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Is Val Kilmer the Funniest Batman? – The Quest for the Perfect Batman Actor Day 3


Batman fans tend to have strong opinions about casting choices. No sooner did Michael Keaton win over naysayers with 1989's Batman and 1992's Batman Returns than he exited the franchise, leaving Tombstone star Val Kilmer to fill the rubber Batsuit. That's a real thankless task if ever there was one. Kilmer's Batman has certainly been the butt of plenty of criticism over the years, but is that criticism actually warranted?

Even with all their on-set disagreements, the late director Joel Schumacher often spoke very highly of Kilmer's take on the Dark Knight. Forever was a film that attempted to both maintain continuity with the previous Burton movies and forge a new, more commercial path forward for the franchise. In day 3 of our recurring look back at the Batman movie actors, we examine why Kilmer perhaps deserves more credit than he's been given for bringing a little levity back into Bruce Wayne's life.

A Tale of Two Batman Movies

A lot of what doesn't work about Batman Forever stems from the film neither being a full-fledged sequel to Batman Returns nor one that makes clean break from the Burton films. Traces of Burton and composer Danny Elfman's Gothic fairy tale sensibilities still remain, particularly when it comes to the flashback scenes and locales like Arkham Asylum. Batman & Robin may be an objectively worse movie in many respects, but at least it's more honest about what it's trying to be (in other words, a flashy, feature-length toy commercial).

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Kilmer is caught in the middle of that uneasy clash between old and new, particularly when it comes to Bruce Wayne's character arc. In Forever, Bruce is plagued by nightmares of his parents' murders, their subsequent funeral and the giant bat that inspired his costumed identity. Forever would have us believe Bruce has lost touch with his inner Dark Knight and needs to be reminded of why he dons the cape and cowl every night. This despite the fact that Keaton's Bruce was a haunted shell of a man all too burdened by that loss.

According to the 2005 documentary Shadow of the Bat, the flashbacks are a relic of an earlier incarnation of the project, a time when Keaton was still attached and Schumacher toyed with the idea of adapting Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's Batman: Year One as a Batman '89 prequel. Even after deciding to veer in a campier direction, Schumacher reportedly envisioned Forever as being a darker and more psychologically intense film than what the theatrical cut actually delivers. Perhaps the rumored director's cut of Batman Forever achieves a better balance between these light and dark elements, but the jury is still out as to whether that cut will ever be released from the WarnerMedia vault. Cue #ReleaseTheSchumacherCut.

Batman Makes a Funny

With Warner Bros. execs still smarting over the mixed reception to the gloomy Batman Returns and the infamous Happy Meal fiasco, it's no surprise Forever was given a heavy injection of comedy. Schumacher's movies are as much in line with the 1966 TV series as they are the Burton films, but with one important exception. Where Adam West's Batman is the steady anchor of that series – a straight-faced, utterly serious hero responding to silly supervillain plots – Kilmer's Batman is an overtly funny hero.

Forever is often at its best when Kilmer is able to explore this less serious side of the Caped Crusader. As an actor who built his reputation as the smoldering, arrogant Iceman in 1986’s Top Gun, Kilmer was just the guy to tackle Schwarzenegger-worthy one-liners while battling over-the-top villains like Jim Carrey's Riddler and Tommy Lee Jones' Two-Face.

In fact, the first time we meet Kilmer's Batman in the opening credits, he drops one of the most iconic (and infamous) Batman quips ever uttered: "I'll get drive-thru." It's a sublimely dumb moment that immediately clues viewers into what type of superhero movie they're getting this time. It sets the stage every bit as much as Keaton's equally iconic, "I'm Batman."

For Kilmer, making these odd one-liners and moments of pure camp work was all in the voice. His Bat-voice isn't a 1:1 recreation of Keaton's. It's less raspy and more velvety. There's a quiet amusement to Kilmer's Batman, as if he's finally learning how to have a little fun on the job. Which makes the flashback subplot feel all the more out of place. One thing Keaton and Kilmer do share, however, is a knack for distinguishing their Batman and Bruce Wayne voices. No need for dramatic roaring or digital trickery with this Dark Knight.

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Batman and the Thrill of the Chase (Meridian)

With all the criticisms directed at modern superhero movies for their lack of sex appeal, there's something refreshingly hormonal about Batman Forever. This is a Batman movie happy to gaze at its superhumanly attractive cast, whether it's the infamous rubber Batsuit nipples, Chris O'Donnell's Dick Grayson mopping the floor in style or Nicole Kidman's lusty psychiatrist, Dr. Chase Meridian.

That brief, whirlwind romance between Batman and Dr. Meridian is another area where the movie's sense of humor really shines. Their first 1-on-1 meeting at the Bat-Signal oozes with both sexual tension and hilarity. We can see Kilmer's Batman quietly but visibly panic as this strange woman throws herself at him, as if he's unsure how to respond to intimate physical contact that doesn't involve punching clowns in the face. This may well be Kilmer's best bit of acting in the entire movie – a bit of physical comedy that's almost wholly alien in the Batman franchise.

Dr. Meridian may be as over-the-top as all the other new additions in Forever, but she's certainly among the more entertaining romantic foils in a Batman movie. Kidman and Kilmer's chemistry adds a welcome bit of steamy intrigue to this sequel. It's a shame neither actor returned for the sequel. It's enough to wonder what Kilmer might have done with a Batman movie that fully commits to its own campiness.

Jesse is a mild-mannered staff writer for IGN. Allow him to lend a machete to your intellectual thicket by following @jschedeen on Twitter.