Batman & Robin (1997)
by Steve Habrat
If Batfans were worried about what direction the Batman films were going in after 1995’s half-campy Batman Forever, our worst fears were confirmed with Joel Schumacher’s 1997 atrocity Batman & Robin. For this Batfan, I remained in denial about the movie for several weeks after I saw it, refusing to admit that it was downright awful. As the days passed, I began to face the truth and accept that Batman had been turned into a two-hour toy commercial that had little respect for the character I had grown up with. Schumacher had done what absolutely no one wanted to see and that was return to the silliness of the 1960s. Even more family friendly than Batman Forever, Batman & Robin was relentlessly juvenile, with Looney Tunes sound effects, the dynamic duo playing hockey with the “hockey team from Hell”, and Mr. Freeze delivering some seriously appalling one-liners that made any proud Batfan want to smash their head into a wall then curl up and die. Oh, and they totally ruined Bane! As a result of Batman & Robin, I actually gave up Batman and quit collecting the comics and toys for years after. I was so embarrassed by it and even today when I revisit the film, it is a real chore to get through. For two hours, Warner Bros. and Schumacher crush your spirits and spit in your face with lines like “You’re not gonna send me to the coolah!”
Batman & Robin begins with Commissioner Gordon (Played by Pat Hingle) summoning Batman (Played by George Clooney) and Robin (Played by Chris O’Donnell) to Gotham City to stop the sinister Mr. Freeze (Played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) from stealing a cache of diamonds. Mr. Freeze narrowly escapes the masked vigilantes and returns to his hideout where he is trying to save the life of his beloved wife who is suffering from MacGregor’s Syndrome. Meanwhile, in South America, botanist Dr. Pamela Isely (Played by Uma Thurman) is working under the mad Dr. Jason Woodrue (Played by John Glover) who is experimenting with a serum called “Venom”, which transforms runts into super soldiers. He experiments on a scrawny criminal and in the process, turns him into the hulking killing machine Bane (Played by Jeep Swenson). Dr. Isely witness the experiment and when she refuses to join Dr. Woodrue, he brutally murders her with an assortment of different toxins that she was working on. Isely is reborn as the sexy seductress Poison Ivy, who joins forces with Bane and heads to Gotham City to confront Bruce Wayne about cutting the funding of her project in South America. Once she arrives, she bumps into Mr. Freeze and together, they form an alliance that will have Batman and Robin scrambling to find all the help they can get.
In interviews about the film, Schumacher explains that Warner Bros. really pressured him to keep things light for the children, even more than they did on Batman Forever. They also ushered in toy companies to have a strong input in the design of gadgets and vehicles and it is completely obvious. It was an attempt to make things more “toyetic”. There are countless gadgets strewn throughout the film, most of them serving no purpose at all. Then there is the Batmobile, which looks like a supped-up sports car that will be used for street racing rather than battling crime. I’m stunned that Schumacher didn’t throw text on the screen that read “For sale at your local Wal-Mart!” just so everyone knew it was available. The film has a paper thin plotline that barely makes any sense at all, the whole grand scheme here is that Mr. Freeze wants to freeze the city. The annoying aesthetic that Schumacher applied in Batman Forever is also punched up to one hundred as the film constantly looks like it was filmed in various glow-in-the-dark nightclubs as techno pumps into the fight scenes. While all of this is bad, nothing can compare to the performances that Schumacher captures.
Stepping in for Val Kilmer is the hunky George Clooney, who is so uncomfortable in the role that he is practically looking into the camera and saying it to us. His Bruce Wayne is a grinning and sunny philanthropist who refuses to brood or be at odds with his duty of protecting Gotham City. He is more of a wisecracking dad to Chris O’Donnell’s Robin, who belts out cringe inducing dialogue at every turn. A scene where Batman and Robin glide through the sky on makeshift surfboards has Robin yelling “Cowabunga!” as he surfs over the rooftops of Gotham. There is a disposable side plot that finds Robin growing tired with all of Batman’s rules, which consistently keep him alive and he doesn’t even realize it. He whines and moans that Bruce doesn’t trust him but it never leads to anything substantial. Schumacher also can’t resist lacing the moments between Bruce and Dick with a homoerotic feel that once again is completely out of place. Things really get weird when they begin bickering over Poison Ivy, who introduces herself at a charity ball that has the dynamic duo arguing over who will take her home. The scene culminates in Batman whipping out an American Express card and warning Robin to “never leave the Batcave without it”. I don’t know about you, but I would think it would be odd that Bruce Wayne wouldn’t be at his own charity ball but Batman is there bidding millions of dollars to take Ivy home. Maybe it is just me, but I think doing something like that would give yourself away instantly.
