Disclaimer: this comes from the perspective of someone who follows the Batman, Legends of the Dark Knight, and Shadow of the Bat comic book series.
The Batman universe has undergone a lot of changes (I mean, wouldn't yours, if you had your back broken?) with the Knight Fall, Knight Quest, and Knight's End series. I thought this movie would exploit the trend set by the series, one of the best written in the history of comics, which brings the Dark Knight character to life. But this movie fails to show any of those characteristics that make Batman great.
So I am biased toward the comic book, but in Knight Fall you have Batman pitted against almost every villain he has faced and he defeats them all even when he is on the verge of exhaustion. In this movie, you have Batman giving up his secret identity and career on hormonal impulses and making quips that would be best left to the likes of Spiderman. It seems as though the script writers couldn't make up their minds whether to make a movie about Batman the Dark Knight or Batman the clown.
The plot itself is quite decent, but hurried---Batman is pitted against Two Face and the Riddler. Two Face wants to kill the Batman. The Riddler wants revenge on Bruce Wayne and become the most intelligent person in the world. The problem, however, with doing comic book superhero movies is that the person playing the superhero sucks. I've always been disappointed whenever I see the superhero (with the exception of Christopher Reeve in Superman). In this movie, Batman never really is threatened. But the strength of the Batman character is that he's a normal guy who's facing evil, and highly prone to injury and risk. When I heard that they were casting Val Kilmer for the part, I was pleased since I thought Keaton was a wimp. But Kilmer also does a horrible job both as Batman and Bruce Wayne, acting too stiff. One of the things I think they should do to improve the look of the superhero is get rid of the eye slits and have opaque lenses or something like that.
The authenticity problem faced by people acting the superhero part is usually not a problem for actors playing the villains. In Batman 1 and 2, we had actors literally becoming villains (Joker by Jack Nicholson, Penguin by Danny DeVito). This movie is no exception. Two Face (Tommy Lee Jones) and the Riddler (Jim Carrey) carry the show and make watching this movie worthwhile. While each of them are quite good on their own, particularly Jones as Two Face, together they have a great chemistry between them. I think it'd be interesting to see Jones and Carrey together playing similar conspiring roles. Two Face is the villain that haunted my nightmares as a kid and Jones carries that role to perfection. However, there are times when one villain dominates a scene and the other is left twiddling his thumbs. This makes for a couple of awkward moments.
I do not see any reason for including Nicole Kidman in the movie---the last thing that was needed is a romantic theme to this movie when there's so much of it around in others. Chris O'Donnell plays a decent Robin. But the interaction between Batman and Robin is simply not there. At first, Wayne is adamant against Dick Grayson becoming the Robin. Then suddenly, even when there's a possibility Grayson will kill Two Face if he had a choice, Wayne agrees in an instant.
The movie is worth watching on the big screen for the effects alone, and for the Carrey-Jones interaction. Ultimately, screen writers for comic book superhero movies can take a tip that Star Trek writers can also use: survey diehard fans who know the material and the characters.
The latest Batman movie, Batman and Robin, the fourth in the series, would've been much better off had it been a silent flick. The cinematography is spectacular, but the dialogue leaves a lot to be desired and the plot is non-existent. My feeling is that if the characters hadn't spoken a single word, I'd have enjoyed the movie a lot more. As it is, I couldn't help myself groaning every time a bad one-liner was made.
When I reviewed Batman Forever, it was from the perspective of an avid Batman comic book reader (the Knight Fall series had just completed). I had problems with that movie not being faithful to the spirit of its main character, the Dark Knight. I have the same problems with this movie, but I can put a better handle on why this is the case, and perhaps even offer some solutions.
Director Joel Schumacher's Gothic Gotham does indeed have the comic book look and feel to it. It is dark, dreary, and befitting the Dark Knight. But the story is way too campy and too many villains are introduced for no good reason. When I criticised Batman Forever for not being faithful to the comic book, people wrote back and said I was expecting too much. But the expectations arise because villains like Two Face, the Riddler, Freeze and Poison Ivy are included in the movies. I think a terrific Batman movie could be done without any reference to Batman's famous villains, while having a tremendous commercial appeal and still remaining faithful to the comic book. Some of the best stories written have featured such villains: Ten Nights of the Beast, written by Jim Starlin featuring the KGBeast, is one of the best Batman stories ever written even today.
Some good choices were made in this movie: George Clooney is by far the best Batman. He has the look and the attitude, though he doesn't make such a great Bruce Wayne as Val Kilmer did. As was the case in the past movies, it is the villains who are more charismatic and appealing than Batman and Robin. Every Batman movie I've seen, I've found myself rooting for the villains. In Batman and Robin, both Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman) and Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) steal the show. Thurman is brilliant in all possible incarnations she adopts: she is convincingly innocent and confused at first, and sexily seductive and deadly at the end. She goes through her lines with style, and was the only person who made me laugh. Schwarzenegger appears to be having a lot of fun barking out his lines.
But a lot of bad decisions were made too, outweighing everything else: The Knight Fall series featured Bane as one of the greatest villains Batman has faced; the person who broke Batman's back, after almost breaking his mind. In Batman and Robin, Bane (Jeep Swenson) is a grunting villain not even worth a couple of laughs. In fact, I think a great story could've been structured with Bane alone. The way Bane is defeated in the end is insulting to anyone who is familiar with the character.
Both Robin (Chris O'Donnell) and Batgirl (Alicia Silverstone) are completely unnecessary in this movie, except for their looks. The sub-plot involving Robin and Batman competing for Poison Ivy's affections is incongruous. The sub-plot involving Alfred's sickness is unnecessary. These are just distractions to make up for the lack of a main plot.
The final problem I have with this movie is that Batman is as much a detective as he is a crime fighter. That aspect of it is never explored here, even though opportunities abound. However, I expect Batman to do well at the box office, and I do think it's worth the matinee fair (certainly not worth renting).