The Self-Hating Pantomime

by Arthur B

I'm not arguing that Batman & Robin was a good movie, but I don't think it's bad for the reasons people say it's bad.
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There’s no particular reason to review Batman and Robin at this point; the consensus that it’s awful is pretty much settled. At the same time, I think there’s scope to ask just why audiences turned on it so hard.

The movie does, of course, have some major flaws. The rainforest themed party sequence with its appalling racial caricatures is, of course, hugely problematic - as is Uma Thurman’s entire arc as Poison Ivy, with the voice of ecological concern being an extremist anti-human strawman and all those nasty “nerdy woman suddenly becomes sexy” and “sexy equals evil, especially if it comes in the form of a woman” tropes coming out in full force. Unfortunately, whilst we might consider these issues problematic, none of them really constituted dealbreakers for cinema audiences in 1997 (and sadly wouldn’t today for a lot of people), so whilst they may be a reason for individual viewers to dislike the movie, they don’t constitute explanations for why audiences as a whole turned against the film.

Yes, it’s absurd, campy, ridiculous, silly… but the 1960s Batman was all of those things, as is the 1980 Flash Gordon, and people can’t get enough of those. Why can’t Batman and Robin slot into the same sort of niche?

I think it’s pretty undeniable that Joel Schumacher was gunning for a weird camp take on the movie; the way its exterior scenes are dominated by enormous nude male statues and its interior scenes look like something you’d see on a stage show or a theme park ride, the puns given to Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze, the quips, the refusal to offer a thin veneer of realism, the preponderance of male butt shots and the nipples on George Clooney’s Batman costume… people mocked all of that, but let’s step back a moment. Do you seriously believe that any of that was accidental? On a major studio project with a budget north of $125 million dollars?

No, not even slightly. There was a decision-making process behind more or less everything you see on the screen, from the nipples on the batsuit to the glittery texture of Mr. Freeze’s makeup. There was clearly a deliberate plan to produce the most cartoonish and campy take on the material the ensemble could deliver, and to a large extent they delivered that. If the movie failed, it isn’t because it failed to do what it set out to do - it failed to convince the audience to accept what it set out to do.

Part of the issue may have been the way it was presented as a followup to the Tim Burton Batman movies. Movie series can and do thrive on tonal shifts between episodes, of course; notice, for instance, how Gotham goes from being an art deco pulp illustration in Batman Begins to being a much more realistic cityscape in The Dark Knight. But with the Nolan Batman movies, I would argue that those shifts represent a focusing and intensification on what people appreciated about the earlier films in the series - people dug the darker, edgier, (comparatively) more realistic take on the material that Batman Begins delivered, so the changes were made to double down on and emphasise that.

Of course, Joel Schumacher is doubling down here with what he did on Batman Forever, which itself was a wackier take on the whole Batman thing than anything Burton had turned out. However, all this did was take the material even further from the precedent set by the Burton movies, to a point where audiences could no longer accept both stories as existing in the same universe. In retrospect, had Batman and Robin - or, even better, Batman Forever - been explicitly presented as a reboot rather than a continuation, people would have been much happier to accept the movie on its own terms.

Another problem is that whilst the film consistently goes for a camp cartoon aesthetic, it trips itself up sometimes when the script, direction, or participants find themselves unable to fully give themselves over to it unironically. The trick of pulling this sort of material off is that it has to be done with love; you can’t sneer at it or go in with a “buh huh, isn’t this completely stoopid” attitude, because if you aren’t willing to embrace the whole thing on its own terms there certainly isn’t any reason for your audience to do so.

In terms of the script, writer Akiva Goldsman can’t quite commit to embracing the wackiness, attempting to work in more serious subplots like Alfred being terminally ill and Batman and Robin having interpersonal issues and so on which serve no purpose beyond trying to drag in realistic human emotions and concerns into a cartoon world that has no space for them and padding out the movie. If you trimmed out the subplots you could wrap the movie up in 90 taut minutes instead of two flabby, confusing hours, which is a much better length for the sort of cheesy style they’re going for here. (You would probably need to find some other way to work Alicia Silverstone’s Batgirl into the mix, but then again anything which makes her relevant to the main, core plot earlier on would be an improvement.)

