Best Worst Movie, or Worst Movie? — Batman & Robin (1997)

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Cultish devotees of film often celebrate failure, box office, critical, or otherwise. By designating awards to the year’s worst movies, organizing midnight screenings of a film on the fringe, and writing endlessly about one flop or another, bad movies have a way of sticking around well beyond their typical cultural sell-by date. The phrase “so bad it’s good” is often ascribed to these movies when, in a pre-Internet, pre-Mystery Science Theatre 3000 world, they used to be considered so bad, they’re virtually forgotten. This week, as part of the Camp & Cult Blogathon at She Blogged By Night, Fear of a Ghost Planet is introducing a new feature that takes a good, hard look at the supposed jewels hiding in a cinematic junk heap. The first edition of Best Worst Movie, or Worst Movie? seeks to answer that question of Batman & Robin, long a movie the author considered a trashy favorite. How well does it hold up, fifteen years later?

Batman & Robin doesn’t take long to announce its intent to annoy. Before Robin proclaims that chicks dig the car, before our first shot of a Batcave decked out in unnecessary logos and drenched in dry ice fog, before even the first glimpse of a bat-nipple, there are the opening credits. There is Batman’s logo, quickly frozen by some neon-blue ice before giving way to the neon-red backdrop against which the primary offenders names are cast. Those two colors, not only are they among the worst man has created, but they come to dominate the color palate utilized by director Joel Schumacher, whose affectation for these two colors is, to the Gotham City styled by Tim Burton, a revisionist disaster on par with Ecce Homo.

There’s nothing good about Batman & Robin, that much I readily admit, but there’s rarely anything good about a Best Worst Movie. To appreciate something like this, to enjoy such a film, is to enjoy wallowing in muck. Well, I have been carrying this not-so-secret shame for some time: I have been a fan of Batman & Robin for fifteen years now. It’s beyond any reasonable basis of judgement, but for the better part of my life I have stuck up for this movie, in every conceivable way the ugly duckling of the Batman mythos. For the longest time, I’ve been planning to write something to that effect, to gather my reasons for liking this movie and stand my ground. Not to posit a secret genius to Schumacher’s work, per se, but to propose that, in the right frame of mind, Batman & Robin is actually enjoyable, indeed a candidate for the status of Best Worst Movie. But I recently caught the last thirty minutes on TV, and, well, they left me cold. Now, much to the chagrin of my inner-nine-year-old (who practically grew up at the local dollar theatre), I’m ready to repent.

The fact of the matter is, Batman & Robin is just like every other Batman film. There’s a city called Gotham, you see, and living within city limits is a man named Bruce Wayne, who witnessed the brutal murder of his parents at the tender age of eight. As a tribute to their memory, Bruce wears a cape and a cowl, fighting criminals for the betterment of society. He calls himself Batman. The nature of such a garishly costumed crusader necessitates that career criminals take up gimmicks, and the truly mad, truly brilliant ones do. There’s the demented gangster-cum-pop-artist, the fat man raised by penguins and born for the life of the circus freak, the disfigured lawyer with a split personality, the knowledge-obsessed trivia wiz. The villains here, save the man who becomes Bain, have similarly ridiculous origins. One is a plant biologist working to crossbreed plants and animals, looking to give Mother Nature teeth to bite back with as humans encroach ever further upon her dwindling greenspace. The other is a Nobel Peace Prize winning two-time Olympic decathlete whose life’s work is curing MacGreggor’s Syndrome, the deadly-if-vaguely-defined disease that ails his cryogenicly frozen wife. One falls into a vat of cryo-solution and emerges as a cold-blooded man who needs diamond-guided lasers to keep his refrigerated suit of armor running, and the other is burried in a pit full of snakes, poisons, and toxins, emerging as Mother Nature’s fertile avatar. What other calling could these two have besides mortal combat with a man dressed as a bat? The aims of Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman) are trivial, but I’ll go ahead and mention them for you budding Riddlers out there: Freeze wants to freeze Gotham with a giant freeze-ray and hold the city ransom for the cold, hard cash necessary to cure and un-freeze his wife. Ivy wants to wipe the planet clean of the wasteful mammals who’ve ruined it and start over again with the ugly little creatures pictured below.

Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman tries his hardest to put so much on Bruce Wayne’s (George Clooney) plate that the villains seem somehow more threatening than your garden variety trio of superpowered mutants, but once life murders your parents in an area of town popularly known as Crime Alley, it’s tough to look at the teenage surliness of Dick Grayson (Chris O’Donnell) or the unexpected visit of Barbara Pennyworth (Alicia Silverstone) as anything more than trifling inconveniences. Indeed, Bruce Wayne wanders through his opulent mansion with a world-weary smile unbecoming of an actor under Batman’s mask for the first time, so the task of lending any sense of gravitas to the proceedings falls to Alfred (Michael Gough), Bruce’s butler and lifelong companion. That Alfred is dying of MacGreggor’s Syndrome not only gives Batman a reason to appeal to Mr. Freeze’s humanity, but enables Gough to deliver the film’s one genuinely good moment, a brief monologue on the nature of being Batman. “What is Batman but an attempt to control death?” he asks. It’s a question way, way beyond Batman & Robin‘s ability to answer.

Just about everybody associated with this production has stepped forward to issue an apology for this movie, accepting varying degrees of guilt for its many failings. Schumacher himself has shouldered much of the blame, but is quick to point the finger at Warner Brothers executives in both the DVD commentary to this film and on the making of documentary Shadows of the Bat, wherein he alleges that company brass wanted the film to be “more toyetic.” In layman’s terms, they wanted a movie that could generate a bunch of toys. In fairness to Schumacher, fingerprints of that edict are in just about every frame of Batman & Robin. Its fetish for Batman and Robin’s logos is evidenced by the picture above, wherein Robin crashes through a wall on a motorcycle, and the hole he leaves behind is an x-acto knife facsimile of the Bat-logo. The Batcave is unnecessarily smothered by competing Batman and Robin logos, as if the two had a disagreement over whose motorcycle was whose, and, like college roommates arguing  over food in the fridge, took a labelmaker to everything. Batman and Robin’s suits come prepared with ice skates, and, not satisfied with a new Batmobile and two different, character specific motorcycles, the third act sees the addition of a Batsnowmobile and a Batfanboat, both of which are pretty unnecessary, considering Batgirl has little problem navigating the icy roads of Gotham on her motorcycle. Villain layers resemble deluxe playsets, and, most curiously of all, Mr. Freeze’s Freezemobile comes fully equipped with a rocketship, the better to satisfy the dual needs of children with a healthy interest in Batman and aerospace.

That’s a considerable amount of weight to write, direct, and act with, but Batman & Robin was hardly the first movie in the franchise tasked with selling toys. If there’s any substance to Schumacher’s excuse, the resulting film is the result of he and Goldsman simply giving up on the project as soon as they received the order. Granted, the Batman franchise was already slipping down this particular slope with Batman Forever, Schumacher’s first outing, but the lazy, forced camp he chooses as the filter by which Batman & Robin‘s ulterior commercial motives are hidden is an acquiescence to a Saturday-morning cartoon set that just didn’t exist in 1997, thanks to, ironically, Batman: The Animated Series, which was often as dark and mature as anything in the Burton Batman films. Schumacher chooses to cast this as a neon-and-dayglo update of William Dozier’s 1966 Batman TV show. Fight scenes are accompanied by banana peel and bowling alley sound effects, the punches accented with trumpet blasts, but without the show’s familiar BOP! and ZOKK! animations. The ambiguous sexuality of the Wayne household permeates Bruce’s every interaction with a human being he’s not trying to put in jail. In the script, Goldsman even tries to replicate the show’s affably lame sense of humor. There’s a reason why Mr. Freeze speaks in cold puns, why Poison Ivy’s every line is a thinly veiled reference to her vagina. Schwarzenegger and Thurman are often charming enough that Batman & Robin play today like goofy misfires in otherwise solid careers, but O’Donnell and Silverstone are hopeless, given a script that steadfastly refuses to bail them out. I wouldn’t be surprised if lines like “Chicks like you give women a bad name” give Silverstone the occasional nightmare.

