The Schumacher Cut: Our Best Chance at a Good Version of Batman Forever

I’m writing this completely off the cuff, with no planning whatsoever. Forgive me if it isn’t Shakespeare but what I’m about to talk about is important to me and time is of the essence. I’ll fill it out with images later–what’s important is that it goes up when it’s supposed to.

– Randall Malus

I’ve always loved Batman. From the moment I first saw him hanging on a toy shelf as part of Kenner’s Super Powers action figure line, there’s just something about a man who has no powers and yet still fights crime whilst dressing up as a bat that always appealed to me. His villains, often likewise grounded in reality a bit more than those of his DC Comics compatriots, equally so: The Joker, an insane murderous clown with no known real identity and a multiple choice past; Catwoman, a former streetwalker who dresses like a cat and robs jewelry stores; the Penguin, a chubby man with a beak-like nose who wears a tuxedo and has a gun (among other things) hidden in his trick umbrella; Two-Face, a former district attorney who blames Batman for the disfigurement he suffered at the hands of a mob boss and a bottle of acid; and the Riddler, a spastic guy dressed in a green leotard who can’t help but leave the clues to stopping him at the scene of every crime–among others.

As a kid, I loved the Super Powers cartoon. When I tripped over syndicated reruns of the 1966 Batman show, I ate up every episode. I picked up Batman comics whenever I could afford to do so (all comics were inexpensive in the late 80s and early 90s, so this was rarely a problem), and I marveled at and reveled in every new (or new to me) story I could, as often as I could.

When Tim Burton’s Batman was released in 1989, I was floored by his take on the character. The film wasn’t campy like the ’66 show. It wasn’t colorful like the Super Powers cartoon. No, here was a Batman that was closer to the comics. Dark, moody, gothic, sometimes surreal. Was everything 100% accurate to the comics? Absolutely not. No adaptation ever is. The Joker should never have a “real name” or known definitive background, for instance–and here he is Jack Napier, underboss (or former underboss, technically) to Gotham mafia kingpin Carl Grissom. But what Burton sacrificed in accuracy, he made up for in atmosphere. Gotham’s wet-looking streets are populated by old towering buildings and gothic cathedrals, each and every one rounded with gargoyles and slick black stonework.

When Batman Returns was released in 1992, the accuracy was dialed down–Penguin is no longer a short chubby dude but rather a circus freak with flipper hands, and Catwoman is literally granted the gift of nine lives–and the Burtonian aesthetic that would become over time his visual trademark (spirals in black-and-white, bizarrely lavish non-functional costumes) was dialed up. Burton was turning Batman more and more into a German expressionist fairy tale with every iteration, and while it wasn’t what original creators Bill Finger and Bob Kane ever intended, it all somehow made sense. At the very least, it was consistent. So when a third Batman movie was announced, I was ecstatic. Robin Williams as the Riddler? Billy Dee Williams potentially coming back as Harvey Dent and becoming Two-Face? I was eager to see what Burton would do with a third film.

Unfortunately, on a night in the summer of 1995, I–like Bruce Wayne–suffered my own traumatic tragedy. I witnessed Batman Forever.

Batman Forever is the third installment in the Burton Batman film series (or, at least, was–its current canonicity with regards to the Burton films is in question). Meant to be a sequel to Batman Returns, it does not feature Tim Burton at the directorial helm, but rather Joel Schumacher. While the film still retains some of Burton’s more traditionally gothic aesthetic, there is suddenly a great deal of neon everywhere in Gotham. The performances of Jim Carrey as the Riddler and Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face are aggressively daffy, and the inclusion of Chris O’Donnell as Dick Grayson/Robin leads to several of the more campy exchanges between Batman (no longer played by Michael Keaton but rather Val Kilmer) and his sidekick. As a kid, I remember being thoroughly confused by this film at first. Then, as the emptiness Batman Forever left me with grew, I felt angry. Cheated. What the hell had I witnessed? Where was the darker, more tonally accurate Batman I had become invested in over two previous films? When Schumacher followed Forever with Batman & Robin in 1997, I got my answer: Batman on film was dead. For the moment, anyway.

