Batman Forever is not exactly a widely beloved entry in the Batman filmography. After the intensely grim Batman Returns — which is the best live-action Batman film — the studio decided to turn things around and get goofy. Taking inspiration from the 1966 television series, Batman Forever became a ’90s update of the vibrant and campy take on the Caped Crusader.
While this did lead to many fans not vibing with the shift in tone, Batman Forever has an incredibly important place in superhero history. And that’s its status as the first major superhero film to attempt to discuss homosexuality and bisexuality.
Read Between the Lines
Now, it’s worth noting that Batman Forever isn’t explicitly bringing up gay/bisexual relationships. In 1995, general audiences wouldn’t have been too keen on such overtly queer characters in their superhero movie. However, director Joel Schumacher took the reins after Tim Burton’s departure and Schumacher has been an openly gay artist for the majority of his career. He used his big-budget franchise moment to sneak in a lot about gay/bisexual relationships.
So, while this article is going to be a deep dive into how gay Batman Forever is, it’s important to note that all of this is just beneath the surface of what you see in the movie. There are easy heterosexual reads of the film that would ignore all of the movie’s subtext. But, there is plenty to digest and analyze. And you don’t have to dig too deep. So, let’s get started.
The Dynamic Duo
It’s clear that Schumacher wanted to explore the gay undertones of the relationship between Batman and Robin. Now, this suggestion has often been the butt of a lot of poor-taste jokes. But, it’s important to know that it gained popularity in the 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent by Dr. Fredric Wertham. Wertham’s book was a scathing indictment of comic books and their supposed influence on children. He asserted that the relationship between Batman and Robin was “a wish dream of two homosexuals living together” and that “the Batman type of story may stimulate children to homosexual fantasies.” Of course, this was presented in a negative tone and helped to stigmatize the idea of Batman and Robin as homosexual partners.
Schumacher decided to actually lean into this idea but gave it a genuinely positive spin. Naturally, Batman Forever ages Dick Grayson up to be at least 18 — actor Chris O’Donnell was 24 at the time of filming — and his relationship with Bruce Wayne is centered around Dick’s desire to become Bruce’s partner in crimefighting. Simply the continuous use of the word “partner” in the dialogue brings up allusions to homosexual relationships.
But, what is important is Bruce’s treatment of Dick directly after the murder of Dick’s parents at the hands of Two-Face. After giving Dick a place to stay, the young acrobat immediately jumps on his motorcycle with the intent to hunt down Two-Face and kill him. Bruce tries to dissuade him by complimenting Dick’s bike. Dick replies, “Hang out at a lot of biker bars, Bruce?” This is obviously a negative implication about Bruce’s possible sexuality.
However, Bruce takes this intended hurtful read and spins it into something positive. He takes Dick to his garage and shows off his collection of classic motorcycles. Dick is clearly enamored with the collection and Bruce offers Dick the chance to repair one and keep it. It’s moments like this where Batman Forever begins to assert a positive relationship between the two. But, when the subject of becoming partners rears its head after Dick discovers Bruce is Batman, the conflict begins to take shape.
Bruce’s Dark Secret
Bruce’s arc in Batman Forever centers around his complicated feelings about being Batman. He views it as his darker side and begins to question if he should even be Batman. A lot of this is explored through the character of psychologist Dr. Chase Meridian, played with sultry excellence by Nicole Kidman. This being a huge studio movie, these two characters have to strike up some kind of romance.
This is where the idea of Batman being a metaphor for Bruce being bisexual comes into play. His struggle involves what he views as conflicting desires: be Bruce Wayne and lead a “normal” (read: heteronormal) life or continue to be Batman and satiate his inner self (bisexuality). This is brought to a climax when both Chase Meridian and Robin are kidnapped and damseled by the Riddler. Batman is able to save them both and pointedly tells the Riddler that he has learned that he can be both Bruce Wayne and Batman. It’s an acceptance of his multiple lifestyles that can easily be read as him coming to terms with his bisexuality.
It’s elements like this that put a different spin on the Batman character than what we’ve seen in other movies. Granted, Batman Returns also used the dual identities of its characters to explore ideas of less-than-conventional sexual desires, but Batman Forever is the first to include a queer interpretation of that concept. And speaking of the Riddler…
One of the interesting elements of Batman Forever is that the main villain doesn’t have a vendetta against Batman, but is actually driven to become a supervillain because of Bruce Wayne. Edward Nygma, portrayed by Jim Carrey, is obsessed with Bruce Wayne. When the character is introduced, we see his workstation is plastered with magazine covers and clippings of Bruce. Nygma freaks out at the chance to meet Bruce and show off his new invention. When Bruce shuts him down, Nygma acts like a jilted lover and vows to surpass Bruce as a titan of industry. He even patterns his public style after Bruce Wayne in appropriately creepy stalker fashion.
So, when Nygma decides to become a costumed criminal, he also teams up with notorious bad guy Two-Face a.k.a. Harvey Dent. In a brief bit of news footage, we see that Harvey was scarred by a vindictive mob boss. Harvey and Batman had some sort of deep friendship before Harvey’s scarring — this aspect of the narrative is admittedly underdeveloped — and there is another undercurrent of betrayal added to the film. That leads to two obsessive characters that feel they’ve been wronged by someone they loved teaming up to take him down.
The reflective parallels between the Batman/Robin and Riddler/Two-Face relationships offer two sides of a coin. They showcase positive and negative elements of romantic pairings. While the heroes do have their differences, they are supportive and eventually bring out the best in each other. The villains fall deeper into their obsessions and end up being consumed by them.
So, Why Is This Important?
Simply pointing out all these factors isn’t what make Batman Forever an important LGBTQ movie. There are dozens of moments from the movie that can help make the case for its queer subtext — yes, the infamous Bat-nipples are one of those — but why does any of this matter?
For starters, it’s vital when examining how underrepresented these ideas are in mainstream superhero cinema. We’re only now starting to see outright LGBTQ characters make their way to the big and small screen. Though Batman Forever had to use coding in order to get these ideas across, it’s crucial that we don’t ignore its attempt to get this kind of material out into the world in a big way. It deserves praise for that.
But, the most meaningful aspect of Batman Forever‘s queer subtext is that it’s a movie about self-acceptance and finding others who love you for who you are. Throughout the film, Bruce’s faithful butler Alfred nurtures Dick’s inner self and eventually makes the Robin suit for him. And the scene in which Batman and Robin finally become partners is one of the most affirming moments in any superhero movie.
Yes, Batman Forever is knowingly flamboyant and doesn’t play in the same grim tone as other more beloved Batman movies. However, it needs to be recognized as an essential cornerstone of queer cinema. Personally, I love it for other reasons as well, but even if it’s not one of your favorite Batman movies, it should be valued for trying to bring LGBTQ superheroics to as wide an audience as possible.