Director: (trying to control my rage) Joel Schumacher
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, George Clooney, Chris O’Donnell, Uma Thurman
Have I Seen it Before: It’s a little shocking how many times I’ve actually said it.
Did I Like It: What kind of a question is it.
The text of this review appeared previously in a blog post entitled “What Schumacher’s Batman & Robin got right” published 05/22/2016.
WARNING: Heresy and rubber nipples lie ahead.
It's 3AM. My stomach is a churning miasma of unsettling notions. Naturally, my mind wanders to the work of Joel Schumacher. They go together like nausea and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze. Between the rubber nipples and cascade of puns that have become the stuff of legend, Schumaucher's contributions to the legend of the Caped Crusader are uniformally seen as the dark ages for the Dark Knight.
Here's the unfortunate secret that most bat-fans wouldn't dare admit, unless they're waiting for an industrial-sized dose of Peptol Bismol to kick in:
There are some things -- just a few, mind you -- that Joel Schumaucher not only got exactly right about Batman, but in fact did better than in any other Batman film to date.
I had to be wrong, so I went ahead and did the one thing I should never do: I re-watched the damned movie. Thankfully, the world is not completely upside down. Batman and Robin is just as bad, if not worse than you remember. The movie is congenitally unable to latch on to anything resembling a story arc for its characters. Every quip falls flat. It's kind of a miracle that even the law of averages wouldn't have given the movie some semblance of wit at some point in the proceedings.
Maybe it is all because the film was more of a toy commercial than it was a major motion picture. I tend to think it was because Schumaucher and company came to the conclusion (perhaps rightly so) that superhero films are for kids. Where they went off the tracks and never bothered to look back is determine that because these films are for the under-15 crowd, then it doesn't matter if the film sucks. It doesn't so much matter that the film is bright and campy and doesn't take itself too seriously. It's of far more importance that the film just sucks.
And yet, as I watched the movie again today, there they were, those few scant things that, while they hardly elevate the film in any measurable way, do show some semblance of awareness for what Batman is and can be.
1) The Batman does not kill.
Quick. Go watch every Batman movie, and then go read every Batman comic in existence. I'll wait. Done? Notice anything? The main theme people come away with is that in publishing, Bruce Wayne is bound by a particular code, springing from his origin at the end of Joe Chill's gun. Put simply: The Batman does not kill.
Except, no one bothered to inform the various screenwriters who have handled Warner Brothers' number one franchise. In Batman (1989) Bat-Keaton specifically tells Jack "I'm going to kill you," and he damned sure he puts a grapelling hook to good work to get the job done.
In Batman Returns (1992) Bat-Keaton again dispatches Louie De Penguin with a carefully orchestrated wave of bats and a steep fall. Don't even get me started on the circus strongman that blew up real good for the capital crime of asking Batman to hit him.
In Batman Forever (1995) Iceman-Batman flung Billy Dee Tommy Lee Jones from a tall height* even after Robin O'Donnell learned the important lesson of sparing one's enemies.
In Batman Begins (2005), Bale-Bat does go out of his way to not directly kill Ra's-al-Gon-Jin, but he's pretty content to not save him, when he had plenty of time and resources to do so.
In The Dark Knight (2008) Bale-Bat returns to fling Billy Dee Tommy Lee Eckhart from a tall height** after spending the entire movie not killing Ledjoker, despite literally everyone being fine with that possibility.
In The Dark Knight Rises (2012) Batman drops a thermonuclear bomb into Gotham Harbor, thereby ensuring that the next seventeen generations of Gothamites can look forward to a litany of thyroid problems, if they're lucky.
And finally, in Batman v Board of Education: Dawn of the McMuffin (2016), Batman's antipathy for guns didn't get translated to the other 807 plot points, because Batfleck is more than content to drop a few no-names in the pursuit of... Kryptonite? Barely a month out of seeing the movie, it already feels like a blur.
Sense a pattern here? Batman and Robin is the only post-Adam West cinematic outing where Batman does not kill. One point for Schumaucher and company. Brings the score to 787,231 to 1, but at least it won't be a shut out.
2) Who is Batman?
By the time the fourth film in the series begins, everyone should know. It doesn't take much to find out. Alfred Pennyworth, Vicki Vale, Jack Napier, Selina Kyle, Oswald Cobblepot, Max Schreck, Dick Grayson, Edward Nygma, Harvey Dent, Chase Meridian, Ra's Al Ghul, Rachel Dawes, Lucius Fox, Coleman Reese, Talia al Ghul, Bane, Selina Kyle (again), Non-Robin, James Gordon, Clark Kent, and Diana Prince. Through the course of the Bat-films, all of these characters have figured out Bruce Wayne's secret. Here's the question: are there any other characters in the Batman universe? Outside of Bat-mite and Aunt Harriet, does anyone not know?
There's only one film where Bruce Wayne's secret identity isn't sussed out by the villains or his girlfriend (or some mixture thereof). Which film is that? You guessed it. Batman and Robin. Yes, Barbara Wilson trips over the truth***, but I'm grading on a curve here. Give me a break.
3) At least they didn't run out of money.
I don't think anyone is going to get this far into this blog post and get the idea that I'm actually defending the core of this movie. It's a completely wrongheaded cluster of half-baked almost-ideas, packaged into a cheap sausage casing of '90s fashion. It's the cinematic equivalent of haggis, although saying that does a grave disservice to a sheep's stomach filled with food you wouldn't otherwise want to look at.
But at least they, you know, finished the movie.
It's not neccessarily high praise to say that Warner Brothers didn't just cut their losses and release a rough cut of the turd they had in the oven, but it does make it, fundamentally better than other fourth entries in superhero franchises. Superman IV is content to just use the same footage of Christopher Reeve flying towards the camera, and has a climax that confirms the long-heard suspicion that Mariel Hemingway can breathe in the vacuum of space. It's important to keep things in perspective.
There are a lot of other examples from there. The villains' origins are -- if goofy -- more or less correct. The mythos isn't contorted to make it so that Mr. Freeze is the one who pulled the trigger on Thomas and Martha Wayne, even if that would've been one hell of a flashback. The Schumaucher movies also make Gotham City appears as if it may have the actual scope of a major metropolitan area, even if that city might be a maddening mish mash of Greek statues. In retrospect, Burton's movies look like they take place on a remaindered set from a dinner theater production of Our Town. The movie tries to be funny, which isn't the worst thing in the world. Batman can be funny. Adam West as Batman is funny. The problem is that the movie only tries, and forgets to bring the laughs. It is an important distinction.
So, maybe Batman and Robin is the worst. Making movies is hard. We can't imagine what they might have been up against, and even if Schumaucher's myopia is to blame, there are far more serious sins in the world. Don't believe me? Go watch Superman IV: The Quest For Peace one more time.
* A lot of falling deaths in these movies, no?
** Sound familiar, no?
*** Again, it's not like a lot of deductive reasoning is applied; she uses an infinite amount of password tries to unlock an interactive CD-ROM.