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Consumed With Hate: Joel Schumacher's Batman Movies

🦇 Like a Bat Outta Hell, I'll Be Gone When the Morning Comes...

The Crime: Batman Forever and Batman & Robin
The Guilty Party: Joel Schumacher
Overview: Schumacher half-asses a reinvention of a dark and gritty franchise with Silver Age sensibilities and awful scripts.

Why I Hate It...

In hindsight, it's kind of amazing that Tim Burton's Batman worked as well as it did. It starred a cast-against-type Michael Keaton and a stunt-cast Jack Nicholson, it departed from the source material pretty substantially, and it was directed by the guy whose only other movies were Beetlejuice and Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. But it did work. Keaton not only proved to be charismatic and menacing in the cape and cowl, he played Bruce Wayne as a bit of a bumbler, as though he'd accidentally wandered into a mansion and then never left. It makes him genuinely likable and relatable, and keeps the movie grounded in some semblance of reality. Nicholson's Joker bears little resemblance to the comic, but he's so captivating that you don't really care. It was a stylized, fun, art-deco interpretation of the character that just happened to catch the zeitgeist at the perfect moment.

You see, this was the peak of the comic speculation boom, and only a few years after Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. There was a lot of desire for dark, gritty, adult-oriented comics that wasn't being met yet. Keep in mind that this was years before Spawn or The Death of Superman. And while DC's line-up is, broadly speaking, very bright and shiny, Batman is notable in that he can play dark and gritty. So it was kind of a perfect storm situation to have this feature film that was aimed at both adult and younger fans of the comic book character. It was a runaway success, so Burton was given a freer reign to make the sequel, and he decided to crank everything up. There would be more villains! It would be darker! More explosions! Also the vague and creepy body-horror elements would be much more in-your-face! And the whole thing will be infinitely more horny! So much hornier! So horny that McDonald's backpedaled on their Happy Meal tie-in arrangement. There was a substantial backlash from parents who didn't appreciate this creepy, horny movie being marketed to children... and it's kind of hard to blame them. So Warner Bros handed the franchise off to Joel Schumacher--a man whose vision would be no less horny, but definitely quite different.

Schumacher's take on the material is much less dark and gritty. This was, in my opinion, a good call. By the mid-90s, dark and gritty was out there--nothing Warner Bros did in a children's movie was going to be able to compete with Spawn on that front, so why try? Batman is actually uniquely suited to exist in an in-between territory--performatively dark, but also fun and breezy. Schumacher drew his inspiration from Silver Age comics and the 60s Adam West television series and he leans into the camp hard. The movies are bright and colorful. The dialog is pun-dense and rattatat-paced. The acting is over-the-top. The villain plots are diabolical. The design is cartoony. Even the photography evokes the Adam West series, with its extreme dutch angles during the fight sequences and the piles of faceless henchmen. It's also a bit more self-aware and winking. And... frankly, it's a bit jarring. I can see why people reacted against it, because it is a drastic shift in tone compared to previous entries. But that tone shift is not why the movies are bad.

They're bad because they're bad. And they're real bad. The scripts are bad--the plotting is dumb and the dialog features characters racing to see who can divulge the most exposition. The second movie is chock-full of awful cold puns and it is tiresome. The movies have too many characters to develop any of them. The stories are insipid, rushed, and very pat. The resolutions are hand-wavy gadget-based fixes that are not supported by the plot and none of it ties into character arc or theme. Because there are no character arcs or themes. Oh, there are themes that are talked about--Batman & Robin in particular goes to great lengths to let the audience know that this is a movie about surrogate families, but the idea ties in so loosely to the story that there's actually a beat during the coda where Bruce and Dick explain it to the audience. (Side note: for an object lesson in "show, don't tell," compare Batman & Robin's many minutes of discussion and flashbacks about Alfred's role as Bruce's surrogate father to this thirty-second interaction in the 1989 Batman.) Forever tries do something with the duality of being both Bruce and Batman and uses Two-Face as a contrast, but it never coheres. I mean, would you have even known it was there if I hadn't just pointed it out? The lack of thematic or character momentum makes the movies tedious. There's no narrative thrust at all, just a sequence of cringe-worthy events.

