It used to be said that the Batman comics (originated by Bob Kane in 1939) superseded Superman by be- ing better drawn, better villained and better plotted. The films, though, are stronger on villainy than plot, which looks to have been jotted down on the back of a book of Batmatches. The villains are the plot. Batman Forever unleashes a new gallery of grotesques: Harvey Dent or Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones), a terrorist whose personality is etched on his double face - half ordinary flesh, half melted corrugations that resemble a cake left out in the rain; and Ed Nygma or The Riddler (Jim Carrey), a disappointed employee of Bruce Wayne Enterprises. He has invented brain- washing devices, which are marketed for recreation, but may be exploited more nefariously. It will come as no surprise that these men plan ill things for Gotham City.
These either/or names are typical of Batman, which is a tale riven by double identity. The last film, Batman Returns (1992), in which Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman prowled and purred, was so full of talk of masks and "finding one's true self" that Gotham seemed to need not a superhero but a psychologist. Batman Forever provides one, in the slinky form of Dr Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman) - who sounds more like a bank than a shrink, but is a specialist in multiple personalities. She also provides love interest for Batman (Val Kilmer). Chase's blurring of professional and personal interest in the superhero has more than a hint of Lois Lane. She brushes off Bruce Wayne's overtures by confessing a prior infatuation: "You could say he just kind of dropped out of the sky - and bang!"
Chase fits just fine in a city that might have been dreamt up by Freud on an off-day. Trauma makes this world go round. At its most interesting (which is not saying much), Batman Forever gropes towards an equation of good and evil. Both heroes and villains are crippled by loss, fuelled in their ignominy or virtue by an insatiable desire for vengeance. Batman is avenging his murdered parents; Two-Face his mangled face; The Riddler his thwarted career. It is as if only psychic damage can motivate men to act. And the arrival, at last, of a Robin/Boy Wonder (Chris O'Donnell), neatly confirms the thesis. In one of the film's finest set-pieces, we watch Robin lose his family, a troupe of acrobats, in an attack on their circus by Two-Face.
The depiction of Robin betrays the new, not necessarily wholesome, spirit of the Batman series. Tim Burton's two Batman pictures were criticised - above all by the marketing men - for their unrelenting darkness. It's true there was monotony in the glacial elegance of Burton's vision. At least there was a vision. Joel Schumacher has replaced it with a canniness that borders on cynicism. There have long been those who have argued that Batman and Robin, seen in the comics lolling around Wayne Manor in dressing gowns, are an idealised homosexual couple. Batman Forever toys with the idea, as if seeking to woo gays without offending straights. Robin talks of "hanging out with a lot of biker boys", and indulges with Batman in the matey misogyny of the comics. But at the end the relationship is left ambiguous. "A man's gotta go his own way - a friend told me that," Robin gushes. "Not just a friend," Batman simpers back, clasping the boy's hand. "A partner." Whether the pair are gay or not, there is no doubting they are deliberately sexualised. Their costumes incorporate giant, armoured cod-pieces. They look like the sort of things an English cricketer might wear to face Curtly Ambrose - without a bat, let alone a batman.
Schumacher is a better story-teller than Burton, whose narratives were weighed down by Stygian gloom. Schumacher allows his plots to simmer nicely for a while, before bringing them to the boil. But neither director has much mastery of action scenes (it will be interesting to compare the expert Brian De Palma's fight scenes in the forthcoming Mission: Impossible). Schumacher has also hit on a more consistent house acting-style, half- way between cartoon and realism. Kilmer, taking over from Michael Keaton, has more butch presence, but less neurosis. He's also more active, with a less medievally weighty Batsuit. Kidman plies her classy smoulder for all it's worth, while Carrey's Riddler, kitted out in a lime-green, question- marked Nehru suit, almost unbalances the movie, as Richard Pryor did Superman III. Tommy Lee Jones's morbid Two-Face, with his bifurcated suits (half pin-stripe, half psychedelic), is a cross be- tween Savile Row and Death Row.
All are put in the shade - often quite literally - by the spectactular production design (Barbara Ling) and photography (Stephen Goldblatt). To- gether they have created a new Goth- am City, brighter and less claustrophobic than Burton's, awash with comic-book colours: magenta, saffron, pis- tachio green, moon blue. There is a crazy stylistic promiscuity. Under the lemon-coloured geodesic dome of The Riddler's lair, a gold, spiral ramp leads up to a circular platform. Here sits Carrey's Art Deco throne, flanked by two giant gold copies of Rodin's The Thinker. By contrast, Wayne's world is a baronial mansion full of wall-drapings and eerie shafts of light.
If the movie is worth seeing (an open question), it is for the odd moment of indelible visual beauty, such as an underwater shot of Batman crashing into the sea, his mighty but predatory bulk submerging into the dark blue brine. Goldblatt's photography blends the heroic (adoring long-angle shots for the heroes) and the macabre (the same Dutch tilts Carol Reed used for Harry Lime's Vienna). It's nice that The Third Man should provide a model for The Third Batman, but a pity Batman doesn't have Graham Greene's narrative drive. At times the viewer suffers from visual overload - too much to see, packed in too dense. I spotted, high on a Gotham City roof- top, an advertising hoarding: "Tired Eyes Use Ocu-Wash." Get me some Ocu- Wash.
Best of the rest is Country Life (12), Michael Blakemore's erratic transposition of Uncle Vanya to post-First World War Australia. Compare it with Louis Malle's recent Vanya On 42nd Street, and you will be disappointed. Take it on its own terms and you have a fascinating commentary on Vanya, which takes Chekhov's professor (here an ex-theatre critic) at his resentful brother's estimation: an impotent and depraved pedant and charlatan whose marriage to Greta Scacchi - excellent as an Edwardian English lady whose weariness verges on disdain - is as arid as the Australian countryside. Sam Neill is as strong as ever as the idealistic doctor (pro- Aborigine, anti-war and anti-British). That Blakemore should have chosen to play the monster critic himself is either self-revealing or self-lacerating.
Rudy (PG), the tale of a boy whose dream is to play college football, is so sentimental it moves you to laughter rather than tears. Eclipse (18), a variation, at the ICA, on La Ronde, about lovers linked by an eclipse, is pretentious soft porn. It makes Batman Forever look like Citizen Kane.
A word of welcome to the Cambridge Film Festival, which in recent years has eclipsed Edinburgh in inventive programming. It continues un- til 30 July and, in addition to many British premieres, will screen a centenary Buster Keaton season. There's also a retrospective of the Danish director Lars Von Trier, including his (reportedly) riveting new five-hour epic, The Hospital.
Cinema details: Review, page 82.