Joel Schumacher’s “Batman & Robin” (1997) needs no introduction.
The very first thing we see (and it’s a very telling visual) is the Warner Bros. shield morphing into the Batman logo, which is then frozen solid. It’s a perfect visual symbol that represents exactly what this movie did to the franchise until, after a long thaw, Christopher Nolan stepped in with “Batman Begins” in 2005.
A few minutes in, Batman (now played by George Clooney) and Robin (a returning Chris O’Donnell) are battling the villainous Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in a museum. Mr. Freeze asks rhetorically, “What killed the dinosaurs? The ice age!” Mr. Freeze then blasts a massive dinosaur statue with his freeze ray, obliterating the structure, which falls apart and, bizarrely, lets out a scream as it hits the ground (!).
Rather than ponder the curious inclusion of the sound effect, I wondered if this was Schumacher (and Warner Bros.) way of giving a big middle finger to their summer movie competitor, “The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” which opened a month earlier.
If that’s the case, it’s a shameless touch, though we are talking about “Batman & Robin.”
The plot to this thing, conceived and gone haywire by Akiva Goldsman, pits Clooney’s Bruce Wayne and O’Donnell’s Dick Grayson against Freeze, his army of deranged hockey players, the newly created Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman), the mad-as-a-hatter Dr. Woodrue (an overboard John Glover), and a transformed henchman named Bane (Robert Swenson).
At the midpoint, Alicia Silverstone’s Barbara Wilson, AKA Batgirl, shows up, too.
From the first scene on, the music, tone, dialogue, sound effects, visual effects and garish look recall the Adam West/ Burt Ward “Batman” TV series from 1966-1968. That series, with its entire run providing a prime definition of the word “camp,” is clearly what Schumacher aimed to make, albeit on a gargantuan budget.
I don’t like this movie, but I have to give it credit: this isn’t a replica of Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s vision but an attempt to create a lavish Batman movie that could easily have been inhabited by Burgess Meredith, Julie Newmar and Frank Gorshin.
It’s that out-in-the-open campy and aggressively corny.
Had it worked, it could have played like a parody of Hollywood over-indulgence, instead of being a first-rate example of a production gone haywire with greed and no restraint.
“Batman & Robin” is at odds with itself and works best if taken as a comedy. It succeeds as both the ’60s TV show brought fully to life and also an alternate universe glimpse of what Batfans feared the ’89 film would be like before they saw the trailer. Batman can certainly work as a comedy, which the underestimated and clever “The Batman Lego Movie” (2017) proved.
This is an exercise in overkill on a moment-to-moment basis. When scenes arrive in which characters talk in dimly lit, sparsely decorated rooms (these would be the quiet scenes in Wayne manor), they are a welcome relief and far too brief.
Schumacher even repeats the blacklight glowing effect that was utilized in “Batman Forever,” which successfully added comedy and a touch of dramatic heft to an otherwise goofy installment.
The production design here resembles an overdecorated wedding cake.
There’s so much spectacle, it’s easy to forget that the film has any heart, but it does. Michael Gough’s performance as Alfred Pennyworth, Wayne’s butler, is the best thing in the film. That’s not a backhanded compliment, either.
This was Gough’s penultimate turn as Alfred and the veteran actor is so moving here. Gough’s scenes with Clooney aren’t just the film’s best but the scenes where Clooney is the most dialed in and effective as Wayne.
Thurman’s introduction as Poison Ivy wouldn’t be out of place in “The Return to Swamp Thing” (1989). In the same way, the jungle-themed environmental ball Wayne attends is so tacky, it feels like the “Goddess” stage production within Paul Verhoeven’s “Showgirls” (1995).
Thurman managed to avoid the kind of career turbulence that plagued Elizabeth Berkley, though this represents the “Kill Bill” star’s weird, misguided, double-attempt to gain a mainstream hit at Warner Brothers, as this and “The Avengers” (1998) opened within a year of each other.
