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by Jason F. Koenigsberg

Joel Schumacher passed away at age 80 after a year long battle with cancer. Schumacher actually directed some really good movies in the 80’s and 90’s but his legacy will be forever tarnished as the man who added nipples to the Bat-suit, created the Bat credit card, and temporarily destroyed the Batman franchise with Batman and Robin (1997). In fact he even rebounded after destroying Warner Bros. biggest franchise and consistently cranked out movies in the late 90’s and early 2000’s with varying degrees of quality. He has since publicly apologized for going too far with the campiness of Batman and Robin and took full responsibility for fans being disappointed in the movie. He admitted that he was under tremendous pressure from the studio to make a family friendly Batman in order to secure marketing deals with advertisers and toy companies but still, it is very rare to see a director be a stand up guy and apologize for letting down ticket buyers. Joel Schumacher was not the most consistent director, but when his movies worked, they undeniably worked very well. 

One thing about Joel Schumacher that we all owe him for was his ability to spot talent. From looking at his resume he gave Kiefer Sutherland, Brad Renfro, Matthew McConaughey, Colin Farrell, and Gerard Butler their first leading roles in a major motion picture. Schumacher is unquestionably gifted in that respect for helping these actors have the careers they had and audiences have all benefited from their abilities. 

Schumacher started out as a window dresser and costumer designer before becoming a filmmaker. He had a degree in fashion and that showed through in most of his pictures. Few people can ever say that a Joel Schumacher film looked ugly and had bad costumes or set design. If anything the sets and costumes in his films stood out too much and took away from the other elements on screen. He wrote the screenplays for the films Sparkle (1976), Carwash (1976), and The Wiz (1978) and directed a few TV movies before his first theatrical directing job The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981) a starring Lily Tomlin as the title character. 

It was not until 1985 when Joel Schumacher scored his first theatrical hit film St. Elmo’s Fire which was about a group of young adults just graduating college and entering the real world. It made good use of its brat pack cast members including Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, and Demi Moore among many others. That movie caught the attention of filmmaker Richard Donner who hired Joel Schumacher to direct his next film which Donner would produce. That film would be the very cool and savagely 80’s vampire flick The Lost Boys (1987) which was his Schumacher’s biggest hit yet. That movie is still revered today thanks to horror films never really going out of style, and nostalgia being more ripe than ever. The Lost Boys was critically panned but made a lot of money and nobody can refute that it is a great looking movie with crisp cinematography and vibrant colors that flowed well with its creepy, dark soundtrack which featured a number of hit songs that remain well regarded today. Schumacher also gave actors Kiefer Sutherland and Jason Patric their first leading roles and both of whom would go on to become big stars. Along with those two actors Schumacher did a great job working with an eclectic cast of relative newcomers like Jami Gertz, Corey Feldman, and Corey Haim with seasoned veterans such as Edward Herrmann and recent Oscar winner Dianne Wiest. The result was a fun, great looking albeit often implausible 80’s flick that remains a classic of its era, not necessarily one that holds the test of time but it remains very beloved by adults of a certain age. 


With those two films Schumacher had established his style and found himself as a hot commodity and in demand director with stars and studios wanting him to helm their films. He directed Cousins (1989) with Ted Danson and Isabella Rossellini, but it his next picture Flatliners (1990) was his highest grossing film yet about a group of med students experimenting with life and death and the consequences of their careless antics. It reunited Schumacher with Kiefer Sutherland who starred opposite his real life love interest Julia Roberts and marked the first of many times Joel Schumacher would work with Oliver Platt. Critics may not have been kind to Flatliners when it premiered but it holds up fairly well today as a solid thriller and morality story about young people foolishly meddling with science in ways that they never should have and it is a million times more interesting and better looking than the vapid 2017 remake. 

Joel Schumacher followed that up with a film that reunited him with Julia Roberts in the melodrama Dying Young (1991) where she plays a nurse who falls in love with a terminally ill patient played by Campbell Scott. It was a moderate hit and after this movie is when older more established actors started taking notice of Joel Schumacher’s work and wanted to work with him and have Schumacher’s vision direct the more mature scripts that they intended to star in. One of those big stars was Academy Award winner Michael Douglas who entrusted Joel Schumacher to direct him in a movie role that was very different than his normal big budget picture. In spring of 1993 Falling Down was released and earned massive acclaim from critics and audiences. This was a game changer for Joel Schumacher as a director and today it is still often hailed as his greatest picture and one of Michael Douglas’ finest performances. Falling Down is the story of a man who is frustrated by society and in the span of one very bad day begins to mentally and emotionally deteriorate and lashes out in violent ways. This is not like any character Michael Douglas had ever played before and he showed great range in a smart and thrilling drama. It also helps that Robert Duvall gave an outstanding performance as the detective on his trail in the cliche of a cop on his last day on the force trying to peacefully resolve his last assignment. What may have been a very run-of-the-mill screenplay turned into a much better than average and intense picture that remains a career highlight of everyone involved. 

