Comic book fans are notoriously hard to please, and I don’t mean sexually. (That’s actually easy.) The movie adaptations of their beloved superheroes’ exploits, which have been arriving in theaters at a rate of approximately one a week for the last eight years, have all earned some measure of wrath. Even films generally acknowledged as superior, like “Spider-Man 2” and “Batman Begins,” have been the targets of at least a few vehemently typed dissensions emanating from various parents’ basements.
Then there’s “Batman & Robin.” Here, if nothing else, is something everyone can agree on. Devotees of the Batman comic books hated it because it betrayed everything good and decent about the characters, while ordinary filmgoers hated it because it was pointless, corny, and stupid. At last! Common ground between the nerds and the normals!
The first sign of trouble arrives in the opening credits, where Arnold Schwarzenegger receives top billing even though he plays neither Batman nor Robin but Mr. Freeze, one of the film’s several hundred villains. You may recall that prior to becoming a mediocre governor, Schwarzenegger was a mediocre actor — a popular one, perhaps, but not one who deserved to have his name above Batman’s in a Batman film. True, there was some precedent for this, as Jack Nicholson was billed over Michael Keaton in 1989’s “Batman.” But comparing Nicholson to Schwarzenegger is, if you’ll indulge me in a bit of analogizing, like comparing a really great thing to a really crappy thing.
We are immediately plunged into the jokey world of Batman and Robin, played in this film by George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell. They bicker like a married couple, and they wear costumes that, as has been noted by many others before me, most closely resemble the rubber suits favored by certain fetishists and practitioners of sadomasochism. In particular, the Batsuit has nipples. Why would this be? Is it to accommodate Clooney’s own nipples? Are they so protuberant that they create discomfort when squeezed into an unnippled Batsuit? I’m guessing Clooney tried on the original costume the first day and was like, “Wow, how did Val Kilmer ever fit into this thing? Does he just not have nipples?!,” and the costumers had to make alterations. Meanwhile, all of Hollywood began whispering about George Clooney’s bulging nipples.
Anyway, the running theme of the movie is that the older, wiser Batman does not fully trust the young, brash Robin. I assume that this is because they have not yet established a safe word.
(This concludes the “jokes about Batman and Robin’s private life” portion of this column.)
Mr. Freeze is a tall, brawny man of unspecified foreign origin whose command of the English language extends far enough for him to make cold-based puns and no further. “My condition has left me cold to your pleas for mercy” is something he says. Also: “Let’s kick some ice.” Also: “You just need to chill out.” The film presents this quirk of his as though it were an acceptable way for a supposedly dangerous criminal to behave, which clearly it is not.
In his introductory scene, Mr. Freeze has frozen a museum’s guards so that he can steal a huge diamond, which he needs to help him maintain the energy in the freezer suit that keeps him alive. Why the museum has a giant diamond on display in the same room as the dinosaur exhibit is not explained, though I suspect it arises from the filmmakers having never actually been to a museum and thus assuming that all museum-y things — dinosaurs, paintings, jewels, etc. — are just strewn around the place willy-nilly.
We have already encountered a dozen wholly unacceptable things, and yet the movie is only two minutes old. We are in for a long night. The situation grows worse when Batman and Robin arrive at the museum to do some villain-thwarting and, seeing that the floor is covered in ice, click their heels together to cause ice skates to pop out of the bottoms of their boots.
Let’s consider this. They didn’t know which enemy they were facing when they left the Batcave, so they did not put on special shoes. These are apparently the same boots they always wear when they go out. So are we to understand that there have always been ice skates embedded in them, just waiting for the day when the Dynamic Duo would finally need them? And are we also to understand that neither Batman nor Robin has ever clicked his feet together before, not even accidentally? It’s a pretty basic physical action, really. You’d think it would happen constantly, where Batman is grappling with some villain or other, his ankles smack together, and POW, instant ice skates, throwing him off balance and ruining everything. Frankly, I’m surprised this “helpful” tool didn’t lead to Batman or Robin’s death years ago.
Meanwhile, there’s a mousy scientist (Uma Thurman) who loves plants and nature and stuff. Her crazy boss tries to kill her but instead turns her into Poison Ivy, a sexy villainess whose kiss is deadly and who seeks to destroy all humanity so that plants can regain their ownership of Mother Earth. She’s basically an extreme parody of an environmentalist nutcase — or, if you believe my brother, an accurate representation of all liberals.
Somehow, Poison Ivy gets tangled up with Mr. Freeze, and they join forces to destroy Batman, or something. People are always trying to destroy Batman: the Joker, the Riddler, the Joel Schumacher, etc. Poison Ivy is assisted by yet another villain, a huge man-beast called Bane who grunts a lot, performs brute acts of strength, and drives Poison Ivy places. That’s right, it’s Bane: henchman, mindless killing machine, chauffeur.
But wait! There’s even more stuff going on in this movie that you won’t care about! Bruce Wayne’s decrepit butler Alfred (Michael Gough) is slowly dying (and by slowly I mean it seems to have been happening over the course of the last 85 years), and his rebellious biker-chick niece Barbara (Alicia Silverstone) comes to stay at Wayne Manor. She eventually declares herself to be Batgirl — Uncle Alfred even whipped up a sexy (though nipple-free) rubber costume for her — and she instantly gains all the agility, strength, and dexterity of the Caped Crusaders just by putting the costume on!! Old Alfred must really know his stuff, sexy-rubber-costume-design-wise.
My friend Dawn Taylor once observed that you can choose any five-second clip of “Batman & Robin” at random, show it to someone with no prior knowledge of the movie, and he or she will instantly ascertain that it is a terrible movie. Its badness permeates every frame. This is quite a feat, when you think about it. Most bad movies have at least the occasional blip of averageness, if not actual goodness. But every moment of “Batman & Robin” is bad. It is constructed entirely of failure.
This is a movie in which people do not have conversations; they just barge around declaring things. “I am Mother Nature!” declares Poison Ivy after her transformation. “And the time has come for plants to take back the world so rightfully ours!” What’s strange about this is that she is the only person in the room at the time. What’s extra-strange is that she and Mr. Freeze both do this sort of thing all the time. It’s like they stumbled in from a comic book and nobody told them they were now in a serious, expensive superhero adventure.
My original review of “Batman & Robin” (1997) D-
You know who also didn’t get that memo? The screenwriter, Akiva Goldsman. He apparently thought he was writing an episode of the campy 1960s TV series, or a parody of it, or a spoof of a parody, or maybe he was just stoned the whole time. Whatever it was, he deserves at least as much blame for ruining the Batman franchise as director Joel Schumacher does. Goldsman wrote “Batman Forever,” too, and would go on to write “Lost in Space,” “Practical Magic,” “I, Robot,” and “The Da Vinci Code.” Oh, and “A Beautiful Mind,” for which he won an Oscar. See, kids? It doesn’t matter how bad you are at your job, eventually someone will reward you for it. Maybe they’ll even make you governor.