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“I cannot sanction your buffoonery!” Learning to love Joel Schumacher’s Batman

“I cannot sanction your buffoonery.”

That’s what Tommy Lee Jones reportedly said to Jim Carrey as they were about to make a Batman film together. It also neatly sums up the critical reaction to Joel Schumacher’s two Batman movies, Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997). 

Subversive, camp, kinky – Joel Schumacher queered the superhero genre. Do you think the Avengers would have been admiring “America’s Ass” without the rubber butt-shots of Batman two decades earlier? Think again. Schumacher brought the “gay gaze” to comic book movies and set the stage for Marvel’s obligatory “shirtless hero” shots.

It’s time to reassess the infamous bat-asses. Yes, I like Bat-butts and I cannot lie!

Joel Schumacher was tasked with making Batman fun and selling toys. To do that he blended the camp of the ’60s TV show with the gothic aesthetic of the Burton films and managed to annoy just about everyone over the age of 10. 

The backlash to his two Batman films seemed to stem from two places. Firstly, he gave comic book fans exactly what they DIDN’T want – a return to the camp Batman of the 60s and 70s, and secondly, garden variety homophobia.

“Hang out at a lot of biker bars, Bruce?”

– Robin, Batman Forever (2005)
Batman Forever

Schumacher subverted the stereotypical masculinity of superheros by reframing Bruce Wayne. Instead of the “rich-playboy-by-day, hero-by-night” many expected, under Schumacher he became “indie-loner-boy-with-daddy-issues”. Youthful and pouty with floppy blonde locks, Val Kilmer’s Bruce Wayne was the turtleneck wearing billionaire you imagine listening to Morrissey in his room at night. He’s not unlike Twilight’s brooding vampire hunk Edward Cullen (coincidentally, Robert Pattinson is the next Batman). The entire character arc of Batman Forever is about coming to accept who you really are, or as RuPaul would put it “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you going to love somebody else?” Can I get an amen?

Bruce breaks up with another woman. Batman & Robin

For the sequel, Schumacher cast TV star George Clooney, turning Bruce Wayne into the Rock Hudson of superheros. Lounging around his manor with the younger, leather loving Robin and older Alfred rolling his eyes at the young men. Three generations of ‘gay’ men under the one roof, looking after one another in their country manor estate. It’s practically the fulfillment of Matthew Lopez’s epic play The Inheritance.

Schumaker reportedly considered casting Alan Cumming as Batman’s partner (crime-fighting wise), Robin, before settling on Chris O’Donnell and dressing him in an enlarged rubber codpiece (we’ll get to the obsession with codpieces later), single earring and biker leathers. While they manage to avoid making the obvious “dick” jokes, the rubber ass shots would help kick off one of the long running gags in DC comics – Dick Grayson has the best bum in the business.

Midnighter identifies an undercover Dick Grayson by his most recognisable asset. DC Comics.

But what about Bruce Wayne’s love interests? We start with Nicole Kidman’s Dr Chase Meridian. Bruce seems more interested in her professional skills as a therapist than anything else. Then we get Elle McPherson’s Julie Madison who basically exists just to show Wayne’s disinterest in women. Bruce’s relationships get more performative as the series progresses. The script for Schumacher’s aborted third Batman film includes a girlfriend so disposable Wayne even forgets her name (it was Crystal BTW).

Batman’s not that interested. Batman Forever

The only woman Bruce Wayne shows any attraction to is Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy. That romance is drug-induced and Thurman plays Ivy like a drag queen throwing a Pride party. Both Dr Chase Madison and Poison Ivy are presented like sultry screen sirens from the Golden Age of Hollywood – including a direct Marlene Dietrich reference. And as for the series’ other female character Batgirl, the biker leather loving rebel out to right social injustice, there’s a lesbian reading in there to be sure.

Batman & Robin

The entire aesthetic of the two films is a blend of Giger-esque biomechanical auto-erotica and ’90s neon-drenched gay club, subverting the “family film” they sit in. Every Bat-accessory is moulded and curved like a sex toy. The Batmobile is a glowing mass of bulges held in a metallic rib cage, with a phallic protuberance. Schumacher took Burton’s claustrophobic cityscape and gave it a European twist with naked male statues holding up buildings. I mean, Poison Ivy’s lair is an actual sauna!

