In light of the recent passing of Joel Schumacher, who unfortunately lost his battle with cancer at 80 years old, many are reminiscing on his storied and diverse career in Hollywood. Over the course of five decades, Schumacher fulfilled many different positions in countless film and TV productions: he started out as a costume designer in the 70s, only to transition to screenwriting and mainly directing, having authored over 25 films including cult classics like The Wiz and Car Wash. As hardworking and versatile as a Hollywood director could have been, Schumacher is especially known for having worked within the realms of various genres across the years. He’s fondly remembered by critics for gems like A Time to Kill and The Lost Boys, and dedicated fans tribute a few of his films, that while not critical darlings at the time of their release, have certainly conquered the hearts of niche audiences over the years — titles like St. Elmo’s Fire and The Phantom of The Opera are a few among the pack.
However, his most recognized films don’t carry the best reputation in the minds of both critics and movie fans. Of course, I’m talking about his mid-90s contributions to the Batman series: Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. At the time, these films earned mixed and brutal reviews alike, and gained an increasingly prevalent reputation as the “black sheep” of not just the Batman franchise, but the superhero genre as a whole. Today, Schumacher’s films are enjoyed, at best, with a certain degree of irony, or with a “so bad it’s good” mentality, due to the overt cheesiness for which they were originally criticized. In my opinion, I think it’s about time we start viewing these movies in a different light — not taking them as serious dramatic pieces or thematically dense masterworks — as these films are pretty much doing everything except begging the audience to see them that way. What we should be doing is seeing the true value in the stylistic choices Schumacher brought to the table and how they widened the range of what cinematic interpretations of Batman’s world could look and feel like.
Following the well-received but maybe too adult-oriented Batman Returns, Tim Burton stepped down as the helmer of the Batman series and Joel Schumacher was brought in by Warner Bros. to make the saga feel brighter and more family-friendly. He did just that. His follow-up, Batman Forever, and especially the later Batman & Robin, embodied this tonal shift, feeling more like Saturday morning cartoons than Burton’s previous two installments. Although, it’s not like Schumacher completely rebooted the series, wiping the slate clean of the previous stylistic influences and visual palette. Retaining some of the supporting cast from Burton’s previous films — the affable Michael Gough as Alfred being the most notable — as well as keeping elements of Burton’s gothic, German Expressionist-inspired look for Gotham City, Schumacher opted to turn up certain elements of Burton’s vision to eleven, making them louder, more eccentric, and more colorful.
Schumacher’s first outing in the series was 1995’s Batman Forever, and its major change, other than the tonal-shift in the series, came in the casting of Val Kilmer as the Caped Crusader. This film also saw the introduction of many characters such as Dick Grayson aka Robin (played by a boyish Chris O’Donnell), Two-Face and Riddler (Tommy Lee Jones and a perfectly cast Jim Carrey, respectively) as villains, and the now-iconic love interest, Dr. Chase Meridian (played to perfection by Nicole Kidman). In it, the two villains team up to make their absolutely bonkers evil intentions for Gotham come to fruition — The Riddler pursues a total brainwash of Gotham’s citizens through a new media device called The Box — all the while, Meridian attempts to psychoanalyze Bruce Wayne/Batman, as the pair fall in love.
Val Kilmer, while obviously not as serious as Michael Keaton’s previous version of the character, was still a stern enough version of the hero and maintained the integrity of his characterization. However, the handling of the villains’ antics is where Schumacher’s vision differs. Two-Face and The Riddler are extremely bright and cartoonish, contrasting with the tragic villains of Penguin and Catwoman from the previous iteration. The costume and production design attached to their on-screen presence was unlike anything the superhero genre had seen before — think of the full-body green suits riddled with huge question marks, and everything in regards to Two-Face, from the costumes to the set pieces, hinted at his duality.
In 1997’s Batman & Robin, Schumacher’s maximalist and cartoonish vision was only heightened, feeling more like an outlandish parade of ridiculousness than an actual structured narrative. The characters don’t feel fleshed out, instead the actors’ performances feel like a series of loudly belted one-liners. If anything, Batman & Robin is one of the weirdest, and in a way, boldest blockbusters the superhero genre has ever seen. Replacing Kilmer as Batman was George Clooney, who served as a benefit in making the character fit Schumacher’s goofier vision. Speaking of goofy, this film’s villains and their dastardly deeds are as zany as it gets. Stuffing the film with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s pun-loving Mr. Freeze, a giant lumbering fool of henchman Bane, and Uma Thurman’s deliciously campy turn as Poison Ivy, Schumacher turned Batman & Robin into a true, hammy villains show. In the midst of it, Alicia Silverstone’s comparatively wholesome, girl-power infused performance as Batgirl gets lost in the shuffle, included in the disposable mix of everything else that resembles a coherent story.
Given how Schumacher’s vision turned out, it’s understandable that it may not be everyone’s cup of tea. The bustling over-the-top nature of his films can very easily be perceived as annoying; but at the same time, there was never anything like Schumacher’s films in the genre again. They were truly unique in every single aspect, and the dedication and genuine care that went into manifesting his vision is undeniable. Every single set piece in these films, be it the neon-infused underworld of Gotham in Batman Forever, or the glamourous, iconic charity ball scene in Batman & Robin, is brimming with life. Every scene feels like a huge explosion of color, creating an incessantly vibrant visual experience unlike any other. Nevermind that these films’ plots are either totally ridiculous or flat-out non-existent — everything is happening at once and frankly, it’s arresting to look at. One can laugh at the ridiculousness and nitpick every flaw in the scripts, but doing that is only a disservice to what can probably be credited as the most visually striking superhero films of the past 25 years. It’s clear that Joel Schumacher’s background in production design and costuming came into play in these films, and that he cared enough to add his own, inimitable spin to the world of Batman.
Shortly after Schumacher’s stint with the Batman series, the 2000s gloom of the superhero genre came with the X-Men franchise, and in the subsequent films of the Batman canon, Christopher Nolan’s ultra-serious reboot trilogy. With it, Batman Forever and Batman & Robin quickly started feeling like dated relics, having seemingly no tangible influence on the future of the superhero genre. However, a current monotony in the genre calls for the infusion of new blood and new influences. And as a perfect antidote to such monotony, Schumacher’s gloriously campy vision is still here — preserved in those two cinematic oddities, and still waiting to be properly valued in the canon and to have its influence felt. Recent films like Birds of Prey, featuring a take on Harley Quinn that Schumacher would have probably loved, feel like new, fresh steps in that direction.
Are Batman Forever and Batman & Robin truly good, or are they so bad they’re good? Honestly, I don’t know; but in a landscape of superhero films that are often criticized for lacking soul and being robotic in their plot progressions, we should all glance into the past at the black sheep of the genre to provide us with the complete opposite. These films should be valued for their uniqueness and we should all be glad they exist, and for that we have Joel Schumacher to thank.