As I suffered through the wretchedness of rewatching Batman and Robin, a visual metaphor popped in my head: The grainy footage of man’s first failed attempts at flight. You’ve probably seen the montages before, where intrepid young men with twiddly mustaches and bowler hats mount winged bicycles and half-assed gyrocopters–mechanical ostriches destined to go nowhere. My personal favorite was always the dude with feathers glued to his arms. He swan dives off a ledge and flaps maniacally, only to thunk into the ground like a javelin. Like that poor man, Batman and Robin represents a disaster so ambitious, so awesome in its totality that the viewing of it takes on a strange, beautiful poetry. Hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours are heaved into a molten bonfire of stilted dialogue, wooden acting, and wrongheaded directing that rages for two unbelievable hours. To revisit the image I just couldn’t shake, the movie flaps and shrieks with sound and fury until it lands facedown in the mud, feathers fluttering all around it.
If Tim Burton sought to strip the campy varnish of the 60s TV show away from the Batman mythology, Joel Schumacher made the unfortunate decision to pour it all right back on. The first few minutes of the film linger on incomprehensibly kinky shots of leather-bound butt cheeks and nipples. Schumacher’s Gotham City is an unholy amalgam of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and is somehow less appealing than either inspiration. The entire movie is an assault on the eyes, like neon spray paint. Or maybe pepper spray.
Batman must contend with a new duo of over-the-top villains. Poison Ivy, a botanical psychotic, wants to transform Gotham into her very own arboretum, free from the “fur and feathered pests.” Mr. Freeze builds a weapon that will cover the city in a sheet of ice. These villains team up, even though their agendas don’t mesh at all. Meanwhile, Batman and Robin bicker like they’re in a very special episode of Blossom, Alfred has a disease straight out of Young and the Restless, and young Barbara
Gordon Wilson (Alicia Silverstone) arrives to help sell more action figures as Batgirl. And if all that sounds stupid, it plays even worse onscreen. The plot is so insultingly simplistic it makes Saturday morning cartoons look like Remains of the Day.
The actors don’t do anything to enhance the monkeys-at-typewriters script. George Clooney, who can hit Cary Grant levels of charisma when he wants to, plays like the Madame Tussauds’s version of himself. He strikes mopey poses and fumble-fucks his way over every line. I know this ain’t Glengarry Glen Ross, but this Bruce Wayne needs a shot of espresso. And Schwarzenegger–sweet Jesus in a pumpkin patch. Hans and Franz chews the scenery without shame, while the writer supplies his heavy Austrian accent with an endless cavalcade of puns. (“Whut keeled de dine-AH-sores?? DE ICE AGE!!!”) And full disclosure: Those who know me know I love puns. And shitty jokes. But thirty more minutes of this torture and I would’ve started confessing to crimes I didn’t commit. Alicia Silverstone is so bored she could’ve easily been filing her nails in every scene. The only redeeming performance belongs to Uma Thurman as the vampy, trampy Poison Ivy. She struts and schemes and somehow has fun as the Earth Day addition to Batman’s gallery of rogues. She steals the whole movie, not that anyone would want it anyway.
“I think we might have killed the franchise,” was Clooney’s post-mortem assessment of this film. He was right, but in a good way. The Burton/Schumacher Batmans had lived long enough to see themselves become the villain, and it was time to cast the entire franchise out onto the ice floes. (Son of a bitch. Was that an ice pun? I’ll show myself out.) This movie was bad when it came out, and it’s only grown worse with time. But that happens sometimes in life: Magnificent failures are nothing if not instructive; they often point the way to better days and bright successes. Christopher Nolan would rebuild this craft from chassis up, and we would finally get the Batman we deserve.