Saturday, May 18, 2019

Batman & Robin

When watching movies, you’ll sometimes see one that already has a certain reputation, either good or bad. At this point, it’s best to watch it yourself just to see whether or not it deserves said reputation. You may find that the movie is either overhyped or underappreciated depending on your point of view or how other people have told you about it. In this case, the movie we happened to watch was Batman & Robin (1997), which, even from its initial release, gained and maintained a reputation as one of the worst movies of all time. Even though I haven’t seen Batman Returns (1992) or Batman Forever (1995) from the Burton/Schumacher tetralogy, I still found myself understanding this film’s reputation, though I feel it’s somewhat exaggerated.

Following the events of Batman Forever, Batman (George Clooney) and Robin (Chris O'Donnell) attempt to thwart Mr. Freeze’s (Arnold Schwarzenegger) plan to steal diamonds from Gotham’s natural history museum. When the dynamic duo chases him outside of the museum, Mr. Freeze freezes Robin and Batman chooses to save him over capturing Freeze, allowing him to escape with a large diamond. Back at Wayne Manor, Robin feels that Batman doesn’t trust him enough to carve his own path, an issue only exacerbated when the villainous Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman), formerly Dr. Pamela Isley, enters the picture and uses a pheromone to distract them from her plan to give the planet back to mother nature.

Batman and Robin have to defeat the evil Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger).

Right away, the story and plot don’t really make any sense. There’s a bit to unpack when explaining exactly why, so it might be better to explain in sections.

First, there’s Mr. Freeze’s plan. For those who are unaware, his plan and motivation are based on a Daytime Emmy-winning episode of Batman: The Animated Series titled “Heart of Ice” (1992), wherein Mr. Freeze is attempting to avenge the death of his wife, Nora Fries. This would make Mr. Freeze a deep villain, but any heart and pathos from his story is defused by a barrage of ice-based puns and one-liners he makes throughout his time onscreen. A connection between diamonds and ice is also, perhaps, the only real reason his suit and ice gun are now diamond-powered, a detail not present in other incarnations of the character.

Then there’s Poison Ivy. Her motivation for trying to let mother nature reclaim the planet stems from her abuse from Dr. John Woodrue (John Glover), who also repurposed her research to create a substance for super soldiers, beginning with Bane (Jeep Swenson). Her drive is otherwise only vaguely defined and her plant powers aren’t explored as well as they could’ve been, as she instead relies on Bane for muscle and her pheromone powers to mess with her victim’s heads. She also has a poison kiss, but there is no explanation for how she knows this upon turning into Poison Ivy. In fact, there’s no real explanation at all for how she knows exactly how her body has changed upon her resurrection, including how her blood was replaced with aloe and her skin with chlorophyll.

Pamela Isley (Uma Thurman) before her transformation.

Related to Poison Ivy, Bane has no real character to speak of. He simply acts as her lackey and does whatever she wishes without question as she keeps pumping Venom into his veins. There is, of course, no explanation given for why he chooses to follow her, except the idea that she saved him in Brazil. Otherwise, his role is almost unnecessary, as there is no conceivable benefit for him acting the way he does. A much better onscreen depiction of the character can be found in The Dark Knight Rises (2012), where he actually has a personality even though he too ends up as a glorified lackey in the end.

Bane (Jeep Swenson) is almost superfluous to the movie.

Lastly, there’s the Bat Family as a whole. The tension between Batman and Robin feels fabricated solely to deliver a rather ham-fisted message about trust, along with an unsubtle parallel made with Alfred Pennyworth’s (Michael Gough) servitude to Bruce Wayne over freedom. An additional message about the importance of family is drilled into the audience’s heads with the introduction of Batgirl (Alicia Silverstone), who in this incarnation is Alfred’s niece, Barbara Wilson. Barbara doesn’t really have much to her character, as she feels inserted solely for the “family” message and the only visible evidence that she has any amount of training for fighting crime is that she’s really good with a motorcycle, plus a passing reference to judo classes. As Batgirl, she has no real presence, since she doesn’t even show up in that persona until closer to the end of the movie. In a baffling turn, she’s British, but has no accent to speak of when she comes to Gotham.

Later into the movie, Alfred is revealed to have the same disease as Nora, a potentially emotional twist that has none of the execution it deserved. An even more ridiculous turn is that when Batman confronts Mr. Freeze about the cure following his defeat, Mr. Freeze just so happens to have it on him in a slot in his armor. Convenient, but nonsensical.

What doesn’t really help the writing, however, is the puntastic dialogue from all of the characters, particularly in combat. While I usually don’t have a problem with puns in small doses, the obnoxious number of them in this film’s script is mostly groan-inducing and the one-liners are a bit too cheesy for their own good. At times, these one-liners are also oddly sexual, especially when Poison Ivy is involved, as she herself is the source of many such comments.

