Batman, At Last

I was disappointed in the first two Batman movies. Despite moments of dark wit and visual brilliance, they didn't move me emotionally, and I didn't think much of them as entertainment, either.

The problem was their director, Tim Burton. He's an artist, not a showman; a visionary, not a storyteller. As haunting and visually audacious as his superhero movies sometimes were, they were lacking in the meat-and-potatoes department. The action wasn't particularly fluid or exciting, and most of the time Batman didn't even move convincingly.

Unlike the graceful midnight icon fetishized in five decades of comic books, an icon who flashed so quickly through the frame that his presence was often represented by a blurred boot heel or part of a fluttering cape, Burton's Caped Crusader moved like Robocop in leather -- a big, self-righteous lug.

Even more vexing was Burton's apparent lack of interest in Batman as a character. The filmmaker probed deeply into the souls of his physically disfigured outcast villains, but he often forgot that the pictures were supposed to be about an emotionally disfigured outcast hero. Burton's films treated Bruce Wayne's phobias glancingly and robbed him of humor. He should have been a twisted, tragic and charismatic hero, but most of the time he came off as just a mopey rich guy with a bat fixation.

No wonder Michael Keaton decided to forgo a $10 million payday and hang up his cape. Not even the greediest actor would want to spend another six months in a sweaty rubber suit on behalf of a film series that didn't even have the decency to provide him with a character worth rooting for.

If his replacement, the lanky goofball Val Kilmer, wasn't so much fun to watch, I'd say that Keaton should have stuck around. Just about everything that went wrong with the first two movies goes right in Batman Forever. Director Joel Schumacher, whose diverse resume includes The Incredible Shrinking Woman, Flatliners, The Lost Boys and The Client, has as stunning an eye as Burton, but he's a far more disciplined storyteller.

The third movie looks bigger, bolder and busier than the first two (the result of location shooting in playfully redecorated Manhattan and Los Angeles streets, and the most lavish indoor sets $100 million can buy). And it has most of the same popcorny script elements: cackling villains and their armies of henchmen invading black-tie galas and holding people hostage; Batman trading sexy, double-edged quips with a love interest who's nowhere near as clueless as she looks; and James Bondian fortresses going up in titanic clouds of tangerine-colored flame.

Yet paradoxically, it's also more intimate, more controlled -- as compact as the Batmobile and every bit as fast, deadly and gorgeous. Unlike Burton, Schumacher doesn't let his thematic fascinations run away with him; he keeps one hand on the wheel at all times. The result isn't as emotionally daring and visually outrageous as Burton at his best, but it's better paced and more consistently entertaining from one sequence to the next. And it actually manages to make us care about its title character -- to draw us inside his nightmares and longings, and make us believe it makes sense for a man whose parents were murdered by a mugger to work out his traumas by dressing as a crime fighting humanoid bat.

Not that Bruce Wayne has suddenly become comfortable with himself. His sleep is disturbed by nightmares from his childhood. He's still living in the musty recesses of Wayne Manor, a gothic country fortress perched atop his subterranean headquarters, the Bat Cave. His closest pal is his elderly butler and surrogate dad, Alfred (veteran English character actor Michael Gough), who, if we're to believe the script, was hired away from Buckingham Palace. (Baloney: if this crafty old man, who's an expert in everything from sewing and table service to electronics research and jet engine repair, ever worked for the Queen, Britain would still have an empire.)

Wayne is Gotham City's biggest philanthropist, its most eligible bachelor and its most benevolent corporate mogul: the employees of his multinational firm get profit sharing opportunities, and when a middle manager dies in what appears to be a suicide, Wayne makes sure the fellow's family gets insurance benefits anyway. But his confident facade hides a wounded heart: this bat is hurting.

Complications ensue from minute one. Deranged former district attorney Harvey Dent (Tommy Lee Jones), who unaccountably blames Batman for an act of courtroom violence that disfigured him -- a mobster tossed a vial of acid at his head, leaving half his face looking like a bowl of pesto sauce -- is on the loose. He calls himself Two-Face, and he chooses life or death for his hostages by flipping a coin, one side of which is scarred. It's tough to tell whether Two-Face cherishes this ritual because it represents the cruel randomness of fate or because he looks really mysterious and evil when he does it. (As the script is fond of pointing out, he's of two minds on every subject.)

