In April of 1940, about a year after the debut of arguably their most popular character, Bruce Wayne/Batman, DC Comics debuted “the sensational find of [that year]”, Dick Grayson/Robin. Since then, Batman’s pixie-boots-wearing partner has changed outfits and a number of different characters have assumed the mantle as the Dynamic Duo of Batman and Robin have become an iconic staple of DC Comics. Considering my fondness for the character and those who assumed the mantle over the years, what better way to celebrate this dynamic debut than to dedicate an entire month to celebrating the character?
Released: 12 June 1997
Director: Joel Schumacher
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Budget: $160 million
Stars: George Clooney, Chris O’Donnell, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Uma Thurman, Alicia Silverstone, Jeep Swenson, and Michael Gough
Gotham City is under siege from Doctor Victor Fries/Mister Freeze (Schwarzenegger), who is intent on freezing the city in order to save his critically-ill wife, Nora (Vendela Kirsebom). At the same time, Pamela Isley/Poison Ivy (Thurman) finds herself endowed with a poison kiss and irresistible pheromones, which she uses to turn Bruce Wayne/Batman (Clooney) and Dick Grayson/Robin (O’Donnell) against each other and distract them from her plot to turn nature against humanity.
With the release of Batman (Burton, 1989), “Batmania” swept across the world as part of Batman’s much-needed reinvention into a far darker and grittier interpretation. When the sequel, Batman Returns (ibid, 1992), upset parents and sponsors with its macabre content, Warner Bros. turned to Joel Schumacher to lighten up their live-action Bat-franchise with the often under-rated Batman Forever (Schumacher, 1995), the success of which spurred them to immediately greenlight a sequel. When Warner Bros. again shot down Schumacher’s plans for a darker, more cerebral follow-up, the director begrudgingly acquiesced to their desire for a lighter, more kid-friendly movie by leaning into the campy styling of the classic 1960s television show and comic books.
With the troublesome Val Kilmer absent from the title role due to “scheduling conflicts”, the up-and-coming and popular George Clooney was picked as his replacement specifically to portray a lighter version of the character and Arnold Schwarzenegger was convinced by a hefty $25 million salary to portray the film’s primary antagonist. Thanks to the sequel’s rushed production and deadline, shooting was a chaotic time for the cast and crew, with Schumacher repeatedly urging the actors to treat the film as little more than a live-action cartoon and toy companies being heavily involved in the look and content of the film. All of this came to be reflected in the film’s dismal box office and scathing critical reception, which derailed plans for a potential follow-up. In the years since, Clooney has never been shy about voicing his disdain for the film and the late Joel Schumacher would (perhaps unfairly, due to him being under immense pressure at the time from Warner Bros. to deliver a specific interpretation of Batman) shoulder much of the blame for the film’s failings.
Although it’s easy to pretend that Schumacher’s films are in their own bubble, that they’re not related to Tim Burton’s early, far darker efforts, Batman & Robin is clearly a sequel to Batman Forever and still in the same (loose) continuity as the Burton films. Think of these older Batman films like the James Bond franchise; some actors change, some stay the same, but there are enough references and allusions to the previous films to keep them in the same wonky timeline. For example, because Edward Nygma/The Riddler (Jim Carrey) destroyed the Batcave and the Batmobile in Batman Forever, it makes sense for there to be new toys suits and vehicles and such. The Riddler and Harvey Dent/Two-Face’s (Tommy Lee Jones) costumes can even be seen in Arkham Asylum, further tying the films together, though there’s strangely no mention of Doctor Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman); Bruce is, instead, dating Julie Madison (Elle Macpherson) and has been for a long time. It’s a minor inclusion in the film that really serves no narrative purpose and it would have been much simpler to not have a woman on Bruce’s arm at all, to be honest.
