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Difficulty with Duality: The Batman Films of Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher

Written by: Monte Williams, Special to CC2K


ImageThere is no doubt that Batman Returns is the darkest of the four films. The fact that it remains at least partly accessible to children arguably makes it darker than even The Dark Knight. But Batman Returns is also whimsical. Tim Burton struck a precarious balance between commercial viability and dark fancy that Joel Schumacher hopelessly bungled; under Schumacher’s guidance, dark, palatable whimsy became sexless, hyper-gaudy porn.

It is easy to mock Joel Schumacher’s homoerotic sugar-hangover aesthetic, and indeed I am about to enthusiastically do so for a few thousand words. But one should perhaps look upon Batman Forever not as a direct sequel to Batman and Batman Returns, but instead as a pre-Nolan reboot of the Batman franchise, and it is in this charitable spirit that I make the following vow. Back in the early ’90s, I watched an old Popeye cartoon with my buddy Mike Franks, whose lone response to Popeye being swallowed by a whale was to protest that there’s no way Popeye’s pipe would stay lit in such conditions. Batman Forever and Batman and Robin are so obviously wrong at even the most casual of glances that it’s ridiculous–if still tempting–to isolate the more insignificant specifics. In other words, I shall do my best, as I discuss these two movies, to refrain from noting moments when the pipe couldn’t possibly stay lit.

First, a word on the general look of Batman Forever. The mouse I used while typing this essay has a transparent section where my palm rests, and every three seconds or so, this clear segment lights up, first pale blue and then purple, then green. The surface is smooth, but just beneath the surface is a textured layer that refracts the light the way a diamond would. It reminds me of those transparent telephones that were briefly popular in the early 1990s. I had one. When the phone rang, it’d light up. In Batman Forever, Gotham City is a neon metropolis where each building, automobile and vigilante supersuit seems to be composed of transparent light-up telephones and rainbow-flashing computer mouses. Disco lighting blasts every street corner and miles-high statues crowd the skyscrapers–lest you think I exaggerate their size, an entire vehicular chase sequence takes place on one of the statues in Batman and Robin. Where Tim Burton used sets to lend his absurd stories some inherent gravity, Schumacher relies at times on low-quality CGI, and yet his lighting choices and designs are so exaggerated and off-kilter that the scenes utilizing real sets seem somehow faker than scenes set against CGI backdrops. Comedian Jake Johannsen once suggested that there will never be a human being who can be described as “like Liberace, but more so”, yet Joel Schumacher’s Gotham City is like Las Vegas, but more so. Much, much more so.

The Batmobile is also changed for the worse. It now features a towering dorsal fin that seems to offer no offensive benefits to compensate for its impracticality. Plus, the fin wobbles as the car navigates the newly day-glow streets of Gotham. Matching the Batmobile’s look are Gotham’s gang members, who have foregone leather and denim in favor of face paint and tassels that glow vividly beneath the blacklights the city apparently uses to light its alleys. This all makes for a unique aesthetic, but it also yanks the viewer out of the story. Or rather, it would yank the viewer out of the story if the terrible dialogue, hammy acting and cartoony action sequences had not already done so. Indeed, the acting and dialogue are even more artificial than the sets and CGI. The first words Val Kilmer’s Batman speaks in Batman Forever are, “I’ll get drive-through”. The first words his love interest Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman) speaks are, “Hot entrance”. Here’s some of their romantic repartee:

Batman: You called me here for this? The Batsignal is not a beeper.

Chase: Well, I wish I could say that my interest in you was purely professional.

Batman: Are you trying to get under my cape, Doctor? It’s the car, right? Chicks love the car.

Chase: Pity I can’t see behind the mask.

Batman: We all wear masks.

Chase: My life’s an open book. You read?

Batman: I don’t blend in at a family picnic.