Falling Down also started the beginning of a very profitable partnership between Joel Schumacher and Warner Bros. that would last through the next five years and end with a grandiose bomb, but 1993 through 1997 with WB Studios would be the biggest and most lucrative years for Joel Schumacher. His next film was a legal thriller The Client (1994) based on a John Grisham best seller. It starred Tommy Lee Jones fresh off his Oscar winning role in The Fugitive (1993) and Susan Sarandon who earned a Best Actress Academy Award nomination for this film. The Client also introduced the world to Brad Renfro in his first acting role. Schumacher discovered him and he went on to have a successful career as a child star for the rest of the 90’s until his tragic death from a heroin overdose in 2008. It also was the first major screenplay from Akiva Goldsman who would go on to write the next four scripts for Joel Schumacher’s movies and eventually win an Academy Award for adapting A Beautiful Mind (2001). The Client was fast tracked to be a major motion picture after Paramount released the very successful Tom Cruise thriller The Firm (1993) the previous summer. Warner Bros. wanted in on the John Grisham business and turned to Joel Schumacher to be the one to deliver and he did.

After that major success WB Studios went to Schumacher to continue their biggest property… the Batman franchise. After Tim Burton declined to direct a third Batman film for them and his Batman actor Michael Keaton walked away as well they asked Joel Schumacher to take over. Schumacher had his work cut out for him and Warner Bros. wanted him to deliver a dark yet more friendly Batman than Tim Burton had. For all intents and purposes he did exactly that with Batman Forever (1995) which was not only the highest grossing film of Schumacher’s career but also the highest grossing film of 1995. Batman Forever replaced Michael Keaton with Val Kilmer behind the mask, he did a serviceable job in the role although this one did not exactly require as much emotion and mystery to be emoted by Batman/Bruce Wayne. Schumacher brought Tommy Lee Jones on board to play the main villain Two-Face. As you have probably noticed Joel Schumacher likes working with a lot of the same actors and he must have been really good to work with because otherwise big actors like Tommy Lee Jones, Julia Roberts, Kiefer Sutherland, and many others would not want to return to work for Mr. Schumacher. Sadly, Tommy Lee Jones was probably at the height of his career two years after winning his Oscar and surely commanded a huge salary but he was not really given much of a chance to actually invent a comic book character for the big screen. It seemed like the only direction he received was to do his best impression of Jack Nicholson’s Joker from Tim Burton’s Batman (1989). The film also starred Jim Carrey as the Riddler, who was in 1995 probably the biggest box office star of the entire film, also playing an over-the-top version of Nicholson’s Joker combined with his Ace Ventura shtick. Batman Forever also had Nicole Kidman before she was insanely popular as a psychiatrist/love interest for Bruce Wayne, and Chris O’Donnell as Robin. The movie is a mess at times but a good looking mess with memorable sets, costumes, sharp cinematography and a superb soundtrack featuring big hit songs from Seal, U2, and The Offspring among others. He did go overboard with the neon lights and even worse with his next Batman film, but it was a brighter and more colorful Batman on the big screen. As a movie intended to sell tickets, as well as video games, happy meal toys, and soundtracks, Batman Forever delivered the goods and despite what critics thought, everyone involved came out a lot richer.

Matthew McConaughey defends Samuel L. Jackson in ‘A Time to Kill’

Warner Bros. asked Schumacher again to direct a legal thriller based on a John Grisham novel since his previous one was such a success. The next film was A Time to Kill (1996), the story of a young lawyer who has to defend a black man in Mississippi who is charged with murdering the men who raped his ten year old daughter. Despite the dark subject matter this film would prove to be an even bigger success than The Client. This time he entrusted Matthew McConaughey to be the leading role with some savvy dealings with the studio heads and a big thanks to Sandra Bullock who showed her support for the decision agreeing to star in the film being billed first in the cast even though she was not technically the main character. In fact, McConaughey was billed third behind Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson, and right in front of Kevin Spacey above the title. All the behind the scenes politics ended up working out as A Time to Kill was a huge success with critics and audiences grossing over $100 million during the crowded summer of 1996 which was otherwise dominated by special effects extravaganzas like Independence Day and Twister. Samuel L. Jackson’s performance was the stand out and he earned a Golden Globe nomination although many feel he should have been nominated or even won an Oscar for his role. A Time to Kill also reunited Joel Schumacher with Oliver Platt, Kiefer Sutherland and he even got to direct Kiefer’s father, the legendary Donald Sutherland along with Academy Award winner Brenda Fricker and Patrick McGoohan. Older actors along with young up and coming stars like Ashley Judd, Charles S. Dutton, along with the other big names mentioned above. A Time to Kill is probably Joel Schumacher’s best movie not only because it is such a riveting and powerful thriller about social justice, but because it did the two things that Schumacher tended to do best throughout his career, find a relatively unknown actor and make him a star, in this case Matthew McConaughey who is now an Oscar winner and still a huge actor twenty-four years later, and blend older veteran actors to work seamlessly with younger talented up and coming stars with bright careers ahead of them. 

