Batman Forever (1995) (part 2 of 14)
Cut to a close-up of Batman as he mentally prepares himself for his nightly assault on the criminal scourge of Gotham. Actually, if his facial expression is anything to go by, he’s trying to decide between stopping off at Burger King or Wendy’s. Seriously, I have cauliflower in my refrigerator that emotes better than Kilmer.
You know, from all the talk of bad blood between Kilmer and Schumacher, and Kilmer’s fairly respectable back catalogue of performances, I can’t help but wonder if his distinct lack of effort in this movie was meant to spite the director. If this is the case, then he clearly cut off his nose to spite his face. Kilmer’s portrayal of Batman has pretty much dropped off the cultural radar. These days, he’s like the George Lazenby of the Bat-universe. Hell, even Lewis Wilson’s 1943 portrayal is more fondly remembered.
Also in this sequence, Batman uses a Bat-omni-control-lever to accelerate, decelerate, and ignite the engines, almost by magic, regardless of the direction in which it’s being pushed or pulled. I’d suggest it was powered by brain waves, except there’s a notable absence of swirling green light (more on that later).
So far, this scene hasn’t been without its faults, but it’s at least demonstrated a degree of pace and energy. They’re also setting up Batman as a fairly cool customer. The palette has been relatively dark, and the production design cool and sleek, even if it’s lacking the character of the previous films.
Well, enjoy it while it lasts, and drive carefully, because we are now leaving The Limits of Joel Schumacher’s Restraint. Like some kind of visual Tourette’s outburst, we’re about to get assaulted by the neon-drenched abomination that is this movie’s Gotham City.
Gone are the gothic spires and towering archways of the previous films. Instead, we get neon! Lots and lots of neon!
In the DVD special features, production designer Barbara Ling says she was trying to invoke a myriad of times and cultures through using different types of neon. I can see a semblance of logic in this. In the first Batman film, Anton Furst deliberately mixed disparate forms of architecture to give his Gotham a sense of foreboding and hopelessness, like a Frankenstein’s monster of brick and mortar. But whereas Furst created a caricature of a metropolitan city, the only thing Ling has created here is a garish mess.
And not only is it a mess, but it fails at the entire function of production design. A production designer’s job is to tell the story visually. The set, costumes, props, etc. need to supplement the narrative by giving us a sense of what’s going on in the story. The twirling mass of color before me makes no sense at all from a storytelling point of view. All around are Chinese characters, and red paper lamps, indicating that we’re maybe in Gotham’s Chinatown. But later, we’ll find out that we’re actually outside the Second Bank of Gotham.
Now think about it. There’s this much neon and shit in Gotham’s financial district? Christ on a bike! Between the neon! lights and people in outlandish fluorescent wigs, it looks like Harajuku. In fact, any more intense neon! exposure would surely require me to wear a lead vest. Hell, I feel I should at least be shielding my crotch when I’m watching this DVD.
The streets are teeming with people, and in keeping with Gothamite tradition, they’re all standing around like morons. A few of them are jabbering amongst themselves, and pointing excitedly at something. Amongst the finger-jabbing masses are actually a few firemen, who are also pointing excitedly. There must be something pretty spectacular up there to strip away those guys’ professional veneer.
Wait, no, it’s just this:
The side of a building. Great. Honestly, one would think the original Shroud of Turin was hanging from a window. How these people manage to get to work in the morning without spontaneously exploding in a shower of their own orgasmic secretions is quite beyond me. I can see them now, swerving perilously down the Gotham highways, shouting incredulously.
“Woah, check it out, that car’s metallic blue!”
“Oh, my fucking God! A puppy!!”
Perhaps the luminously be-wigged masses are pointing at the search lights currently weaving up and down the building in increasingly spastic patterns. I keep expecting them to land on Burt Ward as he smacks his fist into his palm, à la the introduction to the 1966 movie. But the references to the ’60s Batman TV show won’t be elbowing their way in until later, and they won’t be anywhere near that clever or subtle.
Just when I think my eyes are about to shrivel into charred raisins, we cut to the inside of the bank. In perhaps the most artful shot of the film, the Bat-signal is shimmering, ghostly and ethereal, in the Gotham night sky. In slow motion, a coin somersaults through the air, blocking out the bat logo. The coin is double-headed, and one side is scratched and scarred beyond recognition. As any Bat-fan will recognize, this is Two Face’s coin.
In the hands of a better director, this moment would be a clever introduction to a classic comic book villain. However, once you see the ham-fisted mess that is Tommy Lee Jones’s portrayal of Two Face, you’ll realize that this (like all of the film’s better moments) serves only to reinforce how much the rest of the film sucks.
