I know what you're thinking. Just hear me out.
I'm not going to argue that Batman & Robin, the notorious 1997 bomb that killed the Batman franchise for nearly a decade and would likely rank high on any list of "worst would-be blockbusters of the past 25 years," is some sort of misunderstood masterpiece. It's terrible. It's worse than terrible. It's mind-bogglingly terrible, made worse by the fact that the same base creative team behind this film had made the competent-if-not-great Batman Forever just two years prior. There are way too many things going horribly, horribly wrong in this film (more on that later) to justify it as a work of art.
And yet we're going to take a look at it this week for "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," which is celebrating Batman's 75th anniversary by assigning a choice of any theatrically-released Batman film. So why Batman & Robin? Why, instead of the gothic charms of Tim Burton's Batman and Batman Returns, or Christopher Nolan's terrifically brooding and political Dark Knight trilogy, or even the 1966 Adam West-starring goof, am I going with what is hands-down the Caped Crusader's lowest cinematic moment?
Because Batman & Robin is one of the most influential superhero movies ever made.
More after the jump.
Before we get to that, though, let's take a look at what went wrong with this film. As I stated above, this film was made by the same base creative team that made Batman Forever: director Joel Schumacher, writer Akiva Goldsman, and director of photography Stephen Goldblatt (who was Oscar-nominated for his work on that film). A key difference, though, is Goldsman: while he paired with Lee Batchler and Janet Scott Batchler for Batman Forever, here he's working alone, which means he doubles up on the groan-inducing one-liners and goofy, over-the-top action sequences. This doesn't come as a surprise, as Goldsman is a master at perfunctory scripts with high potential for awfulness. After all, his most recent film involves Colin Farrell playing an immortal man on a flying horse who kills the love of his life by having sex with her. Goldsman surely ranks among the worst screenwriters to ever win an Oscar (and for a Best Picture winner, no less).
But Goldsman really tops himself here. The plot involves Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) stealing diamonds to power his refrigeration suit, all while looking for a cure for his wife's rare illness (he's had her cryogenically frozen). Meanwhile, Dr. Pamela Isley (Uma Thurman) is transformed in a laboratory accident into Poison Ivy, the plant-loving seductress with the venomous kiss. She teams up with Bane (Jeep Swenson), a super-soldier secretly created by a mad genius, to take on Gotham City and push for the rights of plants (yes, really). With these new threats in town, Batman (George Clooney) and Robin (Chris O'Donnell) must learn to trust one another to defeat them, all the while discovering that faithful butler Alfred (Michael Gough) is dying and handling the arrival of Alfred's niece, Barbara Wilson (Alicia Silverstone). It's remarkable that the film has this much going on, yet Goldsman's script never gives any of these elements any weight, so none of it really seems to matter. There are "stakes," but the film never bothers to make us care about them.
Most of the blame for the failure of Batman & Robin, though, has fallen on the shoulders of Schumacher, and though that's not entirely fair, it's not entirely unfair either. Schumacher's career is littered with enjoyably trashy films; he seems drawn to pulpy nonsense that could make for a fun time at the movies (The Phantom of the Opera, which clearly had Oscar hopes, is an inherently silly premise that Schumacher at the very least made an opulent visual treat). It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that Schumacher's Batman films would be the campiest this side of the Adam West series from the 1960s. Yet in Batman & Robin, Schumacher seems to be pushing it to the limits, particularly amping up the innuendo. Within the very first minute of the film, we see Batman and Robin suiting up, and Schumacher treats us to ass…
…the infamous nipples…
Actually, there is a ton of phallic imagery in this film. It seems as if Schumacher was slyly nodding to the implied sexual attraction between Batman and Robin, but this being a "family-friendly" blockbuster in the mid-1990s, this couldn't be too explicit. So instead we get erections such as Mr. Freeze's rocket:
As well as the observatory telescope that becomes a major plot point later in the film.
Yet the film doesn't have the courage to go any further than that, leaving it feeling awfully, well, blue-balled on the subject.
Finally, the failure of this film can be blamed on the horrible casting and performances. Clooney, on paper, seems like a fine fit for the role, yet his Bruce Wayne is essentially a slight variation of "George Clooney, movie star," the only difference being that Wayne puts on a rubber suit to fight crime. O'Donnell is just bland, as is Silverstone. Thurman should have made for a fun Poison Ivy, yet her "seductive" performance is almost embarrassing to watch, and she's saddled with a character with ridiculous motivations who's basically an afterthought in the film, just hanging around the edges to drive a wedge between Batman and Robin and not much else.
The worst, though, belongs to the film's top-billed star (yes, really), Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger's career has been one of the most fascinating in Hollywood, going from Austrian bodybuilder to action hero to governor of California. But Schwarzenegger isn't an inherently terrible actor, he just needs the right role that utilizes his strengths. James Cameron recognized this casting him as the killer robot from the future in The Terminator; his blank affect and stiff line-readings gave the character chilling menace and the film wry humor, respectively. Similarly, playing a commando hellbent on survival gave him an action-hero presence in Predator (which he also cleverly lampooned in The Last Action Hero). He's a star, but his acting is very limited.
How, you're no doubt asking, could something so terrible possibly be one of the most influential and, yes, important superhero movies ever made? The answer is that Batman & Robin marked a turning point in how superhero movies are made, representing the end of one era while paving the way for a new one to begin.
