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Second Look: Batman & Robin

This column’s goal is to shine a new light on over-looked and under-appreciated superhero films, the ‘also-rans’ to classic and beloved movies like The Dark Knight or Spider-Man 2. Therefore, it seems only fitting that we wrap up this month of Batman retrospectives with one of the most maligned superhero movies of all time: Batman & Robin. Over the decade and a half since its release, B&R‘s reputation has become so legendary its very name is a punchline. But is such a critical drubbing really deserved? I’d argue no. Batman & Robin is not a great film (at times it’s not even a good one). But as an ode to the wacky Silver Age adventures of the Dark Knight, it’s a movie that’s exceedingly fun to watch, and one well-worth a Second Look.

To briefly recap the plot, since far more people mock this film than have actually watched it: Mr. Freeze has appeared on the scene and is committing a string of diamond heists while attempting to find a cure for his cryogenically-frozen wife, Nora. Things are further complicated when botanist Pamela Isley gains toxic pheromone powers after a chemical accident and heads to Gotham to reclaim the city in the name of nature. Eventually the two team up and pose a threat to all life on Earth. Meanwhile, back at Wayne Manor, Robin grows increasingly resentful of being treated as a sidekick, Alfred’s niece Barbara arrives to visit, and Alfred himself is slowly dying from the same disease that struck Nora Fries. That may make it sound like there’s a lot going on, but the film’s narrative isn’t actually complicated so much as it is over-stuffed. Then again, except for Batman Returns none of the ’90s Batman quadrology are particularly story-focused.

Though Batman & Robin has many problems, most of them really fall under two main categories. First, multiple characters are horribly miscast. Chris O’Donnell‘s age works slightly better here than it did in Batman Forever, but he’s still an awful Robin. This film is the closest we’ve ever gotten to seeing Nightwing on screen, yet O’Donnell’s Robin is so whiny and petulant he’s impossible to root for. Arnold Schwarzenegger is equally unconvincing as the world’s buffest Nobel laureate, though at least his action-movie resume gave him plenty of practice delivering one-liners. And there are plenty of those around.

Neither of those two hold a candle to the misstep which is Alicia Silverstone‘s Batgirl however. I’ll give the movie this: given how small a role Commissioner Gordon plays in these films, making Barbara a relative of Alfred’s was a smart choice. Unfortunately, Sliverstone’s performance is utterly bland, failing to embody the enthusiasm and intelligence that define Barbara. Even worse, her character adds nothing to the movie. She’s utterly vestigial to the plot, and the film never bothers to define what makes her Batgirl unique from Robin. Every scene spent on Barbara is time that could have been better spent elsewhere.

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Schmacher’s vision of Gotham architecture is great though

Of course the biggest criticism of this film is that it’s too goofy for a Batman movie, even more so than the already zany Batman Forever. Emboldened by the commercial success of that film’s less somber take on the Caped Crusader, Warner Bros. fast-tracked Batman & Robin for a release just two years later and director Joel Schumacher was encouraged to take an even lighter tone with his follow-up. On set, Schumacher allegedly even reminded his crew before each take that they were making “a cartoon.”

At the time, this approach was firmly rejected by critics and audiences, though the film still turned a significant profit. But looking back on Batman & Robin, it’s clear that the movie’s reputation is hurt by viewers judging the film by a set of standards it never even attempts to meet. As a sequel to Tim Burton‘s dark pair of films, B&R is a dismal failure. Yet if seen as a big-budget homage to the Adam West Batman series of the ’60s, this movie makes perfect sense.

Batman & Robin unabashedly goes for a campy and over-the-top tone, establishing a world where recently arrived criminals are actually referred to as “new villains” and Batman wields a no-limit credit card alongside his batarangs. And you know what? That’s a valid way to go with the character, as much as fans of a gritty Dark Knight may disagree. Batman has been reinvented and reinterpreted dozens of times over the years. For every Year One or The Dark Knight Returns, there’s an issue where Batman and Robin dress up as mummies or compete in the Space Olympics. Even the previous few films in this series had rocket penguins and giant glowing mind-reading rays. A silly tone isn’t a dealbreaker, so long as it’s executed well.*

And by embracing the central ridiculous of Batman, Batman & Robin manages to throw in some highly exciting setpieces. Take the film’s opening battle: it begins at Gotham’s natural history museum and before it’s over the Dynamic Duo have fought hockey minions, skated down a dinosaur statue, and escaped from an exploding rocket by surfing through the air on doors. It’s absolutely ludicrous, but the sheer brazen impossibility of the sequence makes it stupidly fun and a highlight of the film. It also causes George Clooney’s dry performance as Bruce Wayne to be a perfect fit: given how crazy his world is, why should anything faze him?

Uma Thurman‘s Poison Ivy also benefits from the movie’s lack of restraint. From her introductory scene, which has Ms. Isley narrate her backstory into a tape recorder in a classic case of “as you know” exposition, Thurman takes great glee in hamming it up as the femme fatale. Her Ivy is a sexual creature that dispenses crazy double-entendres as frequently as Freeze delivers ‘cold’ puns, and her attempted seduction of Batman and Robin adds a nice layer of masculine competition on top of the pair’s already strained relationship. But where Freeze is set up as a tragic figure, Ivy is maniacally destructive. Here is a villainess who declares Batman and Robin the “militant arm of the warm-blooded oppressors” and views millions of deaths as an acceptable loss in exchange for slightly tightened waste regulation. It’s a cartoonishly over-the-top level of villainy that manages to give us a good glimpse at how alien Ivy’s sense of morality has become.

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Ivy and Bane’s idea of “incognito”

It’s true that a lot of this zaniness doesn’t quite work. Bane’s reduction to a grunting smasher is a laughable simplification of his character, many of the action scenes and effects are badly dated, and chunks of the film’s plot don’t hold up to any amount of scrutiny. More frustratingly, Batman & Robin‘s silly tone tends to undercut its dramatic arcs; it’s hard to empathize with Freeze when his moments of grief are immediately followed by a blizzard of frost puns. One plot that is legitimately well-executed however, is Alfred’s ailment. Amongst B&R ‘s heightened antics, Michael Gough‘s quiet scenes with Clooney are oases of emotion and nuance that underscore just how much Alfred truly means to Bruce. The genuine familial love between the two comes across far better here than it does in Nolan‘s trilogy, and gives us an Alfred who seems to understand Batman’s quest even better than he does himself.

No one is ever going to treat Batman & Robin as a masterpiece, nor should they. With three caped heroes and two-and-a-half villains, the movie throws in so many plots that almost none are given time to breath. Furthermore, Schumacher’s attempts at humor and levity are frequently misjudged, resulting in a product that’s too absurd to take seriously but too lame to fully laugh at (a decade later, Batman: The Brave and the Bold would strike a much better balance when reimagining a Silver Age-style Batman). But at the end of the day, this is a film that knows exactly what it is: excessive camp. It’s very outrageousness is a large part of its appeal, and ultimately makes Batman & Robin a solidly entertaining movie. Just accept the silly, and go along for the ride.

Why’s he so excited about that diamond? Watch the film and find out!

*For those who think Batman & Robin isn’t respectful to the character of Batman, consider this: it’s the sole Batman movie where our hero doesn’t kill someone. Yes, that’s right. Out of the eight live-action Batman pictures we’ve gotten, B&R is the only one that actually sticks to the Dark Knight’s ironclad “no killing” rule. Food for thought.

What do you think of Batman & Robin? Do you think it’s cartoony nature makes it a better or worse interpretation of Batman?

About the author

William Donald