Batman & Robin (1997)

Half a capeTentTent

Someone like George Clooney is who Tim Burton should have cast instead of Michael Keaton in the first Batman. Clooney is an actor who is good at subtlety, at conveying much with little — there would have been no “waterlogged tree stump” complaints with him in the role. But here he’s in a film that contains no subtlety whatever. Welcome to the most thoroughly hated of all comic book films (typical fan comment: “Never have I been so physically angry at a movie”) — the movie that put the lucrative Batman franchise into a coma for nine years.

Apparently the reason Joel Schumacher’s previous effort came out sort of okay was because Tim Burton was a producer and gave him some supervision. But in this one, Schumacher was on his own, and finally got the chance to show us the true crapiste he could be when granted full creative control. His work here earned no less than eleven Razzie nominations — eleven! — but won only in one category (Worst Supporting Actress: Alicia Silverstone). The rival Stinkers awards were more generous: they gave this one Worst Film, Worst Director, and Worst Screenplay as well as another Worst Supporting Actress for Silverstone, and placed it on their all-time bad film list, “100 Years, 100 Stinkers”. When a site called Grudge Match took a vote for all-time Worst Director, Schumacher won overwhelmingly, getting more votes than Ed Wood and William Shatner combined.

The essential problem with this film is not just that Schumacher is incompetent, or that the cast does a uniformly terrible job (except for Michael Gough as Alfred), or that the script rates a solid 9.8 on the stupid-meter, or even the ever-deadly syndrome of deliberate campiness — even when Schumacher makes everything so flamingly gay that if you made a drinking game out of suggestively homerotic visuals, you’d never stay conscious until the closing credits... the essential problem is that somebody, God knows who, apparently made the decision to target this movie for an audience of young children. They’ve turned Batman into something that belongs in an episode of Power Rangers.

They adjusted it for children in the worst possible way: by condescending. By dumbing everything down as far as they could. They started with the sort of corny dialog that was used in the old Adam West Batman show, and then decided that was too sophisticated. So every bit of dialog is deliberately stupid, every action scene is deliberately unbelievable, and every acting performance is deliberately fake and hammy. This is most obvious in the case of Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy, who couldn’t possibly have delivered such a hammishly false performance unless she was ordered to. In the case of Ahnuld as Mr. Freeze, of course, no special instructions were necessary. I guess that’s why they gave him top billing, ahead of Clooney. (Whose own performance is bizarrely smiley... again, as if performing for small children.)

Sometimes, I swear, even the jokes are deliberately not funny.

Yes, that’s what I’m forced to conclude about this movie: in essence, they set out to make it awful on purpose. And boy did they succeed. Sometimes this makes Superman IV look like a work of art they’d show at Sundance. Just because somebody thought it would be a good idea to try to reach out to a younger audience. Like, seven and under. You really have to wonder how anyone in Hollywood, no matter how dumb, could possibly have decided this was a good marketing move. And you also have to wonder a little bit about what kind of creep Schumacher might be to put that gay stuff into, of all places, a kids’ movie. I mean, from what I’ve seen of Schumacher’s other work, he usually doesn’t do anything of the kind in grown-up movies... nowadays at least, he’s capable of doing solid journeyman work. Fortunately, that target audience stayed home in droves... as did everyone else, despite the cast heavy with stars at their money-making peak. It may have helped that the film ended up rated PG-13, in part for “innuendo”.

And speaking of deliberateness, most of the louder sound effects are deliberately distorted with some kind of soft-clip effect... I suppose in an attempt to make them sound more powerful. When watched at home, the effect will make many viewers start wondering if there’s something wrong with their TV’s audio.

Fortunately, most of the real awfulness comes in the earlier parts of the movie. This is the case in several other bad comic book films — ones where the whole approach has something disastrously wrong with it. Once you get past the establishment of all the stupid ideas, the rest of the story can go along okay. More or less. In this case, the second half of the movie rises from a six year old level to maybe a ten year old level. And I actually got involved in the action in the last quarter or so... largely because Ahnuld, being the only one trying to act at his best level (and for $25,000,000 he’d damn well better), carries his part with conviction and menace.

But no true Bat-fan can forgive them for how they trivialize the character of Bane. In this story he’s a puppet of Poison Ivy. The original Bane made a puppet of her and a dozen other Bat-villains.

Schumacher later said that he’d wanted to make something dark and Frank Miller-y, but the studio insisted on making it family-friendly. He says “I did my job.... it sold a lot of toys, and it supported the Warner Bros. stores. But I did disappoint a lot of fans.”