Then we have the villains, who once again steal most of the movie away from the title characters. Schwarzenegger is a lumbering chunk of blue cheese as he delivers some of the films worst lines of dialogue. Every line written for the man is a one liner that references freezing something. He crashes a party and shouts “Everyone chill!” as the guests shriek in terror. Then there is the femme fatale Poison Ivy, who is equally cheeky when she delivers lines like “Curses!” as she is foiled by Batgirl. She spends a good majority of the movie trying to seduce men and kiss them, which is the only thing deadly about her. Then we have Swenson’s Bane, a mindless brute with greenish skin that grunts, groans, and moans as Freeze and Ivy give him commands. For a villain that was extremely deadly in the comic books, it is such a disappointment when Robin and Batgirl swoop in and defeat this hulk. Alicia Silverstone shows up as Barbara Wilson, Alfred’s niece who likes to play sweet and innocent but has a knack for getting in with the wrong people. She ultimately becomes Batgirl but there is no build up to this. She just suddenly becomes part of the team and Batman never once questions her sudden appearance. Michael Gough reprises his role as Alfred and even he seems to be phoning it in here. He gets a side story that reveals his character is hiding an illness that may take his life. This is the most interesting part of Batman & Robin but it certainly doesn’t better the movie. Also returning is Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon who is present only to grab a few laughs and then disappear.
By the time Mr. Freeze has converted a giant telescope into a freeze machine that will blanket Gotham City in a thick layer of ice, you will have completely checked out of Batman & Robin. Poison Ivy basically serves no purpose in the movie other than to drag the film out a little bit. Batman and Robin are unable to beat her even though she is powerless yet Batgirl swings in with one kick and Ivy is no more. Our heroes also have time to do a quick wardrobe change in the final act of the film, emerging onto the slick streets of ice town wearing futuristic armor that looks ridiculous. It doesn’t aid the trio in battling Mr. Freeze and seems like it is only here to look cool. And DON’T get me started on the nipples that are once again present on the Batsuit! Overall, it is hard to believe that Batman & Robin is operating in the same universe that Tim Burton created in 1989. An obnoxious mess of a film that is completely unwatchable from the get-go, Batman & Robin is not only the worst Batman film ever made, but is also one of the worst superhero films to ever grace the silver screen. A complete embarrassment on every single level, both for fans and the filmmakers.
Batman & Robin is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Batman Forever (1995)
by Steve Habrat
After Tim Burton took Batman to the darkest depths of evil’s soul in 1992’s Batman Returns, Warner Bros. wanted to make the Batman franchise friendlier to families all over America (No death to children here!). With Burton out of the director’s chair and wearing the producer’s hat, Joel Schumacher steps in to brighten the mood, yanking the brooding Batman out of the shadows and tossing him head first into a world of neon lights and rubber nipples on the Batsuit. Schumacher’s Batman Forever, the third installment in the franchise, was without question the grandest Batman film to date. It sprints all over this art deco Gotham City that looks more like a nightclub than an actual metropolis. Some of the dark tones of the original two films remain loosely in tact and newcomer Val Kilmer, who steps in for Michael Keaton, refuses to quit brooding as Bruce Wayne, but the film welcomes in two campy villains, an annoying sidekick, and a homoerotic feel that turns Batman and his antagonists into glam rock drag queens with no purpose or direction. Completely reversing the plot to create a darker Batman, Schumacher takes things back to the campy 60’s television series that starred Adam West as a much more cartoonish version of the Dark Knight and in the process, he horrifies Batfans everywhere.
Batman Forever begins with the dreaded Harvey Dent/Two-Face (Played by Tommy Lee Jones), the former do-gooder D.A. of Gotham City, terrorizing the good citizens of the sprawling city. He blames Batman (Played by Val Kilmer) for not intervening in a courtroom accident that left half of his face horribly scarred. Two-Face soon finds an ally in the rubbery terrorist Edward Nygma/The Riddler (Played by Jim Carrey), a disgruntled former employee of Wayne Enterprises who is out to stick it to his idol, Bruce Wayne. The Riddler devises a way to suck the secrets out of the heads of the helpless citizens of Gotham, which allows him to get inside Batman’s mind and figure out his true identity. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne has assumed responsibility for the young Dick Grayson (Played by Chris O’Donnell), who watched helplessly as his parents were murdered by the bloodthirsty Two-Face. As Dick spends more and more time in Wayne Manor, he begins to suspect that Wayne is hiding something and he is determined to find out what that secret is. As The Riddler and Two-Face close in on the city, Bruce Wayne begins to grapple with his true identity, leading him to consider hanging up the cape for good.
