Batman, as a character, has taken on so many different tones over the years. You had the comic book campiness of the ’60s TV series and the tragic and almost minimalistic interpretations of the two Tim Burton films. And more recently, of course, there’s the dark and dreadful Christopher Nolan trilogy. But then you had a pair of movies by director Joel Schumacher. The first, Batman Forever, still had the involvement of Burton, which grounded Schumacher who was able to piggy-back off the aesthetics established by Burton’s 1989 and 1992 installments. But then Schumacher’s follow-up, 1997’s notorious Batman & Robin, saw the director with the kind of freedom that upset a lot of fans. If Batman Forever got Schumacher’s desired silly tone right, this one pushes the chips in even farther.
The problem comes from our expectations of what a Batman movie should really be like. But there comes a moment when reputation begins to have an impact on the viewing experience. It’s almost impossible for anyone who’s sought out this film to not already know how disastrously poorly it was received all those years ago. Over time, that hate has become even more exaggerated. But honestly, Batman & Robin isn’t all that bad and, dare I say it, kinda fun.
Batman (George Clooney) and his sidekick, Robin (Chris O’Donnell), are back again to do their part in cleaning up Gotham City. There’s a new villain to face: _Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Freeze suffered an accident while trying to cryogenically freeze his dying wife and now his blood runs ice cold. He goes around town stealing diamonds which fuel his suit of ice to keep his body temperature low. But somehow over the years, Freeze decided that he hates humanity and wants to freeze everybody in the world.
He has help from the femme fatale, Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman), an environmentalist-turned-plant who blows pheromones into men’s faces to easily manipulate them. One kiss from Poison Ivy and you’re dead within seconds. Alicia Silverstone plays Barbara Wilson, aka Batgirl, the niece of Wayne’s butler, Alfred (Michael Gough). The villain Bane (Jeep Swenson) also plays an integral role, even though he acts more like The Hulk than he does the intelligent force we know him to be now. Schumacher spends the first 30 minutes of the story introducing all of the characters.
As much as it gives them adequate screen time, the film doesn’t get much out of its title characters. Clooney is infamously miscast, but he doesn’t do a terrible job delivering his lines and exuding emotion and charm as Bruce Wayne. However, he fails to draw any separation between the billionaire bachelor and his alter ego. Clooney’s version of Batman lacks any intensity or charm at all and we stop paying attention to how his dual identities represent themselves. Even Wayne doesn’t care. As Barbara Wilson hacks into highly protected confidential files and discovers the truth about his identity, Wayne laughably shrugs it off.
The movie becomes undoubtedly carried by its aesthetics and its villains, namely Mr. Freeze. Schwarzenegger takes a rare sinister turn as the oddly sympathetic maniac, and the pieces are in place to heighten the viewer’s depiction of him. From his makeup to his motifs to simply Arnold’s delivery and mug, Mr. Freeze is a creepy dude. But he’s also trying to save his wife, and we get some emotion out of the actor who has the tendency of delivering surprisingly effective performances throughout his career. Here, of course, that performance is laden with ice puns.
Thurman’s Poison Ivy, on the other hand, is driven by insanity only. Her motives get muddled, and Thurman’s performance is so over-the-top, yet somehow it works to Schumacher’s liking.
As a visual piece of art, Schumacher and company have outdone themselves. The costumes and makeup are impressive, and the Gotham cityscapes look fantastic, especially the Roman-inspired architecture of the bridges that roller coaster over town and the brand-new Gotham Observatory, mounted inside of a Statue of Liberty-type grip. within pockets of the film, but this one loses the sleep element, which makes Freddy so unique and, more importantly, justifies his existence. And with that absence, the film, while entertaining as a whole, just isn’t as effective.
Batman & Robin touches on some interesting notions of trust and control, and when control ceases to be empowerment and becomes loneliness and isolation. Wayne has spent his whole life trying to conquer and control the tragedy of his parents getting murdered when he was a boy, but is slowly learning that there are some things you just have to relinquish to fate. The themes don’t exactly crawl underneath the film, but unfortunately never bear enough importance for the audience to care.
Ultimately, the film has few surprises up its sleeves and there’s little in the way of suspense. You just never fear that Batman is ever going to lose; we’re never on the edge of our seats.
It’s hard to believe that there isn’t some sort of intentionality with the ridiculousness of Batman & Robin. Fans of the Caped Crusader are sure to be irritated, or at least unimpressed, by the uneasy blend of macabre and irreverence. Batman usually holds only one of the two tones.
Schumacher wanted both, and look how that turned out. There are many viewers who don’t mind the exchange, but unfortunately, fans didn’t have Batman Begins or The Dark Knight to really fall back on. And this felt too close to Batman Returns to matter much at the time. As for the ’60s series that was perhaps the biggest influence on the director, it had nowhere near the mega-budget of Batman & Robin, but perhaps this is how it would have looked.And with that absence, the film, while entertaining as a whole, just isn’t as effective.
While Batman & Robin comes with entertaining scenes, there’s no narrative flow. And with Schumacher’s irreverent tone, moments of intensity are often paired with campy “BOING!” sound effects. The issue isn’t the tone as a whole, but how it blended together with everything else. Chocolate is delicious, and so is asparagus, but I never want the two of them together, even if it’s intentional. But at least Schumacher’s mix can provide laughs at the very least.