Let’s get this on the table right from the start – I hate Batman Returns. If I were to rank every Batman film in order of preference – including the 1966 film based on the Adam West TV series – Returns would easily bring up the rear. It is so terrible that I’m astounded that it not only never turns up on “Worst Comic Book Movies Ever Made” lists, but that there are some people who defend it as the best of the series. I’ve long thought it’s not only a bad Batman movie but a straight-up bad movie in general.
A recent article on Uproxx nailed so much of what I’ve long hated about the film. I think their list of 15 points is padded with a few jokey items that don’t totally count, but it utterly pegs the nonsensical nature of the Penguin’s backstory, the randomness of his plan to run for mayor, and the overall WTF-ery of Max Schreck. It also indicts Batman on charges of senseless, gratuitous murder (everyone who called for Zack Snyder’s head after Man of Steel needs to go after director Tim Burton 17 years ago) and the laundry list of plot contrivances that even a half-attentive viewer should spot.
Beyond all of that, I’ve just never liked Burton’s conception of the Penguin. The gentleman criminal of the comics is turned into a deranged former circus freak who spews bile and bites noses. It’s a much more egregious warping of the comic forebearer than just about anything done elsewhere in the Batman film series, including Batman & Robin.
Ah, Batman & Robin.
For years, Joel Schumacher’s second Batman film has been the go-to whipping boy when it comes to citing terrible comic book adaptations. Just this week, HitFix named it the Worst Superhero Movie of All Time to exactly no one’s surprise. This has been the film’s burden since its release. It underperformed at the box office and was so maligned among fans and critics that it led to an overhaul of the property under Christopher Nolan that was 180 degrees removed in tone.
It was a different era for comic book films in 1997. Reboots of limping properties weren’t guaranteed back then, so a misfire like Batman & Robin could do a lot more damage. Maybe even kill a character. Because of that, I understand that many of the bad feelings associated with this film stem from the genuine fear that it could have meant no further Batman movies.
That’s also why Batman & Robin is ready for a reevaluation. We now have a complete trilogy that’s a lot more faithful to the generally-accepted version of the character. Since the franchise survived what B&R represented, is it now possible to evaluate the film on its own terms, as merely a radically different interpretation of the Dark Knight?
This isn’t as crazy as it sounds. In the 1980s, the Adam West TV series was treated like an embarrassment that “real” Batman fans had to live down. It was an albatross on any serious interpretation of the comic hero. Even 20 years after the height of its popularity, the show’s influence was so strong that parents were shocked at the darker version of Batman in the first Burton film, even though that was an interpretation that had been around for quite a while on the comic page. Yet when the news came earlier this year that the TV series would finally be released on DVD, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. It’s an unsurprising turnaround when a particular property has been adapted a number of ways; specifically, the audience becomes more accepting as varied adaptations display that there isn’t necessarily one “right” way to tell that story. They grow to appreciate each adaptation on its own intentions and virtues.
With that in mind, is it possible to accept that Batman & Robin isn’t trying to be Burton’s Batman or the Batman we’d later meet in Nolan’s films? Can we approach it with the same understanding as we do the Adam West version?
I attempted to do so recently, rewatching the film for the first time in years. It’s actually a little jarring to be dropped into this sort of style in the post-Nolan, post-Marvel era. This is a very bright, goofy movie, but intentionally so. It’s not an accidentally bad movie in the way that, say, The Room is. It isn’t failed seriousness, but successful camp.
Right from the start it’s clear what kind of movie this is. The opening sequence of Batman and Robin suiting up and then bantering immediately sets the tone for us – we’re going for the slightly self-aware goofiness of the TV show. It’s an odd way to start the movie, with no preamble setting up the Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson identities. If the film were playing things straight, it probably would have started with the next scene of Batman and Robin confronting Mr. Freeze and his goons at the museum.
That sequence alone turns the camp up to 11, but by giving us this little bit of Batman and Robin interaction beforehand, it drives home the message that Schumacher supposedly shouted, “Remember everyone, this is a cartoon,” before each take.
It’ll be a long time before you see a more garishly over-the-top tribute to the ’66 TV series than the opening sequence in the museum which includes all the Adam West trimmings: a scenery chewing villain, an appropriately themed pack of henchmen, an insanely straight-arrow hero. Not content with mere imitation, Schumacher rachets the lunacy up in a hockey-inspired chase for a diamond (with our heroes on blades that instantly retract from their boots), to a crazy rocket ride that presages a massive explosion and sky-surfing.
I can accept if this isn’t your Batman, but you have to appreciate that sequence for what it is on some level. If this film had been lost in a vault for 17 years and all we knew about it was that George Clooney and Arnold Schwarzenegger were part of some expensive tribute to the Adam West show, we’d watch this sequence and applaud, shouting “They nailed it!” Schumacher plays the same melody in the next sequence, which is the origin of Poison Ivy and Bane. I recently watched Catwoman and Supergirl and with both of those films I noted huge tonal lapses and annoyingly on-the-nose exposition. In the case of Supergirl, the film was trying to play it too straight, so the dialogue was painful. Catwoman had it even worse, with the actors trying to play several scenes over the top and failing when the rest of the film didn’t have their backs. Watch any scene with Halle Berry and Sharon Stone and you can tell that even if they were directed to play things that big, the film’s auteur had no idea how to make it entertaining.
