Holy Hell! Batman & Robin Turns 20

Holy Hell! Batman & Robin Turns 20

Because of its flaws, Batman & Robin achieves true camp.

When asked, anyone who knows anything about Batman & Robin will likely mention two things: a) Bat-nipples coupled with comically proportioned codpieces; and b) Arnold Schwarzenegger’s terrible one-liners. We’ll get to those specific costume choices and comedic flourishes soon enough. Let’s first explore the film’s legacy and influence.

Batman & Robin is, by any measure, an awful movie. But in a way, it’s the purest comic book adaptation ever filmed – at least from the perspective of filmmakers who had little to no idea of what constituted a workable superhero story. It makes as much sense as a 32-page floppy issue would if plucked off a spinner rack, at random, with no prior knowledge of the material. Opening in medias res with a ludicrous diamond-heist action sequence, every scene that follows seems unconcerned with a larger narrative arc or even internal logic. Things happen in chronological order…and then the movie ends.

Apart from Avatar, no other blockbuster in the last 20 years has had such a deep and lasting influence on the current cinematic landscape. Director Joel Schumacher’s vision for the franchise – a candy-colored reworking of Tim Burton’s dark deco sensibility – was roundly pilloried by critics and audiences alike. The screenplay by Akiva Goldsman, who would go on to win an Academy Award for his adaptation of A Beautiful Mind, brims with narrative dead ends and Vaudevillian punning (“Let’s kick some ice!”).

With the exception of Uma Thurman, who approaches Poison Ivy with dastardly gusto, none of the leads seem remotely comfortable in their surroundings. Instead, they’re more like high school thespians in a stage production gone horribly awry. George Clooney, who normally has charm to spare, is a non-entity. His Bruce Wayne is a mere placeholder for the actual star of the movie (who, sadly, never arrives) and subsequently the worst Batman to date (and that includes Val Kilmer and Ben Affleck, mind you).

Hollywood shuddered at this multiple-vehicle collision and learned a few lessons, some good, some bad. Superhero movies later became more grounded and were treated to a high-degree of quality control. Bryan Singer’s X-Men and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man scaled back genre-hallmarks (in the case of the former, colorful costumes were replaced with sleek, black-leather uniforms) and instead explored the human side of extraordinary characters. Christopher Nolan took realism to its logical conclusion with his excellent, if humorless, Dark Knight trilogy. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, led by Kevin Feige, would branch out and eventually embrace a bright visual palette and sparkling wit. DC, on the other hand, doubled down on ponderous self-seriousness (notwithstanding this year’s fabulous Wonder Woman).

If I were strapped down, Clockwork Orange-like, and forced to watch one of the recent DC entries – Suicide Squad, Man of Steel, or (lord help me) Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice – I’d beg my tormenter for mercy and happily revisit Batman & Robin instead. Batman & Robin isn’t so bad it’s good, something to lampoon in MST3K-fashion. Rather, Schumacher’s wildly flamboyant approach to a beloved comic book property is so misguided it swings back around and arrives at genuine entertainment on its own terms.

His prurient, homoerotic directorial gaze here is an outlier when it comes to a product aimed at mass consumption. Forget the half-dollar nipples and engorged crotches, Schumacher lingers on the full 360-degree, rippling glory of the male musculature. Batman and Robin’s romantic relationship is brought from subtext to near the forefront, which is why Chris O’Donnell’s Dick isn’t an adolescent but (otherwise inexplicably) a strapping twentysomething ready to dance shirtless in the club. Because of its flaws, Batman & Robin achieves true camp: it’s sexy, stupid, and really fun. What a shame this titanic won’t be striking an iceberg again any time soon.

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