An enormous fun-house ride, the second “Batman” sequel succeeds on some basic levels while coming up short in others. On the plus side, the tone has lightened up after criticism of the last outing, Val Kilmer seamlessly slides into the Dark Knight’s cape and the film boasts considerable action and visual splendor. In the negative column, that action isn’t as involving as it should be, and there are so many characters the movie can’t adequately service them all. In the final analysis, Warner Bros.’ nattily attired champion has more to recommend it than not and the look of a $ 200 million monster, with not only wings but legs that should carry well into the summer. That forecast is based principally on the fact that “Batman Forever” is as much a finely tuned marketing/merchandising machine as a movie, down to the not-so-subtle McDonald’s plug (“I’ll get drive-through”) after the opening credits.
Casting has cleverly been calibrated to attract certain demographic constituents: Jim Carrey providing his brand of lunacy for juveniles, Chris O’Donnell solidifying his teen heartthrob credentials, adult love interest Nicole Kidman, and Tommy Lee Jones as a bad guy more recognizable to older folks.
Such a glut of above-the-title stars presents a major creative challenge — what with juggling two villains while introducing Robin and a femme lead — and the strain shows. In the resulting mayhem, some may wistfully recall the relatively modest Batman/Joker chords running parallel through the first movie — still the best of the lot.
Taking the reins from producer Tim Burton, director Joel Schumacher provides a visual style at times more reminiscent of “Dick Tracy” than Burton’s “Batman” in its explosions of vibrant color.Those hues signify a conscious decision to make this third adventure more light-hearted and humorous.
Yet while Schumacher has largely accomplished the goal of delivering a cinematic comic book, he’s also left the movie hollow at its core — a distinction that may not trouble Saturday-night audiences but that nonetheless dulls the film’s impact beyond its sheer and unrelenting visual grandeur.
Trying to recap the storyline underscores how much gets crammed into the pic’s two hours. With so much ground to cover, the filmmakers cheat a bit by beginning in the middle, as Two-Face (Jones) — a onetime district attorney gone bad after being scarred by acid — terrorizes Gotham.
After grappling with Two-Face and his minions, Batman encounters a criminal psychologist, Dr. Chase Meridian (Kidman), with her own designs on Gotham’s hero. That ongoing romance overlaps with the introduction of Dick Grayson (O’Donnell), a teenage circus acrobat who, after losing his family thanks to Two-Face, is taken in by Batman alter-ego Bruce Wayne.
A final thread involves Carrey’s transformation from an addled inventor, Edward Nygma, into the villainous Riddler, eventually teaming with Two-Face to zero in on Batman’s secret identity. That leads to a somewhat anti-climactic series of showdowns, beginning with a siege on Wayne Manor.
Screenwriters Lee Batchler, Janet Scott Batchler and Akiva Goldsman walk their own tightrope, trying to find time to depict not only Robin’s origins (in a faithful homage to his comic books roots) but also to rehash Wayne’s inspiration for turning into a caped crimefighter.
It’s a lot to handle, and Schumacher — who’s drawn recent praise for “The Client” but was less successful with the sci-fi-ish entries “The Lost Boys” and “Flatliners,” which are as close as he’s come to this genre — doesn’t have the luxury of pausing long enough to let those strands build momentum, with a fight or chase always just around the corner.
Carrey continues the tradition of villainous scene-stealing in the Batman movies, following in Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer’s footsteps. His showy turn as the Riddler is similar in its frenetic energy level to “The Mask” and overshadows Jones, who aside from a wild cackle has little to do and lets his gruesome makeup do all the acting.
O’Donnell proves there’s room for heroic thievery as well, and his bond with Batman provides what little emotional wallop the pic can muster, even though he doesn’t suit up in his spiffy Robin threads until the last act.
Kidman looks terrific, but her Batman fixation — creating a romantic triangle more reminiscent of the Superman/Clark Kent/Lois Lane paradox — is clearly the least interesting element in this crowded broiler. Michael Gough also remains an unsung hero as the droll Alfred.
As for Kilmer, he gamely steps into the dual Batman/Wayne role but can’t get much traction, finding, as Michael Keaton had, that beyond a stern jaw there’s not much to be done with it, since the suit does most of the work. There is something to be said for having a Batman who can be shown with his shirt off, though the villains (and perhaps Robin) again seem to be having all the fun.
Technically, pic benefits from a truly spectacular production design, though one suspects that less would have been more, allowing the viewer to absorb what’s onscreen. There are some stunning images, including the final shot (which should send audiences out whooping) and the Riddler’s question mark filling the night sky.
The costumes add enormously to the pic’s look, though one does have to question the logic behind adding nipples to a hard-rubber superhero suit. Whose idea was that supposed to be anyway, Alfred’s?
Not all the effects maintain those standards, with some of the computer-generated Gotham cityscapes appearing too obviously ersatz. Elliot Goldenthal’s score, while serviceable, also isn’t as stirring as Danny Elfman’s work in the first two films.
If Warner Bros.’ long-term aim with “Batman Forever” was to “save” the franchise, then it probably has, since box office will doubtless justify the Dynamic Duo fighting another day. Still, that prospect is perhaps most intriguing in offering a chance to reassemble some of these sterling elements in a more tightly focused formula that might get the mix just right.