Batman finally

Joel Schumacher's Caped Crusader epic proves the third time's the charm

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 helmet that can give and take knowledge 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 helmet in every household in America, but Wayne brushes Nygma off. Enraged, the wild-haired technofreak secretly stalks the billionaire, leaving ornately designed riddles in his office and on the front gate at Wayne Manor.

Fired by Wayne Enterprises following the aforementioned mysterious suicide (which, of course, was Nygma's doing--the dead guy was a boss who routinely humiliated him), the fiend 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 way Carrey struts around, mugging and pirouetting and twirling his cane like a demented Charlie Chaplin, is hilariously psychedelic; he's like a lost character from Yellow Submarine.)

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 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 toadie has become Bruce Wayne's chief business rival, overlord of an expanding conglomerate that's selling freaky helmets by the millions and turning the nation into a hive of brain-dead, TV-obsessed zombies.

Nygma desperately tries to buy Gotham's awe and respect, building huge factories, throwing glitzy parties, and imitating Bruce Wayne's jet-set lifestyle, right down to the custom-tailored tuxedos. But he's a sorry imitation. Smug, crude, and transparently hateful, he seems to have learned about the playboy persona from watching The Nutty Professor over and over--or maybe Dumb and Dumber.

The odds stacked against our hero are considerable, but fortunately, he isn't quite as much of a solitary figure this time. 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 teenaged acrobat named Dick Grayson (Chris O'Donnell) whose trapeze-swinging family was killed by Two-Face during a botched act of terrorism at the Gotham Circus. 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 svelte 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 (in the script's typically convoluted subtext, this amounts to a love triangle involving only two people).

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 the second film, but it's just as funny. Meridian seems as unhinged in her own way as Bruce Wayne; they're bats of a feather. Early in the picture, she sneaks onto the police station roof and triggers the Batsignal 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 Batsignal 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 (he sounds subverbal sometimes, like a drooling, sex-crazed goblin from an old Fleischer Bros. cartoon), 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 likeable actresses, Drew Barrymore and Debi Mazar, yet we see so little of them that their presence seems like an afterthought.

And a couple of important plot points are fudged. We never learn, for instance, why Harvey Dent blames Batman for his disfigurement. It looks in the flashback like Batman was trying to save the poor guy, not hurt him. And when Dick Grayson sneaks through a secret door in Wayne Manor and ends up in the Batcave, it's uncertain whether Dick's 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 these feel like honest mistakes--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.

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