From Gotham to Gautham: Batman & Robin (1997)
So with Batman Forever being a huge box office hit, and the merchandising selling ridiculously well, it was a no-brainer for Warner Bros. to ask Joel Schumacher to return for a sequel. The thing was, they wanted one quickly. Schumacher went off to direct the adaptation of John Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill, but was still involved in the preproduction for the third Batman sequel. Akiva Goldsman would write the movie, and everyone would return; Pat Hingle as Gordon, Michael Gough as Alfred, Chris O’Donnell as Robin/Dick Grayson, and Val Kilmer as Batman/Bruce Wayne. Except…Val Kilmer quit. Or was fired. Or wasn’t told about the movie and committed to the movie The Saint. Whatever happened, they needed a new Batman. Because Schumacher and Goldsman had decided to use the 1960s TV series as well as the absurd 1950s comic book stories as their inspiration, the director felt an actor who could be lighter in tone than Keaton or Kilmer would be better. Enter George Clooney. Clooney, whose star had risen considerably because of ER, jumped at the role. Working seven days a week for months between ER and Batman & Robin, he took on the dual roles of Batman and Bruce Wayne.
Sticking with Warner Bros.’s wishes to keep the franchise lighter and more family friendly, the fourth movie, Batman & Robin, would be fast-tracked to a 1997 release and star Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze and Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy. It would also feature the first film version of the new comic book villain, Bane, who broke Batman’s back in 1993, played by Jeep Swenson.
In June 1997, my world was turned upside-down. Two months away from my twentieth birthday, I found out I was going to be a father. I was stunned. Sixteen years later, I can’t remember the exact order of events. I can’t remember if I’d told my parents by the time the movie opened on June 20th, or if I told them later. I remember going to my then-girlfriend’s then-stepfather’s family’s cottage on White Horse Beach in Plymouth the weekend we saw the movie (or at least fairly closely afterward) and worrying about the baby there, and her family didn’t know about it at that point. So I guess maybe mine didn’t either…? Anyway, it didn’t stop me from seeing Batman on the big screen.
I remember my feelings as the end credits began to roll almost as intensely as I remember my feelings upon hearing that this kid was gonna be a daddy. They weren’t the same feelings, but they were both intense.
George Clooney as Batman is a no-brainer. He gets a bad rap for this movie, and it’s understandable. When compared to Michael Keaton, and even Val Kilmer, Clooney’s Batman/Bruce Wayne is another creature altogether. Still, there’s a sadness in his puppy-dog eyes that can make me believe that he has suffered. The fact that he made the choice–or Schumacher (or Goldsman) made the choice–to make Bruce Wayne less brooding makes sense. I know that if a person loses his/her parents in childhood, at the age of 8 or 10, it’s likely to haunt them for the rest of their lives. I’m also sure some people will spend the rest of their lives brooding, and maybe even trying to make a difference in some way. But I’m also sure that a part of a healthy person’s life is healing and by his mid-30s, while still hurting deeply, maybe Bruce Wayne has come to terms with his parents’ death. And in relation to Batman Forever‘s storyline, it makes sense that Clooney is less brooding.
The imagination behind this movie, like Batman Forever (and Burton’s Batman movies) is something to behold. It’s a strange, alternate world that shouldn’t exist and is a marvel to the eye.
George Clooney as Batman is very flat. Clooney’s casting is brilliant, but he’s given nothing except a larger codpiece and more defined rubber ass cheeks. Here was a guy who played such depth on TV every week in the highest-rated drama of the time being used as a carbon copy of himself. While it’s fine that Bruce may have moved on from his parents’ murders, there’s very little real emotion for him to work with in this movie. The few moments he’s allowed to actually emote are overshadowed by the silliness of the disease that’s threatening to turn his life upside-down again. Aside from that, he’s mildly more interesting than Adam West was as Batman/Bruce Wayne. Oh, and it seems that every shot of every scene has the Clooney head-bob. I know that he does that, that it’s natural, but he’s like a bobble head toy in this movie, even when he’s in the mask.
Chris O’Donnell would be faintly better in this movie than in Batman Forever if it weren’t for his lame dialogue, I think. He had crappy dialogue during his first go-around as Dick Grayson/Robin, and this time it’s even worse. And while we’re on sidekicks, this movie introduces us to Barbara Wilson, who becomes Batgirl, played by Alicia Silverstone. Silverstone became the infatuation to many adolescent boys in the mid-1990s because of her starring role in several Aerosmith music videos (“Cryin'”, “Amazing,” and “Crazy”) but became a star in her breakout role in Amy Heckerling’s Clueless. In that film, she was sassy, magnetic, and pitch perfect. In Batman & Robin she plays Alfred’s niece (as opposed to Commissioner Gordon’s daughter) in a range that can only be called mildly mentally challenged. She’s terrible. Her dialogue, her acting, her action scenes, everything is terrible.
