VHS Revival rounds off its Batman coverage with the most derided of them all. Please, try to be (n)ice
Talk about kicking something when it’s down. Writing a piece on Batman and Robin today feels like so much unnecessary cruelty, considering that for over twenty years it has been the laughing stock of the comic book movie genre. I wish I could say that I what I’m about to offer is a defence, that it’s actually a very underrated piece of work, that for two decades it’s been sorely misunderstood. I mean, let’s not mince words: it has occasionally been regarded as an absolute disaster. Director Joel Schumacher and star George Clooney have publicly apologised for its existence. It currently has an 11% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and 3.7 out of 10 on IMDb. In a readers poll conducted by Empire Magazine in 2010, Batman and Robin was considered The Worst Film Ever Made. Ouch!
Most of the criticisms revolve around the following: far too silly, far too camp, far too many ice puns, Bat nipples, Bat arses, Batgirl, etc. Oh, did I mention ice puns? There must be over thirty in this film. As someone who adores the first two Tim Burton-directed Batman films, I find the inadequacies of Batman and Robin absolutely laughable. And yet I also kind of feel sorry for it. It really has become the puppy nobody wanted. Also, I’m baffled as to why so much ire is directed towards it while its predecessor, Batman Forever, often escapes relatively unscathed, when so much that’s wrong with Batman and Robin is clearly also present in that film too. The cavalier attitude, the terrible overacting, the hollow drama, the lousy jokes. A lot of us thought Batman Forever was pretty cool at the time (I know that I did) but you know what, I think I prefer Batman and Robin these days. For all that is so, so wrong with it, at least it’s hilariously bad, whereas Batman Forever is just flat-out bad. Batman and Robin goes further into the abyss of badness and is all the more watchable for it. It’s an astonishingly silly movie.
Now silliness in itself is no bad thing. There has always been a side to Batman that is ludicrous. Just like how I can accept the lighter Roger Moore era Bond as much as the darker Timothy Dalton period (my two favourite 007 films are Octopussy and Licence to Kill), I can really get into the idea of a super-silly Batman, the kind where there’s always a handy gadget that can get the Caped Crusader out of any predicament, where puns are aplenty, where colour is abundant, where our heroes are trapped in ridiculously elaborate death-traps, where the sheer fun-factor can be the driving force. The problem with Batman and Robin is that for all its silliness, it doesn’t go as far as I’d want it to. It’s not camp enough and it’s definitely not funny enough. Okay, there are some WTF moments like when Batgirl unlocks the Batcave and ends up speaking to her uncle Alfred via a virtual reality computer simulation that glitches just like Max Headroom and seems to have sentient thought. That bit is so stupid I did chuckle heartily. There’s also a bit when Poison Ivy is trapped in her own plant and it comes off like genuine, proper pantomime. The plant looks like a prop in a school play. It’s hilarious. But it’s not enough. You almost wish the writers of The Simpsons had got involved — just watch their brilliant episode ‘Radioactive Man’, a thinly-veiled parody of Batman. I’m talking specifically about a flashback to an old 1960’s episode of RM involving the nefarious (and very camp) antagonist The Scoutmaster, where a battle in a warehouse — which somehow has a chandelier hanging from the ceiling and is intercut with impact title cards like ‘ZUFF!’, ‘PAN!’, ‘BORT!’ and ‘POOO!’ — ends with good guys, bad guys (who, lest we forget, aren’t afraid to use their nails in combat) and random girls in skimpy clothing dancing to groovy psychedelic pop. This minute-long clip is better, more spirited and far funnier than anything in Batman and Robin.
The film begins almost identically to Batman Forever, with the wild WB logo change, major cast list credit spectacle, Elliot Goldenthal’s epic score and then a cut to the requisite costume change, close-ups of bat-nipples and bat-arses, weapon selection and so on, all to an even more fetishistic degree than its predecessor. Then there’s a tension-deflating joke, this time from Robin; something about him wanting a car and not the bike he’s been saddled with. Then there’s another bad joke immediately after involving pizza. And there you have it. Everything that wasn’t good about the opening scene of Batman Forever has been extended, duplicated and exaggerated here. Essentially, Batman and Robin is Batman Forever, but even more so. You’d think that this would make the film doubly unbearable, but whereas the tiresome mediocrity of the former made for a somewhat dispiriting experience, the sheer Batmobile-crash spectacle of this film makes it, for me, the preferable movie. After all, what’s more entertaining: a bad movie or a really bad movie?
