Everyone talks about movies they love.
It seems that the movies discussed are always the usual film snobbery pickings; The Godfather, Pulp Fiction, and perennial favorite, Citizen Kane. But who wouldn’t love these movies? They’re near flawless. People write about great movies all the time. Film enthusiasts even write about overrated movies. For example, Premiere Magazine just came out with an overrated movie list that’s sure to infuriate any movie lover.
Why not write about underrated or ‘misunderstood’ films?
So I figured, for my holiday home theater experience, I’m going to revisit some so-called bad movies. First up, Batman Forever.
Last summer, the caped crusader returned to celluloid–revamped, retooled and re-energized by Memento director Christopher Nolan in the amazing Batman Begins, a film that definitely packs quite the punch. The DVD release last month gave way to a retooled boxed set of Tim Burton’s and Joel Schumacher’s renditions of Batman and his many adventures in the Batman Anthology DVD set which I purchased along with Begins.
As acclaimed and as wonderfully envisioned a film Begins is, my biggest complaint about Nolan’s interpretation is that it lacks spirit and brevity. After watching through all four Batman films in the anthology, I realized that I don’t give Joel Schumacher much credit. Undoubtedly, when it comes to cinematic style, Schumacher is the most flamboyant, bombastic director working in Hollywood today often tainting his films with bold operatic, colorful strokes. After watching Batman Forever, I discovered that his initial vision for the bat actually has some weight to it.
Long before Nolan and Christian Bale came along, we all believed Tim Burton was the one and only person who handled our beloved Bruce Wayne so well. His Batman is off-kiltered, poetic and theatrical all at the same time. And much like Sean Connery as James Bond, Michael Keaton has always been deemed the first and the best (even though, technically, Adam West is the first celluloid Batman). Tim Burton’s Batman is a well-balanced comic book film with Jack Nicholson cleverly cast as the Joker. Many still feel that Nicholson playing the Joker is a bit like asking Picasso to paint a fence . . . I wholeheartedly disagree.
Yet after revisiting Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, his vision may have gotten too dark for its own good. Returns plays like a dirge–a murky episode akin to a funeral procession. Returns has a handful of delightful moments, but for the most part the film is loaded with forced angst and sexuality so misplaced that the film hits all the right notes at all the wrong moments. It’s on to Schumacher’s colorful interpretations, and after the monochromatic and dull experience of Returns, Batman Forever I discovered is a welcoming affair.
Now, we all know Batman & Robin will forever go down as the film that ruined the franchise then and no one (not even Schumacher himself on the bonus disc) will disagree with that. Batman & Robin was a rushed effort and a prime example of a studio in desperate need of a franchise (take in mind, this was pre-Harry Potter days for WB).
Unfortunately, Batman Forever gets lost in Batman & Robin’s mess.
Batman Forever is a rare gem; one that now ranks high on my list of great comic book fantasy films. On the bonus disc, we discover that Batman creator Bob Kane’s favorite Bruce Wayne was Val Kilmer. And why not? Val Kilmer brings panache to Bruce Wayne, a key element that Michael Keaton desperately lacked. Val’s Bruce has wit and charm, but more importantly, he gives the man soul and charisma. It is said that it only takes a pair of sculptured lips to play Batman, but Val Kilmer’s take on Bruce goes far past the exterior somberness of Bruce’s torment. This is a man who picked himself up off the ground and tried to make a better man out of himself, even if it seems to be a daily struggle which is mirrored by his newfound relationship with Dick Grayson, a.k.a. Robin, adequately played by Chris O’Donnell. Val turns Bruce Wayne into a living, breathing human being and he has become my favorite Bruce Wayne/Batman (sorry, Christian Bale fans).
It’s important to note that Schumacher wasn’t inspired by Frank Miller’s interpretations (which are obviously the inspiration for Nolan) but with Bob Kane’s Batman/Great Detective comics of the 40’s and 50’s. Interestingly, this was also around the time Robin came into the foray. It was this era of Batman comics that sparked with humor, splashes of color and spirit. Forever cinematically captures that.
What gets me when I see the film are all the layers it has. The theme of duality is clear enough with Tommy Lee Jones’ Harvey Two-Face physically representing that element in the film. More fascinating is a strong sense of dark psychosis and sexual undertones amidst the flash and pomp. The film is a commentary on men depending on other men, and the lone female character (Nicole Kidman’s psychologist Dr. Chase Meridian) is the only one willing to explore those issues. Edward Nygma (Jim Carrey, who is actually pretty darn good here) looks up to Bruce Wayne almost as a larger-than-life hero. Yet there is a fine line when it comes to admiration and obsession and you can see in Nygma’s eyes when Bruce turns his mind-sucking invention down. “You were supposed to understand,” Nygma says. “I’ll make you understand,” he tells himself. Thus, the Riddler is born. Admiration becomes obsession. It’s a key moment in the film and it is a testament to Carrey’s abilities as a terrific and varied actor.
Leave it to Schumacher to finally bring out the homoerotic undertones of the Batman comics to celluloid. Of course there’s much hoo-ha over the BatNipples (which are inspired by leather fetish outfits), the Jean-Paul Gaultier-inspired statues that adorn Gotham City, with its perfectly-sculpted biceps and chiseled features. It finally makes perfect sense: it is a film about deep brotherly admiration played out with the growing relationship of Batman/Bruce and Robin/Dick and the older/younger brother playfulness of The Riddler and Two-Face. What’s nice about Schumacher’s bold decision to poke at the undertones is that he keeps it light and never overt.
Now if you like your Batman served dark and chilled, you may disagree with my newfound respect for this film. I rarely enjoy bold strokes in cinema, but this one brings out some fascinating and disturbing elements that’s worth mentioning in the history of Batman films. It was a brave step in the franchise, to play out such taboo issues—dark in a new sense, if you will. It’s too bad that fans applaud familiarity over innovation.