Last Friday, I wrote a post about Sam Raimi‘s occasionally-so-bad-it’s-good, but-usually-just-bad superhero film Spider-Man 3. In that post, I compared some of the film’s sillier moments to that still-reigning gold standard of bad superhero movies, Joel Schumacher‘s “universally-reviled” Batman & Robin. Which got me thinking: I hadn’t actually seen Batman & Robin since it first came out in 1997. Perhaps now was as good a time as ever to revisit it.
There is, of course, a reason why I hadn’t seen Batman & Robin since 1997: simply put, its reputation precedes it. This is a film so widely and obsessively despised that virulent hatred of it has become a weird kind of anti-fandom. Now, almost two decades after its release, even people who haven’t actually sat through the movie can rattle off a list of its alleged affronts to the character of Batman and to the craft of filmmaking itself. There are the over-the-top, kitschy performances by Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze and Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy, neither of whom can be accused of chewing the scenery so much as devouring it from floor to ceiling; there’s the cynical emphasis on “toyetic” potential and merchandising tie-ins, with a tacky and entirely superfluous late-movie costume change for the heroes (one more set of action figures on the shelves!) and a one-liner-filled opening sequence (Robin: “Chicks dig the car!”; Alfred: “I’ll cancel the pizzas”) that seems to have been crafted specifically to be edited into TV commercials. And, of course, there are the Bat-Nipples.
Outcry against the addition of humanoid nipples on the Batman and Robin costumes has been the most persistent criticism of Batman & Robin, right from the film’s initial release. Indeed, “Bat-Nipples” have so dominated the discourse around the film that it’s easy to forget that they were already there–along with the oversized codpieces and gratuitous butt shots–in Schumacher’s previous entry in the franchise, the marginally-less-reviled Batman Forever (1995). In the countless “comedic” reviews of Batman & Robin on YouTube, references to the nipples are omnipresent–even more so than another totemic image on which geeks love to heap scorn, the bizarre revelation that Batman owns a credit card in his name (“don’t leave the cave without it”). The thing is, though, Bat-Nipples, Bat-Credit Cards, or even Mr. Freeze’s seemingly endless catalogue of cold-related puns weren’t what ruined Batman & Robin. This was one movie that didn’t need any help ruining itself.
See, I’m about to make a claim that might be slightly controversial: for almost the first half of its runtime, Batman & Robin isn’t that bad a movie. Yes, the performances, script, and production design are all laughable, but we’re supposed to be laughing: these are features, not bugs. When Schumacher and veteran hack screenwriter Akiva Goldsman devised the infamous Bat-Credit Card scene, they weren’t imagining themselves as heirs to the Bat-noir tradition of early Bill Finger, Dennis O’Neil, and Frank Miller; they were quite intentionally calling back to the 1960s Batman TV series–during which, you’ll recall, Adam West’s flabby “Dark Knight” at one point donned yellow Bermuda shorts and participated in a surfing contest against the Joker. By the same token, Schwarzenegger’s and Thurman’s performances weren’t supposed to be gritty method acting like Heath Ledger in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008), or even stylized, tongue-in-cheek menace like Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman; they were a deliberate return to the cackling mock-histrionics of the TV show’s villains, and pretty amusing ones at that. 1960s-style camp may not be the favored aesthetic mode of most Bat-fans, but it is as valid a mode with which to depict the adventures of a man in a rubber suit as brooding Gothic/noir–in fact, when I put it that way, it’s arguably more valid. And as much as Batman & Robin, at its worst, borders on unwatchable, I can’t condemn Schumacher’s decision to make the sinister character Bane into an oaf wearing a “disguise” of a trenchcoat and fedora over his ridiculous inflatable muscles and Mexican wrestler’s outfit. Nor can I lie to my readers and call the early moment when Batman and Robin escape from an exploding rocket by air-surfing on the debris anything other than awesome.
The problem is that, while the TV series from which Batman & Robin drew its obvious inspiration was a wittily self-aware work of pop art, more often than not the film is just leaden and boring. Then-television heartthrob George Clooney, in his first and last superhero role, is unconvincing as Batman and forgettable as Bruce Wayne, making me pine for the days of his thoroughly mediocre predecessor Val Kilmer. Chris O’Donnell as Robin/Dick Grayson is shrill and grating–which, I suppose, might be a savvy meta-reference to Burt Ward from the aforementioned ’60s show, but that doesn’t make him any more entertaining to watch. Worst of all, the film makes the classic bad-movie mistake of pairing its nonstop, silly action with a bummer of a self-important subplot, in which Bruce Wayne’s lifelong butler and guardian Alfred (Michael Gough) realizes he is dying and searches for a successor to carry on his Bat-wrangling duties. The Alfred subplot is doubly problematic, because it’s responsible for the film’s other major low point: the addition of Alicia Silverstone as Alfred’s inexplicably California-accented niece from England, who joins the team in the film’s third act as Batgirl and makes this perhaps the first superhero movie in history to suffer from not only too many villains, but also too many heroes.
So, yes, Batman & Robin is as terrible a movie as you’ve heard. In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll even admit that I didn’t make it all the way to the end this time around; it was getting late, and the goddamn thing was putting me to sleep. But let’s not misdiagnose the all-too-real issues that plagued the film. Too often, Batman & Robin is castigated for being “too silly” or even “too gay,” but those if anything are its redeeming qualities: Schumacher and company are never more entertaining than when putting Arnold Schwarzenegger in a robe with fluffy slippers, or crash-zooming into Batman’s sculpted glutes. It’s literally everything else, from the flaccid performances to the droning, by-the-numbers script, that makes this movie a legendary turd.
And it’s important that we remember this, because after all, Batman & Robin is an important film. If you loved Chris Nolan’s gritty, grounded Dark Knight trilogy–or, for that matter, any of the other products of the mid-2000s superhero movie renaissance–then you have Joel Schumacher to thank: it was by and large the disastrous critical and commercial failure of Batman & Robin that forced movie studios to start taking comic books seriously, and stop thinking of them as (just) banal drivel to sell toys with. But there’s also a danger in taking comic books too seriously–especially when the fact that they often are banal drivel is an inexorable part of their appeal. If the martyrdom of Batman & Robin made The Dark Knight and The Avengers possible, then it’s also responsible for this year’s dour, joyless Fantastic Four and next year’s serious-as-a-teenage-goth’s-poetry Suicide Squad. Don’t get me wrong: Batman & Robin is a cinematic abomination, a film so fundamentally indefensible that its DVD commentary track is basically just two hours of the director apologizing. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bat-water. Maybe I’m crazy, but a world without Bat-Nipples might not be a world I care to live in.