The plot? It’s more of the same: baddies want to take over/destroy Gotham, Batman (George Clooney) must stop them but he also has to deal with his impetuous ward Robin (Chris O’ Donnell) as well as his tortured past. The enemies this time are Dr. Victor Fries, who was a nice guy trying to find a cure for his wife’s terminal illness before he fell into a vat of unstable chemicals, and is now the robo-suit monstrosity that is Mr. Freeze, played with endearingly silly clunkiness by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Then there’s Uma Thurman’s Dr. Pamela Isley, who after witnessing her mad boss’s plans to turn criminals into super-soldiers using an experimental drug, is pushed into a shelf full of toxins, left for dead, but then emerges as Poison Ivy, who has some crazy scheme about protecting the environment (good) at the cost of countless human lives (er…bad). Side plots include Batman’s long-serving butler Alfred (Michael Gough) dying of the same disease that Mr. Freeze’s wife has, Poison Ivy’s attempt to destroy Batman and Robin’s already fragile partnership by regularly sprinkling love dust over them that leads to romantic jealousy, and there’s Barbara Wilson (Alicia Silverstone), Alfred’s niece, who has arrived in Gotham because merchandising requires a new character, and Batgirl’s next on the list. Oh, and there’s also Bane! A joke henchman with a tendency to gormlessly repeat the last word he heard aloud and given a preposterous veiny-muscle look, the best I can say about this incarnation is that you can understand what the hell he’s saying, which you couldn’t say about Tom Hardy’s version.
As you’ve probably noticed already, we’re re-treading some old ground here. We get a replay of Batman being overbearing towards Robin. This made sense first time around because Robin was a novice, but such tension feels really tired second time around. We’re asked to appreciate why Batman is worried for Robin’s recklessness, but when the film offers zero danger or edge to the action and because the violence is so inconsequential (even would-be death-by-freezing can be reversed within a handy eleven minutes) we’re not scared for Robin and we don’t wince at his would-be risk-taking. Which means these arguments between our heroes are tiresome, their rivalry totally lacking weight. Batman and Robin has a poor script. As the Caped Crusader and the Boy Wonder head into town, they are informed by Commissioner Gordon that a new villain is in town. Seriously, he actually uses those words. It’s the kind of exposition that wouldn’t look out of place in an 8-bit video game, where they had to deliver info with the least amount of words to save on pixels. I kind of have to admire it for its shamelessness. Speaking of bad writing, too much of the script is exposition of the very worst kind, with characters talking to each other in ways that no sane people would do in reality, like when Batgirl relays the information of her parents’ death with all the heart of a fax machine. Alfred, formerly a warm, genial and dry presence, has been turned into a dreadfully maudlin, grandfatherly snooze. He’s also become very preachy — almost all of his lines are maxims or would-be profound wisdoms. Elsewhere, characters are clumsily inserted into the plot for no other reason than new toys have to be introduced into the marketplace or awkward blanks in the script need to be filled. Bruce Wayne’s new girlfriend, played by Elle Macpherson, is such a non-entity that I’d like to think that the couple’s absolute lack of chemistry was somehow a case of the film making a point about Wayne’s detachment from proper relationships, but I think I’m giving Batman and Robin way, way too much credit.
There’s no sense of character development — our introduction to Dr. Isley sees her unleashing a barrage of exposition into her dictaphone and the viewer is most likely going to be wondering what the hell is going on. Suddenly she’s seen too much illegal activity and is already left for dead in a mass of plantlife and poison. All of this takes place in roughly her first two or three minutes of screen time. I can’t help but compare this to Batman Returns, where Michelle Pfieffer’s Selina Kyle was beautifully, carefully introduced, her character wonderfully established and her fate at the hands of the corrupt Max Schreck (Christopher Walken) a shocking, dramatic and powerful start to her new life as Catwoman. Here, the execution is simply dreadful: rushed, clumsy, lacking in any kind of tension (comedic or dramatic) and very poorly written. When very important scenes like this are tossed off with abandon and yet later on we have to endure an absolutely pointless motorcycle contest that has no bearing on the plot, you just wonder what the hell was going on in the writer’s head. As for poor Uma Thurman, she may be having fun and she may look fantastic in her costume, but oh how I wish there had been even the slightest psychological or emotional depth to her character. I wish she’d been given something. Anything.
Schwarzenegger hadn’t played a villain since The Terminator, but whereas that role utilised everything that was formidable, scary and invincible about him, creating a monster for the ages in the process, Mr. Freeze is pure pantomime, a joke role, a goof. There’s an insane bit when a slipper-wearing Mr. Freeze is conducting his own orchestra, trying to get his minions to sing his anthem. You just have to laugh. It’s so bonkers. Of course, one of this film’s most noted elements are the icy puns Mr. Freeze delivers in the same way that a really bad Dad joke can sometimes get you laughing thanks to the sheer hopelessness and groan-worthy content, stuff like ‘chill out’ and ‘you’re not sending me to the cooler’ can’t help but make me laugh. It goes so far beyond unfunny and ends up on another plane altogether, ending up being strangely hilarious. He doesn’t say ‘ice to see you’, however. That was uttered by Arnie-parody McBain in The Simpsons, when he impossibly emerged from a frozen sculpture of the Venus de Milo. Again, The Simpsons did it first, and better.
