With Age Of Heroes, Tom Breihan picks the most important superhero movie of every year, starting with the genre’s early big-budget moments and moving onto the multiplex-crushing monsters of today.

One of the first things we see in Batman & Robin, the movie that was supposed to be the big tentpole release for Warner Bros. in the summer of 1997, is Batman’s ass. It’s encased in black form-fitting rubber, and it completely fills the screen. This is part of an opening scene that plays out like a goth fetish-club version of a gadget montage from a James Bond movie. Robin’s ass is in there, too. We get close-ups of their gigantic rubberized codpieces, and of the Batsuits sculpted to look like someone’s idea of ideal human musculature. It’s quite a thing to behold.

Around the time Batman & Robin came out, there were lots of jokes about the nipples on Batman’s and Robin’s costumes. On Saturday Night Live, Norm MacDonald, then the Weekend Update host, told the audience about the Bat-nipples, using the same disbelieving deadpan that he used to describe everything. Then he held a microcassette recorder up to his mouth and reminded himself not to go see Batman & Robin. Honestly, though, the nipples were the least of it. The entire presentation of this Batman character was a strange combination of action figure and lust object. It’s like director Joel Schumacher, given a new level of creative control after his terrible Batman Forever made a ton of money, settled on a vision of Batman that would make everyone uncomfortable. He’s still apologizing for the movie today.

Batman & Robin is generally regarded as a massive, historical cinematic disaster. The movie wasn’t a flop, at least financially, though it certainly did worse than the three previous Batman movies. It brought in nearly $240 million, more than half of it overseas, almost doubling its production budget and probably at least breaking even. But the movie didn’t get its reputation because of its box office. It’s remembered for the way fans and critics recoiled in horror. After witnessing this new level of vivid, over-the-top campiness, even the people who had happily paid money to see Batman Forever had had enough. Warner Bros. immediately canceled plans for a third Schumacher Batman movie, and it would be another eight years before the character returned to the screen, in a wildly different form. To this day, everyone involved in Batman & Robin seems at least a little bit humiliated to be associated with it.

Should they be? I don’t know. After rewatching both of the Schumacher Batman movies, I can say that Batman & Robin is a movie with a point of view. Batman Forever is noisy, incoherent, brutally dumb, and almost studiously unfunny. It’s a movie with a clear and evident disregard for both its audience and its subject matter. But in pushing his vision of the character even further out into the realm of campy surreality, the Schumacher of Batman & Robin at least paid homage to some past versions of the character—the defiant silliness of both the ’50s Golden Age comics and the ’60s TV series. That might not be the version of Batman that anyone wanted to see, but it’s something.

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The movie’s plot, such as it is, might be the single silliest storyline of any big-budget superhero movie in history, which is truly saying something. Mr. Freeze, a brilliant scientist who’s been made to look like a glam-rock spaceman after falling into some sort of mysterious icy liquid, is trying to save his comatose wife, and he’s willing to hold Gotham City hostage so that he can get the ransom money he needs to continue his research. But he also wants to freeze the planet and destroy everything. Meanwhile, Poison Ivy is another brilliant scientist who, having been attacked by a minor villain, suddenly has aloe for blood and chlorophyll for skin. (That’s what she says, anyway.) She wants plants to take over Earth, so she thinks freezing everything is a great idea, since it’ll kill all the humans who have been endangering plant life. She never considers the idea that a frozen planet might be a tougher place for plants, too. It’s not the sort of movie where people question their plans. Instead, it’s the sort of movie were Batman slides down an icy dinosaur tail in a frozen museum while Robin plays hockey with some henchmen who are trying to steal a giant pink diamond.

As Mr. Freeze, Arnold Schwarzenegger gets top billing in the movie, and his many, many ice-related puns are, Bat-nipples aside, the thing that people remember best. The movie tried to inject some pathos into Freeze’s narrative, borrowing the comatose-wife story beat from one of the best Batman: The Animated Series arcs. But the movie never treats that with any genuine emotion. Instead, it’s got Mr. Freeze referring to himself as the villain and literally instructing his goons to “kill the heroes.”

Virtually everything Schwarzenegger says is a pun or one-liner. And Schwarzenegger is, of course, probably the greatest deliverer of mid-action-scene punchlines in movie history. But screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, a man who has never exhibited any knowledge of or interest in the way actual human beings speak, doesn’t even know how to craft a fucking one-liner. Some of Schwarzenegger’s jokes don’t make any sense. “What killed the dinosaurs?” he asks, before toppling a giant sauropod statue onto Batman. “The ice age!” This isn’t even remotely true. The ice age was millions of years later. And yet it seems like Goldsman wrote the dinosaur statue into the scene just so that he could say it. But most of them are just magnificently awkward, going on forever: “If revenge is a dish best served cold, then put on your Sunday finest! It’s time to feast!” Part of the fun in watching Batman & Robin today is just seeing Schwarzenegger attempt to deliver lines like those with any sort of conviction. He does his best.

The movie’s real hidden gem is Uma Thurman, who plays Poison Ivy and who seems to be the only actor who knows what kind of movie this is. She preens and hisses her way through it, blowing CGI pink dust at all the men she’s supposed to be enchanting and smirking hard even when she’s planning the complete extinction of humanity. She hisses that Batman and Robin are the “militant arm of the warm-blooded oppressors.” She screams “Curses!” while being knocked into what appears to be the giant man-eating plant from Little Shop Of Horrors. She wears a pink gorilla costume. She’s honestly just great.