Val Kilmer might not be everyone’s cup of tea in Hollywood but he was a far more fitting choice for the dual role of Batman and Bruce Wayne than Doctor Doug Ross. Clooney’s Batman can be seen as an evolution of Kilmer’s since, in Batman Forever, Bruce came to terms with his pain and grief but he’s at the extreme other end of the spectrum, basically having transformed into the Adam West Batman; he’s chatty, polite, makes numerous public appearances, and is a revered superhero through and through. Despite being the only Batman to truly have a “no kill” policy in place (and even that is debatable when you factor in the big chase sequence between Batman, Robin, and Mr. Freeze), Clooney is pretty much the worst Batman ever in a lot of ways; he lacks the physical stature of Kilmer and the raw intensity of Keaton. He’s also pretty short and uninspiring in the role, despite the work of his stunt man, and there’s no real distinction between his Bruce Wayne voice and his Batman one except that, as Batman, he’s a little more…I don’t know, professional, maybe? Either way, the lines between the two are marginal, at best, and the only thing he brings to the role is an impressive emulation of Adam West’s iconic portrayal of the character. You can really see this in all the little nuances and inflections he utilises as Batman but, what makes his portrayal stand out is the unique narrative he gets in his building tension with Dick and his emotional arc with his father-figure, Alfred Pennyworth (Gough).
Dialogue between Bruce and Alfred reveals that Bruce doesn’t trust Dick to not get hurt and the crux of Bruce’s arc in this film; he’s afraid to trust, afraid to love, and afraid of the concept of them being a true family and partnership. He initially balks at this since he trusts Alfred but Alfred gently advise that he “shan’t be [there] forever”. He desperately tries to talk sense into Dick, whose resentment is fuelled by Poison Ivy’s influence, and his arc is about recognising the family dynamic they all have and trusting Dick to be responsible in his own way. Similar to Kilmer’s arc in Forever, though, the resolution to this is somewhat anti-climatic as Bruce is eventually able to get Dick back on side by repeating his own words about trust and family back to him in an exchange that includes a standout line (“She wants to kill you, Dick”) that never fails to get a snort of laughter out of me. Ultimately, though, there are a lot of Clooney apologists out there who will swear blind that he is capable of putting in a good performance as the character with a better script or direction; well, I would counter argue that these beliefs are based on Clooney’s abilities today; back in 1997, he was a goofy, bland choice (even he admitted that he was miscast in the role) clearly motivated by the actor’s popularity on ER (1994 to 2009) and, while his inclusion isn’t the worst part of the film, it’s certainly a significantly disruptive cog that left the franchise dead in the water and no amount of accolades or improvements in his ability can ever shake my dislike for Clooney as an actor.
Stephen Amell Chris O’Donnell returned as Dick Grayson, now portraying Nightwing in everything but name and sporting a fantastic red-themed replica of his suit and all his own gadgets and such. Far from the angst-filled biker boy of the previous film, Dick has matured into a respectable young man and hero in his own right and much of his conflict with Bruce stems from the fact that he is on the cusp of breaking away from Batman’s shadow and becoming his own man. While they work well together as partners, Batman is shown to be overly critical and condescending towards Robin, admonishing him for nearly breaking a priceless vase, leaving him to tackle Mr. Freeze’s thugs, and even reprimanding him when he comes to save him from Freeze’s ridiculous rocket ship.
Ultimately, the first real signs of tension between the two come after Robin is frozen by Mr. Freeze after acting on his reckless impulses. Bruce punishes him by ordering him to spend “ten hours in the simulation training” (though it’s unclear if this is a virtual reality simulation or a real-life simulator of sorts), which frustrates Dick since he believes that he’s being unfairly punished for making a simple mistake and that Bruce doesn’t trust him. In Bruce’s defence, Bruce would mostly likely take a small mistake just as seriously and train himself to do better both to improve and as a form of punishment. Still, Poison Ivy’s subsequent influence over both of them (but especially Robin) exacerbates Robin’s feelings of resentment towards Bruce into aggression; in these heated exchanges, we see that Dick feels that Bruce is holding him back and keeping him from being all he can be and being overly protective. All he wants is Bruce trust and respect and for them to work together on equal ground but his hot-headedness, intensified by Ivy’s manipulations, brings all these deep-rooted feelings to the surface and results in a series of arguments and even the two coming to blows.
