Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Batman Forever (1995)
Studio Line: Warner Bros. - Courage now, truth always....

Riddle me this, riddle me that, you'll find adventure on the wings of a bat! Brace for excitement as Val Kilmer (Batman), Tommy Lee Jones (Two-Face), Jim Carrey (the Riddler), Nicole Kidman (Dr. Chase Meridian) and Chris O'Donnell (Robin) star in the third spectacular film in Warner Bros.' Batman series. Joel Schumacher directs and Tim Burton co-produces this thrill-ride of a movie that thunders along on Batmobile, Batwing, Batboat, Batsub and bold heroics. Hang on!

Director: Joel Schumacher
Cast: Val Kilmer, Tommy Lee Jones, Jim Carrey, Nicole Kidman, Chris O'Donnell, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle
Nominated for Best Cinematography; Best Sound Effects Editing; Best Sound. 1996.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16X9, Fullscreen 1.33:1; audio English Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Surround 2.0; subtitles English, French, Spanish; closed-captioned; double sided - single layered; 39 chapters; rated PG-13; 122 min.; $19.98; street date 5/20/97.
Supplements: Cast Biographies; Production Notes.
Purchase: DVD | The Batman Legacy | Score soundtrack - Elliot Goldenthal

Picture/Sound/Extras: B-/B+/D-

Although 1992’s Batman Returns made a solid $162 million and ended up the year’s second highest grossing film behind Aladdin, it left a bad taste in many mouths. Not mine, for I thought it offered a highly satisfying and entertaining affair that actually topped 1989’s Batman, a film I loved. However, many fans thought Returns was too dark and grotesque, especially due to Danny De Vito’s slimy turn as the Penguin.

As such, Returns left the starting gate with a fine head of steam, but its financial returns petered out fairly quickly. The popularity of the original film ensured a strong enough audience to generate that positive box office take, but as was also the case with 1997’s The Lost World, the sequel to 1993’s Jurassic Park, the second Batman movie faded fast with viewers and didn’t endear itself to many.

Because of these factors and others, 1995’s third Batman flick, Batman Forever, faced something of an uphill battle. Granted, the series’ name recognition meant that a certain audience share would definitely arrive, but the road seemed much tougher. In addition, two of the main forced behind the first films didn’t actively participate in Forever. Michael Keaton failed to return as Batman/Bruce Wayne; Val Kilmer replaced him in the role.

Although the director of Batman and Batman Returns still involved himself in Batman Forever, Tim Burton had an apparently less significant part of the pie. He functioned as one of the film’s producers, while he turned over the directorial reigns to Joel Schumacher. I don’t know how active a role Burton played during Forever, though the fact it showed any form of Burton-esque darkness may show that he did exert some influence over the production; he had no formal connection with 1997’s Batman and Robin, which may partially explain why it was the campiest and silliest of the four movies.

In any case, this changing of the guards seemed to sit well with audiences. Despite some wariness felt by viewers, the movie became a solid hit. It took in $184 million and just lost out on the year’s box office crown; ironically, as had been the case in 1992, another Disney animated picture released over Thanksgiving weekend - Toy Story - nabbed the top spot with a gross of $191 million.

Apparently audiences responded to the lighter, more flamboyant tone of Forever, though I guess Schumacher and company went over the top with Robin; that movie essentially killed the series with its relatively lackluster gross of $107 million. Nonetheless, the less serious aspects of Forever seemed to help break the series out of its perceived doldrums.

Time hasn’t been kind to Forever. Just as Returns gained a greater fan base as the years passed, more people began to see the flaws in Forever. Count me as one of those naysayers. While I actually enjoyed the film theatrically and I still think it has some moments, the more I watch Forever, the less I like it.

At the start of the film, we meet a new villain, Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones). This bifurcated baddie used to be noble Gotham attorney Harvey Dent, but a splash of acid to his puss left him scarred mentally, emotionally and physically. Apparently it also turned him white; Billy Dee Williams played Dent in Batman, but I guess the filmmakers felt he lacked the appropriate star power to materialize in the sequel. Perhaps they thought that as long as they cast another three-named actor, no one would notice the difference.

