Welcome to “Bad Movie Night,” a biweekly feature in which we sift through the remains of bad movies of all stripes: the obscure and hilarious, the bloated and beautiful, the popular and painful. This week, on the 20th anniversary of its release – and in the wake of DC colleague Wonder Woman‘s massive success – we look at the notorious 1997 comic book bomb Batman & Robin.
The most difficult piece of context to place, when considering the franchise-sinking failure of Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin, was that two years earlier everyone was thanking Schumacher for saving the character. His 1995 entry in the series, Batman Forever, was praised for exhibiting a lightness that was barely present in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman and absent entirely from his grim 1992 follow-up, Batman Returns. Consensus opinion has since turned on those films, with Returns praised for its stylish darkness and Forever dismissed as pop trash. But again, at that moment, Schumacher was praised for his attempts to fuse the goofy camp of the ‘60s TV show with the dark aesthetic of the Burton movies (and the Frank Miller books that inspired it). And when you’re praised for doing something once, it’s reasonable to assume you should go further in that direction next time around, and that’s how we ended up with Batman & Robin.
Schumacher’s free reign is clear from the jump, as the film opens with tight close-ups of the title characters suiting up – with a heavy emphasis on their rubber suits’ butts, codpieces, and newly-added nipples. Shot after shot, scene after scene, you can all but hear the crew and actors baffled by what the director was doing, only to shrug, “Well, his last one made all that money…” And money was what these movies were about – selling tickets, selling toys, selling fast food tie-in products, appealing to the widest, and youngest, audience possible. At least, that seems the explanation for the movie’s abundance of “extreme sports” elements – rollerblading, street hockey, sky-surfing (complete with Robin hooting “Cowabunga!”), motorcycle racing – that have helped the movie age about as well as a vintage Mountain Dew commercial. Schumacher, 58 at the time of the film’s release, was clearly trying to make something that was “hip” and “youthful,” so we end up with (as just one example) a motorcycle race scene populated by early-‘80s mall “punk rockers,” Clockwork Orange cosplayers, and the epitome of ’97 cool, Coolio. It’s pretty painful.
Speaking of painful, Arnold Schwarzenegger is top-billed as the chief villain, Mr. Freeze, reportedly paid $25 million for a decidedly supporting role (roughly $1 million per minute of screen time). His accent mangles the protagonist’s name into something resembling “Batmun,” and that’s not the only way our Arnie’s in over his head; when he cackles a line like “HA HA! Your emotions make you weak! That’s why this day is mine! HA HA,” it’s abundantly clear that he just can’t do the kind of Nicholson/DeVito/Carrey-style scenery chewing a role like this requires. It’s just not in his toolbox. His anguished reaction when discovering Poison Ivy has pulled the plug on his wife (which I have transcribed as “Larahgraaaa”) is, to put it mildly, unconvincing, and Freeze’s terrible jokes are done no favors by the actor’s less-than-graceful comic timing.
Most of those jokes come in the form of ice and cold “puns,” like “De Iceaman Cometh” and “I’m afraid that my condition has left me cold to your pleas for mercy” and “You’re not sending me to da cooler!”; those are just the first three, and they don’t get any better. And they often don’t make any damn sense – look at the reaching and straining of that “pleas for mercy” line. Blasting out a location with an ice ray while yelling “CHILL” over and over is one thing, but don’t make saddle Arnold with a mouthful of dialogue like that.
The responsible party for said dialogue, at least according to opening titles (these kinds of films always have an army of writers and rewriters) is Akiva Goldsman, a scribe whose credits would send any reasonable moviegoer lunging for the exits in the late ‘90s and early 2000s; his other credits include Lost in Space, Practical Magic, and I, Robot, though he also managed to hook up with Ron Howard and land gigs penning, among other things, the Oscar-winning script for A Beautiful Mind. And I know, it’s all relative, but the man responsible for the line “I believe I’m the one who kicked Ivy’s botanical butt” should’ve been disqualified from ever winning an Oscar for writing, period, rewrite the rules.
It’s not just the dialogue that stinks. Butler Alfred coughs wearily in his first scene and announces “I shan’t be here forever” in his second, so it’s a huge shock when he turns out to be deathly ill. In that same scene, his dialogue broadcasts the movie’s key theme with the subtlety of a car alarm: “Perhaps the truth is, you really don’t trust anyone,” Alfred tells Bruce Wayne/Batman (George Clooney). “You must learn to trust him, for that’s the nature of family.” The “him” is Chris O’Donnell’s Dick Grayson/Robin, who spends the whole movie vying for his independence and value, and arguing with Bruce/Batman over which one of them gets dibs on Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy. “She loves me and not you, and it’s driving you crazy” is a conversation they have, by my count, four times, JUST SO IT’S CLEAR TO THE AUDIENCE.
