Revisiting Batman & Robin
It suffered a 63% box office drop in its second week of cinematic release. It was nominated for eleven Golden Raspberry Awards, winning one. It has been singled out as a source of massive regret for much of its cast. It effectively ended two A-list film careers, signaled the decline of Hollywood’s most celebrated guilty pleasure strongman, and doomed its helmsman to a pantheon of lingering disgrace. It torpedoed a multimillion dollar franchise, wiped out two green-lit blockbusters and put one of pop culture’s biggest names into the dark for eight years. It is often cited as one of the worst movies ever made, and was crowned number one by Empire. Years later, its director would be compelled to actually apologize for it. When you collect your wits at last and begin to look at the mess with something approaching rationalization, you will be hard-pressed to find a satisfying single explanation for just what the hell was intended, aside from epic failure, with Batman & Robin.
Like so many master-pieces-of-crap, it has since found a place as your average movie-goer’s courtroom fool, wearing a stupid hat and dancing clumsily to entertain us on a most basic level, a provider of laughs always at its expense. A subversive audience delights at its dreadful puns and awful attempts at laconic wit, jokes sufficiently terrible to pass through the red and return out the other side, ripe and hilarious but never intentionally. In a strange quirk of irony, this tortuously vicarious niche has made watching such folly worthwhile, as long as it’s free. It lacks the head thumping irritation and mirthless ambition of Battlefield Earth or the scatterbrained nausea and confused personality of Myra Breckenridge, soft enough around the edges to avert actual pain while still sufficiently incompetent to be utterly laughable, again for the wrong reasons. It’s safe enough to earn a place on the list of the awful somehow worthy of watch.
Yet we’re talking about a $125m Warner Brothers release following on the tails of the successful Batman Forever, a veritable flagship starring hot picks George Clooney and Uma Thurman, flavor of the month Alicia Silverstone, and fully-fledged screen legend Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was supposed to take a franchise sparked by Tim Burton’s Gothic to a universal, financial peak. Instead, it is discussed on the same terms as The Room or Things. You cannot compare the sheer desperation of the film to Waterworld or Heaven’s Gate because while those films sunk spectacularly, Batman & Robin didn’t simply miss its mark. Said mark is as murky and elusive as its underwater grave. Its failure goes beyond ticket sales. That aforementioned descent in revenue is telling; there was an audience and a market, and they quickly turned on the film. “This is appalling” they said, “save yourself from the Iceman“. Looking at it from this perspective, you have to ask how it was all possible.
That explanation is there, it’s just incongruous and difficult to believe, a case of all the wrong things happening at the wrong time. Too many clashing decisions and too many individuals climbing over each other to place their priority atop the totem pole. Mistake compounding mistake, from the inception to the edit, writing to casting, creative vision to marketing strategy. There’s an adage that a camel is a horse designed by committee, and a similar one suggesting that too many cooks spoil the broth. Both are perfectly appropriate here, since Batman & Robin was supposed to be a delicious thoroughbred and not a sickening dromedary. The first element, ingredient if you will, is the haphazard misjudgment of director Joel Schumacher.
Having earned his staple by dint of some successful and respectable movies throughout the eighties and nineties, most notably The Lost Boys and Falling Down, he seemingly proved the right man to bring the dark knight into lighter territory following Burton’s ejection. His films often dealt in blacker themes with a softer touch. Batman Forever took the ominous psychology of Batman and introduced just enough camp and flamboyance to broaden its appeal, deemed a necessity after the incessantly gloomy Batman Returns. The numbers told their own story, since Forever was huge. Looking back, that film is a revealing look at the transition, halfway between Burton and the impending disaster. While the wild things are just about forgivable, in retrospect they are a warning cry of what is to come. When approaching said cataclysm, Schumacher turned the camp up to eleven.