We discover little backstory for Two-Face; he simply pops up at the start of the movie and attempts to rid himself of Batman (Kilmer). This felt a little odd; while we briefly view his origins during a later scene, Two-Face was the first Bat-villain to date to emerge onscreen with Bat-hatred already established. Batman’s Joker (Jack Nicholson) and both Returns’ Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Penguin all receive some exposition before they attempt to ban the Bat, but Two-Face simply exists without much rhyme or reason.

It didn’t get any better, for Two-Face remained a poorly-drawn and vague villain throughout the movie. Despite Jones’ star power, he clearly lost some of his onscreen time to make way for the film’s second baddie, the Riddler. In traditional Batman style, we definitely view his path to crime, though even then I thought the clarification was somewhat vague. Early in the movie Bruce Wayne visits a Wayne Enterprises lab. There he encounters creepy scientist Edward Nygma (Jim Carrey), a nutbag who develops a way to have TV images beamed into peoples’ brains. When Wayne rejects the idea, Nygma goes farther off of the deep end. He kills his supervisor Stickley (an uncredited Ed Begley, Jr.) and forms an irrational hatred of Wayne. Previously, he’d felt obsessed with his boss, but this poor encounter caused those feelings to take a viciously negative turn.

Nygma fabricates a scheme. He wants to dominate the world with “the Box”, his TV-related device, especially since he accidentally discovered that it could suck brainpower out of users and into him; that would pad his intelligence as well as provide him with juicy data like credit card numbers and bank accounts. However, Nygma can’t start a huge company without capital, so he recruits Two-Face and his gang to assist. He promises the death of Batman as long as Harvey helps him collect the dough to get the Box off the ground.

All while this occurs, a new love interest appears on the scene, though this one takes a mildly unusual approach. In Batman, Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) maintained affection solely for Wayne; there appeared to be no sparks between her and Batman in there brief scene together. Returns took a more interesting tack, however. Batman/Catwoman and Wayne/Catwoman’s alter ego Selina Kyle developed romantic attachments independent of each other; it wasn’t until late in the film that each realized the true identity of the other.

In Forever, psychologist Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman) never realizes that Wayne and Batman are one in the same, which was something of a relief; it was nice to see one of the movies avoid that usual revelation. She starts the film with a strong interest in Batman; some of this seems professional, but she clearly has the hots for him as well. Only as the flick progresses does she get to know Wayne, and we find an odd love triangle in which two of the three participants are actually the same person.

Does Chase create any element in the plot other than as the token love interest? Nope, though this also allows her to become Bat-bait at the end. While the love triangle aspects were mildly interesting, I thought it seemed disappointing to find such an uninvolved romantic partner, especially since Meridian’s supposed to be so bright and incisive. She could have better paired with Batman to solve some puzzles; while she does so to a minor degree, Chase exists mainly as eye candy and as someone for the villains to abuse when necessary.

Another new character materializes, though audiences will already feel at home with him. In the third Batman film, we finally meet Robin (Chris O’Donnell). After his trapeze-artist family dies during an attempt to save circus spectators from Two-Face’s bomb, the orphaned Dick Grayson boards at Wayne Manor. There he quickly discovers Bruce’s secret, and fueled by his vengeful desire to kill Two-Face, he forces his way into the crime-fighting picture as Robin.

Although he became something of a liability during Batman and Robin, O’Donnell offered some of the best parts of Forever. The scene in which he takes the Batmobile for a spin was a mild hoot, and he adds a nice spark to out dour, loner hero. O’Donnell displays a spark that seems absent from the subsequent sequel and from most of his other roles; he doesn’t make Forever a transcendent piece of work, but his moments helped it become more memorable.

As Batman/Bruce, Kilmer was good but unspectacular. I always liked him as an actor, which meant that I accepted him as a replacement for Keaton more readily than I might otherwise have done. I thought highly of Keaton’s work, especially in Returns, where he seemed to feel more comfortable in the role. As such, I was disappointed that Keaton didn’t come back for the third film, but the presence of Kilmer made the transition smoother.