The performances are also bad, probably because the casting is bad. Val Kilmer works well enough as Batman, but as Bruce Wayne he's stiff and lifeless. George Clooney, by contrast, is passable as a billionaire playboy wandering Wayne Manor in sweats (!?), but he becomes impossible to take seriously whenever he dons the cape and cowl. Chris O'Donnell is clearly in his twenties but plays Robin like a surly fifteen-year-old. Jim Carrey's Riddler feels like a Joker knock-off as portrayed by a walking embodiment of ADHD. Tommy Lee Jones and Arnold Schwarzenegger are ridiculously over-the-top, but they're at least watchable. Alicia Silverstone is... well... let's say that she was always an actor of somewhat limited range, and this movie will not disabuse anyone of that idea. It's also weird that we've got the same Alfred and Commissioner Gordon from the Tim Burton movies. Why bother trying to maintain any continuity if the rest of it's going to depart so much?

The stunt work is also very bad. The fight scenes are just laughably tame. B&R has a lot of wire-work and all of it looks fake, and when slide whistle or similar sound effects are used underneath the stunts, any sense of peril evaporates. The movies are also weirdly ugly at times. I'm not talking about the overly busy production design--it doesn't work, but I also kind of don't hate it--so much as the harsh lighting in the non-hero scenes. There's the subplot in B&R about how Alfred is dying and every time there's a close-up of his face, you can't help but wonder if he's supposed to look that oily. The costumes are ugly and occasionally problematic. Gotham City is filled with giant statues that keep making you wonder if they're structurally sound. The props are chintzy. The sets look fake. The sound design is questionable. It's just... none of it works, okay? It feels like a series of compromises that were dismissed as "oh, it's a comic book movie for kids, who cares?" and the answer is "No one." No one cares. Especially not the audience.

Nest week, we--hold on, what? I'm getting a message from Editorial here. Oh... Oh, for f**k's sake. Really? Must we?

Fine. I guess we'll talk about the bat-nipples.

I often say that the reasons you don't like something and the reasons you think you don't like something don't necessarily line up. And this is a great example. There are prominent nipples on the hero armor. Is this bad? Yes. It's distracting and is just a weird design element. Supposedly Schumacher wanted the armor to evoke classical statues, which are anatomically correct. It's dumb and it doesn't work. But if you went through frame by frame and digitally scrubbed out all the nipples, it wouldn't turn the movie good. If everything else were working, you might not even notice, just like no one ever noticed the nipples on the Black Panther costume. Okay, fine, there aren't nipples on the Black Panther costume--but you were about to go and check! Because the presence or absence of fake nipples is not something you devote a lot of brain space to in your day-to-day movie-watching experience.

And yet it's the one thing people talk about when you bring up these movies, as though that's what made them bad. They're not. But they make a useful talking point because they're emblematic of how the camera fetishizes its male leads. Because it's not just nipples; there's also the cod-pieces and close-ups of asses during suiting-up montages. And to be completely fair, Bat-Girl gets the same treatment. She just has so little screen-time that it doesn't register the same way. I also think it's interesting that you never see Batman or Robin shirtless. The characters are only fetishized when they're being heroes. Regardless, it ties in to one thing that audiences reacted strongly against, perhaps a bit unfairly, but it was the 90s after all. And it's that these movies are real gay.

Now, none of this is new. Discourse about homoerotic subtext within the Batman universe goes back to at least the 50s. And villains are often queer-coded. And I already mentioned that Schumacher was leaning into the camp aesthetic of the old Adam West show. But even then... I mean, there's queer-coded, and then there's the Riddler with pictures of Val Kilmer taped to his walls. Two-Face is a dandy. Kilmer's lips are very supple under that cowl. Uma Thurman's Poison Ivy has some big drag show energy, right down to her otherwise inexplicable Katherine Hepburn accent. I mean, look at her sitting in this giant vaginal metaphor! Meanwhile, the depictions of hetero attraction or relationships are... let's go with "unconvincing," to the point of being laughable. You've got Two-Face's dual mols, Sugar and Spice at one extreme, and then Bruce's long-time girlfriend--who I guess has never spent the night in Wayne Manor--at the other. There is no chemistry anywhere, which is a problem since a major plot point is Poison Ivy making everyone fall in love with her. I guess the only direction they got was "I dunno, act drunk I guess."

Now I will go ahead and plant my flag and say that gaying-up Batman is not what makes these movies bad. But it's still a really weird choice.

Next week, we dip our toes into some decades-old Christian conspiracy theorizing with Hell's Bells: The Dangers of Rock 'N Roll...

In CONSUMED WITH HATE, Kurt is revisiting media that he absolutely did not like one bit. See more posts.