The Neon-Lit Knight: ‘Batman Forever’ Turns 25
by Ben Martin
I’ll always have a nostalgic fondness for Batman Forever (1995), which celebrates its 25th-anniversary this summer. As such, between Warner Brothers and DC Films ignoring the existence of Batman Forever‘s silver anniversary and the recent unfortunate passing of the movie’s director, Joel Schumacher I think now’s a better time than ever to take a look back at Batman Forever. (For those of you who read my articles, you may notice that I occasionally jokingly suggest taking a shot every time I mention Batman Forever. In the case of this article about the film itself, I strongly recommend you DO NOT DO THAT.) Alright, now that I’ve issued that caution, let’s go back 25 years and examine the neon-lit knight in Batman Forever!
Since Christopher Nolan‘s Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012), the Bat flicks of 1989 and the 90s are largely ignored by the public and some of our fellow comic book fans out there. However, many of us, like myself, realize that Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) is responsible for revitalizing the comic book movie sub-genre back in the day. Batman was the face of comic book movies in that era, and every other comic-based flick was made in the shadow of The Bat. Thus, despite the backlash over Batman Returns (1992) from parental and religious organizations and tie-in partners, Burton still intended to do the third film in the franchise he’d helped create. The director was once again set to take the helm on what was tentatively titled Batman Continues.
During this period, Burton got some casting done. Marky-Mark himself, Mark Whalberg, was considered for the role of Robin/Dick Grayson, as were Leonardo DiCaprio, Ewan McGregor, and future Batman, Christian Bale. However, the prized sidekick role initially went to (generally) comedic actor, Marlon Wayans (G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra). The young actor was involved long enough to have a Robin suit molded and fitted, as well as have prototype action figures of his character made. However, eventually, Burton transitioned from director to producer on this third film due to a certain lack of interest on Burton’s part and the polite dissuasion of the studio. (The latter of which undoubtedly had a lot to do with McDonald’s refusing to participate in a tie-in with a third Batman, if Burton was attached.)
Following Burton’s departure, Michael Keaton remained attached to reprise his role. Other than a leading man, though, this third entry didn’t have much except the studio, knowing they wanted to include certain characters and concepts in this sequel. More importantly, Warner Bros. wanted to lighten up this installment and make it more family-friendly, thanks to the criticisms of the previous entry being so dark and over-sexed. Directors John McTiernan (Predator) and Sam Rami (the Spider-Man trilogy) were briefly considered for the film. But, the director’s chair was ultimately occupied by Hollywood journeyman and successful mainstream director Joel Schumacher. Upon coming aboard, the director was given a mandate by the studio. Schumacher, his job was to “Reinvent and refresh the ‘Batman’ franchise.” To achieve this goal, Warners and Schumacher hired the husband-and-wife writing team, Lee and Janet Scott Batchler, to pen a screenplay for what was retitled Batman Forever.
At this point, Schumacher did some major recasting which included replacing Wayans with Chris O’Donnell (The Three Musketeers (1993)). However, Wayans got the last laugh as he had previously negotiated a pay-or-play deal. Meaning, Warners was contractually obligated to pay Wayans his full salary and residuals for Batman Forever. But Wayans wasn’t the only actor to get paid for not being in this threequel. The original big-screen Harvey Dent from Batman ’89, Billy Dee Williams, also gets residuals for the film after being replaced by Schumacher and the studio. Both parties felt Williams did not have much marquee name value by this point in time. Thus, Schumacher recast his leading man from his previous picture, The Client (1994), Academy-Award-Winner, Tommy Lee Jones as the level-headed-DA-turned-homicidal split persona.
Robin Williams was initially offered the role of The Riddler/Edward Nigma. However, Williams declined the offer immediately. See, the comedian/actor was still vehemently displeased about initially being given the villainous role of The Joker/Jack Napier by the studio merely as means of roping Jack Nicholson in and giving him the iconic part. Frankly, I can understand why Williams held a grudge against Warner Bros. for using him as bait, so I can’t blame him for passing on the green tights. Williams’ refusal only caused Schumacher, who referred to himself as “A very cast-dependent director,” to pivot to the comedic actor of the day who had recently shot to stardom.
