We have to wait a little longer to see Christopher Nolan‘s The Dark Knight Rises, and NerdBastards’ Matthew Jackson is dealing with the wait by filling his head with as many other Batman tales as possible. In the six weeks leading up to the flick’s release, he’ll be revisiting all six Batman franchise films so far (yes, even the crap ones) and writing retrospective essays on what worked, what didn’t, and what each film means to the franchise at large.
And here we are at the end of the most painful part of this retrospective. I relived the Schumacher era and survived, so now it’s time to talk about the last tragic installment in this chapter of the Batman’s cinematic saga: Batman & Robin. It’s one of the most universally loathed films in history, and managed to knock the Dark Knight’s movie franchise flat for an eight-year stretch. It’s the reason Joel Schumacher‘s name is still met with scowls when you mention him around fanboys (though in his defense, he’s made some pretty decent movies since), and it’s still the biggest blemish on George Clooney‘s career. But just as I was surprised last week that I hate Batman Forever for a different reason than most people, I was surprised this week with a revelation about Batman & Robin: I actually find it less terrible than its predecessor.
Notice I didn’t say “better.” That’s a word that doesn’t belong in this discussion. Both Schumacher films are disasters groaning under the weight of glossy toys and really, really bad scripting. Batman & Robin and Batman Forever are both shitty, shitty movies. But honestly, after watching them so close together, I’m starting to think that maybe we hate the latter film more only because it was the most recent of the shitty movies, and therefore we remember seeing it more clearly than we remember seeing Forever (because most of you have probably avoided it since the mid-90s, I’m guessing). I’m not about to attempt to convince you to go and re-experience this film for yourselves (really, don’t), but I’m always interested in the things bad movies have to teach us about why they’re bad. Watch a bad movie once and you’ll walk away with a bad taste in your mouth. Watch a bad movie twice and it holds an odd fascination. Sometimes that fascination even transforms into a kind of scholarly curiosity. You start to wonder not why the flick was bad, but what it could have done to be better. I saw a lot of potential in some of what Batman & Robin had to offer, and I saw some other things that made Batman Forever look like a damn masterpiece. This is my attempt to distinguish between the two.
Better than Batman Forever
Clooney: Some people just hate George Clooney. I’m friends with a lot of them. They hate his cocky smile and his constant swagger and his, well…Clooney-ness. That’s OK. Actors are like authors in that way. There are some that, even when they’re revered by most, some of us just can’t stand (I’m looking at you, F. Scott Fitzgerald.). I happen to find him a thoroughly capable actor who, with the right role, can transcend into the realm of brilliance. I think the same thing about Val Kilmer, but what makes Clooney’s Batman more tolerable is that he’s simply warmer. It’s true that he played Batman a bit more cocky than I would normally like, but you couldn’t ask for a better actor to play the stereotypical billionaire playboy (and, for better or worse, that’s what this script called for) than Clooney. Kilmer was icy and distant and didn’t ever look like he was enjoying himself (and hey, he wasn’t), but Clooney at least managed to project a measure of likability onto the screen. For that, if nothing else, he’s better.
Alfred is Dying: Through four Batman pictures of varying levels of quality, Michael Gough remained a force of gravitas and charm as Alfred. The one good storytelling decision made for Batman & Robin was to take all that good will he built up with the fans and give him something more to do. One of my biggest criticisms of the first four Batman films was the lack of humanity, the distance and the reliance on visual dazzle to keep us hooked. Here, we get some real warmth in the form of an Alfred struggling to keep it together and pretend that everything’s OK. It’s not nearly enough to save the picture, but it does make you care…a little.
Villains: Because they weren’t irrepressible cackle-monsters this time around, and they actually managed to seem distinct from one another. If only because Poison Ivy was all about plants and Mr. Freeze was all about ice, at least we got a little bit of separation.
Worse than Batman Forever
Batgear: I’m not about to make any gay jokes. That’s been done far too many times in this flick’s direction, and to be honest when I look at the costuming I don’t really see anything homoerotic, I just see crap. Schumacher’s defense is that he wanted the suits to look like Greek statues, but that’s an insult to the Greeks. The suits are designed to be all about dazzle, all about the kind of thing you can easily mold into an action figure. There’s nothing practical about them, nothing that makes you think Batman is out to do anything serious. They’re just shiny, bulging masses of production value. I know there’s nothing really practical about the idea of Batman in the real world, but my suspension of disbelief only goes so far, and if you try to tell me that Batman (or Alfred) would ever sit there and think “Gee, the suit really should have nipples, because that’s what the Greek’s would have done,” I start to have a seizure. And then there are those close-ups of everyone’s butt. I really don’t have a criticism there, because in those moments I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t understand why they even exist. If someone can explain that to me, I might have something else to say.
Batgirl: Can you explain to me why Alfred’s niece (who Bruce NEVER HEARD OF) somehow needed to be there to do something that Alfred wouldn’t trust Bruce to do? No you can’t. Can you explain to me with a straight face how she’s a street racer who knows martial arts? No you can’t. Can you explain to me why Batgirl belongs in this movie without mentioning Happy Meal toys? No you can’t.
Neon: Somehow somebody was watching Batman Forever and thinking “Yeah, this looks pretty good, but I think the city should look even more implausibly sparkly. Also, the Batmobile should look less like a car and more like a raver’s dildo. And while you’re at it, Mr. Freeze’s suit should have lots of blue lights all over it so people know it’s cold. Yeah, he should look like one of those limited edition beer cans.”
Bane: Hey kids, do me a quick favor, would you? Go find a comic book called Batman: Knightfall and give it a quick read. Don’t have time for that? No problem, just go find an episode of the Batman animated series called “Bane” and take 20 minutes to watch it. Still too much time for you? Fine, just hop over to YouTube and watch one of the last two trailers for The Dark Knight Rises. Go ahead, I’ll wait… Are you back? Good. See that guy with the mask and the muscles and the obvious intelligence? THAT’S BANE! That thing in Batman & Robin is Joel Schumacher’s version of the Grimace from McDonaldland. Just wanted to make sure you knew that.
Villains: I know what you’re thinking: Hey, he already said the villains are better up there. Yes, I did, but I’m of two minds about these guys. I find them less annoying than the Batman Forever baddies, true, but I also find them much more boring. For all their gaping flaws, at least Riddler and Two-Face were lively. Poison Ivy and Mr. Freeze may as well have been poseable toys for all the life they inject into this picture. Uma Thurman basically has nothing to do but vamp and, you know…caress things. And Freeze loses all the drama of his character in favor of a guy who just looks statuesque and sparkly and spouts terrible puns about the cold. It seems to me that, much like the zombies in the original Dawn of the Dead, Batman could have simply defeated these guys by running around them as they shambled.
While it’s definitely still an absolute disaster, once again I see things about Batman & Robin that had the potential to be much, much better than they were, and even some things that prove less awful than what Batman Forever threw at us. But even as I ponder what it would have taken to save this picture, I realize that it’s futile. I’m attempting to say something eloquent and profound here, but this movie is just…just terrible.
Next week: Things get brighter for me and darker for the Bat as I revisit Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. Finally!