Batman and Robin (1997)

D: Joel Schumacher
S: Arnold Schwarzenegger, George Clooney, Uma Thurman

If there were fissures on the surface of Batman Forever, they have finally cracked in Batman and Robin. Vanquishing all traces of dignity granted by the darker gothic elements of the previous films, Joel Schumacher's despicable monstrosity brings back the bargain-basement camp hysterics of the 1960s TV series at its lowest ebb (when Batgirl was introduced to bolster sagging ratings and everyone was just tired of the silliness). Quite simply, Batman and Robin is one of the worst Hollywood films of the decade and reeks so strongly of opportunism and condescension that even the most diehard fetishists will have a hard time justifying its excesses.

Desperation has set in in Gotham City, Warner Brothers. Having exhausted the franchise's most popular villains (and killed off two of them), they have taken two of the minor players (Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy - both more popular on the TV show than in print), and pitted them against the Caped Crusader and the Boy Wonder. With expressionless Arnold Schwarzenegger topping the bill as Mr. Freeze (lost under an impressive but unwieldy costume) and Uma Thurman seeking a crossover audience as Posion Ivy (an eco-feminist psycho with a bad British accent), we have lightweight, gag-dropping George Clooney stepping in where Adam West left off and Chris O'Donnell playing a bratty, obnoxious Robin. Add to the exponentially-increasing character list the young biker chick Batgirl, played by babe of the month Alicia Silverstone and thrust to centre stage and threaten to kill off Bat Butler Alfred (Michael Gough) and you have a crass formula for corporate franchise redirection unsurpassed in recent memory.

The plot, as near as can be made out, has Mr. Freeze playing a sort of modern day Baron Frankenstein, desperately trying to save his cryogenically-preserved wife from a fatal illness while robbing the city of diamonds to sustain his cryo-suit, and Poison Ivy emerging theatrically from the earth and bursting into a night club like a high-class drag act in an effort to kill all men and save the plants, aided by a venom-enchanced warrior called Bane. Batman and Robin go after them in the usual fashion, while battling one another for the public spotlight (literally - they fight over the Bat Signal). Then when Ivy and Freeze team up, Batgirl joins in (becoming the fourth female in as many movies to learn Batman's secret identity) after some clumsy preliminaries surrounding the impending death of her uncle Alfred and a grossly unfunny introductory leer at her legs.

None of it is meant to be taken seriously, of course, and the harsh, neon lighting effects and nudge-nudge wink-wink performances of the stars ensure that even the smallest child understands that exaggeration and excess means ironic commentary and cheap laughs at the expense of those who would dare to be straight. If it seems merely a matter of taste that this garish mishmash of a movie might not appeal to fans of the darker Batman brought to the screen by Tim Burton (after Frank Miller's print version), there is plenty of time for even the tolerant viewer to become exhausted by the relentlessness of the editing, the frustrating inability of the plot to sit still long enough for anything to develop dramatically, and the constant feeling that watching the film is much harder work than it should be.

Schumacher's concern with camera movement and rapid cutting excludes the possibility that the elaborate set design might serve to enhance the characters or compliment the performances of the actors. The result is that while there are some spectacular vistas in the new Gotham, trying to take them in while the plot barrels merrily away towards some uninteresting resolution is like trying to take photographs from a speeding train. Each action highlight seems intent on being more busy than the previous, with little regard for rhyme, reason or logic. Mr. Freeze's army of skating soldiers comes directly from the TV show, where hordes of extras in appropriate costumes would be biffed and blatted every week, only to reappear again on the following show with little evident harm to their person. From the moment they arrive in the frenzied opening scene, there is no doubt that the end is nigh for the Dark Knight: The Caped Crusader Returns.

Nothing motivates the action in the film except the demands of action itself. Without firm control on the part of the director, or a script to provide substance, it merely seems like the film wants to get to the end credits as quickly as possible so that the next show can run in time for the next group punters to get in and pay out. There is nothing to enjoy here, and certainly nothing to appreciate. The viewer is herded through a series of sound-bite moments designed to show off costumes, cars and merchandise, all in the name of making Batman seem more fun so that kids will buy licensed items. But at the end of the day, you are left only with a bad aftertaste and an urge to stomp repeatedly on the lobby display cards on your way out of the theatre.

On the acting side, Thurman struggles badly somewhere between high camp and amateur theatrics and Schwarzenegger has never seemed so immobile. While they share one good sequence together (the breakout from the Arkham Asylum), neither of these characters is very interesting, or would pose much of a challenge to a Batman with even the slightest degree of heroic charisma. Fortunately for them, (but not for the movie) George Clooney is given little opportunity to explore the part on his first outing. While the actor has the looks and manner to carry the role, Batman is given some terrible dialogue and has unconvincing dramatic relationships with the arrogant Robin and the dying Alfred. The character is completely swamped by the noisy action and by the cast list, making you wonder just why he's supposed to be the hero in the first place.

The film seems intent on making Robin and Batgirl more prominent, including an irrelevant sub-plot about bike racing, presumably to engage motorbike enthusiasts and wannabe kids who like to see O'Donnell and Silverstone strutting their stuff. Neither are particularly taxed in their roles, and Silverstone seems a little uncomfortable. O'Donnell does fine, but has become unsympathetic in the transformation from sidekick to would-be competitor and makes you wonder if the execs are not considering doing A Death in the Family next time out (the comic book in which Robin was killed off).

Ultimately, this film has no faith in its material or its audience. Add to this the fact that Schumacher seems to have been allowed to veer wildly out of control, taking all the latent silliness of the franchise and thrusting it out of the closet and into the faces of the hapless audience, who have no option but to feel insulted, and it's not difficult to guess the real agenda. The logic of the blockbuster commands it: make everything as big and bright and noisy as possible and convince preview audiences THIS is the film to see this summer (and make sure someone in the Press says it too, so we can put it on the poster). It demands that people pay to see it simply because it's a big-budget summer spectacular that all the kids need to see for street cred.

Of course that is not to say that this is unique. On the contrary, it has been the standard marketing tactic in American cinema since the turn of the century. But few American films have been this lazy, slipshod, and badly put together. This almost unwatchable travesty leaves room for no one to enjoy it, or take anything home but a headache.

But at least there is some solace in knowing that it didn't pay off. The film was trounced at the box-office in the Summer of 1997 by The Lost World and Men in Black. Of course, whether the blame is laid with Batman or with the audience remains to be seen. What further indignities they can subject him to defies imagination, but it can't be any worse than what they've already done to us.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1997.