“Batman and Robin” struggled under the weight of its own excess

Batman & Robin Alicia Silverstone, George Clooney & Chris O'Donnell in Batman & Robin (Warner Bros.)

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For July, we honor the chameleonic genre-bending of the recently-passed Joel Schumacher, who embraced camp thrills and pulp trash in equal measure. Read the rest of our coverage here.

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Watching Batman & Robin is weird under the best of circumstances. And note that I do not say strange. I say weird, and I stand by it. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore, but under the circumstances, it’s a good thing. I say this with a certain amount of fondness, as I can finally admit what I once kept a closely guarded secret for years: I watched this movie over and over as a kid.

What can I say? I knew not what I did. My viewing habits were closely monitored, and Joel Schumacher’s most notorious flop was one of the few action movies considered suitable for me. How could I not be fascinated, especially when it had Alicia Silverstone as the girl who got to be a biker, and suit up with the guys as Batgirl instead of just another disposable love interest who had to be rescued by them?

What doomed Batman & Robin is also what still makes it bizarrely enjoyable, even today – its devotion to the ‘60s feel and aesthetic of the comics and the Adam West series. That makes for plenty of laughs right away, with the infamous Bat nipples and Bat butts on display in the film’s opening moments no less. Less talked about is the decision to zoom in on the, ahem, utility belts. Top Gun may have waited forty minutes to get to that volleyball scene, but Batman & Robin scoffs at such impatience.

Pretty soon I’d given up on all my ambitions of live-tweeting the experience of rewatching this movie. Directly following that suiting up we meet Mr. Freeze, played by the future California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in all his glory. And his ice puns! There are so many, and they’re made better by Schwarzenegger’s hilarious delivery, whether intentional or not. I couldn’t possibly keep up, so why not just enjoy the ride?

What doomed Batman & Robin is also what still makes it bizarrely enjoyable, even today – its devotion to the ‘60s feel and aesthetic of the comics and the Adam West series.

That said, it’s perhaps the only occasion where George Clooney inspires some pity. His Batman is the movie’s straight man, a clear do-gooder who takes the time to catch those vases being thrown around in a museum during a fight with the bad guy. Needless to say, that he’ll capture rather than kill his opponents isn’t even a question. He’s a pillar of the community inside the suit and out, whether he’s attending a ball in costume or donating a telescope to Gotham Observatory as Bruce Wayne. The villains don’t just overshadow him, they do so with minimal effort.

His situation isn’t so bad though, especially when you consider how 90s heartthrob Chris O’Donnell fares as Robin, aka Dick Grayson. He spends most of the city complaining, whether it’s that Batman doesn’t trust him enough to make his own decisions, which is at least understandable. Less so is when he decides that Batman is jealous that the clearly villainous Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman) is totally interested in him.

Which brings us to the darker side of the ‘60s worship. While many of the movies from the decade are enjoyable, or in some cases, masterpieces, they can also make us squirm in how they typically view those who aren’t white, straight, and male. The comics from whence Ivy sprung have also been guilty of writing her off as a seductress, but in Batman & Robin her powers are treated more like a gimmick or a plot device, instead having her rely mostly on seduction via pheromones and a toxic kiss that literally kills.

Her introduction to the heroes comes at a rainforest-themed charity ball where various dancers are decked out in faux Indigenous garb and swinging on vines, and muscular Brown men wearing nothing but shorts are so intoxicated by her they literally lay on the ground for her to walk on. She then offers herself up for auction, even informing the crowd that everything they don’t see will be included.

These decisions were guaranteed to age poorly, but in 2020, when women and people of color are demanding more of a voice, it makes Batman & Robin a relic. About as cringey is how Ivy is treated in comparison to Mr. Freeze, who she inexplicably becomes romantically obsessed with after she discovers he’s immune to her pheromones, in spite of the fact that their goals are incompatible (how are plants supposed to grow in ice exactly?).

Arnold Schwarzenegger & Uma Thurman in Batman & Robin (Warner Bros.)

Ivy is also only empowered in the first place after a male colleague steals her work for his own destructive purposes, then tries to kill her when she refuses to join him in his schemes. Yet Freeze is given a redemption arc, while Ivy is never anything other than a feminist environmental extremist who is easily defeated by Batgirl. People might literally laugh Ivy out of a room for saying that humanity will pay a high price for how they’ve treated the planet in 1997, but it doesn’t seem so far-fetched in 2020.

Ivy herself has also gone through a revival of sorts in recent, even becoming a kind of antiheroine who is now openly in a relationship with longtime friend and fellow villain/antiheroine Harley Quinn, both in the comics and the Harley Quinn series on the DC Universe streaming service. If this character is any fun here, it’s thanks to Thurman, who makes Ivy enjoyable to watch purely through force of will and skill. It helps too that her costumes are so amazing that her disguises mostly seem to consist of being out of them.

But for a movie with a mere 11% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the reaction to it seems strangely fond all these years later. When I posted about watching it on social media, there was little outright disdain, and plenty of people laughingly recalled the movie’s most ridiculous moments, some of which have been gloriously enhanced by the power of the Internet.

Batman & Robin was also an unwitting farewell of sorts to the actor who had been with the franchise since it kicked off in 1989 with Batman, that of Michael Gough’s Alfred Pennyworth. A major plot point in the movie is his terminal illness, and when a cure is miraculously found, it’s also the point where a new family has become complete.

What Schumacher really did, in his own way, was make a family movie. In this film, Batman, Robin, and Batgirl, whose origins are changed to make her Alfred’s niece, are all orphans. They band together as a found family to fight crime and prevent others from suffering similar losses. It’s just that Schumacher’s execution of it was the death of the franchise itself for a number of years, until Christopher Nolan breathed new life into it with Batman Begins in 2005.

Yet while Batman & Robin was definitely not the late great Joel Schumacher’s best accomplishment, it’s one that will definitely live on in infamy, and a movie that people are still able to find joy from, in spite of its many flaws. Excess never dies.

Batman & Robin Trailer:

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