In 1993, Batman was in trouble.
Still licking its wounds from the negative fallout from Tim Burton's bleak and non-kid-friendly 1992 summer movie, Batman Returns, Warner Bros. felt their biggest movie franchise at the time needed a drastic creative and aesthetic course correction. The studio turned to director Joel Schumacher, who was fresh off another successful Warner Bros. movie, The Client, to save The Dark Knight. Schumacher's solution was Batman Forever, a summer blockbuster that over-corrected for Burton's black-on-black style with its bright, neon-everything visuals. Batman (newcomer Val Kilmer) took on villains Riddler (Jim Carrey) and Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones) — with help from Robin (Chris O'Donnell) — in a much more toy-friendly story. While the movie was a considerable hit, it also came with a problem of its own: nipples on the batsuit.
This week marks the film's 25th anniversary, and those infamous Bat Nipples still invoke eye-rolls a quarter-century later. The fact that such a small design choice garnered such a visceral reaction from fandom is not lost on the director that signed off on it.
"It was like I had murdered a baby," Schumacher told Vice in 2017 in an interview where he revisited both Forever and its much-maligned 1997 sequel, Batman & Robin. "I just know that I'll always go down over the nipples on Batman, starting with Batman Forever."
"[The costume] was made by Jose Fernandez, who was our brilliant lead [sculptor]," Schumacher explained. "By the time we got to Batman Forever, the rubber techniques [compared to Batman and Batman Returns] had gotten so sophisticated. Rubber molding had become so much more advanced. So I said, 'Let's make it anatomical' and I gave photos of Greek statues and those incredible anatomical drawings you see in medical books. He did the nipples and when I looked at them, I thought, 'That's cool.'"
Even though people still used dial-up or hoarded AOL discs to connect to the internet when Batman flashed his rubber areolas, Bat Nipple-gate still went viral in a pre-social media age. It sparked a debate not just among loyal Batman fans and average moviegoers, it also became core aspects of the film's pre and post-release coverage in the press. Schumacher admits he had no idea this seemingly tiny decision would become something we're still talking about after 25 years.
"I really never thought that would happen. I really didn't," he told Vice. "Maybe I was just naive."
When fans got their first glimpse of Val Kilmer's sleek, panther-like Batsuit, it marked a sharp contrast to the square armor plating of Batman Returns' costume. It hewed closer to the more muscular look of the iconic suit costume designer Bob Ringwood and his team designed for Burton's 1989 Batman. The new Batman Forever suit is a perfect example of content following form, as Warner Bros. and Schumacher wanted, tonally, a lighter, splashier and sexier Bat-adventure following the grim exploits of Batman Returns. While we can appreciate the intent behind such aesthetic choices, the anatomically correct addition of nipples on the suit of a guy who punches criminals into pulp is, well, that's a bridge too far.
Many superhero fans have a very specific (and sometimes rigid) template in their minds of what their favorite heroes should look like on the big screen, especially when it comes to Batman. The old adage of "expectations are just resentments in the making" is, in this case, especially relevant. Resentment seems to be the fuel behind the fandom's vocal disapproval of Schumacher and his team's Bat Nipples. For fans, the filmmakers went too far outside what they deemed necessary or wanted to see, or at least what they were used to seeing on Batman. Though, to be fair, you could make a strong, in-story argument as to why Batman, whose objective is to strike fear into those that prey on the fearful, would risk undermining that goal by decorating his suit with Greek-inspired nips.
If Twitter existed in the summer of 1995, the negative word-of-mouth might have killed Forever's chances of being a hit. The public's initial glimpse of that suit in action in the film's first trailer, which premiered on the syndicated entertainment news show Extra! in the fall of '94, would have likely led to a backlash if it had happened these days, resulting in the expensive and time-consuming removal of the Bat Nipples. If backlash to Sonic the Hedgehog's weird teeth and overall character design could force Paramount to scramble to redesign him before the 2020 movie premiered, imagine what a bunch of nipple-hating Batman fans could have done if they had been able to tweet.
In a post-Nolan era, it's near impossible to imagine DC or Warner Bros. execs letting the idea of anything resembling a nipple get past the concept art stage, let alone go through all the steps of the decision-making process to see it executed on screen. Then again, this is the studio that thought everything happening on Joker's face in Suicide Squad was an acceptable enough idea to spend money on, so history may risk one day repeating itself.
But, given that Batman's last quarter-century of cinematic adventures have largely been Bat Nipple free (we're looking at you, Batman & Robin), it seems The Dark Knight's stakeholders have learned their lesson.