The Films of Joel Schumacher

my 2018 personal Blank Check project

Batman & Robin (1997)

written by: Akiva Goldsman
starring: George Clooney, Chris O'Donnell, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Uma Thurman, and Alicia Silverstone

Before sitting down to rewatch a movie that had been formative to my youth, I had considered what my angle would be. As I hit play on 1997's Batman & Robin, I figured the way to come at it would be, "What did I like about this when I was eight? What could I have liked about it?" Surely, I thought, I wouldn't like it now that I'm a mature adult filmviewer. Surely, I would find it ugly and stupid and ineffective. Surely, I would walk away feeling that I had hit the low point of my friend Joel Schumacher's career. Surely, I would have to examine what in the movie had worked for me as a child that didn't work now. What was good for me then that isn't as good now? And, of course, what was really terrible? I was ready for that examination of my own childhood tastes and youthful foolishness, ready to watch a movie and think, "how awful." 

And yet.

Here on the other side, I find myself having a hard time committing to that angle. Turns out that I, um, had a really good time watching this movie. I think it's better than Batman Forever. It's campy and cartoonish, but in a way that's self-aware without being condescending, and very, very fun. It's entertaining, which I think was its sole intention, and on that level it succeeds.

Maybe I'm dumb and have bad taste. Probably that's the case. Maybe I'm a crazy person. Well, so be it! Too bad!! I liked Batman & Robin!! Get used to it!

To begin, the movie entirely knows what it is. It's camp. It's a cartoon. I found myself thinking, "This is supposed to be the same universe as Tim Burton's Batman?" Indeed, the two do not fit together, but it does both a disservice to try and link them. Burton's Batman movies are dark and moody. Schumacher's vision is more Batman '66, right down to the cutesie design of the Gotham police cars. Taken on it's own, Batman & Robin is as clear and assured a movie and world as you could want. It is entirely internally cohesive. Visually, it's gorgeous, as most of Schumacher's movies are. The colors are rich and vibrant, very crisp and without that orange-y haze that sits over many movies (including Batman Forever). The action is greatly improved from Batman Forever-- each movement has a clear through-line and resolution, it's well paced and punctuated. The fights themselves are fun, and each player has a clear style, from Batman's clean athleticism to Robin's acrobatics, even down to Bane's heavy clunking and Mr. Freeze's hockey goons zip-zipping around. The occasional cape swirl goes a long way, and those are used sparingly but with great effect.

All of this movie is better achieved than the previous outing, starting from the opening sequence: Batman (George Clooney) and Robin (Chris O'Donnell) head off into Gotham to stop Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) from stealing a giant diamond from the Gotham Natural History Museum. That alone is delightful, classic comic book stuff. It's simple, clean, easy. They fight some bad guys, Freeze escapes by freezing Robin into a block of ice. Batman stops to save his partner, losing the bad guy in the process. It functions just like the opening of Batman Forever, where Batman chases Two-Face as he robs a bank. But that sequence drags and the action isn't always clear. It's messy, muddled and dull. The opening of Batman & Robin is more effective on all points. The action is clearer, the cheese-factor is acknowledged and embraced. There are bang-pow-zip sound effects and twinkling, adventurous music. I remember loving this opening sequence as a kid-- it's fun, and I liked the threat of danger at the end-- If Batman doesn't stop to thaw out Robin, he'll die. It's buttoned by Robin emerging from a pool of water, thawed, asking, "Did we get him?" How can you not like that?

It's a little campy and silly, absolutely, but it's fun. The silliness isn't so bad, and when the actors commit to it, it's great! When performers are having fun, it's easy to have fun along with them, and more often than not the actors here at least give the impression that they're having fun. I'd go so far as to say that almost all the performances in Batman & Robin are fun fun fun, often verging on good.

The weak link is unfortunately George Clooney, our modern Cary Grant, usually so charming and debonair, but who here can’t seem muster the energy required to be any fun at all. Initially, he looks frightened to be in the batsuit— then he walks through the movie half asleep. He can't figure out how to fit into this world, it seems, and doesn't rise to the occasion. He’s not a good Bruce Wayne (too sleepy, never wears cute reading glasses), nor is he a good Batman (too sleepy, too.... Clooney), and he doesn’t really seem to be trying. He delivers a few good moments, particularly when asked to be gentle and warm, but mostly he seems checked out. He occasionally looks a little pained.

