A quick note about names: the four main characters have two names – Bruce/Batman, Dick/Robin, Harvey/Two-Face, and Edward/Riddler. Just out of strange personal habit I tend to use the alter-ego names Robin, Two-Face and Riddler except when refering to scenes *before* Edward becomes Riddler, when I use Edward. As for Batman, I use Batman to refer to scenes wherein he acts as Batman, and Bruce when he’s not in costume or to describe his mental/emotional experience.
Seeing as most people hate Batman Forever, you’re probably wondering why I would bother writing about such a bad movie. Well, I genuinely like Batman Forever (somebody has to!). I was too young for Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns, so instead, I fed my love of Batman with The Animated Series. In June of 1995 when Batman Forever was released I was 9, and it was my first live-action Batman movie. My fate was sealed because I not only loved Batman, but I also loved Val Kilmer (Tombstone and Top Gun were favourites), and I watched Batman Forever so many times I destroyed my VHS tape. I know it so well I can recite large chunks of it, and it has sunk so deeply into my subconscious that I quote it all the time without even realizing it. Okay. So I lied to you just now: I don’t really like Batman Forever, I love it. Now, I do understand that just because I liked Batman Forever as a kid doesn’t disqualify it from being fucking terrible, and this is very much true. But, there is something totally naive about pretending that inside every “Serious” movie lover, critic or student there isn’t an enthusiastic, eager child who loves things just because they do. As if it isn’t the inner child who wants to watch movies. I had an English professor who wisely taught me you can argue about “artistic value” and what is or isn’t “important” or “meaningful” all you want, but at heart you like things, in his words, “because you just fucking like them.” And so, I have decided to use my film studies super powers, perhaps for evil, to make a case for Batman Forever because my inner 9 year-old wants me to. Well, that, and as the wise Ben Bailey says, “the deep overriding desire to prattle on about nonsense on the internet.”
I did eventually get around to seeing Burton’s Batman movies and I realize I’m in a serious minority but I don’t like the 1989 Batman. And I’m not a fan of Jack Nicholson’s Joker. I do, however, love Batman Returns a great deal. Although I always found it weird that Batman seems to leisurely stroll around in the middle of total chaos like there’s no rush (the fault of a very stiff and heavy rubber suit I’m sure). So it’s a nice sight to see Batman actually running and executing an agile chain of martial arts moves in Batman Forever. There are, however, many problems with Forever (and just as an aside, Burton was still producer on both Schumacher movies… so how that conveniently gets forgotten when people argue Burton’s films are untouchable masterpieces versus Schumacher’s total screw-ups as if Burton had nothing to do with them is beyond me). Batman Forever suffers from a less-than-thrilling finale, odd leaps in narrative logic, Two-Face is a little too one-dimensional, Riddler is a little too Joker (actually so is Two-Face), and there are nipples on the Batsuit. Although, I honestly don’t understand why the nipples are such a problem for most people, and I am more mystified by the fact that almost 20 years later this is still an issue: only a week ago I read a movie review which described director Joel Schumacher as “the guy who put nipples on the BatSuit.” So I love Joel Schumacher’s response on Forever‘s commentary track to the original nipplegate: “People have to get out more often.” Nipples aside, as much as I like Batman Forever, there are things I have always hated about it. Aesthetically the film is, perhaps appropriately, two-faced. Some of the sets are looming, cold, and gothic, and shot with a wide-angle lens to exaggerate their height and scale, making them almost hyper real. While other sets and design elements are bright, neon, and borderline cartoon-like, something Schumacher explains was partially inspired by Tokyo at night.
There are other questionable choices. Chief among them this strange shot while Batman is dressing in his new BatSuit near the end of the film:
That’s really a shot from the movie.
I also think Two-Face’s henchmen look ridiculous, along with their neon-lit guns, and apparent fetish for facial piercings:
The band playing at Riddler’s Nygmatech party are equally bizarre looking:
Something I only learned recently, because I didn’t know who they were when I was 9, there’s a cameo by En Vogue which makes no sense at all, as they aren’t even on the soundtrack, and they appear to be prostitutes. Apparently, according to Schumacher, they found out he was directing a new Batman movie and begged him to be in the film:
Schumacher and the film’s producer Peter MacGregor-Scott both insist this new neon look made the movie “edgy,” something MacGregor-Scott describes as “sort of like Saturday Night Fever on acid,” but it never seemed to me to suit Batman. Not to mention the insanely stupid looking street gang who seem a little too interested in black lights, fluorescent paint and glow sticks. These fools are easily my most hated part of Forever. I really, really hate this scene and probably visibly cringe every time I watch it (though it’s still not as bad as the motorcycle race in Batman & Robin – or really anything in Batman & Robin). Schumacher explains he wanted to create a street fight you hadn’t seen before, but there’s probably a good reason no one had done it:
It keeps them safe while they’re jogging at night.
But the neon, though still not my favourite choice, begins to make more sense when, on the commentary track, Schumacher explains he wanted to use “the colours of the comic book.” In fact, throughout the commentary Schumacher doesn’t refer to Batman Forever as “a movie” but as a comic. For instance, he describes the opening scene as “a real comic book action sequence,” and while explaining how he came to cast Tommy Lee Jones for Two-Face, Schumacher remarks, “I think it’s wonderful when you can get really great actors to be in a comic book.” Batman is one of the rare cultural characters, along with maybe James Bond, who has been successful in many vastly different incarnations. The dark, brooding, tortured Batman of Frank Miller’s Year One, or the realism of Christopher Nolan’s recent Batman films is a universe away from Adam West’s clueless, campy, and, frankly, bizarre Batman (and really, the nipples on Kilmer’s BatSuit are at least as ridiculous as the chalk eyebrows on West’s mask). In the 1966 film Batman, Joker, Riddler, Penguin and Catwoman steal a “total dehydrator” which turns humans into piles of colourful dust. They use it on the fictional equivalent of the UN security council in order to hold to world ransom and take over.
Somehow the “total dehydrator” seemed more plausible in Batman Begins… and yes that’s Batman with a shark hanging on to his leg.
Batman comes in all shades of both ridiculous and serious. Batman Forever is somewhere in there, but probably closest in tone to the comics of Dick Sprang. As comics artist, writer, and blogger Henry Chamberlain puts it: “Dick Sprang is your friend if you prefer your Batman to be more surreal and offbeat. If you want your Batman deep in the cartoon roots, and not so allied with CSI, then Zap, Pow, Boom, Bang, it’s Dick Sprang!” As Chamberlain describes, Sprang is “completely steeped in cartoonland wizardry.” And not unlike some of the action scenes in Batman Forever, like the opening bank vault episode where Two-Face fills a vault with acid, destroying the money he supposedly wants to steal, Sprang’s comics are the type whose action sequences you can’t think about too logically for too long lest they disintegrate in your hands (rather like a lot of Bob Kane’s plot lines for that matter), but for pure fun are tough to beat. The giant advertisements around Gotham in Batman Forever, like this one, also wouldn’t be out of place in a Sprang book (we’ll come back to this image later, too):
This isn’t a random coincidence either. Along with Bob Kane’s long-time collaborator Bill Finger, Sprang is co-creator of The Riddler (and the Jokermobile!). As the artist, Riddler’s green, question mark jumpsuit which Jim Carrey rather bravely wears is Sprang’s invention:
It bears mentioning, also, that Batman Forever is surprisingly traditional. Robin and Two-Face’s origins as portrayed in Forever are both straight from Bob Kane, not to mention Robin’s green and red circus outfit. And Jim Carrey’s “mad trickster” Riddler versus the more modern OCD, neurotic genius is consistent with Dick Sprang’s conception. In the promotional feature Riddle Me This: Why is Batman Forever? made for TV before the release of the film, Schumacher states his intention for the movie: “I wanted to make it a living comic book.” From this perspective, the mash-up of the super-real and the cartoon-like in the film’s visual style are a better fit. Batman Forever attempts to make the comic world real. And while this may be obvious, it is (gasp!) thematically consistent with the film’s narrative. The Riddler’s best-selling invention, The Box, “turns Gothamites into zombies” while watching TV because it tricks the viewer into believing the television images are real. As Edward explains to Bruce, The Box “makes the audience feel like they’re inside the show.” And when Riddler makes his appeal to Two-Face to help him “steal production capital,” he demonstrates The Box on Two-Face’s girlfriends Sugar and Spice (originally Lace and Leather, sadly renamed because Warner Bros. thought “Leather” was too adult even though they are never named on screen). Appropriately, both Sugar and Spice find themselves mesmerized by cartoons whose images project beyond the TV.
