Joel Schumacher left us in the most fitting way. On June 22, 2020, Schumacher passed away after a brief journey with cancer. An openly gay director whose gayness permeated into his work left this world on the most sacred of months for LGBTQ folks: Pride Month. You could say that this is my piece for Pride, but that feels cheap because this piece is not to fill a quota of the dozens of obituaries and tributes to Schumacher. Think of this as a celebration of life or a thank you letter to someone who would affect my life not only as a film critic, but as a lesbian giving thanks to an elder who paved the way for people like us.
Schumacher was a character that bragged about sleeping with 20,000 men who inspired wet dreams in generations of young queers such as yours truly with the way he lit a scene, constructed the mood and of course, masterfully intertwine something camp with stylish visuals that still inspire artists and filmmakers to this day. However, I realize that I am speaking from a place of love and adoration. Even as we learn that he has passed, I still see drive by mentions of his movies being awful and how he maybe wrote one or two good movies. Mostly, these people are not exactly like me. They’re either cisgender, heterosexual, or really, really dedicated to the idea that Batman as a concept is even mildly straight and how that MUST be preserved. OK, Frank Miller. We will get to the Schumacher-Batman movies soon enough, but I would like to highlight some aspects of Schumacher’s career that most people do not know about!
To highlight Joel Schumacher’s early career in the ’70s is to categorize his work as being “Unsung Contributions to Black Cinema,” with his work on such beloved black musicals as Sparkle and the big screen adaptation of the groundbreaking all-black re-imagining of The Wiz. Schumacher’s contribution to The Wiz has been unacknowledged or treated as a fun fact, but even though he was not in the director’s seat for it, you can start to see where his authorial voice begins to grow and flourish as his career continues. While mainstream (straight, male centric) film criticism likes to pigeonhole Schumacher as being at his best when it comes to 80s classics such as St. Elmo’s Fire and The Lost Boys, the fact that he cut his teeth in Hollywood with films that were not widely seen by a white audience during and after its lifetime is a demonstration of his versatility.
Ultimately, Schumacher was a master of the genre film with being able to go from chintzy musicals, ordinary teen dramas, extraordinary teen dramas, all flavors of romance, and finally, superhero movies. This is where I lose all sorts of integrity and decorum to promptly say the Schumacher Batman movies were and still are GOOD and you can bring all that good logic and facts s--t all you want because Batman and Robin unironically turned me gay AND dramatic! Yes, I know, I know, but the sheer amount of unbridled joy that I still feel to this day when I watch Batman and Robin because it was so properly insane like a Batman comic.
It is so cliche to say I felt seen with that movie, but I did. As I get older, the more I realized that I had my first inkling that I might like girls as I saw Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy seductively shed that purple gorilla suit or that I got my first glimpse of bottom representation with Chris O’Donnell as Robin-But-Totally-Nightwing’s pouting and desire to be MORE than a sidekick.
Even now, I think the movie had a lot of good ideas that were ultimately weighted down by a studio that wants Joel Schumacher to do at least a trilogy’s worth of material in one movie. Batman under Schumacher was just unabashedly gay, joyous, stylish and a mess all at the same time and I am thrilled to say that it has imprinted on my soul as a film nerd and a gay woman.
While camp and the many ways to lovingly sculpt a superhero costume was his bread and bother, Schumacher showed that he was capable of interrogating the darkest aspects of what humans are capable of with Falling Down and A Time To Kill. But sadly, those are movies that I do not have a great deal of love for compared to his entries in the Batman canon and Phantom of the Opera (2004). However, they show that Schumacher could be serious and could court an audience that would grow to see him as a spectacle of Hollywood giving anyone a blank check after a successful movie.
Therein lies my frustration at the snobbish mentions of him being a terrible filmmaker; Joel Schumacher was versatile. He was not just the Batnipples and Bat Credit Card guy! He was a filmmaker who was able to wear many hats and create worlds that were ultimately shaped by a gay voice in a time where that was fairly uncommon.
Despite the joy that I feel writing this piece, I am immediately sobered by the fact that the man behind all the camp and movies I love is no longer here to create more art. Joel Schumacher leaves behind a lengthy legacy that I feel unqualified and overwhelmed to even say that, but he leaves behind precious gifts of messiness, style and pure entertainment. May his memory be a blessing.