The Batman series of films, like Woody Allen films, or movies that contain violence, is something that every single filmgoer has a strong opinion about – and they tend to be wildly varied opinions. Here's mine: the first Batman (1989), directed by the great Tim Burton, was not a particularly good movie. Striking, yes, promising in all sorts of ways, but never really coherent. I imagined Burton had been somewhat defeated by the awesome logistical and narrative requirements of a big-budget action-fantasy assignment.
But his sequel, Batman Returns (1992), is a film I strongly defend against its many detractors. In fact, it joins Ishtar (Elaine May, 1987), Hudson Hawk (Michael Lehmann, 1991), and Color of Night (Richard Rush, 1994) on my running list of contemporary movies that have unfairly received bum raps.
Batman Returns is a strange film, but strange in the best Tim Burton way: it has a deliberately odd structure, an extraordinary design concept that dictates the sense and texture of the whole piece, and a colourful array of carnivalesque characters who zoom in and out of our field of attention. It was a more personal film for Burton than the first Batman, certainly a more daring and experimental film, and it consequently suffered at the hands of reviewers and audiences.
Batman Forever has a new director, Joel Schumacher (whose work I have sometimes admired, particularly in his earlier days), and a new Batman, Val Kilmer. Kilmer is younger and cooler than Michael Keaton, and he really claims this role as his own. Keaton projected an interesting troubled, neurotic side to the caped crusader; Kilmer, and the scriptwriters, simplify that. Batman broods, he's a little haunted by primal childhood flashbacks, he's said to have complexes about guilt and obsession, and he does looks a little lonely without a soul mate. But essentially he's not a very dark character. Kilmer is more soulful and romantic than Keaton.
Accordingly, the film beefs up the love angle between Batman and Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman). Here we are very close to the dynamics of Lois and Clark in the TV series The New Adventures of Superman. Chase is attracted to the ideal Batman, and also to the real man Bruce Wayne. Our hero faces that great dilemma of action soap opera: which identity should he give up: should he sacrifice his altruistic quest for justice, or his one chance for personal happiness? It's a pity, though, that the film finds almost nothing for Chase Meridian to do, except look inviting and wind-swept.
Jim Carrey does an uninhibited turn as The Riddler. My pet theory that Carrey is the new Jerry Lewis receives strong verification here. The cartoonish things that this guy can do with his voice and his body, even before the special effects team moves in, are very impressive. There's a great moment where The Riddler histrionically compares himself to some omnipotent Godhead, and then adds: "Was that a bit over the top? I can never tell." That about sums up Carrey's amazing circus turn in this movie.
Batman Forever takes us back, in many ways, to the terrain of the first film in this series. It's more straightforward in narrative terms, and it puts the highest possible premium on cinematic spectacle. Indeed, the spectacular elements in this film, the walls of sound and the furiously fast set pieces and the incredible swooping cityscapes, are so relentless, they gave me a headache as I watched it. Still, some headaches are better than others, and I can report that I was quite thrilled and captivated by this movie as it unfolded.
My doubts came later. The problems I had with Batman Forever are basically the same I had with the first film in the series, and I wonder again about those logistical and narrative burdens. The film finds it hard to establish key plot points, and once it has got them up and running, it suddenly drops them. This happens with an amazing television brain-drain virtual-reality gizmo that The Riddler uses to suck out minds and become the smartest man alive. We see the population turn overnight into a bunch of virtual-reality zombies and we watch Jim Carrey pull Jerry Lewis faces as he soaks up green rays of brain energy. But at a certain point the gizmo just disappears from the plot, and The Riddler never seems to get any smarter.
The precise, basic definition of the villains never quite gels. Take Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones). Two-Face is a collection of spectacular tics and accoutrements: his face, his manic laugh, his coin, his endless rap about luck and justice, his marvellous lair which is designed in two starkly different halves. But I could scarcely get a handle on who he was and why, and what his kink and his obsession really was. A satisfying gestalt for this character is missing.
With Batman himself, it's the reverse problem. The gestalt is there, but the details are fuzzy – particularly in the area of just what this guy can and cannot do with his panoply of suits, cars, capes and gadgets. And, as much as I rave about Hong Kong action movies, I'm starting to wonder about the effects of these Chinese films on American filmmakers. The big action clinches in Batman Forever are in the true Hong Kong style: they are calligraphic blurs of movement, bodies falling and flying in an unreal manner through the air, bullets ricocheting and hooks and ropes catching onto some surface or another.
It's all very kinetic and exciting, but – like in a contemporaneous American action release, Steven Seagal's Under Siege 2 (Geoffrey Murphy, 1995) – I didn't have a clue sometimes what was actually going on in these scenes.
MORE Batman: Batman Begins
© Adrian Martin July 1995