Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Road to ‘The Batman’: In Defense of Schumacher

Last week, I discussed the impact and legacy of Tim Burton’s take on the caped crusader. Tim Burton’s eye for breathtaking visuals, gothic setting, and costume direction elevated the character for a late 80s audience. Where Adam West’s Batman was goofy and cheesy, throwing punches with “BAM” and “POW” effects, Burton’s Batman reveled in darkness. Despite Burton’s flawed first entry with the character, his directorial voice can be seen throughout the film. Batman may not be a complex character, but he is a serious one. The Joker isn’t just a maniac, but rather a power-hungry, prideful criminal of Gotham. The violence and 80s special effects were bordering on disturbing. All together, Burton’s Batman has an aesthetic that defined the character. 

So in 1995, when Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever was released, the tonal whiplash could not be more pronounced. It replaced Burton’s gothic Gotham with a megalopolis of God’s and legends. It replaced the darker tones with neon lights. It replaced Burton’s disgusting Penguin makeup with a comical Two-Face. It replaced Burton’s sharp costumes with rubbery spandex that reflected light, not darkness. And for 26 years, these films have been the punchline of every Batman joke. So when I sat down to watch Batman Forever, I expected to hate the cheesy jokes about the batmobile. I expected to hate the camp-infused design of the world. But instead, I came away from the film enthralled by Schumacher’s vision. So for the second installment of this retrospective, I want to defend these often overlooked design choices. Because the design, the heart at the center of these films is so much more than we give them credit for. 

Batman Forever (1995)

When I talked about Tim Burton’s first Batman film, Batman, I talked about the power of an opening scene. How Danny Elfman’s score, Roger Platt’s cinematography, and Anton Furst’s production design immediately created Burton’s Batman, and Burton’s Gotham city. And while Schumacher’s opening is nothing to scoff at, I think its finale speaks wonders about his Batman. Gotham City isn’t what matters in this story, rather, the reverence for Batman and Robin propels it forward. This is a story about what it means to be Batman, to be Gotham’s idol. It’s a story about the trauma that creates selfless people. And to that end, it succeeds with flying colors. 

Much of my criticisms levied towards Burton’s Batman came from it’s scriptwriting. It took Burton a whole film to find a Batman story worth telling. Batman as a story has little to stand on, because it’s a revenge plot that reveals that twist in the third act. Bruce Wayne is nothing more than window dressing in Batman. And while I applauded Burton’s second film with the Dark Knight for its much deeper tale of duality, it never really dove into who Batman was. It was more focused on the consequences of being Gotham’s knight. 

So when Schumacher’s first run with Bruce Wayne dares to dive into what makes Bruce choose to be Batman, I was amazed. It’s a story that dives into a lot of deep pools, and addresses some of the fragments of Burton’s Batman that some would consider antithetical to the character. The decision to give Robin the revenge plot is truly genius, allowing Bruce Wayne to pass along the wisdom he has learned. And the main plot is propelled forward by Bruce’s guilt, which is tied directly into Bruce’s love interest, Dr. Chase Meridian. And our two villains both have their own levels of thematic depth. Two-Face blames Batman for the acid that made him who he is, and The Riddler blames Bruce Wayne for being ignored at Wayne enterprises. These characters are driven by entitlement, and like the gods of ancient mythology, they take out their anger on the normal people of Gotham. 

These ideas are at the center of Schumacher’s world, and while some of the arcs feel a bit rushed, it’s still a major accomplishment that they all work. Robin may learn not to kill in one scene, but it still works. Bruce Wayne accepts his role in society as both Bruce and Batman, and it lands. Dr. Chase stands as one of the better Batman love interests on film, because of how involved she is with the plot. And the tantrums of both The Riddler and Two Face are quite amusing to witness. 

These are all thanks to both the narrative, and the stacked cast of Batman Forever. Val Kilmer, Nicole Kidman, Tommy Lee Jones, Jim Carrey, and even Drew Barrymore populate this world, and do so spectacularly. Kilmer’s Batman feels special, in part due to its scarcity, and due to his mature work as the character. Kilmer plays both Wayne and The Dark Knight perfectly, capturing the playful demeanor of Bruce Wayne that hides the trauma which propels him into the streets at night. Kidman plays Dr. Chase, and once again, elevates the script. It’s already an effective script, but the chemistry between Kidman and Kilmer is palpable throughout the film. Their relationship is akin to the screwball comedies of the 40s, being flirtatious and sensual, but not outright explicit. And Chris O’Donnell’s work as Robin is fantastic here. He anchors the revenge plot through his facial performance, and contains a youthful energy that is sorely missing from the rest of the cast. Contrasting our heroes, are the performances by Jones and Carrey, who both continue the on-screen tradition of having extremely campy villain performances. Tommy Lee Jones’ Two Face is still a marvel to behold, constantly keeping you on edge for when he might snap. And Jim Carrey’s Riddler works well alongside him, bringing out the more insane performance from Jones. 

With a story as layered and mature as this, it stuns me that Schumacher also decided to keep his world accessible for all ages. Art directors Christopher Burian-Mohr and Joseph P. Lucky infuse Schumacher’s Gotham with neon color at every level. Cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt often uses one or two point lighting to give a scene its darkness, and it inadvertently gives Batman and Robin much more power as characters. As with Burton before him, Schumacher understands the importance of iconography, and it is infused into each scene spectacularly. As noted earlier, the costumes present in Batman Forever can be considered very comic booky. Designers Ingrid Ferrin and Bob Ringwood continue to infuse color and style into these costumes.  It goes hand in hand with the makeup, designed by Rick Baker, which is clearly meant to take the comic book characters off of the page and onto the big screen. And while some may not like the “childish” nature of these designs, I think it’s fundamental to Schumacher’s story. This tale of the modern day gods needs to have the gods be distinct from humans. Batman and Robin both have tight fitting costumes that pronounce their fitness. They are depictions of the ultimate man, and without the costume, this wouldn’t work. 