Think back to Tim Burton’s counterintuitive casting of Michael Keaton as Batman, and look at the nuanced performances that resulted. Now look at the talent Joel Schumacher had at his disposal: George Clooney, Val Kilmer, Tommy Lee Jones. Jones especially is a gifted actor capable of beautiful, subtle performances, but his Two-Face in Batman Forever is a generic thug whose “crazy” antics are about as convincing as those of Mad Murdock from the old A-Team television series.

In a similar vein, Jim Carrey’s Edward Nigma is a hyperactive, spastic buffoon. He bashes his boss with a coffeepot and shouts “Caffeine’ll kill ya!” He then pulls a hair from the man’s mustache to revive him, and there’s a plucking effect on the soundtrack. Jim Carrey is not The Riddler–he’s Ace Ventura in a green suit. Adam West was rightfully mocked for suggesting he should portray Batman in the 1989 film, but we would legitimately have been better off with West’s castmate Frank Gorshin as Riddler in Batman Forever, even if he was sixty-two years old at the time. The rumor mill in 1994 suggested that Robin Williams would be cast as Riddler, which would have been no less disastrous, because Robin Williams, like Jim Carrey, is capable of generous, touching acting, but in comedies, he is always the same manic character: himself.

If Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey seem determined to outdo one another in an ill-advised overacting contest, Chris O’Donnell is at best a dull nonentity as Dick Grayson and Robin. It’s difficult to muster sympathy for Dick Grayson when he steals the Batmobile and drives it through the city, making stupid comments like “Take a ride in my love machine!” in a lame accent. He’s like Poochy, from the Itchy and Scratchy cartoons on The Simpsons. Robin is typically a young teen in the comics, and while a thirteen-year-old vigilante sidekick may seem like an implausible character, a filmmaker’s determination to avoid such silliness should result in a decision not to use the character at all. Instead, we’re stuck with a twenty-something Robin who comes across as a bland Batman Junior who’s too old to engage in O’Donnell’s alternately cocky and petulant fits. (Dick Grayson is seemingly supposed to be a teen in Batman Forever, but he doesn’t look like a teenager, and O’Donnell was twenty-five when the film was released).

Aside from Robin, the only role I’ve seen Chris O’Donnell tackle is the ill-fated Buddy Threadgoode from Fried Green Tomatoes. From what I’ve seen of his career, then, Chris O’Donnell has a level of duality all his own that theoretically makes him a good match for the Batman franchise: he starred in the two movies that transformed Batman into an overpoweringly homoerotic series, but on the other hand he played a supporting role in an adaptation that mostly eliminated the homosexual relationship between the novel’s two protagonists.

Val Kilmer tries at times to evoke Michael Keaton’s stammering bewilderment as Bruce Wayne, as in the scene wherein he breaks down Dr. Chase’s office door only to find that she’s kickboxing rather than being attacked. He seldom succeeds, ’cause like everyone else in Batman Forever, Kilmer is reduced to decoration. His Batman is a generic Good Guy, just as Two-Face is a generic Bad Guy.

Poor Two-Face. The supposed duality of Harvey Dent’s psyche manifests itself in clumsy “symbolism” a kindergartener could have thought up, so that every scene involving Two-Face feels like the heavy-handed opening moments of Twin Falls, Idaho. In one of the more lumbering examples, Harvey returns to his hideout, which is a large loft divided in half like the bedroom of bickering siblings on a sitcom–Riddler describes it as “heavy metal meets House and Garden“. Drew Barrymore, clad in white lingerie, offers Harvey a dish of “sparkling champagne and yummy poached salmon with little itty-bitty quail eggs and a creamy, dreamy lemon soufflé”, while his other assistant, a goth slut caricature, provides “a charred heart of black boar, a side of raw donkey meat and a Sterno and grain alcohol, straight up, baby”. Two-Face’s girls are called Sugar and Spice. One wonders what they do while Two-Face is away. Tim Burton would have given us some idea, no doubt.

