Luke revisits Batman & Robin on its 23rd anniversary…
Hindsight is a funny thing. It allows us to look back on projects we once loved or hated with a fresh perspective and reevaluate. There was a period in time where I would have loathed 10 Thing I Hate About You because I was an idiot teenager who dismissed it as a ‘chick flick’, but now in my thirties I can view it as one of the better teen movies from that time period. Conversely I once praised Resident Evil: Apocalypse as the best video game movie ever made because it had Nemesis in it, but on reflection I now see it’s the worst of the franchise.
So, 23 years on and in hindsight, can we all just admit that Batman & Robin was kind of awesome?
Released in 1997, Batman & Robin was following on from the successful Batman Forever which brought in a new vision for The Dark Knight. With Tim Burton’s dark and gothic Batman and Batman Returns thrown to the wayside, Joel Schumacher brightened the tone and released the Batman movie the studio always wanted. Batman Returns had been poorly-reviewed by families who had taken their small children to see the dark and moody film (not helped by a tie-in Happy Meal collaboration with McDonalds) and Warners wanted something more family-orientated. This time the movie was bright, colourful and cartoony, with Jim Carrey hamming it up as The Riddler while Tommy Lee Jones chews up all the scenery as Two-Face. Some die hard BatFans might have rejected its lighter tone, but audiences lapped it up and Batman Forever – which cost less than $100 million to make – earned an impressive $336 million worldwide [our own Anghus Houvouras is a big fan]. Warner Bros. were ecstatic.
As a reward, Schumacher was brought back to direct the 1997 follow-up Batman & Robin. Chris O’Donnell returned to the role of The Boy Wonder while E.R. heartthrob George Clooney donned the cowl to play Gotham’s Knight. Uma Thurman signed on to play Poison Ivy and Clueless star Alicia Silverstone was brought in to bring Batgirl to the series for the first time since the 1966 TV show. But it was action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger who was the film’s biggest player, not only getting top billing but also commanding a whopping $25 million contract to play the villainous Mr. Freeze (the first time he’d played a bad guy since 1984’s The Terminator). Schumacher and Batman Forever screenwriter Akiva Goldsman wanted to pay homage to the classic Bill Dozier TV series with a broader camper style, and also took inspiration from the Paul Dini penned “Heart of Ice” from Batman: The Animated Series.
Due to the success of Batman Forever, Batman & Robin was fast-tracked into production and filmed mostly on the Warner Bros. backlot in Burbank. Due to the freedom one has when filming on a backlot, Batman & Robin was a very quick production, with O’Donnell revealing he and Schwarzenegger never worked a single day together despite sharing several scenes, and the whole film finished a couple of weeks ahead of schedule. The executives at Warner Bros. loved the dailies they received, and were so impressed that they penned contracts for Schumacher to return for Batman Unchained, which would have seen a returning cast of Clooney, O’Donnell and Silverstone alongside Nic Cage as Scarecrow, Madonna as Harley Quinn (or possibly Courtney Love) and a returning Jack Nicholson as The Joker. Their toy deal for the movie with Kenner was also looking to be a success, and various Six Flag parks were building rollercoasters based on the film.
And then the film was released.
Debuting on June 12th 1997, Batman & Robin received overwhelmingly negative reviews. The Minneapolis Star Tribune said Schumacher’s, “storytelling is limp, and the characters lack energy” while famed critic Gene Siskel noted Batman & Robin was a, “Sniggering, exhausting, overproduced extravaganza that has virtually all of the humanity pounded out of it in the name of an endless parade of stunt sequences.” The Batman ’66 aesthetic did not go unnoticed, and became the ire of BatFans around the world who rejected this campy take on a beloved character in the subversive MTV-obsessed 1990s. However the real kicker to Batman & Robin‘s reputation was the rise of the Internet Critic, most notably Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News. “Nothing can prepare you for the sheer glorious travesty of the 200-megaton bomb of a film this is,” he wrote in 1997. “This film is so bad, so awful, so vanity ridden with horrible over the top performances, that nothing I can say, can prepare you for it.”
Even the cast didn’t like it. O’Donnell said in the video series Shadows of the Bat, “It just felt like everything got a little soft the second time. On Batman Forever, I felt like I was making a movie. The second time, I felt like I was making a kid’s toy commercial.” John Glover (Dr. Jason Woodrue) added: “Joel would sit on a crane with a megaphone and yell before each take, ‘Remember, everyone, this is a cartoon’. It was hard to act because that kind of set the tone for the film.” Clooney said in 2014, “I think since [Batman & Robin] I’ve been dis-invited from Comic-Con for 20 years. I see the comment sections on all you guys. I just met Adam West there [referring to behind the NYCC main stage] and I apologised to him. Sorry about the nipples on the suit.“
A positive opening weekend of $42 million was killed one week later when Batman & Robin dropped 62%. In total, the movie made $238 million worldwide, almost $100 million less than Batman Forever. In a 2014 interview with Variety, Schumacher said the fast-tracked production hurt the film, but he was ultimately at fault. “They immediately wanted a sequel, but I said yes,” Schumacher recalls. “There’s nobody else to blame but me. I could have said, ‘No, I’m not going to do it.’ I just hope whenever I see a list of the worst movies ever made, we’re not on it. I didn’t do a good job.”
