There have been many bad superhero movies (Spiderman 3, Fant4stic, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, etc.) but most of them are met with a chorus of disappointment or sadness that a beloved character was treated so poorly. But Batman and Robin is one of those films that inspires hostile ire on the parts of some fans (though there are a great many of us who have come out of the woodwork in recent years who admit that it’s a fun campy superhero comedy and not deserving of all its hate).
So what happened? Batman Forever was a success and the studio, insisting that Batman be fun and kid-friendly, ordered more of the same for the sequel. But the marketing aspect of the whole thing took over to the point where many involved felt that the film was more of a toy commercial than a movie. And that I can agree with because in 1997, I was eleven years old and I got the Batmobile from this film (thanks, Mom!) and played with it until the thing fell to pieces. Re-watching the movie as an adult(ish person), I felt a jolt of childish greed because I found myself wishing I had all the action figures and sweet vehicles from this film so I could play with them once again. That’s not necessarily the sign of a successful film (commercial excess is this film’s biggest flaw), but as a kid, I thought it was awesome.
And that’s where this film succeeds. It’s a lot of fun and it owns that fun a lot more obviously than the previous one. Whereas the previous film was a superhero movie with comedic elements, Batman and Robin is a full on superhero comedy, drawing heavily from the Adam West era with goofy abandon. Puns, one liners, and silly jokes abound in profusion and you find yourself wondering where the cartoony “POW!” and “KABLAM!” sound effect bubbles are. It’s as much a parody of the franchise as it is a gleeful celebration of what makes superheroes so appealing to children.
That’s not to say it’s not without its flaws. Bane is just…not Bane… He really should have been a separate muscly henchman because they changed too much about him for him to have anything to do with the original character.
Bruce’s love interest, played by Elle Macpherson, is quite possibly the dullest character ever and could have easily been left out. I get what they were trying to do with her, but she’s a complete non-entity and serves no purpose except to give Bruce the subbest of subplots in which he ponders the idea of marriage (though we already know, based on his conversations with Vicki Vale, Selina Kyle, and Chase Meridian that he’s not the sort to do that because of the necessities of his double life). The scenes with her bring the plot screeching to a halt and they just aren’t needed.
Barbara should have been Commisioner Gordon’s daughter, not Alfred’s niece (although I do like how they use that to tie in to the theme of family). Also, I’m sad we didn’t get more Batgirl because anyone who can fight crime in ridiculous heels deserves a medal. This is the ONLY time Batgirl has ever appeared on the big screen and it’s sad that her appearance here seems to lead toward a sequel we never got.
Alicia Silverstone is actually delightful (shut up! she is!) but it’s so depressing to read about how poorly she was treated by the media with rumors of her gaining weight while filming being hurled at her from all directions by every major news source who didn’t know how to just back off. Silverstone herself has said that making the film was a horrible experience for her and she had no intention of returning to the character, which really makes me sad. I’ll move on before I go into “Leave Britney alone” mode, but I just want to go back in time and slap all those stupid reporters across the face.
But apart from that, the rest of the film is campy fun, sprinkled with a genuinely touching plot about Alfred battling a crippling illness (which was really sweet because we’d gotten attached to Michael Gough as Alfred for the past eight years). The villains are ridiculous, the locations look like stage sets for a bombastic 80’s era stage musical, and the puns and sight gags are groan-inducing, but it’s still a genuinely fun movie in the same vein as Adam West’s 1966 Batman: The Movie.
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze is silly and funny in an awkward-uncle-who-likes-telling-bad-jokes sort of way, but it’s Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy who really steals the show. She embraces a Mae West accent and hams it up with every ounce of her being. Put simply, she’s completely fabulous and I love her so much. She fits into this cartoony world so well that she doesn’t ever feel ridiculous. She just IS Poison Ivy. It’s my goal in life to make an entrance as good as hers when she crashes the rainforest benefit.
When Val Kilmer decided to make The Saint instead of a sequel to Forever, the role went to George Clooney (much to the relief of Schumacher who didn’t get along with Kilmer at all). And while Clooney’s more interesting as Batman than Kilmer was, his Bruce feels more like George Clooney just being himself (which is fine because how do we know George Clooney isn’t actually a masked crimefighter in real life??) His Bruce is reserved and quietly handsome (like seriously) but his Batman is goofy and hilarious, so they balance themselves out.
The biggest failure of the film was underestimating its audience. It was aimed at kids and did well enough that it doubled its investment (though it was still considered an underwhelming box office performer) but it offended everyone who seemed to think that Batman sprang into existence in the 80’s as a dark, tortured crimefighter wrestling with inner demons more terrible than any villain he faced on the streets. I’m not sure where these people were when Batman Returns was criticized for being too dark and depressing, but they suddenly appeared and decided that Batman was supposed to be a serious character as opposed to a fun campy throwback to the early days of comic book superheroes (can’t he be both??). The actors were frustrated with the runaway commercialization of the whole franchise and decided they didn’t want to have another go if they were asked. At that point, the only version of Batman that made everyone happy was the Bruce Timm Batman from The Animated Series (1992-1995) and The New Batman Adventures (1997-1999) which tread a razor’s edge between family-friendly fun and dark and depressing gloom. But you can’t make everyone happy, especially in the world of film.
And so, three years shy of Y2K, the film franchise died a confusing death until eight years later when the character was resurrected by a director who wanted to go in a new direction with the character (which we’ll look at next week).
But before you write this one off completely, show it to your kids and if they have fun while watching it, then it’s still worth keeping around.
I’ll see you next time at the same Bat-time on the same Bat-channel!