Here we have the fourth modern Batman film, and the one most despised and reviled by fans of the character. Released in 1997 with high hopes for mega profits by the studio, Warner Bros., director Joel Schumacher brought together Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze, Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy, Jeep Swenson as Bane, George Clooney as Bruce Wayne/Batman, Chris O'Donnell as Dick Grayson/Robin, and Alicia Silverstone as Barbara Pennyworth/Batgirl. Do you see already where things began to go wrong?

Some argue that the key to the Batman series is its unique and memorable villains. Most everyone remembers Jack Nicholson's portrayal of The Joker in the first film. Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman held how many young mens' attentions in the theater? Heck, even Danny DeVito as The Penguin was a bit of inspired casting. When casting for Mr. Freeze a number of names were batted around including Patrick Stewart. Can you imagine how glorious Patrick Stewart as Mr. Freeze would have been? Instead we get Arnold Schwarzenegger painted blue with a shaved head. There is no emotion in his performance, nor is there any element of the tragic figure Mr. Freeze is supposed to be. Yes, the character is supposed to be emotionless, but there's a different between emotionless emotion and hammy overacting. And guess who was the second choice for the role? Sylvester Stallone! Uma Thurman had potential as Poison Ivy, but the script flaws her character as her motivations and goals shift throughout the film. First she wants to save the plants, then she wants to freeze everything in ice. George Clooney seems to have been picked for Batman because he had the chin for the costume. Indeed, rumor has it that Joel Schumacher first realized that Clooney would make a good Batman after drawing the famous cowl over his face in an advertisement for From Dusk Till Dawn. Chris O'Donnell does what he can with Robin, but the wedge that the script plops between him and Batman erases any possible entertainment out of this movie. Conflict is done well if it's done right, and when two characters are best known as working together as a team, it's dangerous to split them up so soon after bringing them together. And then there's Alicia Silverstone who seems to be on hand because, as seen in some behind-the-scenes footage, the director had a crush on her. The footage in question can be seen in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 First Annual Blockbuster Review when Schumacher comes too close into Silverstone's comfort zone and proceeds to flirt with her while the poor actress cringes in disgust. These are all talented actors who have given us entertaining productions in other places, but they just weren't right for this movie, in my opinion.

Anyone who's followed the Batman saga in even little doses knows how badly the various characters' storylines were mangled in this film. Batgirl is no longer the daughter of Commissioner Gordon but the niece of Bruce Wayne's butler Alfred Pennyworth. Poison Ivy is murdered and returns from the grave with powers instead of having said powers be a natural occurance. Mr. Freeze is depicted as a fun guy who sings along to Christmas music and wears polar bear slippers. Plus there's the bizarre rendition of Gotham City. Of course this is all fiction, but does the Gotham City seen in this movie even look like a place people would want to live? There's way too many large gothic statues all over the place.

The film was budgeted at $110 million and, surprisingly, recouped by earning $107 million in the USA and $130 million overseas. It racked up another $58 million in video rentals. As far as DVDs sales go, this movie is typically one of the ones on the $9.99 rack or is even given away free with the purchase of a new DVD player. Before the film landed in theaters TBS/TNT paid a massive amount of money for the broadcast rights and now, in an effort to make up some of their losses on their investment, they often show the film several times a month, sometimes two or three times in a single day.

Bottom line: if you're looking for a Batfix spend some time with the first two films, Batman and Batman Returns, and even the animated series. Here's hoping that if they make another Batman movie, they'll get it right.


References:
IMDB entry for the film
Painfully frequent viewings of the film on TBS on those nights when I couldn't sleep
Too much thought into this horrible movie
I originally penned this shortly after I unwisely spent good money to see this film in the theaters. It is perhaps the worst film I have ever seen, and I wrote this to share my rage with the world. I submitted this to Film Threat and for a time it was on their website. I don't know why I didn't node this sooner, but I can only assume that I wanted to think of this horrific movie as little as possible and thus forgot about my review.

There's a reason this movie is called "Batman and Robin" and not "Batman 4" or even "Batman IV". Of course, Roman numerals were dropped from movie titles because Hollywood executives believe that most of us can't figure out that "IV" in this context doesn't refer to what they stick in people's arms on "ER" and "Chicago Hope". This lunacy reached its climax when the "III" was dropped from "The Madness of King George" because its American distributor didn't want people to stay away because they thought they missed the first two films.

But the real reason becomes clear when you see that Arnold Schwarzenegger gets billing over George Clooney. Clooney has a couple of impressive screen credits in his brief movie career, but they are few in comparison to Arnold's long list of blockbusters. So even if he is the villain again, it seems obvious that he should get top billing. But what it tells us is that it doesn't matter who plays Batman. Even if it was Arnold himself donning the cape and cowl, that wouldn't matter (though it would bring in a nice chunk of change for Time Warner). What everyone is in the theater to see is the Bat symbol, which fills the screen and zooms around in a masturbatory display of special effects. The camera lingers on it in a series of ridiculous crotch shots. The Bat symbol is sexy, erotic. Worship it. Buy Bat merchandise.

