Monday, April 23, 2012

Batman Forever

Like one of its villains, Batman Forever (1995) is schizophrenic. There were times while watching it I was really into it, and then there were times that made me cringe. The first Batman movie directed by Joel Schumacher, Batman Forever contains many of the same elements that would be pushed to the nth degree in Batman & Robin, but here, it's mostly toned down and easier to take. While there are still plenty of boneheaded decisions on the part of the filmmakers that keep this from being good, Batman Forever remains passably entertaining, which is more than I can muster for its sequel.

Batman (Val Kilmer) is dealing with an old friend turned enemy: Harvey "Two-Face" Dent (Tommy Lee Jones), the former district attorney who became a warped criminal after acid scarred half of his face. Two-Face bases his crimes and actions on the number two, deciding fates on the flip of a coin. At a charity circus, Two-Face kills the acrobat family the Flying Graysons, all except for the youngest Dick (Chris O'Donnell). Bruce Wayne takes Dick in as his ward, who before long learns his benefactor is Batman. Dick desperately wants to become Batman's partner so he can kill Two-Face, but Wayne won't allow it. Meanwhile, a spurned Waynetech employee, Edward Nygma (Jim Carrey), becomes the Riddler, leaves Bruce Wayne anonymous puzzles, and goes to Two-Face with a proposition: they will learn learn Batman's identity and drain Gotham City of its brain waves.

Lighter and brighter than the previous movies in the series directed by Tim Burton, Batman Forever has more going for it than Batman & Robin. Yes, the tacky neon lights are still here, but they're used more sparingly and effectively. The action scenes are engaging and not overwhelmed by noise and chaos, and Kilmer, while not a standout, at least manages to keep his dignity intact, unlike George Clooney. There are a few genuine laughs here and there, like when Alfred tells Bruce that Master Dick took the car. "Not the Jaguar. The other car."

Like Batman & Robin, there are too many story lines fighting for screen, and a number of them get short-changed. I've never been a fan of the Robin character, but his arc here and how Bruce Wayne sees a parallel between their family tragedies and desires for revenge work pretty well. It opens up some moral implications: is Batman inspiring others to emulate his lifestyle, and what choices will Dick Grayson make? Will he go down the same path? Also, O'Donnell is nowhere near as annoying as he was in the next installment of the franchise.

At around two hours in length, Batman Forever feels truncated. It feels like there are missing scenes that would further go into the characters and explain what appear to be plot holes in the movie: the psychiatrist Batman/Bruce Wayne romances (Nicole Kidman) wavers back and forth between the "two" men without much elaboration; Dick Grayson runs away but in his next scene appears as Robin without showing how or why he came back; and when Dick discovers the Batcave with Alfred in it, he is then seeing driving the Batmobile (that doesn't seem like something Alfred or the cave's security system would allow).

But for me, the biggest detriment to Batman Forever was its treatment of its villains. Frankly, it's awful. Jones, who I believe was a great choice for Two-Face, is a second-rate Joker clone, cackling and hamming it up when he should be deadly serious, grizzled, and pained. Like Mr. Freeze, he's something of a tragic figure, a once good man warped and twisted who now leaves everything up to the whimsy of fate. Nor is he helped by the ridiculous costume and makeup that makes him look purple. We rarely see him flip the coin, and one time he does, he continues to flip it until he gets the result he wants. That goes against the spirit of the character; in the comics and elsewhere, whatever side the coin landed on, Two-Face accepted it without question. With Jones acting like a campy villain, he's just another goon. He just kinds of appears and disappears throughout the story, never really having an ultimate scheme, which makes him feel second-rate.

Which brings me to the Riddler. Let me illustrate something: I like Jim Carrey. I love the Ace Ventura movies and enjoy his work in comedy. That said, I hate his performance as the Riddler. I know Riddler is meant to be obnoxious and full of himself, but this is too much. Carrey pretty much just mucks it up for the camera, causing any threat or intelligence this guy is supposed to possess to just dissipate. He never shuts up or stops with the silly posturing, and he goes off on weird tangents and bits that were better left in Dumb and Dumber. He's a distraction. The frustrating part is how much better his story line is written than Two-Face's, going from the loyal, starstruck employee to a deranged, obsessed fanatic out for revenge. With a more controlled actor who could project the intelligence and demented threat, it could have been great.

I guess you could say Batman Forever splits the difference. Not as good as the Tim Burton or Christopher Nolan movies and not as bad as Batman & Robin, it at least does a competent job as a comic-book blockbuster. With better treatment of the villains, it could have been so much more.

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