For its many failings, its the character of Barbara Pennyworth that marries both Batman & Robin‘s clueless nature and its urge to sell toys. It’s one thing to give Alfred a family. It’s quite another to claim that a girl played by Alicia Silverstone is his niece from England. The film really tries to have it all with her, too. She’s a student from Oxbridge Academy (a name that gives Batman & Robin a surely unintentional connection to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own) who majored in computer science and raced motorcycles on the side, a hobby that not only got her kicked out of school, but gave her enough money to free Alfred “from a life of servitude.” That’s all well and good, but the movie is almost manically gleeful in revealing Barbara to be something less than billed. When she judo tosses Dick Grayson, she’s the first living human being to do so while unironically screaming “HI-YAHH!” When she finds out that Alfred’s CD is password encrypted, this supposed computer science major guesses that the password is “Alfred,” among several other dumb guesses. When she makes her way down to the Batcave, she’s informed that Alfred took the liberty of making her a Batsuit, complete with a platelet that conforms to the exact shape of her butt. Not only does this make poor, dying Alfred look a bit like a creepy uncle, but it allows Schumacher to continue fetishizing molded, plastic posteriors. More than anybody or anything else in this movie, Batgirl is a character inserted into the plot just so the merchandising guys have something extra to sell. That she’s the person who beats up Poison Ivy really only lets Batman off the hook when he’d otherwise have to hit a woman to save Gotham.

It’s unfair to pin that much blame to Silverstone, so I won’t. Her character’s existence is simply a plot convenience in a movie filled with them. In the scene that introduces Bane, for example, there’s the unexplained existence of a group called the Un-United Nations, a generically garbed gang of dudes representing North America, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and so on. They exist as a means to prime Bane’s pump, the monetary value assigned to him indicative of the threat he represents. But they’re not the only ones bidding, as the mad scientist who created Bane is also on the phone with a Mystery Bidder, who eventually wins. We never find out the identity of the Mystery Bidder (given the rumor that Schumacher and Goldsman were working on a Batman/Superman film, my unsubstantiated guess is Lex Luthor), but considering that he spends well north of ten million dollars for his super soldier, he does the job of putting Bane over. Not twenty minutes later, Batman & Robin trots out the auction device  again, this time to point out that Poison Ivy is a woman a room full of drunken men would pay to have sex with. The pheromone dust she blows into the crowd has the same effect on her rich, white suitors that pressing a button on Bane’s chest and yelling “Turbo!” does on the Un-United Nations, and given that Batman and Robin are two men under masks, they serve the same role as the Mystery Bidder, driving up the price and driving home the point that this object is something valuable. It’s an almost impossibly lazy expository trick, and its unconscionable that it’s used twice in the same act.

“Lazy” is actually a pretty good word to stamp upon Batman & Robin, and laziness generally isn’t a virtue shared by Best Worst Movies. The best of this particular subset of film culture often operate on shoestring budgets with less-than-recognizable stars. However bad a movie like The Room is, you’ll never hear Tommy Wiseau say it was for lack of trying. For the infamy that’s followed Troll 2, none of it’s been for blowing a big budget or wasting a veritable galaxy of stars. Batman & Robin cost $140 million dollars to make. It features the world’s biggest action star and a man on the verge of becoming the world’s biggest movie star. Were you to watch this movie blind, neither of those facts would be in evidence. I hoped that, re-watching Batman & Robin, I’d have something concrete to defend my longstanding fandom. There are several moments of genuine goofiness here (did you see the picture of Bane in his trenchcoat and fedora?), but the rest is muck. I can’t wallow in it any further.


Batman and Robin. Directed by Joel Schumacher. With George Clooney (Bruce Wayne), Arnold Schwarzenegger (Mr. Freeze), Uma Thurman (Poison Ivy), Chris O’Donnell (Dick Grayson), Alicia Silverstone (Barbara Pennyworth), and Michael Gough (Alfred). Released June 20, 1997, by Warner Bros.


Though its camp is forced and its cult is diminished by one, this look at Batman & Robin is my first contribution to She Blogged By Night‘s Camp and Cult Blogathon. For a complete list of blogs involved, visit SBBN by clicking either the picture of Tura Satana above, or by clicking here.