Revisiting Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin

Our look back at the work of Joel Schumacher arrives at easily his most infamous film. Carley braves the horrors of Batman & Robin...

“Ice to see you!“- Mr. Freeze

The Recap

By 1997, Joel Schumacher must have felt on the top of the world. With two hugely successful John Grisham adaptations under his belt and capping that off with successfully taking over the Batman franchise, he must have felt invincible as he started up work on the next Batman sequel.

Little did he know that this revisit would not only kill the franchise dead in the water for many years, but would lead to his reputation being left with a huge stain that, to this day, he has been unable to shake off.

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Set directly after the events in Batman Forever, the audience is thrown directly back into the action with Batman (George Clooney) and Robin (Chris O’Donnell) trying to thwart villain Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) as he attempts a robbery, but he soon escapes. (To be noted here: this opening is so much like that of Batman Forever it sort of lets you know what a lazy film this will be.)

In South America, researcher Pamela Isley (Uma Thurman) is working on the experimental drug, Venom. When she discovers her boss Jason Woodrue (Smallville’s John Glover) is using the drug to create an army of super soldiers, Woodrue topples shelves of toxins on her, which, rather than killing her, turn her into saucy villain Poison Ivy.

Before killing Woodrue she discovers that Wayne Enterprises funded his work and, wanting to seek revenge, she takes Woodrue’s super soldier named Bane and heads to Gotham to settle the score.

Over in Gotham, Wayne Manor has a new houseguest in the form of butler Alfred’s niece Barbara (Alicia Silverstone), who surprises them all with a visit, but is invited by Bruce to stay until she starts back at school. It is during her visit that they discover Alfred has been struck down with MacGregor’s Syndrome, which is killing him.

The day job never stops for Bruce, however, and Wayne Enterprises continues to grow. At the launch of a new telescope, Pamela, aka Poison Ivy, proposes an environmentally friendly project to Bruce, which would, however, kill millions of people. He declines her offer and that night at a charity event attended by Batman and Robin she tries to use her powers to seduce them, with the trick working like a charm on Robin.

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However, her plan is short-lived as Mr. Freeze breaks into the party to steal a large diamond. This time he cannot evade the law and is captured and sent to the infamous Arkham Asylum, but is soon broken out by Poison Ivy and Bane.

Due to the influence Poison Ivy has had on Dick, aka Robin, he begins to argue with Bruce and is soon pulled back into Ivy’s control, only to discover how wrong he has been and that he’s trapped in her clutches.

Batman soon comes to his rescue and is joined by a surprising ally, Batgirl, who turns out to be Barbara, who has discovered the Batcave and knows Bruce and Dick’s secret (which, in fairness, at the point must be the fact they keep women’s rubber costumes more than the fact they are crime fighting superheroes. I’m not even going to start to mention the rubber nipples here).

The trio of goodies decide to go after the trio of baddies together, only to find Gotham has been frozen over in the time it took them to get going.

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Robin takes on Bane, Batgirl takes on Ivy and Batman takes on Freeze, with the three good guys winning and unfreezing the city.

To add salt to Freeze’s wounds, Batman shows him a recording of Ivy admitting the death of Freeze’s wife (which lead him to become a super villain) was her idea. He then admits his wife is not dead but, in fact, frozen until he discovers a cure for the syndrome she has, which, luckily, is the same as Alfred has and, even more luckily, he has managed to make a cure for the first stage. He gives it to Batman to cure his trusty butler, while he goes back to Arkham with Ivy as his cellmate.

To make the ending even happier, Bruce lets Barbara live with them (she is an orphan, after all) and they become one big happy crime-fighting family. Awwww….

Thoughts & Reaction

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, Schumacher’s first attempt on taking on the Batman franchise was, to all intents and purposes, very successful. Although critically it didn’t hold up to the Burton movies, it found a huge audience that summer and you could not swing a cat without hitting something related to it.

With big shiny dollar signs in the eyes, studio execs wanted more of the same and once the big numbers started rolling in, they greenlit a further sequel instantly and fast tracked production for the next movie to come out in summer 1997. Not wanting to change what they thought was a winning formula, Schumacher and lead writer Akiva Goldsman were signed straight up and work began.

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Presumably due to rumours of a rocky relationship with Schumacher on the set of Batman Forever, Val Kilmer did not reprise the role of Batman/Bruce Wayne in Batman & Robin. Instead the role went to TV favourite and thinking woman’s crumpet, George Clooney, who had found mega success as Doug Ross in ER and who could film both the show and the movie simultaneously without any issues.

