Batman Forever, and its villain problem

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Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey famously didn’t get on when making Batman Forever, but could the film have used that? Mark reconsiders two mismatched villains.

Crime pays if you’re playing a Batman villain. Even since Jack Nicholson pocketed a sum that has been estimated between $50 – 90 million for playing the Joker in 1989’s Batman, there’s been a certain expectation attached to the casting of big villains.

The 1992 sequel, Batman Returns set Danny DeVito and Michelle Pfieffer as misfit collaborators, with Christopher Walken’s amoral CEO providing some less flamboyant antagonism from the sidelines. And then there was 1995’s Batman Forever – not only “one of the greatest movies ever made” (said Jonathan Ross) but also the motion picture event that brought then-recent Academy Award winner Tommy Lee Jones and comedy’s biggest rising star Jim Carrey together at last.

The casting of Jones and Carrey came at the end of a behind-the-scenes upheaval that saw director Tim Burton and star Michael Keaton depart the Batman franchise, to be replaced by Joel Schumacher and Val Kilmer, respectively. We’ve covered this more extensively in a previous episode of the Film Stories podcast, which you can listen to right here…

You’ll probably find us in the minority for thinking that Batman Forever is the weaker of the two Schumacher-directed Batman films. Batman & Robin may be a monumentally silly movie, but at least it’s not as torn between unfunny pantomime and dull psychodrama as Forever. The intended theme of duality leaves the film’s tone cleft in twain, and nowhere is that more obvious than in the casting and performances of the two villains.

With fewer arch-villains than either the Batman film before or the one that followed, Batman Forever doesn’t get mentioned in the annals of too-many-villains movies like Spider-Man 3 or (worse still) The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but upon revisiting, the mismatch of Jones and Carrey provides the rare situation where two proves to be a crowd. But riddle me this – is there an obvious fix for Batman Forever staring us in the face?

A pair of Jokers


Batman Forever’s villain situation most reminds us of the Dead British Actors sketch from That Mitchell And Webb Look, in which two egotistical rival actors take turns playing Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson throughout their career. When it goes as far as them switching roles and doing violence to one another in alternate scenes of the film version they make together, it recalls Forever’s abundance of competitive over-acting.

Unlike DeVito and Pfieffer, (or even Schwarzenegger and Thurman) it feels as though we have two actors trying to upstage one another throughout the film. Jones is a terrific actor, but there is no reasonable measure where his approach of trying to out-ham an Ace Ventura-era Jim Carrey can be weighed as anything other than a fatal error.

Carrey came to Forever off an exceptionally hot streak that was still ongoing when Forever started filming in September 1994 – Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Mask gave him his first leading roles, and both were box office smash-hits. He already had an Ace Ventura sequel in the can when he took on the role of the Riddler and as we’ll come to shortly, he’d have another number 1 hit while production was ongoing.

Meanwhile, Jones’ casting came off the back of working with Schumacher on the 1994 John Grisham adaptation The Client, but also not long after he’d won his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Fugitive. Though reluctant to accept the role at first, the actor was apparently persuaded by his then-11-year-old Batman-fanatic son.

In a 1996 Entertainment Weekly interview, he added ”I like roles that are well-written, that are part of a good business deal, and that will take me to a pretty location.”

Schumacher was also apparently looking at screen legends such as Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Clint Eastwood, and Martin Sheen to play Two-Face. Jones doesn’t look out of place in that prestigious company, nor that of the franchise’s recent villains. Plus, his evident knowledge of the character’s comic history may not ever blossom into actual enthusiasm in his 1995 junket interview for Forever, (His insistence that “I can’t take any credit for the film” is as animated as he gets) but you can see why Harvey Dent, a character who was much more effectively reinvented in 2008’s The Dark Knight, would look like a part he wants to play.

But for our money, it’s the shadow of Nicholson lingers over both actors’ performances. As the Joker, old Jack comfortably runs away with Batman, hooting and cackling all the way, but then he doesn’t have to play off any other villains. The already unlikely alliance between Two-Face and the Riddler is doubly unsettled by the fact that both of them are going for the big bad Nicholson special, even if it means shouting over one another.

Unsanctioned buffoonery

It would be remiss of us to go any further without acknowledging Carrey’s infamous anecdote about his working relationship with Jones on the film. For those who haven’t heard the story, which first came out on a 2014 interview on The Howard Stern Show, Carrey was not as popular with his co-star as he was at the box office.

Carrey said “I went over and said, ‘Hey, Tommy, how you doing?’ And the blood just drained from his face like he had been thinking about me 24 hours a day. … It was before the biggest scene we have together in the movie. The blood just drained from his face.

