on Batman Forever
Robert M. Price
I realize such judgment calls are inevitably subjective,
but I have always had trouble deciding which of the Batman movies was the best.
There is no such question as to the worst: Batman and Robin was another Return
of the Jedi: fun to watch but horribly, fatally flawed. Director Joel
Schumacher recently apologized to the fans. Talk about misreading one's
audience: he was trying to make the fourth Batman movie like the old ABC Batman
TV show. He succeeded, which is why he failed. Nobody wanted to see more of
that. I suspect this opprobrium has begun to overflow and to find its way
backwards to pollute historical memories of Schumacher's previous Batman epic, Batman
Forever. That one, in fact, may be my favorite of the Batman films. Partly
this is because you don't have to keep reassuring yourself the whole way
through that Michael Keaton is right for the role, despite his height.
Val Kilmer really seems to be Batman. Partly I love the film because of the
absolutely wonderful portrayal of Two-Face by Tommy Lee Jones, not eclipsed
even by Jim Carrey's lunacy as the Riddler. And there is the generously
elaborate plot, so full of twists and turns and classic superhero moments. But
on top of all this is the astonishing psychological depth of the movie. And
that is what I'd like to concentrate on here.
fundamental theme is the identification between Batman and Two-Face on the one
hand and between the Riddler and Bruce Wayne on the other. Early on, we meet
Dr. Chase Meridian, a visiting shrink called in to consult on Two-Face, the mad
Harvey Dent, almost a reincarnation of the Joker. Dent, once pretty-boy
District Attorney for Gotham City, snapped when a thug on the witness stand
obliterated half his face with a spray of acid. This introduced the most
fascinating villain schtick ever: the character would flip a coin to determine
which side of his personality to listen to: the good or the evil! Don't take it
for granted. Anyway, it's not as if they particularly want to help Harvey back
to psychic health; it's way too late for that. No, they just want to stop his
reign of terror.
quickly develops that Dr. Chase has a patient she had not anticipated: Batman.
Bruce Wayne asks her guidance on his recurrent, obsessive dreams. He does not
suspect that they hold the lost secret of his personal integration. From the
superior perspective of the viewer, from whom no secret identities are hidden,
we know there is yet more to the situation. Batman was as scarred from the
traumatic death of his parents as Two-Face was by his disfigurement. Their
reactions were equally extreme, both dedicated to violence and vengeance. (This
theme has come over from the first film, Batman, where we learn,
significantly, that, "Some people think you're as crazy as he is."
They're right. You can see that also in The Killing Joke, can't you?
hero and the villain are consequently confused about good and evil, Harvey
deciding between them randomly, Bruce seeking bloody vengeance in the name of
righteousness. Notice how when Chase gives Bruce the dream totem, it is a human
form divided between black and white vertically--just like Two-Face! Only the
totem is symbolic of Bruce! They are the same, except that Bruce's face is
split horizontally by the bat cowl. When Bruce is musing to Alfred over the
death of Dick Grayson's parents he slips and, instead of saying, "He
killed them," he says, "I killed them." When Dick discovers
Batman's identity, he begins pummeling him, identifying him with Two-Face, as
if it was Batman's fault, since, as Dick first believes, Batman could have
prevented Two-Face from killing them.
finally remembers the whole of the dream, about the discovery of the Batcave
and the vision of the giant bat, something so fundamental to his subconscious
mind that it shows up on the telepathic recording the Riddler makes of Bruce
Wayne and reveals his secret identity. He is half-way healed when he realizes
his one-man crusade is basically a quest for vengeance that only deepens its
own thirst instead of quenching it. This much becomes clear to him when he sees
his obsessed self in the throes of rebirth in Dick Grayson. But in the same
moment Dick wants to become Robin, Bruce is repudiating being Batman! He has
uncovered the neurosis and, in classical Freudian style, he has liberated
himself from it. He doesn't need to be Batman anymore.
we have discovered that Dr. Meridian is also a bit schizoid, indulging an
obsessive preoccupation with Batman, who appeals to her Shadow self, a la Jung.
And when she yields to this forbidden desire, confronting it as if in a dream,
wrapped in her bedsheet, kissing Batman on the balcony, she, too, is delivered
of her obsession, only to realize that she can truly love a mere mortal like--Bruce
Wayne! She achieves reintegration, too. And once Bruce realizes he cannot just
leave behind the clashing repercussions of his life as Batman and dons his last
remaining Batsuit, as if for one final mission to lay things to rest once and
for all, he discovers that his Batman aspect is not an invasive psychosis. By
now it has become equally a part of him, and to be whole, he must accept it
too, but now on a different basis: freely, because he wants to embrace it, not
because it is a monkey on his back.
motivates Edward Nigma? He is obsessed with Bruce Wayne, successful with
inventions, successful with the ladies. He admires him to the point of
emulating him, wanting to be him, to replace him, to kill him and take his
place. He is exactly like the creep who assassinated John Lennon, the man whose
name we must never mention. He is like all fan-murderers of their idols. Rene
Girard described the syndrome perfectly. He calls it mimetic rivalry,
imitative rivalry. It is a coveting of someone else's identity. The mimetic
"disciple" likes and wants whatever the idol likes and has, simply
because the idol likes it. The disciple seeks to become like the idol by
possessing what is his, finally including his identity: there's not enough room
in this universe for both of us.
works at WayneTech and wants to impress his idol Bruce Wayne with his own
inventions. He presumes an equality with "Bruce" that, as an employee
he does not rightly share. When he is rebuffed by his mentor/idol, the disciple
turns against him, embittered, believing himself now shown to be the superior,
and yet the achiever of an ideal revealed as imperfect by the idol's
repudiation of the disciple! He must take revenge. Thus when we see Edward
glorying in the adulation of a "box" addicted Gotham society, he is
wearing glasses, a haircut, and even a mole just like Bruce's, because he has,
he figures, become the new Bruce Wayne. So he wastes no time cutting in
on Bruce and dancing with his date, rightfully Ed's date. And, though his plan
for world domination finally comes to ruin, Ed achieves his dream after all, at
least within the padded walls of his crumbling psyche: "I'm
Batman!" Flap, flap.
movie ends with psychological resolution for Bruce, Dick, and Chase. It has the
villains pursuing their inevitable trajectories, too, the Riddler to an
impossible usurpation of another's identity the only way it can happen: in
madness, and the tormented, forever ambivalent Harvey Dent sinking back into
the oceanic oblivion of the womb. Maybe what makes this movie so great is its
depiction of how all the roiling currents under the surface are plainly visible
directing events above the surface if we can just learn to recognize them.
Robert M Price
Carolina Web Design