Actually, I feel somewhat conflicted about his work. As Batman, Kilmer showed reasonable aplomb and depth, and he seemed at home in the suit. Kilmer displayed good presence and personality, so those segments of the film were fine. On the other hand, I felt less wild about his take on Wayne. Keaton played Bruce as distracted and obsessed, whereas Kilmer went more for a smug yuppie vibe. I can’t claim that either portrayal was “correct” when compared to the comics’ Bruce, but Keaton’s appeared more natural and logical. Frankly, Kilmer’s Wayne seemed like something of a jerk.

For his work as Two-Face, Jones apparently studied Nicholson’s performance in Batman - a lot. Though Jones lacked the flair and panache Nicholson offered, he showed similar attitudes and mannerisms. I like Jones, but his Two-Face felt like a non-entity within the film. He seemed neither menacing nor compelling, as he clearly played second banana to our other villain.

Forever’s producers scored a coup when they cast Carrey as the Riddler. At the time, he was still a star on the rise, and he’d become a serious box office star through his three 1994 hits; Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask and Dumb and Dumber each did better than its predecessor, and Carrey established a solid following. Although Forever probably would have been successful with another actor in the role - Robin Williams was one possibility - Carrey’s presence helped attract an even larger audience.

He also provided some of the movie’s best bits, though unlike some of his other films, Carrey’s gags don’t get better with age. When I recently watched Liar Liar, I noticed how well his antics held up over the last four years and repeated viewings. While his bits as the Riddler were still interesting, they didn’t amuse me like they had during earlier screenings of the film. Carrey’s over the top attitude helped bring some spark to Forever, but he couldn’t make the movie a total success.

Much of the problem with Forever stemmed from my feeling that it was rather disjointed. Batman was the best focused of the four films: one villain, one love interest, and that was that. We learned what we needed to know about the origins of both Batman and Joker, and the movie took a logical course.

While I loved Returns, it did become a little disorderly in its attempts to be bigger and better. Most of the film’s problems related to its third villain, nasty capitalist Max Schreck (Christopher Walken). He was essentially nothing more than an expository character, and he lacked much additional reason to exist. Otherwise, however, Returns nicely balanced its two main villains, and no other significant complications ensued.

Forever decreased the villain count to two and kept us with a single romantic interest, but the extra hero did muck up the proceedings to a degree. Granted, I generally liked O’Donnell’s turn, but this added element presented the possibility that the movie could go off onto too many tangents.

Batman and Robin took this to an extreme: three heroes, two villains, two romantic interests. Forever kept things more manageable, but with Schumacher instead of Burton behind the camera, the film became messier nonetheless. Admittedly, Batman and Returns weren’t always the most coherent films you’ll find, but they presented a certain panache and overriding cohesion that doesn’t appear in Forever. Put simply, elements of it seem to make less sense, and the whole piece felt more slapdash.

At least the Burton films had some depth and psychological darkness behind them. Forever, on the other hand, casts out most of Wayne’s demons, and it actually “cures” him by the end of the flick! This seemed badly out of place, for one of the aspects of Batman that makes him so compelling is his dark side; without it, he just becomes another costumed goon.

Schumacher also started to embrace the campiness that so turns off many Bat-fans. He kept this within reasonable levels in Forever, though I wish those elements hadn’t made the film. The self-referential comments and the homoerotic stylings of the costumes would become truly excessive during Batman and Robin, whereas they simply seemed a little off-putting here.

Nonetheless, they added a silly distance to the film that wasn’t necessary. Ultimately, Batman Forever offered a watchable and reasonably entertaining vision of the Caped Crusader, but it didn’t even remotely compare with the highs seen in the first two films. Forever helped redeem the franchise with a mass audience, but it hasn’t help up well over the last six years, and it becomes less interesting with each subsequent viewings.

