Reconsidering Batman Forever

Scream Queen: Jim Carrey's Riddler lets loose

          This month marks the twentieth anniversary of Batman Forever, the third film in the original Batman series that began with Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and continued with the dazzlingly weird Batman Returns (1992).  Though it was a box office hit, Batman Forever got a mixed reception from critics, and fanboys have long groused about director Joel Schumacher’s approach to the Dark Knight, lumping the third film in with the fourth, 1997’s lamentable Batman & Robin.  Though I would never defend Batman & Robin—it’s among the worst movies I’ve ever seen, highlighted only by Uma Thurman’s performance as Poison Ivy—I’ve always liked Batman Forever, and feel that it’s gotten a bad rap.  I also have a sneaking suspicion that homophobia plays a large part in the skewering of Schumacher’s installments.         

            Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely adore Tim Burton’s Batman movies, and have watched both countless times since seeing them in theaters as a kid.  His approach to the characters and their milieu was totally inspired and perfectly dark.  However, Batman Returns was greeted with a major backlash from parents, many of whom felt the movie was way too intense for kids, not to mention beyond the bounds of its PG-13 rating.  (Why they were so surprised after the first movie’s facial disfigurement and parental murder is anybody’s guess.)  Burton and Warner Bros. mutually agreed that he shouldn’t continue on with the series, though he stayed on as producer for Forever (and is lovingly spoofed by the movie’s bewigged “Dr. Burton”). 

          The studio specifically wanted a lighter tone, and the campy 1960s TV version of Batman was a natural antecedent.  Not to mention the addition of Robin: Schumacher knew that adult audiences had strong memories of Burt Ward’s portrayal.  The moment when Chris O’Donnell—who, by the way, was totally sexy as Dick Grayson/Robin—exclaims “Holey rusted metal, Batman!” before explaining that he means “full of holes—you know, holey,” while groan inducing, is also a lovely acknowledgement of the generation that grew up on the classic series.  (It made a grown man cheer when I saw the movie with my parents and grandfather back in 1995.)

          Robin was originally introduced to lighten the comic books and make them more appealing for children, but he received considerable criticism when reactionary pundits of the day, i.e. the odious anti-comics crusader Frederic Wertham, alleged that Batman and Robin were a coded and somewhat pedophilic gay couple.  Enter gay director Joel Schumacher, who surely knew of this subtext as well as the connection between comic book superheroes and the gay community.  If you’re reading Geeks Out, you’re fully aware of this link, but for the sake of this article here are two examples: like superheroes, gays and lesbians were used to having to hide their true identities, and the exaggerated physiques of Batman and his cohorts were catnip to gay men.  To that end, Schumacher’s costumers took Batman and Robin’s musculature even further than had Burton’s team, adding nipples (and igniting ire) and even including a butt shot for Batman (Val Kilmer, taking over from Michael Keaton).  The similarity to muscled skin in the Bat suits was always there—Schumacher just made it more overt.  However, this probably didn’t sit well with straight fans who preferred not to think of the effect strapping he men might have on their gay contemporaries.  There’s also a distinctly gay subtext to Bruce and Dick’s dramatic conversations about whether Batman needs “a partner”; when I took Queer Studies in college, a classmate did her final project on the movie, based largely on these scenes.  The duo’s homoerotic interplay doesn’t stop there.  “Hang out much in biker bars, Bruce?” O’Donnell quips at one point.  He also sports an earring, a controversial accessory supposedly included to “modernize” the character but carrying with it a queer connotation Schumacher was definitely aware of.  The combination of Dick’s skintight lycra and Batman’s molded rubber gives Robin’s first “rescue” a sexual charge for adult gay audiences akin to the ever present bondage scenarios on the 60s series.

            Schumacher and actor Jim Carrey also took the Riddler in a strikingly queer direction.  Carrey, whose comedic performances were very hot at the time, is nothing short of extraordinary as Edward Nygma and his leotard clad alter ego.  The character idolizes Bruce Wayne to the point of obsession—a fact noted in most descriptions of the plot.  The sexual nature of this obsession is so close to the surface that, to quote Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “I think the subtext here is rapidly becoming… text.”  Nygma is all atwitter when he gets to meet Wayne, but when the latter shoots down his brain wave project as too risky, Hell hath no fury like a queen scorned.  Nygma begins stalking his former idol, leaving him riddles that another character compares to “love notes.”  When the Riddler and Two Face (Tommy Lee Jones) join forces, their crime spree plays out as a gay fantasy straight out of Dr. Wertham’s nightmares (especially in the scene with Riddler wearing a tiara).  Carrey plays his part with impressive gusto and explicitly gay flamboyance, delivering the line “Joygasm!” and, after roaring about his “God” like status, campily asking, “Was that over the top?  I can never tell!” 

            Batman & Robin was rightly panned for being loud, silly, and obnoxious, but Batman Forever is a fascinating hybrid between the darkness of Burton’s films and the light hearted tone of the 60s show.  The production design and costumes are magnificent, with Gotham City coming off like a cross between Anton Furst’s hellscape from Batman and the neon filled realm of Blade Runner.  (This a full decade before Christopher Nolan aped the latter film’s set design for Batman Begins.)  Carrey reportedly had input into his costumes, and outfits like the light up jacket and glittery white and green bodysuit are inspired.  Even the harshest critics would be hard pressed to argue with the fact that Batman Forever is dazzling to behold.

            The story is weak at times, and it’s true that the dialogue can be lame—although there are loads of good zingers, i.e. “You called me here for this?  The bat signal is not a beeper.”  Schumacher, who apparently wanted to adapt Batman: Year One, sheds some light on Bruce’s psyche with flashbacks to his childhood, and introduces a sexed-up (female) love interest for the Dark Knight: Nicole Kidman’s Dr. Chase Meridian, who at one point teases, “Do I need skintight leather and a whip.  Kidman is both sensitive and playfully, explicitly sexual, underlining the movie’s camp tone and, one might argue, creating the same kind of gay man in female drag later popularized by the Sex & the City girls.

            So the next time you’re in a Batman mood, and feel like you’ve seen The Dark Knight a few times too many, give Batman Forever another chance.  It has pleasures—both simple and subtextual—all its own, and it deserves a better rep.

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Gear Up: Batman and Robin wear only the finest rubber