We lost filmmaker Joel Schumacher this week. A director who made some truly excellent movies like “The Lost Boys,” “Phone Booth,” “Falling Down,” “St. Elmo’s Fire” and “A Time to Kill.” He also made some absolutely dreadful movies like Phantom of the Opera, The Wiz, and Dying Young. He was a filmmaker I admired because he was wonderfully imperfect and completely ambivalent about the brutal criticism some of his works received. I was fortunate enough to have met Schumacher while briefly working on the underrated film “Tigerland” and have fond memories of watching him work. When looking back on his filmography, the film that I still love the most is a movie that showcases many of his directorial strengths and weakness. One of the most confounding big-budget blockbusters of the 20th century: “Batman Forever.”
It was 25 years ago this past week that the third modern Batman movie was released. This uncertain time for the character, who just six years earlier had revolutionized the modern blockbuster, helped launch the modern age of comic book adaptations and made untold millions for Warner Bros. The follow-up, “Batman Returns,” was seen as a disappointment by the studio which felt the series had taken a dark turn and lost much of its mainstream appeal.
The third installment saw departures from both Michael Keaton and Tim Burton who left the franchise in the hands of Joel Schumacher. Joel Schumacher … who would one day brutally murder the franchise with reckless abandon and shelve the Dark Knight for nearly a decade before Christopher Nolan found a way to make him interesting (and profitable) again. We all know that “Batman & Robin” is a pox on pop culture that deserves no defense. But “Batman Forever” … well, I hate to admit this … I kind of love “Batman Forever.”
I know. I know. It’s silly. It takes some great characters and reduces them to one-dimensional, cartoonish caricatures. It gets so much more wrong than it does right. It exhibits all of the symptoms of the garish disease that would eventually critically wound the franchise, and yet I still enjoy the movie some 25 screenings later (four of them theatrically when it first released in 1995).
Loving “Batman Forever” is like loving “Alien 3” (which I do): Fans are reluctant to admit it publicly, knowing they will be torn down by their peers and have their taste questioned by the vast majority of film buffs. When people are discussing their favorite comic book adaptations, bringing up “Batman Forever” is like farting in an elevator. You can only watch the film in the privacy of your own home, with headphones on, quickly ALT-TAB-ing to another screen when loved ones come by.
I’ve tried to use logic to reconcile my love for “Batman Forever.” It’s pop-art. It’s the kind of superhero movie that Jon Waters would have made; an unapologetic spectacle that revels in cliche. There is no cerebral justification for “Batman Forever.” It’s a movie your head tells you is terrible but your heart still loves. And I do. I love Val Kilmer as Bruce Wayne. I love the simple, stupid plot. Jim Carrey is a Riddler desperately in need of Ritalin. Nicole Kidman vamps it up sex-kitten style. Chris O’Donnell is a great first (and only) attempt at a big-screen Robin. And even Tommy Lee Jones … well, Tommy Lee Jones was absolutely dreadful as Two-Face. Like, legendarily terrible. But still, even seeing a great actor like Tommy Lee Jones pushed well beyond his comfort zone into something awful is kind of entertaining.
Yes, the plot is terrible and a poor excuse to watch good actors chew on scenery. And yet, I still love it. So many scenes put a smile on my face: When Batman goes to Chase Meridian for a late-night make-out session and she tells him she can’t go through with it because she has feelings for Bruce Wayne. Val Kilmer shamelessly mugs before turning to the camera and smiling. Batman is smiling. It’s ridiculous, and a complete abandonment of the stoicism associated with the character. Yet somehow, in this shimmering neon nightmare, it works. I even love the soundtrack, chock full of interesting B-sides from artists like U2 and The Flaming Lips. I even love Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose.”
Joel Schumacher was a gift to the world of cinema. While there are those who will dwell on the negatives of his uneven output and spectacular failures, I’d prefer to remember him for both the highs and lows, which are so lovingly on display in “Batman Forever.” Rest in peace, Joel, and thanks for a lifetime of trying to entertain audiences.