His reasons differ depending on who you ask, but Schumacher’s version of events has always held that he wanted to both appease the wants of Warners and fulfill his own wishes to make the saga less depressing and more family-friendly, while also paying tribute to the 1960’s television series. Thus, in some kind of misinformed inner-logic, it was felt that the boost in sales upon his recruitment was down to the silly parts he introduced. The more the ratio swung from brooding to blooming, the more they would pull in. This proved to be a huge mistake; the sheer levels of farce present in Batman & Robin effectively rendered it inaccessible to an adult crowd. Whether it be the constant punning of the villains or the sexual innuendo present in every scene, the attempts at humor fell desperately flat to a degree that only youngsters could be impressed. The jokes intended for parents were too stupid or too blatant to amuse. It took the franchise backwards by trying to match the tone of the series without providing any of the West & Ward charm. For family-friendly read alienating.
Another bad egg and one of the worst exponents of the film is the dreadful screenplay, that of the touched upon ‘word play’ which turned every character into comic relief and somehow managed to make the evil master-plan cooked up by the villains both idiotic and convoluted. While any writer will tell you that working to a brief always influences one’s work, particularly when said directive is suicidally misjudged, the laughs-to-groan ration reads at 0%-to-100%, which is inexcusable. So which hack penned Batman & Robin? Surely a name doomed to obscurity and one of the earliest casualties of the backlash? Step forward Hollywood player and A-list scribe Akiva Goldsman. While Schumacher was receiving the weight of the hate and struggling to maintain his credibility (it’s no coincidence that his next project was the starkly dark 8mm), the man responsible for “What killed the Dinosaurs? The ICE AGE!” and “Kill the heroes! Yes! Yeah!” sneaked off into the shadows and later won an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind. Winter’s Tale and The Da Vinci Code are perhaps more revealing links back to his near-fatal dice.
Beyond the tone, there’s the look of the film, almost science-fiction in its decadent opulence and impractical grandiosity, with Gotham becoming a city of the future closer in visage to ancient legend, a proto-Atlantis with vast and bizarre statues, city blocks towering like hives and the center piece a obelisk like observatory with an easily weaponized telescope. A car chase across the arms and shoulders of stone Gods is both absurdly childish and acid trip bizarre, with all the discipline of a pre-schooler sandbox session, physics ignored and no grounded set of rules introduced regarding what is and isn’t possible. It’s a live-action cartoon and the epitome of excess. The time period taps into futurism just long enough to make the plot easier before withdrawing into the realms of almost 50s noir dress and apparel. One part Brazil, two parts Dark City and another owed to the comics, without any of the edge present in any of said influences. It is a nightmare. While some films can dazzle with their incredible design, Batman & Robin confounds sense and confuses the senses, invoking headaches rather than camp cult.
Fittingly, the vehicles, costumes and gadgets utilized by the heroes and villains as they fight across this insane environment are similarly pomp without purpose. The common criticism that when Batman & Robin stops trying to be funny for long enough to inject some action it ends up resembling an extended toy advert is both appropriate and telling. Thanks primarily to Batman Forever, merchandise sales for the franchise were sky-high. Perhaps still haunted by the lethargy which saw them fail to capitalize on the massive demand for memorabilia during the release of Tim Burton’s Batman, Warner Brothers were determined to milk every possible opportunity from a film that, due to its tone, would be seen by the very kids who would be vacuuming up their products. It was quite literally an advert. Even Chris O’Donnell recognized this. Huge deals were secured with toy companies and theme parks, financially lucrative contracts that required immediate honoring. Thus Schumacher was given two years to make the film instead of three. Thus production design was constantly rewired to suit the whims of corporations. Thus a batmobile resembling a bug zapper and pointless silver plate armor on the heroes. Thus dozens of shots detailing the work performed by grappling hooks. For those curious, the bat nipples were part of an attempt to invoke the appearance of ancient Greek statues, immaculate and anatomically perfect. You can blame Schumacher for that.
Even after all this disharmony, it was still feasible that the film could escape its dire straights, yet it seemed absolutely dead set on spectacular suicide. Val Kilmer was either ditched or walked out willingly (depending on whose account you believe) and replaced with E.R heartthrob George Clooney, with the idea to cast a more charming and less intense Batman. A less intense Batman. A…less…intense…Batman...It is perhaps Clooney’s cool and casual disdain for the film as much as his abilities as an actor that helped him escape the wreckage more or less unscathed, though he is hardly above criticism for a performance that delivers on Bruce Wayne’s public persona but scant else. “Hi, Freeze. I’m Batman” best sums up his part. The failure to even make an attempt at capturing the character’s darkness or anti-hero vibe is as much a product of the actor as it is his director or the script he was given. His is easily the worst screen portrayal of the legendary hero.
