1997’s Batman & Robin commonly ranks amongst the worst films of all time. Widely dismissed as a feature-length toy commercial, it proved the death knell of the gothic franchise established by Tim Burton and even prompted a public apology from director Joel Schumacher. An undiscerning seven-year-old at the time of its release, however, I was oblivious to the movie’s critical lambasting and can remember forcing my parents to endure at least six showings in the cinema – not to mention countless more at home on VHS. With Christopher Nolan having successfully restored the Dark Knight’s reputation, then, I decided to revisit Batman & Robin and find out why it’s so often considered “the Citizen Kane of bad films.”
Despite boasting a script by Oscar-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, the film is distinctly lacking in the story department. Having already mined the original comic books of more plausible villains, Mr Freeze, Poison Ivy and Bane make an unlikely trio of costumed crooks for the eponymous heroes to foil. Their evil plan is equally ludicrous, seeing them plot to cover Gotham under a blanket of ice so that plants might take over the city’s skyline. As if recognising just how ridiculous this sounds, Goldsman attempts to ratchet up the tension by concocting a tedious subplot in which devoted butler Alfred falls ill with McGregor’s Syndrome – a usually fatal disease that Mr Freeze just happens to know how to cure. Finally, in a bid to squeeze as many characters into the film as possible, Batgirl also makes a superfluous last minute appearance in the film’s turgid climax.
To describe Batman & Robin as excessively camp would be a gross understatement. In a bid to attract younger audiences, Schumacher seems to have made a conscious decision to emulate the ostentatious theatricality of the 1960s television series. Consequently, characters are given excruciating tongue-in-cheek lines that tend to make them more inane than intimidating; Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr Freeze, for instance, instantly loses all sense of menace when he explains that he always wears his suit a size smaller because it makes him look slimmer. Even the gadgets and technology have become campier, with Batman and Robin only needing to click their heels like Dorothy in order to magically produce ice skates from the soles of their boots. While kids may be able to overlook such absurdness, their parents will likely weep into their popcorn.
The film also suffers from quite possibly the worst Batman ever committed to celluloid. Fresh from his stint as Dr. Doug Ross on ER, producers obviously felt that hiring George Clooney to play the Caped Crusader would encourage higher box office receipts. To my mind, however, he seems too scrawny and fragile to be plausibly fighting criminals in the dead of night. In fact, as sacrilege as it may be to admit, I don’t actually find Clooney a particularly convincing actor in general. Obviously I appreciate that he’s a generous philanthropist and find him a highly capable director, but his performances always seem too restless and manufactured for my liking – I can almost hear the cogs clicking away inside his head.
Of course, even the worst film is not without some merits: while Clooney makes an lacklustre Batman, Uma Thurman and Arnold Schwarzenegger shine in their roles as Poison Ivy and Mr Freeze. Indeed, even if you disapprove of Batman & Robin’s campier tone, its hard not to appreciate the brilliance of their grandiose performances. Thurman is particularly resplendent, strutting around like a drag queen as she attempts to seduce every man in her wake, whilst Arnie is no less spectacular, delivering his lines with trademark terseness and rocking the icy blue head make-up. Both villains may lack the threat of, say, Jack Nicholson’s Joker or Danny DeVito’s Penguin, but the actors make the most of the awful material they’ve been provided with.
In reflection, then, was I bat-shit crazy to have loved Batman & Robin so much as a child? Almost definitely. But does it deserve to be considered one of the worst films of all time? I’m not so sure. Yeah, it’s got a messy script and could probably out-camp The Wizard of Oz, but it’s got some great performances and doesn’t take itself too seriously. One of the most commonly criticised aspects of the film, for instance, are the infamous nipples on Batman’s chest armour – an undeniable mistake, yet almost worth it just to hear Poison Ivy joke about “anatomically correct rubber suits.” In a post-The Dark Knight era, the film will undoubtedly seem cheesy and dated. However, for those too young to enjoy Nolan’s more grown-up trilogy, Batman & Robin could prove an entertaining couple of hours.