As it so happens, this wasn’t Two Face’s original introduction. Before the studio recuts, there was originally a scene where Two Face breaks out of Arkham Asylum. That scene featured a character named Dr. Burton (played by Deep Space Nine‘s Rene Auberjonois), who now appears at the end of the film with little to no explanation.
For the uninitiated, Harvey Dent AKA Two Face was created in 1942 by Batman creator Bob Kane. Drawing inspiration from the Spencer Tracy film version of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Kane decided to create a villain with a dual personality, represented by his half-scarred face. In the comics, Harvey Dent was Gotham City’s District Attorney, until he was hideously scarred at the trial of gang lord Sal “The Boss” Maroni, causing the otherwise kind-natured Dent to create a ghoulish alter ego.
And in a nod to the original Scarface starring George Raft, Kane decided that Two Face would flip a coin—one half of which was scratched and scarred—to decide whether to do good or evil. In recent comics (following some minor retcons), it was revealed that Harvey had a case of multiple personality disorder, due to deeply repressed childhood abuse.
Why am I telling you all this? Just to give you an idea of the rich, multilayered nature of the character, which will now be completely ignored by this movie. Also, I wanted to make it clear just how poorly the film is going to illustrate Two Face’s origin in just a few minutes.
Anyway. Coin. Sailing through air. Slow mo. Arty. Nice. Nice!
Harvey Dent, played by Tommy Lee Jones, catches the coin while standing in profile, showing only the “good” half of his face. Brace yourself for his first line.
What the cocking nuts is that? Never have I read any instances of Harvey Dent speaking like this in the comics. It sounds like the kind of pretentious, quasi-poetic drivel you’d encounter in a Batman fanfic.
Dent looks down at a bound and gagged security guard, who’s being played by Joe Grifasi. Judging by his performance here, I assumed for years that Grifasi was perhaps the first AD’s slightly autistic brother, or Val Kilmer’s drug mule. It certainly never occurred to me that this was the work of a professional actor, who does acting… for a living.
As it turns out, Mr. Grifasi is an accomplished stage and screen actor, and his résumé includes appearances on Law and Order and ER. So welcome to the first installment of Joel Schumacher making talented performers look and sound like amateurs. He does this a lot.
Joe the Security Guard asks if Two Face is going to kill him. If I was being held hostage by a disfigured psychopath, I might veer the conversation away from murder altogether, but to each his own.
Two Face, in the first of the film’s many delightful bouts of wordplay, informs the guard that he is “of two minds on the subject”. It’s not quite “let’s kick some ice”, but it’s still pretty cringe-worthy. Two Face then begins to monologue about how all the world’s justices and injustices are decided by blind, stupid luck. He says that tossing his coin is the blindest possible luck, and is therefore the only true justice.
Actually, in the comics, the coin is a way for Two Face to reconcile his warring split psyches, so thanks, Herr Goldsman, for completely missing the point of the character.
The security guard’s response to this ominous monologue is to whimper like a little girl. Honestly, whoever runs this bank deserves everything they get for letting this pansy guard their money.
While Dent’s been a-monologueing, the camera has swiveled ’round to reveal the scarred half of Dent’s face in all its fluorescent pink, perfectly symmetrical glory. Suddenly, both Two Face and Joe the Hostage are bathed in red light. Because red light means evil? Oh yes, of course, I forgot we were studying at the I Know Who Killed Me School of Expressionism.
While we’re here, I’d like to take the opportunity to draw attention to Two Face’s utterly ridiculous wardrobe. I can see why a costume designer might want to, say, make Two Face’s suit incorporate two designs, each representing a part of his fractured psyche. I can see no logic, however, in incorporating a pink and black zebra stripe motif into the suit. Nor a leopard print shirt, nor a tie which appears to be studded with rhinestones. Fucking rhinestones. Still, what do I know about Supervillain Couture?
After what seems like an eternity of mugging, Two Face flips the coin and informs Joe Hostage that fortune has smiled upon him. He lives to whimper another day.
With a very theatrical (or drunken, I can’t quite tell) flourish, Two Face motions to his guards to drop Joe Hostage into a nearby bank vault. This vault appears to be the source of the ludicrous red glow. Because when I deposit my money, I want to know it’s being kept safe under heat lamps! If anyone out there knows why red neon is such a vital part of modern security technology, I’d be delighted to know.
Two Face declares that Joe Hostage will be used as bait to trap Batman. If I were Two Face, I’d be more selective in my choice of hostage, but there you go.