Under the influence of Riddler’s Box which makes them feel “inside the show,” Sugar and Spice don’t just watch what they believe is a real cartoon, they participate in one. And while it can certainly be argued Batman Forever doesn’t sufficiently develop this correlation (because no matter what the “explanation” behind it the black light loving street gang still looks stupid), the ‘real cartoon’ Sugar and Spice participate in is the film itself. And while I don’t expect to convert any devoted Batman Forever haters, there really is a lot to appreciate here if you care to look.
In the commentary, Schumacher begins by explaining “My job was to, in a sense, reinvent, refresh, the Batman franchise.” Later in the film he speaks briefly about Frank Miller’s Year One and acknowledges that some Batman fans prefer “a darker version” of Batman (personally I do), and that he actually does too but there was a specific request to make Forever lighter than Batman Returns which many people felt was too dark – including Bob Kane himself, according to his wife Elizabeth Sanders (who appears in the film as gossip columnist ‘Gossip Gerty’ who hounds Bruce Wayne at public events). Val Kilmer also prefers a darker Batman: at C2E2 in 2012, a comic convention held in Chicago, Kilmer participated in a panel and was asked what he thought of Christopher Nolan’s recent Batman films and replied “Well they’re doing what I had hoped we would do but they’re doing it.” But despite the “lighter” tone, there is a dark underpinning in Forever. Picking up on Frank Miller’s retelling of Batman’s beginnings in Year One (also the blueprint for Batman Begins), the film’s screenwriter Akiva Goldsman explains Forever “is a retelling of the origin story,” not just to examine “why” he became Batman, but how. Goldsmith explains, Forever “attempts to take a little bit closer look at the psychology of young Bruce Wayne, and how he became older Bruce Wayne,” to examine the relationship between his grief as a young boy and his devotion to justice as a man. Forever reveals that, as it is in all origins, trauma is at the heart of Batman. In Forever, Bruce is haunted by recurring flashbacks of his parents’ murder and perpetually relives his grief. Because that grief has caused Bruce to split himself into two people – Bruce Wayne and Batman – as a result of his unhealed pain, he is unable to reconcile who he truly is.
Witnessing trauma is a vital element in Batman Forever. Not only does Bruce suffer throughout the film for having witnessed his parents’ murder, but Dick Grayson, who soon becomes Batman’s sidekick Robin, is similarly wounded by seeing his own family killed. When Bruce initially visits Dr. Chase Meridian in her office for a consultation about the riddles he has been finding, she suspects a deeper trouble in him and asks “What is it you really came here for?” Bruce dismisses her insight, but a few days later confesses “My parents were murdered in front of me when I was just a kid.” Bruce then goes on to describe classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, whose most common expression is reliving the traumatic event through recurring nightmares and/or flashbacks. Bruce tells Chase “I don’t remember a lot of what happened but what I do comes to me in my dreams, flashes. … My dreams are coming to me when I’m awake now.” Situations and images which imitate or recall the original trauma also trigger memories, as in the film when Chase accidentally knocks over a vase with roses, triggering Bruce’s memory of two roses falling from his mother’s hand when she was shot. These triggered memories also occur following the death of Dick’s family, a kind of re-witnessing of his own parents’ deaths, Bruce is mesmerized by his family portraits and experiences flashbacks. The trauma caused by witnessing is emphasized by a motif of eyes and circular patterns in the film. A recurring image in Forever is yellow and red concentric circles: it appears first in the advertisement Two-Face destroys with his helicopter. The second and third appearance both come during the charity circus, visible on the sides of the drums, and painted on the circus ring floor.
That the first occurrence of this pattern is an eye is telling, because the circus floor on which the pattern repeats soon becomes the scene of Dick Grayson’s family’s deaths. Dick does not directly witness his family falling, because he is busy dealing with the bomb Two-Face is threatening to detonate, but when he returns to discover his family has been killed, his face is framed by an arrangement of concentric circles which mimics the pattern of the circus floor.
The impact of the Grayson family’s fall isn’t directly shown in the film either, but suggested by Chase gasping, and a shot of Bruce which has the camera track quickly into a close-up of his eyes. This moment is clearly reminiscent of his own parents’ death, suggesting a kind of re-witnessing, and the close-up repeats throughout the film, as similar shots of his eyes bookend many of his flashbacks. And importantly, within one of Bruce’s flashbacks, he sees himself as a child kneeling beside his parents’ bodies, who like the Graysons, are also framed in the circular motif.
The use of red and yellow in conjunction with the motif of circles may be perfectly meaningless: Schumacher regularly insists his films mean nothing, but I believe that while unpretentious, just because you didn’t do it “on purpose” does not disqualify anything from meaning. The colours seem to associate with Two-Face, which would be appropriate as he kills the Graysons (whose performance costumes also feature the colours red and yellow). The red is represented in his scarring, and also, along with yellow, in his “two-toned” animal print jacket on the “evil” side:
Robin attains a kind of resolution to his revenge quest against Two-Face for his family’s death at the close of the film, when Batman tricks Two-Face into losing his balance and he falls – like the Graysons – down a cylindrical well to his (apparent) death. This time, the impact of Two-Face’s fall is registered in a close-up of Robin’s eyes, suggesting one witnessing amends another.
The circular motif is also vaguely suggestive of the repetitive pattern trauma so often creates, and in which Bruce finds himself trapped. Bruce did not simply witness his parents’ murder, he witnesses it again and again in flashbacks. Perhaps it’s why the giant advertisement near the opening of the film is for “Tired Eyes.”
And of course, Bruce is not the only traumatized soul in Gotham. Dick loses his family as Bruce loses his. And villains, too, are cut from the same cloth. Gotham’s once highly respected District Attorney Harvey Dent becomes Two-Face when a mob boss on the stand in court throws acid on Harvey’s face. The acid leaves Harvey badly burned, scarred, and psychologically damaged. Likewise, Edward Nygma suffers such a deep self-hatred he believes being Bruce Wayne is the only path to happiness and is crushed by Bruce’s rejection of his new invention, which Edward perceives as a personal rejection as well. Forever mirrors Batman, Robin, Two-Face and Riddler in order to underline how all of them, hero or villain, at least began at the same source: pain. The major mirroring occurs between Batman and Robin. They are both orphaned by their families’ murders and consequently devote themselves to a life of vengeance. Not only does the film suggest their similarity by framing the deaths of Bruce’s parents and Dick’s family in almost the same composition, but Batman tells Robin, as he expresses his pain over the loss of his own family, “We’re the same.” While Batman is reluctant to mentor Robin as a “superhero,” Robin urges Batman for guidance: “If we’re the same, Bruce, help me. Train me. Let me be your partner.” Robin, like Batman, also finds counselling in Alfred, who sees a great deal of Bruce in Dick and tells Robin “You are a hero, I can tell.” Bruce struggles with mentoring Robin, telling him “You still have a choice,” because he is currently struggling with the consequences of becoming Batman. Bruce is haunted by his past in flashbacks, and several times warns Robin that vengeance only deepens grief, it does not heal it, and adds that if he were to kill Two-Face in revenge, “then you’d be alone, like me.” Robin’s insistence on becoming a “superhero” pushes Bruce to reconcile the deep split he feels in his life between being Bruce Wayne and being Batman, as Robin counsels Batman that “Every man goes his own way.” By accepting Robin’s choice to pursue the same life, Batman in turn recognizes that he can choose to be both Bruce and Batman.
