Batman & Robin (1997) (part 1 of 13)
A word of warning before we begin: Even for me, this is going to be an exhaustingly long article. But you can’t really expect any less for what could be the stupidest movie of the last ten years. Batman & Robin is the very epitome of the big, dumb, and loud action film that has plagued audiences in recent years.
It’s hard to think of a film that is more actively disliked than this one. It’s not the worst movie ever made, far from it, and in fact it ended up as one of the highest-grossing films of 1997. (It’s not even the worst Batman-related movie ever; that honor is split between Alyas Batman en Robin and The Wild World of Batwoman.)
But Batman & Robin is easily one of the most reviled movies ever made. I defy you to find a single positive review of this movie anywhere, by any critic. In 1999, readers of the UK magazines SFX and Comics International voted this the worst comic book adaptation ever made (beating out Howard the Duck [!]). And in 2001, the editors of Maxim magazine (okay, so they’re not the Medveds, but they’re still a pretty accurate barometer of the opinions of the general male populace) voted this the worst movie of all time.
Why is this film so hated? If it were about any other character besides Batman, I doubt we’d even be having this discussion. Batman is behind only Superman as the most enduring and beloved comic book character ever created, and a lot of this has to do with the unique nature of the character. Batman was the first costumed superhero who didn’t get his powers because he came from another planet, had chemicals spilled on him, or got exposed to atomic radiation. As Conan O’Brien once joked, Batman’s only superpower is that he goes to the gym a lot.
Essentially, Batman is one of the few costumed crimefighters who chooses to be a superhero. And in the sixty-plus years since his first appearance, a great number of comic book creators have devoted a lot of ink to exploring his motivations. Take the tragedy that drives Batman, and couple it with the sinister bat imagery he utilizes, and the stage is set for a limitless number of dark, Gothic stories that examine issues of justice, revenge, and vigilantism in the seedy underbelly of the big city.
Until the late 80’s, however, no filmed entertainment ever bothered to seriously investigate this aspect of the character. For years, Batman was pretty much stuck in the Bamm! Pow! Oof! mode made popular by the 60’s Adam West TV show. Like many others, I find the TV show entertaining in spite of itself. It’s fun to watch even though it gives serious comic book fans every reason to hate it. So when Tim Burton was tapped to finally update Batman for a feature film, those same fans eagerly hoped that the Dark Knight would finally get the faithful, serious adaptation he deserved.
Was it faithful? More or less. Was it serious? Not really. It had plot holes you could drive the huge new and improved Batmobile through, and it devoted very little time to understanding the character or his motivations. But it did have amazing visual design, strong performances by both Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson, and a plot that at least attempted to be semi-coherent.
A couple of years later, Tim Burton directed the solid follow-up Batman Returns, which remains one the few sequels that actually improved upon the original. Unfortunately, after this movie Tim Burton and Michael Keaton both walked away and Burton handed over the reins to Joel Schumacher. From there, it was a short, obnoxious trip to the total self-destruction of the franchise.
Joel Schumacher started his feature film directing career ignominiously with the alleged comedy The Incredible Shrinking Woman with Lily Tomlin, and soon followed it up with the even more insubstantial D.C. Cab starring Agony Booth favorite Mr. T. These films should have served as an important lesson: Schumacher can’t direct comedy. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the direction in which he planned to take the Batman franchise.
The first installment that Schumacher directed was Batman Forever (which is possibly the dopiest title of any superhero movie since The Adventures of Rat Phink and Boo Boo). The film didn’t quite succeed in its attempts to be humorous, but at least it featured an actual comic actor, Jim Carrey, and action sequences that at the very least attempted to play by the rules of physics. No doubt this was due in large part to the oversight of Tim Burton as a producer.
By the time Batman & Robin rolled around, however, Burton had moved on. Left to his own devices, Schumacher quickly tossed any notion of doing a serious portrayal of the Dark Knight in the trash. Apparently, out of that same dumpster, Schumacher scrounged up a whole batch of smirky one-liners, ludicrous stunts, and sound effects that appeared designed to test the upper limits of theater THX sound systems.