Plans or Batman Unchained were scrapped, and Warner Bros. put all of their Bat Plans on ice (no pun intended) until they could work out what they wanted to do with the franchise. This included ideas like Darren Aronofsky’s Batman: Year One with Frank Miller and a Batman vs Superman movie which would see Batman and Superman finally team up on the big screen. It would take nearly a decade for The Dark Knight to grace screens again in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins.
Since its release, Batman & Robin has been parodied and poked fun at by anyone and everyone. It’s thought to be the worst Batman movie ever made, and it often appears in “worst of all-time” lists. But is it really that bad?
My own journey with the movie has been a funny one. I was eleven years old when Batman & Robin came out and I went with my friends to see it at the cinema without our parents. It was the second film I’d ever done this with (the first being Space Jam a few weeks prior), and while I don’t have overwhelming memories of my feelings coming out of the theatre, I do recall a humorous moment when a kid of about six-years old jumped out his seat and shouted “don’t do it Robin!” when the Boy Wonder was about to kiss Poison Ivy. That Christmas I got the film on VHS and watched it many, many times. I was never enamored with the movie and much preferred Batman Forever, but I didn’t have many negative feelings towards it either. I was a kid and this was a Batman movie. I was just happy to watch it.
In my teenage years with a more developed mind, I joined those who hated the movie. My friends and I would laugh about how terrible it is, and how Schumacher “killed the Batman franchise” by making “the worst comic book movie ever made”. I laughed at YouTube videos like Nostalgia Critic’s review, and revelled in the movie being torn apart. But in my late twenties, my opinions on it changed once more. I decided to re-watch all the Batman films in the lead up to the release of The Dark Knight Rises and came across an epiphany: Batman & Robin is kind of awesome.
At a critical level and in terms of filmmaking practices, Batman & Robin is a colossal failure. It’s the victim of studio politics; trying to please everyone including your sponsors and partners and ignoring plot and story in favour of toys and Taco Bell tie-ins. But as a piece of cinematic history, it’s a fascinating watch. It’s a wonderful catalogue of errors, and hilarious in being just that. The acting is beyond campy and the action is more akin to Batman on Ice than the 90s action movies from the time like Speed, Con Air and Face/Off. Arnold Schwarzenegger is the most cartoony and over-the-top villain in the history of mankind, and his dreadful and corny one-liners are now part of geek lexicon. “Ice to see you!” “Hey everyone, chill!” “You’re not going to put me in the cooler!” And it’s not just Schwarzenegger, Uma Thurman is also devouring scenery with every dialogue delivery. Batman & Robin 90-minutes of homosexual innuendo and ice puns. It’s joyous to watch, and simply remarkable.
A few years ago, Flickering Myth writer Simon Columb wrote that it was time we started celebrating Batman & Robin in the same way we frequent screenings of The Room. I couldn’t agree more. A film that fails at this sort of level should be enjoyed for what it is. We should be cheering the Bat Nipples and Bat Credit Card, we should be applauding Schwarzengger’s one-liners, and Posion Ivy shamelessly pushing the toyline in dialogue. “That’s why every Poison Ivy action figure comes complete with him” she shouts pointing at Bane. It’s shameless. How about Barbara Gordon discovering the Batcave, and her exceptionally wooden performance that follows? Or when she meets up with Batman and Robin and says, “it’s me Barbara, I found the Batcave” with a little chuckle, and Robin simply relies, “we’ve got to change those locks!” You can’t hate dialogue that bad. Batman even name-checks The Man of Steel, hinting at a wider DC Expanded Universe a decade and a half before Warner Bros. finally pulled the trigger on it.
It should also be noted that Batman & Robin changed the course of cinema history for the comic book movie genre. Its failings caused a shift in the attitudes towards adaptations, and writers and directors realised the times were changing in audience reactions. The original ending of X-Men – which was one of the biggest movies to rise from the cinematic ashes left by Batman & Robin – saw Wolverine and Sabertooth having a claw fight while snowboarding down a snowy hillside. Upon seeing a preview screening of Batman & Robin, and witnessing The Dark Knight and the Boy Wonder use Freeze’s rocket ship doors as surfboards through the sky while screaming “cowabunga”, they re-wrote the X-Men conclusion to be more serious. Without Batman & Robin (and to a lesser extent Steel) comic book movies might not have got the 2000s boom. And without the failings of some of those movies (Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Ghost Rider, et al) we wouldn’t have got the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the DC Extended Universe. Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy doesn’t exist without Batman & Robin. So, in a sense, it’s the last of its kind. That’s kind of awesome.
But even without the domino effect and ‘what ifs’, Batman & Robin is brilliant fun to watch. Perhaps I’m biased and misguided because I have a love of bad movies, but Batman & Robin is up there with the best of the worst. It’s not the worst movie ever made, and it’s probably not even the worst movie in the Batman franchise. It’s dumb and stupid fun, a toy commercial with one-liners. Batman, Robin and Batgirl change costumes for no reason other than to sell more action figures. Did Batman’s cinematic adventures improve after this failure? Arguably yes, but at least Batman & Robin is an enjoyable romp that doesn’t take itself seriously.
With twenty three years of hindsight, I implore each and every one of you to reconsider your hatred of Batman & Robin. Maybe its time we started having midnight screenings of the movie, quote-a-longs and Ice Parties where everyone gets a snowcone. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and Batman & Robin benefits from it.
Maybe it’s time we all admitted that Batman & Robin is kind of awesome.