And we’re here. This is the big one that everyone remembers, the movie that froze a potential BATMAN 5 in its tracks. The one whose name became a hushed whisper on the Interwebs among geeks like a psychic scarring we suffered en masse. For, there is only one absolute in this universe: Everything freezes…and BATMAN & ROBIN sucks.
Still, despite being used as a form of torture in some online cultures, is it really THAT bad? Could this just be an overreaction to a mediocre superhero flick? Or is it really one of the seven signs that the world will end on Friday? Join me as we return to Schumacher’s Batcave…One. Last. Time.
After the wild success of BATMAN FOREVER, Warner Bros. grew anxious to sell that movie’s vision on steroids. Schumacher was instantly brought back and the only small, insignificant question remaining was how to get a sequel out by 1997. The first step became replacing the uncooperative Val Kilmer with an actor who would more readily embrace the director and studio’s vision. They found such a rising star on the hit show ER. The actor, who would become PEOPLE MAGAZINE’S Sexiest Man Alive the same year he dawned the cowl, was George Clooney. To this day, the TV doctor is charisma personified and surely he could carry the film’s new direction, no matter what it became. Right?
Over the years, that notorious direction has developed its passionately vocal defenders. There are those who say it is an adaptation of the 1960s camp classic BATMAN TV series starring Adam West. There are also comic aficionados who are convinced it is a love letter to Dick Sprang’s absurdly silly Batman comics from the 1950s. While I can see some evidence that Schumacher and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman’s understanding of the Batman character is rooted in Adam West, this is not a love letter to anyone. In the years since the cult of hate circled around this picture, Schumacher has literally and sincerely apologized for the flick by saying, “I was an adult. I was awake and I went along with it.” He never talks about how it was about getting the tone of Batman’s supposed “Golden Age” correct or that he just loved Otto Preminger coolly slumming it as Mr. Freeze on the Batman show. Between recounts of what sound like the remorseful confessions of a courtesan, he instead talks about the word “toyetic.” That’s right, thanks to BATMAN & ROBIN we all know now what is studio jargon for maximizing a property’s merchandising potential. When a toy company designs the villain’s signature weapon, the last thing they’re thinking about is fidelity to ancient television programming.
BATMAN & ROBIN begins with the dynamic duo (Clooney and Chris O’Donnell) suiting up because Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is robbing the diamond exhibit at a nearby museum. After a heroic effort, the old chums fail to capture the chilling criminal. Meanwhile, Dr. Pamela Isley (Uma Thurman) is an environmentalist in South America who is partnered with a mad scientist who resembles a crazier version of Dr. Frankenstein. After she refuses his generous marriage proposal, he kills her with colorful poisons that happen to simultaneously resurrect her as the tempting Poison Ivy. But one taste of THIS apple means death from her venomous lips. Poison Ivy joins forces with a knuckle-dragging steroid freak named Bane (Robert “Jeep” Swenson) and heads for Gotham. Soon, she has fallen in love with the villain who came in from the cold, but he only has eyes for his comatose wife. Green with envy, Ivy frames the enchanted Batman and Robin for the wife’s death. In his rage, Mr. Freeze decides to ice the whole world, so that he and Poison Ivy can rule it as “Adam and EVIL!” Meanwhile, Batman must convince Robin not to make out with Poison Ivy and instead enjoy the company of his older partner. Robin resents being underneath the Bat’s wing…but MEANWHILE, Barbara Wilson (Alicia Silverstone) has moved to Gotham because her Uncle Alfred—the impeccable Michael Gough who brings the only shred of dignity present in the movie—is sick and dying. Unfortunately, she finds out about Bruce and Dick’s secret nightlife. Luckily, she decides to join them in her own skintight rubber suit designed months earlier by Alfred. She has become Batgirl! Together, they form a triple threat to Freeze, Ivy and Bane’s Unholy Trinity. Can they stop them in time? Do we care?
Let’s cut to the chase, BATMAN & ROBIN is a messy and ugly film. In small doses, the neon lighting and steady barrage of ‘80s day-glow could be mildly amusing in FOREVER. But here, the visuals are a garish assault on the eyes that pummel the viewer into considering blindness as a lifestyle choice. Gotham no longer even remotely resembles the moody industrial expressionism of the Burton movies this film pretends it is a continuation of. Indeed, it is ironic that Burton and company went to such extravagant lengths to rebrand Batman as a dark, brooding creature of the night in 1989 only for the series to swing back to the camp that had originally defined the character in the mainstream. However, it is not the campy tone and jokes that does this movie in. It’s that the delivery of those jokes is so coldly off.
The TV show may be a chore to watch for adults 40 years later, but there is still something witty and charming about West and co-star Burt Ward’s style. Great character actors, including Burgess Meredith, Cesar Romero and Julie Newmar, humorously played the villains on the show with winking aplomb. This 1997 travesty is a different kind of humor. It is gaudy, dumb and uninterested with actually being clever. The primary goal is to make sure that when Batman and Robin play hockey or the iceman cometh, it looks cool enough for an 8-year-old to buy. Clooney swaggers his way through this movie playing Clooney and praying it won’t hurt his career; O’Donnell and Silverstone just look bored; and Thurman is doing this odd Lauren Bacall impression that falls flat. Bane, acting nothing like Tom Hardy, leaves no impression at all. Then there’s Freeze. Schwarzenegger’s performance is one for the ages here. I’m sure it made sense at the time, because all audiences love it when Arnie makes jokes, to have the character speak entirely in ice puns but it devastates this movie. Someone by now has made a drinking game out of the puns in this film; sadly, that person is dead from alcohol poisoning. The terrible one-liners make for both the movie’s fatal blow and the icing on the cake. Otherwise, it culd have been just awful enough to make a lot of money.
BATMAN & ROBIN’S greatest achievement is being so bad that it did the impossible. It killed the Batman. Before its release, Warner Bros. was already preparing a tentatively titled BATMAN TRIUMPHANT sequel. I’ll concede there would likely have been a glorious musical number in it and Batman would have worn silver nipples while skating on ice…again. Yet, good taste won out and the backlash to BATMAN & ROBIN’S horrendousness was so deeply felt that the franchise died. Except it didn’t. It sat dormant for eight long years until a young, creative filmmaker named Christopher Nolan found it resting like some sleepy volcano. In fact, I would go so far as to say that without BATMAN & ROBIN we would never have seen BATMAN BEGINS or the rest of the DARK KNIGHT trilogy. So honestly, I cannot hate this train wreck of a movie. It IS stupid. It IS hideous looking. It IS insulting to its source material. But without it, we would not be enjoying THE DARK KNIGHT RISES this month. And dammit, those ice puns can be pretty funny. Even if how they relentlessly pound away at your soul is numbing. In one scene, Freeze shouts, “What killed the dinosaurs? THE ICE AGE!!” Perhaps, but this movie could have gotten the job done just as well. It certainly killed the franchise in its current form. For that, we can all say, “Thank you,” to the frosty abomination.