Monday, May 31, 2021

Bat-May: Batman & Robin (1997)

Last week, I assumed I was going to pan Batman Forever, but between my childhood nostalgia and a nugget of narrative complexity, I ended up finding things to admire about the film. (I might even go so far as to say it’s underrated when it stays out of its own way.) Now that we come to the end of Bat-May, we find ourselves in the dubious company of Batman & Robin, the film which killed the franchise stone dead for nigh on a decade. I’d argue that director Joel Schumacher’s career never really recovered, though he continued to work steadily.

And it’s also worth saying that, Catwoman (2004) aside, Batman & Robin changed the way that Hollywood treats superhero movies. Kevin Feige has said as much, and it’s certainly true that you don’t get an earnest Marvel Cinematic Universe without X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002) looking at Batman & Robin as the wrong way to do things. It is, they say, always darkest before the dawn, and in this case Batman & Robin is a very dark night indeed, a film that, at best, has nothing to say beyond reveling in the most arch camp imaginable – and, at worst, exists only to sell merchandise. 


Gotham City has a new menace – Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger), whose diamond heists have plagued the city while he tries to cure his wife’s terminal illness. Batman (George Clooney) and Robin (Chris O’Donnell) suit up to save Gotham from a deep freeze when the villainous Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman) and Alfred’s young niece Barbara (Alicia Silverstone) come to town, each ready to give the Dynamic Duo their own unique brand of headaches.


It may go without saying at this point – and perhaps it should – but I like movies. I like to enjoy movies. I don’t take a lot of pleasure in deliberately watching bad movies, nor am I often content to dislike a movie. As we saw last week, I’m almost always looking for some redemptive reading of a film, some kernel of potential or some recognition that the film accomplishes its own goals. I try not to judge a film based on how I would or would not have made it. If something in a film doesn’t work, I usually try to figure out why, instead of dismissing the film out of hand. So believe me when I say that I want to like Batman & Robin. It stars my favorite fictional character of all time, and it’s got actors who are really good in other films. The best I can say about Batman & Robin, though, is that it’s really hard to look away. With all the reasons I should enjoy this movie, I kept asking myself what wasn’t working. What did this film do wrong?


The answer, I think, is very simple. Batman & Robin has nothing to say. It combines the camp “crime doesn’t pay” attitude of Batman ’66 with the “look at this, look at that” mentality of a toy commercial. For all its faults, Batman Forever at least had some narrative integrity; it made some degree of sense to include Two-Face in a movie about psychological duality, with The Riddler as a kind of emergent repressed persona. Framing Robin as the redemption of Batman’s self-imposed curse, too, fits into the unified whole of the screenplay. (It’s the delivery that doesn’t work, but we talked about that last week.) Batman & Robin, on the other hand, is a collection of bits that don’t relate to each other at all; there may be a loose thread of family between the addition of Batgirl, Mr. Freeze’s love for his wife, and Poison Ivy’s demi-adoption of Bane – but that so-called theme never rises above the level of “Some people have families.”


Where Batman Forever – and indeed the preceding three Batman films – picked its villains because of their relationship to the central theme of the film, Batman & Robin seems to have chosen its antagonists based on who was unused but popular all the same. For context: Mr. Freeze had recently been reborn, thanks to Batman: The Animated Series; Poison Ivy was too sensuous to be included on Batman ’66; and Bane was a recent addition to the rogues gallery after a top-selling comics storyline in the early 1990s. They have nothing to do with each other, and the film doesn’t even play with the incongruity of a frozen villain teaming up with the embodiment of lush, verdant life. Worse, it neuters the character of Bane, strips him of his intellect and fighting prowess, and reduces himself to a grunting accessory. (Thank heavens for Tom Hardy.) 

I will say this about the lead villains, though: clearly Schwarzenegger and Thurman are having a blast in their respective roles. The campy atmosphere of the film gives both performers a license to overact, and they are devouring the scenery without discretion. Schwarzenegger cackles his way through the corniest of one-liners, but the only thing that makes his Mr. Freeze remotely compelling is airlifted from the animated episode “Heart of Ice.” Thurman, meanwhile, turns vamping into a whole new artform; her cartoonish Poison Ivy is equal parts Mae West and Eartha Kitt, a child’s idea of what dangerous sexuality looks like. These two fit right into what is essentially a high-budget episode of Batman ’66, but it is undoubtedly all spectacle, all surface.


