After a year-long cancer journey, filmmaker Joel Schumacher died on June 22, 2020 at the age of 80. With him, he took a style of moviemaking which often-prioritized style, over everything else around it. That sounds like a very back-handed compliment – it’s not. You could argue that the comic book universes we know and love (we love them right?) would not exist if not for Joel Schumacher’s contribution to the canon. This also seems like something less than complimentary, but the truth is Joel Schumacher made films for film-going audiences. He made them loud and messy and wonderful to look at. They weren’t always great, but they were always something.
Schumacher started his career as a costume designer, and then cut his teeth as a screenwriter for hits like Car Wash, Sparkle and The Wiz before becoming one of the most in-demand directors in town. For much of his career, Schumacher was often derided by critics for his over-the-top flamboyance, but it didn’t matter: Audiences loved his movies; He was a hitmaker. An openly gay director of massive, crowd-pleasing hits? In this climate? The correlation for Joel Schumacher simply does not exist in today’s filmmaking system. In the mid-90s he concurrently was at the helm of not one, but two of moviedom’s biggest properties: the Batman franchise and the immensely popular John Grisham adaptations.
That seems absolutely historic now. And it’s remarkably underappreciated how much he was for being both a creator of high-quality popcorn films and as a gay director of mainstream films who imbued his movies with a decidedly queer sensibility. Yes, his instincts often tipped over into excess, but he did it for the benefit of the theatre going audience. Think Baz Luhrmann, but less self-satisfying. So, whether you are a Young scratching your head wondering who Joel Schumacher was or an Old who grew up on his movies, here are ten essential Joel Schumacher films to check out:
St. Elmo’s Fire (1985)
Joel Schumacher was famous for having great stories. In interviews you could just tell he was a fun time – someone who people confided in, someone who loved some hot goss. Can you imagine the tea he would have to spill from this movie? There is no current day comparable to the Brat Pack, and hasn’t been once since – ugh – the P*ssy Posse was prowling the backroom of The Viper Room. They were the absolute hottest group of young actors in the world, all intertwined (reminder that Emilio Estevez and Demi Moore were engaged. To be married!), all starring in films together and running about Hollywood at a time where you’d have to read about their exploits in the newspaper the next day! Truly, the internet has ruined everything.
This movie is peak Brat Pack. A film about a tight-knit post-college friend group (Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, Mare Winningham and Emilio Estevez) navigating love, sex, drugs and step monsters all with hair as outsized as their emotions. It was a big, unexpected hit, sending several careers into the stratosphere, and making a name for Joel Schumacher as the go-to director for movies about hot young things.
The Lost Boys (1987)
You can just picture the meeting now: A cigar chewing fat cat exec, a table full of sycophants. Suddenly, the door to the board room flies open: “We got ‘em! We got the Coreys!” Upon its release (and maybe still, a little?) The Lost Boys was the coolest thing to ever happen. The premise is simple: Two teen brothers (Jason Patric and Corey Haim) move to a California suburb overrun by hot, teen vampires led by Kiefer Sutherland, posing as a biker gang. If that sentence itself doesn’t have you foaming for a taste of sweet, sweet vampire excess, I’ll mention that the boys mom is played by two-time Oscar winner Dianne Wiest, her love interest is played by none other than Richard Gilmore himself (Ed Hermann) and this film marks the first pairing of the iconic Two Coreys: Corey Haim and Corey Feldman. An absolute classic in both the 80s and vampire canon, paced like a video game and shot like a music video.
No one, and I mean not even Garry Marshall himself, has ever harnessed the power of Julia Roberts hair like Joel Schumacher. For much of the late-80s and early-90s, Schumacher, well into his 40s at this point, was the go-to director for anything Hollywood was trying to make ‘hip’. That trend continued with Flatliners, a 1990 supernatural thriller in which a group of brilliant and weirdly hot med students (Roberts along with Kiefer Sutherland, Oliver Platt, Kevin Bacon and William Baldwin) start to – checks notes – kill one another in order to bring themselves back from the dead. Only problem? They are now being haunted by the sins of their past. Unfortunately, for the longevity of this film’s cultural footprint, those sins include racism, sexual assault and – checks notes again – murder. It is so, so dumb. And so, so perfect. It was another big hit – Schumacher’s biggest to date but should mostly be remembered for a moment where Julia Roberts so iconically says “2:10” that it is seared into my brain forever.
Sidenote #1: Sorry to my buddy Chris Feil, because he and Joe Reid will not be able to cover Flatliners on their wonderful podcast This Had Oscar Buzz because it was, in fact, nominated for an Academy Award!
Sidenote #2: This was during the unimaginable ascent of Julia Roberts stardom, a year after back-to-back Oscar nominations for Steel Magnolias and Pretty Woman. A little piece of long-gone Hollywood gossip is that Julia and Kiefer were engaged! And she left him at the altar! For Kiefer’s The Lost Boys castmate Jason Patric! This was all people talked about for literally 2 -5 years. A simpler time.
Falling Down (1993)
After a series of financial successful, but critically derided films (only The Lost Boys is certified fresh), Falling Down was a clear bid to be taken a bit more seriously for the flashy director. Starring Michael Douglas at the height of his powers, Falling Down is about a former defense attorney trekking across Los Angeles on foot to get to his daughter’s birthday. The film is darkly funny, was a mild hit and was one of Schumacher’s best reviewed films, even competing for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. While Douglas’s performance is still riveting (one of his best, actually), the movie isn’t as progressive as it wants to be, borderlining on racist at points. That said, it’s an interesting moment in Schumacher’s career as, up to this point, his films were mostly about pretty youths and this one is decidedly more adult. Michael Douglas is the most adult adult of all-time.
