Do just a little digging through the Variety and Hollywood Reporter archives, and you could probably piece together enough old casting notices to construct an entirely different Batman Forever. Based on what was rumored, or even planned at one point or another, there might’ve been an Earth-2 Batman Forever where Tim Burton directed, Michael Keaton starred, Rene Russo was the love interest, Billy Dee Williams played Two-Face, Robin Williams was The Riddler, and Marlon Wayans was Robin.
In this alternate-timeline 1995, all these actors saw their likenesses preserved forever as action figures. Instead, this is what our universe’s children found in toy stores in the mid-1990s:
And honestly? There’s nothing about those versions of the Batman heroes and villains that’s any less weird than the ones that never existed.
There’s never been one Batman, or one Robin or Riddler. The characters have been written and drawn hundreds of different ways over the decades; as superhero trends have shifted, their merchandise has changed too. Batman has been lean, muscular, gothic, futuristic, friendly, and angry. He’s an abstraction, open to interpretation.
Movie tie-in toys eliminate a lot of that abstraction, though. Any random Riddler figure at a flea market could be identifiable specifically as an artifact of the 1970s or the 1990s, but it’ll still be in the rough shape of the villain we’ve come to know as “The Riddler.” But a Batman Forever Riddler? Well, that’s Jim Carrey. Decades of continuity and character-building are reduced to one actor’s interpretation, from a movie that isn’t exactly thought of as a timeless classic.
Joel Schumacher directed two Batman movies, but the one that’s most-remembered—and not in a good way—is 1997’s Batman & Robin. That was the film that almost killed the franchise, before Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins revived it in 2005. Batman & Robin damn near killed the whole superhero-movie genre, by exposing how quickly the public had grown tired of the fake-looking, cartoony, stiff approach that Hollywood at the time assumed was the only way to translate comic-book characters to the screen.
Schumacher’s Batman Forever isn’t any better than Batman & Robin, but it’s let off the hook in the “worst picture of all time” discussion because it doesn’t bear any particular stigma. Upon its 1995 release, Batman Forever drew mixed-to-negative reviews, though nothing as scathing as what Batman & Robin faced. And the movie was a sizable hit—making more than $300 million worldwide—reversing the downward box-office trend of Burton’s Batman Returns. The whole project was a triumph of Hollywood packaging, bringing together a mainstream, malleable director and an eclectic cast of popular actors. Even the soundtrack was huge, generating U2’s Top 15 single “Hold Me, Thill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” and Seal’s chart-topping Grammy-winner “Kiss From A Rose” (not to mention a not-bad Flaming Lips chestnut, “Bad Days”).
Then again, making money isn’t the same as making art—or even the same as generating lovable pop junk. This was especially true in the mid-to-late 1990s, which produced one of the American movie industry’s worst sustained stretches of blockbusters. This was the age of Casper, Eraser, Twister, Godzilla, and Deep Impact—all pictures that finished in the Top 10 at the worldwide box office, but don’t have a lot of fans today. They were engineered to sell a lot of tickets in a short period of time, not to last. And while Batman & Robin is the butt of all the jokes today, at least it’s part of a conversation. Batman Forever is too run-of-the-mill to be mocked, which in a way is an even worse fate. It’s very much a product of its time.
Here’s how 1995 Batman Forever is: Chris O’Donnell is Robin. When O’Donnell played comics’ most famous sidekick, he’d just completed star-making turns in School Ties, Scent Of A Woman, and Circle Of Friends. He wasn’t the most charismatic or even the most talented actor of his generation. (Both of those titles arguably belonged to Leonardo DiCaprio, who was in the running for Robin.) But he was fit and attractive, and he had some name recognition. His casting was less a creative choice than a calculation.
As it turned out, O’Donnell was pretty lousy as trapeze-artist-turned-vigilante Dick Grayson. He’s consistently unconvincing, whether he’s doing silly kung-fu moves while drying his laundry, or acting like a rebellious teen. (“Take it easy, Al,” he says dismissively to Bruce Wayne’s butler, Alfred.) Nevertheless, due to a quirk of Hollywood timing, Chris freakin’ O’Donnell has his own action figure—a tiny version of himself sporting Robin’s ridiculous rippled rubber suit.
This was probably a thrill for O’Donnell. It’s less likely that either the brooding Marlon Brando disciple Val Kilmer or the suffer-no-fools genius Tommy Lee Jones gave as much of a hoot about being miniaturized. And yet there they are, part of the Batman Forever promotional machine, representing the flukiness of a major studio system that is sometimes better at locking down what it thinks is hot at that particular moment than in making something timeless.
Thanks to an Oscar-winning performance in The Fugitive, Jones was a top choice for pretty much any plum supporting acting gig in 1995. The cackling madman Two-Face was a stretch for the usually cool-headed Jones, though, which makes his appearance here as much of a head-scratching sign-o’-the-times as O’Donnell’s. Jones seems lost somewhere between playing a version of himself (surly, fast-talking, and kind of mumbly) and imitating Cesar Romero’s old Joker performances from the 1960s TV Batman. Even given that the character is supposed to have a split personality, it’s hard to reconcile his unmistakable Tommy Lee Jones-ness with him ejecting flammable fumes and howling, “Nothing like a bad case of gas!”
Kilmer’s casting as Bruce Wayne/Batman seems odd now too, given his subsequent career. It was less strange in 1995, though, since it came right on the heels of the outside-the-box choice of Michael Keaton to play the role. At the time of Batman Forever, Kilmer was about half a decade removed from his young-stud days, but he still looked good in a tux (which was the primary requirement for the part), and he had lips distinct enough to stand out in Batman’s stiff, face-obscuring cowl. One of the first shots in Batman Forever is of the hero in partial silhouette, with his lips spotlighted. It’s part of Schumacher’s overall visual preoccupation with body parts in this movie—especially butts, crotches, and the nippled, padded chests on the heroes’ costumes. The Batman Forever toys leave those nipples out, for some reason.