There also seems to be a general attempt at replicating the campiness of the 1966 Batman series with Adam West. It ultimately fails in this regard, as the campiness is ramped up so high that any charm it may have had wears off a bit quickly. Of course, there is also a fundamental difference in the execution of the camp between these two works. Where the Adam West series knew it was inherently silly and ran with it, Batman & Robin forces itself to be campy while also taking itself a bit too seriously, resulting in an uneven and inconsistent tone. In this way, the movie is constantly holding itself back.

Equally as nonsensical as the story is the setting, both physically and logically. The most noticeable feature of Gotham in this movie is the presence of giant statues intertwined with the scenery. A chase sequence with Mr. Freeze involves busting through one of the statues and using one of the hands as a ramp, with questionable physics at work. Additionally, the Gotham Observatory is constructed as part of a giant statue holding up the building, which seems like a very precarious and unsafe building design.

A memorable image, but not a logical one.

Of course, there’s also the designs of Gotham’s street gangs. When Poison Ivy looks for a hideout and finds a spot she likes, she has Bane throw out a very neon-colored gang that’s so garish they could probably glow in the dark. At another point in the movie, Barbara engages in illegal street racing for money. In the background, you can spot what are presumably gang members with oddly colored hair so abnormally large they could pass for 80s glam rockers.

This is a good segue into the costume designs, which are rather odd to say the least. Perhaps the most notorious and mocked aspect is the visible nipples on Batman and Robin’s suits, which are distracting whenever you notice them in a scene. Observant viewers will also notice that Mr. Freeze’s suit features nipples, though incorporated only slightly more subtly. This, in combination with the odd codpieces incorporated into these suits, can also give the film a homoerotic subtext if you choose to view it that way. While I’m still on this particular detail, it seems odd that Batgirl would be the only one without visible nipples on the costume, but I suppose they couldn’t do that and maintain a PG-13 rating.

Visible nipples aside, Mr. Freeze’s costume looks overly busy, with a needlessly complex design and numerous glowing, translucent panels that are at times visually distracting. As bad as this costume is, however, Poison Ivy gets the worst of it. Her initial costume upon her resurrection isn’t actually that bad and is actually rather fitting for her character. Over time, however, she changes outfits regularly, to the point where you start to wonder how she acquires them, and each one gets progressively worse in visual appeal. On a lesser note, Bane’s costume is fairly comics-accurate, but that’s maybe one of the only things you can say about him to begin with.

Poison Ivy's costume gets progressively worse, culminating in this.

During the climax of the movie, the costumes for Batman, Robin and Batgirl seem to change to black and silver. These costumes in particular seem over-designed and too flashy for heroes who are meant to blend into the shadows. The silver portions also manage to get more distracting the longer you look at them (and still have visible nipples). The change is nonsensical in-universe, as well as an obvious ploy to sell additional merchandise.

The black and silver costumes are over-designed and overly flashy.

The entire movie, actually, feels like a blatant vehicle to sell toys. It actually was, in fact, made for this purpose, as director Joel Schumacher has admitted in DVD commentary that Warner Bros. told him to make it more toyetic. This would actually explain other aspects of the movie which wouldn’t otherwise make any sense, including the fact that the Batmobile seemed to only seat one, when it traditionally seats two, forcing Robin to ride a motorcycle, the Redbird. Batgirl also rides a motorcycle, likely for this same reason.

I can’t find any information on how well the merchandise sold at the time, so I can’t say for certain whether or not the movie succeeded in its mission. As for us, the movie was such a boring slog to sit through that none of us had any retroactive desire to obtain any of the merch.

And no line of merch would be complete without a (critically panned) tie-in game.

Another factor that holds this film back is the poor casting and, subsequently, acting. George Clooney appears a bit young for the role of Bruce Wayne and too good-looking for the role of Batman. It’s hard to view him as someone who’s had his fair share of fights with Gotham’s criminals and supervillains. Conversely, Chris O'Donnell appears too old for the role of Robin, as he is more obviously a 27-year-old playing a teenager. I don’t have much to say about Michael Gough, since his age and background were appropriate for portraying Alfred Pennyworth.

Then there’s the obvious stunt casting. While not a great actor, Arnold Schwarzenegger had a lot of star power at the time, likely the main reason to cast him as Mr. Freeze. Uma Thurman had made a name for herself in Pulp Fiction (1994), which won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, only three years prior, so they likely hired her as Pamela Isley/Poison Ivy to capitalize on her newfound fame. The same could be said for Alicia Silverstone as Barbara Wilson/Batgirl, as she had starred in the critically-acclaimed Clueless (1995) only two years prior.

Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl. 

As for the actual acting, none of it is really any good. Just about everyone has a stiff and generally emotionless delivery that contributes to the idea of Batman & Robin as a cure for insomnia. The only one who shows any real emotion is, ironically, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who seems like he’s having fun playing Mr. Freeze. Due to the general quality of his acting, his portrayal of the villain seems more forgivable, since it’s something you’d actually expect from him. When compared to everyone else’s acting in this particular film, any deeper pathos he might display feels more like an accident than anything deliberate.

