Countdown to “The Dark Knight Rises”: Part 5 of 11 – “Batman & Robin”
If you missed it here is Part 1 of 11: Introduction to Batman “The Gift”
And here is Part 2 of 11: A look Back at Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’
And Part 3: ‘Batman Returns’
Last week’s Part 4: ‘Batman Forever’
“Death before dishonor.” It’s a common phrase. It started as a battle cry from Roman soldiers before heading into battle. Apparently no one involved in the production of Batman & Robin had said it, read it or even heard it spoken. If they had, they might have heeded its advice. Instead, they chose the exact reverse order of the phrase. They made the film, dishonoring themselves in front of the whole world. Then they committed hari-kari, which was the only thing left to do. We could have all been spared had just one person remembered the phrase. Instead, we had to suffer as a result.
Joel Schumacher had begun the dismantling of the hard work Tim Burton had put into the building of the Batman brand when he got his hands on Batman Forever in 1995. Just two years later, he had completed the demolition. As I mentioned last week, Burton’s name remained on screen for the initial Schumacher effort. This time around, his name is nowhere to be found and “effort” certainly isn’t the word I would use to describe Schumacher’s contribution to the nail named Batman & Robin plunged into the character’s coffin. An “E” for “execrable,” certainly, but “effort,” no.
Prior to release, was there any industry outsider who could have expected this? Batman Forever was certainly a downturn, but in hindsight, retrospect and definitely comparison to this, it was at least semi-competent. I know my friends and I didn’t expect it.
Just beginning high school, I had slowly broken away from my parents’ clutches. I was no longer under their tyranny, but also no longer under their constant support. Money wasn’t doled out when I wanted/ needed it, but when I’d earned it. Food and shelter were the last bastions of support given to me for free, until I decided I wanted to eat on my own. Taco Bell was my haven and I was happy to plunk down my hard-earned (for room-cleaning and trash-dumping) money there. After all, I had an incentive. Batman & Robin collector cups.
I still own all five. “With pride” is not how I’d say they’re displayed. “With apathy” is more like it. I’ve held onto them for fifteen years now. They mean enough to me to warrant that. Whatever that amount is, it’s certainly the minimum required. I plan on keeping them, but I don’t know why. I guess to remind myself of the way things were. I should say collecting the cups was not the goal for me that summer. Every cup came with a peel-off type gam-piece like McDonald’s Monopoly. I believe you had to capture five or six characters to win the big prize and Alfred was the ultimate rarity. A friend swore a relative halfway across the country had an Alfred, but it naturally never materialized. Either way, we had a lot of fun, spent a lot of money and drank a lot of Mountain Dew. I’m pretty sure the effects of that summer still demonstrate themselves on my body. Therefore, I guess the movie provided enjoyment in some respects, just not the type or way in which it was intended.
What makes the movie so atrocious? A de-evolution took place. If the leap from Batman to Batman Returns took us from Neanderthals to homo sapiens, Batman Forever dropped us down to homo erectus and Batman & Robin took us all the way back to the days of Australopithecus. Which of course was what the ‘60s TV show was. The only difference between the show starring Adam West and the movie starring George Clooney was a bigger budget and lack of “POW!” titles appearing on the screen. But in truth that may have at least added a little fun.
Batman & Robin is the only Batman film without any semblance of a love story and those were certainly the weaker parts of each of the three preceding films, save for the emotional gymnastics necessary between Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle in Batman Returns. This film proves that there are far more things that can go wrong than the shoehorning in of a love story. Bruce actually already has a girlfriend in the movie. She’s played by Elle Macpherson. I think she even has one line of dialogue. This is used to zero effect whatsoever, though Pamela Isley tries her best to put Bruce and Dick Grayson under her love spell.
While on the topic of Pamela Isley/Poison Ivy, it’s necessary that we talk about costumes here. Look at the difference between this and this. Obviously one is a drawing, but the other is a Hollywood production where the imagined is supposed to come to life. Instead, her outfit looks like it was made of the same material stretched across the chests of Adam West and Burt Ward 30 years prior. What probably happened logically is that all of the costume budgets were spent on Batman and Robin’s nipple-suits, complete with contoured butt rubber for when they get their obligatory close-ups in the opening sequence. That and the design of Mr. Freeze’s suit.
I love Mr. Freeze as a character. I’ll talk about that a little more when discussing both “Batman: The Animated Series” and “Batman: Arkham City.” His blue flesh and his glowing suit in the film are both pretty spectacular. I’m glad the money went into those aspects of the character. Unfortunately, he’s reduced to spouting pithy one-liners like, “Cool party” and “Ice to see you.” I can’t believe “Let’s play a game of freeze-tag,” while he shot at people with his ice cannon, didn’t make it into the shooting script. Freeze’s henchmen also appear to be understudies from the Gotham production of “Starlight Express.” Luckily Batman and Robin’s suits both come equipped with ice blades on the bottom and truly, why wouldn’t they when Mr. Freeze is a villain they’ve never seen nor heard of prior to the opening scene.
I didn’t touch upon Dick Grayson/Robin last week. I know I’ll do so a little more when it comes to “Batman: Arkham City” again, but I actually don’t hate Robin conceptually. I believe the character can have a purpose, especially as Bruce ages. He can take on an heir to the Wayne fortune as well as his particular brand of vigilante justice. I even like the little origin story he’s given in Batman Forever. In this film, he’s reduced to being a whiner. He’s the teenage son in any TV show. He’s Rodney Dangerfield in a mask. He continually cries about how he gets no respect from Bruce/Batman to trust him and to let him fly on his own. Go ahead and rebel. That ought to earn some trust.
Not all new characters have been covered yet. I still have two to go. Alicia Silverstone is in this thing. I used to have a huge crush on her. I watched Clueless in the neighborhood of twenty times one summer. I can quote the trailers that played before it on the VHS. I even dragged my buddies to see Excess Baggage with me in theaters. I was looking forward to her in this and she’s about as pointless as a new pencil. With her Barbara Wilson set to play Batgirl, we got more “heroes” than we did villains.
Except there were actually three villains in this film, too. Six major superhero/villain characters. Nothing that anybody not named Joss Whedon can’t handle. Unless your name is Joel Schumacher. That villain is Bane. Yes, the same one who’ll be the big bad in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy-capper. In this, he may even have fewer lines than Elle Macpherson, unless you count muffled grunts. His “muscular” body resembles foam padding. He’s as throwaway as Skymall catalogues and as unnecessary as Skymall products. Last week, I said there was no more obvious a difference in quality between these ‘90s attempts at Batman films and Nolan’s than the treatment of Two-Face. Come July 20th, we’ll be able to compare Bane, too.
There’s literally nothing from this movie that took Nolan to the current place where he is in his franchise. And of course, that’s the exact thing that brought him there. This movie killed Batman at Warner Bros. Plans to do a fifth installment called “Batman Triumphant” were scrapped. Schumacher was going to come back for it, even. Thank goodness someone wised up. Far better to keep the franchise silent than to drill it into the ground some more. It’d be eight more years before Batman graced the silver screen again. Schumacher and company had scraped the bottom of the barrel. Luckily there was another one ready to go. It just wouldn’t hit peak flavor for nearly a decade.
Next Week: Saturday morning cartoons get dark in “Batman: The Animated Series.”