It’s hard to find a movie as critically reviled and universally despised as Batman and Robin. But I was going into this with an open mind. I hadn’t seen the film in twenty years, since seeing it on opening night. I must have blocked the film out of my mind with some PTSD-like fight or flight response. It worked — I’ve filed so much of this movie away in a “DO NOT OPEN” file.
But it can’t be that bad, can it? Keep an open mind, I said. It’s been twenty years. Maybe it improved with age.
That open mind lasted around twenty seconds of enduring fetish-like, slow motion crawls up the rubberized bodies of Batman and Robin. Pomp and circumstance and flexing abounded, punctuated only by the plaintive voice of Robin, who must be in his twenties, begging for the Batmobile, because “chicks dig the car.” Batman’s response, “This is why Superman works alone,” can either be seen as a horribly throwaway joke. Or it can be an admission that the DC multiverse exists within this film.
But let’s rewind. There once was a time, back when the phone rang and you had no idea who was on the other line, when there were no comic book movies. You had to hunt for them — sure, there was Superman, but even Marvel’s best heroes barely registered anything more than a Saturday morning cartoon or a bad cover version, like the CBS Spider-Man, Dr. Strange and Captain America (starring Yor, Hunter from the Future’s Reb Brown!) movies. In fact, 1988 had just one comic book movie made: TV movie The Incredible Hulk Returns. As a good friend of mine has commented many times, we had to take what we could get.
In 1989, we finally got something we could call our own: Tim Burton’s Batman. But not everyone was happy. I was a regular subscriber to the Comics Buyer’s Guide, and the outcry over Michael Keaton being cast was a cacophony. If Twitter had existed then, I doubt the movie would have ever been made. Luckily, audiences were wowed by a Batman that wasn’t the 1960s pop art Adam West they had known before. Batman was dark, moody and dangerous — in effect, he was everything that comic book fans loved.
Looking back, there’s a lot to poke holes at in the first Burton Bat films. Batman takes his mask off at the drop of a hat, generally in front of his greatest enemies. Jack Nicholson is the real star of the show. And how did we ever all Batdance to happen? That said — there’s a lot to love, too. The second film. Batman Returns, expands Batman’s rogue’s gallery while also having him take his mask off in front of an enemy. But again — good to great film, with nothing to be embarrassed about.
1995’s Batman Forever exchanged Keaton for Val Kilmer and Tim Burton turned the director’s chair over to Joel Schumacher to not-so-satisfying results, thanks to a muddled plot, too many villains, Jim Carrey’s incessant and inane mugging for the camera and after setting up Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent, Two-Face ended up being played by Tommy Lee Jones (who, to his credit, once told Carry, “I hate you. I really don’t like you … I cannot sanction your buffoonery.”). But hey — “A Kiss from a Rose” is in it! And H.R. Giger designed a Batmobile for it that was never used — but it would have improved the film a hundredfold!
That brings us full circle back to Batman and Robin. This is a movie that clubs you over the head with subtext. Before we even leave the cave, we know that Robin and Batman have issues and Alfred doesn’t just have a cold…the man is dying! But there’s no time for that — there’s a new villain in town named Mr. Freeze, who is Arnold Schwarzenegger painted blue and wearing armor. If you happened to love Arnold’s one liners in other films, good news! Every single line from him in this movie is a one liner, screamed and snarled, shouted and smiled. It’s all peaks and no valleys, like a Slayer album with no lyrics or drums, just atonal guitar solos. Someone on IMDB was kind enough to count how many ice-related puns Arnold makes in the film — 27 to be exact.
There are no fight scenes in this film. Oh, there and fight scenes. But no one really fights, they just slide toward one another and dance around and even play hockey. Yes, for some reason, Batman and Robin have ice skates in their costumes. The film feels like a series of Rob Liefeld panels brought to terrifying life — cocks in your face, muscles pulsating, teeth gritting. The big fight between Batman and Mr. Freeze is as simple as Batman flying at Freeze’s vehicle, SMASH CUT, Batman’s cape is lifted to reveal a knocked out Freeze. Perhaps we’d have to liked to have seen this battle!
