Does this seem a little high in the rankings to you? Then strap yourselves in, because you and I are going for a little ride in a crazy-ass Batmobile with one giant fin sticking out the top.
I will be the first person to admit that this movie doesn’t make a whole lot of narrative sense. It’s one of those movies where the studio felt it was running a little long so they cut out huge swatches of it. Except they can’t didn’t out any action sequences because this is supposed to be a big summer blockbuster, so they cut out a lot of the explanatory material. You know that subplot where Bruce is having a recurring dream about this red leather book, and it seems like it’s important but it never gets resolved? It’s supposed to be that on the night of his parents’ funeral, Bruce read a diary entry that suggested Bruce asked his parents to go to a movie that night, making their deaths his fault, or so he reckons. This leads to a great deal of angst and guilt, and it’s made out to be that this is the “crime” he has been punishing himself for by being Batman all these years. But then Bruce rediscovers the book in the caves surrounding Wayne Manor and finds out his parents ended up taking him to a different movie (presumably at a different time) than the one he wanted, so he’s absolved of blame, and no longer motivated by revenge or guilt, he can be Batman … forever.
Okay, this is kind of crap for a couple of reasons, but at least it’s something: it’s the payoff for Bruce’s arc in the movie, as well as the reason for the unusual title, and it’s nowhere to be found in the finished product. They just leave it hanging and don’t offer any satisfying workaround explanation so you wonder why any of it was left in the final cut in the first place. There’s a few other, smaller bits of connective tissue missing as well. So yeah, taken as a whole film, this movie has a huge, gaping hole in at the most basic narrative level that prevents it from being a “good movie.”
But break this movie down into its components, and I find something very striking. Where Tim Burton in his first Batman movie brought a comic book character into films and brought a somewhat demented fairytale to life in his second, Joel Schumacher has in this movie taken the aesthetic of an actual Batman comic at its most sensational and added motion.
It’s the canted angles in the action scenes, the way the camera sometimes defies the 180-degree rule, the combination of bright primary and secondary colors with heavy blacks. People say Burton was an auteur and Schumacher merely a journeyman, but actually watch this movie and you see an aggressive stylishness. So aggressive, in fact, that sometimes he’s unable to get what he’s going for. Some of the more stylized shots (the Batmobile driving up a wall, the Batwing falling apart as it’s coming toward the camera) require heavy special effects, and 1995 CGI isn’t quite up to the task. But the intent isn’t just to adapt Batman the character, but Batman the comic book.
And the Batman in this movie is the one I recognize most from the comics. I maintain that Val Kilmer’s Batman is the closest we’ve ever seen in a movie to the Batman found in Grant Morrison’s JLA series. He’s confident, he’s competent. Fiercely intelligent, able to size up any situation in a moment. Damaged, but not in a loud sort of way; very high-functioning. Less cruel and brutal than Michael Keaton. He’s got a sense of humor, but it’s glib and clipped (the “Thanks” when takes the guard’s hearing aid, the way he calls Dr. Meridian’s work “Insightful; naïve, but insightful,” and the way he responds to her attraction to his black rubber with that dismissive “Try a fireman; less to take off”). He conveys urgency a lot better than Burton’s portrayal: Keaton walks at a criminal head-on like a slasher movie villain, but Kilmer is always running. I’m almost positive neither Burton movie uttered the word “superhero,” but it’s all over this one. He’s the only movie Batman who could really replicate that famous Neal Adams shot, and he’s the only movie Batman to date that would join the Justice League; the JLA would want Keaton but change their minds after meeting him, George Clooney would shrug that he’s too busy in that "dopey dad" way, Christian Bale wouldn’t think he belongs, but Kilmer? He’s the guy Superman would call “the most dangerous man on Earth,” he’s the guy who would deduce the Hyperclan are really evil Martian invaders and bring the Batplane to fight the Injustice Gang but also have a flying saucer sitting somewhere in the Batcave (although to the Bale-Batman’s credit, he’s the one who would think to outbid Lex Luthor for the Mirror Master’s mercenary services).
And this bigger, more sensational, more comicky Batman demands a more comicky plot. For this reason I like the Riddler’s brain-draining Box. We’re no longer dealing with crime bosses in clown makeup and angry mutants planning child kidnappings. This is supervillainy. The Riddler is only stealing money for production capital, as he says. What he really wants to steal are your thoughts, your intelligence, your secrets. This Riddler is recession-proof. Money can buy you power, but information is power; why steal one when you can steal the other?