All this does, really, is make everyone else look better. The most direct comparison is Chris O’Donnell, who rules, dudes, and is unbelievably charming in this one. Compared to Clooney's unengaged performance, O'Donnell absolutely glitters. He reads as younger somehow in this than in Batman Forever-- maybe his shoulders are thinner, or simply his energy lighter and brighter. He's allowed to smile and be playful, which works in his favor. You’ll recall I already liked him in Batman Forever, and while he has said he didn't particularly like making this movie, he still turns out a great, charming performance. I was entranced. He’s utterly bubbly, grinning and laughing throughout. And uh, y’all, he’s gorgeous. Putting aside the anatomical costume, most of his looks emphasize his bright blue eyes, his white teeth, his strong jaw. This boy is beautiful, and the lighter tone accentuates that. Letting Chris O’Donnell smile is a masterstroke. It makes his Robin more likeable, more boyish. He glows.

Alicia Silverstone, as the eventual Batgirl, is a little stiff, but extraordinarily cute. She manages the toughness needed for Barbara, and the eventual giddy excitement at helping out and kicking ass. Her hair flips beautifully and she pulls off leather motorcycle outfits nicely. I like her, and she and O'Donnell have enough chemistry to get by on. Barbara's story arc isn't exactly rich, but it's fine enough for what this movie is. She gets to come into her own and find something fulfilling to do with her life. There are a few moments of "But you're a girl!!", but at least everyone seems somewhat uncomfortable delivering them and Barbara takes them mostly as jokes, not as slights. It's all mostly to service Barbara's non-stop proving that she's extremely capable and a girl. It's what I like best about her-- she's unapologetically feminine, and tough and brave and heroic. She wants to help, and she does, even down to rescuing Robin at the end. He respects her for it, and they become a cute team, and gosh I love that. She's also good with computers, and wears very cute little reading glasses, so, that's adorable and I love her.

Uma Thurman, meanwhile, is giving a truly heroic performance. With an Eartha Kitt purr and perfect, precise diction, her affectations as Poison Ivy are hilarious, sexy, and dangerous in turns.  She's delivering a performance that's almost one hundred percent camp, and it's wonderful. She's so funny. Like, laugh out loud funny. And for a character who's whole deal is being sexy and using that sex appeal to kill men (amazing), she's not objectified or overly sexualized for our enjoyment. I think this is partially based in Schumacher, who is gay and maybe doesn't get what's sexy about women, but I still think it's a strength of the film (and often of his filmmaking) that it doesn't ogle her body. Her sexiness is internal-- she's beautiful, yes, but it's not all about her body. More it's that she's confident, self-assured, and pleased with herself. When Poison Ivy is being sexy, the camera alternates between full body shots and comfortable close ups on her face-- her pouting lips and long, batting eyelashes. It's respectful, overall, and gives Poison Ivy strength. She's sexy and powerful, and she uses it to her own advantage only. Not even the camera can diminish her.

I've even got some nice things to say about Arnold Schwarzenegger. True, he's relegated to delivering mostly ice puns, and true, he is a glittery blue for the entirety of the movie, but nevertheless I find him compelling! Maybe this is the movie stardom of  Schwarzenegger at work-- he's a magnetic force, even when doing something pretty stupid. There are successful moments of pathos coupled with the mad twinkle in his eye of villainy that absolutely sing. He does a lot under a serious amount of make up and heavy costume pieces, and it's a testament to his ability that you can read any performance at all.

So all of that totally works for me, and I found myself giddily laughing along with most of the movie. It’s a rollercoaster and a thrill ride, silly and bright and outlandish. There are some beautiful shots and gorgeous choices. It has devilish details-- there are Poison Ivy's living plants and Mr. Freeze's ice formation bombs, jars labeled VENOM and a glimpse into Arkham's Bad Guy Costume Storage. I love the hockey goons and Gotham's themed gangs-- a Clockwork Orange gang in suspenders and bowler hats, a gang of day-glo skeletons. Mr. Freeze has lights behind his teeth! It's marvelously designed and imagined, which is what you come to Schumacher for.

(I have nothing to say about the anatomic costumes-- they're fine. They honestly don't bother me.)

It really is a gorgeous movie. Visually rich, every shot is filled with specific, interesting details. Sets are gothic and looming, the set dressing is cluttered but not distracting, and well thought out. I admit some of the big special effects might not hold up (like most of the ice effects or anything requiring much CGI), but that's 1997 and I'm okay with it.

