With all the dark and depressing Batman productions we’ve had over the years, it’s easy to forget that the Caped Crusader also has substantial history in the delightfully goofy and colorful comic books of the Comics Code Authority era, battling over-the-top villains with ridiculous plans and impractical costumes.
Believe it or not, there was even a time when his green-haired, purple-suited archnemesis with the clown-themed weaponry and circus makeup was silly rather than terrifying. I know it’s a stretch. Batman as brooding sociopath is just one way to do the character, but it’s not the only way. Ask Adam West or Will Arnett: Batman can be totally bonkers and still be a lot of fun.
Note that I said can be. It’s not a guarantee, and even with a blockbuster budget and big-name stars, it turns out that a goofy aesthetic and some corny jokes can’t make up for terrible casting and worse screenwriting.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Batman & Robin.
The film opens with Batman / Bruce Wayne (George Clooney) and his trusty sidekick, Robin / Dick Grayson (Chris O’Donnell), racing off from the Batcave to confront the villainous Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) as he attempts to steal the most comically oversized movie diamond since The Great Muppet Caper. Freeze forces Batman to choose between capturing him or rescuing Robin, setting up the duo’s central conflict around whether or not Robin needs Batman to constantly protect him.
Meanwhile in South America, botanist Pamela Isley (Uma Thurman) discovers that her research on toxic plants has been corrupted by her mentor into a super-soldier drug called Venom when she watches him transform a scrawny serial killer into a hulking monster called Bane (Jeep Swenson). When her mentor tries to murder her by dumping a shelf of toxins on her, she’s reborn as Poison Ivy, a plant / human mutant who can control plants, disperse mind-controlling pheromones and secrete a deadly poison in her lips that kills anyone she kisses. She and Bane head to Gotham in the hopes of using the Wayne fortune to fund her research.
Back at Wayne Manor, beloved butler Alfred (Michael Gough) is hiding a painful illness from his masters. Further complicating things is the arrival of his niece, Barbara (Alicia Silverstone), on a break from school and staying at the mansion. Dick discovers there’s more to Barbara than meets the eye, following her when she sneaks out to take part in a motorcycle race to earn money for Alfred’s treatment.
Our heroes then lure Freeze out of hiding by presenting more comically large diamonds at a Wayne Foundation charity ball, only to be interrupted and seduced by Ivy and her mind-control dust. They capture Freeze, but he has caught Ivy’s eye and she breaks him out. Back at Freeze’s hideout, Ivy further captivates Robin (causing a fight between him and Batman for her affections) and causally murders Freeze’s cryogenically frozen wife, which she then pins on Batman.
Freeze plots to use the Wayne telescope to freeze the entire world, Barbara discovers Bruce and Dick’s secret identities, gets her own suit, becomes Batgirl, everyone works together to save the day, and Bruce learns a valuable lesson about trusting his teammates. It’s a lot.
It’s important to give some credit here to director Joel Schumacher for trying something. While this film is ultimately a failure — a colossal, humiliating, unimaginably excruciating failure, to be clear — it’s not for a lack of ambition. The Saturday-morning cartoon aesthetic of Gotham City is consistent and pervasive, and the camp factor is ratcheted up higher than any Batman outing since the 1960s TV show. This isn’t the unintentional comedy of Aquaman or the self-parody of Deadpool. There are quips, sight gags and a Batsuit with rubber nipples. And puns! Puns upon puns, dad joke after dad joke. It’s like open-mic night at a Mormon comedy club. If there’s any hope of a saving grace here, it’s that at least, for his part, Schumacher is never asking us to take any of this too seriously. The fact that it doesn’t land is more about the fish-out-of-water cast and the frenetic, arrhythmic script from Akiva Goldsman than a flaw in the basic concept.
Almost from the start, there’s a real disconnect between the film’s big-budget blockbuster scope and its campy, tongue-in-cheek vibe. It’s one thing to have a team of themed henchmen when they’re really just a bunch of goons in matching blue shirts and ski hats, a la the 1960s TV show. It’s another entirely when they’re skating around the Natural History Museum with customized hockey-pad armor and sharpened-steel hockey sticks. I mean, I know the guy likes ice, but is it really practical to show up to a heist on skates? What if there’s a bare spot on the floor where the ice didn’t take? What if the cops bring guns? It’s sort of counterintuitive, but the bigger and flashier production values actually make this kind of thing less believable, not more. Add in Freeze dropping some kind of cold-related pun every 30 seconds, and it’s beyond ridiculous.
Let’s get this out of the way: Schwarzenegger isn’t terrible here. He’s not bad. He’s not even mediocre. He is absolutely magnificent, and of all the cast, only he and Thurman seem to be in on the joke. Arnold delivers every single godforsaken pun with cackling, gleeful energy that is the only source of joy in this whole pathetic slog. He absolutely understands that his job is to ham it up to the best of his ability and is completely willing to set aside his action-movie badass persona to fully embrace the camp. While this movie tries and fails to connect with the 1960s TV aesthetic overall, Schwarzenegger is channeling Cesar Romero’s Joker or Burgess Meredith’s Penguin. He is all in, and I love him for it. Yes, there are far too many of those puns, but Arnold didn’t write the damn thing. He has a job to do and he absolutely nails it.
That said, the script still fails miserably. The breakneck pace of groaner jokes here might work for the seven minutes of screen time the villain gets in a 30-minute TV episode, but it’s simply not sustainable for a two-hour feature film. Just as the elaborate costumes and props make the henchmen seem less believable, the sustained silliness robs the villains of any urgency or menace. The stakes aren’t high enough to make us care what happens, and that makes the inevitable heroics fall flat. It’s not that we ever doubt the heroes are going to win in this kind of movie, but the fun is in wondering how it’s going to come together in the end. In this film, it’s not even worth wondering about. The other problem with the frantic pace of jokes from the villains is that it leaves Batman and Robin standing around delivering all the exposition rather than doing anything fun. If the villains are shining a little too brightly here, it’s at least partly because the heroes are sucking all the light out of the room.
Clooney is a tremendous actor with good range and great comic timing. He can do dry wisecracks, goofy physical comedy or charming romantic comedy to great effect, and yet he makes an absolutely terrible Batman. His charm is completely lost under the cowl. Instead of the kind of wry, subtle humor Clooney does so well, the script force-feeds him laugh lines so far beneath him you can almost see him choking on the words.
While the villains chew the scenery, Clooney looks like he’s handcuffed to a radiator — in most cases, a radiator named Chris O’Donnell. The actor actively worsens every scene he’s in, to the point that a cardboard stand-in would be an improvement. O’Donnell delivers every line like he’s phonetically reading a foreign language, just making sounds with his mouth that have no association to concepts in his brain. His lack of buddy-movie chemistry with Clooney is dwarfed only by his lack of romantic chemistry with Silverstone — possibly because Silverstone seems determined to give O’Donnell a run for his money in the race for “worst actor in this picture.” She’s every bit as wooden and disengaged as O’Donnell, leaving Clooney nothing to work with or respond to in any scene with our heroes.
It’s painful to watch, even through the lens of 25 years of nostalgia. Schumacher’s efforts to give Batman a family-friendly, goofy cartoon rebirth fall totally flat, and that’s even before you get to the gaping plot holes and bizarre marketing-department choices that plague the last act. As the heroes rush off to foil Mr. Freeze just in the nick of time, they somehow find a couple minutes to change into new costumes. Gotta sell those variant action figures somehow!
I’m all for a lighter, funnier Batman — 20 years after this disaster, The LEGO Batman Movie would absolutely nail it — but the movie first has to work. This one never does.