Exploring Joel Shumacher’s final Batman film and its influence on what came later.
Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of the release of Batman & Robin, a film whose historical significance comes into ever so slightly sharper focus every year. It’s still bad. That hasn’t changed. The way in which it’s bad still isn’t interesting. How it came to be bad is hardly unique but still worth studying, especially as subsequent movies have continued to be bad for the same reasons. Its immediate status as a cautionary tale is what would ultimately cast its shadow over movies, even if the particular cautions told in that tale were mostly the wrong ones.
The historical context of its initial release was, in not so much broad strokes as Jackson Pollock drunkenly throwing a paint can through a window: the 1990s were not a time in which it was culturally permissible to be seen taking the wrong thing seriously. This led, in mainstream pop culture, to a lot of surface-level postmodernism and arch posturing and performative apathy. What this meant for Batman movies was that Tim Burton’s vision was considered “too dark,” which seems really weird in hindsight, especially since one of them had Jack Nicholson and Jack Palance on the screen at the same time and the other one featured Michelle Pfeiffer benevolently gracing humankind with divine light and Christopher Walken as an F.W. Murnau homage. (If the 90s could be summed up in a sentence, it was the decade of “You Don’t Know How Good You Have It, You Assholes.”)
Joel Schumacher’s first Batman movie, Batman Forever, was an agreeably loopy thing with a lot of canted angles, swooping camera moves, popsicle-colored neon, and a pervasive gauziness, sometimes manifesting as fog, sometimes as Nicole Kidman’s nightgown. The parts where people talk are a little much at times, though watching Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones bouncing off the walls is a good lark. All in all it’s a good time, and Extremely Not Serious. It made pots of money, too, so Schumacher got to make another one.
The problem with that other one, Batman & Robin, is not that it’s silly because the 60s Batman TV show was silly and it’s wonderful. The problem certainly wasn’t that it was too gay because there’s no such thing. The problem was that the whole thing was rushed into production to sell toys, and so actors had glue and toxic chemicals all over their skin and battery acid dripping into their mouths and the director constantly reminding everyone through a megaphone to “Remember, you’re making a cartoon!” As opposed to its immediate predecessor’s endearing, cracked loopiness, Batman & Robin has the feel of frenetic energy to distract from an absent center, with a pervasive sense of joyless bitterness.
Most unforgivably, to Warner Bros, it made less money than the previous movie. So Schumacher was out and the Batman franchise went back to the drawing board, famously re-emerging almost a decade later with the wildly successful, literarily more rigorous in very pointed ways, very growly Christopher Nolan triptych. Before then there was almost a Darren Aronofsky Batman movie with Howard Stern as Scarecrow, that apparently wasn’t supposed to be funny, which is the funniest part about that idea.
Before Batman returned (or Began), a new template had been formed for superhero movies, through Fox’s X-Men films and Sony’s Spider-Man: a linear, steely, adrenalized tone, streamlined for optimum structural efficiency, carefully engineered to avoid variance from the desired outcome. There is a narrow, though perceptible, range permitted in this form for a director to exert creative control, although mainly in the realm of direct clarity. There is no allowance for chaos, nor patience for artistic obfuscation, since allowing for a creative process that risks or even directly embraces that which could very easily go wrong has an unacceptable probability of success.
It’s not that this is a bad way of thinking. It’s definitely a more responsible way of making money. But there will always be some of us—because I’m definitely not going where I’m about to go and not implicate myself—who find something romantic about a filmmaking process consisting (poetically) of a madly irresponsible director sitting atop a throne of concubines tossing a pound of cocaine into the air and shouting profanity-laced William Blake paraphrases to the actors as notes. Carrying the boat through the jungle. Leaving the cameras rolling so Cassavetes and Falk can act whenever they feel like it. Yeah, it’s irresponsible, and it doesn’t always work, but when it does work it rules.
There is, theoretically, middle ground. I say theoretically because few if any, big commercial films venture into it. The mode of superhero filmmaking described above, with the risk-averse meticulous engineering, was adopted to great success by Marvel, while Warners’ stewardship over DC titles has been a bit up and down. The former is more consistent, while the latter have had the highest highs and the lowest lows. The former learned from Batman & Robin that you need to keep a lid on things. The latter learned that existence is random and the universe capricious.
The middle ground would be to identify the right filmmakers, hire them, and stay out of their way, which I realize is a little like saying everything would be better if we all had a pet unicorn that could turn lead to gold, but keep in mind I’m the guy who would be in debtors’ prison for losing $500 million bankrolling Fitzcarraldo 2: Fuck You This Time It’s A Fucking Spaceship if I ran a studio, so take anything I say with a grain of salt. But I still think, if we have to have superhero movies, the thing to do is hire someone ambitious, but within the realm of linear popular cinema, and trust them. They might even be someone not named Christopher Nolan (I like his movies, but other filmmakers do exist). They may even be a woman, or not white. They may even have a sense of humor. Everything that’s ever worked had to be tried for the first time once.
And sometimes, it’s okay to try something that didn’t work once. This is to say, just because Batman & Robin wasn’t good doesn’t mean we should starve the cinema of things that are silly, irresponsible, and genuinely at least a little bit apeshit. Put that nippled rubber suit back on, Hollywood. Maybe it’ll fit better this time.