But with this sequence between Uma Thurman and John Glover, everything on screen is perfectly modulated to match ridiculous dialogue and broad performances. Even on the 1966 TV series, there were few actors capable of reaching the gleefully demented heights of overacting that John Glover scales here. (Only Frank Gorshin and Victor Buono possibly could compare.) Thurman is not far behind and she spends most of the movie epitomizing the femme fatale almost as well as original Catwoman Julie Newmar.
There’s a brief sequence where Bruce and Dick watch video of Freeze’s origin. It’s pure plot and it basically reinforces two vital points:
- This film is utterly uninterested in Bruce and Dick as characters, and
- I can’t help but think that today, we’d spend an entire act building up Dr. Victor Fries as a person before his accident turns him into Mr. Freeze.
We’re so used to getting everyone’s origin pedantically built up (oh, hello, Electro!) that it’s jarring, yet perfect for this version, that his creation is tossed off in a few lines of dialogue and some B-roll. (By the way, there’s a hilarious detail in the shot of Fries falling backward into a tank of liquid nitrogen. As he falls, the camera – which is supposedly some kind of security camera that just happened to catch the incident – pans down to get a better shot.)
Despite a few scenes that try to moderate the tempo and add a few serious notes (notably Alfred’s illness), it doesn’t feel like the film really steps wrong for a while. There’s a truly loony scene in Freeze’s hideout where he tries to lead his minions in a round of “I’m Mister White Christmas” while wearing a smoking jacket and puffing on a white stogie. After turning down the advances of an (inexplicable) girlfriend, he monologues about his plans to ransom Gotham. It’s all silly, but I appreciate it a lot more now than I used to. You can’t convince me that Schmacher wasn’t deliberately trying to be funny there.
Another detail that plays better for me now are the obvious miniatures that the visual effects team uses to create their vision of Gotham. They’re so clearly fake that it might count as a brilliant use of the Brechtian alienation effect, making sure to remind the audience that what they are seeing is all an artifice. I wouldn’t want a steady diet of this, but it makes a lovely contrast to Nolan-esque heightened realism.
There are scenes that, frankly, would have benefited from being even zanier. The benefit that Batman and Robin attend in costume has plenty of spectacle, but it could have played off of the (laughably tame) “millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne” cover and had Bruce stage his version of a Playboy Mansion party. Clooney playing Wayne doing his best Hef? That would have been a great way to do things with the character that the TV series couldn’t do. Hell, you could even have a bunch of girls in “sexy catgirl” outfits just to get a reaction out of Bruce there. The point being that there was still more top for Schumacher to go over.
(While I’m on this point, I have no idea why they decided to give Bruce a longtime girlfriend/fiancée in this film. She’s basically there to give Elle MacPherson a role and to get killed in a deleted scene that was so extraneous, it was removed from the film without affecting anything.)
The first half of the film isn’t perfect even if we’re willing to concede that the filmmarkers largely achieve exactly what they intended to. Still, for about half of my rewatch, I felt like I might actually come out of this with a strong defense of the most maligned superhero film of all time. And then I reached the inevitable team-up scene. There is no world where it makes sense for a woman with a serious plant fetish to team up with a guy whose agenda is to plunge the Earth into the next Ice Age. Poison Ivy and Mr. Freeze are pretty much the last villains in the world who should be teaming up. I won’t even grant them the slack of assuming this is a joke that just doesn’t land right because nothing in the film suggests an awareness of how stupid this team-up is.
Batgirl is another element that totally doesn’t belong. I was actually more forgiving of this plot back in 1997 because like most guys my age, I was in middle school when Alicia Silverstone’s Aerosmith videos were burning up TV. (She’s three years older than me, so this isn’t creepy.) She was the It Girl for that brief era even before Clueless, and it’s funny that her presence here probably dates the film more than anything else to a time when it seemed like Silverstone could be a major star. (Stop laughing. Does anyone else remember she got a two-picture producing deal and she spent it on a rather uncommercial crime film that boasts an early-ish role for Benicio del Toro?)
Also, I remember a lot of really nasty press about Silverstone’s weight at the time of filming (she was called “Fat Girl”) but you’d never guess that from how she looks on-screen. Batgirl doesn’t contribute anything to the plot, which is another oddity in a film that tries to put some tension between Batman and Robin. A number of 1960s comic stories dealt with Batgirl coming between Batman and Robin, so it’s a missed opportunity that none of that comes into play here. Silverstone is also saddled with a character who has no comedic angle to play. She can play sweet, she can play naive and she can play the vixen, but there’s nothing for her to do here.
My quick fix for this would have been to have Robin (or Batman) fall completely under Ivy’s mind control pheromones. That way we get the humor in seeing Robin play “bad” (as the TV series did on at least two occasions), and it gives Batman a real reason to recruit Batgirl (Bonus points if his thinking is largely “I’ll just break Ivy’s love drug by throwing another hot woman into Robin’s orbit” and Batgirl shows him up by actually being competent.)
The gleeful insanity that Schumacher conducts in the first half of the film proves to be too much to sustain into the second hour. At that point, the script becomes more pedestrian and Schumacher is given fewer opportunities for real spectacle. Uma does her best to keep the camp flowing, but she’s sidelined from the climax and too much of that sequence is confined. Oddly, the Alfred plot still works, with his illness bringing just the right amount of emotion to the film.
Batman & Robin is undeniably flawed, but it’s more fun to watch than Batman Returns, and it’s a hell of a lot more consistent than Catwoman. Though probably no one is arguing that last point. There’s a lot of room for improvement, but I think it’s better than the reputation its accrued.
Later this year when we can see Adam West and Burt Ward fight crime in their campy style again, this Schmacher concoction will be the perfect chaser.