The Dark Knight Retrospective: Re-Watching Batman & Robin (1997)

The Dark Knight Retrospective: Re-Watching Batman & Robin (1997)


Oh, how the mighty have fallen.  What started as a runaway pop cultural juggernaut under Burton had, by 1997, devolved into a joke.  And not even a funny joke – a pathetic one.  I’m sure there are worse superhero films that have been made, I just can’t think of any.  Batman & Robin is pure camp, eschewing any semblance of realism or gravitas for more of the Bam! Pow! flavor of Batman ’66.  Is it intentional?  It has to be.  Is it successful?  Not by a long shot.  Perhaps emboldened by the success of Batman Forever, director Joel Schumacher thought he should take it even further.  The end result is a catastrophe of truly epic proportions.  It pissed off fanboys.  It tanked the Batman franchise.  And it nearly derailed George Clooney’s promising film career.  Alicia Silverstone would never recover.  Arnold Schwarzenegger would soon turn to politics.  As for myself, I learned a very important lesson: beware the hype.

In the summer of 1997, I had just graduated from high school in Boca Raton, and was preparing to start my freshman year of college at Butler University.  I made several trips to Indianapolis that summer, and would often visit my Uncle Bob (who, if you know him, is also a giant movie fan).  I remember it clearly – I was in Indy the day Batman & Robin opened, and I made my Uncle go with me.  To say I was excited is an understatement.  I was PUMPED.  I was still in my Jim Carrey daze at the time (Liar Liar had come out a few months before, which, of course, I just loved), and I hadn’t yet realized that Batman Forever sucked.  I had convinced myself that Forever was awesome, and I wanted more of it.  I didn’t miss Val Kilmer in the lead role, who left for various reasons depending on who you ask.  Script, money, personality clashes?  Probably all of the above.  And even though I never watched ER, Clooney had already won me over with his work in From Dusk Till Dawn and One Fine Day (a fantastic romantic comedy btw).  I had great affection for Arnold, and Clueless made me crush hard on Alicia Silverstone.  I’m telling you, this was my movie, man.  There’s no way it could fail. But as I sat there in the theater, I quickly realized that all that glitters ain’t gold.  Sometimes the glitter turns to garish neon and (in your best Ah-nold voice) “freezes over.”  If you thought that pun sucked and made no sense, welcome to Batman & Robin.

Over the years, I would occasionally catch portions of Batman & Robin on TNT or TBS on a Saturday afternoon.  That’s about all it is good for – a five-minute sequence.  And by good, I mean so-bad-it’s-good.  But re-watching the movie in full, that fun is ruined over the course of two hours.  At that length, Batman & Robin becomes so-bad-it’s bad, and is nearly intolerable to watch.  I didn’t think it was possible, but I hate this movie even more now.

There is nothing good to say about it, so let’s just start cataloguing what’s bad.  First things first: Arnold as Mr. Freeze.  The casting is terrible.  Freeze should have been played by somebody like Patrick Stewart, who would have brought a “cool” intellect to the role (more puns!) and really developed the tragic nature of the character.  Arnold is all wrong, and his casting seems to have affected the script because everything he says is one bad pun after another.  Seriously, that’s all he freakin’ says!  Every single line of dialogue coming out of his mouth is a real groaner.  My favorite, and I use that term loosely, must be this line: “The name is Freeze.  Learn it well.  For it is the chilling sound of your doom.”

Freeze isn’t the only villain.  Uma Thurman is Poison Ivy.  It looks like Thurman is having fun with the role, vamping it up like Mae West, but that fun doesn’t translate to the audience.  The character is lame.  She has no reason for joining forces with Freeze to take on Batman.  And she’s constantly shadowed by a lumbering, monosyllabic Bane.  Yes, that Bane.  The same one that Tom Hardy plays in The Dark Knight Rises.  Well, not the SAME one.  I don’t understand the choice to make Bane such a mindless idiot boy here, or why he was even included at all.  Didn’t Batman Returns teach us that three villains might be one too many?  Leave it to Batman & Robin to ignore any cinematic life lessons previously learned.

As is a running theme with these Batman movies, notice I haven’t even talked about Batman yet.  Not much to say really.  Clooney plays him like, well, Clooney.  He’ s a perpetual bachelor.  He fears commitment.  He opens his gorgeous home to other people.  There is no weight to this version of Bruce/Batman.  Clooney likes to rip on his performance here, and that’s a good thing because he is really terrible in this.  A lot of that has to do with the script, but Clooney is equally to blame.  Chris O’Donnell wisely stays away from the spotlight, as he reprises his role as Robin.  He doesn’t really make an impression here one way or another.  But Alicia Silverstone sure does.  She’s playing Alfred’s niece, who will go on to be Batgirl.  Why?  Probably to sell more toys.  She gives a very nervous, unsure performance, and is miles removed from the talent she showed in Clueless.  One of the worst lines comes from her towards the end of the film.  After breaking through glass and fighting Poison Ivy, it is 100% obvious that her Barbara character is this Batgirl.  Batman and Robin clearly know it.   Yet, Silverstone has to say: “Bruce, it’s me, Barbara.”  Oy.

What else can I say?  Batman enters the movie by skating down the back of a dinosaur exhibit.  Batman and Robin have ice skates in the bottom of their boots.  The Batsuit has giant nipples.  Poison Ivy does a seductive strip tease in a pink gorilla costume.  Freeze watches old school Rankin Bass claymation and makes his cronies sing along.  The movie is chock full of one bad choice after another.

Perhaps this is just beating a dead horse.  You’re probably right.  Batman & Robin is terrible, yes, but there is a silver lining to its existence.  Things had to get this bad for the Batman franchise in order for Warner Bros. to wipe the slate clean and put its trust in Christopher Nolan to put a darker, more realistic spin on the character and restore some of his credibility.  And that’s exactly what Nolan has done.  Who knows what would have happened if Batman & Robin proved commercially successful?  I’m sure Warner would have kept letting Schumacher direct, and we’d be stuck with another decade of inferior Batman movies.  So, I guess what I’m trying to say is this: thank you, Batman & Robin.  Thank you for sucking so very, very hard.  Maybe I’ll watch you again.  When hell “freezes” over.

Leave a comment