They Said What?! is a biweekly column in which we explore the highs and lows of film criticism through history. How did critics feel about it at the time, and do we see it differently now? In this entry, Chris Coffel explores the critical reception of Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever.
In the mid-’90s the landscape of big-budget Hollywood adaptations of comic book material was still very much like the wild, wild West. Rules were not yet defined, and studios went for broke with big, bold attempts at blockbusters, hoping to strike cinematic gold. Perhaps the biggest and boldest attempt came courtesy of Warner Bros. and director Joel Schumacher with 1995’s Batman Forever.
Before Schumacher stepped behind the camera, the Dark Knight was already well-established on the silver screen. Tim Burton achieved commercial and critical success with 1989’s Batman and its 1992 Christmas-themed followup, Batman Returns. Despite the positive response, many felt Burton’s take was a tad too dark. The studio responded by shifting Burton to a producer-only role and bringing Schumacher in to add a light, fun touch to the franchise.
In addition to a new director, an all-new Batman was also born as Val Kilmer replaced the departing Michael Keaton in the role. Joining Kilmer was a parade of Hollywood A-listers, headlined by Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face, Jim Carrey as The Riddler, and Nicole Kidman as Batman’s new love interest, Chase Meridian. This also marked the big-budget debut of Robin, portrayed by Chris O’Donnell.
The film was a home run at the box office, earning more than $300 million on its way to becoming the sixth highest-grossing film worldwide in 1995. Critically the film was lauded for its visuals but failed to score many high marks elsewhere. Many critics felt the film was bloated and oversaturated with unnecessary noise and that it lacked a worthwhile story.
“There is no rhythm to the movie, no ebb and flow,” famed critic Roger Ebert wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times. While Batman’s world is interesting, “a story hasn’t been found to do him justice.”
CNN’s Carol Buckland called the film “a visual tour de force,” and praised Schumacher for his ability to handle the “razzle-dazzle.” Unfortunately, Buckland found the director to be “clueless when it comes to providing any emotional punch.”
“There’s so much and so little going on here simultaneously that you’re not sure whether to squirm or doze,” wrote Marc Savlov in his two-star review for the Austin Chronicle. Savlov enjoyed Jones and Carrey, calling the duo “the film’s saving graces,” but felt the rest of the movie was bogged down by uninteresting heroes.
Writing for MIT’s The Tech, Rob Wagner didn’t hold back, calling the film “boring” while declaring Schumacher’s direction to be “terrible.” Wagner felt the film was too “cartoonish,” specifically referencing the fight scenes and the villains’ decision-making. As for Kilmer, Wagner called him “a pitiful Batman” that was definitely “miscast.”
That cartoonish element that put off critics like Wagner is specifically what makes Batman Forever such a fun ride and a great comic book adaptation. Schumacher took the dark, gloomy Batman universe Burton created and mixed in the colorful camp of the ’60s-era television series starring Adam West. In doing so, the director managed to make big-screen Batman more kid-friendly while simultaneously turning up the on-screen steam with the horniest Batman to date.
Some critics made note of this at the time. Rolling Stone‘s Peter Travers wrote that Schumacher and Batman Forever moved away from “Burton’s nightmare world” and introduced “an accessible, brightly colored TV palette.” Despite this lighter approach, Travers is quick to point out that “the Dark Knight hasn’t sold his soul to Disney” as the film still contains “subversive humor” and “high-style playfulness.”
Modern responses to the film, however, have seemed to fully grasp and appreciate precisely what Schumacher was going for. In an excellent piece for Observer this year, Sara Century highlights the many reasons why Batman Forever celebrates “the weird and wonderful origins of Batman just as much as any other” film in the franchise’s long-running history. Century explains that while Batman did start as a more serious, straight forward detective comic, the light-hearted humor and cheesy one-liners have always been present. Batman Forever is “regularly dismissed for being goofy,” Century notes, but in reality, the film was just harkening back to the early days of Batcamp that famously peaked with the ’60s series.
“I would contend this movie is the perfect melding of the dour Burton films and the ’66 aesthetic Schumacher wanted to employ,” Kyle Anderson also wrote in a recent piece a for Nerdist defending the film. Anderson credits Schumacher’s first film for changing “Gotham from a matte painting of an overly-cramped slum to a fully-3D model full of neon lights and insane Gothic architecture.” Unlike many of the reviews from its time, Anderson writes of Batman Forever that the film is more than vivid visuals and splash effects, saying there is “a pretty solid story” that “is no worse than either 1989’s Batman or 1992’s Batman Returns.”
Gregory Lawrence of Collider may have best summed up why Batman Forever manages to hit the perfect note. “It’s a wild and raucous roller coaster,” he wrote this year, “that isn’t afraid to have a sense of humor nor to dive into the inherent darkness of the inherent duality of every character in the picture.” Lawrence argues that while most other Batman iterations, noting recent efforts from Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder, focus strictly on the dark side of the Dark Knight, Schumacher proved you could get a little silly while still being a little serious. Lawrence even goes so far as to say that Schumacher’s Batman Forever is “just as singular a blockbuster as George Miller‘s Mad Max: Fury Road!”
That may sound like a piping hot take, but it’s one that I find myself in full agreement with. Batman Forever isn’t the best comic book/superhero movie. It probably wouldn’t even make my top ten. It’s not without its flaws. Kilmer isn’t perfect. And O’Donnell, though his performance is quite good, feels a little too old for Robin. But in terms of replicating the look and feel of a comic book in live-action form? No film has done it better.
Batman Forever is light, dark, silly, serious, and everything in between. It’s a film that screams ’90s big-budget cinema while also feeling like it was transported back in time from a future we’ve yet to reach. It’s the gold standard that other blockbusters should thrive to be, the template other directors should follow.
Now, if only we could get Warner Bros. to release the longer Schumacher cut that we so desperately deserve.