Of course, none of the performances did any real damage to anyone’s careers. George Clooney’s role as Batman allowed him to make the transition from television to Hollywood, where he has continued to find modest success directing and producing alongside his film roles. Chris O’Donnell hasn’t really been in anything as high profile as Batman & Robin since the film’s release, but has found success on television, where he currently has a long history as Special Agent G. Callen on NCIS: Los Angeles. Uma Thurman would later star in Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003) and Volume 2 (2004) and become an award-winning Broadway actress. Alicia Silverstone got more of the short end, as she hasn’t been in anything as big as Batman & Robin, but did find success voicing the lead character of the cartoon Braceface (2001) and still gets work to this day. As for Schwarzenegger, he came out relatively unscathed with successful roles in the Expendables franchise and later Terminator movies, as well as a stint as California Governor, among other things.

There’s also the technical side of Batman & Robin to consider, namely the special effects, which haven’t really aged well at all in the last 20 years. There are at times very obvious green screen effects, most notably when Batman and Robin blow up a rocket that Mr. Freeze launches toward the beginning of the movie. Practical effects don’t always fare much better, as there is a certain cheapness in the quality of the sets, especially when something is being destroyed. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so noticeable today if the film didn’t rely so heavily on visual effects to move the story along.

The score by Elliot Goldenthal is also not very memorable, due in part to how boring the actual movie is as well as how nothing in it really stood out from the rest. Interestingly, however, one of the songs recorded for the film, “The End Is the Beginning Is the End” by The Smashing Pumpkins, would later receive a Grammy award for Best Hard Rock Performance. Whether or not this award was deserved is up to you.

No review of Batman & Robin would be complete, however, without going into its legacy and impact on Superhero films.

During filming of Batman & Robin, Warner Bros. liked the dailies so much that they ordered a fifth Batman film with Joel Schumacher once again in the Director’s chair. This fifth film, titled Batman Unchained, would’ve had Scarecrow as the main villain, who would’ve used his fear toxin to resurrect Joker as a hallucination in Batman’s mind. Although the film was scheduled for a mid-1999 release, the poor reception to Batman & Robin caused the studio to cancel the project. However, Schumacher still felt that he “owed the Batman culture a real Batman movie” and approached Warner Bros. about an adaptation of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One in mid-1998. Instead, the studio handed the project to Darren Aronofsky to direct, but those plans ultimately fell through. In the end, Warner Bros. hired Christopher Nolan to direct a new Batman film in 2003, which became Batman Begins (2005).

Batman & Robin’s impact on superhero films is really undeniable when you stop to think about it. After the failure of this movie, future films in the genre became noticeably less campy and instead headed tonally in the opposite direction. It would take three years for superhero film to creep back into the mainstream, beginning with Fox’s X-Men (2000), which critics praised for its darker approach to the genre, and its financial success led to a sequel, X2 (2003), and eventually a full film franchise. Around the same time, Sony released Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) and Spider-Man 2 (2004), the latter of which has been considered one of the best superhero films of all time. Following the release of Marvel Studios’ Iron Man in 2008, however, the genre would become more or less a Hollywood staple, with no signs of stopping anytime soon.

Superhero films began a slow recovery with X-Men (2000).

Then there’s the enduring reaction to Batman & Robin itself. The film currently holds a 10% on Rotten Tomatoes with the consensus, "Joel Schumacher's tongue-in-cheek attitude hits an unbearable limit in Batman & Robin, resulting in a frantic and mindless movie that's too jokey to care much for." The movie has appeared on a number of Worst Movie lists, including a top spot on Empire’s “The 50 Worst Movies Ever.” It was also nominated for 11 Golden Raspberry awards, including Best Picture, but “won” only one for Worst Supporting Actress (Alicia Silverstone as Barbara Wilson/Batgirl), and Michael J. Nelson, of MST3K fame, called it “the single worst thing that we as human beings have ever produced in recorded history.” In the 2005 Special Edition DVD release, Joel Schumacher himself would actually apologize for Batman & Robin, saying, “If there's anybody watching this, that... let's say, loved Batman Forever, and went into Batman & Robin with great anticipation, if I've disappointed them in any way, then I really want to apologize. Because it wasn't my intention. My intention was just to entertain them.”

So, is Batman & Robin truly one of the worst movies of all time? Between the pun-filled writing, wooden acting, awful costumes and special effects, toyetic approach to writing, slow pacing and homage to the Adam West Batman series, it’s easy to come to that conclusion. However, I personally don’t think it’s one of the worst movies ever made, as I don’t feel comfortable enough with making such a claim. What I can definitely say is that Batman & Robin is one of the worst superhero movies ever made and certainly the worst Batman film I’ve ever seen. I would really only recommend it if you want to see how bad it is for yourself of if you want to learn exactly what not to do with a superhero movie. At the very best, you might find some ironic entertainment value, but only if you’re in the right mood.

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