[Originally published over at Vulture Hound.]
Growing up with a face like mine, you learn to get used to things other people instinctively find repulsive, and for that reason I consider myself better equipped than most to objectively re-appraise films callously discarded to the bargain bin of history and see if they really deserve the scorn that’s been piled upon them, since.
Today’s film is 1997’s Batman & Robin, the follow-up to Batman Forever and a film apparently so universally reviled that both the director and leading man have since gone out of their way to apologise for it.
Right off the bat, I could tell why people were upset about this film. I’m not saying that I agree with them, but I understand. The film makes it clear from the outset that it has absolutely zero intention of taking itself seriously, and following Jim Carrey’s over the top performance in Forever it took a true thespian to out-do him in B&R. That role was aptly filled by Arnold Schwarzeneger as Mr Freeze, who can’t go five minutes without mentioning ice, even when it makes absolutely no sense for him to do so.
I’ve always loved Mr Freeze as a character because, like almost every other Batman villain, he has layers and layers of depth and a motivation beyond just being a bad bastard and, while the film does pay lip service to his dying wife back story, it’s mostly used as a plot device to make him angry and shout about ice some more, so I can understand fans being disappointed and feeling a sense of betrayal.
As with Bane and Poison Ivy, I understand why Batman fans would be angry about another great character being boiled down to a shallow stock-character, but the thing is Arnold Schwarzeneger is so god damn adorable as Freeze that he kind of makes the role his own and turns it into something completely different.
Not bad, just different; remember that, because it will be a running theme throughout this critique.
The biggest difference between B&R and almost every other iteration of Batman, is that the film is genuinely funny; probably something else that worked against it on the back of Tim Burton’s particular brand of gloomy lamenting, but if you let yourself fall into the B&R mindset instead of constantly comparing it to other things, you may find it far more enjoyable.
Between the puns and generally sardonic attitude of ever character every time they’re placed in life-threatening peril, the film made me laugh out loud on more than one occasion. Maybe that’s not what you want from a Batman film but I, personally, find it refreshing to see the Dark Knight not taking himself so damn seriously, for once.
Here’s a quick rundown of my favourite comic relief moments, off the top of my head:
- Watching Batman and Robin wakeboard through the air to catch Arnold Schwarzeneger while he’s dressed up like the goddamn Songbird.
- George Clooney carrying a frozen Chris O’Donnel around like an ostentatious Lady Gaga handbag. I am so happy that I can say that sentence and know that it wasn’t a fever dream.
- Batman’s American Express card with the Batsymbol on it, showing that even the product placement managed to have a sense of humour.
- Poison Ivy saying “There’s something about an anatomically correct rubber suit that puts fire in a woman’s lips,” showing that even the film knew how ridiculous the suit was, and played off it.
- “What killed the dinosaurs? The Ice Age!” – That’s not a pun; that’s just factually accurate.
- Bane skulking around in a perverts raincoat and trilby, which is more stealth than TDKR Bane ever exhibited, even with all his fancy-pants League of Shadows training.
Even if you can’t have a sense of humour about it, though, there are some other positive points about the film that I feel deserve more credit.
The fact that the film manages to simultaneously juggle so many different plot points competently –something even Nolan struggled to do with TDKR- is worthy of merit. B&R packs an entire TV series of content into one film and, even though some aspects aren’t properly fleshed out, it’s a laudably ambitious project that hits the mark far more than most sequels do, (I’m looking at you, Spiderman 3).
I’ll say this much, though, it was bloody convenient that the Batcave carried a female batsuit that perfectly fit Alicia Silverstone’s measurements…is a joke I would have made if the film didn’t totally cover that plothole…Take that, Christian Bale making it halfway around the world with absolutely zero funds, and still having time to make an elaborate stencil out of fire on a bridge!
Visually, the film has some pretty incredible moments, in particular the Turkish Bath fight with Bane and the neon gang, though I am willing to concede that my enjoyment of that scene largely hinges on the 90’s fostering an unconditional love of neon in my brain.
Actually, speaking of Bane, despite fans bemoaning his canon being ruined, visually
speaking, this is probably the closest a Batman film has ever been to reproducing his look; and it’s probably the closest they ever will get without employing awful Hulk-like CGI.
Between Ivy’s lair, her outfits, Bane’s ludicrous luchador mask and hilariously exaggerated physique, the bad writing and relentless barrage of ice-based puns…B&R is a true comic book film, in the most literal sense.
