Film Review: Batman & Robin

How exactly do you follow a film like Batman Forever? The question must have been front of mind for Joel Schumacher and Akiva Goldsman when they returned to the franchise to craft the fourth and final entry in Warner’s first attempt at a Batman feature series. With both Schumacher and Goldsman being complete hacks, it is frankly surprising that they rose to the challenge of answering it as well as they did, which is about half as well as they would have had to were they to actually make a good film. Make no mistake, Batman & Robin is every bit the superior to its predecessor, it is more cohesive, more stylish, more deliberate, and more enjoyable, if only because it doesn’t come across as being actively hostile towards the audience. Yet for every good idea there is a lingering cloud of noxiousness, for every great moment a dull quarter of an hour, for every refreshing change an inescapable reminder that you are watching the sequel to Batman Forever.

The film’s first move is to both acknowledge its status as a sequel and to shit on the thing it is a sequel to. “I want a car,” says Robin. “Chicks dig the car.” “This is why Superman works alone,” Batman replies, almost rolling his eyes at the camera. Alfred completes the undoing of the previous film’s opening exchanges with the line “I’ll cancel the pizzas.” Through this, it makes a promise to the audience that it is proceeding in good faith with an attempt to deliver a knowingly silly Batman experience. Yet it fails to progress from that stage in a holistic way, rather some parts advance while others linger, entangled in the wreckage of prefatory catastrophe. This piecemeal approach to making improvements over the misbegotten formula of its prior efforts means that the film ends up being very much in two halves, one an agreeable camp caper, the other a mess of half-baked characters reciting often simply unfunny jokes in service of a story that doesn’t make sense. In lieu of needlessly prolonging this review, so without delving into details of plot, I invite you to ponder this question: are there any plants that can thrive in an ice desert?

While many cast and crew members returned for the sequel, Val Kilmer did not. You could hardly blame him for wanting to be somewhere else, though of all the somewhere elses he could have ended up, The Island of Doctor Moreau was probably the one he was least prepared for. But Kilmer’s absence is notable only because his replacement in George Clooney so effortlessly provides the qualities he could not. In a film like this, Batman absolutely has to be the unflappable straightman, someone who can deadpan his way through all the plot has to throw at him, and Clooney is most definitely up to the task. Very early on we see Batman skating down the spine of a model dinosaur after announcing, in a calmly assured voice, “Hi Freeze, I’m Batman.” It is of course ludicrous, but Clooney’s unflinchingly suave coffee advertisement demeanour totally sells it. Chris O’Donnell’s Robin is meanwhile thrust into being the comedy sidekick, a role which he is not best suited for. In the previous film he excelled, or at least came closest to excelling in quieter scenes which more or less called for plain, indeed borderline human charm, but here he is left floundering in the form of a wholly unnatural goofball while Alicia Silverstone sort of takes over the troubled-but-good-kid role he played previously. It isn’t so much that O’Donnell lacks the chops for comedy, but that he is essentially performing the role of the ignition to the engine of this comedy and the key doesn’t fit.

The mismatch of role and player in Robin’s case is nothing compared to that of Mr Freeze. In any other possible world, Arnold Schwarzenegger, forever best known for playing a cold, emotionless killing machine in The Terminator, would have been perfect for playing a cold, emotionless cure-researching machine here, but Akiva Goldsman and whoever else clearly ignored the superlative—and surely most popular with this film’s alleged target audience—version voiced by Michael Ansara in Batman: The Animated Series, so Schwarzenegger is staggeringly miscast. The infamous ice puns rarely make any sense and are only ever remotely funny because they’re so incredibly awful. There is a reason the “ballpoint banana” joke from the 1966 Batman works, and that is Burt Ward’s complete earnestness of delivery. There’s no grinning or winking, just a straight-faced, clear-voiced annunciation of absurdity. Arnie meanwhile bites chunks out of the scenery like he’s bulking for Mr Universe. Of course, by this time no one would have expected much else from Schwarzenegger, who had since the mid-’80s become a mainstay of the Hollywood action-comedy blockbuster scene, providing a springboard to questionable comedies like Junior and Jingle All the Way, as well as increasingly mediocre action movies like Eraser. The two meet in Batman & Robin, which should have been the nadir of his career, but alas, who among you could have foreseen four more Terminator sequels, let alone his starring in three of them?