Clooney, meanwhile, inherits the mantle of the Bat and has been of two minds about the role. On the one hand, it catapulted him from television’s ER into the role of Hollywood’s top leading man; on the other hand, the film is abysmal, and he’s admittedly not very good in the role. He plays an adequate enough Bruce Wayne, but he’s missing the nuance that Michael Keaton and Val Kilmer brought to the role. Clooney’s Bruce is all genuine, a civic-minded billionaire who’s less playboy and more socialite. (There’s also a very compelling argument to be made for a reading of this Bruce Wayne as gay, which the film probes not at all but which seems inescapable, particularly in the moment when Bruce hems and haws at the notion of marrying a lady.) I’ve long remembered Clooney as a commendable Bruce Wayne, but this time around, I think “passable” is the kindest word for the performance. As Batman, though, he’s nearly no good at all, stiff and unconvincing, with his only standout moments coming in his interactions with Robin.


On the subject of Robin, Chris O’Donnell remains strangely cast, playing the role as emotionally stunted, prone to outbursts of jealousy and impotent fury. One does wonder why this fully grown adult, bristling at his partner’s mentorship, still hangs around the Batcave at all. He has so little to do in the film that he’s barely referred to by name throughout much of the dialogue; by the time his name is spoken aloud for the first time, one almost forgets his name is “Dick,” assuming instead that Bruce has chosen that moment to resort to bratty name-calling. And then we come to Alicia Silverstone, who is so wildly out of her depth with a thankless role in a script that gives her nothing much to do at all. Indeed, one wonders why Batgirl is in this film at all; she arrives on the doorstep of Wayne Manor unbidden, with no real purpose for coming to town, and with no incentive to become a superhero other than the fact that her uncle Alfred has, inexplicably, taken the liberty of designing a molded rubber suit for her to wear.


As Alfred, Michael Gough is commendable, the only one of the cast who’s doing any acting at all. While the rest of the cast is competing to overact past each other, Gough is giving a delightfully restrained performance, deeply affecting and emotionally tender. The film’s decision to afflict poor Alfred with a nebulous medical condition notwithstanding, the genius Gough takes that opportunity to present Alfred as concealing his symptoms from his charges, halfway between the British stiff upper lip and a father’s fear that he will leave his children unable to care for themselves. Throughout the “Batman Quadrilogy,” as it’s come to be called, Gough has been one of the only steady unifying presences, and in this film you truly see why.


But the question of Alfred’s illness raises a larger point about the way the screenplay is put together. Batman & Robin is a series of MacGuffins and Chekhov’s Guns where plot elements only exist in the first half to come up in the second half, yet when these things resurface it’s without any logic or purpose. Bruce Wayne’s colossal telescope is only in the film to be used by Mr. Freeze in the climax (where it behaves like a telescope doesn’t); likewise, Alfred’s diagnosis with “MacGregor’s Syndrome” is only included so that he can get better. In the same vein, Barbara is introduced only so that she can become Batgirl – but why? There’s no narrative or thematic purpose for Batgirl in this story, and the only conclusion I can draw is that she’s been included to sell toys. And I can say that because I bought the action figure. I bought a lot of the action figures from this film.


Maybe there’s beauty in that, creating a superhero narrative to give children more fodder for their imaginative (and actual) toyboxes. But Batman & Robin is not a children’s movie in the way that, say, The Phantom Menace – a similarly “toyetic” film – was. There’s no place for children in this innuendo-laden film (I don’t even think there is a child in the film!). It’s more than just a cartoon come to life; Batman & Robin may as well be a children’s playground reenactment of a cartoon. You may see some redemptive beauty in that idea, but to me it seems sad to think that this film and these characters were cobbled together carelessly, with concern only for how these likenesses could be merchandised. It’s a sad fact of the comic book industry writ large, that unique site where art meets commerce, but after having seen some of the best films starring Batman, this one feels soulless. 


In that sense, that cold and emotionless cynicism of chasing valuables, perhaps Mr. Freeze is the perfect villain after all.

Batman & Robin is rated PG-13 for “strong stylized action and some innuendos.” Directed by Joel Schumacher. Written by Akiva Goldsman. Based on the DC Comics. Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, George Clooney, Chris O’Donnell, Uma Thurman, Alicia Silverstone, and Michael Gough.

For more Bat-May action, the good folks at Collected Editions posted my review of Batman: The Movies, the comic book adaptation of the Batman Quadrilogy. Give them a click - no one reviews comics like Collected Editions!

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