It was announced last week that film director Joel Schumacher had passed away from cancer. Many people may not know who Joel Schumacher was but if you are a Batman fan, you will know that name and probably remember it with disdain. He also directed a film version of Phantom of the Opera based on the Lloyd Webber musical, as well as St. Elmo’s Fire and The Lost Boys. His final directorial work was on two episodes of House of Cards. He had started out in film as a costume designer and production designer before moving into directing and screenwriting for television before moving into theatrical releases.
He became involved in the Batman movies when Warner Bros. decided to replace Tim Burton as director after Batman Returns failed to match the box-office of the first movie and was criticized for its dark tone, which along with the violence also drew parent complaints. So, Warner Bros. decided that the next installment had to be much more fun and more appealing to younger viewers. Schumacher was the director they chose and the film we recieved was Batman Forever. When you watch the two Tim Burton directed Batman movies and then watch Batman Forever, the contrast is completely jarring. Just the design of Gotham is totally at odds. In Burton’s films, Gotham looks like something out of a film-noire, like something you would see in a movie made in the 40s. Everything in Batman Forever is lit with a neon sign, there are neon lights everywhere; there’s an entire chase sequence through some district of Gotham where every building and store front has about six neon signs which makes the P.O.V shot from the Batmobile look like that scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory where Wonka starts ranting and screaming in a kaleidoscope colour tunnel. It is absolutely not as good as either of the first two in the series, it has a mis-cast Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey, Nicole Kidman is there purely as a damsel in distress for the hero to fall in love with. Chris O’Donnell is fine as Robin, but I don’t understand why they made him a young adult instead of a young teen or young child like he was in the comics. The car looks ridiculous, and the suit now has an anatomically correct muscle structure complete with nipples. No joke. The suit has nipples now.
And to frank, the less said about Batman and Robin, the better. That film is horrible. Sometimes when comic book movies go for ‘Saturday morning cartoon’, it can really work. Thor: Ragnarok springs immediately to mind. But, sometimes it is just as bad as some of the first cartoon superhero series. That’s what Batman and Robin is like. It’s like an episode of Super-Friends or Scooby-Doo with Batman and a few supporting characters. This film was also notoriously rushed into production to make toys and to be even more kid friendly and everything just becomes absurd. The inspirations attributed to the two Schumacher Batman films were the comic books of the 50s when the Comics Code Authority kicked in, and the 1966 Batman TV show, famously and lovingly remembered for its camp style. But here, it is just overdone and again drenched in neon. It’s like someone watched an episode of the Batman tv show while on acid and then wrote a movie and did all the production work while still on that trip. It in no way represents the character or the world of Batman. I’m all for interpretation and artistic freedoms, but wow that film went too far.
But the reputation that that film left on Joel Schumacher is, I think slightly unfair. The two Batman films he helmed were designed to be more family friendly and have a life in merchandising as well. As I said, they fast-tracked the production of Batman and Robin and were taking the very first designs for vehicles and buildings to send to the toy factories so that they would be out in time for the release of the film. With such a conscious shift away from the tone and themes of the first two, it was only a matter of time before fans started walking away. But those were the directives Schumacher was given. To make a more light-hearted, family friendly movie. And he stuck to those directives. It just so happens that the character and the form had moved beyond that. And he saw that. In the years after the film, he apologised for fans’ disappointment at the film, that he would have liked to do a more adult story. And while he had a hand in the end product with his direction, the blame cannot be laid solely at his feet. Because when you make a movie, there are a lot of moving parts. And everything has to be greenlit and funded by a studio who may pull the plug if they don’t get what they want.
Schumacher was clearly capable of directing good movies. Falling Down, St. Elmo’s Fire and The Lost Boys all received good reviews at the time of their release and are still looked back on as good, maybe even excellent films today. Colin Farrell and Matthew McConaughey both made some of their earliest appearances in Schumacher films. McConaughey even credits Schumacher with launching his career. The problems with his less well received films, I think went beyond him. He was never the right man to take over Batman. The fans had turned away from the goofier, wacky portrayal of the character long before he came on board. They were expecting the Batman of the 80s comics and the first two movies. They did not get it and made their displeasure known. And Andrew Lloyd Webber kept such tight control over Phantom that Schumacher never got the chance to put his touch on it. Quite often, problems with a film come from the script, or the conception process of the project. It’s possible to make a poor movie out of a bad script, but it’s almost impossible to make a good movie out of a bad script.
Ultimately, I don’t think it would be fair to just remember Joel Schumacher for Batman and Robin. Artists express themselves in different ways. If we all did something in the same way then live would be very boring. You can interpret and change source material when adapting literary characters and comic books are not immune from that. I think that Joel Schumacher should be remembered as someone who loved life and who went for entertaining an audience, no matter what.