All of this serves as additional drama amidst the unrelenting crime spree of Mr. Freeze, a character largely more concerned with making every ice-pun in the book and revelling in destruction rather than exuding the intelligence and pathos audiences came to expect from the character after the excellent “Heart of Ice” (Timm, 1992) episode of Batman: The Animated Series (1992 to 1999). Instead, Freeze is a bombastic cartoon villain for kids and Arnold is clearly having a good time in the role but it’s difficult to believe that this man was ever a Noble Prize-winner scientist or a doting, loving husband. It’s similar to Two-Face, who was so maniacal and over the top and introduced already as a crazed supervillain so we never got a chance to see or truly appreciate the true tragedy of the character. Instead, we’re left with a Saturday morning cartoon villain garbed in fantastical intricate and well-crafted suit of armour.
Still, Mr. Freeze is such a weird dichotomy of extremes; he’s this cringey supervillain, forces his minions to sing in his frozen lair, is a relatively eloquent and sophisticated man at times (especially when puffing on a big fat cigar and relating his plans to steal diamonds and hold the city to ransom with his giant freezing cannon), and also a tragic figure haunted by his past and his wife’s condition. One minute he’ll be yelling and acting like a petulant child but the next he’s weeping icy tears and pining for his cryogenically frozen wife. It’s a chaotic mess of conflicting emotions and makes any sympathy we might feel completely redundant because he’s so over the top! The film even tries to pull at the same heartstrings as “Heart of Ice” but it fails miserably even as an imitation of that ground-breaking episode, which really should have been the template for Freeze’s characterisation and motivation. Again, like in Batman Forever, the film would have worked much better if everything had been played completely straight (but especially Freeze), with only Ivy as the zany, madcap villain to allow the comedic elements to come naturally out of the straight-faced camp.
Getting on to Poison Ivy, like the Riddler in the last film she is actually afforded an origin story and first introduced as Pamela Isley, a kooky and awkward scientist obsessed with genetically crossbreeding plants with animals so that they can fight back against the “thoughtless ravages of man”. She seals her fate when she happens upon her boss, Doctor Jason Woodrue (John Glover), using a bastardised version of her research to transform the deranged serial killer Antonio Diego (Michael Reid MacKay) into a mindless super-soldier Woodrue christens as “Bane” (Swenson). The idea that Woodrue had this whole evil lair right beneath Isley’s laboratory is ridiculous and it’s insane that she never stumbled across it until Woodrue was in the middle of showcasing his formula and auctioning Bane off to a group of terrorists and other unscrupulous individuals. Still, Woodrue’s subsequent attempt to kill Isley results in the poisons and toxins genetically altering her into Poison Ivy, a pheromone-induced supervillainess with a deadly kiss who begins a crusade against Bruce Wayne since he once funded their work.
Whereas Nygma was already a bit of a nutjob before being spurned by Bruce Wayne and exposed to his “Box”, this transformation instantly alters Isley into an alluring, confident, half-crazed femme fatale who is obsessed with using her newfound abilities to manipulate men into aiding her cause to allow plants to overtake the world. Ivy’s “pheromone dust” is an effective way of stoking the tension between Batman and Robin and she’s not quite as maniacal as Freeze, Two-Face, or the Riddler but she’s still a massively over-dramatic, cartoony villain who monologues at every opportunity, cackles with glee, and even throws in an elaborate cry of “Curses!” when she’s defeated. Ivy is willing to kill millions of people to allow the planet, and plants, to thrive once more; like with Nygma, Bruce is patient and sympathetic to her cause but cannot sanction any action that causes such a death toll and, although Pamela’s presence appears to have an alluring effect on him, it’s at the auction where she, as Poison Ivy, truly begins to influence both him (as Batman) and Robin with her pheromones. So smitten by her allure are they that they begin a very public, very childish bidding war for her services, resulting in one of the most cringe-worthy moments in not just a Batman movie but all of cinema…yet, in a bubble that sees this as an extension of the bright, campy sixties Batman, you can see this as a fun (as in “daft”) scene.
