Illustration by Jenn Marie Watermeier
Batman holds a special place in my cinematic memory, as Batman Forever is the first movie I remember seeing on the big screen. I recall getting goosebumps as the Warner Brothers logo morphed into the Bat symbol and each main cast member’s name cut through the black background in a vibrant color. Right from these opening credits, Batman Forever distinguishes itself from the style and tone of Tim Burton’s preceding Batman films. Although it wasn’t my introduction to the Dark Knight’s mythos, you could argue that it’s a suitable entryway for a 4-year-old.
Right off the bat (pun intended), the film seems to seek redemption for the decidedly less kid-friendly vibes of Burton’s efforts. While the dark tone of Batman Returns led McDonald’s to shut down its Happy Meal tie-in with the film, Batman Forever opens with a dialogue exchange that feels tailored for use in a Mickey D’s commercial. As Batman (Val Kilmer) stands next to the Batmobile, Alfred (Michael Gough) asks, “Can I persuade you to take a sandwich with you, sir?” Batman’s deadpan response is, “I’ll get drive-thru.” Sure, it’s campy, but we’re nowhere near Batman & Robin territory yet.
The opening setpiece establishes Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones) as the film’s main villain. It’s funny that Jones couldn’t sanction Jim Carrey’s buffoonery as the Riddler considering he delivers an even more cartoonish performance. Both characters aim to exact revenge upon Batman. Two-Face holds him responsible for his scars while Riddler’s beef is with Bruce Wayne, who refused to fund the development of his mind-manipulation device.
Contrasting with its colorful style, the film dramatically explores the theme of revenge. It does so most effectively through the subplot revolving around Dick Grayson (Chris O’Donnell), who eventually becomes Batman’s sidekick, Robin. After Two-Face kills his parents, Dick becomes consumed with vengeance, much like Bruce was as a younger man. Bruce tries to dissuade him from taking the same path he did. In a chilling monologue poignantly delivered by Kilmer, he says, “It will happen this way. You make the kill, but your pain doesn’t die with Two-Face. It grows. So you run out into the night to find another face … and another … and another … until one terrible morning you wake up and realize that revenge has become your whole life, and you won’t know why.”
In this scene, you can feel the weight of Bruce’s history as Batman along with the gravity of Dick’s decision to fight behind a mask of his own.
Considering the emotional heft of this subplot, it feels unfair for the film to be lumped together with Batman & Robin. With Batman Forever, director Joel Schumacher clearly seems much more interested in balancing the light and dark sides of Batman’s world. You could argue that the balance is a bit wobbly and jarring, but it’s also an inherent part of Batman stories. Even Burton’s darker Batman films are full of weird, wacky shit. In Batman, the Joker defaces paintings while his henchman carries a boombox blaring Prince’s “Partyman.” In Batman Returns, penguins waddle through the streets of Gotham with missiles strapped to their backs.
In comic books, movies and TV, Batman stories are largely about the outlandishness of crime. His rogues’ gallery of villains represents the otherworldly nature of criminals. Batman Forever captures that quite well with the duo of Two-Face and the Riddler. They both held respectable positions in society (Two-Face as District Attorney Harvey Dent and the Riddler as inventive scientist Edward Nygma) before immersing themselves in Gotham’s underbelly. Their descent is like a trip to another planet where they take on alien forms — not unlike Bruce’s transformation into Batman.
Batman Forever effectively conveys how Bruce is like a fish out of water when the sun shines on Gotham. He looks utterly bored while working at Wayne Enterprises until he sees the Bat-signal light up at dusk.
This film makes good use of Bruce, and Kilmer brings a quiet, world-weary quality to the character. In terms of the other performances, Carrey irritated me a bit this time around, at least in the first act of the film as the motormouthed Nygma. His performance grows more controlled as he transitions into the Riddler. Nicole Kidman is charming as Chase Meridian — a criminal psychologist, not a bank. O’Donnell brings levity and mad laundry skills (see the video below).
As an adult (at least physically and legally), I can admit that this movie has many goofy moments and hasn’t aged well. But the kid in me can’t help but love it. It’s one of those movies I can’t separate from the memories and memorabilia surrounding it. I still have the action figures and McDonald’s frosted glasses. And I still think of how giddy the movie made me as a little boy. I remember buzzing with joy as U2’s “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” played over the closing credits. Batman Forever — and all of the ephemera surrounding it at the time — made me feel like I was in a children’s paradise.
Even when Batman films are grounded in gritty, adult reality, we hope they bring back that childlike feeling — the shiver of witnessing larger-than-life movie magic. While watching The Batman, it wasn’t the realistic crime scene sequences that excited me most; it was the montage of criminals all across Gotham looking over their shoulders in fear as the Bat-signal shined down on them. It reminded me of how I felt watching Batman Forever in my first time at the movies.