Schwarzenegger Month: Batman & Robin

Ah, Batman & Robin, the movie that killed the Batman film franchise. I get it. After the Batman comic books took on a darker tone in the late ’80s, it was only natural that the new films that began with Tim Burton’s Batman would become more serious and less campy. Batman, his character and his fictional world, had changed. I also get what the director of this film, Joel Schumacher, was trying to do. He understood the character of Batman from a different era. When he chose to craft a Batman movie he chose to do so in the form of a costume ball. Bright colors, festive music, outrageous outfits — its participants are all out for a wonderful night on the town, and all seem to be in on the joke. This was the Batman from the comics, just not the right Batman comics.

The Tim Burton films are praised for bringing seriousness to the character, but a lot of this is misremembered history. Go back and look at his Batman, and a viewer is confronted with many similarities to Schumacher’s work. There is an outlandish bad guy, a coterie of loyal, disposable henchmen, and a city that could only exist in a fever dream or a movie. Burton’s movies have camp, too. He just cut down on the silliness.

As for the comics, even though the stakes in the stories were raised, it has really only been a small handful that take on narrative depth beyond what one would find normally in superhero comics. There were still plenty of stories coming out around the time Batman & Robin was released in 1997 that would have fit right in with what Schumacher made.

So why does this film have such a bad reputation, especially among fans of the Caped Crusader? It turns out viewers don’t want the movies to be like the comic. They want the movie to bring the comic into the real world. While the wall between the two can never be completely broken, Schumacher’s sin was in failing to read the wants of his audience. He didn’t even try to make Batman, Robin, or any of the other cast of characters more real.

Batman/Bruce Wayne is played by George Clooney in this film, while Robin/Dick Grayson is played by Chris O’Donnell, who is reprising his role from Schumacher’s previous Batman film, Batman Forever. Schumacher and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman didn’t waste any time with origin stories or other character development here. They jumped right into the action, Batman and Robin suiting up to take on a new bad guy in the opening scene. That bad guy is Mr. Freeze, a man who has to wear a brightly lit cold suit to stay alive, his body having been altered by exposure to cryogenic chemicals. And here we viewers get our very first look at Arnold Schwarzenegger, bald and slathered in sparkly makeup. By this point in the movie there is left no doubt that we are seeing spectacle. The screen is a circus tent, a Broadway stage, even an ice rink. We are witnessing Batman on Ice as it tours arenas nationwide. If such a tone is not what a viewer is expecting from a Batman film, then all that occurs on screen must be infuriating.

But, Batman is an accommodating character. He’s been around so long, been subject to the whims of so many different writers, artists, editors, and filmmakers that there is a story out there for every type of fan. For the little kid in all of us, there is the 1966 Batman film and the attendant TV series starring Adam West and Burt Ward. For us brooding adults there are the Christopher Nolan films and Frank Miller comics. This Schumacher film does speak to some fans of Batman, just not enough to have any power against the massed voices of all of those that hated this movie.

As for myself, I have been a fan of Batman since around 1988, picking up readership about a week after the Joker killed the second Robin in A Death in the Family. I consider Year One and The Dark Knight Returns to be seminal works of comic book storytelling, not just great examples of Batman comics. I look back fondly on the short run of comics in the early ’90s when Batman was once more a detective, still stopping costumed criminals, to be sure, but ones whose goals did not include blowing up the world. These smaller scale stories did more to ground the character of Batman than anything Nolan ever did. The last decade and a half, I was content with pretending Batman & Robin didn’t exist. It had been at least since the last century that I even laid eyes on this film. Since Arnold is in this film, and it is Arnold Schwarzenegger month on this site, I decided I had to watch this movie again.

Batman & Robin can only be appreciated by viewing it through a skewed lens. It’s a shitty movie. But not only is it a shitty movie, it’s an extraordinary shitty movie. Not extraordinarily shitty, mind you. Just extraordinary. I conceived of Shitty Movie Sundays for movies just like this. This movie is unapologetic in the way it thrashes everything we thought we knew of Batman. Years of work done to rehabilitate Batman in the eyes of popular culture were undone the second audience members saw rubber nipples on the batsuit.

Or, there’s the first appearance of this movie’s second villain, Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman). Ivy rises from the grave a sultry redhead with venomous lips, thrusting her hips to and fro to the music of bongo drums. All that’s missing are a pair of garters and a Betty Page haircut to complete the John Waters-esque illusion.

Realizing there is no right way to portray Batman, and that comedy and camp are not cardinal sins, is the only way not to hate this movie. Fans have no problem with keeping Adam West and company segregated away from their internal visions of Batman. Maybe its time the same courtesy was extended to Joel Schumacher.

That being said, this movie has deep flaws. For one thing, it’s too long. I was shocked early on that I was enjoying this film so much, but as one hour turned into two, I was beginning to feel worn out. The pace and tone of the film is constant throughout, with little letup. A less complicated story and a shorter runtime would have done wonders for my concentration. Alicia Silverstone also has a role in this film as Wayne butler Alfred’s niece. She was a flavor of the moment back around this time, but both her character and her performance are a drag on the film. Eliminating her superfluous character would have done much to address the runtime. As for the complicated story, unlike in The Dark Knight Rises, I was actually okay with Mr. Freeze’s efforts to destroy Gotham City. It fit in totally with the cartoonish atmosphere. Freeze wasn’t going to use anything so mundane as a nuclear bomb. Hell no! He’s called Mr. Freeze, for crying out loud. He uses an ice ray.

Arnold looked like he loved making this movie. He has a shit eating, ear to ear grin in just about every shot he’s in. His lines have so many one-liners thrown in that the people at tvtropes.org must have had wood when they made this film’s page.

This movie is ridiculous. The story is over the top, the acting is horrendous from just about everyone (but in an endearing way), and it looks like Crayola vomited all over everything, but I no longer hate this movie. I doubt very much I will be spending any further time with it, but I have to admit I was wrong to spend so long reviling this movie. Batman & Robin is a better film than Alien: Resurrection.