Jim Carrey’s Riddler isn’t quite "my" Riddler, but he shows flashes of being a great supervillain in his own right nonetheless. I do think the “obsessed stalker” angle is a workable one. The main problem is he starts to get on your nerves. I don’t know that his performance is any more restrained than Frank Gorshin’s in the Batman TV show, but Gorshin seems to be working peaks and valleys. He’ll be manic energy one moment and then calm down the next; there is, I’ll argue when we get to Batman ’66, a surprising subtlety to his performance. But Carrey is almost always cranked up to 11. It becomes exhausting.
Still, there are some moments where he stops performing, where he stops doing schtick for an audience, and really gets into a certain megalomaniacal headspace. There’s a swell sequence where he returns to his apartment after killing his boss, walks up to his mechanical “Guesser” fortune-telling machine and says in a gently gleeful half-confession: “Guess what I did today?” And once in awhile, you really do get the feeling that he’s the Riddler and Val Kilmer is Batman, and you’re seeing a real comic; sometimes Carrey says “Batman” and he really means it.
Tommy Lee Jones, however, doesn’t have a whole lot to redeem him. Coincidentally, the Riddler and Two-Face are my favorite Batman villains, but they’re not really recognizable in this movie. Two-Face’s coin-flipping thing never ends up really meaning anything; when he and the Riddler invade Wayne Manor and his flip lands “good side” up, he just flips it again until he gets the result he wants. I could say that it puts the lie to Harvey Dent’s supposed reliance on the coin, that it’s all just psychobabble excuses to hide the fact that he’s actually a horrible, horrible person, but I’m not sure I want to let anybody off the hook for this. Jones is cranked up to 11 all the time as well. There's no duality at all coming from this Two-Face; he’s scarred side up all the time without a trace of the other side. If anyone could benefit from peaks and valleys, it’s him.
But back to the good things about this movie, it also does some interesting things with that “real world”/”comic book world” interface, and it does this primarily through Chris O’Donnell’s Robin and Nicole Kidman’s Dr. Chase Meridian.
Despite references to Metropolis (and thus Superman, indirectly) in this movie, it seems to be that Batman is a new idea; he’s not the latest link in a chain going back to some “Golden Age.” He was one of the first superheroes in this world, if not the first, if not the only. Bruce Wayne invented Batman as a way to deal with his trauma, as a way of solving the problem of crime in Gotham City. But Dick Grayson doesn’t have to invent Robin because there’s precedent now; he sees Batman and goes “Oh, this is an option for me” and goes about becoming a superhero. It’s an idea you can find in Watchmen and a few other places, actually, with Hooded Justice dressing up in a costume and Nite Owl and a few others being inspired by him – all it takes to turn an "ordinary" fictional world into a superhero world is one guy to put on a costume and get the ball rolling.
Dr. Meridian is also, I’d argue, more interesting than you might think. She comes on almost ridiculously strong in her first few scenes with Batman with the snappy banter and aggressively vampy smile, and it’s almost too much until you see her interact with Bruce Wayne, and suddenly she’s dialed it back by a magnitude of five (here’s someone working peaks and valleys). There’s still some nice repartee, but it’s not so showy and over-the-top; it’s playful and not vamping. And then it starts to make sense. Dr. Meridian is this movie’s version of Batman Returns’ Max Schreck – an ordinary person trying way too hard to seem like one of Gotham’s extraordinary figures. On the roof of police headquarters, she comes short of actually saying that she’s trying to be Catwoman. But where Schreck’s villainy is utterly trumped by Catwoman’s supervillainy (thanks again for that notion, plok), once Dr. Meridian actually kisses Batman, she decides it was a hollow goal and turns back. It turns out she’d rather be with Bruce Wayne (played in a low-key fashion by Kilmer; where Bale throws people off his trail by pretending to be an idiot playboy, Kilmer does so, whether this was his intent or not, by playing Bruce as a staggeringly dull individual). She picks the real guy over the fantasy, however boring the real guy might be; Chase Meridian outgrows Batman.
See, there is interesting stuff happening in this movie, it’s just buried under a lot of gunk, and I’m not sure exactly who to blame for it. Schumacher for being the director? The studio execs for demanding a more commercial movie than Batman Returns? The writers for not putting enough in the script? (There’s this little “dream warden” doll that’s half white, half black, and there’s Bruce talking about “two sides” to himself, and it seems like it should link to Two-Face somehow but it never does.) Jones and Carrey, for just being them? Hard to say. It’s a shame, though. But the good stuff always shines through for me.
Short version: A seriously flawed movie with only the most awesome of intentions.
Next: Three to go!