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As an assistant, she has Bane. In the comics, and in Tom Hardy’s portrayal in The Dark Knight Rises, Bane is a diabolical mastermind who’s always three steps ahead of Batman. In Batman & Robin, Bane is a grunting muscleman who talks like Animal from The Muppets and who repeats the last word of whatever Ivy just told him. As he plants bombs, he rasps the word “booooomb.” Jeep Swenson, a 400-pound bodybuilder and WCW wrestler who died of heart failure shortly after the movie came out, played Bane. And while it’s a truly ridiculous portrayal, it still leaves more of an impression than Chris O’Donnell’s Robin or Alicia Silverstone’s Batgirl, both of whom are just sort of there.

Amidst the movie’s riot of neon colors and gleeful unreality, pretty much anyone could’ve played Batman. The character is the movie’s still, unchanging center. Coolio, who gets in a quick cameo as the overseer of a pre-Fast & Furious street race, could’ve been Batman, and the movie wouldn’t have really been much different. But instead, the movie has George Clooney, probably the most gifted and charismatic actor who’s ever taken on the role. Clooney—who was still on ER when filming it and who’d just broken into movie stardom by being great in Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn—enunciates that terrible Akiva Goldsman dialogue with a crisp snap, like he’s practicing to be Michael Clayton a decade ahead of time. Like he thinks it’s a real movie. It’s almost cute that he tries.

Clooney never stood a chance—not in the delirious, ecstatic unreality that Schumacher built. In the Batman & Robin vision of Gotham City, elevated roads wind their way through enormous Greek statues and gangs in black-light clown makeup hide out in abandoned buildings. The action scenes have a surreal sense of float. Capes billow and objects fly on wires just as blatantly as in the weird and great 1993 Hong Kong superhero movie The Heroic Trio. When Batman and Robin escape from a shooting-upward ice rocket, wakeboarding back down to the ground, Schumacher doesn’t even try to make it look like bodies falling through space. The whole thing is staged as a garish, insane stage play. It cost $125 million to make, in 1997 dollars.

There’s something almost beautifully quixotic in Batman & Robin—in its determined and defiant lack of realism, in the amount of waste that went into its budget, in Schumacher’s faith that the world would be into his own deeply peculiar vision of Batman. It’s a bad movie, but its badness is fascinating in ways that make it a whole lot more watchable than, for instance, Batman Forever. And the public’s outright rejection of this movie was an important factor in Hollywood’s eventual decision to turn superhero movies into grounded, recognizably human stories. If Schumacher hadn’t pushed his terrible vision to fever-dream extremes, big-budget superhero movies might’ve kept happily insulting our intelligence for years—and they might’ve gotten away with it.

Other notable 1997 superhero movies: Batman & Robin looks like Citizen Kane when you compare it Spawn. Mark A.Z. Dippe’s adaptation of the Todd McFarlane character plays like an endless ’90s video game cutscene that is somehow also a Surge commercial. Michael Jai White, who would later find redemption as a transcendent star in the world of straight-to-DVD martial arts movies, plays a CIA assassin who’s double-crossed by his boss, killed, sent to hell, then brought back as some kind of unwitting leader of Satan’s army, or something. John Leguizamo, as a demonic fat-suited clown thing, eats a maggot-covered pizza slice and farts green clouds. Martin Sheen cashes a check. The grainy CGI hellscapes, which looked cheap even at the time, will make your eyes bleed now. The entire movie is a loathsome piece of shit that should be avoided at all costs.

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If Batman & Robin wasn’t bad enough, DC had a second flop on its hands in the form of Steel, in which Shaquille O’Neal plays one of the temporary Superman replacements from that short period where DC killed off Superman. O’Neal is the perfectly named John Henry Irons, a towering soldier who returns to his unnamed, crime-ridden hometown to clean things up by patrolling the streets in weaponized armor, with a big hammer that sends out shockwaves. Judd Nelson is the scheming villain, Richard Roundtree is the wacky inventor sidekick, and Ray J is the little brother in peril. The whole thing is just wild. And while it’s an absolutely terrible movie, I like that the movie barely acknowledges that O’Neal is two feet taller than anyone else. His height isn’t one of his superpowers or anything. It’s just part of who he is. As an extremely tall motherfucker, I genuinely enjoy the sight of this guy loping around and ducking through doorways without it ever becoming a plot point.

This is stretching the definition of “superhero movie” a bit, but around the same time he co-created South Park, Trey Parker wrote, directed, and starred in Orgazmo, a no-budget comedy about a Mormon missionary who accidentally becomes a porn star and then even more accidentally becomes a vigilante with a laser arm that makes people jizz when he shoots them. Ron Jeremy has a fight scene. A running joke about a hip-hop sushi chef is racist in more ways than I can properly quantify. It’s still a better movie than Spawn.

Meanwhile, CBS produced a pilot for a Justice League Of America TV show that it never picked up. The pilot never aired in America, but it did play, as a made-for-TV movie, in a few other countries. I haven’t seen it, but it looks staggeringly bad. And you could probably make the argument that both Men In Black and Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie qualify as superhero movies.

Next time: Blade establishes that even a C-list Marvel superhero could be the basis for an absolutely classic action movie.

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