Monday, June 13, 2011

I Revisit The Average Batman Forever.

The Good: Val Kilmer is convincing as Bruce Wayne and Batman, Moments of concept, Good two-disc version.
The Bad: Overbearing soundtrack, Jim Carrey, Awkward use of Tommy Lee Jones.
The Basics: A decent, but fairly average, cinematic adventure, Batman Forever fleshes out the Batman movie franchise with a Jim Carrey vehicle.

In the process of combining our DVD collections, my wife and I have found interesting overlaps and a huge number of differences in our tastes. So, for example, when it comes to the Batman franchise, neither of us have Tim Burton's original Batman reinterpretation, though I have Batman Returns (reviewed here!) and The Dark Knight (reviewed here!). My wife moved in with Batman Forever and Batman Begins and we promised each other we would never be so bored as to get in Batman & Robin. So, the other night, when she wanted to watch Batman Forever, I sat with her, not recalling why it was I had not ever gotten it in myself.

Shortly after the film began, I remembered exactly why I had not been grabbed by Batman Forever enough to own it. While Val Kilmer made for a very convincing Bruce Wayne and Batman - Michael Keaton was arguably a far more convincing Wayne - Batman Forever is essentially a Jim Carrey vehicle and his part in the movie is so over-the-top and ridiculous as to ruin it for me. Indeed, perhaps the biggest strike against Batman Forever would be the tacit connection between intelligence and absurdity. For some stupid reason no one in the film ever manages to explain, as Edward Nygma becomes more intelligent, he becomes more ridiculous and flamboyant. The connection is not at all made clear and the result is a pair of villains plaguing Batman who are less compelling than they ought to be.

As Bruce Wayne maintains control of his global empire during the day, he assumes the mantle of Batman to keep Gotham City safe at night. He is plagued, though, by Two-Face, a former ally who was wounded and now is demented and bent on revenge. As Two-Face robs Gotham City blind and Police Commissioner Gordon calls in a psychiatric specialist (Dr. Chase Meridian), Batman's problems multiply. A disgruntled worker at Wayne Enterprises, Edward Nygma, develops a technology that allows him to read the minds of others though a holographic entertainment system he was working on. Rejected by Wayne, Nygma hatches a plan to use the side effect from his entertainment system to acquire wealth and power to rival Bruce Wayne in Gotham City.

As Wayne and Meridian grow closer, Two-Face sets off a bomb which claims the life of Dick Grayson's parents. Grayson, bent on revenge, is taken in by Wayne and soon discovers that Wayne is Batman. This comes at an inopportune moment as Two-Face and Nygma, who has assumed the persona of the supervillain the Riddler, team up to wreak havoc on Gotham City. As Wayne tries to prevent Grayson from traveling down the same road he did - to become a vigilante of his own - Grayson rebels and Batman gets a new ally, Robin.

Batman Forever feels like exactly what it is, a sequel in a strong franchise that is struggling to keep itself fresh. The introduction of Robin is in many ways necessary to retain the suspension of disbelief in the Batman character, but far too many of the ideas rehashed in the film are cliche. Just as Batman Returns brought in a villain for both Wayne and Batman, while juggling a neutral romantic interest, Batman Forever evolved Nygma from Wayne's adversary into Batman's when Nygma becomes the Riddler. With the addition of Grayson, the screen gets a bit crowded by the presence of Chase Meridian. Here, the female lead becomes thoroughly cliche as this marks the third woman in a row who becomes interested in Wayne and comes to learn his deep, dark secret. How did Bruce Wayne ever keep his identity secret for the years before the first Batman film?!

To say that it is the character of Two-Face that suffers as a result is a tough concept to sell. Batman Forever uses Two-Face as the primary villain, as he appears, wreaks havoc and pops up at random intervals to cause more mayhem. But the thing about this version of Two-Face, already established by the story's beginning, is that he never evolves, he does not develop, there is no arc. Instead, Two-Face begins as a split-personality bank robber and he ends the same way. Why is he robbing Gotham? This is not so much delved into as glossed over. Two-Face is simply an agent of chaos.

The problematic aspect of Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face is that he is over-the-top in a way that makes one instantly think he is trying to mimic Jack Nicholson's incarnation of the Joker, but simply changing "I's" to "we's." This take on Two-Face would have been entirely watchable and enjoyable . . . were it not for Jim Carrey's Riddler. Carrey plays the Riddler two ways, the first is as if actor Matthew Frewer were playing the role, the remainder as Jim Carrey, flamboyant physical comedian. And no, there is no correlation between Nygma's brain draining and the sudden looseness the Riddler gets to his body language.

Of course, the obvious take on the Riddler would be that as his i.q. begins to exponentially grow, he develops a personality disorder . . . much like Two-Face, but instead, he devolves into an immature psychopath. Here one has to wonder why the Riddler chooses to be this way, as there are plenty of scenes after he begins to grow his i.q. where Nygma passes as normal. Jim Carrey's acting is nothing to laud here.

But Chris O'Donnell and Val Kilmer both do fairly well, with O'Donnell adding a very basic humanity to the character of Grayson/Robin that Kilmer's Batman too often lacks. Kilmer is well-cast. He makes sense for the playboy bachelor Bruce Wayne much the way Christian Bale does now in the Nolan Batman movies. Moreover, director Joel Schumacher made a good choice for an athletic enough guy to plausibly be Batman. But Kilmer is aloof in the role and he does not carry the full weight of his charisma in key moments (like when Batman realizes Meridian has fallen for Bruce Wayne and he smiles).

O'Donnell, though, is anything but stiff as Grayson and he makes the role work. O'Donnell plays the role of Dick Grayson with a focus and intensity that makes it believable that he has lost his parents and is consumed with burying their killer.

But where the casting does work, the direction seldom does. Schumacher uses a soundtrack that is frequently overbearing and at the same time less memorable than Elfman's earlier scores. Similarly, visually the film seems more sedate than Burton's gloomy vision of Gotham City. Outside the Riddler sequences, the movie is dark and serious in an unrelenting way that is hard to find entertaining and ultimately, the oppressive atmosphere makes the film feel more drab than genuinely moody.

On the two-disc version, there are plenty of decent bonus features, like a commentary track and featurettes aplenty about the making of the movie. In a very slim "recommend," Batman Forever's bonus features lift it to the point where it is worth seeing, but a tough sell on buying and rewatching as part of one's permanent collection.

For other Batman reviews, please check out:
Batman Daredevil King Of New York
Knightfall Volume One: Broken Bat By Doug Moench and Chuck Dixon
Knightfall Volume Two: Who Rules The Night By Chuck Dixon
Knightfall Volume Three: Kightsend By Chuck Dixon
Batman R.I.P. By Grant Morrison


For other film reviews, please click here to visit my index page on the subject!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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