At this point Joel Schumacher was a valuable player for WB Studios and his career seemed to go, John Grisham thriller, Batman movie, Grisham thriller, Batman movie. But his next Batman movie would be his last and probably for good reason. Perhaps Schumacher was under a lot more scrutiny and pressure to deliver a more cheerful and happy Batman movie this time around but his fourth and final Batman film entitled Batman and Robin (1997) would become one of the most infamous bombs in movie history. Batman and Robin is a punchline more than it is a movie, however, this film represents the nadir of comic book cinema. Never before and never again has a studio treated a comic book property with such disdain and such a lack of gravity towards the source material. Everything about Batman and Robin is insincere and was put on the screen just to make a profit. When people are making a comic book movie, their goal is to make something that is as far from Batman and Robin as possible. With a clear contempt for the audience and the source material, Batman and Robin has influenced cinema as much as Michael Cimino’s mega bomb Heaven’s Gate (1980). Think back to the hits from the summer of 1997. When is the last time anyone had a meaningful conversation about Men in Black or Air Force One? Batman and Robin‘s notorious infamy has outlived the hits it lost to at the box office. Plus it is a low point for great actors George Clooney, Uma Thurman and especially Arnold Schwarzenegger who looked and sounded like he had never been in a movie before. Perhaps the world needed a film as bombastic as Batman and Robin in order to reset the franchise and hand the reigns over to Christopher Nolan eight years later to deliver his dark and serious Batman trilogy. 

Schumacher mainlined his dignity, swallowed his pride and apologized for the film, taking sole responsibility for disappointing so many Batman fans. He grew up a huge fan of comic books and loved Batman so it surely hurt him that he had become public enemy #1 and one of the most hated villains in comic book cinema. Batman and Robin also ended his fruitful partnership with Warner Bros. after having a string of successes for them. The failure of Batman and Robin was just too enormous and they parted ways. Schumacher remained busy continuing to work hard and consistently averaging putting out a movie a year for most of his career. In 1998 he did not have a film released but rebounded in 1999 with two movies released during that calendar year. In the spring of 1999 he directed then red hot Academy Award winner Nicolas Cage in the dark and grimy 8mm and later in November of 1999 released Flawless with veteran actor Robert De Niro and relative up and coming star Philip Seymour Hoffman, once again the Schumacher specialty. Both films underperformed at the box office and critics were not pleased either. 8mm was about Nicolas Cage investigating a snuff film and diving deep into that underground world. It gave meaty performances to Joaquin Phoenix and James Gandolfini when both of their careers were on the rise, but is not really much to write home about. Flawless involves De Niro as a homophobic stroke victim who turns to his drag queen neighbor (Hoffman) for speech therapy. Flawless is a showcase for two great actors, one aging star and another up and coming, to demonstrate their skills in two very different and showy roles. It seemed like an attempt to get them Oscar nominations and half the story was just the conversations between the two in their New York apartment. The other half involved De Niro’s cop character and some generic plot about criminals and thieves in their apartment building that felt shoehorned in. 

Those mediocre responses to his two films from 1999 did not slow Schumacher down at all. In 2000 he made a gritty Vietnam war film entitled Tigerland that is most famous now for being the first starring role for Colin Farrell. Tigerland never got a wide release and therefore did not make much money, the lowest grossing Schumacher film of his career but it did receive rave reviews especially for Colin Farrell who earned some Best Actor nominations and awards at the end of the year sparking more interest in both its director and lead actor. Farrell would go on to be one of the biggest rising stars over the next few years and Joel Schumacher continued to crank out movie after movie for the first few years of the twenty-first century. 

