When I announced that I'd be writing about Batman & Robin this week, a reader took exception to including it in a feature about famous flops. After all, he argued, hadn't Batman & Robin grossed over $100 million domestically and abroad? Didn't that make it a commercial success? I don't think so. I'll explain why.
There are movies people feel obligated to see because they've got amazing buzz and terrific reviews, like Superbad or School Of Rock. Then there are movies folks feel obligated to see because Sony spent tens of millions of dollars convincing Joe and Jane America that unless they see Blockbuster X, they'll be the only one at the water cooler Monday morning without an opinion about, I dunno, Transformers, and will consequently be exiled from polite society and shunned by decent folk.
As a consumeritizen of a capitalist Republic, I feel duty-bound to see movies that qualify as big pop culture events, just as I feel obligated to listen to the big summer songs and familiarize myself with the big TV shows everyone's talking about. It's the price of entry to be a proud, opinionated participant in the wonderful world of popular culture.
So while I might dread The Da Vinci Code and Pearl Harbor, I feel obligated to see them all the same, just to be part of the big cultural conversation about their merits. I think that helps explain how movies like Batman & Robin, Wild, Wild West, and Evan Almighty can gross over a $100 million domestically yet still be considered widely reviled flops.
These movies are not just critic-proof but audience-proof. No matter how bad the buzz might be–with Batman & Robin, it was downright toxic–studios spend enough money on marketing and promotion to ensure a gaudy first weekend gross that masks the public's seething contempt for these movies. For the record, Wild, Wild West grossed almost $50 million its first weekend and Batman & Robin just under $43 million. When was the last time you encountered anyone with anything nice to say about either of these one-weekend wonders?
I find it telling that pretty much everyone involved with the third Batman sequel has renounced the film or done some form of creative penance. Star George Clooney committed himself to challenging projects with quirky, iconoclastic directors like the Coen Brothers and Steven Soderbergh, in addition to co-writing and directing classy projects like Good Night, And Good Luck. Schumacher followed with the surprisingly non-terrible Vietnam drama Tigerland, a deliberately gritty, small-scale project before returning to craptacular form with bombs like Phantom Of The Opera and The Number 23. In the years following Batman & Robin, Uma Thurman was brutalized, buried alive, spent several years in a coma, and was shot in the head. Also she starred in the Kill Bill movies. Arnold Schwarzenegger and supporting player Jesse Ventura turned to public service and elected office in a noble attempt to atone for their creative sins. Chris O'Donnell and Alicia Silverstone graciously opted to forfeit their spots on the Hollywood A-list to clear up space for more deserving souls.
The much-reviled man-nipples on Clooney's Batman costume, meanwhile, spent several years tending to the open wounds of widows and orphans at a leper colony in Nepal before ending up at a Planet Hollywood in Cleveland. Wrestler turned second-tier Batman heavy "Bane" Jeep Swenson died the same year Batman & Robin came out, presumably out of embarrassment. Elle Macpherson more or less gave up acting, though she has been known to make regular appearances in the masturbatory fantasies of adolescent boys, sometimes while dressed as Catwoman or Batgirl.
From the first shot of the Warner Brothers trademark morphing into the Bat logo, Batman & Robin announces itself as a branding initiative and new product launch more than a movie. Things don't improve with a series of an utterly gratuitous close-up of Clooney's ass and crotch, a reveal of a new, improved Batmobile that now apparently has a disco ball under the hood, and Chris O'Donnell's first lines of dialogue: "I want a car. Chicks dig the car." Then there's Clooney's retort: "This is why Superman works alone." Who knew creepy human muppet Bruce Villanch was ghostwriting Batman's quips?
I must concede I have a semi-hidden agenda in revisiting this movie. I've stated before that I want this feature to serve as a clearinghouse for de-contextualized bad movie dialogue. Here, for your reading "pleasure," is a semi-complete list of all the terrible cold-themed quips Arnold Schwarzenegger's Mr. Freeze makes over the course of the film: "The ICEMAN cometh" "I'm afraid my condition has left me COLD to your pleas of mercy." "You are not sending me to the COOLER" "What killed the dinosaurs? The ICE Age!" "Can you feel it coming? The ice cold of space! At 30,000 feet your heart will freeze and beat no more! After you're frozen, your icy tomb will plummet back to Gotham! Freeze well!" "Stay COOL, Bird Boy" "Can you be cold, Batman? You have eleven minutes to thaw the Bird." "Alright everyone. Chill" "Cool party" "It's a cold town" "Allow me to break the ice. My name is Freeze. Learn it well for it is the chilling sound of your doom." "Their bones will turn to ice! Their blood will freeze in my hands!" "First I will turn Gotham into an icy graveyard. Then I will pull Batman's heart from his body and feel it freeze in my hands." "If revenge is a dish best served cold, put on your Sunday finest. It's time to feast!" "Tonight hell freezes over!" "Let's kick some ICE" "Tonight's forecast: A FREEZE is coming!" "Freeze in hell, Batman!" "Prepare for a bitter harvest. Winter has come at last!"
