Superhero Month: "Batman & Robin" Review

Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

Superhero Month: "Batman & Robin" Review

-- Rating: PG-13 (for strong stylized action and some innuendo)
Length: 125 minutes
Release Date: June 20, 1997
Directed by: Joel Schumacher
Genre: Action/Crime/Fantasy

Every instinct that went into "Batman & Robin" was fundamentally sound. While it may have drawn a chilly reception from the critics-who are given to criticism, after all-and frankly underperformed at the domestic box office, it's worth remembering all of the smart decisions that went into this movie before it ran afoul of the unpredictable and ever-shifting taste of the moviegoing public at large.

First, there was the concept. By the time "Batman & Robin" came out, various attempts had been made at the franchise by a wide array of talents and not a single one had managed to incorporate the Robin character. It certainly seemed odd when Tim Burton left out Batman's sidekick, casting Michael Keaton only, and even more strange that Val Kilmer's Batman had to go it alone. The time was ripe for a Batman movie that included Robin; or so it seemed.

Second, consider the cast. Here, "Batman & Robin" is completely over the top, in a way that honors the original television show. Here are gathered some of the biggest stars that 1997 had to offer. When Arnold Schwarzenegger was cast as Mr. Freeze, nobody had any idea he would soon be entering politics, but rather that he had just spent the last twenty years blowing the doors off of every movie theater in America. George Clooney was cast as Batman himself while he was busy dominating prime time drama as the breakout star of "ER." Uma Thurman took a break from being a huge star in "Pulp Fiction" to support the cast as Poison Ivy while Alicia Silverstone took on the role of Batgirl. Elle Macpherson, Vivica Fox, Chris O'Donnell, soundtrack by Billy Corgan - it's as if too much wasn't close to enough. A cunning studio executive could have reshot "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" with this cast, so it isn't at all surprising that the lineup looked like solid gold on paper.

Third, there are the characters. By this point in the "Batman" franchise, the Joker had been done to death, literally. "Batman & Robin" tried out a different lineup of villains. Poison Ivy, Mr. Freeze, and the first screen appearance of Bane were all efforts to overload the seemingly invincible Batman with challengers. Adding Batgirl and Robin were just icing.

It should also be noted that the movie is carried off in a technically proficient manner. The production values are kept very high and actually collected numerous award nominations for the sound editing, costumes, and make-up. The lighting of "Batman & Robin" is direct and to the point, and it probably does more than any other single factor to tie the film together with the dark, gritty feel that's appropriate to the Gotham nightscape.

As for the plot, it certainly does get a bit tangled. This probably couldn't have been avoided, given how much was going on back in the casting department. Basically, Batman and Robin have to work together to stop Mr. Freeze from locking up the entire city of Gotham in a new ice age while making genuinely painful ice-related puns throughout. Meanwhile, their relationship is threatened by the evil wiles of Poison Ivy, who knows that the key to defeating the Dynamic Duo lies in sowing discord between them. All of this takes place against the backdrop of squalor and despair that's become so common to the franchise that Gotham City practically merits its own entry in the cast of characters - a silent tribute to the movie's superior production design team.

Whither the difficulty, then? Well for one thing, despite the early successes of "Superman" and the "Batman" movies to date, the comic book, superhero genre hadn't yet effloresced as it would after the much more successful "Batman Begins." At the time, no one in Hollywood was quite sure which way the market for these movies was heading. They could certainly smell the box office receipts, but it wasn't at all obvious at the time what formula was really going to resonate with mass audiences. In this sense, then, it would be right to regard "Batman & Robin" almost as a daring experiment to establish the future course of the graphic novel fantasy genre. It can be seen as an attempt that was supposed to be indemnified by the sure-fire box office gold of its massive star power and unkillable atmosphere. That it experienced the success it did is a tribute to the countless people-famous, anonymous, and in-between-who worked to bring it all together.

Rating: 3 out of 5