Let us first deal with a misconception: there are nipples on the batsuit in Batman Forever, though this innovation is frequently held to have started with Batman & Robin, two years later. My suspicion is that this has happened because, and there's not really a delicate way of putting this, Batman & Robin is "gayer". Both films were directed by Joel Schumacher, an out gay man, and both run headlong into a camp sensibility; but the latter film is just so much campier. Also, it is far, far worse, and since Batman Forever is merely not good, it's tempting to write off anything that's really terrible as the sole responsibility of the later movie. Plus, while Forever has bat-nipples, it lacks bat-aereolae, and perhaps that makes all the difference.

I am not here to bury the bat-nipples more than they have been already; but to offer a defense. Or at least to play devil's advocate. Think about this way: for generations, comic books have depicted buxom women in excessively tight outfits. Did not this very film's immediate predecessor, Batman Returns, offer up the sight of Michelle Pfeiffer in one of the most objectifying leather catsuits that could ever be? So there's no harm in objectifying the male body just once or twice (crash zooms to bat-codpieces and bat-asscheeks!), and come nowhere remotely near redressing the entire culture of the masculine gaze, right?

Certainly not, and if a legitimately talented gay director wants to try it out sometime, I'll be first in line.* In the meantime, we're stuck with Schumacher's fucking nipples on the fucking batsuit, which doesn't play like an attempt to answer the sexism and/or misogyny of the comic book industry so much as it plays like a stupid idea by a hackish director that doesn't make the tiniest damn shred of sense.

Anyway, these complaints are better held for the inevitable moment that I turn my gaze to Batman & Robin, and that moment is daunting enough that I'd not rush it. Right now, we are here to discuss the third Batman film in Warner's original run during the 1990s, and the first to lose three very important people: director Tim Burton, star Michael Keaton, and composer Danny Elfman (nor am I exaggerating on the third point: Elfman's replacement, Elliot Goldenthal, isn't one of the legendary composers, but he's no slouch, and he tries; yet the tempestuous theme he comes up to replace Elfman's roaring Batman leitfmotif, while a fine piece of summer movie bombast, doesn't colonise your eardrums in anything like the same way). Burton, admittedly, stays on as producer, but it's powerfully obvious from the finished product that he didn't get in Schumacher's way at any juncture whatsoever.

The new Batman/Bruce Wayne, at least, can't be rightly called a straight-up disaster, unlike so much of the movie: the character is now played by Val Kilmer, whose approach to the character - whose way of being in the world, period - is considerably more intense and focused and dark than Keaton's; Keaton having made the choice to play Wayne as a blandly pleasant face in search of a personality to call his own, Kilmer's version of the character is quite a bit more tormented and self-aware, and in a different world, I can imagine myself going so far as to declare Kilmer's performance even more rewarding, with two major reservations: his performance of Batman himself isn't at all as good as Keaton's - less threatening, less savage, less dark (and all of this undoubtedly has to do with how much more twerpy humor the screenplay throws at him) - and by virtue of being a haunted, soul-searching Bruce Wayne, a Bruce Wayne who knows that he is broken and does not know how to fix it, Kilmer is mesmerisingly far out of place in a film that is, without exception other than its central character, a loopy, dumb comedy that is generously a parodic expansion of the Burton films, and might be more accurately described as a travesty perpetrated by a team whose disinterest in the Batman comic book universe was more profound than anything Burton and writer Sam Hamm could ever drum up.

It's obvious enough what happened: the story, by Janet Scott Batchler and Lee Batchler, was lighter than Returns to ease the nervous studio execs, and the script, first written by the Batchlers and then gussied up by the reliably atrocious Akiva Goldsman, went even further in that direction, until somebody (Goldsman or Schumacher or maybe some nightmarish combination of the two) decided that what Batman Forever needed to to, above all else, was to be an homage to the Adam West Batman television series from the '60s. It really could not be more obvious: that's why Robin pops up, that's certainly why the Riddler is the chief villain (it is fair to say, I think, that the Riddler has only ever worked as a villain in that show, because the Riddler is such a compulsively dumb idea for a villain that other character in the DC universe comment on it). And this could have been done well, I guess: it was, after all, done well by the Adam West feature. But the gulf between the dark universe Burton's film set up and the tremendously silly camp world that Schumacher and Goldsman were hunting for was too great to hybridise the two, unless it was in the spirit of aggressive inquiry into the very semiotics of making a big-budget Batman vehicle, and Schumacher has never been the kind of filmmaker to treat studio product with such satiric contempt.

Besides that, even camp needs to be done well, you can't just say, "let's be campy!" and have done with it. It's one thing to winkingly, aye, leeringly put in a reference like having Robin say "Holey rusted metal, Batman!" because there is a surface full of rusted metal with holes in it. That's quite stupid, but it's not as grisly in its talentless, flailing idiocy as having Robin then clarify his statement by stating, "The ground, it's all metal. It's full of holes. You know, holey." Which is exactly what Goldsman does.