In the movie's stunning opening, Batman foils an attempted bank heist by Two-Face. Their confrontation leads to a wild helicopter ride through Gotham that ends with our hero diving into the harbor just before the chopper crashes into the cheek of the Statue of Liberty, scarring the monument's face with the same blackened pattern as Dent's slimy visage. (Two-Face escapes in a parachute emblazoned with the Yin-Yang symbol; it's indicative of Schumacher's confidence that we only glimpse this sight gag for a fraction of a second.)

To make matters worse, a loony-tunes employee in Wayne Enterprises' research division named Edward Nygma (Jim Carrey) claims to have invented a creepy new supergadget: a device that can give and take know-ledge from the human brain via high-density energy waves filtered through television (or something like that). Nygma wants Wayne to give him gazillions in start-up funds to place the product in every household in America, but Wayne brushes Nygma off. Enraged, the wild-haired techno freak retreats into hermithood, refining his gadget and eventually transforming himself into the Riddler, a prancing, bowler-hatted fop in a neon-green body suit festooned with question marks.

The Riddler plans to use his invention to suck the smarts from every mind in Gotham, beam them back into his own fevered brain and mutate into a supergenius. He also nurtures an obsession with Bruce Wayne, secretly stalking the billionaire and leaving ornately designed riddles on the front gate at Wayne Manor. He hooks up with Two-Face, and they form a deadly team: brains and brawn. Two-Face pulls off a daring series of robberies to finance the Riddler's corporate scheme, and, in no time, the fired Wayne Corporation toady has become Bruce Wayne's chief business rival, overlord of an expanding conglomerate that's selling freaky TV toppers by the millions and turning the nation into a hive of brain-dead zombies.

The odds stacked against our hero are considerable, but fortunately, he isn't quite as much of a solitary figure this time around. He interacts with people, and he lets us know what's on his mind. He acknowledges his dependence on Alfred in matters both technical and spiritual. And he even takes in a tough teenage acrobat named Dick Grayson (Chris O'Donnell) whose trapeze-swinging family was killed by Two-Face during a botched act of terrorism. Obviously, Grayson's family tragedy echoes Bruce Wayne's, and having the kid underfoot forces him to confront his phobias head-on.

To that end, he seeks out psychological treatment from a famous shrink named Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman), a blond bombshell with a textbook knowledge of Freud and a jones for winged night creatures. Although Wayne is smitten with Meridian, she has the hots for Wayne's alter-ego.

Because Kilmer and Kidman have a teasingly sexy chemistry, the romantic subplot seems more than perfunctory. It's not as adult and enigmatic as Michael Keaton's interaction with Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns, but it's just as funny. Meridian seems as unhinged in her own way as Wayne: they're bats of a feather. Early in the picture, she sneaks onto the police station roof and triggers the Bat Signal to summon the object of her affections, and when he arrives, swooping down from the clouds with his cape all aflutter, her eyes glaze over orgasmically. (Batman isn't amused. "The Bat Signal is not a beeper, doctor," he grouses.)

Schumacher keeps all these characters orbiting around Batman with geometric precision. Just when you tire of Carrey's spastic physical gyrations or Tommy Lee Jones' thuggish mutterings, the film jumps to the Batman-Bruce Wayne-Meridian relationship, or to the hero's growing bond with his young ward, who will eventually become his partner and best friend, Robin.

The picture moves so fast that certain elements feel underdeveloped: in the comics, police Commissioner Gordon (Pat Hingle) is a complex and loyal lawman and a staunch ally of Batman, but he's barely allowed to speak in this movie; and Two-Face's sexy henchwomen, Sugar and Spice, are played by two very likable actresses, Drew Barrymore and Debi Mazar, yet we see so little of them that their presence seems like an afterthought.

And some important plot points are fudged. When, for instance, Dick Grayson sneaks through a secret door in Wayne Manor and ends up in the Bat Cave, it's uncertain whether his eyes pop because he's just realized his big brother figure is Batman, or because he just can't wait to get his hands on all those cool gadgets. We should be privy to his moment of revelation, but we never actually see it. But this feels like an honest mistake -- the result of a filmmaker sacrificing scenes in the name of continuity rather than blowing them off cavalierly, as Burton did, because he didn't personally find them interesting.