In the past, I have criticized Burton’s Batman films for not exploring the psychology of Bruce Wayne and what drives him to dress up like a giant bat. Schumacher’s Batman Forever attempts to wrap its head around why Bruce does this and while I admire the effort, it is shoddy and half-hearted. Bruce is urged by love interest Dr. Chase Meridian (Played by Nicole Kidman) to face down his demons, which leads to a handful of moody flashbacks that are ripe with the darkness of the first two films. Unfortunately, a good majority of this side plot was removed from Batman Forever due to the studio’s fear of venturing back into the dark side of Batman. This is just one of the missed opportunities in Batman Forever. There are tons of moments that appear to be going in the right direction but are thrown off by studio interference. Many are quick to place ALL the blame on Schumacher, labeling him the only person responsible for Batman crumbling to glittery ash, but I think Warner Bros. also played a part in this monstrosity. I was always hesitant to put all of the blame on him because you will catch glimpses of the film that Schumacher wanted to make. There are some bleak touches to be found if you are willing to look closely, something that saves Batman Forever from being a total turd.
Another positive that Batman Forever has working in its favor is the casting of Val Kilmer as Bruce Wayne/Batman. Kilmer continues to play Wayne with a straight face, refusing to stop and wink at the audience even when Schumacher slaps nipples on his armor. When he puts on the Batsuit, Kilmer communicates in a whisper that does seem perfect for a guy dressing up like a giant bat, which softens the blow of campy lines of dialogue like, “I’ll get drive-thru.” Things really hit rock bottom for Kilmer when he is forced to team up with O’Donnell’s Robin, who does nothing to lift the creeping veil of camp that is slowly draping over the film. Schumacher also hints at a homosexual spark between the two crime fighters, which would be okay if the previous two films had hinted that Bruce grapples with his sexuality but that isn’t the case here. Kilmer is forced to morph the brooding hero, who has had feelings for Vicki Vale and Selina Kyle in the past, into a bisexual with an identity crisis. It’s a bizarre touch to throw into the series in the third quarter but Kilmer keeps a cool head with the murky twist.
To make things worse for Batman Forever, O’Donnell has no clue how to approach the Boy Wonder. At times, he wants to be just as brooding and dark as Kilmer’s Bruce Wayne and at others, he wants to be a party-boy rebel without a real cause. I had mixed feelings about his character but he really rubbed me the wrong way when he jacked the Batmobile and takes it out for a joyride. Personally, I could have done without the inclusion of Robin, as I personally have never been a huge fan of the character. Then we have the two villains, both who lift the buffoonery of Nicholson’s Joker but forget the measured menace that made his character so unforgettable. When Carrey isn’t on the screen with him, Jones actually knows how to handle his split-personality wacko but whenever the question-mark-clad Carrey enters the scene, the two seem like they are in a contest to see who can out-camp the other. Carrey wins the contest and turns the Riddler into a heavily caffeinated version of the Joker who loves one-liners and loves light-up jackets. Jones and Carrey do an admirable job with the material they are given, but I wish they weren’t asked to act like they are two giddy teenagers. Matching Kilmer’s somber tone is Nicole Kidman’s sexy psychologist (a fitting love interest for this film), who is here to coax the demons out of Wayne. Also back is Michael Gough as the faithful butler Alfred, who contributes another quality performance, and Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon, who once again has absolutely nothing to do with his iconic character.
As I stated earlier, Batman Forever was the biggest Batman film at the time and Schumacher loads it with enough action to live up to that reputation. The film does have some marvelous sets even if they do turn Batman Forever into a gigantic neon dance club. The fight scenes lack the brutality of Batman and Batman Returns, at times seeming like the characters are dance fighting (It wouldn’t surprise me if they were) rather than actually fighting for their lives. Schumacher and his crew hope to overwhelm us with action and eye candy so that we won’t notice the fact that the film basically has no plot and they almost succeed. Luckily, Kilmer is a nice fit for Batman and it is a shame he didn’t stick around to elaborate on his performance, but I can’t say I blame him for abandoning the character when the studio is more interested in selling toys rather than making something coherent. Overall, Batman Forever is a regressive film that appeals more to kids than it does to the adult viewers looking for something substantial and weighty. Oh well, at least there wasn’t any “Wham” or “Pow” to speak of, which was a relief for a film that hits the ground with a campy joke about Batman stopping for drive-thru.
Batman Forever is available on Blu-ray and DVD.