Thursday, July 19, 2012

Dark Knight Rising, Part 5: Batman & Robin (1997)

    Part 5 in our countdown to the release of The Dark Knight Rises, in which we learn that you can write a script consisting of nothing but one-liners and still become one of the highest-paid screenwriters in Hollywood…

THE BAT-FILM: After revisiting Batman Forever and being pleasantly surprised at how well it held up, I became very curious in revisiting director Joel Schumacher’s follow-up, Batman & Robin. Is it possible that it’s not as bad as we remember? That it was in fact a clever remodeling of the absurd, pop-art aesthetic of the Adam West TV show? Is it possible that, given some distance, we could see Batman & Robin as some misunderstood masterpiece?

    Yeah, no… Batman & Robin is unquestionably one of the worst films ever made, and certainly one of the worst to get a major studio release. Schumacher and returning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman decide to throw all narrative cohesion out the window in favor of creating a feature-length toy commercial - a movie so empty and soul-crushingly vapid it all but killed the superhero film for a few years there. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here: I’ll try my best to be brief…

    Val Kilmer was unable to return to fill out the Batsuit, so in his stead George Clooney was cast as Batman/Bruce Wayne. Not the worst casting decision; actually a rather brilliant casting decision, had the filmmakers’ decided they wanted to make an actual movie. With his star still on the rise, George Clooney could have made for a great Batman (just look at From Dusk ‘Till Dawn for proof of his action star chops). But sadly, he isn’t given a character to play here - only an action figure. The actor’s disinterest in the whole project shows, the expression on his face constantly has that “What the hell have I gotten myself into” look on it.

    Chris O’Donnell returns as Robin/Dick Grayson, and mostly coasts on the goodwill established by the last film. The movie tries to set up some contrived bickering between Batman and his partner, all the usual stuff (“You don’t trust me!” “You’re too brash and arrogant!” “Stop treating me like a kid!”). Throw in their mutual jealousy of Poison Ivy, and it just gets to be too much, kind of making you wish that Robin would succumb to one of the many death traps he finds himself in here.

    But the Dynamic Duo’s constant bickering is nothing compared to Alicia Silverstone as Alfred’s niece Barbara Wilson/Batgirl, who is beyond terrible. She’s a computer whiz-biker chick-tough girl-sweet girl, which while convenient, is really too many hyphens. Every line she says is grating, delivered without even the slightest hint of emotion. And the “Hi-yah’s” she cries while doing karate kicks… Words cannot describe. Batgirl in the comics was originally Barbara Gordon, Commissioner Gordon’s daughter - which would have been a great opportunity to finally involve the Commish in a real way. But nothing could have saved the film from Silverstone’s performance, which is the absolute worst in a film full of “worst’s.” Michael Gough also returns as Alfred, and this time becomes a crucial part of the plot, as a dying Alfred tries to get his house in order for his niece and Bat-partners. It’s nice to see the love for Alfred, but it’s a shame it had to come in a pile of crap like this.

    Credit where credit’s due: it’s a pretty good-looking film, when you take into consideration the type of look they were going for. It feels like a live-action cartoon. Gotham becomes a flat-out city of the future, some kind of crazed combination of Mount Olympus and Neo-Tokyo, and many of the sets are quite imaginatively designed. With a better script, Schumacher and Co. might have been able to fashion a decent film with the cartoon look. But as it stands, the film comes off mostly as an eyesore.    

Much like Jim Carrey as the Riddler, the announcement that Arnold Schwarzenegger would be a villain in a Batman movie turned many a head. Arnie was still the number one action star, and in 1997 his name on a movie poster meant something (he even gets first-billing here). His stint as Governor aside, Arnie’s stock has dropped considerably in the years since… a lot of that due in no small part to his appearance here as Mr. Freeze. Arnold manages to accomplish the impressive feat of packing more one-liners into this film than all the others he had made up to that point combined. Mr. Freeze is actually a pretty great character - more of a tragic figure than a true villain - and hints of that come through in Arnold’s performance. They’re just drowned out between eye-rolling zingers like the following: “Do you know what killed the dinosaurs? The ICE age!”

