“Batman & Robin” is a film oh, so easy to hate… admittedly one of the biggest trainwrecking blockbusters ever produced, trashed beyond belief by critics and audiences alike… a film that I was tempted of walking out from the theater on my first viewing, that was how visceral my rejection of this film was, more than 20 years ago… even more so, as I actually enjoyed “Batman Forever” despite its flaws, more than any of both Tim Burton films which are clearly overrated, beyond the visual aspects and Michael Keaton and Michelle Pfeiffer’s performances.
Because I dare to say that “Batman & Robin” may be the most personal and intimate Joel Schumacher film in his resume… Schumacher already started playing tribute to the iconic Adam West starred Batman series and movie, with his camp in “Batman Forever”, which is a so fun film: goofy, never taking itself too seriously and still introducing a psychological study on Batman’s sexuality and a commentary on his relationship with Robin, always close to be the spartan role model of master and trainee, in pedophilian key… at the climax, The Riddler offers Batman the chance to choose between the woman he loves and his male sidekick… Batman refuses to choose and finds a way to save them both, therefore sending the message that Batman’s bisexual, in the code Schumacher has stablished throughout the film. Thanks to the still not so bad reviews and huge b.o., Warner Bros and DC gave him more room to “play” with the franchise, and did he just felt free to do whatever he wanted… he went full steam with the gay, camp, trashy coda and produced the best “worst” film of all time, all full of excess, unfunny jokes and puns, wooden acting, clichès and wtf action sequences… exactly in the line of Adam West’s delightful run.
In “Batman & Robin”, Batman holds an auction contest with Robin, bidding for a night with Poison Ivy, and he shows off his “Bat-credit card”… it is a joke delightfully unfunny, as a call back to the 60’s Batman series and their Bat-whatever was needed. Poison Ivy is deliberately a drag-queen look alike, and Uma Thurman goes full steam over the top, as Arnold Schwarzenegger, who gives one of his worst/best performances by also allowing himself to be as bad as possible, understanding to perfection what film he is in, and what Schumacher is aiming for. George Clooney, a competent actor (rather than a great one, even if I think he is best in comedy, and his Syriana Oscar does not bother me, as it is a quite good performance), also understands Schumacher and admitted he played Bruce Wayne and Batman as gay (unlike Val Kilmer’s bisexual incarnation in “Forever”) but restrains himself of going full Adam West mode (that is one of the main problems of the film: heros take themselves too seriously, causing a tonal difference that provokes the chain reaction to a disaster and misunderstanding of the whole production… Elliot Goldenthal’s score also does not help: too epic, not goofy nor camp as it should have been… there are deliberate toony slapstick sound effects here and there but Schumacher chose not to include the classic letters of “Boom!”, “Slap!” and so on, which maybe would have made too clear what he was going for.
As remembered, the film’s only half-celebrated performance is the late Michael Gough’s Alfred Pennyworth, despite the melodramatic clichés he’s given to work with, essential to stablish the parallels between Bruce and Alfred to Dick and Bruce: son to father, and probably even more. The less said about Chris O’Donnell and Alicia Silverstone, actually the better… the film’s failure almost killed their careers for a reason… Clooney, Arnold and Uma survived because even in the worst moments, it is clear that they are aiming for a goal that the director indicates, Chris and Alicia simply do not get or go to the places they are required to be given the movie they are in… they look too worried to look good and not too campy, so they can look great in the magazines, while the three stars don’t really care about how ridiculous the whole film could look like.
The film, over 20 years after, also marked the future of Hollywood. Technology was making possible to finally transfer super-hero films to the big screen and they have proven themselves to be b.o. juggernauts, but B&R set the limits of what you could do with the genre and the limitations that would shoot itself in the foot… only a few years later, “X-Men” and “Spiderman” marked a more grounded tone and while never going back to Tim Burton’s “Batman” and “Batman Returns” mode, they skipped goofyness as much as possible and put character over action, first. Later came Nolan and with “Batman Begins” and specially “The Dark Knight” went into grimmer and more realistic iterations, while Marvel with “Iron Man” started the MCU in the exact middle point between grounded to reality, fun, and faithfulness and respect to the source. Without “B&R” probably we wouldn’t have the MCU as we have it, now.
“Batman & Robin” is a really wonderful disaster, and proud to be so. The magnificently over the top and beyond campy production design, costumes, make up, visual effects (do they some of them look dated, even a couple of years after!), are too evidently intentional. It is the rare case that a studio let a filmmaker to run amok and be completely free to fulfill his vision. It recently happened also with Tom Hooper’s “Cats”, which has been so maligned, as well. Both films are brave, unique, fearless, deeply flawed but with the heart in the right place, and if only for that, they deserve to be seen and celebrated.
Originally, at first viewing I rated the film with 0 stars, an F.
After many rewatching and analyzing and thinking about it… the film was so underrated and it is a *** 1/2 / C+ failure, rather than a total trainwreck. You are in, with the joke, or you just aren’t, and while it took me years to understand what was going on, specially after cast and crew opened about it, I am completely in for the joke. Rest in Peace, Joel Schumacher, a way better director with a way better career than you were credited, in life.