In 1994, the trifecta of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask (which you can read my retrospective of here), and Dumb & Dumber made Jim Carrey the new cinematic king of the comedy of the 90s. Thus, WB and Schumacher were thrilled when Carrey committed to playing The Riddler. As were The Batchelor’s and additional screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, who did rewrites on the script, customizing it more toward Carrey. However, just as the production scored the freshest star in the movie business, it lost the cornerstone of the franchise.
After reading the screenplay, Keaton declined the opportunity to dawn the cape and cowl again. The actor stated that “To lighten it up and brighten it up was of no interest to me.” While I’m sure this is true, the cynical part of me believes that Keaton’s decision had more to do with Burton not returning and the studio refusing Keaton’s $15 million salary demands. In turn, Rene Russo (Avengers: Endgame), who had been cast to play opposite Kilmer as the love interest, Dr. Chase Meridian, was also dismissed.
Upon Russo’s exit, Schumacher was quick to cast Nicole Kidman (Aquaman) in the part. However, according to the director, the Brothers Warner were hesitant to cast Kidman as the female lead, citing that, “She’s not sexy enough.” Suppose that’s true, what a sad state of affairs. Furthermore, whichever executive said that must be blind. If anything, I would have thought the studio would not have wanted to hire Kidman since she was more famous for being Mrs. Tom Cruise, at that point in history, as opposed to being the bonafide respected actress she is today.
Pre-production on Batman Forever was off the races as Schumacher was putting together a crew that could help bring his lighter, brighter, neon-tinged vision of Gotham City to life. But, even with all this progress, one major roadblock. Batman Forever needed a new actor to play its titular character. While the studio wanted William Baldwin (not something you often read, I know), to play The Caped Crusader, Schumacher convinced them to let him cast Val Kilmer, who was at the height of his powers following the release of Tombstone (1993). But, as I’ll get into, later this decision was one Schumacher would come to regret.
Now that the cast was in place, screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, (who re-teams here with Schumacher after their collaboration on The Client), was brought on to do dialogue polish on the original script. Moreover, Goldsman was tasked with fleshing out the darker thematic elements of the film. See, the thematic throughline of Bruce Wayne’s struggle with the ongoing trauma from his parents’ death and the struggle of being Batman was originally a much more prominent aspect of the film’s story. However, for better-or-worse, Warners decided Batman Forever needed to be lighter and tighter. Thus, Schumacher turned in a movie where, as he put it, “Everything (in Batman Forever) is designed to give you a ride,” and tells the following story:
Batman (Kilmer) has double-trouble on the dangerous and vibrant streets of Gotham. Former district attorney, Harvey Dent, now living under the evil persona of Two-Face (Jones), is wreaking havoc in the city as he blames Bats for his life-changing bifurcating injuries. Face soon finds an ally in The Riddler / Edward Nygma (Carrey), who can serve as an enemy to Batman and his alter ego of Bruce Wayne. By night, The Riddler is tearing up Gotham with Two-Face in the dastardly duo’s crusade against The Dark Knight. By day, Nygma has created the nefarious invention known as The Box, giving Wayne Enterprises a run for its money.
Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne is receiving mysterious riddles, which leads the billionaire to the expertise of criminal psychologist Dr. Chase Meridian (Kidman). In doing so, Bruce subconsciously hopes that Chase might also help him to deal with the resurfaced trauma of his parents’ murders. This freshly revived trauma has become prominent again, thanks to the slaughter of Dick Grayson’s (O’Donnell) entire family at the hands of Two-Face, for which Bruce feels largely responsible. Thus, Bruce takes in the recently orphaned teen. Soon enough, Dick catches on to the superhero gig of it all and begs Bruce to let him partner-up as Robin to take down Riddler and Two-Face. However, by this point, Bruce is faced with the ultimate choice. Should he give up his crusade against crime, or will he remain Batman forever?
