Batman Forever has a remarkably layered and thematically rich story. I mean, the screenplay is pretty bad, but the story? What the movie is actually about? Easily the best of the Burton/Schumacher Batman series.
Before you hit the Back button on “Great Boos Up’s House of Hot Takes,” I want you to do an experiment with me. Try to erase the movie called Batman Forever that you have seen from your memory. I am going to pitch you the story for a Batman movie. Populate it with the dream cast of your choice,1 and feel free to imagine the Riddler and Two-Face portrayed in the manner of your choosing; you might like to dip into your memories of Batman: The Animated Series for this.
Okay, imagine this movie:
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On the second anniversary of the day Batman captured him, Two-Face escapes from Arkham Asylum. Two-Face is former Gotham City district attorney Harvey Dent, who was scarred in court by a crime boss he was prosecuting. Dent, previously a tireless crusader for truth and justice, is totally disillusioned by the price he’s paid for working within the system and by Batman’s failure to save him. And so, he decides to dedicate his new “second” life to randomness, to the luck of the draw. The flip of a coin.
Criminal psychologist Dr. Chase Meridian is brought in to consult on the case. Two-Face’s re-emergence and Dr. Meridian’s analysis forces Batman to confront his own issues with duality. Is he Batman or Bruce Wayne? This dichotomy is emphasized by Dr. Meridian’s intense attraction to Batman, a tortured and fascinating creature of the night, and her total antipathy to Bruce Wayne, a seemingly dull and idle billionaire.
Further complicating his life is the sudden appearance of two men, each of whom aspires to emulate one side of his dual personality:
- Neurotic genius Edward Nygma is obsessed with Bruce Wayne and wants to become his peer. When Wayne refuses to pursue a brainwave-manipulation project he feels is too risky, Nygma feels betrayed, and his fixation curdles to jealousy. He decides to replace Wayne as the prince of Gotham City. He uses his brilliant mind and love of puzzles to become the Riddler and proposes an alliance with Two-Face: Two-Face will help him steal production capital to build and market his brainwave-manipulation machine, drive Wayne out of business, and further upgrade his intelligence. In return, the Riddler will use the information he’s draining to discover Batman’s true identity.
- Circus acrobat Dick Grayson’s family is killed by Two-Face at a charity circus event. Bruce Wayne, triggered by the similarity of Grayson’s story to his own, takes him in and tries to be a moderating influence, but Grayson is consumed with grief. When Grayson accidentally stumbles upon the Batcave, he is inspired to become a superhero himself with the end-goal of killing Two-Face for revenge, just as Batman killed the man who murdered his parents: the Joker.
Wayne begins seeing Dr. Meridian socially and gradually opens himself up to her. In the process, she becomes less interested in Batman’s flash and more in Bruce Wayne’s unexpected substance. This shift, combined with his desire to discourage Grayson from a career as Robin that he already knows will be unfulfilling, leads Wayne to quit being Batman.
Unfortunately, by this time the Riddler has discovered via his machine that the man he hates most in the world (Wayne) and the man Two-Face hates most in the world (Batman) are in fact the same person. Discovering the duality that is tearing their enemy apart, Riddler and Two-Face concoct a scenario in which Dr. Meridian and Robin are both placed in peril, and Batman/Wayne will have to pick which one to save, thereby torturing him by forcing him to obliterate one aspect of his personality or the other. Batman/Wayne, however, is able to figure out a way to save both and thus integrate his personality. With Two-Face and the Riddler now defeated, he no longer has to struggle with which half of him is “real”—he can now accept that he is both Bruce Wayne and Batman, forever.
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I think I played pretty fair. All of that is in the movie, in one form or another. I just emphasized it in a different way without really adding anything new. The movie is actually built this way; the underpinnings of the movie are sturdy. But the end product is structured in a way that plays through these themes in only the most surface-level way and doesn’t give the beats the time they need to really work. (Batman should go alone to Claw Island for the final showdown; Robin should already be captured. Batman should know going in that he is meant to make an impossible decision; Riddler and Two-Face should want him to know to prolong the torment.)
The characters on screen are also shallower than they’re built to be. Dick Grayson comes off sort of a tortured Poochie the Dog. Dr. Meridian is meant to be brilliant but is kind of a flighty vamp. The Riddler cackles and prances but only has time to leave a few riddles (that don’t even really have to be solved to advance the plot!). Most egregiously, Two-Face cheats, reflipping his coin when he doesn’t get the outcome he wants.
We don’t really need to speculate why this is, because everyone’s been pretty open about the movie in retrospect. 1989’s Batman was a massive success. 1992’s Batman Returns was…a hit, but not the cultural event that its predecessor was. If you know and love Batman Returns as I do, you know why: it’s moody and weird and goofy and grotesque. If Batman was a Batman movie with Tim Burton’s sensibilities, Batman Returns was a Burton movie that starred Batman. Moms thought it was too scary and gross for their kids to watch. So the studio wanted something lighter, more fun, better able to sell merchandise.
But: nobody wanted to give up on their Batman For Adults.2 They want Batman to be dark, to be sophisticated and have psychological depth, because that is what sold an initially skeptical public on the franchise back in 1989. And so you get this weird in-between movie. It’s fun in places, irritating in others. Sometimes charming, often embarrassing. It’s a hard movie to love but a hard movie to hate.
I think Batman Forever could absolutely be remade with modern superhero cinema conventions in mind. It wouldn’t have to be a dreary sub-Nolan dour-fest; it could still be fast-paced and fun. But the potential could really use some bringing out with a script, director, and cast interested in playing with it. This creative team and this cast…were not it.
FOOTNOTE THAT WAS WAY TOO LONG TO BE AN EMBEDDED FOOTNOTE: Although I didn’t really add anything that wasn’t there to my little synopsis, I did omit the recurring dream subplot, where Bruce Wayne flashes back to finding his father’s diary on the night of his parents’ funeral. I think given that Batman is struggling with duality anyway, he doesn’t need additional feelings of guilt to muddy up the themes. (This is not even paid off in the completed movie. The point of the dreams was supposed to be that he has repressed a memory of discovering in his father’s diary that he begged to be taken to the movies the night his parents were shot, thus making him indirectly responsible for their deaths. By the end of the movie, Wayne is supposed to have gone deeper and remembered that his parents had wanted to go out, thus absolving him of blame. It’s kind of a contrived subplot, but it’s baffling that they took out the resolution but left in all the setup.)
NEXT WEEK: It’s Fox Night at the Movies with Generation X!