15 JULY 1995, Page 37


Batman Forever (PG', selected cinemas)

Bouncy hero

Mark Steyn

Batman Forever? The odds are pretty good. He's survived 56 years, mainly by adapting to the fashions of the day. In the 30s, Bob Kane modelled him on the ruth- less dispatchers of pulp justice; in the 40s, he went legit and touted war bonds for Uncle Sam; in the 50s, he had jokey space adventures with Bat-Hound and Bat-Mite, a pesky intergalactic nidget; on the 60s TV show, he went camp; in the 70s, Robin the Boy Wonder finally graduated high school after 40 years and Bruce Wayne got all broody, introspective, riddled with self- doubt and set up a foundation for society's victims; in the 80s, he was reborn as 'the Dark Knight' prowling the crime-riddled inner cities.

And now, in the 90s, we have the movies. And, after 56 years, they may just succeed in killing off the chameleon crimefighter for good. This is what the movies have done to Batman: they've let the baddies win. What do you remember about the first Batman? Jack Nicholson's star turn as the Joker blew Michael Keaton off the screen. Batman Returns? Michelle Pfeiffer's Cat- woman, even though her mask didn't fit. A few months afterwards, I remember pass- ing a store window with a huge poster: Bat- man Returns The Video. And I thought: who can blame him?

This time round, Batman's returned the suit. Michael Keaton figured why get wiped out by Jim Carrey as the Riddler, put in for his Bat-pension and passed the cape and cowl to Val Kilmer. Meanwhile, the direc- tor Tim Burton has graduated to producer and hired his successor, Joel Schumacher. The tone is set by the first lines. Bruce Wayne's faithful retainer Alfred (Britain's Michael Gough) enquires, as Batman leaps into his Batmobile, whether Sir would care to take a sandwich with him. 'I'll get drive- thru,' says the caped crusader. It's a joke that rings alarm bells: you wonder whether Schumacher and Kilmer really believe in this guy.

Look, I'm no nit-picking purist. What I most liked about Batman in the comics was Bruce Wayne's blue hair; what I most liked about Batman on TV was the way he wore his Crimplene pantyhose as if he was trying hard not to notice the static electricity going up and down his legs. But, once you accepted the blue hair and the pantyhose, they had a kind of integrity. The most telling visual image in this Batman comes before the drive-thru line, before the music, before the titles: the Warner Broth- ers logo converts itself to the Batman logo. The guy's a brand now, but are the action dolls and burger meal tie-ins there to sell the movie or is it the other way round? Val Kilmer has been given a new Bat-suit made of rubber and moulded to exaggerate every contour of his body: he lurks in the shad- ows like a caped dildo; when the lights are up, he's the first superhero to look like a merchandising spin-off from his own toy doll.

Schumacher throws everything at his rubberised hero, and it all bounces off and falls to the floor. Chris O'Donnell makes his debut as Robin, though the 'Boy Won- der' tag has been dropped and he's no longer Bruce Wayne's ward. But, without the homoerotic subtext, what's the point? Sensing this, Schumacher over-compen- sates elsewhere: in Batman Forever, the guest stars come with their own star guests, so that the schizoid Two-Face gets to relax with two chicks, one brunette, one blonde, both Drew Barrymore. As Two-Face, Tommy Lee Jones 'phones in a perfor- mance that barely gets up to One-Face. As the Riddler, Jim Carrey chews up the screen with frantic scattershot pop culture references to everything you've ever heard of — and, in the process, diminishes the Riddler's specialness, robbing him of any- thing of his own.

The best scenes go to Michael Gough's Alfred, a father-confessor gently trying to instil a little romantic confidence in the hapless Batman. The love interest is Nicole Kidman as a psychiatrist called, as American women often are, Chase Meridi- an. She's smouldering enough to melt his rubber: is that a Bat-tering ram in his utility belt or is he just pleased to see her? Pulled in to help on the Two-Face case, Chase suspects that, when it comes to split per- sonalities, he's got nothing on Batman. Sadly, she's wrong: Val Kilmer's Batman has no personality to split.