There’s no dialogue in Akiva Goldsman’s script — merely diatribes and camp asides — and his is from the man who won an Oscar in 2001 for A Beautiful Mind. This points at one of the most upsetting things about this film — it felt like we, as comic book fans, had clawed our way into the multiplexes and wanted people to know that the books we loved weren’t just filled with bright colors and words like POW, ZAP and BAM! There were three-dimensional characters on the flat page that we lived and died with. Only Burton had gotten close and now, we were slip sliding back into camp.
To wit — Bane, who in the pages of DC Comics had broken Bruce Wayne’s back and given him one of his few lasting defeats. In the comics, Bane was raised in a prison, serving the sentences his father died too soon to serve. He’s as smart as Batman, yet a stronger, more cunning and better fighter. In this film, he’s a scrawny prisoner who is transformed by Venom into a gigantic brain damaged buffoon, played by pro wrestler Jeep Swensen (who would go on to be called The Ultimate Solution in WCW, one of the most ill-advised nicknames, well, ever).
There’s also no shortage of characters to try and take in. There’s Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy, who looks great, but is the Mae West of supervillains in the film. She takes particular delight in playing Batman against Robin, who argue as if they were a couple and not father and adoptive son (according to George Clooney, this was no accident). There’s Alicia Silverstone, who shows up in one of her Aerosmith video costumes. She becomes Batgirl, getting a skintight, rubber butted costume of her very own. And oh yeah Alfred is dying, remember? Oh yeah, there’s Vivica A. Fox as Ms. B. Haven in just one scene that makes no sense! There’s a Jesse Ventura cameo! Oh! There’s Gremlins 2’s John Glover as Dr. Jason Woodrue (who comic fans would know as The Floronic Man) for about two seconds! It’s an onslaught of characters that do nothing but shout at you!
I’m not one to pooh pooh day glo comic book fun — Flash Gordon and the aforementioned Danger: Diabolik are two of my favorite films of all time. But they had heart and artistry beating beneath their multi-hued surfaces. This film is a paean to Happy Meals and toy tie-ins (I had the Mr. Freeze, which looked nothing like Arnold). I can apply the same insult to this film that I gave to the cinematic turd known as Sucker Punch: it’s about as much fun as watching one of your friends beat a video game.
As this was being filmed, Warner Brothers was so impressed with what they saw, they started thinking about a fourth installment, Batman Unchained. The plot was to have featured the Scarecrow (Howard Stern was rumored to be cast in the role) bringing Jack Nicholson’s Joker back to life, at least inside Batman’s brain. Harley Quinn, now the Joker’s daughter, was also to be in this film. There was even talk of a Nightwing spinoff. But critical savaging and poor returns scuttled any sequels or spinoffs, as well as other attempts at adapting Batman Beyond, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One (Darren Aronofsky was to direct).
It wasn’t until Chris Nolan came on board that Batman would finally return to Hollywood. This is the movie that, to quote Clooney himself, “killed the franchise.” It did more than that. It killed comic book movies, until Blade and X-Men showed that serious comic films could draw a mainstream audience. This is a film that will leave you with so many questions: What kind of God would make life so simple — and painful at the same time — by giving Alfred the same disease that struck Mr. Freeze’s wife, sending him on the path to evil? Why is Elle Macpherson in this movie (Most of her scenes were cut, including her being killed by Poison Ivy)? Did Arnold really get $25 million to just laugh his ass off and smoke a cigar while wearing blueface? Will we see more of those Batnipples? How awesome of a song is R. Kelly’s “Gotham City?” Where the fuck did Batman get a Bat Credit Card from? Why is there a scene packed with gangs ala The Warriors, including a bunch of droogs and Coolio of all people (and Corey Haim as a biker)? And most importantly, how much time is left in the film, because it seems like every minute is an hour and every hour is a decade?
This film also held back the careers of Alicia Silverstone and Chris O’Donnell, nearly making the latter disappear. It also hurt Joel Schumacher — but that’s just justice, Gotham style — who didn’t direct another film until 1999’s 8MM.
I wish that I could find some joy in this film beyond making fun of it. But the best allegory I can find for it is a very true story. It took forever to take off the complicated Batman suit, so George Clooney would just piss inside it — on more than one occasion. That says just about all you can say about Batman and Robin.
This article originally was posted at http://www.thatsnotcurrent.com/looking-back-batman-robin-1997/