This contentious split between both his lives as Bruce and Batman aligns Batman with Two-Face who repeatedly refers to himself as “of two minds.” Of course Bruce is too, and Riddler’s elaborate trap for Batman at the close of the film wherein Riddler teases him to choose between saving Bruce’s love, Chase, or Batman’s teammate, Robin, playing on the perceived incompatibility Bruce feels between being Batman and also Bruce Wayne. Two-Face seeks revenge on Batman for not protecting him from the attack by Boss Moroni that left him burned, just as Bruce became Batman in order to seek vengeance on criminals and protect others from the fate he suffered. In Batman Returns, Batman tells Catwoman “We’re the same: split right down the middle,” a description which also neatly describes Two-Face who is literally split down the middle both physically and psychologically as Batman is emotionally. In a deleted exchange during the helicopter sequence, Batman tells Two-Face, “You need help, Harvey. Give it up.” Two-Face astutely replies “We need help? Have you looked in the mirror lately?” Chase also recognizes the similarity between Two-Face and Batman, explaining to Commissioner Gordon that Two-Face can’t be reasoned with because individuals with a fractured personality live “in a world where normal rules of right and wrong no longer apply” and, turning to Batman, observes, “Like you.” Robin is also aligned with Two-Face, seeking revenge against him and nearly having the chance to kill him, Two-Face tells Robin that for choosing the path of vengeance, “You’re a man after our own heart, son.” And both Robin and Two-Face are also warned about the inherent emptiness of revenge. When Dick tells Bruce his intention is to hunt Two-Face down and kill him, Bruce warns “Killing Two-Face won’t make the pain go away, it’ll make it worse.” Two-Face is likewise cautioned by Riddler, though out of emotional manipulation rather than genuine caring of course, that killing Batman would be unfulfilling and only inspire “post-homicidal depression.”
Batman and Riddler are also tightly mirrored, as Edward begins by being obsessed with Bruce. He has pictures and magazine covers of Bruce all over his work station and tells Bruce “You’re my idol.” While being introduced, Edward even offers “Bruce Wayne” when Bruce asks for his name. Edward sees his invention, the Box, as “the future of Wayne Enterprises,” but when Bruce rejects the idea of a device which manipulates the user’s brain waves, Edward creates his own electronics company, Nygmatech, and outright impersonates Bruce in the public eye: down to the exact same glasses and haircut. At Riddler’s Nygmatech party to unveil the new Box, Riddler even wears a fake mole to imitate Bruce’s, and Sugar insinuates Riddler is wearing the same suit. When Bruce arrives Sugar gushes, “Ooh, Eddie, he is too cute. How come you don’t look so good in that suit?” Later, when Riddler and Bruce speak, Riddler takes cues from Bruce on when to put on or take off his glasses, following Bruce like a mirror image. This imitation of Bruce is not only a kind of realization of his earlier idolization of him, but as an intentional attempt to over shadow Bruce. To that end, Riddler teases Bruce at the party, “Bruce, old man. The press were just wondering what it feels like to be outsold, outclasses, out-coiffed, and generally outdone in every way.” When Bruce questions the ethical implications of the new Box, suggesting, “Only a high-frequency carrier wave, beamed directly into the brain could create such images,” Riddler replies sharply “Yeah, and you wish you’d thought of it.”
Riddler desperately wants to be Bruce’s double. When pitching his Box to Bruce for the first time he gleefully tells Bruce “I want you to know we’ll be full partners in this, Bruce. Look at us, two of a kind!” Of course, Bruce/Batman’s “full partner” is Robin, not Edward, and Edward, as Riddler, turns out to be “two of a kind” only when paired with Two-Face. There are still powerful similarities: even Chase suggests Bruce and Edward share a psychological landscape when Chase suggests the author of the riddles is obsessed with Bruce who intuitively understands this means the Riddler will have to kill him, Chase points out “I think you understand obsession better than you let on.” Of course, one way in which all four, Bruce/Batman, Dick/Robin, Edward/Riddler, and Harvey/Two-Face, reflect each other is their split identities, and all of them in some way and degree pursue vengeance. But there are crucial differences, too, and while they all devote their lives to some form of revenge, the paths they take are immensely different, even if, at the same time, it reveals the line between heroes and villains is thin indeed.
The central theme of Batman Forever is healing, and the film traces different paths each character takes to pursue it. The film quite rightly aligns Batman, Robin, Riddler, and Two-Face as mirrors of each other in order to compare how each of them seeks healing from traumatic origins, and in so doing exposes what makes one person a hero, and another a villain. In the commentary, Joel Schumacher speaks about the loss of his own father when he was four and his identification with Bruce’s arc in the film. Schumacher explains losing someone so close at such a young age is something which is “always with you, you carry it.” Likewise, in an interview, Val Kilmer describes the overwhelming quality of grief when discussing his relationship with Jim Carrey on the set. Kilmer explains they spoke quite a bit because “Jim had just lost his father, and I had just lost my dad before I did Tombstone.” Kilmer astutely points out that Carrey was the biggest movie star at the time, and yet compared to his loss none of it mattered: “he was just sky-rocketing, he had done something right then that no one had done before: $300 million movies and giant openings, and yet, this is what was on his mind.” What emerges is the greatest destruction does not come from the traumatic event itself, but the wreckage trauma leaves behind. Of course trauma provokes pain and grief, but as the film explores, it easily becomes guilt, anger, blame and a desire for vengeance. And as Mark Twain wisely said: “Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” Trauma often becomes torture, as the mantra of Riddler suggests, because it creates “too many questions” which cannot be answered: why after why, what if after what if. Bruce’s guilt “curses” him to become Batman every night, and his pain haunts him in flashbacks, ceaselessly repeating. Trauma also splits a life into a now lost “before” which can never be recovered, and a broken “since”: Two-Face literally incarnates both his past as Harvey Dent the respected, sophisticated attorney, and also his new, scarred reality as a violent criminal. As Chase, Commissioner Gordon and Batman discuss how to stop Two-Face in the film’s opening sequence, Batman describes the splitting nature of pain when explaining to Gordon Two-Face is no longer rational because he has suffered from “a trauma powerful enough to create an alternate personality.” This also describes Batman, as Chase points out, as Bruce split himself into Batman in order to survive the weight of his grief. And in the film’s finale Riddler teases Batman, “By the way, I’ve seen your mind freak! Yours is the greatest riddle of all: Can Bruce Wayne and Batman ever truly coexist?” Of course this is the essential riddle posed by trauma: What do you do with pain? How do you heal the split trauma creates? Can you heal?
Batman, Robin, Two-Face, and Riddler all initially answer the question “What do you do with pain?” the same way: Avenge it. Two of the most common responses to trauma are guilt and anger. At heart they are the same: frustration at the irreversible loss trauma causes, they are simply expressed differently. Guilt is ingrown anger, it is violence directed against the self. Batman is in part driven by the guilt of believing he was the cause of his parents’ deaths, and so, as Chase describes, tortures himself by dedicating his life to a fight he can’t actually win (in a deleted scene, for instance, at the very end of the film, after seeing Bruce off on his nightly round of crime-fighting Chase asks Alfred, “Does it ever end?” Alfred replies solemnly, “No, Dr. Meridian, not in this lifetime”). Conversely, anger is violence directed outwards, almost inevitably becoming a desire for revenge. Revenge is the central obsession shared by Riddler, Two-Face, Robin and Batman. In different ways they all pursue healing through vengeance. Edward, for example, is so obsessed by the need to avenge his rejection by Bruce that he re-creates himself as the Riddler (Edward wanted to be Bruce Wayne, after being rejected by him he needs to be someone else), finds and convinces Two-Face to help him steal enough money to launch his Box, and even goes to the elaborate trouble of throwing a party in order to trick Bruce into having his mind read so Riddler can discover Bruce’s weaknesses and humiliate him in turn. Two-Face obsessively pursues opportunities to kill Batman, as he explains at the circus, when Gotham’s mayor demands “What the hell do you want, Harvey?” Two-Face vows “Want, Mr. Mayor? One simple thing: Batman bruised, broken, bleeding. In a word: Dead!” and later confesses he’s being driven insane by “the Bat’s stubborn refusal to expire” (that would be the lawyer speaking). After discovering Bruce is Batman and taking the Batmobile on a joy ride, Robin pleads with Batman to help him avenge his family, and describes himself as obsessed with this intent “All I can think about every second of the day is getting Two-Face. He took my whole life.” Batman, too, has built his life on revenge: he tells Chase on the night of his parents’ funeral when he discovered the cave beneath Wayne Manor and the bats living there he resolved “I would use [the bat’s] image to strike terror into the hearts of those who did evil. I would ensure what happened to me would never happen to anyone else again. I would have my revenge.”
