Batman Forever and the Seduction of Spectacle

“Why be brutalized by an uncaring world?”

Wayne Tech employee, Edward Nygma eagerly approaches billionaire Bruce Wayne. Brimming with excitement, he presents his latest device. “By stimulating neurons, manipulating brain waves this device makes the audience feel like they’re inside the show.” he explains. But Wayne is hesitant, believing that tampering with brain waves simply raises “too many questions.” Yet as Edward Nygma breaks out into his own business and begins to market the Nygma Box it seems that the general public does not share Wayne’s cautiousness. After all, as Nygma puts it, when you have the ultimate form of escapist entertainment available, “Why be brutalized by an uncaring world?”

The Caped Crusader’s previous outing, Batman Returns, received less than positive reactions from certain audience members. After having the film marketed towards children through toylines and Happy Meals, parents were shocked when they took their kids to see a movie that featured a physically deformed Danny Devito biting off people’s noses, making perverse sexual comments, and plotting to kill infant children. Though just as surreal and absurd as the other entries in the series, Returns prominently displayed Burton’s misanthropic world view that was unafraid to remind viewers of some of the injustices within our society. While far from being a critical or financial flop, the disappointing box office results seemed to indicate to Warner Brothers that moviegoers were uninterested in Burton’s brutal and uncaring world.

Batman Forever promised to be a radical change. It exchanged Burton’s dark gothic aesthetic for the bright neon look of Joel Schumacher. The comedic antics of Jim Carrey’s Riddler now filled the spot of Devito’s unsettling Penguin. “You forgot the part where you kiss the girl?” a young woman says to Chris O’ Donnell before they embrace. Batman Forever would give audiences pure spectacle and fantasy fulfillment. The ultimate escapism.

“Let’s meet our contestants!”

Forever is possibly the most subjectively told narrative of the franchise. Covering a great variety of tones, the film’s perspective shifts are dictated by the character currently dominating the scene. A guitar riffs play in the background as Dick Grayson uses martial arts to dry his laundry. Scenes become slow and somber as Bruce Wayne resides in his mansion, recalling the death of his parents. Yet the two characters whose worldview most pervasively dominates the film is that of our two villains, Two-Face and Riddler.

The criminals almost seem self-aware of the artifice of their exploits. They repeatedly treat their acts as a spectacle for both the diegetic audience (the citizens of Gotham) and the non-diegetic audience (the viewers of the movie). The opening action sequence at one point has Two-Face announcing his plans to the citizens via megaphone. “For your dying pleasure, we are serving the acid that made us the men we are today!” he announces from his helicopter in a cadence emulating that of someone presenting a dish. We are given a shot of the citizens below. They are a helpless audience, unable or unwilling to take part in Two-Face’s performance. Instead they reside in their role to simply take in the spectacle of Two-Face and Batman.

This attitude of the villains presenting their criminal acts as a show to be taken in by others is consistent throughout. In Two-Face’s second plan of the film, he takes over a circus show, even going as far as to dress himself as a ring leader. And once again he addresses the citizens as his audience, saying, “Ladies and gentlemen! Now, the new management of the circus invites you to forget this good, wholesome fun and join us in a celebration of absolute chaos.”

And this is a film that does invite the movie-going audience into joining their “celebration of absolute chaos.” Scenes involving the two antagonists take on a tone closer to that of the 60’s Adam West show. Carrey and Jones emulate the camp performances of Frank Gorshin and Cesar Romero, with their costant maniacal laughs and comedic asides. The camera tilts into a Dutch angle mimicking the cinematography of the tv show. A cartoon sound effect is heard as Nygma plucks a mustache hair from his kidnapped victim. Every aspect of the film seems to take just as much joy in these acts, playing up the camp for everything it’s worth. We are invited to view the world through their eyes, letting them control the narrative in these moments.

