Thursday, April 26, 2018

Batman & Robin (1997) (10th Movie Review of 11)

    For every long running movie franchise, there will always be high and low points, and Batman obviously is no exception. However, there are two stand out instalments in the Batman film series that are firmly placed at both ends of the spectrum. 2008’s “The Dark Knight” is universally regarded as the best of the franchise, as well as one of the all-time greatest movie sequels. Then by contrast, 1997’s “Batman & Robin” is unanimously regarded as the worst of the franchise, as well as one of the worst movie sequels ever made. I’ll talk about “The Dark Knight” in my next review, but for now let’s look back on the film that almost ended the comic book genera. Oh boy, good old "Batman & Robin", this film has been whipped and beaten into the ground for so many years, it actually makes me wonder if I can say anything new about it. Well, truthfully, I have a lot to say about this film that isn’t commonly brought up when reviewing it ... including a hand full of positive things to say. Let my start by saying that, no matter how I slice this, “Batman & Robin” is unmistakably a bad film, mostly deserving of it’s reputation, but … I’ve never once actually hated this movie. In fact, I’ve actually taken more joy from this film then not, just for all the wrong reasons one should take joy from a movie.

       As the superhero venture begins, the evil Mr. Freeze is unleashing his frozen wrath on the city and threatens to hold it hostage in exchange for a possible cure that could save his deathly ill wife. The dynamic duo arrives on the scene to combat him but are noticeably having problems working together as one acts on impulse and the ladder has little trust reserved for the former. Batman’s alter ego Bruce Wayne finds himself facing another emotional hurdle as his faithful butler Alfred is slowly dying. Enter Alfred’s niece Barbra, who’s come to Wayne Manner in hopes of freeing Alfred from a life of serves, only to discover that he’s closer to the Wayne family then she realizes. Meanwhile, as Mr. Freeze struggles to save his wife, a new villain called Poison Ivy becomes the figurative devil on his shoulder and uses him as a means to wipe out all human life on earth, giving her plants the chance to start over as the dominate organisms on earth. On the surface, this may seem like random plots all crammed together in one film, but there is in fact a central theme that’s loosely connecting all these plot threads together. The arcing theme of “Batman & Robin” is basically “family”, we have two hero’s who are like surrogate brothers that are struggling to work together. Alfred is the surrogate father who provides the emotional stakes, while his niece takes on the role of Batgirl and becomes a new member of the Bat-family. The soul motivation of our main villain Mr. Freeze is to rescue his wife and make his family whole again. Finally, we have Poison Ivy adorning the title of Mother Nature, with her plants standing in as her metaphorical babies, thus her goal is to make the world a better place for her own figurative family.  

        Before I get lost in the details of what either does or doesn’t (mostly doesn’t) work with this set-up, lets first look at the characters as is. Following right after 1995’s “Batman Forever”, Val Kilmer didn’t return to his signature role. Instead, we now have George Clooney fresh off his hit TV series “ER”, in the role of Batman. Now I hate to pick on a talented actor, especially one who’s frequently admitted that the film was terrible, but man oh man, his portrayal of Batman and Bruce Wayne was as boring and generic as they get. Every other talent that’s brought Batman life has always made the character feel real in some form, even in the movies I didn’t like. With George Clooney however, it really does feel like I’m just watching the actor in a Batman costume. That silly outfit didn’t help much either, as most other actors look like they could be one with the costume, but Clooney just looks like he’s having trouble moving around in it. The suit also has too much enfaces on a light blue color scheme, and need I even mention the nipples? Now Clooney dose have a natural charm that can just barely be felt when he’s portraying Bruce Wayne, but it doesn’t carry over as well with Batman as he smiles way too much, and never once looks imposing. Worst of all is that the movie makes no attempt to highlight our hero as an interesting character, he really is just there to go through to motions, fight the villain and save the day. 

    Let’s not beat around the bush and jump right into my favorite thing about this movie, and that’s our main villain Mr. Freeze played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Let me start by saying that of all the Batman villains in general, Mr. Freeze has always been my personal favorite. He was my favorite character from the animated 90’s series, and he always came off to me like the Darth Vader of Batman villains. He looked threatening, had a signature weapon, and best of all was just how complex and multi-layered he was. After all, the best villains are those born of tragedy, similar to the way Batman himself was born from horrific events. 