The Client (1994)
Easily my favorite Schumacher. His first of back-to-back Grisham adaptations (sandwiched in between Batman sequels), this is Schumacher at his absolute peak. After the success of The Firm and The Pelican Brief, Schumacher was tapped to direct this adaptation of the John Grisham best seller about a kid who witnesses a mob lawyer kill himself and the attorney who must protect him from both the mob and the FBI. It’s potboiler bliss, that falls decidedly in the “they just don’t make them like this anymore” category. Here Schumacher uses his keen ability to work with younger actors (discovering the late Brad Renfro as protagonist Mark Sway) and help guide an Oscar nominated performance out of Susan Sarandon as attorney Reggie Love (her name is Reggie love you guys). The film is expertly crafted, without failing to give you the substance, heart and character development Schumacher was often accused of ushering to the side.
Batman Forever (1995)
What becomes quite clear going through Joel Schumacher’s filmography is how much actors loved working with him. There are several cases of him working with actors on multiple films (Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, among others). Think for a moment how much famous curmudgeon Tommy Lee Jones must’ve enjoyed his experience with Joel Schumacher on The Client that he signed up for hours of daily make-up to play Two-Face in a Batman movie. Worth more than a dozen Oscars, if you ask me.
Schumacher’s Batman was a radical departure from the Tim Burton films, which had been criticized for getting too dark. Hindsight being 20/20 this is absolutely laughable today. The idea of a Nolan Batman film having a character say something even remotely close to Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman exclaiming “Saved by kitty litter!” when she falls off a flying umbrella is hilarious.
Schumacher’s revamp of the series worked: New Batman (Val Kilmer as Batman is the most ‘90s casting of all-time), the introduction of Robin and a completely new aesthetic for Gotham City. There is more color in the opening sequence of this film than in the combined runtime of Batman and Batman Returns. Most importantly for Schumacher and his career, it was a massive hit, out-pacing the previous Batman film at the box office and ending 1995 as the second-highest grossing film of the year. This also marks Schumacher’s most queer film to-date, cementing his place as a Gay Icon for giving us Jim Carrey’s Riddler, Nicole Kidman’s Dr. Chase Meridian and Chris O’Donnell’s Robin all in one film. If you told me there was a Class Action Lawsuit from some Bible Belt town filed against Warner Brothers, Schumacher and DC Comics for “turning their kids gay” I wouldn’t be surprised. A sexual awakening for some, a roll-licking good time for everyone.
A Time to Kill (1996)
Schumacher’s last Grisham adaptation introduced the world to Matthew McConaughey, netted an a white-hot Sandra Bullock a $6 million paycheck for essentially one-week of work and grossed over $115 million at the summertime box office. This story of Jake Brigance (McConaughey) taking on the case of Carl Lee Hailey (a truly tremendous Samuel L. Jackson, robbed of an Oscar nomination) for murdering two local white supremacists who raped, tortured and tried to kill his young daughter is, to put it in today’s parlance, problematic white savior nonsense. But when taken as a courtroom thriller, it’s at least highly entertaining white savior nonsense. Wonderfully constructed and oppressively, almost comically sweaty.
Batman & Robin (1997)
Schumacher, a long-time Batman fan, actually apologized to fans about the much-maligned final chapter of the ‘90’s Batman flicks. He also admits that the studio directives on the film were to make it as merchandise-friendly as possible. Essentially this is Kids Meal film-making, where the tie-ins come first. You can tell that Schumacher’s soul is not really in this one, so he turned the camp factor up to 11. If you did a shot for every bad Arnold Schwarzenegger ice pun (he plays Mr. Freeze, natch), I fear you’d be dead. But what a way to go! Many consider this one of the worst films of all-time, but those people are… right! And they’re also wrong! If you can’t appreciate this film – Uma Thurman specifically – as a camp classic you are missing the point entirely.
This very small film about the titular Vietnam war training camp and the soldiers sent there, was something of a detox for Schumacher after the bloat – and failure – of Batman & Robin. This was a potent reminder that Schumacher not only had an eye for new talent in star Colin Farrell, but could be introspective and measured enough to tell a quiet, more personal story. While not a commercial hit, it earned Schumacher some of the best notices of his career, even generating some awards buzz for Farrell. You could also say that while this film introduced us to Colin Farrell, it also introduced us to Colin Farrell’s butt, which would be reductive and entirely inappropriate. I mean, you could say that. But I would never. I’m a professional.
The Phantom of the Opera (2004)
The truth is The Phantom of the Opera is not a very good film, nor was it a very big hit (although it cleaned up in international markets). However, it did receive three Golden Globe nomination (including Best Picture) and three Oscar nominations, because, like most Schumacher films, it was absolutely stunning to look at. And while the audience for the longest running show in Broadway history didn’t show up to movie theaters in droves, the ones that did, liked what they saw: The Phantom of the Opera received an ‘A’ Cinemascore from audiences against a 33% Rotten Tomatoes aggregate from critics. If nothing else, Joel Schumacher knew what people liked and how to give it to him. And for that, we should remember him.