The third of Warner Bros.' Wagnerian Batman films has arrived--it could have been titled Die Fledermaus, Part III. Batman Forever has a new director and a new star in the title role, and before we launch into a debate about their comparative merits, we would probably do well to remember what we're talking about here: Batman. A rich guy dressing up as a bat to fight crime. It's been called a modern myth, and I suppose that's what it is, but it's also a profoundly silly and slightly elitist concept, even by mythic standards.

That said, it's equally true that even the silliest myths don't set off bells in our subconscious for no reason. Something in the notion of a masked vigilante working on the side of the angels yet with the obsessiveness of a devil, outside the law yet in the service of justice, holds a deep satisfaction. It touches that childish part of us that wants the freedom to break the rules yet still feel justified.

The first two films in this series, 1989's Batman and 1992's Batman Returns, were both directed by Tim Burton, and, on the level of atmosphere and visual beauty, they were simply miraculous. Burton created a world all his own, one-third Gothic, one-third Deco and one-third surreal Candyland. It was a collision of Edward Gorey, Georgia O'Keeffe and Dr. Seuss, and Burton plunged us into it without a wink of irony or camp.

Sadly, on the level of narrative unity and clarity, both films were as disjointed and clumsy as they were marvelous to look at. I loved watching both of Burton's Batman films, but all I can vividly remember about them now are, from the first, Jack Palance's brief turn as an aging gangster; from the second, the army of penguins and Michelle Pfeiffer's incredible grace as Catwoman; and from both, Michael Keaton's mystery and reserved, quiet authority as Bruce Wayne/Batman.

This time out, Burton was engaged in the noble pursuit of bringing Ed Wood to the screen. The directorial duties on Batman Forever fell to Joel Schumacher, who's not a visionary like Burton, but is an old hand at drenching scripts light on substance (The Lost Boys, Flatliners, Falling Down) in gobs of glossy boutique style. When Batman's love interest, sultry shrink Nicole Kidman, is tied up to a couch by one of the villains, she looks like she's being posed for a spread in Elle.

Schumacher gives the film some kinky visual pizzazz, but he, nonetheless, keeps his mind on the story, and the result is that this third Batman engages with the audience on the basic levels that the previous films missed. It's exciting, rather than just exciting-looking.

New Batman Val Kilmer may go over well with audiences, but I missed Keaton. Keaton seemed like an odd choice to me back when, but in both of the earlier films, he proved perfect--remote yet self-effacing, a commanding heroic presence yet with no trace of self-righteousness. If we had to have a rich Wasp technocrat for a hero, we couldn't have found a better one. Kilmer's a talented fellow, but a conventional leading man, so there's no wit built into his performance. He tries to be comically deadpan, but he comes across--the actor, not the character--like an embarrassed, sheepish blue blood.

The script pits Batman against two of his more notorious adversaries, Two Face (Tommy Lee Jones) and the Riddler (Jim Carrey). Also introduced is Batman's young protg Robin/Dick Grayson (Chris O'Donnell), a circus aerialist who turns to Batman for partnership in vigilantism when his family is killed by Two Face. Surprisingly, the subplot involving Robin is maybe the most satisfying element of the film. O'Donnell gives a good brooding performance, and Schumacher's staging of the family's death is a woozy nightmare.

Not surprisingly, the film's big drawing card, Carrey, is just plain flawless as the Riddler. Carrey is quite willing to lend that side of his usual performing style that's a little scary and defensive in its opaque single-mindedness to this antic monster, and he's never less than astounding. Still, I remain partial to Frank Gorshin's writhing, orgiastic Riddler on the old TV show.

The movie's only real casualty is Jones, who's thrown away as Two Face. He hasn't been directed to play the duplex-faced fiend as a dual role, which might have given him the chance to pull off a few showy acting effects. Instead, Two Face is just another cackling maniac. Jones and Schumacher should have realized that Carrey couldn't be out-crazied.--


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