Sunday, July 8, 2012

Batman Movie Batdown Week 6 - Batman & Robin

I was dreading this one, honestly.  "Batman & Robin" is an infamous film, easily the most notorious Superhero movie ever.  Superhero films aren't exactly a genre without its share of stinkers either:  "Spider-Man 3", "X-Men 3", "Superman 4", the lost Roger Corman "Fantastic Four" movie, and "The Spirit", but for some reason "Batman & Robin" stands alone at the top... or well, bottom in this case.  On the Internet there are a few movies that you have to hate:  the Star Wars Prequels, the later "Alien" movies, "The Matrix Revolutions", and "Batman & Robin", by far the most detested Batman movie ever made.  So right there that means I'm going to have a difficult time of this review right here, because I actually kinda like "Batman & Robin".

The development process of "Batman & Robin" was one of the most cutthroat committee-designed processes for any film in history.  "Batman & Robin" was something of an experiment, since it was not primarily made to be a movie, but instead was made to be a two-hour advertisement for Batman toys.  "Batman Returns" had previously threatened the mechanizing industry by being too dark*, and "Batman Forever" had rebuilt that empire and even included even more money by throwing Robin dolls into the mix.  Finally, "Batman & Robin" would be the ultimate victory of toyetic filmmaking, not to be topped until the Star Wars Prequels.  "Toyetic" is a term that means "suitability for merchandising purposes" - which curiously I've only ever heard used to describe "Batman & Robin".  Its fitting really, because this is a soulless movie made to sell crap to children.

Naturally we 90s kids loved this movie and bought the crap.  Even as a kid I always loved "Batman & Robin" better than "Batman Forever", mostly because this movie is completely out of its damn mind.  It was one of my favorite films as a kid.  Here is where the franchise stopped trying to make sense, or even be good, or even really make movies at all.  Director Joel Schumacher liked to yell during production:  "remember people, we're making a cartoon!"  That really set the mood here.  This is the movie where Batman and Robin surf metal doors down from an ice rocket like they're riftboarding in "Eureka Seven" - and Robin does a Cutback Drop Turn.  Mr. Freeze decides to freeze Gotham, Batman rides in a Batzamboni, there's a chase scene over giant stone biceps, this movie is one of the most ludicrous things ever put to film.  Nobody gave a crap about even the slightest attempt at making a real Batman movie, instead they just threw every wild idea at the wall, and as long as it involved lots of colors and flashing lights, it was in the movie.  So on the one hand, that makes for an actively terrible Batman movie, but it also makes for a really entertaining ride.  Its a train wreck, but an entertaining trainwreck.  Its so silly, how can you really stay mad at it?

Val Kilmer thankfully does not come back as Batman for "Batman & Robin", so instead one of the hottest guys in Hollywood was brought in to replace him, George Clooney.  Rather wisely, Val Kilmer noticed that the Batman character was being completely marginalized in favor of the villains, so instead he walked off to do other things, leaving his career mostly intact, until he trashed it in the hilariously bad 1996 turd, "The Island of Dr. Moreau".  George Clooney's Bruce Wayne has not been all that well-received, since sadly Clooney does not have much to work with in this movie.  He mostly bickers with Robin and spouts terrible cartoonish dialog like "this ice bomb will slaughter thousands!"  Worse for comic book fans, this Bruce Wayne is not deranged or insane, and comes off as a warm figure, who plays best against Michael Gough's Alfred.  Perhaps over the course of these movies, Batman has grown as a character (its hard to say honestly due to all the actor shifts, and Schumacher's poor direction), but I'd like to think that eventually Bruce Wayne can become a more complete person.  Sadly, when before the Batman character had to fight for screentime against the hammy villains, now he has to fight for screentime against his own teammates, an incredibly whiny Robin and the newcomer, Batgirl.  There was a bigger romance with Elle Macpherson**, but that got cut from the final movie, so now most people don't even know that Elle Macpherson was even in "Batman & Robin".  Since this Batman has gotten over his demons, he doesn't have all that much to do here except deal with Robin's bullshit.  At the very least, George Clooney is George Clooney, so his own natural charm comes through even in this impossible script.  And George Clooney is easily the sexiest man to ever live, so there's that to enjoy.