And to further this narrative, Barbara Ling’s production design is built on creating a multi-level Gotham that worships these characters. Everyday people know the Batmobile, and hold a reverence for it. The world is populated by statues of Atlas, the son of a titan who carried the world from Greek Mythology. The parallels between the ancient gods and our modern day gods are front and center in the design of Schumacher’s world. 

Batman and Robin (1997)


After Batman Forever, it was clear that audiences liked the direction of Schumacher’s Batman. It was child appropriate, genuinely funny, and good escapism at its finest. So it should come as no surprise that Warner Bros. doubled down on those elements, to make a Batman film that would be loved by all. The result of this push for a child friendly Batman movie was Batman and Robin, a film aggressively advertised to families, with television tie-in advertisements for McDonalds and Coca Cola. Much like Batman Returns, its aim was to give more of the stuff people liked about its predecessor. The neon lighting, colorful costumes, super-gadgets, and comedic script became the anchors of its story. The camp-infused performances of Gotham’s supervillains were brought back once again, but with even larger performances. The action set pieces were larger, with more chases, more unique environments, and crazier special effects. And these elements began to overshadow the story of family and jealousy at the root of Batman and Robin. 

See, those elements I listed are things most people despise about Batman and Robin. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Uma Thurman, and George Clooney are too campy for some people. The gadgets all feel too on the nose. “Like, how could anyone take a bat credit card seriously? The special effects are dated, with Mr. Freeze’s Blue teeth being a blue light that shined on his teeth. The costumes are too rubbery, and the suit up sequences emphasize butts and niples too much.” These aren’t just common critiques of the film; they are what most people associate with Batman and Robin. And yet, I don’t think they are half as egregious as some would lead you to believe, because at its core, these “problems” have been present since Burton’s first Batman film. As I said in my first piece, camp is a fundamental element of every performance in Burton’s films. Every villain over-emphasizes elements of who they are. Nicholson brings out the crazy of the Joker. Pfeiffer brings out the sexuality of Catwoman. De Vito brings out the anger and disgust at the core of The Penguin. Tommy Lee Jones brings out the twisted morality of Two Face. Carrey brings out the overlooked nature of The Riddler. It’s par for the course to have campy villains. So when Schwarzenegger has a bad ice related pun, it doesn’t seem antithetical to this generation of Batman. When Thurman plays up the sexuality of Poison Ivy, it works flawlessly. And while Bane is heavily under-utilized in the film, I don’t have a problem with it here. He doesn’t have a major role in this story, so his simplicity works. 

That’s the magic of Batman and Robin to me. It certainly has problems, but they weren’t what I had been led to believe them to be. I think Clooney’s Batman is a genuine gift, as he brings out the aged nature of the crusader better than anyone before him. And in a story about growing as a family, in taking others under your belt because you can’t do it alone, I think it works. It works so well that I daresay the casting was genius. There’s a world-weariness to the performance that no other actor to this point had been able to create. And I love that. Michael Gough is a true hero in this film, being the emotional anchor for the varying members of the Bat-family. He’s been there since the first Burton film, and it’s by no mistake. Chris O’Donnell and Alicia Silverstone are great as new-ish members of the Bat-family. And visually, Schumacher still keeps this Gotham rooted in modern gods. The statues of titans are more prevalent here than ever before, the quarrels between Freeze, Ivy, and Batman are portrayed as the Greek gods having a spat on mount olympus. It’s fitting for a story about family to be rooted in Greek mythology, where the conflict stemmed from being in a family. And I think that’s genius.

However, for all the praise I give this film, it comes with a dreadful caveat: the action isn’t good. It fails to have interesting and informative sound design. It fails to convey the geography of most scenes. It fails to have any momentum, and it fails to be rooted in the story. In spite of the larger thematic ideas that Freeze and Ivy represent, the action doesn’t tap into this. If Freeze is a good doctor hurt by circumstance, and Ivy is a eco-terrorist who is envious of all, the action doesn’t convey it. And the fact that these action set pieces are longer than before, full of cheesy one-liners, and given a poor sound design hurt the film. It doesn’t help that both Bane and Mr. Freeze have poor visual effects that often take you out of the story. It all coalesced into a grand story that I ultimately like. It’s definitely the weakest of all the Batman films, but not by much. 


Why Schumacher’s Batman Matters

So here we are, at 1997. Batman and Robin has been critically panned, with audiences generally disliking it, and making only $100 million more than its budget at the box office. In spite of it’s hopeful ending gearing up to tell the stories of Batman, Robin and Batwoman, Joel Schumacher’s Batman would never return. Instead, Batman would go on hiatus from live-action film for 8 years. 

So why does it matter? Well, frankly, these stories matter because Schumacher understood what made Batman stories accessible to all. The themes would always go a little deeper, but the films were made with a child audience in mind. And sadly, that has been lost in recent years. I may be extremely excited for Matt Reeves’ take on the character, but I can say with utmost confidence it won’t be for kids. And that kinda bums me out. Because Schumacher got that extremely well. He knows what these characters mean to so many people; they are the modern day gods of America. We tell their stories to be inspired to do better, and that is important for everyone. Schumacher knew how to infuse themes with these simple stories, and even if studio meddling would remove much of that depth, he knew how to keep it present enough to offer more for the keen viewer. And ultimately, Schumacher deserves our praise for making films that succeeded at being for everyone. 


Next week, join me as I delve into the Batman that came out of this 8 year hiatus: Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. 

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