The thing is, there are some attempts to bring pathos to Freeze, but these are usually undermined by the film’s incessant humour. Take the scene when, as seen through CCTV, Dr. Fries falls into the ice storage in his lab. Now to be fair, this is already a hilarious scene because Schwarzenegger does that pained ‘aaaaurrggghh’ thing he often does so amusingly which has been the subject of a few YouTube compilations, but to have Robin quip ‘now that’s gotta hurt’ just gives you a sense of how cavalier everyone involved is treating all of this. Or when he’s watching footage of his wife and starts to get emotional, but then one of his lackeys interrupts with news and Freeze, er… freezes him and moans about how he hates people talking during the movie. On second thought, I really relate to that, so I’ll let it go….’let it go, let it go…’ – you know, Frozen? See, I can make crap ice gags too.
Chris O’ Donnell, who I thought was one of the better things about Batman Forever, is really given a barrel load of bird shit to work with here. He even has to say stuff like ‘Cowabunga’. Stuff like the love dust and its effect on Robin is painfully underdeveloped. The film could have done something wonderful with this sub plot, something sexy, funny, ANYTHING, but Robin just acts like an obnoxious twat. As for poor Alicia Silverstone, despite her best efforts, all I can say is there is absolutely no reason for Batgirl to be in this movie. None. If you took her out of the script nothing would really be affected. Oh, and there’s the title character, and for the first time since 1989 the actor playing Batman is relegated to second-billing. Poor, poor George Clooney. At least most people are content to tolerate Val Kilmer’s solid but unspectacular turn, but back in 1997 Clooney got plenty of ridicule for his attempt to make it as Batman. He’s not bad at all to be honest, but the film seems to be doing its utmost to erase whatever formidable presence this character once had. It’s like the film’s not even that excited that Batman is on screen. Okay, even in the Burton movies, even Michael Keaton’s Batman was often upstaged by his villainous co-stars, but he nevertheless remained a fascinating, mysterious and important presence, something to be in awe of, to be feared. Now that this Batman has been pushed out of the shadows and into the neon light, he’s become a bit of a joke, yet unlike say, Adam West’s Batman, he’s not played as a very funny joke. I mean, he owns a goddamn Bat Card (expiry date: Forever) and shows up at celebrity events hosted by Gossip Gerty (I’m shaking my head as I write this), just like Mark Pillow dressing up as Nuclear Man to the royal premiere of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Whatever mystery, intrigue and darkness lay behind the bat mask is now completely gone. Batman is now a handsome guy in a suit, and that’s that.
So….good points…well, Schumacher goes all-out with the colour scheme, and to be honest, I do find it rather appealing. Also, Gotham seems to have grown even more insane in the architectural department, with observatories atop monumental statues. I’ve always laughed at John Glover’s delivery of ‘…I’m afraid you’ll have to die!’ as he pushes Poison Ivy to her would-be demise. Those poisonous lips of hers could have been the starting point for some really disturbing, seduction-based killing, but nothing interesting is done with the idea. Sorry, I’ve started complaining again. Back to the good stuff. Schwarzenegger and Thurman at least give their villains some enjoyably silly gusto. I’d rather watch these two than Carrey’s unbearable Riddler or Tommy Lee Jones’ hysterical Two-Face any day of the week. The closing theme song by the Smashing Pumpkins, ‘The End is the Beginning is the End’ is really brilliant, even if it doesn’t reflect the tone or content of the movie at all, much like the other big theme song, R. Kelly’s dreadfully earnest and sappy ‘Gotham City’.
Batman and Robin came at a time when the blockbuster was changing. The previous summer of 1996 was a real game-changer, with enormous films like Independence Day, Twister, The Rock and Mission: Impossible upping the standards of how big a summer movie could be — although the quality of the above films were variable, no one could deny that the octane-setting of escapist cinema was being cranked up to ‘Very High’. Compared to that, the following summer’s dismal hat-trick of Spielberg’s disappointing The Lost World, the disastrous Speed 2: Cruise Control and Batman and Robin was most dispiriting. All three films — sequels it should be noted — were flabby, complacent, lazy and so self-assured of their seemingly inevitable success that they didn’t put the effort in (The Lost World‘s cracked glass scene excepted). Meanwhile, the post-The Rock style of self-reflexive, knowingly OTT action cinema (represented in 1997 by Con Air and Face/Off, both starring new and unlikely action hero Nicolas Cage), was leaving the franchise movies for dust. Then there was Men in Black, the brightest, freshest hit of the year, which was hip, funny, lean (only 90 minutes!) and all of a sudden the likes of Batman seemed so very, very, very outdated.
Ultimately, Batman and Robin was as unsuccessful as it deserved to be (it did moderately okay at the box office, but that clearly wasn’t enough for Warners), yet its eventual reputation as The Worst Film Ever Made seems less to do with its actual content, more what it represents — Hollywood product at its most careless, stupid, lazy and laughable. There are dozens upon dozens of films that are just as dumb and rubbish as B&R, but it’s so perfect an encapsulation of badness that it’s a remarkably easy target. I mean, Batman and Robin is not only not the Worst Film Ever Made, it’s not even the worst fourth film ever made – Death Wish 4: The Crackdown is worse than this. Maybe Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol is worse than this, but then there is that bit with the mace that made me laugh as a child. Die Hard 4.0 is worse than this. Seriously, there are many, many worse films out there than Batman and Robin, and that’s the best thing I can say about it. Stay cool!