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Joel Schumacher's greatest triumphs were in his films' gloriously unsubtle subtext
Being a queer person working in a creative space means, and has always meant, that every inch you're given in portraying your experience as a queer person in your work is a battle. Even in the (comparatively) progressive creative landscape we live in today, the folks who control the flow of money and the final word on what does and doesn't get to be made so often flinch from actually allowing queer stories and queer representation to blossom in mainstream culture. So stifled are these stories and moments of representation that when Disney (the paramount of mainstream media) promises that a movie will contain "the first gay Star Wars/Disney/Marvel character," the character in question is often either relegated to a split-second background shot (so as to be edited out for distribution in more censorship-heavy nations) or never actually acknowledged onscreen as being queer, only alluded to in interviews.
Perhaps that's why it's so thrilling to revisit the films of Joel Schumacher, who passed away this week at the age of 80. Schumacher was a reliable director with a killer eye for costuming and set design. While his strong sense of empathy and rock-solid grasp on fundamentals are on display in full form in films like St. Elmo's Fire, Flatliners, The Lost Boys, and A Time To Kill, he's most famous — or infamous, depending on who you ask — for his work in the Batman universe (work which effectively killed the character for nearly a decade).
Explicitly queer stories making their way into the mainstream are still stigmatized to this day. We aren't all that far removed from Brokeback Mountain, perhaps the single most well-known queer text of the century. Ang Lee's heartbreaking masterpiece was in its day, and still so often is, reduced down to "that gay cowboy movie" with "Brokeback" becoming derivative slang for "gay" and often, if we're being honest, being used in the place of actual slurs. I'll never forget my high school making national news when I was a student for our student body managing to get itself banned from our own basketball games. During a game against our local rivals, a heckling chant against one of their players broke out among the student section. Students were banned from attending the following game. Shockingly, this failed to cure our school of homophobia.
When queer stories are stifled we're often left to project our own onto texts that don't contain explicitly queer material, hence years of Stucky and FinnPoe fanfics. Sometimes a particularly cynical mind will come along and weaponize this starvation for representation in the form of queerbait media, the most famous examples of which are likely Sherlock and Supernatural, two stories that preyed on queer fans' desires to see male characters become romantically involved by teasing out a romance the showrunners never had any intention of capitalizing on. What can you do? Beggars can't be choosers and we are so often made beggars.
Compared to these, Schumacher's texts stand out today not due to the controversy they incurred during their time or for the cult following they've developed over the years but because they're the finest examples of Schumacher forcing heterosexual audiences to reckon with queer material. Batman Forever and Batman & Robin function as Trojan horses for explicitly gay aesthetics and theming, even if the famously gay director was unable to make the narratives themselves explicit in their queerness.
There's something particularly exhilarating about watching a gay man be handed the reins and hundred-million-dollar budget of an international blockbuster franchise with a fanbase made up primarily of straight men and use that money to piss those straight men off. Schumacher didn't give a shit what anybody else thought Batman should be. He's made his passion for the character clear in interviews over the years and, once given the opportunity to create his own vision of the character, did just that. Schumacher's Batman films are, in that sense, vital queer texts even setting aside the subtext of the relationships between the men in the films (Riddler's crush on Bruce Wayne, the tension between both Batman and Robin as well as, if you as a certain kind of viewer, Batman and Alfred).
His heroes don rubber-molded suits depicting an idealized male form, with chiseled biceps and sculpted abs — even, rather infamously, nipples on the pecs, making Schumacher's intent clearer than ever: he wants you to see the male form in these suits, he's forcing you to engage with his adoration of the male form. His villains draw from queer camp and drag culture, with men and women alike donning sequined bodysuits, make-up, and hair dye. The world of Batman Forever and Batman & Robin bears zero resemblance to ours, instead resembling a party that never ends. Streets are bathed in strobe lights and neon and even gangs of criminals seem to come equipped with a signature dance number. Schumacher's Gotham is a gay bar and nobody checks IDs at the door.
Viewers in the '90s found themselves largely uncomfortable with Schumacher's vision of Gotham, leading to Batman & Robin infamously bombing and receiving a critical panning like no other. In retrospect, it's pretty clear not only that much of that discomfort stemmed from a societal hesitance to reckon with queer storytelling but that Schumacher didn't give a sh** if his Batman movies made you comfortable to begin with.
They weren't for you. They were for him, they were for the gays, and they were for queer kids who didn't know they were queer kids yet (if I may speak from personal experience). That invasive approach to creating a superhero franchise remains wildly inspiring to this day. Schumacher's Batman films remind queer creators that nobody is going to give us an inch, and when we manage to seize one it's our divine responsibility to put as many proverbial nipples on the Batsuit as we can manage.