BY JASON DAVIS, ART BY JASON DAVIS
One can only classify Batman & Robin as a movie because at its root level it is comprised of a series of moving images. Shy of that it strips away all the fundamental requirements of story telling in favor of limp visual flare and artless dialogue. When squeamish audiences felt the Penguin’s black spewing bile was too vile, and Catwoman’s claws a tad too sharp for kids, Warner Bros. hired Joel Schumacher for the franchise’s third installment, Batman Forever. It turned out to be the surprise hit of 1995 becoming the highest grossing film of that year in the United States with a $280 million gross, giving director Joel Schumacher the freedom to take the dark knight from Burton’s gothic Gotham into brighter, more fanciful neon lit streets. What he ultimately delivered was a sucker punch to the genre in what many call the worst film ever made about a superhero.
The movie opens with one of the most atrocious scenes ever committed to a superhero film. Batman and Robin are suiting up in response to the bat signal, and we are treated to a series of fast cuts and sharp angles that reveal cringe inducing images of bat buttocks, cod pieces, a batarang or two, and the infamous bat nipples. As the dynamic duo prepare to leave the Batcave Commisoner Gordon conviently pops up on a video screen in the Batmobile and quite explicitly introduces Mr. Freeze: “A new villain has popped up. He’s frozen everything in the museum, and he’s calling himself Mr. Freeze”. Simultaneously, audiences have been introduced to the film’s true villain: the writing. Turns out Mr. Freeze is after a very large diamond and nothing can stop him – if you looked down at your watch ten minutes into the film out of sheer anxiety you wouldn’t have missed this fact anyway, since he clearly shouts “grab the gem, kill the heroes”. The film’s funniest scene occurs during this sequence. Batman and Robin start slipping and sliding all over the museum’s iced floor, so with a quick double tap of their heels ice skates pop out and the true intention of the film reveals itself: Batman & Robin on Ice.
Mr. Freeze’s motivation is a simple one – his wife is dying from a disease called MacGregor Syndrome and without a remedy for her late stage illness, he opted to cryogenically freeze her. Problem is while doing so he fell into a vat of the liquid ice. In order to keep him cool, alive and working on a cure his suit requires diamonds. Meanwhile at the Wayne Mansion Alfred is slowly, and plot wise conveniently, also dying from MacGregor Syndrome – maybe you can get it from toilet seats. His poor condition prompts the visit of his niece, Barbara Wilson, played by Alicia Silverstone, who following her break out role in Clueless is back in a school uniform. Sensing a shortage of characters, writers were able to dig up two other iconic roles… first up is Dr. Pamela Isley, played by Uma Thurman. Isley is an assistant to Dr. Jason Woodrue (John Glover) who is secretly developing a venom that will transform ordinary men into super soldiers. Glover’s take on Woodrue is the standard, and cliched mad scientist – he reminds me of the doctor that appears at the very end of Batman Forever at Arkham. Glover isn’t completely at fault given that Shumacher’s direction was “remember, it’s a cartoon!”. Dr. Isley witnesses the transformation of skinny inmate Antonio Diego into the brute named Bane. Woodrue, upset that Isley discovered his secret, attempts to kill her but only ends up transforming her into Poison Ivy.
The film fails on so many levels it’s hard to figure out where to begin. Let’s start by looking at the most painful areas: plot, script and performances. Firstly, the story is very contrived and lacks any true purpose other than to promote the notion of a film – it works much better as a two hour commercial for Batman and Robin toys. Mr. Freeze’s big plan is to freeze all of Gotham and hold it hostage until he gets enough money to complete his research for a cure. Who is going to operate the power plants and generate the electricity he needs to keep his wife frozen? What about the plumbing to flush this movie down the toilet? Poison Ivy’s role does serve to bring out partnership issues between Batman and Robin but her motivations as a character (to turn earth back into a jungle) are so clearly planted that they fail to warrant her inclusion into the film. Overall the plot is not socially relevant, or fantastically imaginative, and succeeds only at throwing out fifty seven years of remarkable storytelling.
Secondly, the story is further weakend by its dialogue – lines that work better as scene captions for an animated gif are delivered dead on arrival. You have three new villains, a new actor as Batman and the introduction of Batgirl, and all are equally poorly written. Characters enter scenes and claim their names as if it were the only way possible to introduce themselves and their motivation. Poison Ivy’s genesis is too plainly and clearly laid out: “The animal-plant toxins had a rather unique effect on me. They replaced my blood with aloe, my skin with chlorophyll, and filled my lips with venom…”. Even Mr. Freeze’s entire genesis is conveniently captured on video and simply requires playback – even the vat of cryogenic liquid he falls into seems to be a leftover from the Joker’s fall in 1989. It’s all incredibly lazy writing.