While I was merely an infant during the Batmania of 1989, like many Batman fans, I vividly remember the summer of 1995. Batman Forever was poised to be THE Summer blockbuster that year. So much so that you’d have never known Warners was uncertain about how audiences would respond to a new Batman picture following Returns. The studio was able to keep these fears unbeknownst to we moviegoers at the time. I mean, they had every major tie-in deal imaginable including toys, games, a soundtrack that topped the Billboard charts and a significant campaign with McDonald’s, which included a cross-promotion with NASCAR and racer Bill Elliott. Beyond that, the U2 and Seal music videos for the movie’s soundtrack mentioned above were in constant rotation on the tube.
Thus, making a more widely appealing movie with some levity paid-off for WB as it drew in audiences, as well as marketing partners. Batman seemed to be everywhere, and the box-office proved as much, considering Batman Forever grossed $336 million on a $100 million budget. Back in ’95, $100 million was a big deal as opposed to these days. As Stanly County, North Carolina, if not the world’s biggest 6-year-old Batman fan, I was primed for Forever and probably pestered my parents to take me to see it. However, after Batman Returns, they wanted to screen it for themselves before deciding to take me to the theater. Thankfully, this lightened-and-brightened Batman adventure passed my parents muster, and I ended up seeing the film during its second weekend.
To this day, I can remember exactly where my dad and I were sitting in that packed house at what was our local theater for that screening of Batman Forever. As we waited for the movie to start, my Bat-obsessed excitement was at a fever pitch, despite an oddly calm and patient exterior for a child. Right as the house lights fully dimmed, I remember my dad leaning over and whispering to me, “Bud, if you get scared at any point, just reach over and grab my hand.” And I did just that hearing the ominous notes that kick-off the film with Elliot Goldenthal‘s opening theme. I then quickly took my hand back and kept it to myself upon becoming entranced by the flick. In retrospect, I think dad knew, as I did that, I wasn’t scared, but instead, overexcited and probably needed a little grounding.
Unsurprisingly, Batman Forever became my favorite Bat entry for the next year or so. Because, when you’re a kid, the latest is the greatest. (However, I would also return to Batman ’89 every so often. After all, that’s the one always been the filmic equivalent of pure love for me. When Forever was released on VHS in October ’95, I vividly remember making a special trip to The Warner Bros to pick up that tape and a few other Batty items. Once I got back home, I wore that videocassette out! (Bless my parents for letting me do so.)
Following that, my opinion of Schumacher’s neon-hued approach to his two Batman pictures had soured somewhat over the years. Although, I suppose that’s only natural; if a film’s in your life long enough, your opinions on it may wax and wane. By the time I was in high school, I’d set Schumacher’s Batstallments aside, clinging to Burton’s for all they were worth. Of course, my doing so was also part of what I refer to as “The Nolan Effect.”
As a result, I wanted my Batman flicks to be dark, serious, or both. Thankfully, such a take, which would be the equivalent of being a Snyder bro in our modern parlance, did not last long for me. Fast-forward to my college years, which were frankly, a rough few years for me. At that time, I reevaluated Schumacher’s duology and settled on an opinion on them, which I feel I’ll hold for life.
In regards to Batman Forever, I think the movie suffers for some by how history tends to blur and compound things. Thus, a lot of people think the film in review and it’s sequel, Batman & Robin (1997) (which you can check out my take on here) are precisely the same and therefore, share all the same issues. However, this is simply not the case. While it’s true that Schumacher and Warner Bros. took the wrong lessons away from the success of Forever and thus lead to the demise of the franchise with Batman & Robin, Forever works in many ways that its follow-up does not.
