kiddo in the film that killed the series dead.

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