The catch to revenge, which seeks to heal by expressing anger towards an outer source, is it cannot succeed because trauma and pain are not outside of or separate from ourselves but are within. Thus Riddler astutely obsesses over the mind. While testing his Box prototype on his boss Fred Stickley, and discovering it increases Edward’s IQ as a side effect, he poses Stickley the riddle: “What is everything to someone, and nothing to everyone else? Your mind, baby!” And of course this is true. Until Riddler develops his Box to the point where he can also read people’s minds, it is because someone’s mind is inaccessible to all others that Bruce can protect his identity as Batman, and why no one seems to suspect the pain he lives with. Trauma is of the mind, and unless you’re Two-Face, it does not always advertise itself in appearances as Bruce is routinely mistaken for being perfect. When Edward describes to Bruce how his Box mesmerizes its users by manipulating their brain waves he hastens to add “But… someone like you would never need it. Someone so intelligent, witty, and charming.” One of the magazine covers featuring Bruce found in Edward’s office and as a poster in Edward’s apartment likewise asks “Bruce Wayne: The Perfect Man?” Even Chase makes this mistake, when Bruce picks up the Malaysian dream warden doll while visiting her office, she explains some cultures believe she protects from bad dreams and then assumes “It’s silly to you, I’m sure.” That Bruce is plagued by bad dreams is trapped in and experienced by his mind: alone. It is only later that Chase realizes “You’re not exactly what you seem, are you, Bruce Wayne?”
Because grief is of the mind it can be difficult to access in a concrete way. Vengeance, however, is a way to externalize pain and, the hope is, attack and subdue it. When Bruce brings Edward’s riddles to Chase for her professional opinion, she characterizes Edward as suffering from “obsessional syndrome with potential homicidal tendencies” (not a real diagnosis), and that in order to relieve the pressure of obsession he may need to “purge the fixation” by killing Bruce. Revenge is indeed the attempt to “purge” the pain created by trauma. By directing one’s grief onto another, the belief develops that by attacking and taking revenge, the pain itself will be conquered. Robin explains to Batman this is why he wants to kill Two-Face: “When I was out there tonight I imagined it was [Two-Face] that I was fighting, even when I was fighting you. And all the pain went away.” Revenge creates the need to externalize pain, which in turn creates the belief grief itself can be, as Edward would say, “Terminated.” When Bruce rejects Edward’s request to pursue development of the Box, crushed, Edward vows to Bruce “You were supposed to understand. I’ll make you understand.” The vengeance Riddler pursues on Bruce/Batman is intended to purge Riddler’s grief. This is often done by turning the cause of pain against the perceived agent of that pain. Edward feels rejected and humiliated by Bruce, and so in turn, as Riddler, he seeks to “make [Bruce] understand” by outdoing Bruce “in every way” and humiliating him.
Equally, out of desperation Two-Face directs his rage towards Batman because Batman was unable to save him from Boss Moroni’s acid attack. Because Batman is the emblem of justice in Gotham, Two-Face sees this as a failure of justice, something as a district attorney he dedicated his life to. For Riddler and Two-Face, revenge is the attempt to “make you understand:” after being traumatized, villains seek to re-create their trauma, to inflict their pain on others in some attempt to relieve it in themselves. Two-Face believes a random accident is what burned him, and so obsessively re-creates the random fairness of luck. In fact, during the opening sequence Two-Face makes a point of seeking his revenge on Batman by re-creating the acid attack which ruined his life as Harvey Dent. While Batman and the security guard are trapped in the bank safe, Two-Face announces: “For your dying pleasure we are serving the very same acid that made us the men we are today.” Riddler’s Box, likewise, is rejected by Bruce because it raised “too many questions,” and so Riddler obsessively poses riddles and leaves question marks with which to antagonize Bruce/Batman.
The problem is that revenge, even if completed, is not healing, it’s avoidance. You cannot fully externalize that which is by nature of the self, only find and destroy symbols of it. And so the pain of trauma cannot be assuaged by purging, it can only be temporarily escaped. Edward’s Box manipulates the mind in order to target internal pain, not in order to heal it but simply create a distraction from it. As Edward describes to Bruce how the Box works, he reveals the sentiment which drove the Box’s creation: “Why be brutalized by an uncaring world?” This is a seriously profound question. It is more than possible to avoid feelings of pain and grief (many people build lives around it), and Edward’s Box is just one in a collection of options. As the GNN newscast reports, the Box’s critics attack it for turning Gotham’s citizens into unfeeling, unthinking zombies. The new Box Edward unveils at a lavish party goes a step further, creating holographic and fully interactive fantasies: when this is possible, why live in the real world at all? The Box manipulates the mind with illusions in order to distract it from the reality of an “uncaring world” which inevitably traumatizes everyone, and from the internal “splitting” that trauma leaves behind.
This reliance on dreams and fantasies as escapism are reiterated in the film’s soundtrack. When Edward returns home after experimenting on Stickley and faking his suicide, the song ‘Bad Days’ by The Flaming Lips is heard. The lyrics match Edward’s “vision” of his Box, describing relying on fantasy as a way to escape a painful life: “You’re sorta stuck where you are / But in your dreams you can buy expensive cars / And live on Mars and have it your way.” The next stanza not only characterizes what Edward has just done to Stickley, but his ambition to now destroy Bruce Wayne: “You hate your boss at your job / But in your dreams you can blow his head off / In your dreams, show no mercy.” The chorus, which isn’t directly heard in the movie, solidifies the promise of fantasy and taking solace in your dreams: “And all your bad days will end / And all your bad days will end / You have to sleep late when you can / And all your bad days will end.” The suggestion you must “sleep late when you can” underlines how dreams can indeed be comforting, but they are ultimately evasion. Edward’s obsession with Bruce Wayne is another fantasy Edward uses to avoid feeling, in this case self-hatred, by holding onto the dream he can become Bruce Wayne, who is, as Jim Carrey describes, “the guy [Edward would] love to be.” This obsession with Bruce is a way for Edward to escape himself.
Escape seems to be Riddler’s M.O. When he covers up the murder of Stickley by passing it off as suicide, the only explanation Edward leaves in the suicide note is “Good-bye cruel world!” This belief in the cruelty of the world may also fuel his need to create elaborate traps for his foes, re-creating an inescapable “cruel world,” rather than the more efficient (and more likely inescapable) route of using a gun or weapon just to kill them. Two-Face has also felt the brunt of a cruel, uncaring world: not unlike Bruce, Harvey Dent’s ideal life is ruined… by accident. As District Attorney Harvey was surely acquainted with the crueler, more violent side of life in Gotham, but held fast to a belief in justice and often collaborates with Batman. To then be so easily devastated shattered Harvey’s ability to value justice, and instead turns to what he perceives to be the only source of impartial and fair judgement: luck – what he believes ruined him. Harvey is horrified by the apparent lack of fairness and justice, and now sees the world, like Riddler, as cruel and uncaring. As he explains to a witless security guard at the opening of the film, “One man is born a hero, the other a coward. Babies starve, politicians grow fat. Holy men are martyred, and junkies grow lesion. Why? Why, why, why, why, why? Luck! Blind, stupid, simple, do-dah, clueless luck!” Two-Face is compulsively reliant on luck, and his incessant coin flipping is a kind of addiction which also has avoidance as its motivation. Two-Face describes his coin flipping as “The random toss: the only true justice.” This is directly in contrast to the “true justice” which he had to build on evidence, witnesses, and reason as a prosecutor and his subsequent decisions about who was or wasn’t “guilty” in the eyes of the law. The random toss allows him to avoid the responsibility, and moral consequences, of making a real choice. However, it must be mentioned, that Batman Forever, although it uses Two-Face’s obsession with his coin to foil him at the end of the film, mostly treats the coin as a prop rather than as the crux of Two-Face’s psychology (for instance, while in Wayne Manor, Two-Face sits in a corner flipping his coin over and over purposefully trying to get the “bad” side to come up so he can kill Bruce).
