[Reading time: 4 minutes]
American, 1998, Superhero/Action/Comedy, directed by Joel Schumacher, starring George Clooney, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chris O’Donnell, Uma Thurman, Alicia Silverstone, Michael Gough and John Glover, Warner Bros./DC Comics.
2017 will have been an unusually dry year for Batman, with only one release, The LEGO Batman Movie. Compare and contrast with 2016, which saw him appear in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad, and FOUR direct-to-DVD animated movies. But in the 1990s, you had to wait two or three years between each of the four Batman films: at that rate, you’d hope they were good, and the two first ones, by Tim Burton, were indeed cult classics. But when Warner Bros. worried about Burton’s dark and violent films being unsuitable for children who buy Batman toys and lunchboxes, they replaced him with Joel Schumacher. Thus, like so many other great film franchises, 1995’ Batman Forever sacrificed artistry and storytelling for toys and lunchboxes.
This film is the sequel to Forever, but you won’t need to have seen it beforehand. The evil Mister Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) has appeared in Gotham City with a liquid nitrogen blaster that allows him to freeze objects and people into giant popsicles while he robs diamonds and jewelry. Batman/Bruce Wayne (George Clooney) and Robin (Chris O’Donnell – NCIS, Grey’s Anatomy) try to stop him. Meanwhile, a botanist (John Glover – Gremlins 2, Smallville) accidentally gives his laboratory assistant dangerous plant powers, so she murders him and becomes Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman – Kill Bill), teaming up with the scientist’s other experiment, a ‘roid-riddled luchador called Bane (Jeep Svenson). The three of them cause too much trouble for the Dynamic Duo to handle, so Alfred the butler (Michael Gough) brings over his niece Barbara (Alicia Silverstone – Clueless / Ragazze a Beverly Hills) to become Batgirl and save the day! The story is interesting throughout, with a lot of plot twists and surprises, and a touching subplot involving the formation of a “Batman family”, where Batman serves the role of a father figure, a nice change from the nihilistic darkness of Burton’s films!
Now let’s move onto the obvious target here: the special effects. Would you believe it, the SFX in this film are awesome! Sure, there are a few hiccups here and there, such as the fact that Batman can’t turn his head around (his rubbery costume made neck movement almost impossible), or the occasional use of bad green-screen or CGI (such as the infamous scene where Batman and Robin ride on a rocket!), but it’s mostly convincing, not quite as amazing as Avengers but far better than King Kong vs Godzilla.
“But wait”, I hear you scream, “Batman & Robin is considered one of the WORST superhero films of all time!” Well, the elephant in the room is the tone, which is so relentlessly tongue-in-cheek and campy that you’d almost think Schumacher was trying to make the film ridiculous on purpose! You’d be right, of course: he disagreed so deeply with the executives’ demands for a family-friendly Batman, that he decided to make the film as silly as he could possibly get away with, thus squandering millions of studio funding dollars into corny sound effects that sound ripped from a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, kitschy scenery with an overabundance of flashy fluorescent neon lighting and sexual innuendo, and an ice hockey match set inside a jewelry museum, plus lots of gratuitous close-ups on the buttocks, rubber nipples and bulging codpieces on the costumes. It looks less like a Batman movie and more like a Katy Perry concert, and the double entendre makes it almost like Il Batman del pianeta Eros – a film which I haven’t seen, nor intend on seeing, and which is probably best forgotten (Google it).
The acting is a mixed bag: this was George Clooney’s first major cinema role, and yet, his Batman is perhaps the worst onscreen incarnation yet. As Bruce Wayne, he works wonders, oozing with charisma and swagger, but as soon as he dons the mask of the Dark Knight, he turns into a feeble, aping impersonation of Adam West’s Batman from the 1960s TV series, mixed in with a flamboyant camp-gay archetype. Clooney admitted to “making Batman gay” in line with homoerotic undertones which the openly-gay Schumacher had included, but it’s disappointing that, if Batman was indeed intended to be homosexual in the film, Clooney would fall back on outdated burlesque stereotypes. Chris O’Donnell as Robin fares worse, with a selfish, arrogant and dislikable portrayal of the character who is “Robin” in name only, his costume and personality being based on the comics’ Nightwing (the adult version of Robin). Alicia Silverstone and Jeep Svenson are blander than Kinder Surprise chocolate, and make no effort to bring any emotion to the screen as Batgirl and Bane. But Arnold Schwarzenegger is an absolute showstopper as Freeze, chewing the scenery with utter relish: it helps that the script, written by Akiva Goldsman, gives him oodles of “ice” puns and jokes to spout in his thick Austrian accent, and that he actually has a more sympathetic and sentimental side to him than any other Batman villain, which makes him a far more relatable, nuanced character than you’d expect of a character who says “Let’s kick some ICE!”, “ICE to see you”, etc., all the time. Uma Thurman is equally excellent as Poison Ivy, suffusing her performance with steamy sexuality, but always in an empowered and confident manner. Michael Gough, however, gives a mostly serious performance as Alfred, playing the film “straight” as he did the previous ones.
For all the hate it gets, Batman & Robin is a great family film that children and adults can enjoy together, unlike the Burton or Nolan versions. There’s this sort of playground attitude throughout that makes it impossible not to get caught up in all the fun, and the oddly-heartwarming emotional core of the film (Alfred, Freeze, and the “Batman family”) keeps it from going completely off the rails. It efficiently blends the self-parody of the 1960s Batman TV show with the gorgeous visuals of the 90s, and provides a comedic and easygoing take on Batman, far away from “grim ‘n’ gritty”.
Score: 9 out of 10.
Recommended for: Batman fans; people who won’t commit the sin of taking it seriously.
Next week, join the Master of Movie Disaster for a review of THE GIANT CLAW, a 1950s horror movie starring an angry giant vulture-turkey hybrid from outer space!