Batman Forever (1995)

3 stars out of 4. Compromised edit befuddles a story meant to contain both heroics and darkness. And yes the Bat-asses are absolutely stupid.

Batman Forever has a noble idea: take the two least alike aspects of the Dark Knight and try to examine both in the same story. These two themes are the psychological trauma that befell and still haunts Bruce Wayne, and the heroic duty of Batman.

I always take a lot of flack for this, but I still love this movie. Call it leftover childhood nostalgia or something but I can’t help but enjoy this the 5,000th time around. I know it has many problems and I know it gets too campy in all the wrong places. But it is still to date the only Batman film to include the escapist adventure element of the character. Forever is a forgotten film that is only remembered in the wake of the indisputably awful Batman & Robin. The film’s problems stem primarily from studio meddling with the reputed 160 minute original cut of Forever, but the really big problem came in a last-minute meddling with the final film and dropping some crucial subplot scenes. Then they re-ordered the opening structure of the film and made things very discombobulated. Read the original novelization or a earlier script if you can find it, and you get a much better idea of what the original intent was.

Like the first film, there is a lot of subtext going on here. And again like the first film, it is impossible to get all of it due to not being given the whole picture. Val Kilmer’s performance goes beyond Michael Keaton in the psychologically damaged and tortured department. His Bruce Wayne is a quiet reserved man who puts on an air of ineffectiveness as a mask to hide his obsessed brooding. And boy does he ever brood. You begin to wonder if he does anything besides brood until he begins having flashbacks to the night of his parent’s murder. These come without warning and are the heart of the film. Deep in the shadowy visions of his subconscious is his soul crying out in repressed torment. This was the major subplot of the film and was unfairly ripped out by meddling studio heads. All that remain are bits and pieces of the flashbacks and references. Originally, this culminated with Bruce finally coming to terms with the beast deep within the caverns of the Batcave.

Kilmer deserved a straight Batman story that did not delve into the campier aspects of the Bat universe. As it stands, his character provides a strong mooring point so that the story doesn’t go flying off into lunacy, something that did happen on Batman & Robin. And as another plus his main appearances as Batman here are probably the most iconic we’ll ever get for live-action (save for the stupid Bat-nipples). It is rare to find an actor who can play both Bruce and Batman, but it is another to play both well and as two separate defined characters.

The love interest this time around is Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman), an imminent psychologist lured to Gotham by its notorious denizens.  She quickly falls for Batman and is intrigued by the endless mysteries behind the man known as Bruce Wayne. The Bruce/Batman relationship with a psychologist is a brilliantly twisted idea, but that too goes nowhere in the film.  The novelization has a great subplot where Chase realizes Bruce’s secret and wrestles with herself about revealing it, but that too is removed from the film.

The villains are Two-Face and the Riddler. Forever follows Returns’ formula by having one established villain with disfigurement, joined by a distressed person with psychological issues who loses it to become a costumed criminal. Two-Face serves as little more than plot advancement in the final film. Tommy Lee Jones is wasted as Two-Face, but I think the character was devolved in this way to eventually just be a silly watered down version of Nicholson’s Joker.

The Riddler begins life as a lowly WayneTech employee named Edward Nygma. He idolizes Bruce and presents him with his wacky invention for a 3D Televsion box to implant viewers directly into their shows.  In a twist of fate, Bruce notices the Batsignal and is forced to cut Edward short. Because of his temperamental nature, Nygma’s desire for an immediate answer gets a no from Bruce who was his idol. This rejection causes a break, and that night Nygma assaults his factory boss and uses him as a guinea pig for his invention. The test shows a side result that allowed Ngyma’s brain energy to feed off the schmuck hooked into the machine.He kills his boss and resigns his post, leaving little riddles for Bruce to find. Eventually he makes a costumed identity and seeks out Two-Face to start mass producing his Box to sap the mental energy of Gotham.

The problem with this is that Jim Carrey is too Jim Carrey as the Riddler, and lacks the panache and restraint that Frank Gorshin brought to the role on the TV series. In addition, the bit about Nygma’s intense devotion to Bruce is dialed down so that his constant attempts at one-upmanship go largely unnoticed. (Look at the party scene, where he even fatidously has done his hair in Bruce’s style and dons Bruce’s exact glasses and accent at times.) Robin Williams would have brought a much more chilling and intense portrayal in Tim Burton’s proposed version, much as Tim Curry would have as the Joker in 1989. (Two of the all-time missed casting opportunities in my opinion, but these would have been “R” rated 😉  Burton’s Batman III would have also featured Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Two-Face, Keaton in the Batsuit and followed in the same darkening vein as Returns.

