Home Culture Commentary The Alcott Analysis: Batman Forever

The Alcott Analysis: Batman Forever


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


  1. Ah… the BatButt. When they showed that on the screen I said “Its the BatButt” a little louder than I thought I did and had the theater laughing.

    Good times.

    Is it wrong that I like Batman Forever better than Batman Returns?


  2. I’ve always been baffled by the title “Batman Forever”. I never understood where that originated.

    They could have called it “Batman Strikes Back”. It would have made much more sense.



  3. This will always remain my least-favorite Batman movie, because I refuse to this day to see “Batman and Robin”. That one’s probably worse, but I’ll never know.

    One thing this article doesn’t address is the new Batman actor, Val Kilmer, who, I’d argue, delivered one of the worst performances of his up-and-down career. The term “phoned it in” barely starts to cover how perfunctorily he approached the role.

    And on a purely physical level, Kilmer was just too slight. Robin should NOT look like he could snap Batman’s neck with ease. That just doesn’t work. Keaton was no athlete, but at least he filled out the costume believably.

    Oh, and the Riddler stunk as a character, and I agree that Jones was completely wasted on this script and director. I found Batman Forever to be a nearly unwatchable mess, and profoundly un-entertaining.

  4. I’m a fan of this movie, mainly because I enjoyed Batman having to escape from the death traps and thought Val Kilmer was fine as Batman. That said, I’d like to see a Riddler onscreen give Batman some interesting riddles to puzzle out. Hopefully Christopher Nolan will get around to that in the next movie…

    The best Riddler was in the animated series, with an excellent origin as a cheated game inventor out for revenge…

  5. Another great reading Todd.
    I’ve always found ‘Forever’ to be a frustrating watch. It has it’s moments, but as you point out, Carrey’s Riddler eats up some much scene-time and scenery that he robs the story of any seriousness or dignity it can muster.

    I’ve heard the Batchler’s first draft was very solid, and I can only speculate that it was re-written to accommodate more Jim Carrey(who was suddenly hot property at the time) and the expense of Two-Face (who as far as the plot inticates should really be the main protagonist).

    On the plus side: I totally dug the opening ‘batman in a death-trap’ sequence.

  6. I remember seeing that Batman in a death-trap and laughing because it was so well paced and fun. I’ll always remember the guard’s reaction to the acid in the vault…


    I really enjoyed Batman Forever, I was 12, and it was a nice breath of fresh air from the overly dark Batman Returns. Now, I can’t really get through it, but at least it was pretty looking.

  8. “I’ve always been baffled by the title “Batman Forever”. I never understood where that originated.

    They could have called it “Batman Strikes Back”. It would have made much more sense.”

    Wasn’t Dark Knight Forever one of the chapters in Dark Knight Returns? I seems to remember Joel Schumacher discussing Batman Triumphant as a title for the fourth movie at one point (similar to another DKR chapter title), so I would guess he got it from the book.

  9. A thematic plot in the film, the climactic scene of which was apparently cut, dealt with Bruce wanting to give up being Batman, losing his purpose as a vigilante, haunted by his dead parents, guilt, angst, something something. By the end, it was to be resolved, with him now able to be Batman “forever.”

  10. I despise this film. But as bad as it is, what’s even worse is that (according to the commentary track on “Batman Returns”) Tim Burton wanted to come back and do a third film but Warner Bros. wasn’t keen on the idea and used their passive-aggressive powers of persuasion to push him away. Imagining how Tim Burton would have introduced Two-Face, the Riddler, and Robin is so much more interesting than the shlock that actually ended up on screen. Such a waste of time and money.

  11. Briguyx – why is everyone on such a bandwagon (Robin Williams included) to assume Nolan is going to be putting the Riddler in the third movie?

    Surely there are more darker and mature villains to put in the third movie such as the Black Mask, Calendar Man, Hush, Hugo Strange, Deadshot, The Ventriloquist, or the KGBeast- bad guys that audiences can relate to or which doesn’t seem too far fetch.

    I would even welcome back the Scarecrow for a third time. Although, the Riddler is my all time fav Bat baddy of them, I don’t think he would work in the context of Nolan’s surrealistic cinematic vison. It would be too much of a carbon copy of the Joker in the Dark Knight and would end up bordering on camp.



  12. I’ve got a great soft spot for this movie.

    After the level of darkness Burton had gone through with Batman Returns, I thought this was a great change of pace and direction, specially with the use of colors at the time.

    And after the movie my father had said it best when he said “That reminded me of the Batman comics I used to read when I was a kid.”

    It was right out of the Dick Sprang library.

  13. “It would be too much of a carbon copy of the Joker in the Dark Knight and would end up bordering on camp.”

    No it wouldn’t. Just make it the Riddler, and make it good.

  14. this is probably my OCD talking, but why isn’t this article tagged to appear with todd’s other bat-analyses? I just kinda dig having them all on one page. thanks.

  15. Howdy, i read your blog occasionally and i own a similar one and i was just wondering if you get a lot of spam comments? If so how do you reduce it, any plugin or anything you can suggest? I get so much lately it’s driving me crazy so any support is very much appreciated.

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