The best part of "Batman & Robin", of course, is Alfred, who is finally given a plotline of his own here.  Michael Gough and Pat Hingle (Commissioner Gordon) are essentially the last men standing from the original cast of the 1989 "Batman", so it would make sense that one of them would get some kind of screentime.  Commissioner Gordon is more pointless in this movie than ever, coming off as a hopelessly incompetent old fool, but Michael Gough finally got a chance to do something.  Alfred is sadly dieing of Soap Opera Syndrome, so now Bruce Wayne has to learn to deal with perhaps being left without his main human contact throughout his life, and a problem that he cannot solve with his fists.  Alfred even brilliantly points out:  "For what is Batman…if not an effort to master the chaos that sweeps our world.  An attempt to control death itself."  Despite what you have heard there are a few good scenes in "Batman & Robin".  I liked a flashback George Clooney has to him as a boy tripping and Alfred picking him up in a proper fatherly gesture.  George Clooney puts Alfred to bed while the old man is dieing, and even tells him "I love you", as one would do to a dieing parent.

The rest of this movie is different shades of awful.

Robin, of course, is Batman's ally in this film, who came on in the last movie as the big new partner.  Chris O'Donnell's character in this movie, unfortunately, did more than anything else that I can think of to completely sour everybody against the idea of Batman having a sidekick.  In "Forever", Robin was already rather annoying, since he forced his way onto the Bat-team without much real explanation or need, suddenly just declaring that he's a superhero.  Well, here he's endlessly annoying, since he wants a Robin signal, he wants a car - the chicks dig the car, and he's furious that its always Batman & Robin, never Robin & Batman.  Oh shut up, ROBIN!  Worse, Robin completely falls for Poison Ivy's traps, and then argues endlessly despite how obviously evil she is.  "You're just mad that Poison Ivy likes me more!"  SHUT UP.  SHUT UP.  SHUT UP.

Still, Robin is nowhere near as bad as Batgirl.  Alicia Silverstone is Alfred's niece, coming from England to visit her uncle because... I'm not really sure, I think she was just worried about him.  Despite being English, Barbara Gordon never actually speaks in any accent because Alicia Silverstone couldn't be bothered to even try with the accent.  She's utterly awful in this movie, just entirely terrible.

The villains are not much better, honestly.  Mr. Freeze is a hulking steel German monster played by Arnold Schwarzenegger.  For some reason Mr. Freeze is both "Batman: The Animated Series"'s reasonable figure out to save his dieing wife, and a silly supervillain running around making ice puns.  At the very least Mr. Freeze's bulk and Schwarzenegger's star power make this villain the only person in the entire Batman films who appeared to even have the slightest chance at beating Batman, which he still doesn't.  Tragically Mr. Freeze could have been played by Patrick Stewart, which might have just given this movie enough credit to get a "Batman 5" made.

Then there's Poison Ivy played by Uma Thurman.  Did I imply that Alicia Silverstone was the worst actor in these movies?  Because I was wrong, its Uma Thurman's Poison Ivy that really comes off as hopelessly bad.  Joel Schumacher obviously does understand how to appeal to heterosexuals, because his "Most Beautiful Woman in the World" dresses like a drag queen.  The Adventure of Poison Ivy, Queen of the Desert also talks like... I have no idea.  The other characters all at least try to speak like real people, even if their dialog is pun-ridden and insipid.  But Poison Ivy speaks like she's on the Broadway stage, overacting before a huge audience.  Her performance makes no sense at all really, I have no idea what she was going for here.  Then she has her sidekick, Bane, who in this universe is a mindless brute that likes to repeat one syllable words.

As previously implied, "Batman & Robin" is not on its whole, a good movie.  Rather its a collection of bizarre fight scenes, such as a fight on hockey skates (that are obviously roller skates) for a diamond in a frozen museum against the "hockey team from Hell".  If you're wondering what kind of tone this movie has, just look to the scene where Batman and Robin are flying down from space on their riftboards, and then while Robin does an extreme stunt, he feels compelled to shout "COWABUNGA!!!"  At every second of this movie there are at least four of the six basic colors on display, usually in various tones of neon.  Everything is over the top, everything is preposterous, and everything is a pun.  Honestly, the only person who acts like they actually belong in this madness is John Glover, whose incredibly hammy performance as Poison Ivy's boss, "I'm afraid you'll have to DIE!!" still brings a smile to my face.  But he's only in two scenes.  The rest of the movie comes off like a theme park ride where in many ways the actors are just as lost in the madness as we are.

