1.5/4, 1990s, Fantasy, Joel Schumacher, Review

Batman & Robin

Batman & Robin (1997) - IMDb

#13 in my ranking of theatrically released Batman films.

I’m going to come very slightly to Joel Schumacher’s defense here. No, I’m not going to go out on a limb and say that Batman & Robin is some kind of masterpiece in need of reappraisal. Instead, I’m going to say that the reason a lot of people say they don’t like this movie isn’t actually what’s wrong with this movie. Schumacher essentially made out to direct a big-budget episode of the Batman television series from the 60s. It’s obvious from the get go, and I think he would have been more successful (not really wholly successful, but closer to it) if he had simply approached it like that completely. I have no love for Akiva Goldsmith, but I think Schumacher put him in an impossible situation when he demanded a live-action cartoon that also, apparently, needed real pathos. The failure of the pathos is the biggest problem here, not the silly cartoon aspects which are often the only things going for the film.

I will say this for the film: the is the first film in this era of the franchise that feels like it’s a single work instead of cobbled together from a few different ideas. A new villain has hit Gotham City, Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger), and he’s attacking the Natural History Museum. Commissioner Gordon (series mainstay Pat Hingle) summons Batman (George Clooney) and Robin (Chris O’Donnell) to the scene to address the matter, and we get a big, silly action set piece with ice skating henchmen, a cacophony of Bat-themed gadgets, a rocket into the nearest reaches of space, and paragliding. It’s unserious stuff, and if the movie had simply continued in this vein, it might have been an okay movie.

Instead, there’s an injection of attempted drama in the idea that Batman thinks that Robin is too risky, eventually leading to Robin declaring that he’s going solo. Now, if one were to imagine that this really were just a big-budget extra episode of the television show from more than thirty years before, this sort of subplot wouldn’t fit. When you boil down that show, it’s essentially a silly police procedural with a masked crusader, red phones, poles that change people’s clothes without explanation, Bat-themed gadgets, and wacky villains. There’s no real room for something emotionally serious like Robin becoming his own man, attempts to heal old wounds, or, God forbid, Alfred dying from an illness. None of this fits the sillier tone. I have a suspicion that either Goldsmith, Schumacher, or some WB suit demanded these kinds of serious plot developments because it’s a movie, not a television show, and you just don’t have merely silly movies. They have to be emotionally resonant. However, since the film is silly to its core, from production design to performances to the basic storyline, the injection of these heavier elements create a weird tonal clash that honestly just doesn’t work except as some kind of unintentional comedy. Apparently, Schumacher had a tendency of yelling through his blowhorn before shots that they were making a cartoon, and yet no Saturday morning cartoon tried to be this serious at times. You put your main characters in these types of stories in peril, not real emotional strains.

Concurrently, somewhere in South America, Dr. Pamela Isley (Uma Therman) dies when her research partner discovers that she knows how he’s been using her chemical Venom to create a super soldier, Bane (Robert Swenson). Her death in a batch of chemicals turns her into a plant (we’re very far from anything remotely realistic here, just run with it, I say) complete with poisoned lips. She takes Bane to Gotham City to begin her revenge against the entirety of mankind for their war on plantlife.

One visual way that this reminds me of the old Batman show is the scene where Poison Ivy reveals herself to the world. It’s a charity auction for women, and there are Batman and Robin (using a large diamond as bait for Mr. Freeze) standing on stage like they’re just part of the crowd. They’re not crouching in the shadows. It’s like they’re just standing in the harshly lit office of Commissioner Gordon on the show.

Ivy and Freeze end up teaming up (the team up doesn’t make a whole lot of sense), and they decide on a plan to freeze the whole world using a telescope and Freeze’s technology that will kill all of mankind, leaving the planet ripe for plants to take over once again.

Into this comes Barbara (Alicia Silverstone), niece to Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Gough). For some reason, she gets an extended motorcycle chase scene that Robin inserts himself into, saving her at the last second. Alfred is dying, and Barbara has come to visit him in his final days, eventually figuring out the secret of Batman. This, of course, leads her to interacting with a computer simulation of her uncle who provides her with a batsuit of her very own.

We’re all set for a big, special effects-laden spectacle of an ending. It’s all nonsense, but it has a certain charm to it, largely driven by the extravagant performances by Uma Thurman and a few members of the supporting cast who seemed to know what kind of movie they were in (Clooney doesn’t realize himself, it seems). The film tries to figure out a way to insert some inert emotional catharsis, but the movie’s too silly for anything to actually resonate.

Now, would this film be good if they simply cut out the dying Alfred and fraying relationship between the Dynamic Duo? No, but I think it would be improved. It’d be more purely silly without the distraction of emotional moments that never had a chance of working. It wouldn’t be good, though, because the plot still makes little sense, there are sequences that serve no purpose (like Barbara’s race), Clooney and O’Donnell take the material too seriously in a way that shows they don’t get it unlike Adam West or Burt Ward did, and it’s overstuffed with characters. However, I think I would have been able to find myself having a slightly better time with the film. It’s bad, but it’s not really bad for the reasons people put forward while it’s still kind of a mess from the ground up. There’s at least one worse live-action Batman movie out there.

Rating: 1.5/4

10 thoughts on “Batman & Robin”

  1. This is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen….that was in focus and had the sound synched correctly. It’s certainly one of the worst Hollywood movies I’ve seen.

    Even knowing what the gay fetish fan director was going for (the Adam West Batman), it is a failure. It’s not fun, it’s not funny. Uma Thurman looks hideous, Arnold’s cold puns are bad as can be imagined, Cloony is smug and unlikeable and Chris O’Donnel…why is Robin in any of these movies, anyway?

    I hate every minute of this movie, literally every minute I’m wincing or gritting my teeth.

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    1. I think you have the majority view, that there’s nothing worthwhile here.

      I don’t think there’s much, but I appreciate the camp of parts of it. It’s almost always misapplied, but it’s still there and I get some enjoyment, however little, out of it.

      Another thought I had afterwards was that, for all of Schumacher’s insistence on making a “comic book” not a “comic book movie”, he actually framed the movie really badly to capture that aesthetic. There are shots of Mr. Freeze throwing people across a room, but the emphasis on the frame isn’t Freeze himself, with his overly muscular suit doing something superhuman, it’s on where the little body of the victim lands. For all of Snyder’s faults, he has a similar fetishization of the human form but knows better how to actually frame a shot for that sort of emphasis on the superhuman.

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      1. Synder is an interesting visual storyteller….I just don’t much like the stories he tells.

        I should say that when Arnold isn’t trying to be ‘funny’ with cold puns, he’s not that bad in this movie. But…I watched this with the wife last year and both of us couldn’t believe how bad this movie was. It’s not just one choice or one scene, it’s bad layered on bad…and it just keeps coming. Ugh. I don’t envy you, watching this.

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      2. The time before this, I couldn’t make it past the opening, but I was determined to make it through. So, I downloaded the Rifftrax and watched it with that. The Rifftrax made it far more tolerable.

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      3. You know that feeling when you don’t like a movie, but you dislike it slightly less than other people? And then you find yourself defending a movie you don’t like all that much?

        Last time this happened to me was the new Conan the Barbarian.

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  2. I do know that feeling.
    In most movies, there’s something worth praising, which is why I decided to mention Arnie’s non-cheesy performances. But on the whole..man, this one was a slog.

    Rifftrax really reduces the difficulty of watching bad movies. (Watch Yambao sometime, I maintain it’s actually a good movie, despite the dubbing and the Riffer jokes)

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