Elsewhere, a full 20% of the huge budget was dished out on Arnold Schwarzenegger, with the role of Mr Freeze rewritten to better fit the Austrian Oak’s screen persona after flirtations with Patrick Stewart went unrequited. For this reason, we have a villain who is driven by the desire to both save his dying wife and avenge fate, yet takes pleasure in orchestrating impromptu choirs singing Christmas songs and coughing out constant one-liners that never raise as much as a snort. Horribly written and encased in a suit that screams Toys R’ Us mass delivery, Schwarzenegger gives one of his most risible performances (an impressive feat) and with one last huge paycheck essentially calls time on his twenty-year dominance of the screen. 1997, the year Skynet went online, is also the year that his dynasty faded and died, after much waning. It is debatable whether Batman & Robin killed it or whether it came along as his star faded. In the other antagonist role, the generally more able Uma Thurman was an obvious choice for Poison Ivy and yet managed to out-do Schwarzenegger in the dreadful stakes. While her career wasn’t sunk like that of Chris O’Donnell or Alicia Silverstone, her placement at the top in Hollywood came to a jarring end and she didn’t recover until some Tarantino rejuvenation six years later.
It is said that actors are only as good as the directions they are given, but this only goes to certain lengths and presented here comes across as yet another effort to lay all of the blame at Schumacher’s feet. There is so much of it to go around that it would be perverse to say that one man was responsible for the whole sinkhole mess. It is true that Schumacher often preceded takes by reminding the cast that this was “a cartoon”, and it is true that much of the style and tone was his doing, that he had a vision that resulted in a film nobody wanted to see. But there is a list of culprits in this crime that it is too long to list in its entirety. Even if the director had as much sway and control as some claim, it would mean that he got this boiling pot of insanity past Warner Brothers. Either they knew or were responsible for much of what was produced, so they were either aware and culpable or active and responsible. The idea that they found what had been done just as we did, during that one glorious opening week, is naive in the extreme. While the director and his producers naturally would have to approve the script, that doesn’t excuse the writer of accountability. You could make the reasonable argument that, hampered by time constraints and studio pressure to please absolutely everyone, Schumacher simply didn’t have a chance to fix the holes. Theoretically.
When looking at all these aspects, one has to wonder whether anybody wanted the film to succeed. It doesn’t matter how unscrupulous one is, you have to understand that in order to be successful a movie has to achieve its goals on some level. Money may make decisions, but the dollars won’t roll in on a turd. Hype and fan appeal may earn a great first week or opening weekend, but word of mouth will cancel it out in the blink of an eye. Eventually, Batman & Robin would make back its budget with a little extra on top thanks to international sales and…yes, merchandise, but it destroyed the studio’s credibility and served as a warning of things to come. A comedy without laughs and a blockbuster too embarrassing to enjoy, the film left such a sour taste that marketing quickly concluded a further sequel wouldn’t even get the benefit of a strong opening. There would be no Batman Triumphant and no Batman: DarKnight. What should have been a priceless cash cow dried at the teat having given little enough to cover outlay. Batman, as a prospect and a market, was dead.
A director going blindly off the reservation and working from a humiliating screenplay, pressured by a money-hungry studio and with only a cast of apathetic, confused and discontent actors on the cusp of stigma to help out. Masterpieces have been born out of worse scenarios, but still. Batman & Robin was a perfect storm, everything that could go wrong plummeting South at a rate of knots nobody could possibly have anticipated, error compounding mistake rolling into antipathy, the quest for cash so all-encompassing as to render businessmen short-sighted, blind even. Batman fans were pissed. The actors were pissed. Adults were pissed. Children were pissed. Critics were pissed. Producers were pissed. The studio, eventually, was pissed.
Later, Schumacher would apologize and Chris Nolan would arrive to salvage the wreckage, but for eight long years, all that remained when one thought of the dark knight was fateful disaster, and wonder how in this day and age such incompetence could prosper. It now exists as a cautionary tale, a reminder of how easily it can all go to hell, a negative example. A batbomb indeed.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published under our old brand, Sound On Sight.