How Joel Schumacher and Bat Nipples made Batman fun again

Bat Nipples.

Few things can inspire as much heated debate among superhero movie fans as those two words that are inextricably linked to the legacy of filmmaker Joel Schumacher.

The director of 1995’s Batman Forever and 1997’s Batman & Robin, Schumacher died Monday, June 22, after a battle with cancer at age 80, according to Variety. His career encompassed more than three decades of popular movies, television series, and music videos, but it’s his place in Batman’s history that made him one of the most polarizing figures in Hollywood for superhero fandom.

The not-so-Dark Knight

Schumacher began his career as a costume designer, and it was his eye for fashion that likely inspired his famous (or perhaps infamous) decision to take Batman’s iconic costume to the next, anatomically-correct level in Batman Forever. The 1995 film followed on the heels of Tim Burton’s franchise-rebooting 1989 film Batman and its 1992 sequel, Batman Returns, but where its predecessors offered a dark, Gothic spin on DC Comics’ Dark Knight, Schumacher’s entries delivered a kaleidoscope of campy action and even campier comedy.

Along with giving the franchise a brighter, more colorful makeover, Schumacher leaned into the homoerotic aspects of the relationship Batman and his partner, Robin, opting to make the suits worn by stars Val Kilmer and Chris O’Donnell the most form-fitting costumes so far — complete with anatomically-correct nipples.

Batman Forever
Warner Bros. Pictures / Sunset Boulevard/ Corbis via Getty Images

It was a costuming choice that would loom over his career for years to come and become one of the most passionately criticized topics in a fandom long accustomed to arguing over, well … just about everything.

“I wanted a very sexy, very sensual, very body-hugging suit,” Schumacher said in a May 1995 interview in Premiere magazine to promote the film. “It’s my Gotham City, and if I want Batman to have nipples, he’s going to have nipples!”

Twenty years later, however, Schumacher, reflected on the decision to go all-in on Bat Nipples with significantly less enthusiasm.

“I really never thought that would happen,” Schumacher told Vice of the backlash to the Bat Nipples in a 2017 interview. “I really didn’t. Maybe I was just naive, but I’m still glad we did it.”

And yet, two decades of ridicule couldn’t erase the fact that Schumacher’s Batman films still managed to deliver some big wins for Warner Bros. Pictures at the box office.

Bat Nipples and all, Batman Forever went on to become the second highest-grossing film of the franchise up to that point, and remains the fifth highest-grossing solo film for the character. In fact, it earned nearly as much as Christopher Nolan’s franchise-reboot Batman Begins raked in 10 years later.

How Schumacher made Batman fun again

Along with introducing Arkham Asylum to the Batman movie mythos and delivering a colorful cast of new villains played by Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey — both at the peak of their popularity — Batman Forever made Batman fun again for legions of young fans.

Schumacher followed up Batman Forever with Batman & Robin, adding ’90s icon Alicia Silverstone to the mix as Batgirl, replacing Kilmer with George Clooney as Batman, and bringing in even more A-listers, with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Uma Thurman, and Elle Macpherson all joining the cast. The Bat Nipples also carried over, but they can’t be blamed for sinking Batman & Robin, which collapsed under the weight of its overstuffed cast and overabundance of bad puns.

Batman & Robin became Schumacher’s final foray into the world of Batman after Warner Bros. scuttled plans for a third film, Batman Unchained, due to the film’s poor performance.

And yet, the legend of that costuming decision outlived Schumacher’s involvement with the franchise — with Clooney, Kilmer, O’Donnell, and Silverstone all fielding questions about their opinions on all things Bat Nipples years after they donned the suits. In some cases, they even offered up thoughts on the experience without any prompting at all.

“As an actor in general, with the exception of the Batsuit, any time you put on a costume it helps you get into character,” Clooney said during a February 2019 event promoting the series Catch-22. “I was disappointed there weren’t nipples.”

As with many projects that were the targets of fandom-fueled criticism initially, however, Schumacher’s Batman movies have been remembered a bit more fondly in recent years.

In a world where Nolan’s grounded, dramatic Dark Knight can coexist with Adam West’s swinging ’60s hero, Burton’s gothic madman, and Zack Snyder’s grim-dark vigilante (as well the silly superhero of Lego Batman fame), fans have become a lot more comfortable with Schumacher’s Batman — nipples and all.

Sure, Batman Forever still has a fair share of detractors — and Batman & Robin remains among the worst-reviewed films in the franchise, according to Rotten Tomatoes — those willing to stick up for Schumacher’s vision for the character are making themselves known in greater numbers. The live-action DC Comics universe is a much bigger place now than it was in the ’90s, after all, and the idea that there can be only one definitive version of a character seems quaint and outdated at a point when we’ve seen multiple versions of Spider-Man and Superman on the big screen and myriad interpretations of comics’ most popular heroes and villains.

Schumacher always insisted he was glad he added the nipples to Batman’s suit, even while he apologized for disappointing Batman fans in other ways. As fans continue to warm to his contributions to the Batman franchise, there’s going to come a time when Bat Nipples are no longer seen as the symbol of narrowly avoided demise and something else — something positive, nostalgic, and most importantly, fun.

And maybe, just maybe, Schumacher knew that all along.

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