Batman Forever is ultimately a soft-reboot of sorts. The first of the reboots in comic book movie history, and movies in general. Although, nobody could have known that at the time, since the term “Reboot” did not exist, at least in the cinematic sense. Let’s face it though, the only thing that ties Forever to its predecessors is Michael Gough as Alfred Pennyworth and Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon. (Well, them and a fleeting, nonchalant reference to Catwoman in Batman Returns.) Aside from those elements, which could frankly be ignored, Batman Forever is a fresh start for this franchise and needn’t be compared to Burton’s previous entries.
Yes, Schumacher and WB kept one set of toes in what Burton had established. But otherwise, Forever offers a new world for Batman movies. Sure, the universe created by the cast and crew for this film is a lighter-and-brighter one, but that’s not a bad thing. See, every film is a product of its time. In the case of Batman Forever, it’s one of the ultimate Summer blockbusters of the 1990s. More importantly, though, with Batman Forever, I feel that Schumacher achieved his goal of “Making a living comic book.” Even if you hate this flick, there’s no denying that Batman Forever looks like a comic book, particularly concerning its color palette. Despite what many think, the director would not become obsessed with making “A cartoon,” until Batman & Robin.
Beyond the design of Batman Forever, this entry is undoubtedly the first one in the franchise that attempts to focus primarily on Batman/Bruce Wayne. (Look, I love Burton’s Bat flicks too, but there’s no denying that he was more interested in the villains than the hero.) After all, Forever‘s central emotional conflict concerns Bruce wrestling with his life of crime-fighting, albeit briefly. Granted, like it’s predecessors, Batman Forever does get somewhat sidetracked by Batman’s adversaries, particularly when Carrey’s on-screen. However, this film does still value Batman as its primary character.
Now, that’s not to say that the film doesn’t suffer from an overstuffed and busy screenplay. On the contrary, it most certainly does that. The focus of the screenplay and overall approach to Batman Forever is the razzle-dazzle of it all. Therefore, any remaining darkness or subtlety that may have been present does tend to get lost in the mix. Although, it’s not so much the break-neck paced story that’s the issue in the screenplay as much as it is the dialogue here.
Don’t get me wrong; the dialogue in Batman Forever is not constantly grating or anything. It’s only an issue when it comes to individual cast members. While Carrey, Kidman, and O’Donnel are absolutely game for the material, Batman himself is unfortunately not. Much to my chagrin, it’s evident that Val Kilmer does not want to be in this movie. Yes, he’s a decent enough Batman; but he’s a terribly dull Bruce Wayne. Frankly, he sleepwalks through the majority of his titular role. Aside from that, the actor was also an absolute diva to work with, according to Schumacher.
Then there’s Tommy Lee Jones, who’s trying to do his spin on Nicholson’s Joker performance instead of attempting to give an original performance as Harvey/Two-Face. Of course, it doesn’t help that the script didn’t delve into Two-Face’s character or his issues. Moreover, the fact that it was merely the enthusiasm of Jones’ son was the actor’s deciding factor for him to take the role.
Despite these issues, though, Batman Forever is still a helluva’ fun ride! In that way, Joel Schumacher did precisely what he was hired to do. More importantly, I must once again stress that Forever is a good Batman film because it does attempt to focus on its caped-and-cowled hero. Even if you recall it being a little too light for your taste, I urge you to give the film a shot in honor of its 25th anniversary. (If you aren’t willing to do so after reading this, please consider giving another one of Schumacher’s films a revisit. The man deserves that much, may he rest.)
Frankly, Warner Bros. isn’t giving this film the due it deserves 25 years on. But, if we as fans give Batman Forever some attention, perhaps the studio will take notice. While you can get a taste of that darker original cut from the deleted scenes, included on the Special Edition releases of the film, there’s a chance we could get more. Recently, it was reported that there’s a 171-minute original director’s cut in the studio vaults. If, like myself, this is something you’re keen to see, feel free to Tweet #ReleasetheSchumacherCut to WB on Twitter. In the meantime, though, go back and see how Batman Forever holds up for you!
Batman Forever is available on Streaming, 4K UHD, Blu-Ray, & DVD