In an attempt to escape the cruelty of an uncaring world which has traumatized them, villains accept that cruelty as inevitable and unending and so attempt to control it by redirecting their pain, trying to beat it into submission, by subjecting others to re-creations of their grief. Villains want revenge on the world itself. For Two-Face, because there is no justice, only chance, there is no longer a distinction between innocence and guilt and so does not, as Chase points out, live “in a world where normal rules of right and wrong” even exist. Riddler, who feels humiliated by Bruce’s rejection, pursues the mass production of his Box, not just to professionally outsell Wayne Enterprises, but to become, as he tells Two-Face “Gotham’s cleverest carbon-based life form,” and so protect himself from ever being rejected again and give him enough brain-power to humiliate anyone who challenges him. When Riddler later faces Batman he boasts he is now so intelligent that “Victory is inevitable. For is knowledge is power: then a God am I.”
Heroes also seek revenge and are motivated by anger, Batman and Robin both approach the same path as Two-Face and Riddler, seeking revenge against those who killed their families, but there is a critical difference. Vengeance is indeed inspired by the perceived need to hold those responsible for trauma accountable for their actions, but for Batman and Robin, revenge is also inspired partially by guilt. Shortly after arriving at Wayne Manor, Robin tells Alfred the story of how he got his nickname, explaining “My brother’s wire broke once, and I swung out and grabbed him. My father said I was his hero. I flew in like a robin.” At the circus, Robin manages to neutralize Two-Face’s bomb by pitching it into the river (a sly reference to the 1966 Batman) and saves many lives, but at the cost of losing his family who are killed while he deals with the bomb. Reflecting on his failure to save his family he tells Alfred “Some hero I turned out to be.” Batman, too, feels great guilt over his parents’ murder, confessing to Alfred “I killed them.” As it was originally scripted and shot, Batman Forever had a greater emphasis on Bruce’s sense of guilt. Unfortunately, seriously to the loss of integrity to the finished film, in order to keep the run-time to 2 hours many scenes were edited from the movie (all the deleted scenes described here can be found in the special features of the DVD). Bruce has recurring visions of a red leather book which had belonged to his father, but in the final film all he says about it is “His journal. He had written in it every day of my life. But now he’d never write in it again. At that moment I knew my life would never be the same.” Bruce then, holding the journal to his chest, runs outside into a storm where he falls through the ground into a giant cave underneath Wayne Manor – what eventually becomes the bat cave. Batman Forever‘s screenwriter Akiva Goldsman explains that the journal was originally “the narrative component the story was built around.” Bruce tells Chase the red leather book is a new element in his flashbacks and she suggests what he’s describing are “repressed memories. Images of a forgotten pain that’s trying to surface.” She then asks, “Is it possible there’s an aspect of your parents’ death you haven’t faced?” The answer to this question is of course left unanswered in the final cut. Originally, at his parents’ funeral Bruce finds the journal and reads the last entry which he remembers as “Martha and I want to stay home tonight, but Bruce insists on going to see a movie.” What Bruce has forgotten is self-blame, that his parents would not have been killed had he not insisted they go out that night, and he became Batman in order to make amends for his guilt and as a way to punish himself. Goldsman thus explains that because Bruce’s arc hinges on this “psychological reckoning,” this is why Bruce’s love interest, Chase, who finds herself in love with both Bruce and Batman, is made a psychologist who specializes in multiple personalities.
For Batman and Robin, revenge is not simply about trying to seek justice against criminals who cause pain, revenge also becomes an attempt to atone for the guilt of surviving, for the feeling of failure to protect those who were lost. This guilt and desire for redemption also accounts for the theme of punishment which runs throughout the film: not only does Chase suggest to Bruce that Batman acts as if cursed to pay some great penance, but as Andrew Salerno points out, there is a strong S&M (sadomasochism) motif in Batman Forever. Included in Salerno’s list of S&M elements are Two-Face’s girlfriends’ original names Leather and Lace; that in the script Two-Face’s lair “looks like an S&M club”; Chase’s “excitement” over Batman’s black rubber suit; and the many close-up shots fetishizing the Batsuit itself (including the infamous ass-shot and sculpted nipples). Even the Batmobile carries the motif, as vehicle supervisor Allen Pike explains, Schumacher’s vision of the Batmobile was “inspired by a leather fetish magazine, of all places,” resulting in a ribbed body:
Revenge can become a powerful addiction as it creates the illusion of being a cure for one’s pain. The film goes so far as to characterize Riddler and Two-Face as pseudo-drug addicts, addicted to the IQ-increasing side-effect of The Box and the thrill it provides. After first discovering this side-effect when experimenting on Stickley, Edward excitedly remarks “What a rush!” Riddler then uses the mental stimulation’s addictive quality to bribe Two-Face into helping his quest to make his Box a commercial success. Riddler shows Two-Face how the Box works and when Two-Face reaches to try it again, “I’ll have a bit more, thank you,” Riddler hooks him with the classic “Oh there’s more, but only the first one’s free.” During the GNN report on the Box’s success, Riddler and Two-Face are seen excitedly swapping the Box between each other to suck up the energy. Riddler is even seen later with what resembles addict shakes as he passively sits under the incoming mental energy. The Box users also act like addicts, sitting mindlessly in front of their TV sets and fighting each other and rioting to get their hands on a Box inside electronic stores. It is the irony of drug addictions that substances which are meant to heal the body, or aid its recovery, can easily be used to destroy and escape the self.
Batman and Robin are in a sense addicts as well. To recall Robin’s obsession with killing Two-Face, which is “all [he] can think about every second of the day,” he relentlessly pursues revenge because when he fought the street gang and imagined it was Two-Face “all the pain went away.” This has also been the inspiration for Batman, who vows to make sure what happened to him wouldn’t happen to anyone else again. This vow has become a fixation: while seeking Chase’s advice about the riddles, when Chase suggests the “letter writer” may need to “purge the fixation” on Bruce, Bruce understands this means killing him. Chase, suspicious, offers “you understand obsession better than you let on.” That Bruce is addicted to being Batman is a concept explored in a lot of Batman texts (most recently in Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises), Bruce needs to be Batman in order to bear his grief. Bruce characterizes the desire for revenge which inspired Batman as an addiction as he attempts to dissuade Robin from pursuing revenge on Two-Face: “it will happen this way: You make the kill. But your pain doesn’t die with Harvey, it grows. So you run out into the night to find another face and another, and another, until one terrible morning you wake up and realize that revenge has become your whole life, and you won’t know why.” This notion of being Batman as an obsession corresponds with the film’s original intention to explore Bruce as having repressed guilt about his parents’ murder. Again, as Chase suggests to Bruce, Batman obsessively fights crime as “some great penance,” trying to atone.
Repression is necessary to create and fuel obsession: embedded in the need to repeat something (an action, a tick, etc.), is Bruce’s observation “revenge [becomes] your whole life, and you [don’t] know why.” The unsolved riddle of why the repetition is necessary, is what supports obsession. For if you understood why an action was obsessively repeated, you’d no longer need to repeat it. The “why” would also reveal another unwelcome truth about addiction: although it is pursued with the belief it will heal your pain because it temporarily provides relief, obsession only increases pain which in turn feeds the addiction. Easy as it is for Bruce to bury his 11 year-old grief stricken and terrified self under illusions of adult responsibilities and a devotion, as Batman, to protecting the innocent, his recurring nightmares are getting worse, now appearing to him while he’s awake. He warns Robin that revenge is not true healing, explaining “Killing Two-Face won’t take the pain away, it’ll make it worse.” Even Riddler shows at least a level of insight into the hollowness of revenge (though he uses it as an argument for a different kind of revenge) when he teases Two-Face that killing Batman only sounds like a good idea: “But have you thought it through? A few bullets, a quick splash of blood, and then what? Wet hands. Post-homicidal depression.” Schumacher also describes the ultimate hollowness of vengeance and how it easily warps into addiction: “you really actually can never make up for your parents’ murders, you think you can, but it will run your life.”
Revenge, like any other addiction, is a fantasy about healing, like Riddler’s Box, it’s mind manipulation, not genuine peace. To demonstrate this, Riddler’s strange desire to reveal his identity within the puzzles he creates has recently been characterized as a kind of compulsion he doesn’t consciously control. In a 1999 issue of Gotham Adventures, after being caught Riddler confesses “You don’t understand… I really didn’t want to leave you any clues. … But I left you a clue anyway. So I… I have to go back [to Arkham Asylum]. Because I might need help. I… I might actually be crazy.” While Batman Forever rather cleverly uses Riddler’s compulsion to reveal himself in his puzzles to lure Batman to him, counteracting the pain Edward confronted by pursuing Bruce and being rebuffed, it also speaks to a deeper desire to be caught, a kind of inner understanding revenge and avoidance aren’t healing. And while, at least temporarily, there is real solace to be found in illusion, avoiding the pain left by trauma tends to only make it worse. What, then, do you do with bad dreams? Particularly bad dreams which continually re-visit, like the ones which stalk Bruce?
