Batman & Robin was the inevitable outcome of the Burton/Schumacher series. The moment that Tim Burton decided that continuity was an expendable part of the franchise, each subsequent film’s fidelity to the series was always open to interpretation. What could change? What couldn’t change? Drastic alterations were made to Gotham City in the second one, as well as mood and motivation. Batman Forever proved that they could successfully wipe the slate practically clean, leaving only a few reminders that this all took place on the same planet. Once that boundary was broken, and once the studio realized that the fans were willing to accept it, Batman & Robin was born. All things considered, it’s important to remember that B&R was nothing more than a studio testing its limits, and a character testing itself.
B&R has a lot of thing in common with its predecessors. Most of the movie feels like a complete rehash of Batman Forever, only larger and more annoying. Those involved have admitted that the film was dictated by the toy companies as much as it was by the film makers. Every ounce of this film was designed to be easily recreated in a manner that would fit well into a 9 year old boy’s closet.
There is little to no respect for the characters in the film. It continues the trend set by Forever, turning the complex characters of the comics into frustrating caricatures of themselves. While the Burton films focused on emotionally and psychologically damaged enemies, Schumacher’s stories fall back on the idea that Batman’s Rogues Gallery is simply a bunch of nut jobs that have obsessive eccentricities. Forever sidestepped it a little by allowing the Riddler more depth, but Mr. Freeze, Two-Face, and Poison Ivy are nothing more than emotionless characters that have “fun” personality quirks. They were all the same. Insert silly costume and famous actor and we have a winner every time, or so they hoped.
Nothing proves this more than the fact that Bane was so heinously disregarded by the writer. He looks more like a Ninja Turtle than a Batman villain, with his pudgy green fingers and stupid little “power up” button on his chest. In the comic books he is a criminal and political genius who also possesses super strength by means of a steroid called Venom. Schumacher was kind enough to give him a 3 word vocabulary and green skin.
And then there is that scene where Mr. Freeze is trying to force his minions to do a singalong with him in his frozen lair. Somewhere, someone in some executive’s room actually thought that was an acceptable idea.
To make matters worse, around the same time as the theatrical run of the film, Warner Brothers released a full-length straight-to-video animated film called Sub Zero. It featured many of the same characters and plot points as B&R, but it is infinitely better. To say that Schumacher’s films were outshined by their animated counterparts is a vulgar understatement.
In fact, B&R’s treatment of Mr. Freeze is a crude rehash of the 90’s cartoon. The creators of “Batman: The Animated Series” did a very difficult thing; they took an absurd character named Mr. Freeze and gave him a credible and complex back story. Batman & Robin was kind enough to borrow elements from that backstory as they quickly de-legitimized the character once again. For the creators of the cartoon it must have felt like being stabbed in the back with your own beautifully crafted icy knife, over and over and over again.
Another element that was underdeveloped was the relationship between Batman and his new partner. Right off the bat, shortly after Schumacher’s odd “suit up” sequence, the Dynamic Duo show signs of a strained partnership, an element important to both characters’ development in the comics. This would have been a perfect sequel idea: now that Robin has been introduced, shift the focus from Batman vs. villains to a relationship drama. Instead they just have crazy old George say stupid things like “this is why Superman works alone.” Again, interesting ideas, absolutely no real execution.
That line – that stupid, stupid line – was supposed to be a line that paralleled the opener to Batman Forever’s, “I’ll get drive through.” However, Val Kilmer still delivers this line with a grumbly Batman voice, covered in the shadows of the Batcave. After delivering this admittedly unnecessary line, Kilmer then hops into a legitimately awesome car and drives off into the night. B&R hates its audience way too much to do any of those things. Instead Batman hops into a ridiculous space-convertible, stares awkwardly at the camera as his overweight head tilts back in strain and speeds off to a museum that has dinosaurs and diamonds.
After confusing everyone by proving within the first 5 minutes that this movie not only doesn’t take itself seriously, but also does not take its audience seriously, we are subjected to 15 minutes of Batman ice-skating and zoinky sound effects.
The next test was to stretch the boundaries of the typical Batman narrative. Because it is the fourth film in the series, B&R was at pains to tell an original story about Batman as a character. Schumacher, for the first time, shifted the focus from Batman. We see more and more of the world he inhabits, giving us a glimpse of the citizens of Gotham. The strangest example of this involves a motorcycle race sequence between Robin and Batgirl. Schumacher portrays the state of Gotham’s underworld to be nuttier than the previous films. Gang members dress up like the characters from A Clockwork Orange, Coolio roams the streets at night, and everything comes with sparks attached. This is probably the closest the film comes to a dark gritty edge. The darkness in this scene is left for Robin and Batgirl, not for Batman. While Dick Grayson and his new nifty sidekick are out exploring the depth of the Gotham underworld, Bruce is probably hanging out in the mansion reading Jane Austin or something.
This scene also carries on the series’ insistence that there is a Gotham beneath the Gotham, something that is unevenly explored throughout the films. Burton’s interpretation of Gotham’s underbelly was portrayed mostly as gangsters, businessmen and deformed creatures that literally lived underground. Schumacher insinuates not only that Gotham is truly run by young flashy street thugs, but also that Batman doesn’t seem to mind. Schumacher’s Bruce Wayne is truly an out of touch millionaire who’s only attracted to the eccentric villains. Fixing what’s broken with Gotham doesn’t seem to be on his mind anymore. He even appears at large public events, and accepts sponsorships from credit card companies. While families are being mugged in alleys, batman is busy selling out at the nearest “charity” event.
The previous films already went through all of the cliché difficulties that heroes face; he had to prove to the public that he was a hero and not a villain (twice actually), he struggled with balancing the ambitions of his personal life with his responsibility as a crime fighter He dabbled with the idea of taking off the cowl once and for all, and He even got shot in the head. Where else was there for Batman to go in a series with no overreaching themes or character development? As I mentioned earlier, B&R was an experiment to see if the Batman film genre could continue to survive with Batman taking a back seat to just about everyone else. The emotional narrative of this film revolves almost completely around Alfred- who is portrayed for the first time in this series to have anything interesting to add to the narrative. Dick Grayson takes on the burden of character growth, replacing Batman as the one who is learning about what it’s like to devote your life to a worthy cause. Batgirl is thrown in to replace the newcomer role that Robin occupied in Forever. The characters became stock, each one eternally replaceable.
The fact is, Batman & Robin is probably just as important in the Batman mythos as Batman ’89 and Batman Begins. While’89 was the character’s first screen interpretation for a modern age, and Begins was a game changing genre bender, Batman & Robin will forever stand as the prime example of where this character should never go. As Warner Brothers contemplates how the post-Nolan Batman should be approached, you can be assured that the words “lighter” and “more kid-friendly” won’t be part of the conversation. It’s not that there isn’t room for light hearted comic book adventures anymore; it’s simply that no one wants to see Batman enter that realm again. We like him complicated, brooding over his parents’ death and releasing his anguish on the criminals of Gotham.
Since the comic book genre was, at this time, still struggling to mature, B&R was chosen to play the role of the reckless teenager pushing the boundaries as far in one direction as they could go. It’s a shame they had to ruin it; somewhere deep beneath the neon lights and black-light plants there were the elements of an interesting story. But then again without the failure of Batman & Robin, we never would have gotten Batman Begins. So I guess it was worth it, in a strange kind of way.
Batfilm Rating: D
Film Rating: F