Before 2000, the superhero movie was marked by an adherence to comic-book stylization. These films ostensibly took place in the world we know in reality, but with a heightened sense of the fantastic and impossible. This is true of all superhero movies, of course, but the difference is that pre-2000 superhero movies presented their worlds with a certain degree of winking camp. Superman could fly and change into his costume in a phone booth, and Lex Luthor - his main adversary - was an over-the-top madman with any number of cockamamy schemes up his sleeve. Tim Burton's Batman films were certainly darker than any of Superman's films, but they still maintained some of the loopy silliness of the comics and previous Batman serials. Superhero movies were playful entertainments, pleasing to both kids and kids-at-heart (generally considered the audience for these films).
This heightened reality is present all throughout Batman & Robin, especially in the design of Gotham City. From the outset, Gotham looks like any anonymous metropolis, with skyscrapers towering above the streets and presumably-awful traffic. Yet there are little details that make it a city unlike anything we know in the real world. Buildings such as the abandoned ice cream shop that Mr. Freeze hides in…
…or the neon-splattered Turkish bath that becomes Poison Ivy's lair...
…are visually unique and very distinctively Gotham. There's a cartoonish vibe to these designs, amplifying the camp factor and assuring the audience that Gotham is very much a comic-book world.
The same is true of the enormous statues that tower over parts of the city, like Gotham's own versions of the Colossus of Rhodes. These towering figures give Gotham's skyline a mythical feel, as if it exists at the intersection of ancient Olympus and modern New York. Truly, these statues are god-like images of guardians of the city, and they firmly establish the world of Batman & Robin as a world of fantasy. Gotham is not real; it is ripped from the pages of a comic book, and the film is not going to ignore that fact.
After Batman & Robin failed spectacularly at the box office, superheroes disappeared from the big screen for a few years. Instead of men in capes (always men, you note) performing heroic feats, Hollywood gave us multiple asteroids colliding with Earth and return trips to galaxies far, far away. For a few years, at least, Batman & Robin had effectively killed the superhero movie.
And it did, at least in the form we knew. In July 2000, X-Men was released, bringing the ragtag team of mutants to the big screen. But there was something different about X-Men that separated it from previous superheroes. It was unquestionably taking place in a world that was meant to be understood as our own. Wolverine's bright yellow costume was gone; so was everyone else's, replaced by cool, black leather. The X-Men weren't just superheroes saving the day anymore, either; they were perceived threats to the general population, not heroes to be celebrated. Moreover, they had become metaphors for the Other, providing social commentary in addition to selling action figures. The world of X-Men was certainly still one of science-fiction/fantasy, but it looked uncannily like our own. We weren't watching a comic book come to life anymore.
Other films followed suit. Spider-Man, which premiered in the summer of 2002, fittingly held on to the whiz-bang sense of awe that accompanied it's teenage protagonist, but there's no mistaking Spidey's New York for anything but the genuine article. As a result, the film became a gargantuan blockbuster, becoming the highest-grossing superhero movie at the time and helping a city (and nation) heal after enduring the deadliest terrorist attack in the nation's history (I have a theory that the events of 9/11 were a crucial influence on audience's desire for superhero movies, but that's for another time). X2: X-Men United and Spider-Man 2 doubled down on their connection to our reality, reinforcing the idea that superhero movies needed to be "darker" and "grittier" to succeed.
(Case in point: Ang Lee presented Hulk with comic-panel edits, and the film tanked. Catwoman took the campy route and bombed spectacularly. Audiences were fully rejecting superhero movies that weren't rooted in "realism.")
Then came Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan's reboot of the franchise that has become the most celebrated superhero movies ever. Everyone involved with the project stated that the film's dark tone and clear reality were reactions to the disaster of Batman & Robin, and that the film was going to distance itself from the latter film as much as possible. Indeed, to look at Nolan's trilogy in comparison to the Burton/Schumacher films is to see a marked difference in the way they present their visions of Gotham. Nolan's films ditched kitschy characters like Poison Ivy, Mr. Freeze, the Penguin, and the Riddler, while turning other villains such as the Joker, Bane, and Scarecrow into terrifying figures that wouldn't be impossible in the real world. In Nolan's hands, Gotham became a stand-in for America, and through this lens he examined post-9/11 ills in our society. His films don't look like comic books, and consciously so. It's no wonder that his films are celebrated as among the best the genre ever produced, while their predecessors are treated as a distant, quaint memory.
For better or worse, Batman & Robin changed the way that superhero movies were made. Even today, the offerings from Marvel and DC - both in theaters and on television - are rooted firmly in the real world, just with superheroes and cool technology (exception: Marvel's Thor franchise, which, it should be noted, is the lowest-grossing film property of Marvel Studios). Thanks to Batman & Robin, superhero movies ditched the campy, comic-based fantasy realm they once inhabited. Superheroes now occupy a world that's not too different from our own. We've seen this "dark and gritty" influence permeate most Hollywood blockbusters, regardless of whether they're about superheroes or fairy tales. I'm not going to say that all of them are great, or that every superhero film needs the same super-serious approach. But it has resulted in some truly inspired and incredible films, including The Dark Knight.
To paraphrase that latter film, Batman & Robin wasn't the superhero movie that we deserved. But it was the one the genre needed to enter a new, exciting, and crowded future.