Also not included in Kenner’s Batman Forever action figure line? Dr. Chase Meridian, the sexy psychologist played by Nicole Kidman. At the time, Kidman was newly married to Tom Cruise, and about to transition from wife/girlfriend/window-dressing parts to more serious roles, beginning with the one-two of To Die For and The Portrait Of A Lady, her next two films after Batman Forever. Dr. Meridian isn’t much of a character, and likely wouldn’t have made much of a toy. Still, similar to the recent debate over the lack of Black Widow figures in the Avengers play-sets, the absence of Dr. Meridian exposes a deeper problem with the whole conception of Batman Forever as a property—right down to the casting. O’Donnell plays Robin instead of Marlon Wayans. Jones replaces Billy Dee Williams. Kidman takes a role that could’ve been filled by anybody. The movie throws in laughably tiny parts for Debi Mazar and Drew Barrymore, as the villains’ henchwomen.
Maybe this reveals an unconscious bias toward white males on the producers’ part. Or maybe it’s just a recognition that nobody in Batman Forever was going to make much of an impact once Jim Carrey entered the picture.
Carrey is both the reason Batman Forever was as successful as it was, and the reason it’s so insufferable today. In 1994, Carrey starred in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask, and Dumb & Dumber, finishing the year as the biggest comedy star the movies had seen in a good long while. He’d established an anarchic screen presence, like vintage Jerry Lewis or like Robin Williams at his most unfettered—which is why Carrey was the logical choice to step in when the Batman Forever producers couldn’t make a deal with Williams to play The Riddler. This movie was Carrey’s big payday, and his chance to secure a place on the A-list.
Carrey overdid it, because that was his shtick at the time. Even the Riddler action figures look overly manic—which is saying something, given that the character is a lunatic. Carrey’s Riddler has some of the story arc of Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman in Batman Returns (as the nebbish who becomes scarily empowered), coupled with the unrestrained mugging of his Ace Ventura and Mask performances. Schumacher, not afraid of giving the people what they want, effectively turns the movie over to Carrey for several excruciatingly long scenes of mayhem. The Riddler uses his brainwave-sucking invention on his former boss, and does a wacky little dance. The Riddler trashes Wayne Manor and the Bat-Cave, while pretending to be a spitting, scratching Major League Baseball pitcher. The Riddler struts and preens, while everyone else in the frame scrambles to keep up, lest they look like nothing more than schmucks in funny suits.
Batman & Robin was excoriated two years later for its bad Mr. Freeze puns and stiff acting, but what Carrey does in Batman Forever is actually tougher to take, because it’s so relentlessly abrasive. He’s only doing what he was hired to do, but still, after more than five minutes with Carrey in this movie, it’s hard not to empathize with Jones, who reportedly told his co-star before shooting began, “I cannot sanction your buffoonery.” It’s true that superhero movies should be a lot lighter than they’ve been over the past decade, when city-leveling violence and tortured, moody champions have been the norm. But Batman Forever isn’t “fun,” per se. It’s heavy, loud, graceless, and ungainly. It’s a Frankenstein’s monster of marketable elements, and it shoves the audience around.
Batman Forever won some measured critical support back in 1995. Owen Gleiberman at Entertainment Weekly called it “like spending two hours inside a happy asylum,” while The New York Times’ Janet Maslin said it gets stronger as it goes along, becoming “a free-form playground for its various masquerading stars.” And some parts of the film do hold up. Schumacher excels at setting up exciting, beautifully framed action poses, and his cinematographer, Stephen Goldblatt, lights them well, making good use of the brightly colored costumes and sets. The circus sequence that introduces Dick Grayson/Robin is especially lovely, even with the tragic death of Dick’s parents at the end.
But Schumacher also said he wanted to restore some of the winking wit and overall zing of the TV Batman, and the attempts at humor range from the marginally cute (as when Dr. Meridian mentions that she’s attracted to Batman, and he grunts, “It’s the car, right? Chicks love the car.”) to the painfully unfunny (as when Alfred offers Batman a meal before he goes out on patrol, and the hero replies, “I’ll get drive-thru.”) When Two-Face is trapping his nemesis in a container with boiling acid and hissing, “Farewell forever to that pointy-eared night-rat!” or when Bruce Wayne is sliding down a secret tunnel to the Bat-Cave, the throwback campiness becomes off-putting. And the less said about Robin spotting crumbling sheets of steel and saying, “Hole-y rusted metal, Batman!” the better.
Nevertheless, you know who loves Batman Forever—or at least doesn’t mind it so much? The kids who went to see it in theaters back in 1995, and then kept watching it on cable and VHS in the years that followed. Many of them feel about Batman Forever the way people who grew up with the 1960s TV Batman feel about a show that’s often held up as example of everything superheroes shouldn’t be. There was a time when Batman was the best option available for anyone craving live-action TV heroes, and because it was on nearly every day, comic book fans made do, and even grew to love it.
The TV series has an actual legacy, if only for what it represents, as a creative choice that future superhero chroniclers can either embrace or reject. But for the most part, it doesn’t matter much whether a movie or show has staying power, provided that it has enough of a fleeting cultural impact to be remembered by its target audience. To put it another way: Batman Forever’s value is that it gave young people an excuse to think about Batman for a while. Whenever a new creative team takes on a character like Batman, the old saying is that they’re getting to play with someone else’s toys. But the same is true of the kids who buy the actual toys that spin off from those projects. And as strange it may seem now, for a few months in 1995, both kinds of Batman toys had the face of Val Kilmer.