The DVD:

Batman Forever appears in both an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 and in a fullscreen version on this double-sided, single-layered DVD; the widescreen image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Only the widescreen picture was reviewed for this article. Although the movie remains watchable, Forever was one of the earliest DVDs to hit the market, and the picture definitely has started to show its age.

Sharpness generally looked nicely crisp and detailed. A little softness affected some scenes. Mainly interiors seemed a bit fuzzy at times, and some wider shots also displayed modest examples of these qualities. Nonetheless, the majority of the film was accurate and distinct. I detected no problems related to moiré effects or jagged edges, but some edge enhancement marred the presentation. Occasional print defects also cropped up during Forever. I saw some speckles, grit, and a streak or two, plus the film exhibited a fair amount of digital artifacts. Without question, the image could have looked messier, but I thought it was too flawed for such a recent movie.

For the most part, colors seemed to be nicely bright and vivid. Unlike the previous films, which tended to be darker, Forever provided a vibrant neon palette much of the time, and the DVD usually replicated these hues with accuracy and clarity; for example, the circus scene displayed very lively tones. However, a few scenes showed some moderately excessive reds, such as during the opening segment in the vault.

Black levels came across as very deep and rich, while shadow detail generally appeared solid. A few shots were somewhat thick and muddy, but the majority of them displayed appropriate opacity. Ultimately, Batman Forever provided a reasonably decent image, but I thought it could use an update.

While not without flaws, I found the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Batman Forever to offer a more consistently satisfying affair. On the positive side, the film featured a very active and involving soundfield. From start to finish, all five channels received a solid workout. The audio elements seemed to be logically and realistically placed within the environment, and sounds moved cleanly and believably from speaker to speaker. The entire package blended together very nicely and created a clear, vibrant soundscape that helped to propel the film.

Unfortunately, some quality issues hampered the soundtrack, which was the only thing between it and an “A”-level grade. Dialogue always remained intelligible and reasonably clear, but some poor looping occurred at times that made the words stand out in a negative way. In addition, some speech sounded stiff and edgy at times; the latter problem mainly affected lines spoken by Tommy Lee Jones for some reason.

Effects displayed loud and robust tones, and those elements seemed to be quite powerful. I heard no signs of distortion, and the effects came across as strong and clean. Music could have been a little more dynamic, but I still thought the score appeared to be vivid and clear, without any significant concerns. Bass response seemed a little loose at times, but the low-end packed a good punch and added a loud accompaniment to the film. I also detected some light background hiss on occasion; it sounded as though some speech levels had to be boosted to make the lines audible, and that resulted in a bit of noise. Despite these general concerns, the soundtrack of Batman Forever still managed to be a very solid piece of work.

As we find with all three of the other Batman films, Forever greatly skimps on supplements. Cast provides minor but decent biographies of Val Kilmer, Tommy Lee Jones, Jim Carrey, Nicole Kidman, Chris O’Donnell, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle, and the noted actor Joel Schumacher.

The Production Notes area splits into four text subdomains. “Additional Actors” offers brief biographies of Drew Barrymore, Debi Mazar, and Ed Begley Jr., while “Behind the Scenes” features some general Bat-history. “New Villains, New Hero” quickly looks at the involvement of the actors and the history of the various characters, while “Bob Kane” provides a biography of the man behind the Bat. All of these are moderately interesting, but they don’t give us a lot of depth.

Rumors continue to abound that Batman Forever will eventually receive the special edition treatment, but until that happens, we’re stuck with this bare-bones effort. The movie itself is about as mediocre as a Batman flick could be. It has some interesting moments, and most of the actors do their best, but after the thrills of the two Tim Burton-directed affairs, this Joel Schumacher effort comes across as all style and little substance.

The DVD provides a decent but aging image with very involving and solid sound. The lack of supplements is a drawback, but since the disc carries a list price of only $19.98, I won’t complain too much. Ultimately, Batman Forever is a superficial but reasonably watchable piece of entertainment. It doesn’t hold up especially well through repeated viewings, but dedicated Bat-fans will want to give it a go nonetheless.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
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