Batman Forever does something that Batman and Batman Returns were unable to do: it makes Batman a proper protagonist, with goals and desires of his own. Not merely reacting to events, Bruce/Batman is after something in Forever. His various allies and antagonists, seductions and betrayals are all thematically consistent and relevant to his struggle. This does not mean that the finished movie is without flaws.
WHAT DOES THE PROTAGONIST WANT? Bruce Wayne wants to lead a “normal life.” He wants to be able to fall in love, put his demons to rest and have a fully integrated personality. Life has, as life will, other plans, first in the form of Two-Face. Just as Bruce is motivated by an unending revenge for his parents’ death, Two-Face is motivated by an irrational desire for revenge upon Batman. Two-Face’s sense of justice (arbitrary and cruel) and divided-down-the-middle personality are twisted mirrors of Bruce. Bruce would love nothing better than to put away Two-Face, settle down with that nice Dr. Meridian (astonishingly, yet another blonde with a bat obsession — how lucky can one guy get?) and hang up his cape for good.
But Two-Face’s agenda crosses Bruce’s. Two-Face’s Batman obsession causes him to disrupt a circus that Bruce is attending. He terrorizes the crowd and causes the deaths of the family of Dick Grayson, who then becomes a kind of mini-Batman himself, vowing revenge upon Two-Face. Bruce takes the young Dick into his hands (so to speak) and tries to set him on the path of light, but again, life conspires to force a young man into a life of superheroism.
You know, I’m not sure where this notion came from that it’s a curse to be Batman. On the Adam West show, Batman didn’t suffer for his decision, he was a rich guy who drove a cool car and beat up criminals — where was the suffering? What caused the shift from Batman being a joyful adventure for boys to being a brooding creep who spends all his time wondering if he’s doing the right thing? (A similar thing happened to James Bond around the same time — his movies went from being campy larks to being dark, violent “issue dramas.” Was it Reagan? Crack? Or was it merely the audience getting old?
(Once, while I was in a large group of people, I described superhero comics as “adolescent power fantasies.” A bright-eyed young man perked up at that said no, that’s not what comics are — he said that the comics he read weren’t adolescent power fantasies at all, they were adult, complex dramas about the misuse of power and the great responsibilities power brings. What he failed to understand is that what he described is merely another kind of adolescent power fantasy. “I can’t kiss a girl because girls are yucky and I’m having too much fun being a cool bat dude” is no more or less an adolescent fantasy than “I can’t kiss a girl because I’m terribly concerned with the limits of my powers and my impact on society.” And who said that adolescent power fantasies are an unfit subject for entertainment anyway?)
Anyway, so far so good. Batman wants to have a normal life with a pretty girl, but his past continues to haunt him both psychologically (in the form of haunting dreams) and physically (in the form of Two-Face). And he’s given a young protege to to reflect upon him the decisions he’s made in life. Excellent! Now what?
Well, to complicate things, here comes Dr. Edward Nygma. What does Dr. Nygma want? Dr. Nygma wants to be Bruce Wayne. He’s Rupert Pupkin (or Mark Chapman) — he identifies so strongly with the object of his affection that he must destroy it in order to feel real. Along the way, Nygma becomes The Riddler, a man obsessed with questions and answers — and the accumulation of knowledge. So that all works — Batman Forever, like the previous two movies, is primarily a psychodrama about bifurcated personalities trying to reintegrate. Unlike the first two movies, Forever makes its title character its protagonist instead of sympathizing with its monsters.
For me, the problems with the Forever screenplay start with Nygma’s device — a brainwave-altering whatsit that just happens to also be a mind-reading device. First of all, a villain stumbling upon a grand scheme to implement strikes me as weak plotting, but also I can’t quite see how “The Bad Guy With a Mind-Reading Device” fits in to a story about people trying to integrate their personalities. The Riddler, we could say, creates his device in order to best Bruce Wayne, to become smarter, cannier and wealthier than his idol, and thus realize himself — but why mind-reading? Why are riddles and mind-reading the key to his self-realization?
That may seem like nit-picking — the villain has to have some sort of plan, why not reading the minds of the citizens of Gotham? — but the Riddler’s mind-reading whatsit comes to dominate the entire movie, and turns out to serve only one plot-point — the Riddler, with his device, is able to read the mind of Bruce Wayne, and thus discover his secret — that he is Batman. Apart from that, there doesn’t seem to be any thematic point to the Riddler’s scheme, it’s all just production design and cumbersome action set-pieces.
It also, sadly, takes away time from Two-Face, one of the most thematically resonant of all Batman villains. The idea that a character as rich and full of potential as Two-Face has only one purpose — kill the Batman — is ludicrous. The result is that Two-Face has no inner life, he’s only a plot device — worse, he becomes a henchman to the Riddler, a giggling gnat in criminal-mastermind terms. With no character to play, Two-Face becomes single-minded — an oxymoron. To make matters worse, Two-Face is played by Tommy Lee Jones, one of America’s greatest, most accomplished, most subtle actors, as a shouting, screaming, smirking, mincing, pun-spewing, giggling miscreant in Halloween makeup. The script gives Two-Face his essential coin, but it also robs him of his pathology — his coin-flip isn’t a compulsion, it’s an affectation. He only does it when he feels like it, and if he doesn’t like how the coin lands, he flips it again until he gets the answer he desires. Or, he proceeds with his plan and merely alters it to give lip-service to the decision of his coin. The narrative of Forever holds Two-Face at arm’s length, and Two-Face holds his coin at arm’s length, as if to say “Okay, I’ve got the zany makeup, I’ve got the incessant “two” puns, isn’t that enough? I don’t really have to abide by the rules of my pathology, do I?”
(The Riddler’s sole pathology in the comics is that he cannot help but reveal himself to his pursuer — if his pursuer is smart enough to add up his clues. That the script takes this conceit and turns it into a story of obsession is actually rather brilliant. Why would the Riddler take the time to develop his devilish riddles if he didn’t desire to be caught? Dr. Nygma pursues his unattainable Bruce Wayne out of love, but, as the Riddler he’s able to turn the tables and have the object of his love pursue him instead, with the ultimate goal of being caught. In that regard, the Riddler’s whatsit serves his agenda in that it brings Bruce/Batman, powerless and subservient, to his very feet.)
Still, even with all this, there’s no reason why Forever shouldn’t work on a script level. But when people think ofBatman Forever they think of Jim Carrey’s wacky, zany, Bugs-Bunny-on-speed Riddler, and Batman’s ass (pictured above). It’s bad enough that Tommy Lee Jones is given no character to play, but he is forced to dial up his performance to Wagnerian heights of screaming camp just to remain onscreen with the hyper-kooky Carrey. Carrey’s performance becomes the tonal touchstone for the whole movie, the result being that the movie refuses to take itself seriously.
(There are also a few structural issues regarding the Riddler’s plot that I find hard to swallow, but since the movie doesn’t really care about the logic of its central plot device, I feel silly doing so.)
Which, so what? Where is it written that a movie about people dressing up in crazy costumes is required to take itself seriously? Indeed, a sense of joy and adventure, of play, had been signally lacking in the previous Batman movies, why not lighten up a little? And yes, I find plenty of scenes in Forever that strike the right tone of stylish pop grandeur without disappearing over the edge of camp or giving in to morbid self-regard. But there are too few of them, and Forever, like its primary antagonist, cannot help but to sabotage itself.
Text ©2010 Todd Alcott
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.