A lot of what's wrong with the movie (if there's anything wrong with it) may come down to "that's 1997". This is not a modern superhero movie, or a modern action movie that asks us to take stunts seriously. Our Bat-family flies about with an impossible physical ease. Their cars have big wings and are heavily branded. It's 1997, baby. Lighten up!

This is a movie that, if you can take it on it's own terms, I actually think is pretty good. It's not trying to be smart, to elegant, or clever. If you expect it to be, of course you'll be disappointed. Even it's emotional beats are simple. We have a jealousy plot where Robin feels under-appreciated and babied, and one where Alfred (Michael Gough, classic) is dying and everyone is handling that in different ways. Its not heavy lifting, but it's functional. The loss of a loved one stuff matches Mr. Freeze's grief over his ill (and frozen) wife. Robin's need to feel respected couples with Barbara's need for the same, and they find it in each other. Barbara being dismissed for being "just a girl" runs parallel to Poison Ivy, using men's misogyny against them. When they come face to face, Barbara and Poison Ivy have a showdown based in feminist ideology. Barbara declares, "Using feminine wiles to get what you want? Trading on your looks? Read a book sister, that passive aggressive number went out long ago." She continues, "Chicks like you give women a bad name." Barbara's not wrong there. It's a little heavy handed, but it plays pretty well and feels genuinely earned. It's also playfully, jokingly acknowledged as being purposefully PC when Batman says to Batgirl, "What about Batperson? Or, Batwoman?" I'm not gonna lie-- I laughed at that line. It's very cute.

So thematically, it's all pretty surface and simple, but sometimes simplicity is just fine. It'll happily take narrative and thematic simplicity if it comes along with clarity and entertainment.

So what entranced me so about this movie when I was eight? What about it had me reading and re-reading the novelization? It's not a perfectly easy question to answer. I think when I was eight, I liked Chris O'Donnell. I liked him and I liked Robin very, very much. I liked the drama of the internal angst of this movie, liked Robin screaming in frustration when Batman leaves him behind. That interpersonal jealousy and anger, the crumbling of a partnership-- That's the sort of stuff I ate up, and as I've grown, I still eat that up. I still like the tension happening between Batman and Robin. I still like the scene where Robin kisses Poison Ivy, his lips glistening, only to pull off rubber lips in a deeply memorable "gotcha". That Gotcha is based in a trust between Batman and Robin, the culmination of their mutual want for family and discovery of it in each other. That's probably why it's so satisfying for me. I love love, you know? I love little found families.

Simplicity. Entertainment. I still get those things from this movie. I find it deeply entertaining, nearly compulsively watchable. When I started out this project, my impression of Schumacher was that his films were colorful, dramatic, and outlandish. I was right about that, and Batman & Robin is the height of that outlandish style. Maybe it doesn't hit the remarkable marriage of style and substance that Flatliners or The Lost Boys do, but it's style is well suited to it's substance nevertheless. His characters are color themed, clearly surrounded in blues or greens or reds. It's heightened, yes, and exactly as silly as the script demands. Some people certainly can't get on board with that sort of thing, or can't let themselves take a silly, outlandish movie like Batman & Robin at face value and judge it only for what it is. Some people say this is one of the worst movies ever made. I don't believe that at all, and I can't fully understand it. So it's silly, okay. So it's pretty toyetic, sure. So it's campy and occasionally a little stiff and sometimes the puns garner eye-rolls. But it's trying to be silly, trying to sell toys, trying to make bad puns. It's not hurting anyone and it's really not that bad. At the very least it's better than Batman Forever. At the very least it's fun to watch and it's two hour run time speeds by. At least it's not ugly, not hateful, not harmful. It's just fun and funny and playful.

What's best about Batman & Robin is that it isn't pretending to be anything more than that. It's a live action cartoon about a little found family that goes through some hardship and comes out stronger on the other end. Along the way there's silliness and action and bad puns. The movie knows that about itself. I'm more than okay with that. Not only do I not think this movie is awful, I dare say it's actually pretty good. It's sharp and coherent and lovingly goofy. It's well shot, well designed, well made.

So yeah, I liked it! I liked it a lot! Fight me, film critics of America! It is what it is and I like what it is!! I'm ready to defend this movie now, so bring it on. I'm charmed by it. Maybe I got a face full of Poison Ivy's love dust, but I ain't sorry about it. I think this movie is gosh darn delightful.

To quote Mr. Freeze, "Revenge! A-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!!"

Overall: ★ ★ ★ ★
Schumacherness: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Up next: 8MM (1999)