So last week my esteemed colleague Joe Starr decided to head for the rooftops of Gotham City with his retrospective on Batman Returns. The rooftops gone, I dove for the shadows and gave myself the misguided task of revisiting what is easily considered the worst Batman movie ever made, Batman & Robin. And I say this even now, in a world where Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a movie that exists.
I haven’t sat and watched it as a complete movie since the first time I saw it in the theater in 1997. I had actually convinced myself over the almost two full decades since I saw it that maybe, just maybe, B&R wasn’t so bad after all. Maybe with the passage of time I’d be able to see the movie for the charms it does have and look past the ones it doesn’t.
Y’all, I was totally wrong, this movie isn’t just as bad as I remember it, it is so. much. worse. I was even wrong about something I’d always falsely remembered as a strength of the movie. I have said out loud to other humans that George Clooney was the best at playing Bruce Wayne, not Batman but Bruce Wayne. This is objectively wrong; Clooney is bad in it and even he’ll tell you that.
First off, let me just deal with two of the most commonly bitched about aspects of B&R and get them out of the way so we don’t need to dwell on them. Yeah, nipples on the Batsuit. We’ve all seen it, you can’t talk about this movie without taking about them. They’re dumb, and Joel Schumacher is right that they’ll probably be on his tombstone. But if we can look past the nipples, how about we focus on these ludicrous attention-grabbing codpieces that make even Jereth the Goblin King (R.I.P.) seem conservative.
Am I crazy, or does Clooney’s still have a dick dent even with all that rubber? These costumes are so batshit that it almost feels like the wardrobe department was playing a game of terrible idea chicken and nobody ever flinched. The most absurd thing about this is that one of the reasons Schumacher cites for the dramatic shift in tone that his Batman movies had from Tim Burton’s was a desire from the studio to make them more kid friendly. Oh hey, nothing more kid friendly than opening your film with a series of jump cut close-ups on the junk and ass of our two lead heroes. That’s not even an exaggeration. Check out this piece from Dustin from a few years ago that actually screencaps them. These are literally the first shots in the movie after the credits, we don’t even see their faces until the next scene, wherein Bruce and Dick awkwardly banter, while apparently waiting for the valet to pull their car and bike around.
What makes this movie bad isn’t the campiness or the bright colors, or even the attempts to be more of a throwback to the 1960s TV show. It’s not the cheesiness of the villains, or the absurd number of different vehicles. All of that could have come together to make a great Batman movie. What makes it bad is that it didn’t. Batman & Robin may be one of the best examples ever of the whole being worse than the sum of its parts. Because what happens in this movie is that every single one of those weird pieces makes it almost juuuuussssssst there, but doesn’t cross the finish line and so you combine them together into a final work that falls flat.
Changing Barbara Gordon into Alfred’s niece in order to expedite Batgirl’s inclusion into the team would have been fine, had it not also been contingent on a performance by Alicia Silverstone that couldn’t have been more phoned in if she’d been instead cast in Schumacher’s Phonebooth. The conflict of Batman and Robin fighting over whether or not Robin can be trusted in the field might had worked had there been any really solid examples of that, instead of just having Batman yell “Robin, no!” a couple of times and then having them both be under Poison Ivy’s pheromone spell instead of any real conflict. Hell, even Arnold Schwarzenegger’s $25 million performance as Mr. Freeze might have been fine for what it was if anyone anywhere in the writing process had just said “Hey, the ice puns have some kitschy fun to them, but do they need to be every line? Like can this guy ever say anything sincerely?”
To prove that last point, here’s a video with all of his puns. As an added bonus, you get to see those butt and groin shots from the opening that I talked about earlier:
But you know what, ‘jibans? I don’t like to blanket hate on things, and if I’m gonna commit my time to a movie, I like to find something I actually love about it, even if it’s unloveable. And when it comes to Batman & Robin there’s one element to this movie that I think is absolutely a win:
That’s right, Uma! It’s you!
Complete confession time: Poison Ivy is my favorite Batman villain. And I think I owe that in no small part to the “Harley & Ivy” episode of Batman: The Animated Series and the subsequent Harley/Ivy teamups, or as I call it, baby queer Riley’s first femslash headcanon.
Before you think I’m saying this just because I like the character though, pour me some bourbon and we can talk about the Spider-man movies sometime. I’m saying this because Uma Thurman straight up kills it in this movie. She’s sexy, she’s menacing, she’s fun to root for. She manages to feel extremely loyal to the source material while also owning Ivy as her own. Hell, even her Dr. Pamela Isley is a delightfully jittery, disheveled, and slightly deranged mess, and that’s before her animal-plant toxins replace her blood with aloe, her skin with chlorophyll, and her accent with Mid-Atlantic. In a movie that feels like every other actor just put down their scripts right before the cameras rolled, Uma came to play and goddamn do I want to see the Batman movie that met the expectations she brought to it. And I wish literally anyone else involved with Batman & Robin seemed like they were having as much fun making it as she does.