“Critics claim The Box turns Gothamites into zombies. But Edward Nygma just shrugs. ‘That’s what they said when TV was invented. ‘”

The villains’ ability to control the narrative and hold power over their audience is repeatedly referenced. At the end of the previously mentioned kidnapping scene, Edward Nygma approaches the security camera. As he puts his hand over it the audience is given the view through this camera. This indicates not just Nygma’s control over the camera, but his control over the view of the audience as well. Shortly after this moment Bruce Wayne and Commissioner Gordon review the security footage and see what we later learn is a “computer generated forgery” of Fred Stickley committing suicide. Yet in this moment, Gordon and the rest of the police squad are unquestioning of the narrative presented to them.

The use of the television as a way to represent power is also seen in the circus scene. Here Edward Nygma tunes in to the televised event in order to see his idol, Bruce Wayne. But when Two-Face takes over, Nygma is entranced by his charisma, laughing along and shaking with glee as the half-burned villain announces his “celebration of absolute chaos.”

Nygma at this point has already begun to go down his path of villainy, with the kidnapping and execution of Fred Stickley, referencing gameshows and spectator sports throughout the ordeal. But it is after this event that Nygma is inspired by Two-Face to take his show of criminal activity public, including designing his own outfit and name. But unlike our hero, this forming of a persona seems to mainly be a concern of spectacle. As Robert Terrill explains in Spectacular Repression: Sanitizing the Batman, “the Riddler is obsessed with surface appearances. Nygma’s invention of the Riddler is largely a search for an impressive image…Wayne chooses the bat because it resonates with a dark rift in his own psyche; Nygma chooses the Riddler because he likes the suit.”

Once Edward Nygma dons the image of the Riddler, he joins forces with Two-Face in order to gain capital and sell his latest invention to the general public, the Nygma Box. The Nygma Box is the most concentrated and overt form of this idea. It is a device marketed as a form of entertainment that literally disempowers the viewing audience of it while empowering our two villains. Much like the film itself, it is shown as a device for the whole family, depicting parents with their children as a captive audience to it.

“If the Bat wants to play, we’ll play!”

Of course, if to perform and be observed is to be empowered we must talk about Batman’s own performance. While not as concerned with glamour and theatricality as Riddler or Two-Face, it is an undeniable element of the Batman persona. As the Caped Crusader glides down to the entrance of the Gotham bank or crashes through a glass ceiling, we are given shots of the citizens, staring and pointing upwards in amazement. One of the men exclaims, “Batman! Yay!” as visibly and audibly excited as the children who have come to the theater to see the masked vigilante themselves.

The leverage that Batman and others gain from capturing attention is not lost on the villains. After Two-Face crashes Nygma’s party, guns blazing, Nygma scolds him saying, “You could have let me in on the caper. We could have organized it, planned it, pre-sold the movie rights!” Immediately afterwards Batman arrives, stealing attention away from them. Nygma remarks to Two-Face, “Your entrance was good, his was better. The difference? Showmanship!” Once again we see these acts discussed as spectacle and performance. If the villains have a central concern about Batman it’s his ability to upstage them.

Yet throughout the film we see Bruce Wayne struggle to leave the role of spectator and enter one of a performer. This is first seen as Bruce Wayne is watching a recording of the court case that left Harvey Dent scarred. The news network shows Batman, fully suited, sitting in the public seating area of the court room, an audience member to the case taking place. But as Moroni takes out a container of acid and tosses it toward Dent’s face, we see Batman struggle and fail to move himself onto the “stage” of the courtroom in order to stop the incident. Bruce’s lack of agency is underlined through his rewatching the event itself on the television. As mentioned previously in this article, in Forever, viewing television is a signal of the viewers lack of agency, unquestioning of the narrative presented to them.

This moment is echoed again in the circus scene. As Two-Face announces that the bomb will go off unless Batman’s presents himself, Wayne, like before, finds himself struggling to leave the audience and enter the stage to prevent another terrible act involving Harvey Dent. And as we see in the first example, Wayne fails again. Instead the hero of this scene is trapeze artist, Dick Grayson, a literal performer. Fitting to the themes of the film, Grayson’s trapeze abilities translate perfectly into vigilantism, and by the film’s third act he finds himself a co-star in the Dark Knight’s escapades.

