This is part of my “Batman on Film” blog series. To read other entries in this and other Batman-related blog series, head over to my Batman page.
Background & History
After the success of Batman Forever, Warner Bros. decided to fast track a sequel. They hired Joel Schumacher to return as the sequel’s director, and work quickly began. Most of the cast from Batman Forever returned, with the notable exception of Val Kilmer, who was replaced by George Clooney.
Filming began in September 1996, and wrapped the following January. Much of the film’s production set the stage for what the final product would look like. When asked about his work on the film, Chris O’Donnell said, “On Batman Forever, I felt like I was making a movie. [On Batman & Robin], I felt like I was making a kid’s toy commercial.”
O’Donnell’s sentiments were echoed by John Glover, who played the character of Dr. Jason Woodrue: “Joel [Schumacher] would sit on a crane with a megaphone and yell before each take, ‘Remember, everyone, this is a cartoon’. It was hard to act because that kind of set the tone for the film.”
Warner Bros. also hired several toy companies to help with the film’s visual design.
The movie was released on June 20, 1997 and had a record opening, but declined rapidly after its opening weekend.
Schumacher blamed much of the problems with the film on Warner Bros. constant desire for a more “family-friendly” film, along with the decision to fast-track a sequel. He took ownership of the disappointing film, however, apologizing for its shoddy workmanship: “If I’ve disappointed [Batman Forever fans] in any way, then I really want to apologize. Because it wasn’t my intention. My intention was just to entertain them.”
Rather than break this film down as I have for the previous three Batman films, I thought I’d just discuss my reaction to this movie.
I have to admit, this was a very difficult movie to watch. It’s been said ad nauseam, so the assessment is hardly a novel one, but I figured I’d add my voice to the choir of other voices reciting this refrain: Batman & Robin is a two-hour toy commercial. It’s so blatantly toyetic that I couldn’t help but wonder if the movie hadn’t been written by a couple eight-year-old children who were given a bunch of Batman toys to play with. The opening sequence of the movie is riddled with phrases like, “Batman, a new villain has commandeered the Gotham Museum” (Are you sure that’s the right context for the term commandeered?), “Hi Freeze, I’m Batman” (Yes, Batman introduced himself to the “villain”), “Kill the heroes!” (SMH), “Destroy everything!” (It keeps getting better), and “It’s the hockey team from hell!”
Here’s the plot in a nutshell: Poison Ivy wants to destroy everyone in the world and hand the planet over the the plant kingdom. Mr. Freeze wants to destroy everyone in the world because he’s angry and wants his wife back. So they team up and try to destroy the world together. But Batman and Robin stop them. Roll credits.
It’s painfully obvious that this movie is fighting itself at every turn. It’s trying to be more family friendly, but then it’s trying to appeal to adults. It’s trying to be funny, but it knows that the over-the-top campiness is tiresome, so it throws in some drama to give the audience a break, like a bizarre reversal of comic relief.
Which brings me to an interesting point about this film. There’s an arresting subplot regarding Alfred (which actually makes me sad knowing that Michael Gough’s finest performance as Alfred was stuck in this mess of a movie) that could have created some thematic elements for the film to build from and structure around, but these elements are tossed to the side because this movie doesn’t exist to explore themes and ideas. This movie exists to sell toys.
If you’re around my age, you might remember the old Kenner Batman toy lines that came out. There were dozens of different action figures featuring ridiculous costumes Batman would never actually wear. There was Deep Dive Batman. There was Street Racer Batman. There was Lightning Strike Batman. In this movie, Batman actually wore these kinds of costumes.
Ridiculous costumes aside, what I think makes this movie so terrible is that it can’t decide who it’s for. It tries to be a kids movie, but it contains weird sexual humor that’s aimed at adults. The plot is completely outlandish and clearly written for (and probably by) children, but it has these moments that appear to point to deeper thematic elements.
These dramatic moments, as few as they were, seem to be that reversal of comic relief I was referring to earlier. Comic relief in a film, when done properly, alleviates the dramatic tension to allow the audience a moment to breathe. What appears to have happened here is that the film is essentially a live-action cartoon, and moments of realism attempt to break through. The problem is that drama needs to be earned, and this movie spends most of its time in a flashy cartoon land instead of earning those dramatic moments.
In Batman Forever, there were several scenes that were overly silly or comical, but there was an attempt to balance the dramatic and the comical. The dramatic moments here in Batman & Robin serve as a break from the comedy, almost as if the movie knows how obnoxious it is. This is really not a good sign.
I think I would have loved Alfred’s scenes had they been in a different context. He actually has a powerful statement about the essence of Batman in Bruce’s psyche. “Death and chance stole your parents. But rather than become a victim, you have done everything in your power to control the fates. For what is Batman, if not an effort to master the chaos that sweeps our world?”
Batman Forever was taking time to explore Bruce Wayne’s motivation and how his parents’ deaths continued to cast a shadow over his existence as Batman. Alfred’s words would’ve carried weight and poignancy in Batman Forever. Here in Batman & Robin, his words are lost in the cacophony of this action-figure showcase. But had this been a foundation thought for the film’s storyline, we might have had a different movie entirely.
As it stands, however, Batman & Robin exists as the most notorious comic-book movie to date. Thankfully, it was awful enough for the studio to try something completely different.