“He started shaking and he got up and … he must have been in mid-kill-me fantasy or something. He went to hug me and said, ‘I hate you. I really don’t like you.’ I said, ‘Gee man, what’s the problem?’ I pulled up a chair, which probably wasn’t smart. And he said, ‘I cannot sanction your buffoonery.’”

Carrey further speculated that his co-star was miffed about how during production, Dumb & Dumber became another number 1 smash-hit box-office success in the same December 1994 weekend that Jones’ biopic Cobb (“his big swing for the fences”) underperformed. In 2017, Carrey clarified on Norm McDonald Live  that he still admires Jones greatly.

“I was the star and that was the problem. He’s a phenomenal actor, though. I still love him… He might have been uncomfortable doing that work, too. That’s not really his style of stuff.”

True enough, the Riddler is much more in Carrey’s wheelhouse than Two-Face is in Jones’. He also has the benefit of getting to play Edward Nygma’s origin story, whereas Harvey’s descent into madness is relegated to an unintentionally hilarious cutaway. (Thank goodness for acid-proof manilla folders and a fully-suited Batman leaping into action!) Carrey can’t be beaten on hysterics, but at least he also gets to underplay a few moments too.

By contrast, Harvey’s duality only ever comes out in one scene towards the end of the theatrical cut, right before Batman kills him by throwing coins at him while he’s on a slippery ledge. Before that, his compulsion to act based on coin tosses is undermined by scenes where he sits flipping it again and again until he gets the result he wants. The failings of Akiva Goldsman’s script are a subject for another day, but Jones doesn’t help matters by hamming it up so drastically up until the very last moment.

Keeping up with Jones

At the time, Schumacher was less forgiving than Carrey was. Ahead of Batman & Robin going into production in 1996, he tore into Jones (and Kilmer, who was also famously difficult to work with) in an interview with EW, saying “Jim Carrey was a gentleman, and Tommy Lee was threatened by him. I’m tired of defending overpaid, over-privileged actors. I pray I don’t work with them again.”

We don’t know if more of Jones’ range is on show in the as-yet-unreleased 170-minute director’s cut of Batman Forever, but scene for scene, Carrey outmatches Jones for sheer screen presence – silly voices, improvised pop culture references, and all. The thought still occurs that the film might have fared better if it took a different approach to its characters rather than cementing the team-up format that Returns used so well.

Imagine a take on Batman Forever that was better placed to use the enmity between Jones and Carrey to its advantage, where Two-Face and the Riddler are effectively rival gang leaders rather than allies. A plot where the two villains are engaged in an arms race, with Batman and Gotham City caught in the middle, might have made sense of the actors’ bids to outmatch each other – if they were both expressly competing to be the new Joker, it might not feel so blatant that neither of them are.

It also would have lent itself nicely to that whole duality chestnut that the film keeps grasping at in its scenes with psych groupie Chase Meridian and further distinguished Forever from the other films in the series. That said, Batman & Robin doesn’t have this problem despite teaming up two entirely antithetical villains, Mr Freeze and Poison Ivy, with a less-fun version of Bane making three.

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Uma Thurman ham it up massively too, but that trio’s dynamic at least functions on the most straightforward marketing-department-approved “brains, beauty, and brawn” level and the film knows it – hence Ivy’s winking line about Bane, “That’s why every Poison Ivy action figure comes complete with him” (and we checked – it doesn’t! Is there no end to her deceitful ways?!)

Even if you think this was only the biggest mismatch of villain casting until the next film in the series, Batman Forever only gets more irritatingly over-the-top once Two-Face and The Riddler get together. The brief, excellent “show me how to punch a guy” sight gag notwithstanding, their casting and competitive anti-chemistry knocks the entire film out of whack. It would be so much more bearable if they were fighting.

For his part, Jones would go onto much more fitting comic-book movie roles in Men In Black (well, the first one’s good anyway) and Captain America: The First Avenger, (which sees him on even grumpier form as the commanding officer Steve Rogers gradually wins over). But as anticipated, Schumacher never worked with him again.

On the other hand, Carrey would work with the director on the 2007 horror mystery The Number 23, and later had a further comic-book movie supporting role in 2013’s Kick-Ass 2. We most recently saw him back on villainous form in 2020’s Sonic The Hedgehog, but if you’re can’t imagine how annoying it would have been if he’d had a grumpy Oscar winner trying to outdo his Dr Robotnik in every other scene, you need only look at his Batman villain turn…


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