Why the heck is it that when Poison Ivy crashes a benefit all of the dancers line up and let her step on her back?  Why does Mr. Freeze force his henchmen to sing "I'm Mr. White Christmas"?  Why is there a bridge to nowhere in the middle of Gotham's skyline?  For that matter, why is Coolio in this movie?  Oh, and its a rule that if you're frozen, you have eleven minutes to live.  This is just science in this movie, eleven minutes, not a second more, no matter what your previous medical condition was.  Why does Mr. Freeze's suit run on diamonds?  And why does he want to hold Gotham City for ransom for billions of dollars instead of just selling all those diamonds he keeps stealing?  WHAT THE FUCK IS UP WITH THE BAT-CREDIT CARD????  This movie is almost as insane and ludicrous as "Batman: The Movie".  But at least the camp here is something I'm familiar with, its all 90s faux-extremeness and attitude, instead of the 60s insanity from that first movie.  I at least know what I'm dealing with here - I've seen this movie about a thousand times.

And while Warner Bros made all the money they wanted on tickets and toys, even they realized that they had gone too far.  This wasn't like Michael Bay and Paramount stubbornly continuing to make shitty Transformers movies ever few years, Warner Bros actually cared about the long term health of their Batman movies.  George Clooney could sense that he had killed the franchise, and so did a lot of people.  The critical reaction was savage, and the public reaction was a final well-up of furious annoyance.  The kids might have loved this movie, but they weren't the only people who had to sit through this mess, there were parents too.  And in the end, "Batman & Robin" simply sucked, and the world knew it.  "Batman & Robin" is, by some distance, the least financially successful Batman film.  Warner Bros had plans for a fifth Batman film which would also be directed by Joel Schumacher, "Batman Triumphant" which would have featured Harley Quinn and the Scarecrow.  Rumors about that movie lingered for a few years, but by the turn of the millennium it was clear the Batman movies were over.  The stupidity was simply too much for everybody involved.

I still will argue that "Batman & Robin" is still an interesting movie.  Is it a black and white good movie?  No, but the universe isn't black and white, we have colors, thankfully.  If you're looking for a Batman with grit, you're not going to get it here.  If you want a realistic Batman, well, Master Nolan is your best bet, but honestly Batman as a concept never really made any sense.  He's an escapist fantasy, and "Batman & Robin" simply offers a different form of that fantasy.  A bizarre form that some people cannot appreciate in any way, but I'd say is very watchable because of how clearly terrible it is.  Its the "Plan 9 From Outer Space" of superhero films.  Its the kind of movie that you can quote for hours, because its just so fascinating in its awfulness.  And I don't just mean ironic pleasure, "Batman & Robin" is rather well-paced and entertaining on its own merits.  Some people will defend the old "Transformers" cartoons, I'll defend this, because its so garish, its so overwhelming, your brain sorta shuts down and you find yourself endlessly intrigued by what is going on in your TV set.  I guess, no matter where I look, I just cannot find a Batman movie that I can't appreciate in some way.  There must be something wrong with me.

In a way, the end of the Batman movies was a tragic moment.  There's the obvious story of a promising and successful franchise not so much as ending in a huge explosion but simply fizzling out of energy.  But also, the old Batman movies were in many ways the most impressive examples of old Hollywood filmmaking technology.  There is very little CG in the Batman movies, none at all in the 1989 "Batman".  Every object you're looking at, those really exist, either in full scale or model.  Every lair you visit is something a set designer put together, and a crew constructed over months of work.  All the suits are real things people had to wear, tirelessly manufactured props that were often more than fifty pounds.  The vehicles too are real machines, some of which that could really drive.  The huge garrish engine that spins in the middle of the last Batmobile is a real effect with real lights on it.  That took hundreds of hours of effort, you have to admire the craftsmanship on these movies.  Even in "Batman & Robin" you can tell that the sets, the costumes, the props, and the vehicles all were months of work by extremely talented professionals.  Its a shame the movie it was all for wasn't very good.  In two years "The Matrix" would come out, and everything would change.  CG effects would rule Hollywood forever.  Meanwhile, Christopher Nolan's Batman movies are all based on the real world, instead they're filmed in real cities.  The old Batman movies created their own Gotham, both in a literary sense and a physical one since they actually build models for every creative idea in Tim Burton's and Schumacher's and their creative teams' heads.  An age had passed, all down the drain thanks to pointless cartoonish idiocy.