Goldsman does, to his credit, does fairly decent job of juggling the excess number of villains he’s required to work with; the decision to make Bane a lackey of Poison Ivy, given that they are both chemically-enhanced supervillains, is actually pretty good because they at least make thematic sense together (especially the way their origin stories are woven together), and Ivy gaslighting Mr. Freeze into thinking Batman and Robin killed his cryogenically frozen wife when it was actually Ivy herself who did the deed is a nice way to establish her as the big bad - or it would be, had that not been sabotaged by her being defeated fairly easily by Batgirl before the final fight against Freeze.

Another issue is that the cast seem to struggle with how to pitch their performances. With this sort of material, there is no room for a middle ground: either you are a minor supporting part, who has to say what you need to say and get out of the way, or you’re one of the draws, in which case you need to crank your dials up to 11 and keep them there - and the script needs to support you in that. Clooney and O’Donnell (the latter of whom is a deeply uninspiring Robin) seem to struggle with the constant shifts the script requires them to do between hamming it up to the max and more natural performances; even Schwarzenegger suffers from this somewhat, usually whenever we are required to take the angle with his sick wife semi-seriously.

I would make an argument that the star performance here actually comes from Uma Thurman. Yes, she got a Razzie nomination for it, but she’s the only actor here who applies a similar level of over-the-top hamminess to every aspect of their character; her performance as Pamela Isley prior to her transformation into Ivy is just as ridiculous, though in a completely different way, as her post-apotheosis performance, and there isn’t a single scene she appears in which she doesn’t leave bite marks on. For crying out loud, there’s a scene where she’s expected to attempt an erotic entrance by stripping her way out of an enormous gorilla costume and she kind of pulls it off, and you’ve got to applaud the acting chops that allow someone to accomplish that.

In short, Thurman is the only cast member to have recognised Batman and Robin for the exercise in absurdity that it is, and to have embraced it wholeheartedly. Had everyone involved had a similar approach, it might have won more people over, but even then it would have required the promotion to have prepared people for the camp pantomime it offered them - and the publicity seems to have been slightly too ashamed of the “camp pantomime” angle to do that.
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Comments (go to latest)
Ibmiller at 18:24 on 2017-01-26
Kind of amusingly, I just watched Batman Forever for the first time (I actually watched Batman and Robin a few years ago), and I felt similarly about that film to what you're articulating here - that there was a vision that the filmmakers had, that they sometimes clashed (I think the biggest disconnect is clearly between Goldman and Schumacher, since the scripts consistently try to approach more serious questions about the Batman character and world, while the visual design and actor's performances generally go for the most effective sight gag), and that ultimately, they failed to convince anyone that they were worth taking seriously. However, I think both films succeeded in getting money from the public, even though they also succeeded in murdering the franchise and the idea of Batman's sidekicks in live action.

Of course, I hate the Burton Batman films with a deep loathing as well, so I guess I'm just a child of the Nolan films in terms of the way I approach Batman, even though I think their hyper-realistic approach is unsustainable and falls apart really quickly if you actually think about any of the three films carefully. But the way Nolan presents Batman, as competent and intelligent, in addition to his deep trauma etc etc, is much more enjoyable to someone who thinks Batman should be cool than Michael Keaton getting beaten up by thugs.
Arthur B at 21:23 on 2017-01-26
Batman and Robin certainly didn't make a loss, but it was the least profitable of that run of Batman films to the tune of about $100 million - and crucially, it only made a profit because it had decent overseas box office returns. As I understand it, the big studios tend to regard films as a failure if they don't get a profit on the domestic box office alone; that may be less true these days, but it was probably more true in the 1990s.

Plus it made a lot of its money in the first week or so; once the word of mouth got out its returns tanked.
Jubal at 16:33 on 2017-01-27
I think part of the trouble with the Alfred subplot is not simply that it exists at all in a film that should have stuck to neon-hued BIFF POW KERTHWACK campery, but that taken purely on its own terms it works quite well. As a tale of a young man forced to confront mortality in his father figure in a way he can't just thump or use gadgets against, contrasting with Alfred's calmly stoic acceptance, those scenes really do come off. Clooney seems much happier working with those parts than the campery, and of course a veteran thesp like Gough has no trouble with it, and the effect is to throw the awkward inconsistencies into even sharper relief than if it was something that could just be glossed over.