    As Poison Ivy, Uma Thurman is pure sexuality (one thing about Schumacher, he isn’t afraid to bring the sexy), but it all just comes off in the wrong way. I feel kind of bad criticizing the performances here, since otherwise fine actors are basically just doing what they’re told and trying to fit in with the rest of the cartoon world. But I have to call it like I see it, and Thurman is terrible here, trying to vamp it up with a Mae West accent but falling flat at every turn. She also has possibly the most bizarre striptease ever put to film, as Poison Ivy strips out of a gorilla suit at a charity event.

    Oh, and Bane’s in the movie, too.


    I have no idea why Bane is in this movie.

THOSE WONDERFUL TOYS: The Bat-suit and Robin-suit get redesigned yet again, with matching codpieces, gleaming buttocks and of course the rubber nipples. Batgirl also gets a similar form-fitting outfit, although her nipples aren’t quite as prominent (hey, don’t judge. They had Batgirl action figures to sell).

    Also, being that all the vehicles got destroyed the last go-round, the Batmobile gets redesigned once more. The idea of the new design isn’t terrible, but it’s too hollow and filled with glowing neon lights. Robin also gets his own motorcycle, called the Redbird (remember when Robin actually rode around with Batman in the Batmobile? I miss those days). Rounding out the vehicles are three completely useless items: the Bathammer, which is kind of like a giant snowmobile; the Batskiff, which is way wackier than anything Adam West ever drove; and the Batcycle, which has the amazing power to not only drive on ice, but keep upright even after Batgirl is knocked off of it. True to Batman form, all three are used in the climax for little more than to go really fast down a straight line.

    Batman and Robin have also personalized their accessories - Robin now has patented Robinrangs to toss around. Add to that a Bat-buzz saw, pocket heat lasers, the pop-out ice skates from their boots (because Batman and Robin are so fond of ice-capades) and, lest we forget, the Bat-credit card.

THE BAT’S IN THE DETAILS: Before the film was even released, Warner Brothers immediately commissioned a fifth Batman film, signing Joel Schumacher and the rest of the main cast to return. The film, to be titled Batman Triumphant, would have featured the Scarecrow and Harley Quin as the villains, and would have brought back Jack Nicholson as the Joker for a hallucination sequence. Although Batman & Robin did well enough at the box office, Warners shelved the project after the film was universally reviled, now believing the brand to be tainted (Confession time: I kind of wish this movie had gotten made, as the script was written by Mark Protosevich. But realistically, it probably would have been butchered in the final film, much like the rest of the under-appreciated writer’s output has been).

    I take everything I said before about Vicki Vale back. At least she had some semblance of a personality. Elle Macpherson plays Batman’s latest girlfriend Julie Madison, and adds absolutely nothing to the picture. She literally does nothing - so much so that you wonder why the filmmakers’ even bothered to give Batman a girlfriend for this outing. I mean, she doesn’t even get kidnapped! (Actually, now that I think about it, I’m rather glad she doesn’t get kidnapped).

    Poor Pat Hingle. Like Michael Gough, Hingle appeared in all four Bat-films as Commissioner Gordon, and in all four didn’t get a single thing to do. You can see it in the actor’s eyes here, as he dully recites each line of dialogue: “Just give me my damn check and get me out of here.”   

    Gossip Gerty fans rejoice! Gerty appears here once more, managing to make already-annoying questions even more annoying merely by saying them out loud (Gerty is played by Elizabeth Sanders, widow of Bob Kane, the creator of Batman).

    Former future governor Jesse Ventura appears here as well, along with Ralf Moeller as the guards assigned to Mr. Freeze's cell at Arkham. For some reason, Moeller's wearing an eye-patch.    

    When leaving the Batcave, Robin has to wait for Batman to take off in the Batmobile before he can follow along on his bike… which Batman makes him store underneath the Batmobile platform. Batman’s kind of a dick.

    The Day-glo gang from Forever must have taken over the city, along with other gangs modeling themselves after Droogs and Juggalos.

    It’s amazing that, no matter how many grappling hooks Batman and Robin shoot off, they always manage to perfectly wrap themselves around something.

    The line, “Suit me up, Uncle Alfred!” is creepy on so many levels.

BEST QUOTE: Just… no. You want a best quote, write Akiva Goldsman.

THE LAST LAUGH: Watching Batman & Robin is akin to eating nothing but sugary cereal for hours on end. When the credits rolled, my eyes wanted to puke.

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