Batman has become, like the James Bond movies, a series, freeing it from the inevitable fate of all sequels, the law of diminishing returns. "Batman and Robin" isn't a sequel to anything, it is merely the newest episode. Instead of waiting for next week's episode of a TV series, we're waiting a year or two for the next movie. This frees the studio from being captive to the whim of a single star and makes the audience loyal not to the guy who plays Batman, but to the franchise.

It also frees the audience from the burden of actually having to know what's going on. Since this isn't based or built upon events in another movie, the audience need not have seen any other Batman film. Most of the kids in the theater where I saw it were probably still spitting up their food when the first of the series appeared on the screen in 1989. Besides, Batman has become so ingrained in pop culture that everyone knows the basic story behind the Caped Crusader. If they don't, that's okay, because the story has been stripped down to the basic elements, and they should be easy enough to pick up on. But who cares anyway? We all know that what packs them in is the fighting.

And that is, of course, what starts off "Batman and Robin." No pesky exposition, just start off with some punching and smashing. Arnold's Mr. Freeze and his henchmen have invaded the Gotham Museum of Art and Commissioner Gordon dispatches Batman and Robin to the scene. The movie explodes into a flurry of comic book action, with the Dynamic Duo punching, kicking, and flying through the air with the greatest of ease.

But this movie contains more extreme ridiculousness than any comic book could. It's like a Hollywood hack's idea of what a comic book is. Why escape in a car when you can use a rocket? Why have henchmen carry guns (which would, I don't know, make sense?) when they can wear ice skates and wield hockey sticks? It's high tech special effects meeting low tech camp. Computer animation provides the back drop for characters who spout inane dialogue. With all the money they're spending, you'd think they could afford a decent screenwriter.

The Batman movies have always been out there. Tim Burton showed us a Gotham City full of high tech heroes and villains who fought among Gothic skyscrapers. Joel Schumacher treats us to titanic statues holding up entire buildings and people who can manage to hold on to a rocket blasting up to thirty thousand feet, then surf down on a metal door and land comfortably. Tim Burton's Gotham was without joy or sunlight or zoning laws. Schumacher's Gotham is without the laws of physics.

Schumacher's Crayola vision extends to the characters as well. The only real difference between the good guys and the bad guys is that the good guys win in the end. The bad guys are evil with a capital E because, well, they need to be to force the plot forward. It turns out that the good guys are out to show that they are as much of a bad ass as any villain. In the opening fight scene, Batman and Robin burst through the wall and a skylight to attack Mr. Freeze and his henchmen. What exactly are they accomplishing, other then getting into a big scrap? Mr. Freeze is just stealing a diamond Batman and Robin are causing millions of dollars of structural damage. What's the difference between them? Batman's gun control homily and charity work aside, the good guys are getting off on something more than fulfilling their civic duty.

I suspect that the good guys are are written like that is because otherwise, they largely suffer a personality deficit. At least George Clooney shows a glimmer of personality, unlike Val Kilmer, who spent his time in the Bat suit impersonating a cigar store Indian. Michael Keaton captured the right mix of wit and intensity, at least in the first movie. Val Kilmer was all intensity, so intense he became nearly immobile. Here, Clooney is merely lukewarm, showing none of the intensity of his role in "From Dusk Till Dawn". In "Batman and Robin," the villains get most of what passes for personality and characterization.

Arnold Schwarzenegger shamelessly spouts some of the most ridiculous dialogue ever to be spoken on screen. Schwarzenegger, while hardly a master thespian, at least manages to bring some wit and charm to most of his roles. Here, he is wooden, crashing through the movie with a huge grin on his face, no doubt from the hefty check he collected for such little work. At least he has one genuinely good and intentionally funny scene, which is more than the other actors can say. Mr. Freeze conducts his reluctant henchmen in a less than rousing rendition of "White Christmas" while they struggle to consume frozen dinners in their icy headquarters.

Poison Ivy has one henchman, a chunk of muscle called Bane, whose dialogue mostly consists of grunts. Apparently the movie went over budget, because Bane's "muscle" is a horribly fake looking padded suit. {After I wrote this, I was told that this wasn't a suit, but the actor's real physique covered with some poorly chosen paint and/or makeup. I don't know if that's true.} Uma herself is as sexy as she usually is, but the awful dialogue she is saddled with prevents her from making this a truly memorable role.

Alicia Silverstone is far more cuter now that she's abandoned the psycho-slut roles she played in Aerosmith videos and grade Z movies like "The Crush." She seems to look like she's pouting throughout most of this movie, but despite this, her innocent schoolgirl act can be fun to watch.

Despite its many faults, at least "Batman and Robin" held my interest, which is more than can be said for "Batman Returns" and "Batman Whatever". The plot and dialogue were pure hackwork, but the brief moments of humor (both intentional and not) provoke a mixture of bemusement and ironic detachment. Despite its trappings of gloom, "Batman and Robin" has much more in common with the sunny and campy TV show than with Tim Burton's vision. In "Batman," the horror is palpable beneath the humor. When the Joker prances around a man tied up in a chair, struggling against his bonds, the scene is funny but at the same time terrifying, because we know the poor guy is going to die horribly. In "Batman and Robin," when Mr. Freeze turns the freeze gun on someone and encases them in ice, it just looks funny. Despite its pretensions, "Batman and Robin" is just Adam West and Burt Ward with the lights on dim.

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