This is not a good movie.
The Near-Apocalypse of ’09 is not a review series. We are not, generally speaking, interested in the quality of the episodes and works we look at; we are interested in reading the work, not evaluating or recommending it. It may often be the case that appreciation or disdain for a particular work or character comes through in the course of discussion, but it is never (or at least, should never be) the focus.
But it’s hard to talk about Batman Forever without talking about how bad it is, because it wears its badness like a badge of honor. It is defiantly, deliberately bad; one can envision director Joel Schumacher looking at his villains, veteran character actor Tommy Lee Jones and “rubberfaced fartsmith”* Jim Carey, and demanding the former model his performance on the latter.
But there’s a more likely source for both performances, whose grating garishness is one of the movie’s biggest problems: the 1960s Batman television series. Carey’s constant prancing about and giggling are strongly reminiscent of Frank Gorshin’s Riddler, while Two-Face’s two modes are less good and evil than they are Cesar Romero’s Joker and Jack Nicholson’s.
But the 1960s Batman was excellent, a genuinely funny, entertaining show that ruthlessly satirized traditional authority, as represented by the police and Adam West’s depiction of Batman. Gorshin’s giggling and Romero’s facial gymnastics are part of the fun, where Carey’s and Jones’ are like fingernails on a chalkboard. What’s different?
The answer is in one word we used above: this film is garish. Its visuals teem with violence, not just in the sense that people are constantly being shot, set on fire, or blown up, but in the sense of deliberate clash, neon-bright buildings and characters standing against pitch-black skies. It assaults the senses, seeking to overwhelm, and in the process becomes monotonously loud, and hence boring. It is camp sans joy, or rather camp in which the only joy to be found is Two-Face or the Riddler laughing as they destroy. It is the 90s neon to the 60s Batman‘s pastels, the ecstasy to its Mary Jane, the rave to its love-in.
What has happened here, fairly clearly, is that one or another of the Joker’s attempts to take over the franchise actually succeeded. This is his vision, his future: the post-apocalyptic world in which the Joker, rather than Harley, is responsible for the end of the old world. So of course it is neon in the dark, a comedy whose only punchline is gunfire. All villains are the Joker, whether that is Jones playing Romero’s Joker, crowing and gurning as he sows chaos out of pure love for the concept; Jones playing Nicholson’s Joker, a capriciously violent terror who laughs at others’ fear; or Carey attempting to play Hamill’s Joker, a gleeful prankster driven by an obsession with Batman/Bruce Wayne and a drive to tear down the hierarchy so he can build a new one with himself at the top.
So, being the Joker’s vision of Batman, any trace of empathy is snuffed out. We don’t, as with BTAS or Batman Returns, have any sense that the villains are, if not justified, at least understandable. The Riddler is simply an entitled nerd, not a creator denied the fruits of his labors; the tragedy of Two-Face almost entirely erased as the close friendship of Batman and Harvey Dent, and the former’s subsequent refusal to give up on the latter even after he became Two-Face, is relegated to one quick flashback to Dent being shot during a trial.
The Joker’s handiwork is visible elsewhere. Women, in this film, exist as decoration or seductive distractions turned damsels in distress. The romance of Dr. Meridian and Batman is perfunctory and by-the-numbers, her fetishization of him one-sided and vaguely almost-comedic, and her role in the story virtually nonexistent. Robin is treated similarly: the beats of his story are there, but there is never any sense of a character underneath; he is filled with rage about his parents’ death until he’s suddenly not, and dislikes Bruce Wayne and Batman until suddenly he doesn’t. The only relationship in the entire movie which feels even the slightest bit real is Alfred’s gentle, patient nudging together of Dick Grayson and Bruce Wayne–and even then, Alfred himself is hardly a character, existing solely to fulfill the emotional needs of Wayne and Grayson, needs that their performances barely convey.
This is the Joker triumphant. Not because this is a bad movie–there are other bad Batman movies aplenty–but because of the specific ways in which it is bad. This is camp turned callous, color turned to neon glare, the desire to be less “serious” turning into the empty motion of ciphers through story beats by rote.
Ironically, for a movie in which the Joker doesn’t appear, it may tell us more about the role he plays in the Near-Apocalypse than any of his actual appearances, because this is what it looks like when he wins. It is a world of surface appearances without depth, of empty revolutions that change nothing except the tyrant’s name. This is the Joker, the false apocalypse. The promise of nuclear war that fizzles into the Soviet Union’s economic collapse and dissolution. The promise of 60s counterculture that fizzles into the neoliberal consensus of the Bushes and Clintons. The promise of a new, campier, more colorful, more fun Batman that is really just the same grim, grimy darkness with a few more neon lights.
The Joker is the 90s, but not just that single decade, nor even the Long 90s. He is the 90s extended, the 90s without cease or respite, the 90s inescapable, forever.
He is the world that actually happened.
*Hat tip to Our Dumb Century: One Hundred Years of the Onion for this spot-on description of Jim Carey’s default mode. He is capable of good acting, if leaned on by a director with sufficient weight and persistence, but that clearly didn’t happen here.
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