Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, June 20, 2014

Recent Watches: Batman and Robin (1997)

Batman & Robin” is, easily, the movie most loathed by nerds, at least until the “Star Wars” prequels came along. The film is widely seen as the nadir of the “Batman” franchise.  Joel Schumacher’s has been called the devil, the Batnipples has been widely mocked, and the whole movie is generally regarded as a massive hate-shit of forced camp and ridiculous performances. “Batman & Robin” is bad, there’s no doubt about that. But is really that bad?

In the events since “Batman Forever,” Batman and Robin have become an established crime-fighting team. As the film begins, the Dynamic Duo are battling Mr. Freeze, the freeze-ray sporting and ice pun throwing villain out to steal giant diamonds, saving his terminally ill wife as his final goal. Around the same time, botanist Pamela Isley is killed by her research partner after she discovers he’s using her experiments to create super-solider. This winds up not working, as Isley is reborn as super-villainess Poison Ivy. Heading to Gotham, with her dumb muscle Bane in hand, Ivy and Freeze form an uneasy alliance, both targeting Batman and Robin. Meanwhile, the ill Alfred brings his niece Barbara to Wayne Manor, where the young girl with a secret adventurous side winds up taking up a Batmantle of her own.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. “Batman & Robin” is a campy movie. The entire film is powered by camp, pushing far pass even what was acceptable in 1997 for campiness in mainstream cinema. The dark, brutal world of Burton’s Batman films is long gone, replaced fully by Schumacher’s day-glo, high-gloss camp. From the film’s opening minutes, Batman and Robin are sprouting ice skates from the bottom of their feet to battle a fleet of henchmen in hockey outfits. Mr. Freeze flies through the sky on butterfly wings while the Dynamic Duo leap from an exploding rocket while surfing on metal doors. Poison Ivy crashes a jungle themed party, where the dancers are dressed in grass skirts, while wearing a pink gorilla outfit. She then proceeds to do a sexy dance while still in the pink gorilla outfit. Every minor side character in the film, from security guards to scientists, have awful jokes to tell while Batman and the villains are fighting around them. A bulldog is frozen while peeing on a fire hydrant. I mean, come on. Parts of “Batman & Robin” are hard to take is the point I'm trying to convey.

And yet… I can say with pure confidence that I prefer Schmacher’s second crack at the Bat-franchise over his first. While “Batman Forever” was an uneasy mixture of Schumacher’s goofy style and Burton’s darker themes, “Batman & Robin” is pure Schumacher. While the plot and characters are more absurd, Schumacher actually restrains his visual style a little more. The Gotham here resembles the Gotham of Burton’s films slightly more. The city is marginally darker and the more Gothic architecture returns. At least three buildings in the city are supported by giant Greek style statues. The script is a little more focused this time too, though only slightly better. I’ll even say that George Clooney has far more chemistry with Chris O’Donnell then Val Kilmer did. The movie is ridiculous but I’d say its ridiculousness goes down a little easier then “Forever’s.”

Aside from the Batnips, the film is probably most criticized for its performance. Dead-center at the flick’s campy heart is Arnold Schwarzenegger. Mr. Freeze, while born in the campy Silver Age, is best known as a complex, morally-conflicted character, a quiet, (literally) coldly logical man whose villainous actions are driven by heartbreak. Schwarzenegger’s Freeze, on the other hand, is preoccupied with ice-related puns. Arnie, of course, has a way with one-liners and, good God, does he sink his teeth in here. “Allow me to break the ICE!” and so on. The movie runs with the character’s gimmick, in the way only a silver age comic book would. Freeze’s henchmen are all done up as hockey players. His evil base is a frozen food and ice cream factory. His bombs are shaped like icicles. The goofiest element is that how, while at ease, Freeze lounges in a bathrobe decorated with penguins, polar bear bedroom slippers, and sings the Snow Miser song. As ridiculously goofy as all this is, the movie still attempts to maintain Freeze’s heart as a man doing everything for his frozen wife. It jives badly with the rest of the movie’s tone, of course, and the image of a tear freezing on his cheek is hilariously overwrought. How much you enjoy Schwarzenegger’s performance here depends solely on your pre-built-in affection for the actor. Arnold was very comfortable with his on-screen persona by this point and he plays Mr. Freeze as basically a super villain version of John Matrix. Is it a good performance? Probably not. Is it entertaining? I’d be lying if I said no.

Less successful is Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy. Ivy is another complicated comic character, an Eco-terrorist whose motivations are ultimately admirable and, frequently, performs as many positive acts as negative. She’s also a classic femme fatale, using her sexuality as a weapon against the men of Gotham City. “Batman & Robin” runs with the former characteristic while barely acknowledging the first. Poison Ivy is ostensibly motivated by humanity’s treatment of plant life and the Earth. However, her goals seem like a rough fit with Mr. Freeze’s and Ivy is mostly just a glowering evil bitch. Her botanical obsession is reduced to a gimmick, with her growing a garden quickly or scooping up Batman with vines. Instead, Ivy mostly uses her pheromones to instantly seduce men, a clumsy device. Thurman’s disastrous performance helps none at all. For reasons I can’t discern, Thurman decided to do an exaggerated, ridiculous Mae West impersonation. The way she vamps and croons is frankly embarrassing for an actress as proven and talented as Uma. (Honestly, John Glover’s cartoonishly over-the-top performance as Dr. Woodrue, Ivy’s creator, is way more entertaining. Maybe Floronic Man should have been the second villain in the movie instead…)

The fourth Batman movie also features the third actor to play Batman in this series. In concept, George Clooney seems like an ideal choice for the part. He has the good looks to pull off handsome playboy Bruce Wayne but is clearly talented enough to play Batman’s inner darkness. Unfortunately, Clooney is highly uneven in the part. There’s one or two moment, such as when Bruce is detective-ing on the Batcomputer, where you get a taste of the great Batman Clooney could have been. Most of the time, Clooney seems lost among the camp. He mostly grimaces from behind the cowl, chomping stiffly through the awful dialogue he’s given, such as when he tosses out the Bat-Credit Card. Any moment Clooney has to share screen time with his incredibly unimportant female love interest, Elle Macpherson as Julie Madison, he’s visibly pained by the script.

