The Versatile and Often Criticized Director Dead at 80.
Vilified and mocked by broader fandoms for years, it might prove tempting to take an ironic approach to paying remembrance to the late director Joel Schumacher. Yet, such an approach would not only be disrespectful of this varied and accomplished filmmaker, but thoroughly offbase. Schumacher had his tongue-in-cheek moments, but irony wasn’t really his thing.
Alternatively, considering his work of particular Hollywood polish such as The Phantom of the Opera (2004) and Veronica Guerin (2003) (Schumacher never stayed in one place for too long), some may also be inclined to dismiss him as a hack. But that would be to ignore his equally if not more prominent side, that of thoughtful smugger of ideas, and, in a broader Soderbergh-ian way, formal experimentalist. For him, the very act of engaging genre, engaging a blockbuster, getting to throw around a major studio’s money in ridiculous ways, all appeared to be part of some deep-immersion art project. Sometimes he’d dance too close to the flame and it would get the best of him. But that was just part of the process.
He enjoyed his prominent success in the Hollywood machine and the attention it brought him, there’s no doubt. But aside from Schumacher being a happy ringmaster, he also exuded an undeniably genuine quality when he really engaged with interviewers about his work. It’s true that at the height of his powers, the mid-1990s, he was ping-ponging between his infamously carnival-esque Batman pictures and large-scale mahogany-like John Grisham courtroom thrillers. But this is also the man who gave us the ever-prescient angry white man thriller Falling Down (1993), the oddly feminist The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981), the ode to transgender tolerance that is Flawless (1999), and the claustrophobic post 9/11 exercise Phone Booth (2002).
His flamboyant streak was well known, per his earlier careers as an elaborate window dresser and costume designer (see his work in this capacity in Woody Allen’s future-based comedy, Sleeper). This flair for the stylish directly plays into some of hip early directing work, as he cultivated aspects of the MTV aesthetic and the “brat pack” zeitgeist with 1990’s Flatliners, 1985’s St. Elmo’s Fire, and of course the ever-popular vampiric crowd-pleaser, 1987’s The Lost Boys. Who can forget the vamp-hunting Frog brothers or that now-immortal shirtless sax man? The Lost Boys walked a line of toothy toothlessness, serving up engaging stakes while also maintaining a light touch. Although it was rated R, The Lost Boys lingers in the memory as a viable template for the PG-13 horror film- an otherwise often “blah” affair.
But of course, it’s those Batman movies that will always spring to mind first and foremost. When Schumacher took on 1995’s Batman Forever, he was inheriting a powerhouse franchise that was only two films deep and already out of control. Tim Burton, who’s 1989 Batman did much to course-correct the ingrained cultural perception of the title character as a thing of 1960s bam!/pow!/zap! campiness, had steered the ship into fevered nightmare territory with his sequel, Batman Returns (1992). For the next caped crusader outing, Warner Brothers- and, it’s fair to say, the broader world, was ready for something a little lighter. Schumacher’s Batman Forever, loopy if also more internally grounded than it gets credit for, proved to be well received at the time and a big moneymaker. For the longest time, this ridiculously imperfect but underrated film was the only live-action Batman film that was actually about Batman.
But then… but then, but then, but then… we get to the film that is already headlining the filmmaker’s death notices: “Joel Schumacher, Director of ‘Batman & Robin’, Dead at 80”. There’s no denying the disaster of this dayglo debacle. Warner Brothers and Schumacher both took all the wrong lessons from Batman Forever, resulting in a garish panoply of bad puns, U2-concert lighting effects, freaky anti-logic, and the never-to-be-lived-down sculpted batsuit nipples. Schumacher’s own unconventional sexuality (certainly by 1997 standards, anyhow) was showing, and the world simply wasn’t ready for it. (Never mind the decades-long gay subtext that’s been kicking around within Batman mythos). But far more than that, Schumacher committed the unrealized sin of forsaking the now-visible and loud legion of once-quiet comic book fans. If Tim Burton had course-corrected Batman and given fans a voice, Schumacher had single-handedly torpedoed those efforts- and incurred the wrath. The number of years before the next Batman film (2005’s Batman Begins) would be longer than the span of years the whole of the Burton/Schumacher era lasted.
It is true that the director, in most cases, is the final authority over any given film’s production. This was certainly true of a director as large of stature as Schumacher. In subsequent years, he never failed to take full responsibility for alienating so much of Batman’s fan base. On the DVD commentary of Batman & Robin, he signed off with a heartfelt apology. Today, there are those who find value in the film and all its hallucinatory eccentricities- and not only because it exposed the phrase “toyetic” to the general populace and led to an altruistic career awakening for star George Clooney. (Generally considered a good thing in comparison to what the actor had been doing). Batman & Robin is, for better or worse, the epitome of gonzo goofball big-money franchise filmmaking run amok. Very little before or since can come close to comparing with it.
Schumacher, for that film alone, will live on- perhaps in infamy. But more fairly, with respect and humility. Not every film he made was good, but Schumacher was in fact a good filmmaker. He was, in his own way, a bold and open-minded filmmaker; a team player with a distinct voice. Joel Schumacher, and his ever-curious spirit, will indeed be missed.