Can you believe as of this weekend it has been 20 years since Batman and Robin opened in theaters? That is correct; the critically panned Joel Schumacher directed most fan hated film of all time is turning 20 years old. One almost has to wonder how we got here. The funny thing is it goes all the way back to Batman Returns. The sequel that managed to sell less merchandise had a smaller box office receipt and ended with parent objections and McDonald’s pulling their Happy Meal promotion out. Exit Tim Burton and enter Joel Schumacher who gave us Batman Forever which met with mixed reviews, but no back lashings from parents and managed to make more money than Tim Burton’s freaky installment. Batman Forever was such a success in WB’s eyes that they commissioned for a sequel immediately. They cracked the formula… or so they thought. Hence, do the formula all over but double the dose. Are you seeing the problem here yet?
Vendors and toy manufacturers lobbied for the film basically. Joel Schumacher himself had to meet with them and one demand for Schumacher was if he could make the film more and this is their word not mine – “toy-etic”. You can see this all over in the film with a one-seated roadster Batmobile that lights up or Mr. Freeze ginormous spike grilled armored car. Then later on you have the Bat-Hammer, whatever that is and basically a bat-swamp boat in a sense. Do not forget in the final act there is a change wardrobe for no real reason. Oh and Mr. Freeze gets wings in one scene! What is remarkable is this backfired as merchandise did not sell all that much. Robin star Chris O’Donnell even said it felt like they were making a toy commercial.
Marketing issues aside the film does have other problems such as cheese, puns, lack of screen time for Batman, over-acting and bad writing. Mr. Freeze is more or less there just to spew out ice puns. Poison Ivy is here to look like a drag queen and sound like a bad Eartha Kitt. With these two the idea of plot tends to go out the window as well, hence feeling a bit of a repeat of the other preceding films. Mr. Freeze needs money to fund the research for his dying wife, OK. Dr. Pamela Isely becomes Poison Ivy and decides to track down Bruce Wayne for a plan to save the Earth but involves the possible genocide of mankind and is surprised that she is turned down. Hence, she breaks Mr. Freeze out of Arkham and kills his wife because this is a “one woman show”. Lo and behold, Mr. Freeze decides to freeze Gotham and “then [to cliché it up] the world!” Meanwhile, Poison Ivy will inhabit this planet with her killer plant-animal hybrids. Did you catch all of that? I have yet to truly understand why she pulled the plug on Nora Fries asides from her fear of possibly losing just a little screen time to a corpse. That or maybe she truly wanted Mr. Freeze in her flower bed har har. Plus, anyone with the most basic understanding of science knows plants are not going to survive on a frozen world. But wait, we have to beef up this plot with more issues such as the constant bickering between Batman and Robin due to Dick’s wounded petulance. Then bring in Batgirl who wants to take her Uncle Alfred out of Wayne Manor, but wait Alfred is apparently dying and thanks to happy coincidences is dying from the same thing as Mr. Freeze’s wife, Nora.
I would dare argue you could use a few things from this and plot out a much better story. First, the bickering of our dynamic duo needs to be grounded in something and have more development. It could lead to Dick leaving and becoming Nightwing, however he stays around to help Alfred. Meanwhile, with these two bickering they almost check their duties at the door as Batman and Robin. Therefore, Batgirl picks up the mantle, especially since the lackluster GCPD do almost nothing in this film. I would add she would be Commissioner Gordon’s daughter. On a side note, the reason she was made Alfred’s niece is because they could not buy Alicia Silverstone as Pat Hingle’s daughter. Yeah, but we could buy the American Clueless girl being the niece of the most British-y of British men in Hollywood at the time. Poison Ivy has Batman head over heels for her, distracting him from his duties as well. Getting back on topic, Mr. Freeze could end up stopping midway through to help Batman fight this disease and joining him to defeat Ivy. If we dig more into their characters we find both Ivy and Freeze have a cold attitude (no pun intended) towards humanity. However, Victor still has the love for his wife giving him some hope in his humanity unlike Ivy. For it does feel with the killing of Nora that Ivy is trying to totally drive Freeze into that direction, but I do not think this film was ever intelligent for that to begin with originally.
One cannot forget all the gay subtexts people like to draw into it. I will argue it is odd that Schumacher gives us close-ups on butts, boobs, chests and cod pieces for what is basically a toy commercial for kids and what he screamed through a loud speaker according to Dr. Jason Woodrue’s John Glover “a cartoon.” If anything, it is more of the fifties to sixties Silver Age comic book piece with this boy’s club motif going on, especially with Barbara as Bruce jokes how they have to kill her now that she knows their secret and is quick to send her back to school at the end of the film. The Poison Ivy coming between the duo is something of a call back to those comics as well, but done from the opposite end. All the time throughout the Silver Age Batman was getting hitched or dating some girl, with Robin off to the side in tears. This was hardly homosexual discourse, but basically his ward feeling left behind in the dust. Of course, Dr. Frederic Wertham and many critics would still cry “gay” at all of this but if anything it is more in line with the common young boy’s idea of girls are icky and want to play with dolls, not us!
However, I find the toxic levels of hate for this film almost perplexing. Right now we live in a climate where “it’s too dark” and “there’s no humor” amongst comic book films, mainly the DCEU. The lightheartedness and fun is absent, but not here in Batman & Robin. On another front there has been something of a Batman ’66 renaissance. DC Comics published an actual Batman ’66 comic book series with some crossovers. There was the release of the entire television series to Blu-Ray and DVD a few years back, The Return of the Caped Crusaders animated movie starring Adam West, Burt Ward and Judy Newmarr. Finally, there was a Batman ’66 level and playable characters in the LEGO Batman 3 video-game. If anything this film is the closest thing you get to that series without being that series. Looking back now is it really all that horrible I ask you?
There is a sense of fun to be had at this film I would argue. You do not have the deconstructionism of Snyder or all the more adult-centered themes of Nolan’s Batman operating in a post 9/11 world. It is one of the few Batman films you can just turn your brain off to, which I go back to say it seems what most people want of their movies right now anyways. As much as one may hate the film it is beyond unforgettable unlike some sequels, take Iron Man 2 for example. The movie is so amusingly bad that you can pour a few drinks and roast it with a group of friends. It is so absurd that you have to see it to believe. To quote Kevin Smith it is such a shit show that it made Jesse Ventura quit and join the other shit show “politics.” Yes, he was the Arkham guard in this film in case you did not know.
We should tip our hat off to Schumacher for a few things as well such as actually paying homage to Poison Ivy’s Post-Crisis origin with using Dr. Jason Woodrue in her formation as the femme fetale of the green. He lifts Julie Madison all the way back out of the Golden Age of comics for Bruce’s love interest rather than the made up Dr. Chase Meridian. In fact, this was Bruce’s first ever love interest in his entire publication history. Finally, he used the Heart of Ice episode for Mr. Freeze’s origin rather than his original, silly Silver-Age one of camp. Oddly, as Grant Morrison put it – the cartoon managed to pull off a more realistic, grounded and dramatic story for Mr. Freeze, whereas the live-action movie came off more like a cartoon. Last but not least, this bomb of a film was excuse enough for Batman to hibernate for 8 years until he re-emerged as Batman Begins under Christopher Nolan and the character has been going rather strong since now.
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