Behind the scenes of Batman & Robin (1997), Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy pic.twitter.com/4rQO0mmKds
— Reeves 🪐 (@singfromthehair) August 29, 2021
Thurman’s character initially seems like Jim Carrey’s Edward Nygma from the prior film, but minus the dazzle Carrey brought to The Riddler. Thurman’s schtick here is akin to what Mae West would have done.
Poison Ivy has a noble cause, as Wayne Enterprises is a toxic presence to the environment. Yet, Poison Ivy’s mission and the righteousness of her character never connects in the way Selina Kyle and her justified outrage did in “Batman Returns” (1992).
The pun-heavy awfulness of Mr. Freeze is a contrast with the character’s origin story, which is sad enough to generate feeling, but doesn’t. Schwarzenegger has nothing but joke lines and his performance is just him hamming it up, albeit in a costume that, like the film itself, would be impressive if it weren’t so clunky.
A scene depicting the transformation/ “birth” of Bane is the one ugly, intense moment in a movie that is otherwise intended for children. Cartoonish is putting it mildly, as characters are constantly being tossed, thrown or hurled into the air and it never resembles the way gravity works.
FAST FACT: “Batman and Robin” cracked the $100 million mark in 1997, but its $107 million bounty marked the franchise’s low point.
O’Donnell is good, but his character is so annoying, he isn’t a bright spot here the way he was in “Batman Forever.” Glover, who doesn’t do subtle, helps bludgeon the audience in Schumacher’s excess.
Silverstone seems overwhelmed, and Vivica A. Fox’s single-scene cameo is a misstep on the level with the Sugar and Spice nonsense in the prior installment. Even Elle MacPherson appears but has little to do.
Oh, and Jesse the Body Ventura and Coolio have cameos, too. There’s simply too much of everything.
Including Bane here is a ludicrous touch – seeing him as Poison Ivy’s driver, in “disguise” wearing a Fedora and a trench coat, is an indignity Tom Hardy thankfully didn’t have to face.
Finally, there’s Clooney, who plays Wayne the way Roger Moore played James Bond near the end of his run. There’s zero pathos to this Batman.
— Film Stories (@filmstoriespod) October 7, 2021
Yet, I have to be fair and bring up a great exchange that pops up between Clooney and Gough. Alfred tells Bruce, “Death and chance stole your parents, but rather than become a victim, you did 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 considers this and asks, “I can’t can I?” Alfred replies, “None of us can.”
Holy Great Screenwriting, Batman!
Was Goldsman having an “On” day when he wrote this lovely scene? I wish Gough had said this to Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne but still, for a movie this far gone, there are tiny but undeniable moment of quality buried beneath all the other scenes, which are lit with the blacklight glow of an indoor golf course.
For a film that became among the most despised would-be-blockbusters and is infamous for its nipples and giant codpieces on the hero costumes and the endless stream of Goldsman’s quips, these offences are just the tips of Mr. Freeze’s iceberg.
The lack of logic, even for a comic book movie, is remarkable. My favorite offense is how the movie doesn’t appear to grasp that, when you’re frozen in ice, you don’t hibernate. Actually, you suffocate while you freeze to death.
I took my mother to see “Batman & Robin” in the theater and she enjoyed it. Why? Because she remembered and was scarred by “Batman Returns.”
The onslaught of visual and verbal lunacy of Schumacher’s film felt refreshing in contrast to Danny DeVito drooling black ooze, Michelle Pfeiffer getting her fingers nibbled by street cats and Catwoman slashing a rapist in the face.
This gentler, juvenile take on Batman was more my Mother’s speed.
By the ending, I was so fed up and tired of it. Gough actually gets the closing line, another Goldsman specialty: “We’re gonna need a bigger Batcave.” I hope one day someone makes a big-budget Batman that is an intentional comedy and, unlike “Batman & Robin,” actually funny.