Batman & Robin. A superhero movie relic frozen in 1990s Hollywood excess. Its very name is still a hushed whisper of doom on internet comment sections. As the fourth entry in what was once the most popular franchise in the world, this 1997 sequel was a chilly warning of what happens when studio logic and corporate synergy run amok and to their most chaotic end. A two-hour toy commercial, a soulless cash-grab, and the film that did what no villain ever could when it killed the Batman (franchise), this gaudy monstrosity is a testament to two absolutes in this world: Everything freezes…and Batman & Robin is an abomination before the eyes of man and beast.
…But is it really that bad?
To answer this gnawing question I dared to revisit this Day-Glo gem. At about the two-minute and twelve-second mark I had my answer, just as Chris O’Donnell exclaimed, “I want a car, chicks dig the car,” and an instantaneously embarrassed George Clooney begrudgingly quipped, “This is why Superman works alone.”
Yes, it is that awful.
A myriad of bad choices that turned Gotham City into a neon nightmare more grotesque than the decades of eternal shame suffered by those who partook in disco, Batman & Robin indulges a litany of sins that only begin with the nipples on the Batsuit. After all, this is the film that gave us our textbook definition of toyetic—studio jargon about maximizing the merchandising value of a media property—and birthed into the world a Mr. Freeze whose weapon was designed by toy companies. In an attempt to make the film as Happy Meal friendly as possible (an ongoing reaction to the Batman Returns affair), Batman and Robin now were ice skating with thugs who spent their spare time doing Christmas movie sing-alongs before an Arnold Schwarzenegger who spoke exclusively in puns. Wonderfully horrid puns.
Truly, this film is a monument to what happens when studios attempt to shovel just about anything into our moviegoing mouths.
But even so, I am positive that it doesn’t deserve the bitter acrimony that is synonymous with its name and director Joel Schumacher. Besides the fact that Schumacher, a talented filmmaker in his own right during better days (see: The Lost Boys, Falling Down), has repeatedly apologized for his grievous errors, Batman & Robin also serves a divine role in both the history of film and the gospel of the Dark Knight.
Indeed, this ghastly miscalculation of entertainment—which featured Uma Thurman doing a bad Mae West impersonation while dressed as a dancing gorilla—is single-handedly responsible for the Caped Crusader’s ascension to pop culture and pure cinema glories eight years later. Only a film this tastelessly garish, and only a box office failure this flamboyantly disastrous, could allow a studio to let Christopher Nolan do with their former cash cow what he did between 2005 and 2012. Without the iconic aberration that is Batman & Robin, there would be no The Dark Knight.
Or in other words: you can’t have your resurrection without a Judas.
In certain theological circles, there is a tradition that dates back to the Gnostic Christians, glorifying Judas as a devoted and perhaps most trusted disciple. After all, the only way for Jesus to come back is if he is killed. And like this religious Gordian knot, there couldn’t have been a Batman movie where the Joker blows up the love interest and howls at the dawn of American paranoia if we didn’t first see Mr. Freeze say “Let’s kick some ice;” if you wanted Bane to break the Bat, first he had to break your speakers with his monosyllabic grunting; and to see Jim Gordon speak about his costumed ally with the reverence of an urban messiah, you needed to endure the Bat-Visa (I bet it came with a credit of 30 pieces of silver). To get that applause, we all had to hear the deafening silence that greeted this cinematic tribulation.
But with all that said, Batman & Robin has also earned its abiding spot in genre history. Indeed, over 20 years later, it is just as deliciously bad as it was upon its 1997 release, perhaps even more so. Like a lava lamp or leopard-skin chair, movies this cataclysmically awful are renewed over time like a time capsule full of kitsch—a pop culture artifact so abominable that it long outlives the blandly tolerable. For example, Schumacher’s previous effort, Batman Forever, is a more passable viewing experience, but it is also the worse for it. Rather than being allowed to revel in every cringe-inducing pun from Akiva Goldsman’s screenplay, crafted for maximal groaning when Schwarzenegger is onscreen, we are left to merely tolerate Jim Carrey’s “joygasms” and Tommy Lee Jones’ boredom. By contrast, Batman & Robin endures in the mind like all of humanity’s worst mistakes.
There is an argument to be made that Batman & Robin is a faithful recreation of the 1960s TV series starring Adam West. And if taken in as bite-sized pieces of consumption like 1966’s Batman, the Schumacher film is not totally devoid of entertainment. I even found myself smiling at the massively overdone production value in the film’s first 15 minutes, which includes ice skating, frozen brontosaurus-statue sliding, sky surfing, and dialogue exchanges so brilliantly appalling, that they end up not being appalling at all: “Hi Freeze, I’m Batman.” / “You’re not sending me to the cooler!”
Of course, then the film keeps going from that point on and the blatant desire to sell as many action figures and Taco Bell tie-in cups as there are saps around the world deflates this soul-numbing experience. Ultimately, it lacks the wit and charm of that 1960s series where character actors like Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, and Julie Newmar knew just when to hit the brake on the camp before plowing into the wall—a barrier that Schwarzenegger and Thurman obliterate by the movie’s 20-minute mark before swerving onward into that good night.
Nevertheless, a reputation for being one of the best-worst exercises in corporate Hollywood ineptitude has turned this film into a vulgar keepsake. In 1997, George Clooney was not yet the impressive human rights advocate and unofficial Hollywood ambassador that he is today, but his classy demeanor and Cary Grant swagger hasn’t spared him from being accident-free. It’s not as if Ocean’s Twelve is one to polish off for a Golden Globes montage either, yet Batman & Robin lingers still as the paterfamilias of career mistakes, a spectacularly large albatross with a memorable wingspan. Even 17 years later, Clooney can’t help but bring it up when around certain audiences, such as a New York Comic Con panel for Tomorrowland I attended, where Clooney said, “I just met Adam West [backstage] and apologized to him.”
Similarly, you won’t recall in 10 years half of the superhero movies released in the last 12 months, but like the worst hangover of your life, memories from the Batman & Robin debacle will be with you until the grave. Hell, you probably have a better shot today at recollecting any of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “dialogue” and George Clooney’s sheepish shame than you do at describing a frame of Marvel’s more fan-friendly Thor: The Dark World or Iron Man 2. To be sure, Batman & Robin is a worse movie. It might even be the worst movie, but it’s still a movie! A gloriously gaudy one realized with wonderfully misjudged showmanship by Joel Schumacher, as opposed to being an interchangeable episode of blockbuster television, meant for instant disposal by the time the post-credit stinger rolls around.
Batman & Robin represents the most cynical aspects of the studio system when it comes to making a movie, but such monumental failure still towers in engraved permafrost above passably faded mediocrity. Just as Batman & Robin’s spectacular awfulness makes it infinitely more memorable than Batman Forever, it also offers an Omega to a genre that has since had its Dark Knight alpha. And just as there are still fond festivals thrown for Ed Wood and his perennial cult classic Plan 9 from Outer Space, so too could Batman & Robin be celebrated for showcasing for good and all what not to do.
Comic enthusiasts, with however much reluctance, came to celebrate the garishness of the Dick Sprang era, so perhaps it’s time that genre movie lovers likewise tolerate some variation on their frowning demigod. Perhaps in another 20 years or so, Clooney can even have a laugh about it at its joint Bride of the Atom festival. Even the Gnostics eventually learned to let bygones be bygones…
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