Repetition is crucial in trauma, it is a defining characteristic. It creates recurring flashbacks and dreams, like Bruce’s visions of his parents’ murder; the pain it creates motivates repetitious behaviour and obsessions, fuelling addictions (which are by definition being “enslaved” to a habit). Not to mention the impulse to re-create the traumatic moment: Two-Face is burned by luck and so in turn brutalizes Gotham with luck; Riddler is humiliated when he’s rejected by Bruce and so in turn seeks to humiliate Bruce/Batman and all of Gotham with his genius. Both Two-Face and Riddler re-create their trauma in the world in order to “make you understand.” Unhealed trauma tends to be returned to us, as Bruce re-encounters himself and the grief of losing his parents in Robin, something screenwriter Akiva Goldsman describes as important to Bruce’s ultimate healing: “There’s fun to this truth: that we find, one way or another, situations that force us to work through those things we haven’t worked through from our own life.” Bruce confronts his own choices to seek revenge on criminals in Robin’s determination to avenge his family by killing Two-Face. After unsuccessfully trying to dissuade Robin from the same path he took, Bruce scolds Alfred for “encouraging [Robin],” but again, Alfred does not let Bruce avoid himself: “Young men with a mind for revenge need little encouragement. They need guidance. You, above all, should know the consequences of the life you choose.” This ceaseless repetition of trauma has the great potential to feel like torture, and in this light easily warps into guilt and the desire to atone for some perceived failure or sin in order to make the repetition stop.
It is also easy to see why many faced with great pain choose escape routes into illusions like drug-use, other forms of self-destruction, and revenge. But perhaps the repetitious quality of trauma is not intended to persecute. It could be we find endless ways to re-create the source of grief in an attempt to exorcise it, or as Goldsman puts it to “work through” pain. This is, after all, the intended outcome of revenge, except revenge’s mistake is to “blame” grief on an outside force. Grief originates in the self, it is of the mind which Edward astutely riddles to Fred is “everything to someone and nothing to everyone else.” Perhaps the purpose of trauma’s repetitive nature is to “make you understand” there is something left unresolved. Perhaps we tend to find our pain symbolized outside ourselves simply to help us recognize it. Feelings buried alive do not die, and by re-appearing to us we are reminded they remain where we buried them. Bruce represses his childhood guilt, the fear that he caused his parents’ deaths, and literally buries this memory beneath Wayne Manor, losing the red leather book there. When Bruce describes to Chase how he discovered the cave under the mansion, he is carrying his father’s journal which falls with him into the cavern. In a deleted scene, after Riddler has destroyed the Batcave, Bruce rediscovers his father’s journal through a hole Riddler creates in the cave’s wall. Re-reading the journal, Bruce discovers it was indeed his parents who wanted to go to the movies that night, and is able to let go of his guilt.
The repetition which seems inextricably linked to traumatic experiences and memories keeps grief alive, not to punish, but to call our attention to our old, yet unhealed wounds which are quietly bleeding underneath the skin. The temptation is to treat only the symptomatic pain which resurfaces again and again – often with illusions like revenge obsessions and addictions. Bruce has built a life around forgetting and yet paying unending penance for guilt he felt as an 11 year-old. It is easier to forget and set aside the inner confused, terrified child under the false illusion of adult responsibility: Bruce must run a giant corporation and keep Gotham safe as Batman. But Bruce’s hauntings by his younger self reveal that very often, regardless of the substance or behaviour used to relieve the constant pressure of grief, many addicts are at heart broken children. Buried pain inevitably resurfaces, perhaps not as a signal to give into whatever compulsion keeps grief at bay, but instead as an invitation to make another choice.
Schumacher’s intent to make Batman Forever a “living” comic book not only aligns with Edward’s Box which creates the illusion of “living” television and interactive fantasies, but presents the film itself as entertaining escapism. This notion of escapism looms heavily over the characters and stories which originate in the comic book world. As Todd Alcott suggests in his very insightful review of Batman Forever, superhero comics are all “adolescent power fantasies.” And there is much truth in this. What awkward, geeky, teenage boy wouldn’t want to wake up one day no longer needing glasses and ripped, like Peter Parker in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. What shy, apologetic, insecure girl wouldn’t want to wake up as the powerful, sexy, and self-assured Catwoman like Selina Kyle in Batman Returns (though perhaps without the being pushed out of a high window bit). Alcott offers the real fantasy at work in superhero comics is “I can’t kiss a girl because girls are yucky and I’m having too much fun being a cool bat dude,” and its more dramatic alternative, “I can’t kiss a girl because I’m terribly concerned with the limit of my powers and my impact on society.” Even Batman in Batman Forever picks up on the “fantasy” aspect of his persona, trying to dodge the “direct” propositions of Chase, Batman assumes “It’s the car, right? Chicks love the car.” This scene is pretty much Alcott’s theory to perfection: Batman goes through a laundry-list of “I’m having too much fun being a cool bat dude” reasons why he can’t get involved with Chase.
At the crux of this fantasy is the desire to escape a less than appealing reality, the real reason someone may feel they “can’t kiss a girl” (or boy) is probably a lot more painful than being distracted by “being cool.” As Edward asks: “Why be brutalized by an uncaring world?” There is relief in illusion. But… I think the real fantasy in Batman is not Batman as such. Unlike other superheroes, Batman doesn’t have “super” powers: he is not an alien like Superman, he doesn’t have a magical artefact like Green Lantern, and he isn’t radioactive like Spider-Man and a host of others: Batman is human. Often times frighteningly so. As Val Kilmer suggests, “The one thing, I think, that’s really strong is that [Batman’s] a human being, there isn’t anything bionic, so you can relate to him. … And then, the things that are most fantastical have to do with basic American Dream ideals: he’s disgustingly wealthy, so wealthy it never comes up.” The real power fantasy is Bruce Wayne. Edward’s escape exit at the beginning of the film is to be Bruce, and even the Bad Days song lyrics, which mirror the intent of his Box for dreams to bring solace, could be describing the fantasy of Bruce’s lifestyle: “You’re sorta stuck where you are / But, in your dreams you can buy expensive cars, / Or live on Mars / And have it your way.” Bruce is teased by Dick for his expensive car collection: “Is this a garage Bruce, or a car museum?” He also certainly has enough money to do whatever he wants, and while he doesn’t live on Mars, in the comics he does own a spaceship (and a rocket, obviously).
Bruce’s wealth is not his only quixotic trait. Something that’s explored more thoroughly in Christopher Nolan’s Batman films is that Bruce isn’t just two people, Bruce Wayne and Batman, but actually three people. There is the public, socialite Bruce Wayne whose shallow and seemingly excessive lifestyle are the stuff of gossip magazines, and who acts as the veneer who hides the real Bruce Wayne, who Bruce is when he’s not the public eye and not Batman. In The Animated Series Bruce deliberately disguises his voice when Batman, but tellingly, speaks in this voice while alone with Alfred, as if his voice as Bruce Wayne is the alter ego. In the season one episode “Nothing to Fear,” Bruce is accosted by a former classmate of his father who tells Bruce “When your father was alive ‘Wayne’ was a name that commanded great respect. Now all Wayne stands for is a self-centred, jet-setting playboy. It’s lucky your father didn’t live to see what you’ve done to his good name, he’d have died of shame.” Of course Bruce is only pretending to be a self-centred, jet-setting playboy to conceal his identity as Batman: in a later episode of The Animated Series, “The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne,” Dr. Strange invents a device capable of reading minds and discovers Bruce Wayne is Batman (a familiar sounding plot…) and decides to auction his knowledge to the highest bidder between Penguin, Two-Face, and Joker. Batman uses a sleight of hand to make them believe Dr. Strange is simply fooling them, and trying to escape harm by the angry villains, Dr. Strange confesses Batman’s identity is Bruce Wayne. Two-Face rebuffs this, “That’s absurd! I know Bruce Wayne. If he’s Batman, I’m the king of England.” (a notion Harvey echoes in The Dark Knight, as he clearly doesn’t take “Bruce” seriously at all). Joker, in a fit of laughter, adds “And people say I’m crazy!”