And, of course, there's Chris O'Donnell. Quite why anyone decided to cast him in the role is beyond me. Not only is he generally not very good, but an awful lot of his lines and scenes in here seem to assume he's about fifteen or so, which O'Donnell is very evidently not. Burt Ward was also in his twenties when he played the TV Robin, but looked young enough to get away with it.
Arthur B at 17:00 on 2017-01-27
Bruce Wayne having to deal with the fact that Alfred is mortal and, even assuming the best possible outcomes, is near-certain to predecease him is, I agree, a good idea for a subplot... but it would work a lot better shifted to a different Batman movie. Not an outright un-cartoony one, but a less cartoony one - if there was just a bit less of a gulf between the "woo wow cartoon badassery" sections and the "Um, this is something our badassery can't fix" sections you wouldn't lose the audience when swinging over the chasm between them.

It doesn't help that, as it turns out, this is actually a problem which Bruce totally can punch and superscience his way out of: Alfred's sick with an earlier stage of the same disease Mr. Freeze's wife has, and after defeating Mr. Freeze (with punching) and proving to him that it was Poison Ivy that tried to defrost Mrs. Freeze (using superscience - well, a tablet screen, but that was superscience in 1997), he's able to convince Freeze to hand over the cure (which is also superscience).

So fighting baddies and using whizzy gadgets turned out to be the solution after all, which rather chickens out of the "This is actually a problem that there is no neat solution to" angle. That's the other reason I think it should have been saved for a less cartoonish Batman movie - if you are going to do that confronting mortality thing, you need it to be in a setting where mortality is actually a problem, otherwise what you get is hollow, insincere, and unsatisfying. Woo, yay, Batman can defeat mortality by punching the right person. That's certainly an approach to the universal dilemma of entropy that we audience members can relate to!

The writing for Robin here was just a bit odd and I honestly don't entirely blame O'Donnell for struggling with it - you're right that it seems to assume he's much younger than he actually is, which is odd because he was a returning cast member from Batman Forever so it's not like Goldsman didn't know who he was writing for. (Also, wasn't he an adult in the previous film?) Plus the whole "Batman isn't sure he can keep Robin safe" subplot seems really off. It seems like something that should really have been part of Robin's origin story, rather than something that's handled later, and it relies on Batman showing a Very Specific Level of concern - namely, he's worried enough to be paternalistic and overprotective, but he's not worried enough to leave Dick at home.

I just checked the Razzie results for the 1998 ceremony and it turns out Uma lost the Worst Supporting Actress Razzie she was nominated for to... Alicia Silverstone, for her Batgirl role. That, I think, is entirely fair: aside from the fact that I honestly think Uma's performance was actually pretty good by the standards of the sort of movie this was trying to be, Alicia is outright awful in this. She somehow manages to be too cheesy in the serious bits whilst at the same time not convincingly embracing the cheese in the cartoonish bits, so she ends up being in the worst of all possible worlds.

O'Donnell also got a worst supporting actor nomination (along with Arnie as Freeze), but lost out in favour of slamming Dennis Rodman, whose Double Team performance meant that movie got 3 wins to Batman & Robin's 1. Also The Postman got 5 awards during the year, and this was the same year that Speed 2 beat Batman & Robin for worst sequel/remake.

Man, what was with Hollywood in 1997? That's like an incredible year for awful movies.
Jubal at 18:59 on 2017-01-27
Oh yeah, agreed. I should have mentioned the fact that it completely wimps out of the Alfred subplot. Understandable for a cartoonish film, but certainly not for the tone the subplot was aiming for. Perhaps if they'd made it "Alfred's sick and Batman must find a cure before it's too late" from the start, it might have fit better.

The genuinely tender moments between Bruce and Alfred have stuck with me though, as much as Arnie and Uma chewing the day-glo scnenery.
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