Batman: Joel Schumacher — Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997)

Batman Forever still 2
Batman Forever still 2

After the dark grotesquery of Batman Returns Warner Bros. decided to take the Batman franchise in a more family-friendly direction. They relegated Tim Burton to a producer role and hired Joel Schumacher to take over the franchise.

Without Burton at the helm, star Michael Keaton turned down a $15 million paycheck to reprise the role of Batman, and instead Val Kilmer was hired to star as the Dark Knight. The result of these creative change-ups was Batman Forever, a deeply enjoyable Batman film that drew inspiration from the campy 1960s television series.

For all its faults, and its apparent inferiority to Burton’s films, Batman Forever is still a decent movie. It may be sillier than Burton’s films (although only slightly), and the characters may be more amped up to preposterous levels, but what Schumacher lacks in depth he makes up for in spectacle.

Everything in Batman Forever is over-the-top and glamorous. Schumacher was working with a bigger budget than Burton had at his disposal, and was also more interested in raising the scale of Batman’s Gotham City. For example, the opening scene which sees Batman falling into Two-Face’s (Tommy Lee Jones) trap has more extras crowding the streets of Gotham City than were visible in the entirety of Burton’s films.

Even Schumacher’s action is more stylized and confident. When Batman fights Two-Face’s henchmen, he displays a hand-to-hand combat prowess mostly ignored in the first two Batman films. There’s even more focus on gadgets this time, as Batman has seemingly every tool he needs to defeat the villains.

In many ways, Batman Forever is to the Burton films what Roger Moore’s James Bond movies were to Sean Connery’s: they were a campier, spectacle-driven, more fun take on the originally serious character.

Batman Forever still 1
Batman Forever still 1

One of the great joys of Batman Forever is Jim Carrey’s Riddler, taking inspiration from Frank Gorshin’s Riddler from the 1960s. As played by Carrey, the Riddler is a psychotic genius, more cartoon than human, a combination of Carrey’s character from The Mask and a James Bond villain. He may be a genius, but that doesn’t stop him from bursting into fits of uncontrollable, gleeful laughter at the sight of Batman floundering. Carrey is hilarious in the role and his perverse take on the character sets the film’s tone, which is deliberately light-hearted and cartoonish.

Unfortunately, Tommy Lee Jones as the other main villain of the film, Two-Face, doesn’t fare so well. Like Carrey, Jones amps up the camp acting to preposterous levels, but unlike with Carrey’s take on the Riddler, Jones’ schizophrenic, murderous, comic Two-Face doesn’t gel with the character’s identity.

Two-Face is meant to be tragic, not comic, and the entire take on the character is a disservice to who he is in the comics. The producers would’ve been wise to have hired Billy Dee Williams as was originally planned, for even if the results would’ve been the same, the novelty of having an African American Two-Face would’ve added some intrigue to the character.

Batman Forever still 3
Batman Forever still 3

Bruce Wayne (Val Kilmer) and Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman) at the circus.

The other major misstep of Batman Forever is its take on Robin, the Dark Knight’s young partner. Instead of casting Robin as a preteen boy or even a teenager, the producers cast then-24-year-old Chris O’Donnell to fill the role. This take on Robin was a motorbike enthusiast who was clearly too old to be Bruce Wayne’s ward. The addition of Robin allows Schumacher to play with the notion of partnership and revenge, using Robin’s quest to avenge his dead family as a mirror of Bruce Wayne’s own reaction to his parents’ death.

However, instead of poignant or meaningful, the scenes with Robin are clumsy. As a child I always enjoyed O’Donnell’s take on Robin, and the film as a whole was definitely one of my favourite movies, but as I’ve grown up, so have my views regarding O’Donnell’s Robin. Instead of charming or roguish, I now find his lame and irritating. If the producers were going for a family-friendly tone to the film, they should’ve cast a kid as Robin, allowing child fans of the film the ultimate surrogate for their own desires to dress up as a hero and follow in Batman’s footsteps.

For all its faults, Batman Forever is undeniably enjoyable and never boring, unlike its sequel.