*Sigh* ...we had a film we were talking about, didn't we? The plot of Batman Forever in a nutshell (and how galling it is that after the mixed-up first two movies, Forever actually has a cleanly developed narrative structure), is that at some point about a year ago, Gotham District Attorney Harvey Dent was splashed with acid, permanently scarring half his face and giving him a dual personality calling himself Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones, stepping in for Billy Dee Williams, whose contract to play the character was bought out; I want to believe it was because the studio wanted a bigger name, but I actually believe it was that they weren't sure if people would be okay with a black Two-Face). Now he's going on a rampage all around the city, and Batman can barely keep ahead of him, and that's even before he - in his Bruce Wayne persona - humiliates borderline-psychotic Wayne Industries scientist Edward Nygma (Jim Carrey), who comes up with a perfect scheme to unleash a mind control device over the whole of Gotham, therafter teaming up with Two-Face and styling himself The Riddler, a criminal whose gimmick is to throw question marks at everything and leave obtuse clues to his future crimes where Batman will find them. Batman is also dealing with the attentions of police psychologist Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman), obsessed with Batman and falling in love with Bruce, AND, he's recently taken guardianship of teenaged acrobat who was orphaned by one of Two-Face's attacks, the resentful but clever Dick "Robin" Grayson (Chris O'Donnell, stepping in for Marlon Wayans, who was bought out, because yeah, Warner Bros. just straight-up doesn't like black people).

The nugget of a good story is hiding inside there: Batman uses the love of Dr. Meridian to reconcile the two split parts of his own personality, serving as counterpoint to Two-Face's enthusiasm for allowing his disorder to rule his existence; and he is slowly thawed out by his impetuous, enthusiastic young ward, who teaches him the value of not always locking oneself away and brooding. And I know that's the nugget of a good story, because that is exactly the function Two-Face and Robin have always had in the whole entire history of the Batman comic book. Sure enough, that's what they're doing here, basically; but to get to that point, you have to carve through a thick wall of crappy broad comedy courtesy of a Carrey who was still a couple of years off his "I want to be well-regarded" phase, stuck right in the middle of his "people will pay me ungodly sums of money to distend my mouth and use wacky voices" phase. Schumacher does not pull him back in any way; Schumacher encourages him. Thus does Batman Forever turn into an endless variety show containing Carrey at his absolute worst (yes, his damn well worst), stealing all the energy from everything else that matters. Making matters worse is that, apparently like the rubbery vaudeville hijinks thus deposited into his movie, Schumacher sent Jones down the same path - or hell, maybe Jones thought that Carrey was having fun and did it himself. Either way, you have two villains trying hard as they can to out-slapstick one another, both of them ending up like two slightly different but equally feeble clones of Jack Nicholson's Joker from the 1989 Batman.

It's this quality, more than anything, that ruins the movie: there are problems elsewhere, like how generally flat and pointless Chase Meridian is at every turn, and of course Robin is always a touchy subject among a certain breed of Batman aficionado (though he is dragged into this hellhole with a relative degree of intelligence and grace). But Batman and Batman Returns certainly had their share of flaws - not least among them a screamingly useless romantic lead in the first movie, so Chase doesn't have to feel alone (and Bruce's desire to confess his secret identity to her makes at least somewhat more sense here) - so it really does come down to that awful, screaming, comic tone to sink this movie.

Leaving us with just one thing to talk about. What is the best part of the Burton films? The design, of course, and Schumacher not being Burton even slightly, it doesn't surprise us that he'd revinvent the look of Gotham City wholesale with production designer Barbara Ling and cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt. Truth be told, they don't do the worst imaginable job of it, either - there's a lot of ugly early-generation CGI, particularly in the construction of the Riddler's video game fortress, but other than that the film's primary visual sin lies in being wildly, inexplicable different than being pointedly bad - personally, I find that a little bit of the day-glo color palette dominated by (smothered in!) toxic green and neon purple goes a long way, and I am wholly confused by the fight scene set in a black-lit alley replete with black-lit voodoo-themed thugs. But you cannot in fairness call this anything less than a distinctive or memorable personality all its own; distinctive and memorable in a kind of peculiar, alienating way, but at least there's the sense that the film is striving to get somewhere. Where, I cannot say. But this still sets it at least one step above its wretched sequel, whose personality is only one of irredeemable meanness of spirit and cheapness of imagination. Forever at least stays one solid step back from that abyss. A small favor, but it will have to do.

Reviews in this series
Batman (Burton, 1989)
Batman Returns (Burton, 1992)
Batman Forever (Schumacher, 1995)
Batman & Robin (Schumacher, 1997)