I would say that by this point, the Batman franchise had been reduced to the level of the campy 60’s Adam West TV series, but that would be an insult to Adam West.
Schumacher doesn’t get sole credit for this sabotage, however. A large part of the blame also goes to screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, and his appearance here means that the Agony Booth finally has its very first Repeat Offender. Goldsman is also represented on this site for his equally vapid and disjointed script for Lost in Space. And as that movie proved, he writes comedy about as well as Schumacher directs it.
So, put together a director that can’t direct comedy, and a writer who can’t write comedy, and what kind of Batman movie do they come up with? That’s right, a big, glorified, slapstick comedy.
Making matters worse was the paint-by-numbers formula that arose when it came to providing Batman with villains. After the obligatory appearance of the Joker in the first film, Batman Returns introduced us to two villains, Catwoman and the Penguin. Batman Forever picked up on this formula and provided us with two more villains, the Riddler and Two Face. So, after only three films, they had exhausted the supply of really famous Batman villains.
This means that for this film, we’re left with two of the most marginal Batman villains of all time: Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy. One would expect that if the franchise had continued on in this way, the next movie would have featured Batman facing off against the Mad Hatter and King Tut. Surely, it’s hard to imagine that being much worse than the movie we actually got.
The film opens with the Warner Brothers logo getting frosty, and then CGI-morphing into an icy Bat Logo. This morphing is completely gratuitous and is obviously a new toy that the filmmakers are planning to use and abuse as much as humanly possible. This lets most in the audience know that they’re probably in trouble.
Then, the credit “A Joel Schumacher film” appears, and now we’re certain we’re in trouble. The icy Bat Logo cracks and the pieces fly apart, revealing a misty red backdrop as all the credits fly into the frame. And when I say they “fly into the frame”, I mean they come loudly whooshing past us like the Concorde taking off about ten feet away from your head. This means that things are already big, dumb, and loud, and we’re not even thirty seconds into the movie yet.
Out of the crimson mist emerge two dark, computer-generated shapes, which turn out to be the Bat Logo and the Robin Logo winging around. They circle each other, then slam together, making a sound not unlike a shotgun going off directly under your seat. Finally, both logos fly away and reveal the title, which of course explodes into a blinding supernova of light. You know, I never thought I’d see the day when the zooming blue credits of Superman: The Movie looked tasteful and subdued by comparison.
The credits end, and immediately we get pointless extreme close-ups of various parts of Batman and Robin’s bodies as they suit up. We zoom in on black latex gloves being slipped on, black latex belts being buckled, and, gratuitously, we even zoom in on both of their rear ends as they pull up their black latex underoos.
Being forced to take a hard look at these costumes only reminds me that they’re the one thing I’ve hated most about the Batman movies (even the good ones). In the comics, Batman and Robin just wore tights, but here for some reason they have to wear these totally artificial, sculpted suits that even have nipples [!] on them. What was so wrong with tights? Christopher Reeve got buff so he could play a superhero, why couldn’t George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell?
After a lengthy sequence of the two of them grabbing random weaponry shaped like the Bat and Robin Logos, we at long last see the Batcave. In the center of this vast chamber, the Batmobile is rising up out of some pointless dry ice fog on a hydraulic pedestal as laser lights shoot everywhere. Why is the Batmobile kept on a hydraulic pedestal? You see, this is a Comic Book Movie, therefore nothing needs to make sense. Or so the filmmakers would have us believe.
The Batmobile, as per what we expect from the previous three movies, is a vehicle based upon a completely impractical design. It’s got huge bat-shaped fins that achieve absolutely no effect, aerodynamic, dramatic or otherwise. Also, in the nose of the car, a Bat Logo is cut out in clear plastic, revealing some kind of disco strobe light that flashes orange and yellow. I can’t even begin to imagine what purpose this would serve.