Over the years, I’ve learned much more about how Burton’s Batman Continues (the proposed third title) became Batman Forever. I’ve read of the parents groups complaining about the violence in Returns. I’ve read of the WB executives subtley hinting that they didn’t want Burton on the next film because they weren’t convinced his vision would help them sell Happy Meal toys. I’ve read of Robin Williams turning down the role because he was still upset over being offered the role of the Joker in the ’89 film, only to have it ultimately go to Jack Nicholson (Williams was used as bait to lure Nicholson into accepting the role, so I can understand why he’d be upset over that studio chicanery). I’ve read of Warner Bros. releasing Billy Dee Williams from his contract in favor of hiring Tommy Lee Jones.

Through these years, I’ve been engaged in a personal quest to find something, anything, that might help me reconcile Batman Forever with Burton’s original vision. I’ve looked at fan projects, such as Channel Awesome’s recent fan-script audio-drama hybrid (which is excellent, if not 100% authentic to Burton’s original vision). I’ve attempted to anticipate how Burton might have conceived these characters, based on what he had done previously. It’s an impossible task–Burton was and is extremely unpredictable as a creator, though he did mention possibly giving the Riddler a pet rat, ala Willard. But I digress.

Though none of us will ever truly know what a Burtonian Batman Forever looks like, is it at least possible for us to see a film that bridges the darkness of Burton’s Gotham and the lighter tones of Schumacher’s world? The answer might be “yes.”

The campiness of Joel Schumacher’s Batman films (especially Forever, his first) never made sense to me. Here was the guy who directed Flatliners. Here was the guy who would go on to direct 8mm and the film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Phantom of the Opera. Here was a guy who could do dark, could do psychological, could do gothic. Why, then, was Forever such a departure from that? Well, it wasn’t. Or, at least, if might not have been, if not for studio involvement.

There exists in the Warner vaults a three hour “preview” cut of the film. Dubbed the “Schumacher Cut,” this version of the movie is said to be a darker case study of Bruce Wayne and why he was, is, and shall be Batman–not just now, not just until the murder of his parents is solved (which it was in the ’89 movie), but forever. Those insiders who’ve seen it have said that, while it’s definitely not a Burton film, this cut is superior to the Batman Forever we received. The campiness is said to be toned down at any rate, or at least recontextualized against the backdrop of Bruce’s trauma and shame. This was, of course, too dark for a studio dead set on selling merchandise to children, and so it was sliced and diced, re-cut and possibly (based on what’s been said by some) re-shot until it became the theatrical version many of us loathe to this day.

But the Schumacher Cut may just be the cut of the film that I’ve been looking for all this time: A way to reconcile in my heart and brain Burton’s vision with Schumacher’s, a bridge from one version of Gotham to another, a way to make the misshapen puzzle pieces finally fit.

Or it might not.

I’ll never know if I never see it.

All that’s needed, then, is for Warner Bros. to be convinced that they should release it.

The closest we’ll ever get to Man-Bat on the big screen, a scene from the Schumacher Cut has Bruce encounter a bat monster–the dark side of his psyche–on a vision quest deep in the Batcave below Wayne Manor. This scene was, of course, cut from the theatrical version of the film because it wasn’t kid-friendly enough.

So today, June 16, 2021, a number of ’89 Batman fans have decided to run a hashtag campaign: #ReleaseTheSchumacherCut. Not unlike the campaign that saw the release of the Snyder Cut of Justice League, this hashtag is meant to send a loud and clear message to Warner Bros. that we want this cut released yesterday. And while this article is meant to add to that hashtag battle cry at 10 AM EST, I would like to use this opportunity to implore you, the reader, to take part in the campaign whenever you happen to read this.

If you have a Twitter account, please post #ReleaseTheSchumacherCut. Joel Schumacher may have killed the ’90s Batman film franchise, but the gun was placed in his hand by Warner Bros.–and this cut of the film might be all the proof we need of that. It may also grant closure to anyone who felt cheated by the original cut of the film. At the very least, it might convince Warner Bros. to provide more options to the consumer when watching Batman Forever–and optionality should be the bread and butter of every consumer.

So, let’s make this happen, folks. Let’s get WB to #ReleaseTheSchumacherCut.

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