Colin Farrell in ‘Tigerland’

His next film was an action flick Bad Company starring Academy Award winner Anthony Hopkins and comedian Chris Rock who at this point in his career was changing trajectories and was an up and coming movie star. Again the veteran and newcomer sharing screen time and lead roles. It was delayed due to its violent content after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 and was eventually released in June 2002 to not much fanfare from critics or audiences. But Joel Schumacher was already working on his next film so the failure of Bad Company did not phase him much. His next movie Phone Booth (2003) was more successful but it seemed that bad luck was following Joel Schumacher as this movies release date had to be postponed as well. This is one of the more experimental films to be released from a major studio with an established director and big stars attached likely because the budget was kept small. Colin Farrell was still a relatively new star and owed a lot of his success at this point to Joel Schumacher so he agreed to star in this film, a thriller meant to take place in real time that dealt with an enemy in New York City that was not foreign terrorists but a sniper threatening a mans life if he hangs up and leaves the phone booth. Even in the early 2000’s phone booths were not very common and today this movie could never be made because of our reliance on cell phones. The movie even has a prologue scene that explains this is the “last phone booth in Manhattan”. So why did the studio decide to delay the release of Phone Booth from the fall of 2002 to April 2003? Because in the weeks leading up to its release there was a real sniper killing people in the Washington DC area. The DC Beltway sniper and his accomplice were eventually caught after about a three week horrific period that resulted in the deaths of ten people and several more injured. By the time Phone Booth came out most people were unfazed about its connection, or lack thereof, with similarities to the real life sniper and the movie which did not cost much to make turned a profit. It contains an affecting performance from Colin Farrell and even reunited Joel Schumacher with another frequent collaborator, Kiefer Sutherland as the sniper. 

It seems that despite whatever troubles his movies face from within the production or from outside parties nothing could stop Schumacher. He just kept directing movies no matter what. In the fall of 2003 Joel Schumacher released his next movie Veronica Guerin, starring Cate Blanchett as a real life reporter who discovers information about drug dealers and writes stories exposing their actions in Ireland. It also starred Colin Farrell and Brenda Fricker who both previously worked with Schumacher. This time the reviews were great and Blanchett even got a Golden Globe nomination, but the movie itself made very little at the box office. It seems at this point that whenever Schumacher made a critically acclaimed movie audiences were apathetic for some reason. 

Joel Schumacher would only direct two more theatrically released films and neither one performed well at the box office. He reunited with WB Studios for the first and only time since the Batman and Robin fiasco to adapt Andrew Lloyd Weber’s beloved musical The Phantom of the Opera (2004) into a motion picture. After the successes of Moulin Rouge (2001) and Chicago (2002) it seemed that musicals were in especially if they were released during awards season and Warner Bros. wanted in on the action and duplicate those films success. However critics were lukewarm and audiences stayed away from Schumacher’s faithful adaptation of the Broadway musical. It did bolster the careers of Gerard Butler, Emmy Rossum, and Patrick Wilson who would go on to have much bigger successes on the big and small screen. However, today Schumacher’s Phantom is mostly forgotten. His final theatrical film was The Number 23 (2007) which reunited him with Jim Carrey for the first time since their very successful collaboration on Batman Forever. This was an interesting casting against type with Jim Carrey in his first straight thriller about a man who is slowly becoming delusional as he obsesses over a book and a number and how everything seems to add up to that number. It is an interesting curio to see Jim Carrey in this role, the only serious thriller he has starred in to date but the movie itself was nothing special other than his casting as he almost turns into a real life take on The Riddler he played for Schumacher before. 

The rest of Joel Schumacher’s filmography went straight to video and he never achieved the giant successes he had in the 80’s and 90’s. In the end Joel Schumacher left an indelible legacy on cinema working hard throughout the latter part of the twentieth century working with some of the biggest stars of their time. Whatever his reputation may have been, he obviously was adept at handling big egos from big stars. Many stories have been told about Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, and Jim Carrey to be difficult to work with yet somehow Joel Schumacher was able to make it work so well that they were all willing to agree to work with him multiple times. He also had a keen eye for spotting young talent either from up and coming actors that just needed their big role that would make them a star, or taking a complete unknown and giving them their big chance on screen. Sadly, his legacy will always be with the black eye from Batman and Robin, but he made enough other great films that it cancels out his biggest bomb and he is a director who made great films worth remembering. Joel Schumacher was inconsistent as a director but even in his mediocre films they had an excitement and energy and a polished look that made them stand out as having outstanding production values and looked like a lot of tender love and care went into making them. 

The Best Joel Schumacher Films:

  1. A Time to Kill
  2. Falling Down
  3. The Lost Boys
  4. Batman Forever
  5. Flawless
  6. Tigerland
  7. Flatliners
  8. Phone Booth
  9. The Client
  10. The Incredible Shrinking Woman

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