Batman on Film: Joel Schumacher Almost Kills the Batman Franchise
Like most fans of the feature length, live-action Batman motion pictures, I tried to pretend Joel Schumacher’s offerings don’t exist. I usually do a pretty good job of it too, but because I’m a fanatic, and a completist, they get watched once every couple years when a new Batman film is released in the multiplexes across the globe. This time around though, I’m taking you with me. You got to revel in the joy that was Batman: The Movie in my first article; the darkness and gloom that was Tim Burton’s vision of Gotham in my second piece; now you get to try to keep from vomiting all over the commercialization that is Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever and Batman & Robin.
Before we get started, let me say that after all this time, I have finally forgiven Joel Schumacher for his two Bat-trocities. Being the respectable journalist that I am, I actually listened to his audio commentaries for the first time during this viewing (partly to see if there was anything nice I could say about these movies) and what I heard was something I didn’t expect: an apology. That’s right, Schumacher basically threw Warner Bros. under the bus and said he was sorry if the movies weren’t loved by the die-hard Batman fans. As the story goes, the studio was pretty lukewarm on the idea of Batman Forever after seeing how Batman Returns turned out, but it was made and was a huge success. Well, after that happened, they wanted a sequel immediately. Schumacher didn’t want to make a sequel though. Instead, he wanted to tackle material more along the lines of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One story arc (writer’s note: Darren Aronofsky actually worked with Frank Miller on a Batman reboot in 2000 following this arc, but it fell through. Also, Nolan’s films – more on those next week – take many elements from Miller’s story as well) instead of making a direct sequel. So it goes in Hollywood though, those with the money call the shots, and Schumacher was left to make a sequel that was more kid-friendly, and more commercially-viable than it’s predecessors. The result was the ultra-campy Batman & Robin, where Schumacher actually admitted to creating scenes, vehicles, and alternate costumes so they could sell more toys and supplemental merchandise. Sure, they sold a lot of toys, but they also almost killed the Batman franchise. Would we have Christopher Nolan’s Batman flicks though without the ultra-campy Schumacher films? Hard to say, but if the answer is no, then Batman Forever and Batman & Robin are a necessary evil. With all of that out of the way, let’s get to trashing these two films. Just kidding…well, sort of.
Even with its flaws, Batman Forever is a mostly watchable film. Tim Burton served as producer (although I honestly don’t know the extent of his involvement) and Val Kilmer was a more than adequate Dark Knight. The purist in me, even in 1995 at the ripe old age of 15, could never understand why Billy Dee Williams wasn’t cast as Two-Face though. Why have him play Harvey Dent in the Burton films, then switch races completely to grumpy old man Tommy Lee Jones? Was it because of his work on The Client with Schumacher? Most likely, but still…Billy Dee should have been Two-Face. I think he could have played up the duality and tragedy of the character a lot better than Jones did. With Jones, Two-Face is nothing more than a hyperactive thug with a hot pink face. He plays the character more like a poor man’s Joker instead of a man at conflict with himself. I can’t really blame Jones though, since he could only to do so much with a bad script and bad directing.
Akiva Goldsman was one of the parties responsible for the writing on the Schumacher Batman films. While he does have an Oscar or two under his belt, he’s also responsible for such dredge as The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons. If the decision was to make Jones the cool and calculated, yet tormented one, he would have been the perfect yin to Jim Carrey’s manic yang. Instead we get two grown men jumping around and acting like lunatics. I also understand that many elements of villain back stories are similar, but shame on the writing staff for using the same origin for Riddler as they did Poison Ivy in Batman & Robin. In Forever, Riddler is an eccentric employee of Wayne Enterprises. He’s a genius with a great idea, but he’s a bit off the deep end. Bruce won’t fund his project and then Riddler gets fired and goes rogue. In Batman & Robin, Poison Ivy again goes rogue after Bruce won’t reinstate funding of her project. Ivy’s story is a bit different – getting attacked by her boss and then falling into the ground where the plants reincarnate her….wait…doesn’t that sound like what happened to Catwoman in Batman Returns when you subtract plants and add cats? That’s right, the origin of Poison Ivy in the films is a blatant rip off of Catwoman and Riddler’s origin. Sad…that character deserved so much more.
Speaking of characters that deserve better treatment, we might as well dive right into Batman & Robin now and discuss the other two villains in the movie: Bane and Mr. Freeze. In Batman & Robin, Bane is reduced to an Incredible Hulk rip-off with green skin and a brutish vocabulary and Mr. Freeze is limited to a shiny suit and horrible one-liners. I wonder how that writing session went. Probably something like…. “Hey guys, Arnold Schwarzenegger is going to be Mr. Freeze in our movie. He has so many famous catch phrases and one-liners from movies like Terminator and Terminator 2, let’s just come up with some of the best cold-related dialogue ever. It’ll be so cool and the kids will love it.” To which someone replied, “I see what you did there…it’s so cool.”
What they did to the Mr. Freeze character was almost as bad as the cheesy homage to the 1960s TV show when Chris O’Donnell’s Robin says “Holy Rusted Metal Batman.” Sure, kids like it, and those with a flair for nostalgia had a little chuckle, but it really helps destroy the credibility of the series as a whole (not that Schumacher’s offerings really had any credibility, especially after his admission of guilt in terms of the over-commercialization of Batman & Robin).
While Batman Forever was watchable, Batman & Robin was a two-hour gimmick film filled with unnecessary heroes and villains where the main goal was to usher in a new kid-friendly, and neon, version of the Batman universe. I wonder if Val Kilmer saw the writing on the wall and left before the fourth film went into production. Some sources say he left because he wanted to do The Saint. That could have been the smartest, or dumbest (or both) career decision he ever made. It may have been the smartest as it allowed George Clooney to be attached to the worst Bat-film in history, even though he was the best choice for Bruce Wayne of any of the actors portraying him, even Christian Bale. Think about it, who better than Clooney to be a billionaire playboy? And dumbest, because no matter how bad the movie was, Batman & Robin raked in a lot of dough.
If Schumacher’s goal was kid-friendly, why did all the suits have nipples? Even Mr. Freeze had shiny nipples. Don’t believe me? Look at his suit again. Also, Mr. Schumacher, kids aren’t stupid. Last time I checked, Alfred was British, so wouldn’t his niece, who lived in England and attended an English school also be English? Or, at the very least, have an English accent? I know Alicia Silverstone was the It-girl back then, but at least make her speak with an accent! You paid her $10 million, so I think she should be able to do an accent for you. Or…you could have done what you’re supposed to with the character and make her Commissioner Gordon’s daughter for crying out loud. Sorry about that folks, my nerd hackles just raised a little. I’ve calmed down now. Since I mentioned Alfred and Commissioner Gordon, I wanted to send a quick shout-out to Michael Gough and Pat Hingle who made it through the good and bad of the first four modern live-action Batman flicks.
Another thing about Batman & Robin that really wrecked it for me was how cheesy the action scenes and set pieces were. I felt like I was watching a Twilight Zone version of the 1960s TV Show. The fights had plenty of goofy sound effects – thuds and thwacks, and since we’re dealing with ice, slips – but they really didn’t add anything to the story (what little there was anyway). It was blatant that Schumacher was ignoring a complete segment of the Batman fan base, which ended up being the final nail in the coffin for the Batman franchise until Nolan came around and resurrected the Dark Knight like a Phoenix escaping the bonds of unnecessary camp and over-commercialization.
Up Next: Next Week! Same Bat-Time! Same Bat-Site!
Christopher Nolan Resurrects the Dark Knight!