Batman finally

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

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-music-style bass chords that invoke the 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 hero, his first question was, "So where's Robin?" Which 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 and nightmares; Joel Schumacher reads the same script and wonders where the hell Robin is.

Like the first two Superman movies, 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 Battrowel, 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 broad-shouldered, 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 Yin-Yang gobbledygook. Movie studios don't permit much variation from formula: they don't want to drive fans away from their very expensive (and very profitable) franchise with too many perverse ideas or uncomfortable emotions. 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 comic's dozens of 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 TV 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. Of all the cartoon-inspired features to traffic in the texture of film noir, this one might be the most cheerful.

And refreshingly, everything in the movie, from the script's word balloon-ready dialogue to production designer Barbara Ferrin's nutty visual curlicues, leads back to the same nexus point: 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 surreal 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. Warner Bros. Val Kilmer, Tommy Lee Jones, Jim Carrey, Nicole Kidman, Chris O'Donnell. Written by Lee Batchler, Janet Scott Batchler, and Akiva Goldsman. Directed by Joel Schumacher. Now showing.

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