Graeme Robertson continues his series looking at directors who damaged their careers; next up is Michael Sarne (read the first part on Richard Kelly here, the second part on Michael Cimino here, the third part on George Lucas here, and the fourth part on Michael Sarne here)…
Joel Schumacher is a strange addition to this series, mainly because his career implosion occurred much slower than previous entries, and somehow managing to survive a colossal disaster of a film that would have ended most careers. Not only surviving, but also continuing to make films with significant backing, before almost completely finishing it off by making one stinker too many.
Schumacher originally made his name as a director in the 1980s; bringing us films featuring the then popular “brat pack” group of actors, directing successful movies like St Elmo’s Fire (1984), The Lost Boys (1987).
Schumacher continuing his winning streak into the 1990s with works like Flatliners (1990) Dying Young (1991), Falling Down (1993) and The Client (1994), which enjoyed commercial and some critical success.
The biggest directing challenge for Schumacher, and where the trouble for his career starts, came when he was asked to take over the reigns over the hugely successful Batman film series from Tim Burton.
Buton had returned the franchise to its dark roots to great success, but his second instalment Batman Returns (1992) had faced criticism as being “too dark” and unsuitable for younger audiences, leaving studio bosses wanting to steer the series in a lighter direction.
Schumacher’s take on the character in Batman Forever (1995) was a much lighter interpretation of the Caped Crusader starring Val Kilmer in the title role, and a saw a gradual return of the more campy elements of the character that Burton had strived to do away with.
The film was released to mixed critical reviews and fan reaction, but was huge commercial success, following which Schumacher was quickly signed on to direct the eventual sequel titled Batman & Robin
Featuring an a very embarrassed all-star cast led by a grossly miscast George Clooney as the Dark Knight, Batman & Robin (1997) was a huge leap away from the dark beginnings that Tim Burton had taken great pains to build around Batman, instead fully embracing a level of cartoonish campiness not seen since the 1960s Adam West TV show.
The film, of course, was mauled by critics and fans and is today regularly cited as one of the worst films ever made. A film of such disastrous proportions that it not only derailed the Batman series for nearly a decade, but also rendered comic book films about as popular as a fart at a funeral.
Whereas other directors would have been lucky to direct an episode of Teletubbies after such a disaster, Schumacher somehow kept on trucking with his career.
Not only would Schumacher continue to make films regularly, but some of his films, like Tigerland (2000), and hostage thriller Phone Booth (2003) both starring Colin Farrell, would go on to receive significant critical acclaim.
Not only that to, but Schumacher was still given significant backing from major studios to make fairly big films, like his big budget adaption of The Phantom of The Opera (2004) based on the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical and starring Gerard Butler in the title role.
However, Schumacher couldn’t outrun the inevitable decline that he had evaded for almost a decade by this point, with his lucky streak finally coming to an end courtesy of the critically panned Jim Carrey thriller The Number 23 (2007).
Following on from that film’s critical and commercial failure, Schumacher’s output has dropped considerably, where once he could make a film almost every year in the 1990s, 2016 will mark five years in which he hasn’t directed a feature film.
Schumacher’s most recent film was the completely overlooked Nicolas Cage thriller Tresspass (2011), which was released straight to DVD in most territories, with his latest directing work overall being two episodes in the first season of House of Cards (2013), with seemingly no future projects lined up.
I might raise a few eyebrows when I say that I don’t think Joel Schumacher is a bad director, he’s more of a mixed bag. He’s made some good films, he’s made some bad films and he’s made one of the worst films of all time, but I don’t think it’s fair to entirely disregard his entire career just because of one colossal failure.
I will even admit to liking some of his films, from both before and after he made Batman & Robin, which to me at least prove he isn’t the talent-less hack that many make him out to be.
Falling Down (1993) is a solid drama featuring an excellent performance from Michael Douglas as an average man who suddenly snaps and goes on a rampage.
Phone Booth (2003) is a brilliantly tense thriller, thanks in no small part to limited location, being set almost entirely within the titular booth, and featuring a brilliantly creepy off-screen performance from Kiefer Sutherland as a crazed sniper.
Even Batman Forever (1995) is not that bad and has some pretty good moments peppered throughout. Sure it isn’t as good as the Burton instalments and it’s nowhere near as good as the later Nolan films, but it’s a far better film than its train wreck of a sequel.
I think it’s only fair that Hollywood give Joel Schumacher another chance, to let him direct more films, or even some more television to let him get his groove back.
While he certainly isn’t the best director in the world, he is far from the worst, and for every three bad films he makes, he’s almost bound to make at least one good one.