Camp and colourful: Looking back at Joel Schumacher’s Batman movies
James R | On 10, Mar 2022
From Val Kilmer to George Clooney, the mid-90s saw Batman enter a new era and tone after Tim Burton’s live-action double-bill, with Joel Schumacher taking the helm. As camp as they were colourful, were they misjudged or misunderstood? We look back at the Dark Knight’s most colourful outings on the big screen, plus where you can stream them online.
Batman Forever (1994)
How do you solve a problem like The Riddler? There are only two ways to go with a puzzle-obsessed villain in an action thriller. The first is to lean into the Zodiac of it all, the approach favoured by Matt Reeves’ The Batman. The second is to play things bright and silly. That, for better or worse, is the approach taken by Batman Forever.
The 1994 sequel saw Joel Schumacher take the helm of the lucrative Warner Bros/DC franchise, his aim to bring a lighter touch to a comic book series that, under the stewardship of Tim Burton, got a little too Gothic and brooding for family audiences. Schumacher was a safe pair of hands, but that also meant he was happy to brighten things up in keeping with the studio’s vision – and that led to creative differences with Michael Keaton who stepped out of the Batsuit, paving the way for Val Kilmer.
Kilmer is the big screen’s forgotten Batman, comfortably stepping into Bruce Wayne’s shoes with a weariness, loneliness and slightly haunted quality. After Keaton’s two spins round the Batcave, Kilmer’s Dark Knight is a more experienced hero, which makes him the ideal contrast to Chris O’Donnell, who flies into the frame as would-be sidekick Robin. O’Donnell has the right blend of youthful petulance and acrobatic agility, even if he doesn’t always convince as the orphaned circus starlet out for angry revenge.
If their odd-couple dynamic (mediated by Michael Gough’s pitch-perfect Alfred) is what helps to give the film some momentum, it’s everything else that lets it down. Daniel Waters’ script is so busy trying to be modern and lively that everything winds up chaotic and frantic, introducing such ideas as a TV gizmo that can suck people’s brainwaves (for no apparent reason) and letting Two-Face loose with a giant ticking bomb that doesn’t seem to obey the laws of time.
It doesn’t help that Tommy Lee Jones is terrible as the former DA Harvey Dent, whose face has been half-melted by acid, dialling everything up to 11 to the point where it’s gratingly loud. Nicole Kidman, meanwhile, is wasted as Chase Meridian, a criminal psychologist whose painfully dumb dialogue leaves her doing little more than ogling Batman and trying to get inside his suit.
Thank goodness, then, for Jim Carrey, who delivers one of the most unhinged performances of his career as Ed Nygma, a scientist fired by Wayne Enterprises who is tipped over the edge by Bruce’s apparent rejection of his fanatical ideas. Nobody else could have pulled off The Riddler’s green, question-marked costume, his vivid green and orange outfit blending in with the neon-coloured sets and lighting.
Between Carrey’s manic presence and Kilmer’s grounded Bruce, the result is a film that threatens to careen out of control at every moment – and that energy makes this flawed outing an intriguingly camp and colourful outing for the Caped Crusader. Despite its title Batman Forever couldn’t feel more dated if it tried.
Batman & Robin (1997)
“Ice to see you…” That’s the sound of Arnold Schwarzenegger entering the Batman universe, and it’s hard to think of a better worse villain in a comic book blockbuster.
Superhero movies have, to a degree, always been driven by their villains, and the Dark Knight’s rogues gallery offers a range of more interesting personalities and themes than most. But the best Bat-films use them to draw out elements of Batman/Bruce Wayne’s own character too, from Heath Ledger’s Joker against Christian Bale’s Dark Knight to Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman facing off with Michael Keaton’s Caped Crusader. Batman & Robin, which sees George Clooney step into the Batsuit in place of Val Kilmer, gets so excited about its villains that it forgets to do anything with Batman at all – let alone assemble a script that’s even barely coherent.
Written by Lee Batchler, Janet Scott Batchler, and Akiva Goldsman, the sequel to Batman Forever takes every element of its predecessor and turns it up to 11. Where Batman Forever took Tim Burton’s Gothic vision of Gotham and added a neon filter, Batman & Robin covers everything in Day-Glo paint, filling the streets with grotesquely oversized statues of fallen giants and a never-ending supply of dry ice.
George Clooney, at the peak of his ER heartthrob days, is a natural choice to play the playboy Bruce Wayne, but he delivers a rare bad performance as Batman, responding to every line of dialogue with a twinkling smile regardless of the situation. Alicia Silverstone actually gets things to do as the new addition to the Wayne household, while Chris O’Donnell has enough charisma to keep Robin’s fledgling sidekick a fun presence, but Clooney is adrift, upstaged by his costume’s notorious rubber Bat-nipples.
The script stuffs the stage so full of larger-than-life characters that any semblance of exciting action cinema swiftly disappears beneath the cartoonish surface – for better or worse, this is closer to the Adam West era of Batman than modern superhero spectacle. Schumacher never met a Dutch angle he didn’t like, but the whole thing feels goofily off-kilter, with the pun-filled dialogue painfully unfunny and every gadget-heavy set piece nonsensically driven by either motorbike chases or ice hockey.
Uma Thurman is perfectly cast as Poison Ivy’s entertaining, knowing siren, but feels like an add-on for the sake of it. Arnie, meanwhile, emerges as the only one who understood the brief – he delivers an absurdly overblown performance drenched in excess. If his self-awareness extended through the rest of the camp silliness, Batman & Robin could have been so bad it was so good. As it stands, it’s so bad it’s bad – a sherbet, candy floss confection that leaves you feeling cold.