Batman and Robin still 1
Batman and Robin still 1

If Batman Forever was light-hearted and family-friendly, Batman & Robin was a children’s toy commercial

According to John Glover who played Dr. Jason Woodrue, the mad scientist who creates Bane, before each take Joel Schumacher would yell through a megaphone, “Remember people, this is a cartoon!” This is a very telling comment. While people have raged against Batman & Robin’s comic take on Batman since it was released in 1997, people have to remember that the idiotic tone was deliberate.

However, that still doesn’t diminish how disastrous Batman & Robin is a movie. If Tim Burton’s 1989 Batmanhad tried to assert into the public consciousness a vision of Batman different than Adam West’s campy take, then Batman & Robin completely reversed the effect, serving almost as a modern adaptation of the 1960s TV show.

This time around George Clooney donned the Batman cowl, as Val Kilmer had scheduling conflicts. Of all the actors to play Batman until this point, Clooney best fit the role of billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, but even this apt casting does nothing for the film. Clooney is a non-entity in a film that is a travesty. He does little to make the film worse, but does nothing to elevate it beyond its preposterousness.

Like with all the Batman films before it, the villains of Batman & Robin dominate the film, which is unfortunate because Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze and Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy were the worst villains yet. Schwarzenegger’s Freeze is a pun-machine, literally spewing off more ice puns than actual lines. While Freeze is a hilarious joke of a character, Poison Ivy is a painful mess to watch.

Ivy is probably Thurman’s worst performance to date. Not only does her performance lack even the groan-inducing humour of Schwarzenegger’s Freeze, she is actively regressive. While the eco-terrorist aspect of her character would be seen as somewhat admirable nowadays, in 1997 Schumacher and company played Ivy’s admirable motivations as idiotic and laughable. In one scene Ivy admonishes Bruce Wayne to shut down destructive corporate practices in South America, to which Wayne quips: “People matter more than plants,” before joining his employees in laughing off the absurdity of ethical corporate practice.

Batman and Robin still 2
Batman and Robin still 2

Other awful scenes in the film deal with the addition of Batgirl (Alicia Silverstone). Schumacher and company intended Batgirl to be the feminine equivalent of Robin, a strong female partner to Batman. They also intended her to be the moral conscience of the film, as in several scenes she lectures the other characters on how old-fashioned their views are. After Robin unsuccessfully attempts to save Batgirl, saying “I’ve got you,” she suddenly kicks into action and ends up saving him, replying, “No, I’ve got you.” A scene that is meant to be a reversal of the damsel in distress ends up being groan-inducing.

During the film’s climax, Batman and Robin are doing battle with Poison Ivy. However, since the producers of the film were so keenly aware of Poison Ivy’s femininity, they didn’t want Batman and Robin physically fighting her. And so, Batgirl arrives in the nick of time to do battle with Poison Ivy, because only a female hero can fight a female villain, apparently. Batgirl even lectures Ivy on how her passive-aggressive sexual control over men is damaging to women.

The whole scene reminds me of how well Catwoman is done in Batman Returns. Not only does Catwoman do physical battle with Batman — and hold her own! — she is sexy without being reduced to nothing but a sex symbol. Ivy has no substance, only a body. Even her power is just her sexiness. Catwoman has brains, brawn, and a body to boot. She’s the whole package. Ivy is just the wrapping.

I could go on about all of this film’s flaws, but I’ll suffice to say that everything about Batman & Robin is overblown and underdeveloped. It is almost nonstop action, and yet it’s utterly boring. This is because there are no longer any characters to care about, any motivations that are worth paying attention to. What remains on screen in merely caricatures, cartoons — and childish ones at that.

Batman & Robin is a movie made for five year olds, but even five year olds may find it lacking.

Batman Forever (1995)

Directed by Joel Schumacher; written by Lee Batchler & Janet Scott Batchler and Akiva Goldsman based on a story by Lee Batchler & Janet Scott Batchler; starring Val Kilmer, Tommy Lee Jones, Jim Carrey, Chris O’Donnell, Nicole Kidman, Michael Gough and Pat Hingle.

6 out of 10

Batman & Robin (1997)

Directed by Joel Schumacher; written by Akiva Goldsman; starring George Clooney, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chris O’Donnell, Uma Thurman, Alicia Silverstone, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle, and John Glover.

2 out of 10