The film does a much better job of fusing together its two villains then “Forever” did. Disappointingly, it wouldn’t be a Schumacher Batman flick without at least one stuffed-in, unnecessary subplot. About a half-hour into the film, Alfred's niece Barbara comes to visit Wayne Manor. While Babs seems like a good school girl at first, she secretly has a love for street racing, motorcycles, and judo. Her role is generally small, the film forgetting about her for long stretches in favor of Freeze and Ivy’s antics. Right before the third act turn, Barbara cracks Alfred’s ridiculous easy password, discovers the Batcave, and becomes Batgirl. The movie does a massive disservice to the Batgirl character, a massively important part of the Bat Family mythos. It’s not even technically the right character. This is Barbara Wilson, Alfred’s niece and not Barbara Gordon, Commissioner Gordon’s daughter. This is actually fine, since Pat Hingle’s Jim Gordon has been reduced a cameo at this point. However, Barbara’s role in the story is tiny and has no effect on the plot until the very end. Her introduction as Batgirl happens so quickly, so late in the film, that it’s barely acknowledged. The killing blow to the character is Alicia Silverstone. Silverstone is awful in the part, mumbling through her dialogue in an incredibly flat manner. She is deeply miscast in the part, Silverstone’s flighty blonde act being a poor fit for the typically more brainy Batgirl part. The pro-active things she does in the movie mostly come off as a limp attempt at “Girl power!” Like Uma, Silverstone at least looks lovely in the tight, revealing outfits.

As problematic as the actors and characters are, “Batman & Robin” at least attempts to formulate a genuine theme. The reason Barbara gets involved in the story is because Alfred is suddenly ill. Instead of this simply being old-age getting to the man, Alfred is stricken with some made-up disease. As he is ill, Bruce and Alfred have numerous heart-to-heart moments. Alfred gets at the heart of Batman’s quest, that it’s an attempt to overcome the inevitably of death. Several quiet moments involve Bruce remembering Alfred taking care of him when he was a kid. The need for family plays out in Batman and Robin’s developing relationship and how they’re still learning how to depend on each other. Of course, the villains are barely involved in this theme, unless you count Dr. Freeze’s devotion to his wife. I’m not saying it works. It frequently gets lost amidst the silliness. But at least they tried.

Of course, there’s something else going on under the surface in “Batman & Robin.” Barely. “Batman Forever” was a super-gay superhero flick. Part four is even gayer. Batman and Robin’s suits are even more ridiculously homoerotic, with the Batnipples, codpiece, molded abs, and lingering close-ups on their rubber-clad asses. Using Poison Ivy in the film, and emphasizing her femme fatale attribute over the Eco-terrorist angle, essentially makes aggressive female sexuality the villain of the film. When Ivy hits Batman and Robin with her seducing scent, the duo is split apart. In order to win the day, both men must overcome their sexual attraction to a woman! That Wayne has way more chemistry with Dick then he does with the barely there Julie certainly helps support this subtext. And though there’s no reason to read into Bruce and Alfred’s relationship, you totally could if you wanted too. Despite doing everything for his wife, even Mr. Freeze could be read as gay or at least asexual. When Vivica A. Fox’s needless eye-candy character (named, sigh, Ms. B. Haven) hits on him, he rejects her. His partnership with Poison Ivy seems completely one-sided as well, the male villain having no attraction to her and seeing no need for it. The gay subtext in “Batman Forever” seemed deeply out of place but, at least this time, it fits the film’s overall campy tone.

The film’s many failures have been widely blamed on Joel Schumacher. Not everything wrong with the movie was his fault. The studio meddled heavily with “Batman & Robin” during production. The director was forced to include more toyetic elements. Thus Batman and Robin don new, Arctic-style suits before the end and jump into strangely ice-specific vehicles. The Batcave and all the vehicles inside got destroyed in the last movie, meaning this one can feature brand new ones. (To make new toys from.) This Batmobile has a glowing, spinning engine under the hood, an ideal feature for a play set but totally useless for a real vehicle. Mr. Freeze drives around in a weird freezing tank that was obviously designed as a toy first and a real vehicle second. Even the inclusion of Batgirl and Bane seem like another obvious attempt to make more new toys. I’m not a huge fan of Bane as a character, always considering him rather gimmicky, but reducing the guy to monosyllabic, dumb muscle wasn’t fair at all to the source material.

As Clooney said afterwards, “Batman & Robin” killed the franchise. It destroyed careers too. Chris O’Donnell and Alicia Silverstone were both furiously ejected from the A-list following this film, both all-but disappearing afterwards. Uma Thurman wouldn’t do anything of note again until Tarantino came calling once more. (This, sadly, is consistent with Thurman’s terrible non-Tarantino career choices.) It would take George Clooney several more years to gain audience’s trust as a leading man. Only Arnold truly survived, mostly because his career was already on a downward turn by this point. Schmacher and Clooney have repeatedly apologized for the film over the years. Not that they need too, considering how fans will never stop hating this movie. It’s not good, that’s for sure, but I would honestly say it’s a slightly smoother ride then “Batman Forever.” I might be alone in that opinion. [5/10]

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