Alfred calls him “Master Dick,” which is wonderfully accurate – O’Donnell turns in the whiniest performance of his career (no small accomplishment), and if there’s a worse single piece of acting in the movie than the way he yells “ARGH” at the sky when he’s left behind in a chase, I can’t think of it. As Barbara Wilson/Batgirl, a hot-off-Clueless Alicia Silverstone attempts to counter his over-acting with a series of thuddingly flat line readings, but she isn’t helped by the script’s insistence that she calls Alfred by the full, formal “Uncle Alfred” every single time she refers to him, WHICH IS OFTEN. (Later, within the same ten minutes, she says both, “Uncle Alfred, it’s me! Barbara!” and “Bruce, it’s me! Barbara!” Goldsman apparently had a weird thing for formal introductions.)
Barbara is also a computer genius, so we get a big “guessing the password” bit – though, to be fair, any contemporary film made in 1997 was federally required to include a variation on that scene (and a shot after “we’re in” in which the images from the screen blast onto the operator’s face, as they do in real life, always). There is also a scene where she encounters a Max Headroom version of Uncle Alfred, about which the less said, the better.
Clooney, who was the third actor to tackle the role in four films, isn’t half bad, capturing both the wily public bachelordom of Bruce Wayne and the action heroics of Batman. But even he can’t beat this script; witness his floundering read, when asked by a reporter about marriage, of “Uh uh marriage uh uh, you wanna give me a hand here”, or how he muses, “Batgirl? That isn’t very P.C.” (The film’s clumsy attempts to girl-power Barbara make Wonder Woman ’s seem even smoother in comparison.) Uma Thurman does her best, but having her do a mouse-turned-vamp turn two movies after Michelle Pfieffer’s is… ill-advised. Schumacher scores her seductress reappearance with brassy, sexy sax, and stages her entrance at the film’s big “rainforest benefit” (apparently held on the set of a ‘40s Tarzan movie) like a drag show; she delivers all her lines like Mae West, which gets tiresome, but at least she’s trying something.
Schumacher’s action beats are an incoherent mishmash of quick cuts, Dutch angles, and Three Stooges sound effects, and the rest of the movie is barely clearer. What is even happening in the Bane creation scene? Who is John Glover (who looks and acts like a day player in a lesser Terry Gilliam movie) even supposed to be? What’s going on with the poor scientist who yells, like a Catskills comic, “IT’S ONE OF THOSE DAYS” as he’s about to die? I get that the director wanted to inject some fun into his comic book movie – which shouldn’t be that nutty a concept – but this time around, Schumacher is like a bad stepdad who thinks we’ll love him if he just feeds us candy all day. (Yes, Burton is the daddy in this metaphor – the manic-depressive, annoyingly emo daddy.)
At the end of Batman & Robin, Silverstone’s Batgirl eagerly joins the team, Alfred announces, “We’re going to need a bigger cave” (rule of thumb: don’t remind audiences, in the dialogue of your bad blockbuster, of better blockbusters), and the trio’s silhouettes run for the hills. It promised a franchise that fortunately fizzled; Schumacher was in talks to make a third Bat-movie, Batman Triumphant, in which the trio took on The Scarecrow (Howard Stern was discussed for the role, yes, really) before Batman & Robin was released to scathing reviews and disappointing box office. The former didn’t matter match, but the latter did – it opened $10 million shy of Forever (and $3 million shy of Returns) and topped out at $107 million domestic, well below its $125 million production budget, the lowest total domestic gross for a live-action entry in the series to date.
The character went into big-screen mothballs for eight years – an eternity in franchise filmmaking – and when Christopher Nolan rebooted it for 2005’s Batman Begins, a course correction was necessary, back to the gritty seriousness of the Burton films. And you can still see the specter of it in the self-conscious grimness of Batman v Superman, and the other, subsequent DC films that almost play like overcorrections for Batman & Robin’s silliness. The film was such a miscalculation that, in retrospect, it’s sort of surprising they were able to find a way to save the franchise at all. Then again, never underestimate a major studio’s ability to reanimate a valuable #brand.