When Mr. Freeze crashes the party, Ivy is immediately in awe of his strength, conviction, and direct approach; when her pheromones have no influence on him, she becomes even more interested in him as a potential partner and, just as Robin is infatuated by her, she comes to be enamoured with Freeze. To that end, she and Bane break Freeze out of the ridiculously elaborate Arkham Asylum (literally a gothic castle on a storm-swept island!) and, when he continually shoots down her advances, she kills off his wife out of jealousy and to sway him into an alliance to freeze first Gotham, and then the world, and have her animal/plant hybrids rule what’s left alongside them. Far from the intellectual mastermind of the comics, Bane is a hulking, mindless brute who follows Ivy’s commands simply…because (she’s never shown using her pheromones on him so it’s unclear exactly why he submits to her). As in many interpretations, Venom is both his strength and weakness, making him simultaneously superhuman but also reducing him to a quivering, helpless wreck when his tubes are severed. He exists simply because Bane was popular at the time thanks to the influential Knightfall storyline (Dixon, et al, 1993 to 1994) but could easily have been any other Bat-brute; I’m thinking Waylon Jones/Killer Croc would have been a far better fit.
To help even the odds a bit, Batman & Robin brings a version of Batgirl into the fold; traditionally, it is Commissioner Jim Gordon’s daughter, Barbara Gordon, under the cape and cowl of Batgirl but, here, it’s Barbara Wilson (Alicia Silverstone), Alfred’s hitherto-unknown niece. A minor change, to be sure, but one that I’m actually onboard with since Gordon (Pat Hingle) is so inconsequential in this film and it helps to both make her slightly more relevant to the story and reveal hidden layers to Alfred’s character and backstory since he’s never mentioned her or his extended family before because of his stringent commitment to decorum. While the experience was quite harrowing, to say the least, for Silverstone, it can’t be denied that she doesn’t exactly impress with her acting chops and is easily the weakest link in the film, but she’s fantastic as eye-candy and plays the part of both flighty, innocent schoolgirl and bad girl racer well enough, Barbara’s intentions are also quite interesting in that she arrives at Wayne Manor to liberate Alfred from what she sees as a life of servitude; she initially doesn’t understand or appreciate the family dynamic Alfred has with Bruce and Dick and takes part in dangerous, illegal street races to win the money she needs to take him away from his life. Naturally, Dick is immediately attracted to her; she mostly deflects his advances and obvious flirting, preferring to focus first on racing for money and her love for Alfred and then her commitment to helping Batman and Robin as Batgirl. Essentially, Batgirl exists to sell more toys and to allow for a fight scene with Poison Ivy; Batman and Robin are never seen even throwing a punch Ivy’s way so this allows for a more “even” fight to occur between the two females.
Finally, there is the whole sub-plot regarding Alfred’s advancing age, illness, and mortality; although we see Alfred flinching in obvious pain and discomfort during the film’s bombastic opening, it’s only after Barbara arrives that the true extent of his illness is brought to light. This sub-plot is the true heart of the film as Bruce, Dick, and Alfred himself must come to terms with Alfred’s mortality; seriously ill, he makes preparations to have his brother takeover his duties but is unable to reach him and (similar to his actions with Dick in Batman Forever) surreptitiously puts Barbara on the path to becoming Batgirl. The film’s standout moments come in the heart-warming (and heart-breaking) exchanges between Alfred and Bruce about the merits of family and trust, with the two sharing a truly emotional scene where they profess their love and admiration for each other. It’s a fantastic side plot that really belongs in a better movie and there’s a twist, and nuance, to this side story as Bruce is haunted by flashbacks of his childhood with Alfred rather than the traumatic deaths of his parents, which is a refreshing change.
Essentially, Batman & Robin is almost beat-for-beat the same movie as Batman Forever: the score is largely unchanged; there’s a suit-up scene at the start with a cringey one-liner; a big, explosive fight with the new supervillain; a cliché villain team-up, a falling out between Bruce and Dick; and a new Bat-character is introduced, learns of their identities, before joining them for a big, climatic showdown featuring new suits and vehicles.