“If you kill him, he won’t learn nothing.”

As the film nears its climax, Riddler and Two-Face, having learned Batman’s alter ego, break into Wayne Manor, kidnapping Chase Meridian and knocking Bruce unconscious. Two-Face presses his gun against the temple of the helpless billionaire, but Nygma stops him, telling him, “If you kill him, he won’t learn nothing.” After all, what good is a performance if you don’t have an audience? The goal of the villains is not simply to commit acts of crime, but have them be witnessed as well.

Upon regaining consciousness, Wayne begins to piece together the various riddles presented to him over the course of the movie. Once he finally uncovers the truth, that Edward Nygma is the Riddler, we finally see our hero in a state of empowerment. Prior to this, Wayne repeatedly accepts what is  told to him through television screens: that he failed to save Harvey Dent, that Fred Stickley committed suicide, and that he is unable to stop Two-Face and Riddler.* Finally, he no longer buys into this reality presented to him. “Stickley’s suicide was obviously a computer-generated forgery.” Bruce says, now prepared to take on his two enemies.

And of course, the final showdown takes the form of a gameshow. Just like the circus event by Two-Face, the villains have already set the stage themselves. Even if Batman acts he can only react, following the script they have set. Yet in this moment Batman finds a way to flip the power dynamic. Using the Riddler’s own tools, he presents him with a riddle. Just as the villains have done to the hero before, Riddler is now following the script that Batman has set up. “Please!” Nygma answers, “You’re as blind as a bat!” “Exactly,” Batman responds. He throws his batarang, destroying the Nygma Box hovering above; An act that literally and figuratively drains Riddler of his power.

This same trick is done again to dispose of Two-Face. Batman sets the script: “Aren’t you forgetting something? Your coin. You’re always of two minds.” Two-Face plays into it: “Yes, of course. You’re right. Emotion’s always the enemy of true justice.” And just as planned, as Two-Face tosses his coin Batman throws another dozen or so into the mix. Now in a state of confusion, the antagonist is sent stumbling and falling to his watery grave.

Our final scene takes on a very different look. Gone are the bright neon lights. In their place is a gothic German-expressionist aesthetic much closer to the brutal and uncaring world of Burton’s Batman Returns. Emphasizing this point, we see the doctor of Arkham Asylum bearing the same look and name as the previous director. The influence of the Riddler and Two-Face now gone, the audience is forced to reside in a much more unsettling world. And as the credits roll, the spell is broken. Moviegoers are left to leave this spectacle and return to the world once more.

 

*In reference to Bruce Wayne viewing the GNN reports, “Last night another robbery perpetrated by the Green-Suited Menace resulting in millions in diamonds stolen, with no sign of Batman.”

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4 thoughts on “Batman Forever and the Seduction of Spectacle

  1. I had no idea that Batman Forever was so (kid-friendly) Videodrome-esque…both inherently question narratives while the television possesses autonomy over both characters and viewers.

    1. Thanks. This is also a reminder that I need to get around to watching Videodrome. It seems like it would be right in my wheelhouse.

  2. Speaking of Videodrome, imagine Two-Face’s transformation and makeup as done by David Cronenberg. How horrifying would that be?

  3. Wow, this article is a tour de force of film analysis. I may have seen this once or twice since it came out (pretty sure I saw it in theaters), but this makes me want to watch it again.

    I also recall watching the Tim Burton Batman as a kid and all the promotion. I recall the cereal was pretty good: basically Capn’ Crunch but not as sharp.

    Anyway, I have seen (parts of) Batman and Robin relatively recently (like within the past 10 years) but even viewing it through the lens of camp, I just couldn’t stay with it. Do you think there are similar ways to explain that film, like you’ve done here with Batman Forever that could recuperate its value?

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