From George Clooney's nipples to Heath Ledger's lipstick, the Batman franchise has had its highs and lows. The third in a series of appreciations this week, leading to Friday's opening of The Dark Knight Rises. Read the article about the original Batman here.
Directed by Joel Schumacher
Release date: June, 1995
Bat rating: 3 out of 10
The words I am about to say will send a spasm of shame and loathing down the back of any self-respecting Batman fan – don't say I didn't warn you. The Schumacher years. Oh, God, the horror.
If there's ever an international court to prosecute crimes against comic books, Schumacher is the first person I'd recommend we put up on charges. But then why bother? He's so obviously guilty.
Batman Returns may have been the third highest grossing movie of 1992, but that was not enough for executives at Warner Bros., who decided to take the franchise in a new direction to squeeze maximum profits from it.
Whatever faults you might find with Tim Burton's two Batman films, they were movies made for adults that children were welcome to come see. The Schumacher years reversed that dynamic: his were films for eight-year-olds whose parents had to be dragged along to watch.
If you were a fan of the darker, gritty Batman stories – Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore's homicidally brilliant The Killing Joke, Grant Morrison and Dave McKean's nightmarish Arkham Asylum, even the Detective Comics title in DC's current comic book reboot – then Batman Forever was a betrayal. How could you do this to the most interesting super hero in comic book history? How? How could anyone let this travesty happen?
Schumacher deserves all the scorn that's been heaped on him for his crimes against the Bat. You know who deserves our respect? Michael Keaton. He could have stayed on as Batman, and he could have cashed a $15-million paycheque for doing so. But after meeting with Schumacher he declined. He didn't like where the director planned to take the franchise, so he left. Best. Decision. Ever.
So instead we were given a bland, blank Batman in the form of Val Kilmer. It only got worse from there. Jim Carrey had a fun manic energy as The Riddler, I guess, but it couldn't justify his bright green suit covered in question marks. Nor could it justify his lair, which was also covered in big bright question marks. Who's got the time to do all this question mark decorating? And then there was Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face with that stupid purple make-up on. And why was he laughing all the time? The opening of an elevator could make that guy cackle maniacally. Did Schumacher ask him to do a moron's impersonation of the Joker? Because that's what it looked like. And remember his two molls? One, named Sugar, dressed all in white and played by Drew Barrymore; the other, named Spice, dressed in black and bloody reds, with spiky hair to boot, played by Debi Mazar. Sugar and Spice, white and black, get it? Because he's Two-Face? Get it? Yes, Schumacher, we get it. Shame on you.
And then there were all the minor crimes: nipples on the Bat suit (good God!), the new, garish Batmobile driving up the side of a building to escape bad guys, Robin using Kung-fu to put away his laundry (was that supposed to be cool?) and all the neon of the set design. Black-lit bad guys in glowing getups? Guilty as charged. Also, turfing Danny Elfman and replacing him with Eliot Goldenthal's flat, forgettable score was one more piece of evidence that Warner Bros., with dollar signs in its eyes, wanted only to make something easily digestible for children.
The worst part is, the strategy paid off: Batman Forever became the second highest grossing movie of the year, behind only Toy Story. How is that possible? It's a mystery even the world's greatest detective probably couldn't solve. But that's actually not the worst part. The worst part is that Schumacher's success guaranteed there would be more of this high-gloss, low-rent tripe to come.