Arnold Schwarzenegger can be charming, charismatic, funny, and just-plain entertaining. I mean, there was a time that people may have actually been willing to rewrite the Constitution to allow him to become President! In Batman & Robin, he almost pulls off charismatic. In many ways, he’s the best part of this movie, and may have been put in The Day section of this essay if it wasn’t for his makeup, dialogue, costumes, acting, and… It’s bad. He has glowing blue teeth in the costume. I had to add that. The concept of Mr. Freeze isn’t a bad one, and Batman: The Animated Series showed that it can be done well. A scientist who, in trying to save his wife’s life by freezing her until her mysterious disease can be cured, accidentally makes himself unable to live outside the coldest temperatures. The sadness of the idea of this brilliant man longing to save his wife but having to turn to crime is great, worthy of a Batman villain. But the writer and director are spending too much time putting in bad jokes, worse puns, and even worse one-liners to ever really give a shit about something so tiny as character. And with the jokes, quips, puns, and one-liners, Schwarzenegger is right at home. By 1997, his star had begun to fade. One could still expect a Schwarzenegger movie nearly once a year, but the reviews were becoming harsher, the action movie was changing, and people were just ready for something new. What they got in Batman & Robin was akin to a 1960s/1970s TV guest star playing to his typecast. Mr. Freeze adds nothing to the Batman film series, poses no real threat, and has muddled-thinking at best.
Poison Ivy, played by Uma Thurman, on the other hand, makes Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze look like Hamlet. Thurman, who’d rocked the boat playing Mia Wallace in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, hams it up so much as Poison Ivy that I felt like I was watching a bad sitcom performance. Thurman can be an excellent actress, full of swagger or innocence, depending on the role. Yet in Batman & Robin she seems to be acting in a way she believes a comic book would be played. And maybe she’s right. I’m probably just another nerdboy upset by what happened to Batman and his mythos in this movie, but I can’t escape feeling that a better script, better dialogue, and better direction would’ve given us a so much better Poison Ivy.
The inclusion of Bane in this movie should’ve been a high point, but instead is a gross misstep in a movie filled with them. As an ardent Batman comic book reader in the early 1990s, I read first-hand Bane’s introduction and story-arc in 1993’s Knightfall. Bane was an intelligent man who wanted to exact revenge on Batman (I fail to remember why right now) and, unlike most of the villains Batman faces, decides he’s going to run Batman into the ground long before they meet face-to-face. By destroying Arkham Asylum and the prison many of Batman’s greatest foes are in, he releases them all and Batman spends months bringing them to justice. By the time he’s through, he’s exhausted, has hardly slept, and walks into the Batcave to find Bane waiting for him. Bane beats up Batman, ending the fight by snapping Batman over his knee, breaking his back. This was Batman’s editors answer to 1992’s “Death of Superman” storyline.
The Bane that appears in Batman & Robin is pumped full of the mysterious Venom that appears in the comic books, but other than that and the costume, he is a shadow. A large shadow. Played by Jeep Swenson, Bane is nothing but grunts and parrot-like responses. He’s essentially Poison Ivy’s henchman and is hardly a threat. While he may have superhuman strength, he has below-human intellect and could be outsmarted by a slow toddler. While the Bane of the comic books was an instant fan favorite, the Bane of Batman & Robin became how most people knew and stigmatized the character. And not only was the take on the character appalling (and demeaning) but the makeup was atrocious.
Look, the acting in general is horrible in the movie. Michael Gough, in his final turn as Alfred, is, again, great, but even he has to stretch. Of course, he and George Clooney are given the only emotional character-driven scene in the movie. Aside from that, it’s all bad. John Glover, who plays Dr. Woodrue, a mad scientist who is working with Poison Ivy’s alter-ego, Pamela Isley, but secretly using her research to create a super-soldier serum (the aforementioned Venom), said that before each take, Joel Schumacher would shout out, “Remember, everyone, this is a cartoon!” Which leads to the main problem of the entire movie.