The outrage over the lingering shots of rubber-clad asses and nipples reeks of a mix of repressed excitement and “gay panic”. In the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era, straight men weren’t used to the male gaze being turned back on the male form. Lingering shots of the female anatomy have long been used to establish female characters (Burton himself uses it to introduce Vicki Vale in his first Batman film), and some found being forced to look at men in the same light deeply uncomfortable. These days it would just remind the gym bros not to skip leg day. Even the MCU’s “physique pictorial” parade is clothed in a faux-hetero “wow, look how jacked he got for the role” bravado.

Of course, the whole thing is one big joke. Literally. Schumacher is making a family film loaded with slapstick comedy. Just like movie musicals usually begin with a character singing to let the audience know “this is the kind of movie you’re about to watch,” Schumacher’s Batman films open with a montage mocking the “military / SWAT-team preparing for a raid” sequences, but instead of donning bullet-proof vests, our Bat-family are grabbing shiny chrome toys and strapping on utility belts. The ass shots are a visual cue that this is parody. To cap it off, both sequences end with Alfred and Batman making terrible banter. Schumacher couldn’t have signalled his intent any louder – this is all for fun folks!

Batman Forever

“After Batman & Robin, I was scum. It was like I had murdered a baby.”

– Joel Schumacher. VICE (2017)

Batman & Robin became the 1997 version of Cats – the film it was easy to bash. Like another much-loathed sequel, Sex & the City 2, it was ubiquitous on billboards, magazines, TV adverts, and buses months before release, to the point where the audience was sick of the film before it had even opened. To add salt to the man-baby wound, Batman & Robin stripped away the credibility Tim Burton had earned the movie series. While the comic books themselves had gone through a creative renaissance thanks to the work of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, in mainstream culture Batman was still treated as a joke.   

But let’s take a moment to look at the film’s legacy. Batman & Robin became a shining example of what not to do with a superhero film that freed the genre from a lot of assumptions. Watching Christopher Nolan’s relentlessly grounded Batman Begins you can see the drive to be “not-Schumacher!” No more toy-etic set pieces, superheroes were for grown ups. And George Clooney? Clooney would turn his back on “Hollywood blockbusters” to forge a career in quirky indies and creator-led films with mainstream appeal. It also taught movie studios to listen to the core audience. Comic book fans wanted a grittier, darker Batman, and giving them that brought in the box-office booty.

As for Schumacher himself, he turned back to smaller films discovering Colin Farrell (2000’s Tigerland). He’s not hidden from the controversy, and is refreshingly frank about the films, actively apologising to the fans who didn’t like them and refusing to spread the blame around.

Batman Forever

These days, the queer subtext of Batman is no longer hidden. Writer Grant Morrison took over the Batman books, telling Playboy magazine in 2012, “Gayness is built into Batman. … Batman is very, very gay. There’s just no denying it. Obviously as a fictional character he’s intended to be heterosexual, but the basis of the whole concept is utterly gay.” Speaking to The Los Angeles Times he summed it up: “Batman can take anything. You can do comedy Batman, you can do gay Batman.” And if you want an out-and-out gay Batman, look no further than DC Comics’ own Midnighter (with Superman-analog husband Apollo). Even Frank Miller would say, “[Bruce Wayne]’d be much healthier if he were gay.”

I’m not saying Schumacher’s Batman movies are secretly classics of the genre, but they are influential. When you strip back the homophobic reaction and the preconceptions you’ll actually find some zanny, matinee entertainment that has a lot more DNA in common with today’s superhero films than you may think, just look at 2018’s Aquaman; and it’s even queerer on TV with the near-naked twink-fest of Titans.

Superboy meets Beast Boy. Titans.

I’ll leave the last words to Joel Schumacher (GQ Magazine, 2017): “I do know that there is definitely a large gay audience for all the Batman films. But yeah, I tried to put in something for everyone. I never thought it was an important moment in gay cinema, but hey, I’ll take it.”

By Chad Armstrong