Give Warner Brothers credit. With Joel Schumacher in charge of Batman Forever, the company has finally made its biggest asset truly safe for mass consumption.
Yes, yes, everybody knows that Tim Burton is brilliant and all, but wasn't Batman Returns just a little on the weird side? Weren't the movies a little too bleak for wholesome entertainment? And hasn't it become common wisdom that those first two Batman adventures were long on style and short on *story*?
Well, maybe. While Tim Burton has built a cult reputation on the strength of his idiosyncratic filmmaking, it seemed a little odd that this would be the fellow chosen to finesse a blockbuster out of the Batman franchise. Studio execs must have been overly charmed by his colorful production of Beetlejuice, and no doubt pawed eagerly through copies of Frank Miller comics when Burton suggested a "darker" version of Batman. Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson signed on, guaranteeing a big fat hit. When sequel time rolled around, Burton's vision became even more surreal, riddled with non sequiters and fetishistic visuals that raked in less dough even as, one suspects, it alienated a good portion of its audience.
Mind you, Batman put me to sleep. Twice. The second movie was a marked improvement, mainly because it so eloquently demonstrated that Burton was a man who loved and understood cinema, even if he couldn't quite get it to do what he wanted it to. But I'd love it if someone could explain to me exactly why the guy who directed The Client, Falling Down, and Flatliners was tapped to take over a wild, surreal series of action movies.
'Biff, pow,' Batman. Schumacher directs the whole thing up close, like he's doing some kind of TV movie. When individual body parts are filling the screen, and the cuts are so quick that one motion is indistinguishable from another and nearly every shot has been spliced into the next before we can even focus, I suppose we're supposed to rub our eyes and just say 'gosh.' I wouldn't be surprised if this plays better on video, but that's not really the point.
It's not all bad. The story, for instance is actually an improvement on the original films. From the first introductory sequence, the movie moves like a greased pig. We get to see Robin, whose character is woven into Batman's life. At last, something more than lip service is paid to the twisted psychology of Batman, and it actually affects how the movie turns out. And who would have expected Nicole Kidman as girlfriend psychologist Chase Meridian to do anything besides stand around and drip sex? More than just window dressing, the love interest catalyzes Batman's examination of the two sides of himself. In fact, this movie goes all the way back to the beginning -- we have to see Bruce Wayne's parents get killed again, we watch the kid fall into the bat cave, we get the same old spiel about his obsessions. It's a little trite, but it keeps the far more colorful supervillains from stealing the show completely (as they did in the Burton films) and cements our identification with the hero, which is crucial to our enjoyment of this one. Chris O'Donnell is well-cast in a role that plays against Val Kilmer's too-cool crusader. Maybe the reason we never saw much of what made Michael Keaton's character tick was that he had no one besides blank wall Kim Basinger to explain himself to. Kilmer is better at playing the part, even if he hardly seems old enough to be any kind of mentor to O'Donnell. And if Jim Carrey's histrionics are welcome anywhere, they're welcome here. For the first time, a comic book character has been translated absolutely intact to the silver screen.
The visual design is hit and miss. The costumes are terrific, and the retooled Batmobile is still very much the Batmobile. But the new Gotham City is less a locale for the movie than it is simply a backdrop for the proceedings. And the special effects, on the whole, have the unfortunate effect of defusing some of the more spectacular sequences by reminding us that we're simply watching some well-executed but obviously computer-generated special effects. And while the sound is excellent, the orchestral score (ersatz Elfman) is not.
But there's nothing sublime or even subtle about any of this. No surprises, no mysteries, no moments out of time that fill us with awe or wonder. The best that can be said is that the movie does what it sets out to do very well. In contrast, Burton's reach seems always to exceed his grasp (the notable exception is his most perfect movie, Edward Scissorhands). When Burton was directing the films, you knew that the pictures onscreen were the stuff of legend, even if the sum of the parts was actually greater than the whole. But with Schumacher at the helm, the adventurousness of the filmmaking itself has disappeared. It's hard to pinpoint what's missing, but Batman has suddenly become completely safe, a cuddly part of the corporate culture. He may be packing them in at the multiplex like no one else, but when I start checking the Gotham City skyline for McDonald's arches (you've seen the commercials, haven't you?) I know the magic is gone.