The filmmakers responsible for the movie didn’t get it. Akiva Goldsman’s script is terrible. Like Batman Forever, Batman & Robin begins with suiting-up (this time it’s Batman and Robin suiting up), complete with groin and ass shots. Then we go into the new Batcave where Batman and Robin stand dramatically as Robin’s motorcycle and the new Batmobile (which has only one seat and no roof!) comes from the floor. And then it’s one-liners and jokes. Welcome to Batman, kids! And it gets no better. Almost every scene in the movie has bad puns, one-liners, jokes, and dumb dialogue. Bruce and Alfred’s relationship is examined, as is the idea of what makes up family, which is all well and good, but it’s forced in the same way student writing has forced meaning because the kid knows the teacher is looking for X.
The production design is hit or miss. Above I mentioned that the world Schumacher and his team created is something to behold, and I meant it. Gotham City is loud and gaudy and crazed. The thing is, it’s a little too gaudy and crazed. I mentioned in my essay on Batman Forever that there’s way too much neon in the movie. The same can be said for this movie, as well as odd colored spotlights projecting on every surface. It’s like modern Tokyo on a steroid/acid mix. While that could be a thing of personal taste, what isn’t is the cheapness of some of the look. The ice that’s generated by Mr. Freeze wherever he goes looks like sculpted plastic. There are scenes when vehicles get hit by his freeze-ray and when a door opens, you can see the “ice” wobble in the motion, looking like cut velum on the doors. Uma Thurman’s costumes are pretty tame and lame, by most standards. Hell, the behind the scenes featurettes on the Blu-ray have a costume person actually saying that her costumes were incomplete by the time filming came. Even her demise at the end is lame, when a huge rubber plant eats her, á la Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors, it doesn’t look nearly as good as the Frank Oz movie of less than 10 years before.
The look of Mr. Freeze’s henchmen is ridiculous. And the heroes change costumes for the final showdown again. This time, instead of it only being Batman in that bulkier suit he used at the end of Batman Forever, even Robin and Batgirl have new costumes made, with silver highlights. Because if you weren’t convinced that the toy makers had a say in the production design before this, they needed to make sure you knew.
Finally, the directing is off. Schumacher had a vision. He carried out that vision. In that, he was successful. He intended on making a silly comic book/cartoon in live-action and he succeeded. That said, the performances of his actors, and his designers, and his scriptwriter were all awful. And while I understand that he was being rushed by Warner Bros., and being held to a standard that would help sell toys as much as movie tickets, there has to be something somewhere in his head that makes him see just how bad the movie is. It’s not a sin to have made Batman & Robin campy in the way the TV series was, or silly like some of the strange stories out of the 1950s, but if you’re going to invoke the 1960s TV series, at least try to be as cutting edge, biting, and smart as they were in the beginning. Batman & Robin were none of these things. And while his apology on the Blu-ray/DVD interviews done in 2005 are now as legendary as the low quality of this movie, in a large part of the interviews, I saw the same things said over and over that I’ve heard other filmmakers say on other bad sequels (I’m looking at you now Jack Sholder and Rachel Talalay). In essence, “We didn’t know that the movie was going to be as big as it was. We didn’t know the fans wouldn’t like it so much. We were trying to make an entertaining movie, that’s all.” That last was true, I’m sure of it. And maybe even the first sentence might have a grain or two of truth. But if anyone working on Batman & Robin from the start thought that the fans of this PG-13-rated movie were going to love any of it, they had to be out of touch with reality.
Warner Bros. had been happy with what they’d seen during the filming of Batman & Robin enough to hire Joel Schumacher to direct a third Batman movie (fifth in the series) which would be called Batman Triumphant and would feature the Scarecrow, Harley Quinn as the Joker’s daughter, and the Joker, as a fear toxin-induced hallucination. Mark Protosevich had been hired to write the script. Word was the cast of Batman & Robin was signed to return and negotiations with Jack Nicholson had begun.
It wouldn’t come to be. In the end, Batman & Robin had a great opening weekend and then dropped immediately as word-of-mouth began to spread. Where fans can save a movie that has bad reviews (how many Transformers movies are there now?), nobody was saving this movie. Schumacher reportedly pitched an idea to do Batman: Year One, in a grittier way as presented in Frank Miller’s original comic, but Warner declined.
I remember walking out of the movie theater shell-shocked. We’d seen an early-afternoon matinee. My girlfriend said that it was pretty good. I felt like I’d been beaten. Worse than that. I can be over-apologetic to movie franchises if I love the overall series enough, anyone reading these essays have seen that. I hated this movie. I saw it one other time before rewatching it to write this. When it finally came on Cinemax, I watched it, convinced that it couldn’t have been as bad as I’d remembered. I was right. It was worse.
It’s a shame, really. I think George Clooney would’ve made a great Batman. I guess we’ll never know.