As ever, these characters inhabit Gotham City, which returns in a more fleshed-out and stylish vision that can occasionally impress the eye. In Batman Forever it was reduced to a kind of lifeless neon interstice between scenes of questionable cohesiveness, here it is not so much a believable city as it is a gigantic art museum, but at the very least it has physicality and style. In its design it pays homage to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, with elevated roads snaking their way around gigantic statues, but here all is surface, and the answer to the question “why did you put that there?” is “because!”, which goes some way to summing up the film itself. Unlike in Batman Returns, there is little sense of society (that’s another eleven years down the line, folks) in the Gotham of this film, the characters exist pretty much entirely apart from the broader world around them. Not that, for example, a man in a diamond-powered exosuit (the only remotely subtle ice pun in the entire film, by the way) who goes around freezing people has to have a deep relationship to his context to be effective as a villain, but Mr Freeze seems to have nothing at all to do with the world he inhabits, and this is not addressed in a way that makes it appear deliberate, if it is even addressed at all. Everything we see of Gotham is supersized to match the operatic performances it is intended to contain, but there are precious few combinations of role and player that can actually expand to fill such a space, and this leaves Batman’s beloved city feeling empty for entirely different reasons than it did in the previous film.

In fact, when I say “precious few,” I actually mean “precisely one.” For there is among the main cast one above all else, a woman who could almost make you believe you’re watching a better film. If ever a “yas queen” should escape my begrudging lips, let it be for Uma Thurman in this film. She throws herself into every line, every pose, every glance, every scene without the faintest care about looking stupid, which is precisely the fearlessness required to sell such questionable goods. From knowingly clichéd eco-warrior to genocidal plant goddess, there isn’t a moment in the entire film when Thurman is both on screen and outdone. The only problem is that she’s playing Catwoman from two films ago. Pamela Isley sees something she wasn’t supposed to, her boss kills her, she comes back with superpowers to get her revenge. When the best part of your film is just one ingredient of a much better film warmed over, you should rethink just what in the heck you’re doing, but since “you” in this sentence is either one of or an almost definitely satanic fusion of both Joel Schumacher and Akiva Goldsman, maybe it is in fact I who should rethink just what in the heck I’m doing. Besides inviting the unflattering comparison to better days, the film also serves the Poison Ivy character poorly by encumbering her with weak practical effects and even worse CGI. Poison Ivy has the potential to be a one-woman circus, and Thurman is more than a match for any level of lavishness, but she is consistently undercut in the phantasmagoria department by lacklustre support.

But what wasn’t Pamela Isley supposed to see? What was it that brought forth her untimely demise? I’m torn between “a golden retriever with gland problems” and “a man in an inflatable rubber suit,” so for one time only you get two (count em’) shitty yet accurate and dismissive jokes for the price of one, said price probably being your patience. Bane is pretty much a non-entity throughout the film, his job is to be large and throw less large people around, and to respond to button presses like some kind of Pavlovian golden retriever with gland problems (three! …sort of! (count ’em)). Professional wrestler Robert Swenson, who wrestled for WCW and other promotions, plays the beefed up version of Bane, but his mat skills are not really put to any good use here. It’s unfortunate, since, for all the supposed homoeroticism in this film, one would think that the chance to have a big muscular man do a thing he is good at would not be passed up. But alas. Well, I guess so far as Swenson is a supremely large lad, his performance is successful. Bizarrely, one of his most active scenes is to the film’s detriment, highlighting one of the major tonal issues it struggles with, or rather ignores throughout. The Turkish bath scene, in which Poison Ivy has him throw a bunch of street punks out of a derelict building, features numerous cartoon sound effects that feel totally out of place. Taken at face value it is a relatively minor blunder, yet one which brings to mind the deep-seated identity confusion of Batman Forever. While the film makes overtures to outlandishness, its stagey acting style and often clunky action scenes mean that attempts to play up an atmosphere of cartooniness rather than of operatic drama fail miserably.