Lastly there are the performances. Amid awkward chuckles and rehearsed poses in his clunky tin suit, Mr. Freeze can only muster one liners referencing the cold, “What killed the dinosaurs? The Ice Age!”. In interviews Schumacher described Arnold’s role as “The refrigerator meets the Terminator” and that’s pretty spot on actually – if the Terminator weren’t menacing, cool looking and verbally restrained. Even Arnold’s one asset, his impressive physique, is constantly covered by shiny interlocking Slurpee lids. At no point does Arnold’s portrayal explore the cold, heartless depths of the character’s soul, nor does his intelligence ever gain any true exposure, especially since he is constantly dumbed down with silly one liners.
As our third on screen Batman, George Clooney does very little in the film. As Wayne he simply listens and incessantly nods his head never revealing the slightest hint of inner turmoil. As Batman he spends more time justifying his actions to Robin then actually engaging in any action. Schumacher stated that “the suit is the star” and it shows – Clooney fills out the ‘anotomically correct’ suit well and provides an apt jawline for the cowl, but in reality the character does so little it doesn’t matter who they got for the role. Keaton’s take was dark and somewhat maniacal, Kilmer’s portrayal was brooding and internal – Clooney’s can only be classified as tame.
Batgirl’s debut on screen is equally uninspired. In the comics she’s the daughter of Commissioner Gordon which would inherently give her a knack for crime fighting and detective work – as Alfred’s niece and fellow orphan in the film she lacks any real depth. The writers tried to give her some weight with a silly biking gang subplot as a way for her to deal with her parent’s loss, and she does an admirable job of sticking up for Alfred, but she looks like she wondered off an Aerosmith video in between takes and forgot to go back.
The only performance worth comending is Uma’s portrayal as Poison Ivy as it is truly mildy amusing. She puckers enough sexiness and seductiveness to keep you somewhat engaged, but as the movie progresses you want to hang yourself with one of her vines to avoid several of the clichéd one liners the writers provided her. Her bodyguard is none other than Bane, who here is played by a steroid fed, s&m mask wearing mute that is strong but possess none of the intelligence his comic book counterpart does. Originally Bane was Batman’s equal, highly skilled and very intelligent – here he makes Non from Superman look civilized.
The story and script are so bad one wonders whether this is really the same team that brought to life courtroom dramas like The Client and A Time to Kill. If Joel Shumacher and Akiva Goldsman can adapt these bestselling court room novels why can’t they create a proper story for the ultimate detective that is intelligent and coherent?
The set and costume design pick up from where Batman Forever left off – everything is brighter, bigger and louder but not better. As it pertains to sets in particular, Tim Burton’s Gotham was a character unto itself, here it’s merely a back drop. It’s very evident that Warner’s inclusion of toy manufacturers in the design process obscured any real vision for the film. Every prop used is clearly viewed as merchandise, the more pieces with a logo, the more that can be sold. At the climatic battle against Mr. Freeze, Batman, Robin and Batgirl suddenly appear wearing new silver suits all for the sole purpose of being able to sell more action figures. Product first, storytelling a distant second.
Often a pleasurable staple in superhero films, the action, also lacks in any excitement or innovation – it is so over the top that you are never invested in it. The wire work is painfully obvious, and the gadgets don’t wow us anymore – Batman has replaced his ‘wonderful toys’ with convenient cheesy ones. The over use of visual gags, verbal puns and even cartoon sound effects take the seriousness and urgency out of the film – when Batman and Robin are surfing from the sky on a rocket’s hatchet doors, you know there is no way to put our heroes in jeopardy. This isn’t suspension of disbelief, it’s suspension of good taste.
There are a few moments where the film does actually try. Bane’s transformation from weakling to hulk looked surprisingly good, making even Bruce Banner slightly jealous. Continuity between Forever and this film was at least attempted – the criminal property room in Arkham where Freeze is held shows both the Riddler’s and Two-Face’s outfits – eventually Arkham auctions that type of stuff off on ebay…
At its small, hallow core, Batman & Robin is a film about the importance of family. Batman and Robin are no longer dealing with avenging their families, instead they are learning how to trust one another and become a family. Batgirl has returned to Gotham to tend for her dying uncle, Alfred, a father figure himself. In turn he is reaching out to his brother to take over at Wayne Mansion when he passes. Mr. Freeze’s sole purpose for villainy is to save his beloved wife, and even Poison Ivy is blowing deadly kisses in hopes of saving ‘mother’ earth. The most sincere moment of the film comes when while on his death bed, Bruce tells his faithful butler, “I love you old man”. It’s a somewhat poignant scene just because audiences know of the history between the two characters – within the context of the film itself it is nothing exceptional.
Ultimately the intentions for the story are good, they just forgot to hire a talented writer. Speaking of which, Akiva Goldsman, the writer behind the film, offers very little introspection or regret when looking back - he states “You’re supposed to contort icons… without those aborted and less successful bends and twists you will never get The Dark Knight Returns”. That is probably the sorriest excuse ever given for irresponsible filmmaking – and though he may not have learned any lessons from the experience, thankfully the studio did.