Chris O’Donnell donned the tights again to play Robin, while Alicia Silverstone was brought in to bring Batgirl to life (word has it she was the only choice for the role).

Although first pegging both Patrick Stewart and Demi Moore for the roles of Freeze and Ivy, respectively, Schumacher eventually decided Freeze had to be a larger than life character and look like he was chiselled out of a glacier rather than just be menacing. And although it took six hours a day to get into the make-up and costume, Schwarzenegger took on the role. (I am sure the $25,000,000 he was paid also helped with that decision!)

With cast in place, shooting began in September of 1996 and finished at the beginning of 1997. The movie was released that June and it soon became very apparent that something was amiss with this new visit to Gotham – mostly good direction, good casting and any type of story.

Starting with the first of these three problems, Schumacher wanted Batman & Robin to be more of homage to the TV show of the 60s than any of the more recent, darker looks of the aptly named Dark Knight. This was the first big mistake the film made.

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Yes, the TV show was fun. Even today the BONG! BAM! BOOM! is part of geeky culture, but it was of its time, with the core audience to whom this film should have been aimed at expecting something very different. They also wanted good good visuals – which I would like to point out does not include lots of flashing disco lights. This is the Batcave, not a nightclub. A good story was also on the wish-list too.

According to rumours from cast members, during the shooting process Schumacher used to yell out before every take for the cast to remember they were making a cartoon. You kind of hope that wasn’t true, but it’s feasible it could have been.

When I watched this film again recently, the one thing that struck me was the fact it, literally, was no more than a high-end music video without the music, all quantity with no quality.

With this type of direction, it is hard to really blame the cast for the disaster this movie became, but they are not totally blameless. Starting off with the leads, George Clooney had pretty big shoes to fill taking over from Kilmer and his predecessor Michael Keaton, but he does try and it isn’t his fault he fails miserably.

As his future film projects have taught us, Clooney is an extraordinarily talented actor/director and writer. He was just totally miscast in this role. Yes, he had huge success on the TV, but Batman he was not.

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Today, we, as an audience, have pretty much forgotten his association with the movie, but his co-stars were not as lucky.

Chris O’Donnell’s career, at the point of release of the movie, looked like it really was going places, but the double hit of this and the awful The Bachelor pretty much put his leading man status into the ground then buried it. It is only recently he is making a name for himself back on the small screen in the latest NCIS spin-off. Same goes for Alicia Silverstone. After Clueless she was the next big thing to watch out for, but starring in this, then a couple of other box office flops, managed to make her career seemingly disappear overnight.

The news was ever so slightly better for Schwarzenegger, who carried on making action films until taking on a new challenge of becoming Governor of California, while Thurman managed to blow audiences away in Kill Bill.

What really does hit the nail on the head with why this movie was so awful is the fact there was no story to really base what was happening on. It really just felt like a record that was spinning around and around again. Big baddie arrives, Batman tries to stop him, repeat.

There was no internal angst, no wondering why Bruce Wayne feels compelled to do what he does, no reason as to why the Batcave lacks security and that anybody entering Wayne Manor can find it and decide to become a sidekick.

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The story, or lack of, is there to tent post the action and nothing more and, for the amount of money and time spent on the making the movie, everybody from director upwards should be ashamed with themselves.

When the film opened, the critics were not positive in their reviews, but it didn’t stop the movie from opening at the number one spot that weekend and the third highest opening of the year. However, the proof of its quality is in the pudding and on its second week the movie dropped 63% in box office sales and was considered the first movie to be affected by so-called ‘yellow journalism’ (reviews published on the Internet) with Schumacher blaming the bad word of mouth on Ain’t it Cool News’ Harry Knowles.

Although yet another Batman film, Batman Triumphant, had been given the go when this was released, the bad word of mouth and the decline in ticket sales put an end to that and it would take another eight years before the caped crusader would see the light of day again.

As for Schumacher, his next project would see him as far away from the superhero genre as you could go, and next time I will be looking at the rather bizarre 8MM.

Batman & Robin Key Info:

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Released: 20th June 1997 (US) / 27th June 1997 (UK)Distributed By: Warner Bros.Budget: $140,000,000Box Office Gross: $238,210,000Best DVD Edition: Batman & Robin Two Disc Special Edition