The big picture: Holy neurosis, Batman

So he's a poor little rich boy whose parents died young. But do we really need to explore the Caped Crusader's twisted pathology? By Adam Mars-Jones; BATMAN FOREVER Joel Schumacher PG

Batman is over 55 now (the character first appeared in 1939), and for his appearance in the third modern feature film, Batman Forever, he has undergone a certain amount of hardware makeover (new Batmobile, new Batsuits) and persona liposuction. It's surprising, though, how little the new film - a summer blockbuster with no sunshine in it - differs from its predecessors, in spite of a new director (Joel Schumacher replacing Tim Burton) and a new star (Val Kilmer replacing Michael Keaton).

We still have a Gotham City of skyscrapers and fascist monuments, a world in which everyone but Batman seems to be stuck in the 1940s of a parallel universe. We still have a mood of bombastic melancholy interrupted by action sequences of the debased modern variety, where physical laws are suspended and we enter a world of stunt people, special effects and designer danger.

The persona of Batman has developed over the years in a sort of superhero dialectic with Superman. They're both orphans, but Superman has a place in the world (adoptive parents, childhood home, city apartment and job) while Batman has only the three Ms: mansion, millions, manservant (Alfred, played as ever by Michael Gough). Both characters predate the moment when popular culture discovered the anti-hero, and Superman got to the brand identity of unambiguous virtue first, leaving Batman with ambivalence and self-consciousness - the self-consciousness that turned so pleasantly to camp in the 1960s TV show.

When Christopher Reeve took the role of Superman, he played it straight and the result was funny - his wholesomeness seemed surrealistic in the setting of a modern city. The same principle underlies other recent embodiments of an old-fashioned code, though coming not from another planet but, say, Australia (Crocodile Dundee) or Canada (the Mountie in the current TV series Due South).

If Batman doesn't have the option of being bad, then at least he can be good without being wholesome. In the Batman films this means in practice being sad. He has a strict moral code and a negative emotional world. He broods over the long-ago deaths of his parents, and for once in an impatient culture there are no cries of "Get over it" or "Get a life".

Unfortunately, this is too much psychology for a cartoon strip (when our daydreams begin to have psychic bruises of their own, we're in trouble) and too little for two hours of screen time.

Batman Forever is in some ways even more self-conscious than its predecessors. The characters behave like connoisseurs of comic books, not inhabitants of them. A psychologist with a Batman fetish (Nicole Kidman) breathes "hot entrance" as her love object glides into action on a wire. We see both the Riddler (Jim Carrey) and Robin (Chris O'Donnell) trying to decide on their aliases - Robin, dissatisfied with Batboy and Nightwing, even asks: "What's a good sidekick name?"

All of this comes close to self-parody. In particular, whichever member of the writing team (Lee Batchler, Janet Scott Batchler, Akiva Goldsman) had the idea of Robin saying "holy rusted metal boulders!" and then explaining that he means, "these rusted metal boulders are full of holes", should have to write a million times on the Batboard: "I will not try to get laughs out of not playing things for laughs".

It's in the area of sex that the screenwriters have set themselves the hardest task. It's all very well to recast virtue as a sort of kink, a misanthrope's compulsion to do good, but actual virginity is a kink too far. No one wants to hear that Bat Love Waits. The writers' solution is to include early on an encounter between Batman and Kidman's character full of worldly assurance ("It's the car, isn't it? Chicks love the car"). When she refers to the sensual allure of black rubber, he responds cutely: "Try firemen. Less to take off." All the inexperience and vulnerability are delayed and attached to the Bruce Wayne identity - as if Wayne could be a virgin without Batman being one too.

The tendency in Batman Forever is towards doubling: Robin makes his first appearance in the modern cycle, there are two villains, and one of them is already doubled - Two-Face, played by Tommy Lee Jones (not as thrillingly as might have been hoped). Two-Face smokes a cigarette and a small cigar simultaneously at different ends of his parti-coloured mouth, and has food and drink similarly segregated for separate consumption. He is ministered to in tandem by two women, Sugar and Spice. But the most interesting bit of doubling is of the Good and Bad girl in Nicole Kidman's role.

In the first Batman, Kim Basinger was a Good Girl, in Batman Returns, Michelle Pfeiffer was memorably Bad. In Batman Forever, Kidman is allowed to be sexually predatory without suffering Bad Girl punishment. She summons Batman on what he imagines is a civic mission but turns out to be more in the nature of a housecall - and earns only the mildest rebuke ("the Batcall is not a beeper"). She is scheming and potentially destructive - her desire to understand Batman may have a basis in attraction, but the medical form we see on her desk at one point is not reassuring (it's Schizophrenia Diagnosis Form #39).

Yet she mutates into a Good Girl. She starts doing a certain amount of noble renunciation, which is classic Good Girl activity. In fact by the time she's renounced Bruce Wayne in favour of Batman, and then Batman in favour of Wayne, she's pretty much run out of people to renounce.

Certainly the final tableau of the film overwhelmingly suggests a parting stoically endured, but perhaps for once in a Batman film visuals are not everything. Her last line has a wifeyness which suggests that she may in fact now Have It All on her terms - big hair, hot job, and a devoted hunky virgin in black rubber. What she says is, "don't work too late".

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