Lastly, Two-Face wreaks havoc on a circus and orphans Dick Grayson (Chris O’Donnell). This happens right in front of Bruce and furthers his guilt over his parents’ death because in his eyes it has happened again. He has let his own tragedy happen to another and is just as guilty as the killer. In one of the finest moments in the film, Alfred comes across Bruce in a trance having yet another vision. Upon awakening he says: “It’s happening again. A monster comes out of the night, a scream, two shots. I killed them.”

–“What did you say?”

“He killed them. Two-Face. He slaughtered that boy’s parents.”

–“No, no. You said, “I killed them.”

Bruce takes him in and persuades him to stay for a time. All Dick cares about is vengeance. Bruce sees this as a way to correct the same mistakes he feels he has made and attempts to push him into the light indirectly. Dick causes Bruce some much unneeded headaches in the process before discovering the Batcave and taking the Batmobile for a joyride. Robin still feels shoehorned into the story a bit, but at least the dynamic works a little better by lifting the idea of an older Dick Grayson from the Animated series. Has anyone ever really liked the idea of the Dark Knight running around with a little kid with no pants on? It was only doable in the earlier comics really, as none of the film adaptations have attempted a young Robin. (Imagine the current films with a Robin. Hockey pad wearing Godamn Batman anyone?)

The look of the film is wonderfully realized, with batman having a distinct look to all of his arsenal right down to the soft blue glow seeping out of the Batmobile. The design changes bring in some fresh vitality, but lack the presence of Burton’s films because the Forever sets are primarily mattes, models and digital imaging. This works as a new vision of Gotham, but on the whole is never very involving because we are given very little detail other than the setting as a mere backdrop. Even the Batcave seems rather empty because we are never shown more than just a room with a car and a desk. (Yet another element cut out of the film.) And I really hope you like neon, because Forever is filled with it. In nearly every set this is some kind of neon trailing along something and there’s even a street gang composed entirely of black-lit neon paint. The setting is also harmed by the severe series of edits made to the film as much of the visual atmosphere was lost.

The cinematography attempts to match the tone and style Burton set, staying in the same 1.85:1 spherical universe instead of opting for Scope widescreen. Sets, costumes and lights are bright and colorful almost giving a somewhat wacky sense to the proceedings which no doubt come at the desires of new director Joel Schumacher.

The score however is fantastic. It works partially in-tandem with the motifs that Elfman setup all the while going for that big Batman fanfare. Elliot Goldenthal provides one of the best aspects of the entire film, able to accurately portray both the serious brooding of Bruce/Batman with the campy antics of the Riddler.

The initial idea seems to have been a meeting of Bruce’s tortured soul with the fantasy and adventure of Batman. What happened was that the studio wanted a more commercialized venture and here and there little changes became big changes. This started in the scripting process and continued throughout the shooting and into the editing suite.  The scenes in the film bang together if you really look at them, and there is a noticeable patchwork effect if you pay close enough attention. The original cut was rumored to be in the neighborhood of 160 minutes and features a number of scenes finally released on DVD in partially unfinished state. Some of these and other deleted scenes include:

Courtesy of Wikipedia:

  •         The escape of Two-Face from Arkham Asylum. René Auberjonois had more scenes filmed here, playing Doctor Burton but his role was reduced to a cameo in the final film. He encounters the escape with the psychologist hanged in Two-Face’s cell with “The Bat Must Die” written in blood on the wall. This was supposed to be the film’s opening scene, but producers decided this was far too dark for a family audience. This scene appears in a rough edit on the special edition DVD. Segments of the scene also appears in the music video for U2’s “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me”.
  •         The construction of NygmaTech was more in-depth. There were scenes shot that appear in publicity stills of Edward Nygma with a hard hat helping with the construction of his headquarters on Claw Island. This scene does not appear on the new special edition release but is shown in the sticker album published by Merlin Collections.
  •         Sugar and Spice, played by Drew Barrymore and Debi Mazar, try out the Riddler’s device during the montage when it goes on sale. They are seated with the Riddler and Two-Face on the couch where Chase is handcuffed later in the film. This scene appears in the comic adaptation but not in the final film.
  •         The most well-known deleted scene involved further backstory to the film. It involved Bruce waking up after being shot in the head by Two-Face, temporarily wiping a part of his memory; he has forgotten his origin and life as the Dark Knight. Alfred takes him to the Batcave, which has been destroyed by the Riddler. They stand on the platform where the Batmobile was, and Alfred says, “Funny they did not know about the cave beneath the cave.” The platform then rotates downward to another level where the sonar-modification equipment is kept, from the special Batsuit to the hi-tech weaponry. Bruce then discovers the cavern where he first saw the image that inspired him to become Batman – a giant bat. The bat appears and Bruce raises his arms and the shot shows that they are one. Bruce now remembers who he is and goes with Alfred to solve the riddles left throughout the film. Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman admitted the scene was very theatrical on the special edition DVD and felt it would have made a difference to the final cut. The bat was designed and created by Rick Baker, who was in charge of the make-up of Two-Face. This scene appears in a rough form on the special edition DVD and is briefly mentioned in the comic adaptation.
  •         The original ending was an homage to the first film. When Alfred drives Doctor Chase Meridian back to Gotham she asks him “Does it ever end?” Alfred replies, “No, Doctor Meridian, not in this lifetime…” The Bat-Signal shines on the night sky and Batman is standing on a pillar looking ahead. Robin then comes into shot and joins his new partner. They both leap off the pillar, towards the camera. A rough edit of the first half of the scene appears on the special edition DVD, but not in its entirety. The sequence with Batman and Robin at the end of this scene appears in a teaser trailer for the video game, which is on the VHS release of this film, released in the UK on December 3, 1995.