I could also list all of Uma Thurman's plant-themed wordplay as eco-baddie Poison Ivy, but c'mon, that'd just be silly. Is it any wonder Akiva Goldsman, the scribe who wrote these witticisms, won the Oscar for Best Screenplay just four years later? In a strange bit of critical Stockholm Syndrome, I found myself actively looking forward to Schwarzenegger's atrocious puns, some of which are so hilariously convoluted that they become goofy parodies of bad one-liners.
A great one-liner is both surprising and natural, spontaneous and impeccably crafted. But a quip like "Allow me to break the ice. My name is Freeze. Learn it well for it is the chilling sound of your doom" is so clunky, wordy, and forced that it made me laugh out loud.
I've long considered puns the lowest form of humor. But Batman & Robin made me wonder if puns double as the lowest form of human communication, lower even than limericks, angrily hurled clumps of feces and commenting on internet message boards (just kidding, I love you all, you beautiful, beautiful readers, you).
Batman & Robin's plot finds ice-obsessed bad guy Arnold Schwarzenegger and tree hugger gone bad Uma Thurman teaming up to freeze Gotham City in what, to paraphrase Our Dumb Century, can only be considered a well thought out plan. Friction begins to develop between ambiguously gay duo George Clooney and Chris O'Donnell (as Batman & Robin respectively) once Thurman uses a powerful pheromone to pit the crime-fighters against each other in a battle for her affection.
A certain duality is built into Uma Thurman's screen persona. Depending on the angle and the outfit, she can look like the most beautiful woman in the world or a mousy little nothing. Batman & Robin introduces a new element to her arsenal: over-the-top vamping. Poison Ivy should be as alluring as she is dangerous. Instead she comes off like a drag queen doing a bad Mae West impersonation on Open Mic Night.
Clooney doesn't fare much better. Where Adam West, Michael Keaton, and Christian Bale all put their indelible stamp on The Dark Knight, Clooney treats the role like a fancy tuxedo he wore for a week, then had dry-cleaned and returned to its rightful owner. In Sharon Waxman's Rebels On The Backlot, a terrible, terrible book I thoroughly enjoyed, she recounts David O. Russell's borderline-sadistic campaign to purge Clooney of his slick TV star mannerisms and transform him into a credible thespian for Three Kings. Watching Batman & Robin, I couldn't help but feel that maybe Russell was on to something. Clooney had to kill the dreamboat movie star in him so the actor could emerge. Clooney delivers a neutered Batman who wouldn't look out of place throwing a white cardigan over his bat suit, firing up a pipe and asking Robin about his day. He's less James Bond than Ward Cleaver.
Batman & Robin falls prey to what I like to call Cousin Oliver Syndrome: when in doubt throw in a new character for the kids. Here Alicia Silverstone fills the Cousin Oliver slot as Batgirl, an Oxford brat with a thing for street racing. In a star-breaking turn, Silverstone is equally unconvincing as an Oxford brain and a danger-loving adrenaline junkie alike. In interviews Schumacher has talked about the pressure Warner Brothers put on him to make the film more "toyetic"–that is conducive to being turned into toys. In that respect, it's surprising Batman & Robin didn't introduce new characters like Batkitten or Batpuppy. Oh the stuffed animals they'd sell! What could me more adorable than a golden retriever puppy with a crime-fighting secret identity?
Like far too many of the films I've written about here, Batman & Robin favors production design over character and story. It's all about giant sets and gaudy costumes, but the riot of neon and candy colors induces a pummeling visual overload. The big action set-pieces feel like they were borrowed from a Batman-themed stunt show at a second-rate amusement park while the garish color scheme suggests the aftermath of an explosion at a paint factory.
Here at the A.V. Club, we've long bandied about the idea of writing an article called "Comic Books: They're Just For Kids Now" to spoof all those asinine "Comic Books: They're Not Just For Kids Anymore!" pieces. Not only is Batman & Robin targeted blatantly at children, but it actually seems pitched at the pre-verbal. Look at all the bright colors! Look at the silly men in their silly costumes! Marvel as shiny stuff flies across the screen and blows up real good! Give yourself over to the mindless, brain-clouding sugar rush of empty spectacle!
Though hype and marketing ensured a decent gross, bad buzz and devastating word of mouth killed off this incarnation of the Batman series, a franchise that began so promisingly yet sunk to such risible depths that Christopher Nolan had to start over again for Batman Begins, a dark, intense film that functioned as the antithesis to Schumacher's leaden camp.
Now at this point you might be wondering if I'm being a little hard on Batman & Robin. Isn't it ultimately just a goofy comic book movie for kids? Alas, I'm afraid my condition–being an incorrigible smartass with an innate prejudice against films that are total crap–has left me COLD to your pleas for mercy.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure