Saturday, April 14, 2012

"Batman & Robin" (Joel Schumacher, 1997)



Directed by Joel Schumacher
Written by Akiva Goldsman
Based on the DC Comics Characters Created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger

Executive Produced by Benjamin Melniker and Michael E. Uslan
Produced by Peter Macgregor-Scott, Mitchell E. Dauterive and William M. Elvin
Cinematography by Stephen Goldblatt
Production Design by Barbara Ling
Art Direction by Richard Holland and Geoff Hubbard
Costume Design by Bob Ringwood, Ingrid Ferrin and Robert Turturice
Editing by Mark Stevens and Dennis Virkler
Original Motion Picture Score Composed by Elliot Goldenthal

Arnold Schwarzenegger ... Mr. Freeze/Dr. Victor Fries
George Clooney ... Batman/Bruce Wayne
Chris O'Donnell ... Robin/Dick Grayson
Uma Thurman ... Poison Ivy/Dr. Pamela Isley
Alicia Silverstone ... Batgirl/Barbara Wilson
Michael Gough ... Alfred Pennyworth
Pat Hingle ... Commissioner James Gordon
John Glover ... Dr. Jason Woodrue
Elle Macpherson ... Julie Madison
Vivica A. Fox ... Ms. B. Haven
Vendela K. Thomessen ... Nora Fries
Elizabeth Sanders ... Gossip Gerty
Jeep Swenson ... Antonio Diego/Bane
Joe Sabatino ... Frosty
Michael Reid MacKay ... Antonio Diego
Eric Lloyd ... Young Bruce Wayne
Jon Simmons ... Young Alfred Pennyworth
Jesse Ventura ... Arkham Asylum Guard
Ralf Moeller ... Arkham Asylum Guard
Coolio ... Banker
Nicky Katt ... Spike

Batman & Robin struggle to keep their alliance together as they attempt to stop Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy from freezing Gotham City and enslaving humanity with animal plant hybrids.


1997’s “Batman & Robin.”

No words can possibly express the sheer volume of hatred, disdain, disgust and wrath that this one movie has received from both the Batman fan community and the world at large.

Empire Magazine, following a poll from its readers, dubbed the film the single worst film in movie history (with “Battlefield: Earth” taking the 2nd spot).

Before we get to it, there’s something I want to get clear about.

Most people, especially fans of the earlier Batman films and of Nolan’s current iteration, loathe this picture with a passion that would probably be better suited for other more productive things.

I’ll tell you something.

I didn't.

Well more specifically, not as much anyway.

In fact, although admittedly it IS my least favorite of the six (soon to be seven) contemporary live action films in the series, I still found the film quite refreshing in its cartoon-ish innocence.

Now before you condemn me for my opinion (which in and of itself is a pointless practice. It’s just my opinion, so please deal) let's consider a few things and define some terms.

The character DOES have a rather large fan base made up of young children. Despite the psychological underpinnings of the character and the themes of insanity and tragedy that make up the myth of Batman, kids are inevitably going to find the character and his adventures appealing.

That said, what's so unforgivable about making it light-hearted?

Just once.

I'll admit that I’ve always found the darker more hard edged Batman to be more to my liking (even AS a kid), but does every single work that involves Batman have to be dark and brooding all the time?

I honestly don't think so. The 60s Television series and the "Batman: The Brave and The Bold" cartoon are ample proof of that; both achieved a sizeable amount of success in their respective runs.

If you have a son or daughter who loves Batman but might scare more easily with some of the darker elements of the mythology, wouldn’t you be glad to have a more family-oriented characterization that you WOULD be able to share with him or her?

Unfortunately, most people and fans aren't as tolerant about the subject.

But let’s go ahead and take a look at "Batman & Robin."


This time Gotham City is in the grip of a new enemy, Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger). A former Nobel-Winning scientist thrown into despair when his wife starts dying, an accident in a science lab has turned him into a super-villain intent on turning the city into a massive block of ice.

But he's about to find a new ally in the shape of the beautiful, sexy Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman), also a former scientist killed after discovering a secret she wasn't supposed to. Her plan is simply to callously eliminate mankind so her floral kindred can make the world theirs.

Of course, the caped crusader and his side-kick must stop this, but as Robin (Chris O’ Donnell) struggles to mature to find the strength and restraint to be an ally to Batman (George Clooney), can the two work together in time to make an effective partnership against evil?


Easily the most critically mauled movie of the 'Batman' franchise, the final part in the old series is again directed by "A Time to Kill" director Joel Schumacher and continues with the trend established by "Batman Forever" to be a lighter, more flamboyant interpretation. I see nothing wrong with that. The studio dictated the tone of the film and Schumacher was just fulfilling his mandate.

If I had to place blame on one creative force outside of the studio for the movie’s shortcomings, I'd put it more on Akiva Goldsman than Joel. Because the film DOES suffer from a heightened sense of the same problems that “Forever” had, problems originated in the script:

The story is ultimately a rip off of all the plot points of "Forever" more than anything and, to add insult to injury, it's a failure even on that level. They basically worked the plot of the previous film down to a formula.


Crime fighter fights established villain + lowly Wayne Enterprises employee becomes new villain with a penchant for mind control + Villains team up, crime fighter gets new sidekick, costume and vehicles, Fast Food tie-in = Box Office.
Unfortunately, lightning couldn't strike twice for this particular caped crusader.

The dialogue is obnoxiously clunky on several occasions and the tone basically has the continuous texture of a loud, garish, overtly-colorful nightmare production. And what's worse, the tone is uneven. In the same movie that features bright lights and zany cartoon sound effects, you've got Poison Ivy making gratuituous innuendo about male genitalia ("I'll help you grab your rocks.").

But again, even after all the abyssmal that the movie reaks of, it's still (STILL)...not all bad.

Sometimes you just have to dig a little to find the good stuff.

For me, that good stuff resides in a very engaging and emotionally intriguing sub-plot concerning the unthinkable when Alfred (played by the ever loyal Michael Gough for the fourth and final time), after years of faithful service to Bruce Wayne, has been stricken by terminal illness.


His deterioration into that illness and the arrival of his niece Barbara (Alicia Silverstone) allow us to take refreshing breaths from all of the big, dumb American Movie action occurring around us. Alfred's quieter scenes with Bruce and Barbara are very well understated and compelling, which says a lot considering this was the fourth Batman film at the time.

Alfred: "Death and Chance stole your parents. But rather than become a victim, you have done everything in your power to control the fates. For what is Batman if not an effort to master the chaos that sweeps our world. An attempt to control death itself.

Bruce: "But I can't, can I?"

Alfred: "None of us can."
Still today, that's one of my favorite exchanges in the original film series.

The film is also helped (very mildly though) by some fairly good performances.


George Clooney has genuine presence but, much like Lewis Wilson in the 1943 serial, it's more as Bruce Wayne. He has charm, he's suave incarnate especially in the obligatory party scene with the Telescope unveiling and in the dinner scene with Julie Madison.

His Batman is certainly going through the motions that the script dictates, but c'mon. It's not Batman. It's George Clooney in a Batman costume. Look, that cowl doesn't hide that ridiculous 'Clooney' head-bob thing you do, George. Not fooling ANYONE. Another hilarious point to make is that, unlike actors such as Kevin Conroy and, most notoriously Christian Bale, Clooney is making no point whatsoever to masquerade his voice in costume. I'm sure at some point, a recently rescued Gothamite would ask Batman why he sounds like Bruce Wayne.

Funny enough, I'd have to say in retrospect that Uma Thurman gives my favorite performance in the movie. Given what everyone else is doing around her, can you really blame me? There's a commanding and sexy presence to her portrayal of Poison Ivy.


Appearing in some figure hugging sexy suits and pouts that certainly raise the innuendo a degree or two for a PG movie, Thurman just oozes eroticism much as Kidman had done prior in "Forever." On top of the sex angle, Uma gives Ivy a good turn as a nasty, well-spoken bitch with an honest contempt for humanity (although having her actually utter ‘Curses’ just might put it a bit too over the top).

As for the Governator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger looks cool (I'm sorry I couldn't help it) and imposing in his Mr. Freeze suit, but he's really at his bad-acting worst in terms of his performance here. Then again, I've never considered Arnold in contention for Oscar, so meh. However, all is not lost. Some of the scenes where Freeze dwells on his wife Nora and his love for her are actually somewhat well handled by the former Mr. Olympia. There are two especially tender moments of note that I really like:

1: Freeze watching old home video of his and Nora's wedding in which he sheds a tear that runs down his face only to freeze and break off in a soft billow of steam. That image stuck with me and it's one of the my favorites in the film, although the scene kind of gets that genuine wind taken out of its sails when he freezes his goon Frosty for interrupting him. "I HATE when people talk during the movie!" Ugh. Alas, the image itself is uncompromised and I love it.


2: The classic bit of Mr. Freeze iconography when, in his cell at Arkham Asylum, he carves an icicle down into a small figurine of Nora that he places on the spinning gears of a clock before sheathing it in glass. The image in that moment where the camera tracks around the cell and onto him as a twinkling 'music box' song plays is incredible.

And kudos to Schumacher and the producers for seeing the obvious validity to Paul Dini's incredible origin for Mr. Freeze from "Batman: The Animated Series."

Chris O'Donnell is as hopeless as ever and now we've got him not just whining about wanting to partner up with Batman...but whining in lust for Poison Ivy.

Oh boy!


Following the movie, O'Donnell faded from prominent spotlight afterwards, though he’s since found semi-resurrection on the series "NCIS: Los Angeles" opposite LL Cool J and, I have to say, it’s a welcome improvement; he's terrific on the show.

The same fate, it would appear though, fell to Silverstone, who didn't deserve it as much. She's a tremendous actress given the right material to work with, but her role as Barbara Wilson (Who are you and what've you done with Barbara Gordon!?) a.k.a. Batgirl here is pretty pointless and a rather tacky marketing gimmick aimed at both getting a more female-oriented demographic and for keeping the franchise going longer, which failed. C’mon, adding more and more characters is a sure sign of desperation. Didn't Cousin Oliver teach you ANYTHING?!
In terms of character, the biggest crime the movie commits isn't with Freeze or Batgirl or even Batman himself.

Of course you all know where this one's going, right?



Thank god "The Dark Knight Rises" is coming in to do some serious retribution for this character. Seriously, Bane stands as one of Batman's most challenging foes both physically and intellectually and THIS is what he's reduced to...

I remember getting psyched when the trailer showed that image of Bane lifting up the Bat-Signal. I honestly thought the movie was going to take a turn down the path of "Knightfall" for a moment.

Shame on me.

In the end, the universal thing you can say about everyone in this cast is that they'd all be fantastic if they were just given better material to work with. We're watching their interpretations of these legendary characters through the lens of an incarnation that, while valid in the context of history, isn't truly capitalizing on the potential of Batman, especially the very potential that Michael Uslan and Ben Melniker had set out and intended to tap back with the first film in 1989.

The whole point of doing a "Batman" movie for them was to return the character to the dark roots of 1939. I can't believe that eight years later the very agenda of doing what they did turned right back around and led the character into the camp mockery territory they fought to retrieve him from.

This is just a fall from grace and a far cry from where it had come from. I still enjoy it for what it's worth but in the scope of the series it's a part of...yeah.

Look they could've kept this momentum of child-friendly tone going for all I care...but there HAD to have been a way to do it while also penning a more competant screenplay; one that would've simultanesouly met the conditions that the studio had while giving the cast a true sense of challenge to bring emotional and psychological weight and depth to their roles.

It's just wishful thinking now, unfortunately.

The sets conceived by Barbara Ling are big and bold and pretty decent as an obvious extension of "Batman Forever." The Batcave is pretty sweet in this incarnation and Freeze and Poison Ivy’s respective dwellings, while being played up to the area of outright villainous stereotype akin to the lairs you'd often find in the 60's show, fit easily enough.

I think 'Big' is just the operative word here.


I really like the Wayne Observatory, both in miniature and its spherical set interior (slightly odd that it's on top of a mountain that looks like it must be erect in the middle of Gotham, but whatever) and the image of Batman saving the scientists as the telescope plunges to the rocky terrain was genuinely thrilling to me as a kid. Who knew telescopes blew up so spectacularly!?

And how about the incredible set dressing and costume design for the Gotham Botanical Gardens and its hosting of the Diamond Auction? A lot of striking colors and fabrics and design work was put into this set and for it being the location for Poison Ivy's full reveal, it's incredible.


Legendary "Star Wars" pioneer John Dykstra’s visual effects work very well considering the spectacle at hand. Sure, having Batman and Robin surf through the sky as a rocket explodes over Gotham is a bit much, but at least it looks cool. And a big factor of comic books, visually speaking and for better or worse, is having stuff look cool. I wouldn't trade that for decent storytelling, not at all. But the kid in me STILL gets a kick out of it now and then.

That's the genius of Batman.


This character works in a multitude of ways. You can take two hours to do a crime epic that pierces his psychology or you can have him "Do the Dew!" with a snazzy Xtreeeeme sky-surfing sequence.

It's still Batman. From grim psycho-analysis to flights of kinetic fancy, the character forever endures.

The action for the film, by that extension, is farcical and explosive and it's everything plus the kitchen sink.

I really got into the opening sequence with the museum and Mr. Freeze's rocket and I found it a lot of fun. And of course the bombastic final confrontation at the Observatory. I think a big part of that was seeing Batman, Robin and Batgirl use all the gadgetry (c'mon, I was nine years old) and seeing all of the different batarangs and grapple lines and such.

There's also that terrific chase between Freeze and the dynamic duo as Batman and Robin come into conflict, leading Batman to disable the engine of Robin's Redbird motorcycle; that moment of Grayson screaming in rage while he only watches on as Batman apprehends Freeze is monumental.

One of the other key action sequences is the exhausting motorcycle race right in the middle of the movie with Barbara and Dick. It's a rather tedious affair meant to do nothing more than create 'development' enough to convince the audience that Barbara's cut out for becoming Batgirl. What deflates the scene is when you ultimately learn that it was all staged by a biker named Spike just to kill Barbara for no better reason than being a superior motorcyclist (seriously; he sets her up to die because he's a sore loser...). It's shot and edited fine, but it's an action sequence that's neither engaging or even all that fun. Meh.

The film still has merits, such as its design work.

I'm just gonna say right now that to date, including "Batman Begins," Joel Schumacher's depiction of Arkham Asylum is still, to me, the best live action representation of that location to date. His Gothic Citadel of an Asylum kicks the crap out of Nolan's utilitarian clinical facility any day of the week.

But anyway.

Some of the gags in the script and aspects of the production fall flat, and I'm sure you all know them by heart:


The Bat Credit-Card, Green Lightning and Flames, Rubber Lips, R. Kelly's "Gotham City," Cod Pieces, Snow-Meiser, Lobotomized Bane, Reverse Robin, Nipples, Polar Bear Slippers, Taco Bell, Gorilla Suits, Coolio as the Motorcycle Race Banker and...

Wait a minute...COOLIO?!?!


But so what?

We're fans of this character and his universe.

The child in all of us can still thrill to the climax of Batman rescuing the observatory scientists from the falling telescope and the pop-comic elements. "Batman & Robin" is packed wall to wall with sweeping flight and fancy fun that, when the mood strikes me, I can turn my brain off and still enjoy.

I can watch the film without ragging on it and that really stems from my childhood experience of seeing it for the first time with my late Great Grandmother in Oklahoma when it first came out.

I still remember that summer. Picking up all the magazines that had George and Chris in the costumes on the cover just to see what I could inside.

When I traveled to Oklahoma to spend the week with my Great Grandmother, we were like two peas in a Bat-Hammer! (side note: yeah the Robin Snow-mobile was silly, but I loved Batman's vehicle, the Bat-Hammer, at the end).


She and I got caught up in the moment together. A few days before the opening weekend, we went to Target and got all the toys. While she watched the news at night, I'd be there on her living room floor pushing the Batmobile along her carpet and imagining scenarios that might be in the movie.



That Friday morning, she made me some of Kellogg's official "Batman & Robin" Pop-Tarts; the actual 'Batman & Robin' ones with white frosting and little red Bat sprinkles.
Then, after breakfast, we went to the theatre and together she and I watched the movie on the big screen. I stared up with big saucers for eyes, thrilled once more by the adventures of my favorite comic book super hero. Nothing like that!

My Great Grandmother passed away shortly after that.

I will always be in debt to "Batman & Robin" for creating a worthwhile memory of my Great Grandmother that I can keep all for myself for the rest of my life.

In the end “Batman & Robin” is a complete farce but hey, it's a fun farce to watch every so often.


1 comment:

  1. Right with you on this one. People complain about the nipples and the performances and the neon but to me the most grating element is the lazy screenplay. They lift the whole structure from Forever and try and repurpose it. There was a lavish party in Forever, let's put another one in B&R. Come on.

    I think this wouldn't have been as bad if they'd had another actor as Freeze instead of Arnie. Don't get me wrong I love Arnie but he can't really act (unless he's playing a robot). If this had say Patrick Stewart or someone and a few less one liners it might have been quite tolerable if still overly bombastic.