Review by Neil Rickatson
I have to preface this review and state that I am acknowledged twice within the text of this book. I will do my best to stay as impartial as possible.
In today’s world everyone is very quick to compartmentalise every aspect of their life. Turn everything into a binary 0 or 1. Nothing is immune. I can’t throw a virtual rock on the internet without hitting “That’s the worst movie I ever saw” or “That’s the best movie I ever saw.” There is little room for any sort of nuance. And inevitably we end up with a handful of great movies that everyone universally agrees are great, and the rest go in a pile to the side to be left untouched.
Logic dictates that only this first pile of great movies should be written about when actually I find much more satisfaction in looking at the other pile. For years, the Schumacher Batman movies have been dragged through the mud. On release Batman Forever was seen as a slick but empty exercise in commercial filmmaking. Batman & Robin by contrast was seen as an excessive, noisy, exhausting hollow product. Comic book fans, in particular, turned to the internet and railed against both films for multiple reasons: their deviation from the comics, their humorous take on the material and their style choices.
And here’s the thing that bothered me. They didn’t let up. At all. No one was allowed to get a word in edgeways. So the narrative has been the Schumacher movies sucked, they have zero value and they should be talked about as briefly as possible.
Thankfully time is a healer. After almost 30 years, Professor Tomasz Żaglewski (from the Institute of Cultural Studies, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poland) has taken the task of looking at both films and trying to find what their legacy is. To be clear this is not a book about the making of the films (though a little bit of that is covered here and there) but a book that examines how people thought about Schumacher’s Batman duology then and how they think about them now.
Here is a quick overview of the topics covered:-
Part 1 talks about the place of the Schumacher films in Batman fandom. How they are seen as being “wrong” because they did not have a dark and serious tone. How they were also out of step with where the character was in the comics at the time. It also talks about how difficult it is to pin down any kind of definitive Batman portrayal (very true) and looks at some of the various versions of Batman over the years. Some were familiar to me such as Dark Knight and Camp Knight. Others were new terms I hadn’t seen before Cute Knight, Toy Knight, Dad Knight!
Part 2 looks in more detail at the elements around the movie. Joel Schumacher (often seen as a generic journeyman director) is viewed with a fresh lens. Seen as a director who kept coming back to “trespasser” characters and stories. There is also a look at the shift from Burton's version of Batman to Schumacher's version. Were they their own thing or was Schumacher attempting to tie both universes together?
Part 3 looks at some of the talking points around the films. The figures (which some people thought were disappointing because you couldn't get a figure that looked like they did in the film). The video games which are not beloved due to their frustratingly clunky controls. And finally… the bat nipples that featured in both films and what an overblown fuss they caused.
The final part looks at how the duology has shifted in terms of public perception over the years. How the films were not well reviewed at the time and B&R, in particular, had a disappointing (but not disastrous) box office. To today where the films enjoy a small and loyal fandom (this is where I come in - which was surreal to read). And finally ends by talking about the online push for an extended cut of Batman Forever.
All in all, this is a great, very knowledgeable book with a fantastic grasp of the subject. Tomasz is – I believe from the introduction – sympathetic to Schumacher’s aims and picks through both Batman movies, finding all sorts of interesting and varied subject matter. He draws on all areas of prior Batman expertise – such as Will Brooker, William Uricchio and Roberta E. Pearson.
I must confess the whole book even made me look at both Batman Forever and Batman & Robin with renewed respect. I particularly enjoyed the second part of the book which dealt with Joel. I recently have been going through all of Schumacher’s filmography and was delighted to be shown this idea in Neon Knight Forever that there is this unified “trespasser” theme that runs through many of his films (one of his last movies was even called Trespass – how did I miss that). There’s this thinking that Tim Burton was “the artist”, and Joel was a “studio shill” but the book makes great pains to remind us that Joel did have thematic elements that interested him and with these two Batman films he did have a vision – to make a “living comic book”. It might not have been beloved by everyone but there was thought put behind it all. He was not the toy and cartoon and merchandise-obsessed man that a lot of people think he was.
The book also reminded me of various little moments that I’d filed away and forgotten or outright missed. Such as how, even though the continuity is sketchy at best, Batman & Robin is designed to be a progression from the Burton films. Joel wanted to evolve the character of Bruce Wayne to be in a different place from the beginning of the franchise. I also chuckled at some of the old reviews and comments about both films. Gene Siskel’s review of B&R as a “a sniggering, exhausting, overproduced extravaganza that has virtually all of the humanity pounded out of it in the name of an endless parade of stunt sequences”. In some ways he’s not wrong, there’s times I watch and feel the same way (other times I just go with it and enjoy the "extravaganza" and "endless parade of stunt sequences").
The book also compares - or rather brings up comparisons of - Batman & Robin to recent films such as Thor: Love and Thunder and Birds of Prey. The former (which I haven’t seen yet) is an interesting comparison because the Marvel Cinematic Universe for many years has been a success juggernaut yet even I was aware that online fans had roundly eviscerated the fourth Thor movie in similar ways to B&R. Criticising it’s campy, playful, comedic tone. Neon Knight Forever begins by citing MCU boss Kevin Feige talking (in 2009) about B&R being a watermark that “demanded a new way of doing things. It created the opportunity to do X-Men and Spider-Man, adaptations that respected the source material and adaptations that were not campy.” Interesting to see that 14 years later Feige is producing a new campy, comedic superhero movie that goes against these earlier words. Perhaps camp is a necessary outlet that must be brought out every few years – a sort of cyclical event – if nothing else for a bit of variety. Perhaps there is a limit to the public’s appetite for dark, serious superhero movies. Maybe we can't keep telling the same story, with the same tone over and over again.
There really isn’t much I can criticise the book about. I would have loved for it to be a little bit longer. I also would have loved to have seen the book cover a little more on the online reaction to Batman & Robin circa 1997 - I feel it was a watershed moment when the internet started to become infinitely more important in terms of film criticism than newspapers/journals/TV. It democratised film criticism for better and for worse. Ain’t It Cool News’ review of Batman & Robin which drew comparisons of the audience feeling like “survivors of Hiroshima” was - I feel - a lightning rod for comic book fans and set the tone for the next few decades of online film reviews.
But maybe that’s for part 2. I certainly feel there’s more to be discussed about both these films. And hopefully now Tomasz has broken the seal, others will come forward to give Schumacher’s duology their own analysis.
I thank Tomasz for writing such an eloquent book, it has given me much to think about and I urge anyone with a passing interest in Batman Forever and/or Batman & Robin to buy a copy.