In Batman Forever, this split between the real and the social Bruce Wayne is reflected in the perception Bruce is invulnerable from all problems, as Edward suggests he wouldn’t need the Box since he’s “so intelligent, witty, and charming,” and Chase initially agrees, telling Bruce she’s sure the idea of a doll being used as a charm against bad dreams would seem silly to him. This belief that Bruce Wayne is somehow immune to pain because he’s rich and good looking is the quintessential power fantasy. The clueless, playboy, socialite Bruce pretends to be is, perhaps, who he may have been had his parents lived, but exists now as the real mask. Bruce Wayne is the disguise, not Batman. The escapist draw of power fantasies – be they about why you can’t “kiss a girl” or that being wealthy and beautiful will solve all your problems – is certainly maintained in the film as an option, after all, Joel Schumacher continually refers to his intent just to make Batman Forever a fun and entertaining “ride.” The narrative device of Edward’s Box also defends this need for mindless escapism. When a GNN report profiling the Box’s success outlines that the Box’s critics say it turns users into zombies, Edward’s response is “That’s what they said when TV was invented.” To be sure, television, film, and comic books are certainly diversions from reality (and sometimes addictions). And Batman is a “power fantasy,” but perhaps not strictly in the sense Todd Alcott intends.
While much of the film is devoted to the ways in which obsession and addiction are used to avoid feeling the pain of grief and loss, and how these addictions do to some extent, bring relief, ultimately the film’s central theme of healing makes the concept of Batman being a “power fantasy” impossible in the sense Alcott implies. As Bruce wisely counsels Robin, successfully avoiding your pain isn’t healing, in fact it makes the real wound worse. And as Val Kilmer suggests, speaking to the appeal of Batman, perhaps it is not only the cool gadgets and the Batmobile we are drawn to: “There are very few films that reach that many people, I don’t think any, that don’t have a really compelling story, something fundamentally attractive about the story. We all want to know who we are, and we all have nightmares that might, could turn into something that’s healing, or we have nightmares that are recurring like Bruce Wayne that need to be healed.”
There is a real difference made in Batman Forever between dreams which only distract, and nightmares which heal. Edward’s Box and both its “real” TV and holographic fantasies divert the mind from being “brutalized by an uncaring world,” creating dream-like illusions which only manipulate the mind, but don’t heal it. Bruce’s flashbacks, which he tells Chase usually come to him in his dreams, are, according to Chase, “trying to surface” in order to be remembered and faced, not forgotten. When Bruce visits Chase’s office he finds a doll which she explains is “a Malaysian dream warden. Some cultures believe she protects you from bad dreams.” Chase later gives Bruce one, calling it “clinical intuition” that his “dreams might need changing.” Curiously the doll itself is reminiscent of Two-Face and even mimics a white and black chair in his hideout:
Many of the sets in the film also tread the line between a dream and a nightmare, and in so doing suggest the difference between healing and distraction. On the one hand Schumacher is very clear the sets are reminiscent of cartoons and comic books, that they are set up the film is “hopefully, a fun ride” – the kind of entertainment (which is by definition diversion) mimicked by Riddler’s Box. Other sets are gothic and foreboding, and often incorporate the human form, for example, the pillars at the circus Hippodrome, and various statues throughout Gotham:
Production designer Barbara Ling explains the emphasis on the human form was something Schumacher insisted on, and was heavily influenced by Schumacher’s interest in the artwork of H.R. Giger. Giger is a Swiss artist and has worked as a set designer in film (including Alien for which he won an Oscar, he designed several of the sets in the film and the creature itself). Giger was also contacted to design the Batmobile for Batman Forever and submitted a concept design but the car was ultimately re-imagined by Tim Flattery, although he cites Giger’s art as a definite influence on the finished car.
Giger’s style is often surreal, representing biomechanical human figures interconnected with machines and architecture – the scene in The Matrix when Neo wakes up in a suspending pod filled with goo and with dozens of wires and hoses connected to “outlets” in his skin is very Giger-esque. Giger’s imagery tends to be nightmarish and often fetishistic. So the chosen Batmobile design as inspired by a leather fetish magazine is wholly appropriate. Giger suffers from a sleep disorder which causes night terrors and began painting the images as a form of art therapy, coupled with his fascination with bones and spinal cords (the ribbed body of the Batmobile also alludes to this particular motif in Giger’s work). Giger describes his art as “an exorcism” for feelings of shame, guilt, anxiety, and anger. Not unlike the purpose of the Malaysian dream warden doll who transforms bad dreams, the influence of Giger on the architecture of Gotham suggests the extent to which protecting Gotham has become Bruce’s way of channeling his own nightmares and his attempts to “exorcise” guilt, anger, and grief. These are not the pleasant illusions and dreams created by Riddler’s Box. Bruce’s bad dreams aren’t delusions, they are flashbacks to a trauma he witnessed.
Upon experiencing a flashback while Chase is visiting Wayne Manor, she urges Bruce not to ignore or suppress these visions: “Your memories are trying to break through, don’t fight them.” Earlier she had suggested the possibility Bruce was being haunted by dreams of a past trauma because there may be “an aspect to [his] parents’ death that [he] hasn’t faced.” Here, finally, instead of fighting the images, as he had in the past, Bruce, standing by the great fireplace in his living room closes his eyes to allow the memories to surface, and when he opens them finds himself inside his memories. Now re-enacting the flashbacks, not just watching them, the adult Bruce begins to walk towards his father’s desk to find his journal, Bruce then becomes 11 years-old again while describing to Chase what he’s re-visiting, only this time consciously. That Bruce appears within his flashback as his present, adult self, being inside his painful memories, is in direct contrast to the appeal of being “inside the show” or one’s fantasies offered by Riddler’s Box as a distraction. Reliving his traumatic memories, not just repetitively re-watching them, begins to allow Bruce to integrate his life as Batman and Bruce Wayne into a single identity, rather than as a split, shattered self created by pain. When Bruce finishes telling Chase about the night of his parents’ wake she kisses him and immediately recognizes that he is also Batman. And ultimately, when Riddler traps Batman in a competition between his life as Bruce Wayne – with the option of saving Chase – and his life as Batman – with the option of saving Robin – Batman saves them both, telling a defeated Riddler “I had to save them both. You see, I’m both Bruce Wayne and Batman.” And the close of the film sees Bruce pursuing a romantic relationship with Chase while still spending his nights as Batman, in direct contrast to an earlier scene in which Chase confesses to Batman she’s in love with Bruce and Bruce promptly believes he then has to stop being Batman, shutting down the Batcave he tells Robin “Batman is no more,” despite Robin’s protests that “You can’t just quit, I mean, there’s monsters out there. Batman has to protect the innocent.”
The split trauma creates in the self shores the recognition that trauma is ultimately a question (or riddle) of identity. Trauma shatters, and its effects are irreversible. You cannot be the same person after trauma. “Super-hero” narratives are the ultimate incarnation of the philosophy that art is the expression of a character’s response to trauma, or, as Peter Parker’s English teacher tells his class in The Amazing Spider-Man: “It’s said there are only 10 plots in all of fiction, but I believe there’s only one: ‘Who am I?'” To which Peter’s uncle Ben adds: “Unresolved things … send us down a road, they make us who we are.” Val Kilmer, too, often cites identity as being a central concern in Batman Forever. Both villains have an identity crisis: Two-Face can’t decide if he’s a ruthless criminal or a refined attorney so relies on flipping a coin; Riddler hates himself so much he tries to become Bruce Wayne, and when he cannot, tries to destroy Bruce by pulling him apart by the seams of his own split identity. As Bruce tells Robin, he “still has a choice” about how he will respond to his family’s murder and who he will become. And as Bruce tries to dissuade Robin from becoming a vigilante, he therein confronts his own choice. Although Bruce cautions Robin about the emptiness of revenge, Robin still pursues killing Two-Face, and only changes his mind when, seconds from death at Robin’s hands, Two-Face, hanging from a ledge warns Robin about the man he’s becoming: “Finally justice is served! Let us die! You’re a man after our own heart, son. I’ll see you in hell.” Robin, realizing by killing Two-Face he’d become him, offers his hand, “I’d rather see you in jail.”
