Remember that great line Ricardo Montalban has in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan? You know, the one where Khan is asked why he continues to grapple with James T. Kirk, and he replies, “He tasks me.” That is what Biff Bam Pop editor-in-chief Andy Burns does to me sometimes. He finds out that I don’t like a movie, like Alien 3 or The Dark Knight, and then he challenges me.
Recently he challenged me to find five things to like about Joel Shumacher’s Batman & Robin. Yeah, Batman & Robin, the worst of the first Batman quadrology, the day-glo camp nightmare that made the campy 1966 “Batman” television series seem downright serious, the one with the Bat-Credit Card, and yes, the one that effectively killed the first Batman film franchise. I gotta find five? Wow. Find out what I came up with after the jump.
Batman & Robin tried to squeeze as much as possible into a Batman movie than had been done before, and the previous three, especially the last one by director Joel Schumacher, stuffed a lot into it. Schumacher has said that this film was about ‘family,’ so there’s that subtext (barely) running through it.
Here’s the gist. Batman and Robin are a team, an unequal team, but a team nonetheless. They fight Mister Freeze, Poison Ivy, and Bane, briefly. Their team is aided by Alfred’s niece who becomes Batgirl. And oh yeah, Alfred’s dying too. There are lots of pretty neon colors, and several Bat-nipples. That pretty much covers it. Now the hard part, finding something to like…
1. No Origin Story
One of the things I hate about contemporary superhero movies is that we always have to see the origin story. Over and over we are beaten over the head with it. Sure, we see the origin of Poison Ivy, and Mister Freeze’s beginnings are explained, but we don’t have to suffer through Batman’s origin again. There are some flashbacks, but it’s more to fill in the ridiculous Alfred subplot than anything else.
I used to love the old movie serials where we are introduced to the heroes, maybe given a sentence or two about who they are, if at all, and we dive into the story. Here, a phone call from Gordon and we know our antagonist, and the action starts immediately. We are thrust into the day-glo world of the Schumacher Batman Gotham City to watch the villains emerge, but our heroes already exist.
2. The Characters
Batman & Robin presents characters that many of us comics fans never thought we would see on the big screen. In the aforementioned origin of Poison Ivy alone, we are not only introduced to that character, but also mad scientist Jason Woodrue, the nemesis of the Atom, Green Lantern and Swamp Thing in the comics, but we also witness a slightly movie-ated version of Bane’s origin. Woodrue is wonderfully and maniacally played by John Glover going far over the top.
Bane, unfortunately, except for one brief “I will break you” moment, is wasted. Perhaps his growling mumblings were the inspiration behind not only Christian Bale’s growls, but also the new Bane’s difficulty to speak in the Nolan movies. Bane is not one of my favorites in Batman’s rogues gallery, but he deserved better than this. Better than just Poison Ivy’s henchman in a monkey suit. In the comics, he is not just a drug-induced strongman, but also a criminal genius as well.
Mister Freeze’s origin is lifted almost exactly from “Batman: The Animated Series,” ironically the first time his origin is revealed. This movie also features the catharsis for his transformation, his beloved wife, Nora Fries. There is mention of the Flying Graysons, and we get to see the closest thing to Nightwing we’ve seen in live action so far. At the end of the film, Robin may as well be Nightwing.
There’s also Arkham Asylum, and even material evidence of Two-Face and the Riddler. The biggest surprise for me was the inclusion of Julie Madison, Bruce Wayne’s fiancée from comics’ Golden Age. Wonderful. Don’t forget the shout outs to Superman and Metropolis, admitting finally to existence in a shared universe.
3. The Colors
No, seriously. If there is one thing this flick has, it’s a memorable look. Everything is bright, vibrant, day-glo neon colors. Can you imagine this film in high definition, or in today’s 3D technology? Even while watching it again, and hating it for the silly camp nightmare it is, one can’t help but marvel at how pretty it is. Every character, every set, every scene has its own allure, design, and beauty.
Barbara Ling and the rest of the production design department went to great lengths to make this movie stand out, and appear as if a live action four color comic book. I think the final product, visually is brilliant. The gang motorcycle race with Robin and Batgirl is like a black light poster come to life. They have taken Anton Furst’s gothic Gotham of the first two movies and moved it into the comic book future. So pretty.
4. The Casting
I like George Clooney in the role of Batman. The camp and the big rubber Bat-ears detract from the seriousness and earnestness he brings to the role. I think in a more mature version of the character, Clooney would be a perfect Batman. Chris O’Donnell is a bit whiney in this one, but I think that’s more about modeling his character after Burt Ward than anything else. There is a trust issue between the two, as this is early in their relationship, but I would have rather had a later partnership. Again, this could have been good.
The less said about Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl, the better, I think. I did however like her interaction with O’Donnell better than the battered chemistry of O’Donnell and Clooney. It is a nice homage to the Batgirl/Robin team-ups in Batman Family back in the 1970s. Classic actor Michael Gough returns as Alfred, in his largest and sadly worst turn as Alfred. Shame, he was a great actor in his day, and his Alfred in the first few Batman flicks was top notch.
Say what you will about their performances, but I think Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mister Freeze and Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy is highly inspired casting. What could have been in the hands of another director or different writers boggles the mind. Both actors chew up scenery and rule the screen every moment they appear on it. Here, they are over the top, and this film invites and enhances that factor. Like most of the Batman films, the villains steal the show from the main draw.
5. The Camp
I know, this is what many people hate about this flick, but if you are going for silly, and you are going for wink-wink nudges to the 1960s TV show, this movie rocks it out. It opens with a traditional Bat-fight! Henchmen dressed in uniforms, puns and gimmicks galore, Batman and Robin working together for the most part – it’s a hilarious homage. And it’s done so well, with an eye toward the show, I would have respected Schumacher if he added in a few Smash! and Pow! title cards and tilted camera angles (although we do get a few of the latter later on) into the fracas.
Schwarzenegger’s Freeze speaks in catchphrases, his ice-skating hockey player minions are both ridiculous and dangerous. Even Freeze’s secret hideout echoes the TV show. The choice alone of Schwarzenegger, with his accent, reflects the actors who portrayed the character on the show. Batman and Robin have only cursory concern over property damage. The colors, as I mentioned above, are bright and super-heroic, just like the show comes to the big screen 1990s style. And it ends with a death trap. Holy rocket from hell, Batman! And that’s just the opening sequence.
Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy debut, an elaborate music and dance number, is one of the best parts of the flick, but while so not belonging in a Batman movie, it would have been right at home on TV. Sometimes the camp gets out of hand. I feel a pain in the back of my head every time I think of the Bat-Credit Card, but the bit with Snow-Miser from “The Year Without a Santa Claus” always cracks me up. It’s a thin, thin line, man.
So there’s five things to like about Batman & Robin. I bet I could find more, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good movie by no means whatsoever. It’s a fun movie, yes, but the negatives far outweigh the positives. I still prefer it over The Dark Knight.