Honestly, I actually dig the film’s costume design; the Batsuit isn’t that great but I actually like that it’s lacking any yellow colouring, Robin’s Nightwing suit is picture perfect, and Batgirl’s tight outfit is great for showing off her curves. Yes, the suits have nipples and clearly resemble rubber more than armour but I kind of get what Schumacher was going for with the design and it’s honestly not as distracting as some people make out. Frankly, if you’re spending your time fixated solely on Batman and Robin’s nipples then I think you might have a bit of a problem since there’s a lot of worse stuff in the film (the zany, madcap presentation, for example, is far worse since it’s just a hyperactive kids’ movie and little more than an expensive advertisement for a new line of Batman toys).
Each of the film’s action sequences is like some kind of chaotic acid trip! Take the opening sequence, for example: Batman and Robin intercept Mr. Freeze at the Gotham Museum, contending with “the hockey team from hell”, performing all manner of physics-defying stunts and tricks, and conveniently sporting ice skates in their boots! Mr. Freeze freezes a dinosaur statue to cover his escape in a rocket that fires from his absolutely ridiculous Freezemobile! Batman follows and is left to freeze to death in space before Robin rescues him and they surf through the night sky on doors of the rockets to pursue Freeze, who sprouts wings from his armour! Having said that, though, the Batmobile/Redbird chase against the Freezemobile and Mr. Freeze’s goons is pretty good but would be even better if they weren’t racing across the building, iron biceps of a gigantic statue!
However, as bombastic and over the top as Batman Forever’s finale was, Batman & Robin’s really takes the cake with Mr. Freeze using his diamond-powered gizmo to transform Bruce’s massive new telescope into a giant freezing cannon and cover the city in ice. Batman, Robin, and Batgirl race across the frozen city streets in their fancy new
toys vehicles, scale the mountainous telescope, and then battle both Bane and Mr. Freeze over control of the telescope, maddeningly using satellites to…somehow…reflect sunlight from across the globe (why was satellite control even programmed into the telescope’s controls? Mr. Freeze wouldn’t have needed it for his plan and I don’t see how moving satellites would help with observing stars and planets…) to thaw out the city and put an end to Mr. Freeze’s mad designs. In the end, though, Batman takes pity on Mr. Freeze and appeals to his better nature, securing both a cure for Alfred and arranging for Freeze to continue his research at Arkham Asylum. I find it very interesting that the filmmakers utilised Mr. Freeze, of all of Batman’s rogue’s gallery, and can’t help but think that the Scarecrow would have made for a far better villain (why is he even called “Mr. Freeze” anyway? The guy’s got a PhD! He’s underselling himself! He should be “Dr. Freeze!”). They could have consolidated Freeze and Ivy’s storylines into one villain, since both of their goals are easily adapted to suit Scarecrow, and told a far more grounded, intricate story about fear and overcoming it but that probably wouldn’t sell anywhere near as many toys now would it?
While Batman doesn’t partake in any direct instances of murder in this film, Mr. Freeze is quite dark at times, declaring at one point his intention to “pull Batman’s heart from his body and watch it freeze in [his] hands” and there’s a lot of double entendre sand innuendo involving Poison Ivy that I find amusing was deemed acceptable by all those soccer moms who complained about how dark and inappropriate Burtons films were. Gotham City is more neon-drenched and outrageous than ever, filled with even more giant statues, cramped streets, ornate skyscrapers, and other impractical architecture (even Bruce Wayne’s observatory is a garish, steampunk-like construction built into a mountain!) Fight scenes, though comical, are fast and frenetic and full of unfeasible physical stunts and actions but, again, at least we’re seeing a physically capable Batman and Robin. Sadly, fights are often spoiled by their cartoony nature, which includes accompanying zany sound effects wherever possible.