It just goes to show that when it comes to pleasing the fans you will never, ever win, but I can’t honestly sit here with a straight face and pretend the film doesn’t also have it’s share of problems. I can, however, defend those problems.
People criticise Clooney’s stoic, bordering on cardboard, performance but honestly, what else do you expect? Batman is a boring bastard, always grumping around the place like a five year old that’s been told it’s time for bed. Even Christian Bale’s only meaningful addition was to talk like he’d just swallowed a twenty-deck of Marlboro, followed by a lit match, and when the man who willingly turned himself into a living skeleton is out of ideas, that’s maybe a sign that the character has reached its limits.
On the whole, people seem to have a problem with the performances in B&R, but here’s the thing: I know for a fact that Uma Thurman can act. I know for a fact that George Clooney can act. They make no attempt to do so in Batman & Robin, and I take this as proof that they were deliberately hamming it up.
Maybe it was because they were only there to get paid, or maybe it was because they figured comic book films were dumb and decided to just have fun with the project, but either way it works for me.
It’s almost as if they were trying to distance themselves from the previous super-moody films, so that Schumacher could put his own stamp on the series, and isn’t it funny how people applauded Nolan for doing the same thing, with fans rabidly tearing apart any critic who dared to point out that maybe TDKR wasn’t quite the perfect film everyone was making it out to be; similar to how fans cry about Bane in B&R yet never bring up how Burton completely massacred Batman’s canon by making the Joker kill his parents, completely changing arguably the most pivotal point in Bruce Wayne’s character arc.
The difference was, of course, early 90’s Burton was infallible, and Nolan made Batman all true-to-life and gritty, whereas Schumacher gave us bat-nipples and cartoon sound effects, but if we were being properly realistic then Alfred would have had Master Wayne committed to Arkham years ago because he is fucking mentally ill.
This is a point I frequently return to when defending B&R, or just talking about Batman in general: make fun of the bat-nipples all you want, but it’s kind of missing the forest for the trees when you consider that we’re talking about a grown man running around dressed as a giant bat. Practically speaking, there’s absolutely no reason for him to have the daft little spikes on his cowl, and prior to Nolan giving the cape an actual purpose, Watchmen was pretty much the authority on why superheroes wearing capes was a really, really dumb idea.
What I’m saying is, if you boil it down to its core, every single thing about Batman is stupid and makes no sense, but that’s a part of what makes the universe so fascinating and why he has endured as a character while the cavalcade of Dick Tracy gumshoe detective stories with one stupid gimmick faded into obscurity. (Remember the Crimson Clown, everyone? Yeah, that’s what I thought.)
As a Tim Burton Batman film, B&R is terrible; as a Christopher Nolan Batman film, B&R is terrible. I accept that, but let me put it in a different and totally not exaggerated way: Star Wars is a really shitty period drama, compared to Pride and Prejudice. Schindler’s List is a much more accurate WWII film than Ghostbusters. Tom Hardy is absolutely rubbish at playing one-dimensional jackasses in every single film; Adam Sandler is much better at that.
I’m being partially facetious, but my point is you can make absolutely anything look bad if you judge it by the right (i.e. wrong) standards, sort of like when David Beckham donated his entire salary to charity, last year, and people said he was just doing it so he wouldn’t have to pay any tax. You know, on all that money he was fucking giving to a charity.
In a previous article, I suggested that sometimes when viewing a film, it’s important to take a step back and judge it by what it is; not what you expected it to be. If you went into B&R at the time expecting Burton, you’d be disappointed, and if you watched it now expecting Nolan, you’ll be disappointed.
In broad terms, though, that’s like getting upset that every single film you watch isn’t your favourite. I don’t go into every single film expecting to see Withnail & I, because if I did I’d be constantly disappointed by every film that wasn’t Withnail & I. Although it might explain why I enjoy Hudson Hawk so much.
In retrospect, maybe the film would have fared better as a TV series, separating it from its film counterparts and putting it more in league with the Adam West TV show it spiritually borrows from. That’s probably the the best advice I can offer, for everyone still convinced Batman & Robin is our generation’s Plan 9 from Outer Space: re-watch the film with no preconceptions, or at the very least in the same way you would a classic episode of the Adam West TV series.
Some of you will probably still hate it, but that’s kind of how art works: everything isn’t for everyone, all of the time.
No one goes to see the Mona Lisa expecting a Page 3 Girl.