You can begin to see some of the film’s original shape in these descriptions, and these are further explained in original drafts and the film’s tie-in book novelization. I highly recommend tracking the book down if you can find a copy, because given a few novel-to-film transitive changes, this could have easily been the best Batman film.

The film as it stands was cobbled together by a editor at the last minute to have the closest thing to a summer popcorn movie for 1995. But it isn’t bad. Just full of missed opportunities, some of which were originally present but removed at various points by a meddling studio. But dammit, Batman Forever is a Batman movie that actually feels like Batman! He is the comic book hero who is tortured and haunted by his past and desire for vengeance, yet whose crusade is in its own way a noble one. Just as there are different tonal versions of the character in the comics dependent of the time of publication and writers, there are differing Batman films. This just happens to like promoting the more traditional heroic aspects and what exactly is wrong with that? In Forever you can feel that childhood desire to be Batman, which is not something to throw out! There’s an actual dramatic arc still present despite the edits that some people nowadays could really learn from…clears throat…I’m not suggesting anyone in particular…

EDITIONS: Same as with the other Bat-films in the first franchise: 1997 DVD, 2005 2 Disc Special Edition with Dolby and DTS 5.1, and Blu-ray from the old HD master with Dolby TrueHD 5.1. Strangely, Forever appears to be the softest of all the films, and I don’t think this is part of the photography. It seems that Warner inadvertently or not did too much processing on the video resulting in this over-soft and frankly almost flat look. It did not look this way theatrically at all.

I last watched this film on projected DVD in a sound suite. With amps and the like, the DTS 5.1 track was incredible. However, it sounded a bit too enhanced to my ears and not quite how I remembered the film sounding. I stumbled across this review from The Widescreen Review of the Laserdisc:

   Both versions of the soundtrack are a blast and you had better be braced into your seat when things get revved up and the 25Hz deep bass kicks in at reference level. The use of the discrete 5.1 palette is wonderful with energized directional and motion effects throughout the soundfield. But the Dolby Surround® version delivers an even fuller bass soundfield experience, with the discrete better articulated.

I’ve always felt that the Special Editions of the Batman films (ported to Blu-ray) had been tweaked and didn’t fully resemble the original presentations. The first film never felt right to me until the LD. I actually have a copy of the Forever LD, and decided to give it a try.

This Dolby Surround track has some of the most natural bass I’ve ever encountered on a film. Though I still lack an AC3 demodulator, it crushes the DVD 5.1 mixes (even DTS!) from sheer dynamic range alone. Every channel is well balanced with tremendous natural bass and my subwoofer sounding like it’s being fed a huge LFE. All this from a 2.0 matrixed stereo track! The rear surround is actually split as well so there is rear separation just like a 5.1 mix, but just a tiny bit muddy. This is like being in the theaters of old during the 90’s era of sound system wars.

In other news, La La Land Records has just released Elliot Goldenthal’s complete score on a Limited 2 CD set, available for the first time ever. The original CD was edited down substantially and has been impossible to find, so this is release is really welcome.

Don’t even bother with the videogames, they’re terrible. Many hours of my childhood were spent damning the Sega Genesis version.

And now…oh crap, it’s time for Batman & Robin. W H Y ?

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Filed under 3 stars, Batman, Film Review

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