Batman is back, bringing along a new director, a new star, and a giant boatload of the same old hype.
Brandishing their bat-themed toys, T-shirts, and fast-food tie-ins, movie fans everywhere are wondering if filmmaker Joel Schumacher has steered the Batman juggernaut as capably as Tim Burton, who directed the first two pictures in the series. They wonder whether handsome Val Kilmer can portray the Caped Crusader as seductively as moody Michael Keaton, another series veteran who decided to sit this one out.
The answer to both questions is clear before "Batman Forever" has ripped through its first few action scenes. Fueled by the critical and commercial success of its first two entries, the "Batman" series has become a perpetual-motion machine that's perfectly capable of running itself with a minimum of human intervention.
Stargazers may quibble over the relative merits of Kilmer's sweet smile vs. Keaton's limpid eyes, and auteurists may debate the visual effectiveness of Schumacher-style pyrotechnics vs. Burton-bred surrealism. At its core, though, "Batman Forever" is a corporate product with no more heart or soul than the action figures it's designed to market.
The oddball novelty of the first "Batman" and the dreamlike weirdness of "Batman Returns" have given way to ever-more-outlandish variations on a formula-driven theme. They deliver all the thrills and guffaws a Batman buff could ask for, but even fans may feel oddly unsatisfied once the commotion has faded from the screen.
Which is a pity, since "Batman Forever" makes occasional gestures toward interesting commentary on the present-day society that produces this sort of entertainment. The movie's most impressive villain, the Riddler, is a techno-wonk who's invented a new kind of television. It's designed to pipe images directly into people's heads - and to poke around inside those heads, as well, hunting for information the Riddler can use for his own gain.
This could be a cleverly chosen metaphor for pop culture's power to exploit our all-too-willing imaginations, but the joke gets exploded by the fact that "Batman Forever" isn't exactly high culture itself. The movie shows TV-watchers literally transfixed by the Riddler's insidious invention, and invites us to laugh at their stupidity, as if gawking at "Batman Forever" made us superior to all those other goons. (Thanks for the compliment, but it's hard to swallow.)
In another mildly ambitious move, the screenplay takes a whack at pop psychology, spinning a subplot about Batman's effort to dredge up repressed memories of his unhappy childhood, and suggesting that criminals like the Riddler and Two-Face were also shaped by traumatic past events.
Typically, though, the movie supplies our introspective hero with a gorgeous shrink (Nicole Kidman) who's clearly more interested in his handsome features than his troubled psyche.
But what's to complain about here? Spectacle is the main point of the movie - it's no accident that a key scene takes place at a circus - and as with the earlier pictures in the series, the best segments find Batman playing second fiddle to gimmicks, gizmos, and bad guys vastly more captivating than he is.
It's insane fun watching Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones bounce off each other, even if they can't outdo Jack Nicholson as the Joker or Danny DeVito as the Penguin, their most uproarious predecessors in this wacko parade. (Carrey wins the competition by a mile, incidentally; maybe Jones used up his Three Stooges shtick in "Natural Born Killers" last year.)
In more subdued roles, Chris O'Donnell makes a serviceable Robin and Michael Gough is still great as Alfred, the perfect butler.
Equally important are Barbara Ling's production design, making Gotham City a three-ring circus in itself, and Dennis Virkler's speed-of-light editing. Stephen Goldblatt did the dark-toned cinematography, and Elliott Goldenthal composed the atmospheric score.
Professionals all, they and other artisans have crafted "Batman Forever" into a monument of high-tech frivolity that'll keep your eyes popping, your head reeling, your spine tingling. And your mind spinning with the realization that such nonstop amazement will soon become the least amazing thing you ever saw.
* "Batman Forever" has a PG-13 rating. It contains much cartoonish violence and a bit of sexual innuendo.