Compare this stomping, cackling clown with the quieter interpretation of Two-Face from Batman the Animated Series. In the series finale, Two-Face is persecuted by a new vigilante called the Judge, clad in black robes and a powdered wig that hides his face in shadows. Batman eventually deduces that the Judge is in fact a third personality of Harvey Dent’s, and the episode draws to a close with Dent in a padded room at Arkham Asylum. We hear the Judge’s deep voice asking how the defendant pleads in the case of The People vs. Harvey Dent, and then we behold an eerie, devastated Two-Face, mumbling, “guilty… guilty… guilty”. We could also make mention again of Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s depraved Arkham Aslyum graphic novel, with its well-meaning therapists who substitute a deck of cards for Harvey’s two-headed coin in an effort to create a wider array of choices for him; the end result is that Dent is incapable of making any choice at all–Batman angrily notes that Harvey has soiled himself because he cannot decide whether to use the restroom. But no, instead we have the brilliant Tommy Lee Jones turning in a performance Hulk Hogan could have produced, with ridiculous purple makeup and a constant growling delivery that makes him about as menacing and tragic as Beast-Man from the old He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon.

Though the screenplays give his character little of the depth of Michael Caine’s take on the character in Christopher Nolan’s two-film cycle, Michael Gough as Alfred has always been a highlight of the uneven Batman series. His understated punchlines and bemused expressions lighten even the dumbest scenes. In Batman Forever, Dick Grayson asks what’s behind the mansion’s only locked door, and while you might expect Alfred just to tell him it’s the Batcave considering he’d already invited Vicki Vale to share Bruce’s secret in the first film, he instead says that the room contains “Mr. Wayne’s dead wives”. One is half-surprised Schumacher didn’t ask Michael Gough to turn and offer a conspiratorial wink to the camera, like George Reeves in The Adventures of Superman.

With all of Batman Forever‘s glaring faults, it’s really an accomplishment of sorts that Schumacher managed to make things worse in his second film in the series. More impressive still is how quickly things go awry; just over a minute into Batman and Robin, we endure close-up shots of the title characters’ rubber-clad butts. And keep in mind that the first minute or so is just whooshing credits, so that Batman and Robin’s butts are pretty much the first actual live-action footage we see. Perhaps it’s hypocritical of me to scorn the sexualizing of Batman when I respond to the sexualizing of Catwoman with earnest analysis, but whether it’s the social conditioning or the film criticism talking, I maintain that the butt shots are stupid. To put it in perspective, ask yourself how such an image would play in one of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. Obviously Warner Brothers was targeting a younger audience with Joel Schumacher’s two Batman movies, but that raises the question of who is meant to enjoy seeing Batman’s bum. Maybe it was an attempt to entertain the moms who were dragged to the theater, just as Amy Jo Johnson’s Pink Ranger helped dads tolerate Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers? Poison Ivy seems to confirm this theory when she says to Batman, “There’s something about an anatomically-correct rubber suit that puts fire in a girl’s lips.” On that note, many people criticized Schumacher’s decision to add nipples to Batman’s costume, but really, are nipples any sillier than the molded abdominal muscles on the suit from the 1989 film?

I went back and watched again: we cut from the title sequence to Batman’s glove, our first live-action image of the movie, at 01:12, and we see Batman’s ass at 01:18 and Robin’s ass at 01:21; in-between, we get a close-up shot of each man’s wildly oversized codpiece. This strikes me as the wrong note on which to start a Batman movie. I’ll allow that maybe I’m projecting my own fears of inadequacy when I describe Batman and Robin’s codpieces as “wildly oversized”, and I’ll concede that my desire to review the opening scene “to record the specific times” might secretly stem from a tormenting crush on Batman and his young ward, and I’ll admit again that my criticisms are hypocritical in light of my praise of Michelle Pfeiffer’s fetishistic performance in Batman Returns. But this is just poor filmmaking. Hell, make Batman gay–just do it better.

Author: Monte Williams, Special to CC2K

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