Opposed to the one-dimensional Bane, Alicia Silverstone plays Barbara Wilson, this film’s Batgirl, with not so much multi-dimensionality but rather the sense of lots of individual unconnected dimensions existing in separate realities. With the Hardyesque Pat Hingle playing Commissioner Gordon, there’s no way Silverstone could have convincingly played his daughter, so it makes sense to shoogle the role around a little. Instead of the usual ties, then, Barbara Wilson is in fact a relative of Alfred Pennyworth. Alfred is sick and Barbara has come to petition Bruce Wayne to send Alfred back to his native England, where he may live out his final days in the bosom of family. I bring this up not to pad out the review, but because this sub-plot, while as vigorously bungled as one might expect, is a nice send-off for Michael Gough, who returns to play the much mistreated butler one last time. As for Silverstone, her performance is, as previously mentioned, quite strange. In her very second scene she sleepily proclaims “both of my parents were killed in a car accident five years ago,” which I must confess caused me to burst out laughing. Her nonchalant line delivery and not-all-there smile are presumably intended to be read as an affectation of unassumingness by which she hides her true rebellious biker chick hacker chick ten-words-per-minute chick self, but in practice she simply appears to be high. Despite having just arrived in Gotham, on break from “Oxbridge Academy,” she speaks without the faintest hint of received pronunciation (this is probably for the best), and is furthermore intimately familiar with the meet locations and customs of the city’s underground bike racing scene. (Said scene is apparently being run by Coolio, who, originally just a cameo, has been revealed to have been playing Jonathan Crane, aka Scarecrow. If you think that sounds like complete nonsense, it is, but it’s also true.) Her performance is as confused as the role itself, yet as Batgirl, Silverstone’s scenes have probably the most straight up fighting of any of the main cast’s, and she also has the best hero/villain banter in her scene with Poison Ivy.

With the main cast now fully accounted for, surely there can be no love interests? Well, you’d be right, and also wrong. Elle Macpherson, one of several supermodels featured in the film, plays Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend Julie Madison, a throwback to Batman’s original run on Detective Comics. I will, broken record as I am, now talk about past episodes from the annals of cinematic Batlove history. Vicki Vale is nothing special, but her relationship with Bruce Wayne and Batman begins as two separate threads which weave together over the course of the film, culminating in the third act. Selina Kyle brings this idea to new heights by having her alter ego act as an adversary to Batman while she romances Wayne, and by having their dual natures so closely mirror one another. Chase Meridian, well, she’s at least involved in both sides of Bruce’s life. Julie Madison simply sits or stands near Wayne in some scenes but mostly just doesn’t exist. We’re supposed to believe that there is some conflict when Wayne, under the lingering effects of Poison Ivy’s pheromones, spaces out during a kiss with Madison, but Madison’s sparse appearances render her a thin gruel of a character, and there is not a moment that, despite the false amours of Poison Ivy fogging his mind, we can ever believe that Wayne gives a shit about her in the first place. Given that there is no indication that Macpherson can act, this is probably for the best, and Madison is thus saved from being the worst of the Batman love interests in the first Warner series only by virtue of the fact that, unlike Chase Meridian, she is completely irrelevant to the main action of the film.

So that’s Batman & Robin. It far outstrips Batman Forever, but it can almost never be spoken of positively in itself, only in relation to the disaster that precedes it, and too many of its own failings are reminiscent of said disaster for it to successfully make the case that it has learned and moved on from it. Add to that the fact that so much of its good parts are either homages or perhaps unwitting reiterations of good things in previous Batman films and you end up with something that can’t with any sincerity be heralded as an actual improvement, the same bunch of idiots simply got luckier overall with their selections of material this time around. Schumacher, may he rest in peace, I suppose knew he was making some bullshit, and later on he went so far as to apologise for his contributions to Batman’s career on the silver screen. Yet at the time this film was released, a third, or rather fifth entry was slated for production. Batman Unchained, which was to feature cameo Coolio as Scarecrow, and allegedly, and most bafflingly, Jack Nicholson returning as Joker, was planned to be a darker and more serious Batman, closer to the comic books of which Schumacher claimed to be a fan, but the box office intervened and for better or for worse we shall never know what hell may yet have been unleashed, or unchained, or whatever. Well, looks like I’m running out of things to say, guess that’s my cue to put this review on ice!

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