The Batman franchise would sputter in development Hell for the next six years.  With "Batman Triumphant" dead before it even started, Warner Bros was already thinking about where their next Batman film would take them in 1998, just after "Batman & Robin"'s storm died down.  Joel Schumacher wanted to redeem himself for "Batman & Robin" - he infamously apologized to the fans for the film's quality, which is the only example I know of where a director apologized because his movie sucked.  So he offered to direct a film adaptation of "Batman: Year One", just as he offered back in 1993 before "Batman Forever".  Schumacher also offered to make a version of "The Dark Knight Returns", all because he felt bad for the fans and all the terrible effects his movies had on them.  This was all dropped in favor of a new script "Batman: DarKnight", an interest idea for a movie where Batman goes into retirement and then a new monster, the Man-Bat appears, murders Batgirl, and forces Batman to take up the cowl again.  It would have been a return to the dark mood of the Tim Burton Batman films, and it had a very cool logo.  But twas not to be.  Then somebody suggested that they make a live-action "Batman Beyond" film, which tragically was never made.  Finally all of the Batman development Hell somehow managed to link up with Warner Bros' infamous Superman development Hell***, and there was talk of a "Batman vs. Superman" movie, that also never got made.

Luckily then in 2003 Warner Bros gave Batman over to a hot new director named Christopher Nolan.  Suddenly then, the Batman movie mythos would never be the same again.  Next week, "Batman Begins".

* Curiously today, if you wander into any toy store or Target or Walmart in America, you can find "Dark Knight Rises" toys all over the place.  I've seen Bane dolls, picture books, cars, T-shirts, and just about every possible children's entertainment device that you could imagine with the Nolan Batman universe plastered on it.  Nobody seems to give a damn anymore.  Still, I wouldn't take my little brother to see "Batman 3", he was getting scared of the bears in "Brave".

**  Chase Meridian's absence was never explained.  Due to the limited plotline Bruce and his love interest have in this movie, she might have actually belonged in this movie, instead of having to bring in a whole new one for no reason.  I don't think Nicole Kidman was even considered to come back.

*** Which is a huge story in of itself.  In 1990, after "Batman" broke all the box office records, and the old Superman franchise had died in catastrophic fashion with "Superman 4: The Quest for Peace", Warner Bros decided to make a fifth Superman film.  Unfortunately this began a fifteen year process of endless negotiations, fighting, and just about every kind of acrimony taking place.  Everything except actually making a Superman movie.  (Meanwhile in a different part of the Warner Bros studio, a lot of people were working really really hard on not making a Wonderwoman movie.)   There was a plot based on the "Death of Superman" comic story, there was one movie that featured a black-suited Superman that would fight a giant robot spider, and god knows how many scripts.  Tim Burton, Kevin Smith, McG, J.J. Abrams, and Brett Ratner were all involved at one point.  In the end, Warner Bros gave up, made "Superman Returns", a crappy forgettable rehash of a movie, and then descended into development Hell all over again for the sequel.  Hopefully the upcoming Christopher Nolan-produced "Man of Steel" will get all that crap in line.


  1. Oh god i was ten when i saw this film, luckily i saw the batman tas series and first three films before i saw this souless toy commercial,i hated it this thing gave me nightmares. poor joel he is also a comic fan and his original idea might have be decent.imagine you get to work on your favorite character and you end up being forced to make something like this? Blue how would you feel if you got to make a zelda game about sheik or link but instead make something like the cdi games?

  2. Didn't you say in your previous review of this movie that Bane was literally a steroid-jockey they just picked up, and then he died some time after this movie was made?

    1. O.o Woh I don't remember reading that. But I wouldn't be surprised if it was true.

    2. Well, he was a guy named Robert "Jeep" Swenson. Who was a wrestler, stuntman, and real-life steroid freak. He died in August 1997, just two months after "Batman & Robin" opened in theatres. According to IMDB, he was 400 pounds when he was brought into the hospital for a heart attack, and the doctors told him they could do nothing until he lost at least a hundred pounds. He died days later. Hulk Hogan and James Caan appeared at his funeral.

    3. See, not surprised. I think the only reason I truly hate this movie now is, because it was the first time I've seen Bane before reading the comics. Even when I go to see the Dark Knight Rises "This" Bane is going to keep popping in my head. Not even cool back breaking scenes are going to erase childhood memories.

      And oh yeah: BATMAN CREDIT CARD!!!!

  3. I have to agree as kids even crap is candy.

  4. Batman and Robin is a god-aweful movie, I'm sorry. I compare it to TMNT3. It was a last ditch attempt to milk money from an otherwise successful franchise.