Schumacher is more entertainer than artist, which is good: when you're entrusted with a $100 million comic-book movie, it helps to have a showman's instincts. He hasn't been shy about admitting how much he enjoyed the schlocky '60s TV series, and sure enough, during a chase scene involving the Batmobile and three turbo-retooled enemy roadsters, Elliot Goldenthal's score hits some funky surf-style bass chords that invoke the TV show's theme song. The director told the Los Angeles Times that after reading an early draft of the script, which once again presented Batman as a loner, his first question was, "So where's Robin?" That pretty much summarizes why Batman Forever is such a slick, crowd-pleasing piece of work: Tim Burton reads a Batman script and ponders mankind's yearning for vengeance and the power of myths; Joel Schumacher reads the same script and wonders where the hell Robin is.

Batman Forever treats its subject matter seriously, but not too seriously. Whenever tall, dark, soulful Bruce Wayne/Batman recedes so deeply inside himself that you couldn't dig him out with a Bat Trowel, along comes Chase Meridian, the Boy Wonder or Alfred the Butler to make fun of him. The film keeps moving and moving, hitting you with one damn thing after another -- a joke, a jolt, a wild rescue, a breathtakingly gigantic set.

It all feels inexplicably fresh and energetic, as if these characters and ideas were being presented for the very first time. Everything has been reimagined, from the assorted gadgets, vehicles and suits (which look like Wagnerian dominatrix outfits, complete with rippling muscle lines, plastic nipples and spectacularly suggestive codpieces) to the lighting and music and set design. Batman Forever feels less like the third entry in a series than a new beginning. (The addition of a wiseass sidekick helps a lot. As amusingly dapper and deadpan as Kilmer is, he wouldn't be nearly as much fun without O'Donnell's Robin, a clench-jawed street punk whose swaggering demeanor suggests Tom Cruise by way of one of the Jets from West Side Story.)

There are limitations to what Schumacher can do, of course. When you get down to it, the Batman movies are obscenely expensive no-brainers -- chunks of junky Americana retooled for the multiplex age. And like the James Bond pictures, their chief pleasure is familiarity. They serve up the same film over and over, recycling basic components: crazy gadgets, psychotic bad guys, overheated gobbledygook. Movie studios don't permit much variation from a formula because they don't want to drive fans away from their very expensive (and very profitable) franchise. The goal is to give viewers of each new entry something that's both old and new.

Accordingly, Batman Forever stirs in references to the title character's different incarnations: a splash of Bob Kane here, a dash of Frank Miller there, plus nods to the Fox animated series, the old live action show and Burton's movies. Fans of Miller's grim, violent, politicized Dark Knight will be frustrated yet again, because although Schumacher, like Burton before him, borrows the artist's Blade Runner visuals, his storytelling touch is a lot more playful.

As a result, although this movie has a convoluted plot, dozens of locations, two heroes, two villains and a seemingly endless array of action set pieces, it never spirals out of control. And although it has serious elements, it's less oppressively self-involved than Burton's movies.

And refreshingly, everything in the movie, from the script's dialogue to production designer Barbara Ling's nutty visual curlicues, leads back to the same nexus: Batman himself. It's oddly touching to realize that this big, bad, billionaire vigilante superhero is so emotionally vulnerable, so susceptible to self-loathing and self-doubt. It's also touching that, after two movies, we're finally allowed to get close to him, to understand his loneliness and anger. Beneath that imposing Batsuit, Bruce Wayne is still a terrified tot, perpetually haunted by the ghost of the bogeyman who stole his mom and dad.

The flashback sequences to the murder of Bruce Wayne's parents are so powerful that they briefly snap us out of the fun zone and into much darker, more provocative terrain. The night-sweat image of an enormous bat soaring toward an orphaned child is far scarier than Two-Face's snap judgments, the Riddler's riddles or the Joker's jokes -- and a lot more dramatically interesting. It answers plenty of questions about the character and raises just one: why did it take three films for this series to find its footing? This movie should have been titled Batman Finally.

Batman Forever. Directed by Joel Schumacher. With Val Kilmer, Tommy Lee Jones, Jim Carrey, Nicole Kidman and Chris O'Donnell. Rated PG-13. 121 minutes.


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