The crux of the film lies in the identity crisis of Bruce/Batman. The grief and repressed guilt which drove Bruce to split and also become Batman is re-emerging and pushing Bruce to face the incompatibility of his two selves. The question of the film really is can Batman be forever? Does being Batman require Bruce to remain unhealed? Can Bruce have a life without being Batman? Is there anything of Bruce left? This theme is very poignantly expressed in another deleted scene which originally occurred after Robin saves Batman in the subway tunnel. In the Batcave with Alfred, after Batman scolds Robin for putting himself in danger and Robin storms out, Bruce watches a GNN broadcast of an opinion piece in which the journalist chastises Batman for consistently causing major property damage in Gotham and attracting deranged, dangerous, and masked “super” criminals to the city because of his own flamboyant costume and methods (or as Gordon ventures to Batman at the end of Batman Begins, “What about escalation?”). Batman despairs that “even Chase calls being Batman a curse” (a line which remains in the finished film), and after chastising Robin for making the same choices he made as a young man to become a vigilante, Batman confesses “Who am I, Alfred? I don’t know any more.”
The invitation the repetitive nature of trauma offers is ultimately a choice about identity. As Batman explains to a confused and defeated Riddler near the film’s end, Riddler’s trap failed because Batman “had to save them both. You see, I’m both Bruce Wayne and Batman. Not because I have to be, now, because I choose to be.” Before this moment he has been Batman out of an addictive drive to atone for his guilt. This need to beat himself up enough to make up for his guilt is not unlike the belief in revenge which holds you can beat the world up enough to feel relieved of your grief. But the film argues real healing only comes from taking the invitation of trauma to choose who you will be. Another deleted scene shows Bruce and Alfred touring the Batcave after Riddler has destroyed it and Alfred suggests to Bruce that he gave up being Batman because he never faced why he became Batman in the first place. Through the wall of the Batcave which has been blown open from Riddler’s bombs, where Bruce rediscovers his father’s journal and is able to release his guilt, Bruce then re-encounters a vision of the bat he saw in the cave as a child who inspired him to become Batman by “[using] its image to strike terror into the hearts of those who did evil.” Bruce re-enters the Batcave and affirms, “I’m Batman, Alfred. I’m Batman.” Robin also makes a choice about who he is now. Although he pesters Batman about being his partner for most of the film, he also dangerously approaches the vengeful path of the villain, until the very last moment he seeks revenge on Two-Face, intending to kill him. After Batman saves him from the street gang Robin easily turns his anger towards Batman, attacking him and blaming him for not protecting his family: “Bastard! It should’ve been you! It’s your fault! If you’d have told Two-Face who you were at the circus they’d still be alive!” It is in the moment Robin has the opportunity to kill Two-Face, and Two-Face confronts him with the uncomfortable truth killing him would make him a villain, Robin decides he will follow the path of justice, which by definition serves society, versus the path of revenge, which serves only the self.
The film suggests that because trauma splits the self, healing begins with choosing who you will now be. Trauma always impacts identity, and the film mirrors Batman, Robin, Two-Face and Riddler to underline the question “Who are you really? Who are you choosing to be?” Something about trauma requires you to decide, consciously or unconsciously, what you now believe about world, others, and yourself. How will you treat others when you are hurt? What are you willing to fight for? Give up? These questions make the difference in who you become, if you are a hero or a villain. Batman, Robin, Two-Face and Riddler may all take the path of revenge in response to an “uncaring world,” but there is a critical difference. Villains tend to cling to the “power fantasy” that they can torture the world that hurt them, and in so doing regain some sense of power and control which is lost after trauma. Two-Face may have previously devoted his life to justice as a district attorney, but he now brutalizes the world with luck to “make [it] understand” the pain luck caused him. Riddler’s compulsively diabolical puzzles and traps intend to humiliate a world that rejected and humiliated him. Why be brutalized by an uncaring world when you can beat it into submission? Heroes equally encounter the cruelty of the world, but make a different choice. While Two-Face, for example, sees the failure of justice as evidence justice does not exist, Batman sees justice fail and decides because the world is cruel and because justice can fail, that it needs to be protected. While villains tend to live in illusions to avoid pain, they begin by being too realistic about the world, tending to take it at face value: the world is brutal; I will be brutal. Heroes, on the other hand, fight to defend values and principles they believe in on conviction alone. Heroes have faith in justice, righteousness, kindness, and the belief all people are, at heart, good. Heroes hold to their ideals even when they fail, villains reject them.
At the heart of Alcott’s theory about “power fantasies,” is a recognition that many of us turn to entertainment and comic heroes as a form of compensation for a lack of power we feel in our real lives. From this point of view it is very easy to see the draw of Bruce Wayne and his ultra-wealthy life, “If I were a billionaire I wouldn’t have problems.” Tempting thought. But this is Riddler’s way out, it is an escape exit, it isn’t real healing from pain. Batman, on the other hand, is a power fantasy in the truest sense. We all fear that our wounds, scars, mistakes, regrets, and the quirks we feel alienate us from others make us weak. Just as Bruce fears his guilt, grief, and loneliness make him unable to protect the innocent – Alfred, in a deleted scene, offers Bruce that he “gave up being Batman to save Dick Grayson.” In an “uncaring world” trauma is inevitable (particularly in Gotham). We are unavoidably victims of painful and unjust circumstances at one point in our lives or another. But the real tragedy is then becoming a victim of yourself: when seeking healing from grief becomes avoiding feeling pain through obsession, addiction, and in the film, revenge. As Alfred tells Bruce in the deleted scene when Bruce hesitates before exploring the older caverns of the BatCave, “Your nightmares are there. And until you face them, I fear you’ll spend your life fleeing from them.” Of course, you can run all you like. You can spin your wheels being slave to addiction or obsession all you choose. But you will never run fast enough to outrun yourself.
The relentless repetition embedded in trauma is not intended to fuel obsession; it’s intended to allow you to make a choice to heal, instead of seeking temporary relief. Do not choose to live in a dream when suffering a nightmare will allow you to wake up. Batman displays real power in his willingness to choose a life devoted to justice and compassion when an uncaring world threatened him with the foolishness of those ideals, that he chooses, as Batman Forever expresses, to believe the world, cruel as it is, is worth saving. Batman is a power fantasy because he embodies the truth that pain does not make you weak because power does not derive from great wealth or our natural strengths. Iron Man is born in Tony Stark’s broken heart. Utter loneliness turns Kal-El into Superman. Rejection creates the X-Men. And grief calls Batman from Bruce Wayne. “Why be brutalized by an uncaring world?” Because brokenness saves the world. As Ernest Hemingway said, “The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” But you must be mindful of the person your choices make of you. There is very little between Batman and Two-Face: choose wisely.
To be sure, Batman Forever is very far from a complete film, and a lot of people would argue it’s far from being even a good one. They could be right. Because certainly many of the best things I see in Batman Forever have more to do with the cultural legacy of Batman than Joel Schumacher’s movie. And the movie that was shot is probably much, much better than the one that was released: seeing how many references I made to “deleted scenes” makes me quite sad. And it is a profound irony that in a film which marks the difference between true healing and the vacuous repetition caused by avoidance, the most poignant scenes to that end were deleted. I still don’t think this movie is quite as awful as its reputation would have you believe. And while it’s not my favourite Batman movie, I really do love Batman Forever. There is a lot here to appreciate. But honestly, even if it is as bad as it’s made out to be and I am crazy, I don’t much care. I get genuine joy from watching Batman Forever, and if that means I have “bad taste” then “good taste” is overrated, and frankly, I’d rather be happy. Besides, we all need to be reminded that our choices matter, that how we choose to treat other people – especially when we are in pain ourselves – matters, whether we think the world is worth saving matters. Don’t be a victim of yourself. Don’t throw the world away. Allow your nightmares to make more of you, don’t run from them. I do very much want a Batmobile, but more than that I want Batman’s unwavering goodness, which may well be, of all the other options including illusion, the most painful and difficult choice: no matter how hurt, confused or torn, he is always ultimately kind; and no matter how angry, he is always just. If Batman personifies anything it is, perhaps, that victory is not only about winning, because he never will, and power is not about being infallible, because he is not, but that real victory and real power is not losing faith.