Gotham is populated by a garish variety of street thugs; the neon-clad gang for Batman Forever return and a variety of undesirables are present at the underground race, from Clockwork Orange (Kubrick, 1971) lookalikes to punks and biker gangs. While the public, and police, are massively dependant upon Batman and Robin, more so than ever before, and revere the two as protectors and heroes (they are called in at the first sign of trouble and even make highly publicised appearances at things like auctions and police crime scenes), these types of gangs and criminals don’t get much focus in this film. Like in Batman Forever, street criminals are no longer Batman’s focus since he’s too busy fighting supervillains as a “superhero” rather than being the scourge of criminals across the city. The implication is that criminals are afraid of Batman enough that they no longer cause violent crimes but the gang was clearly planning to rape that girl in Batman Forever and the bike race is extremely dangerous in this film so you’d think Batman would put some effort into curtailing these criminal elements but…apparently not. This is kind of why I dislike the idea of Batman as a “superhero”; his focus should always be street level and against corruption and organised crime first. Sure, supervillains exist in Gotham but I feel like they’ve overshadowed Bruce’s original mission, which was to protect others from random acts of violence like the one he witnessed as a kid; Batman & Robin is a glaring example of the extreme other end of the spectrum and I wish I could say modern Batman stories aren’t routinely obsessed with large-scale, supervillain threats to Gotham but the sad truth is that they often are. Give me a dark, gritty tale focusing on corruption, street crime, and maybe the machinations of a colourful/maniacal rogue over city/world-dominated plots any day.
Annoyingly, the Bat-Cave still opens up and activates when there’s an intruder only now it’s even worse since a Max Headroom (Matt Frewer) version of Alfred politely greets any intruders. Though only a brief inclusion, the very idea that Alfred was somehow able to “program his brain algorithms into the Batcomputer” is both ludicrous and startling in its implications. I also love that Robin renders Ivy’s poison kiss mute with rubber lips when, arguably, it’s the saliva from her kiss that is venomous rather than just skin-on-skin contact but, to be fair, the film does present it as this latter way rather than the former so I guess it’s okay…? Finally, Batman is far more accepting of Barbara as Batgirl than he was of Dick as Robin, potentially because they are heading into the cartoony finale of the film so there’s no real time to focus on his reaction to her dynamite debut, instead accepting it right away and with a couple of one-liners. If I’m Robin, I’d be a bit annoyed at this since Barbara has far less training and experience and is something of a liability for all her enthusiasm (she clearly flounders in her fight with Ivy before winning with ridiculous ease because the script says she must). Still, she takes to her new role amazingly well and is easily able to use all of her suit’s gadgets, and to hold her own in fights against Poison Ivy and Bane. She then shows the unique talent she brings to the role in her computer skills, though I find it hard to believe that Batman, of all people, wouldn’t be able to handle such a task. The scene, however, is framed in a way to show Batman accepting of the help of others and the two of them as his partners and family.
As a kid, I remember seeing this film at the cinema and absolutely loving it; I was firmly of the belief that the Batman movies just got better and better with each new film, adding more and more characters, villains, and recognisable elements from the comics I so enjoyed. I watched all the live-action films, the sixties movie, and was reading Batman stories from the sixties to nineties at the time and never had any trouble distinguishing between them. It was just Batman in different forms, and I was excited to see more of him, especially with Robin by his side. As an adult, it’s much harder to excuse the film since it’s a far cry from the dark, brooding Batman that is generally favoured but, when you view it as a love letter to the sixties Batman television series and bright, campy comics of that same era, you can kind of excuse a lot of its more glaring faults. It’s supposed to be a fun, mindless kids’ film; a live-action cartoon intended to sell toys and reap the rewards of its many and varied merchandise opportunities. It’s far from the guilty pleasure that Batman Forever is and it’s not the Batman I would prefer to see and I don’t like to hate on it because, for all its faults, at least it had the balls to use Robin and to tell an interesting story with both him trying to become his own man and hero and the side plot involving Bruce and Alfred.
Whew, well, that’s Batman & Robin, a divisive film, to say the least. What is your opinion on the film, its cast, and Schumacher’s unique direction for the character and franchise? Do you think George Clooney was a poor choice for Batman or do you also believe he could do the role justice with a different script? What did you think of the film’s portrayal of Mr. Freeze, interpretation of Batgirl, and Robin’s character arc? Would you have liked to see another Batman film under Schumacher’s direction? Whatever your thoughts, good, bad, or indifferent, please feel free to leave a comment below and come back next Tuesday for the last entry in Robin Month.