Eventually, Robin utters the first line of dialogue in the movie, and fittingly, it’s also one of the stupidest. “I want a car!” he says eagerly. Batman gives him a grumpy look, but Robin continues: “Chicks dig the car!” Granted, this is something a typical twenty-something might actually say, but on the other hand, we don’t expect a typical twenty-something to fight crime as the sworn protector of a huge city.
Batman is then given an ever dumber line of dialogue when he turns to the camera [!] and says, “This is why Superman works alone.” Oh, geez. Double geez.
First of all, nothing in the previous three Batman films even remotely hinted at the existence of other superheroes in this “world”, let alone Superman. In fact, the events of those films would seem to indicate that Batman and Robin are the only superheroes there are. After all, you didn’t see Green Lantern or the Flash stopping by when the Riddler was sucking out everybody’s brains in Batman Forever. You’d think at least they’d have been like what’s up, can you handle this, Batman? Okay, I can see you’re all over it, my bad.
So this line not only contradicts this film’s internal logic, but that of the three previous films, as well. Obviously, it was thrown in without much thought for the sole purpose of getting a cheap laugh, but it didn’t even accomplish that much.
Batman hops into the Batmobile, and an overhead shot reveals that the hydraulic pedestal it’s sitting on is shaped like the Bat Logo. Dude, we know you’re Batman, okay? You don’t have to shape every single thing you own like a bat.
Off in a corner, we see poor unfortunate Michael Gough, one of only two cast members remaining from Tim Burton’s original film, once again reprising his role of Alfred. He cranks his British-ness up to the max by telling Batman, “Do try to bring this one back in one piece, sir!”
Then, we see the Batmobile’s jet engines fire up. Yep, jet engines. On the Batmobile. I’m sure this comes in very handy when Batman wants to stealthily creep up on some criminals in the act. Big flames shoot out as the Batmobile blasts off down a tunnel.
Robin then watches as his motorcycle, called the Redbird, is also hoisted up on a hydraulic pedestal. For no reason, it’s encased in some kind of curved box-type thing that splits down the middle to reveal his bike. Additionally, covering the interior of this box are two Robin Logos in neon [?]. Believe me, it’s just as bizarre as it sounds.
Watching this, I have to wonder why Batman has even bothered with all these weird, elaborate flourishes and decorations in his Batcave. I mean, besides Batman, Robin, and Alfred, who’s going to see any of this? Would it really make any difference if Robin just put Redbird in the corner and covered it with a sheet?
Granted, Bruce Wayne is a millionaire, but I can’t think of a more ludicrous waste of money. Hopefully, corporate accounting scandals will finally catch up with Wayne Enterprises and we’ll hear this said on Capitol Hill: “Mr. Wayne, I see by your books that you’ve allocated five hundred thousand dollars to laser lights and smoke machines, can you explain that for us, sir?”
Robin hops on Redbird, which naturally also has a jet engine, and roars off down the same tunnel. As soon as he’s gone, Alfred has a spell of a Movie Illness that causes his lips to quiver, his eyelids to flutter, and forces him to lean against a wall to keep from collapsing. Either that, or he just saw 8MM .
We watch Batman and Robin cruise through the tunnel at jet speed for several minutes, which makes this tunnel at least as long as that of a particle accelerator. A little TV screen spins out from Batman’s steering wheel, and Commissioner Gordon’s face appears. Gordon is played by Pat Hingle, the other cast member still remaining from Burton’s original. For some reason, Commissioner Gordon is dressed like an army general [?], with four gold stars on each shoulder and gold leaves on his hat. Am I the only one who fondly remembers a white-haired guy who wore an overcoat and black square frames?
Gordon tells Batman that there’s a new villain taking over the antiquities wing of the Gotham Museum of Art. Apparently, this guy can imprison guards in blocks of ice and, fittingly, “he’s calling himself Mr. Freeze!” Batman repeats the name as he and Robin continue to roar down their impossibly long tunnel.