So, as for Mr. Freeze’s as portrayed in this film … well, he still has some remnant of a deeper story, with his wife’s life being the driving force of his motivations and all, but the presentation is a bit too goofy to really get invested in the emotional side of the character. However, while this is technically a lame duck version of my favorite villain, Arnold Schwarzenegger in my opinion is the saving grace that makes him the highlight of the film. Compared to all the other actors in this movie, Arnold is clearly having the time of his life in the role and that just makes him fun to watch. He’s the only one who feels committed to the part, he doesn’t feel bounded by a script, and he brings a terrific level of energy to the role, which is impressive considering he was stuck in a suit that weighed 75 pounds. Also, when closely observing the other actors in this film, they all seem to stop acting once there done delivering their lines, but that’s not the case with Schwarzenegger. He actually has some lengthy scenes, where he’s not saying anything, but he still feels very in-character, and is even able to convey some subtle emotion. Also, while other actors of the time, like Patrick Stewart would have seemed better for the role, the character would have still been written poorly, so it really was for the best that Schwarzenegger got the part. Yes, this is technically still a stupid villain, with a grab bag of silly puns, but Schwarzenegger really took the role and created a unique entity with it and was consistently entertaining to watch. To be perfectly honest, of all the villains from the first four Warner brother’s Batman movies, Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze’s is my second favorite behind Jack Nicolson as the Joker.

      Chris O’Donnell returns to his signature role as Robin, and while his arc was one of the better aspects of “Batman Forever”, he’s unfortunately one of the weakest links in this film. The rift that’s splitting our two heroes apart is supposedly inspired by the classic “Night Wing” arc, but it fails big time here. Nothing about this conflict is compelling, in fact it’s downright irritating and Robin as a result just comes off a very unlikable. The movie tries to make Batman look like he’s in the wrong, and even over protective of his partner. However, Robin really is at fault most of the time, and his impulsive actions do cause more problems than they solve, so it’s impossible to side with either one during an argument. Everything else can just be attributed to Poison Ivy dividing them with her seduction powers, but that too is just plain annoying, as it results in some embarrassingly childish behavior from our hero’s. The one new thing I admittedly preferred about Robin in this film was the re-design of his costume, which is now all black with a red-robin symbol across his chest. I actually thought that was an improvement over his more traditional multi-colored costume. 

     Proving once again that the villains are the best of the worst characters in this film is the deadly Poison Ivy played by Uma Thurman. Now from a casting point a view, you couldn’t have picked a better late 90’s actress for the role then Uma Thruman. She dose capture the essence of the character and especially looks the part. Whenever she’s on screen it’s like “oh yeah, that’s Poison Ivy without question”. Unfortunately, for all her potential, she just can’t get around a really bad script. For some reason she’s written with an irritatingly horney personality, and while she looks like Poison Ivy, she feels more like a live action version of Jessica Rabbit. In fact, even her music theme sounds just like Jessica Rabbit’s jazz theme from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”. On that note, as a kid I always imagined Poison Ivy, Jessica Rabbit, Tina Carlyle from “The Mask”, and Holli Would from “Cool World” getting together to form their own night club, and maybe call it “The Shady Daisies”. Now much like Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy was another one of my favorite villains from the animated 90’s series, and I can’t help but feel like I need to savor this live action version of the character, because even though it’s not that great, it’s still currently all I’ve got. Now one of the biggest highlights of Poison Ivy’s character from the show was her variety of monstrous killer planets, which are sourly lacking in this film. About the most we get is a scene where Batman gets pulled up by vines, and that’s it … it’s kind of pathetic.     

    Rounding up the main cast is easily my least favorite character in the whole movie, and probably the most annoying performance of the whole franchise. Its Batgirl played by Alicia Silverstone, a character so tacked on, she couldn’t even fit her name in the tile “Batman & Robin”, even though this was her introduction movie. Joking aside, this character was clearly thrown in at last minute, and while she could have potentially contributed to the family dynamic of the film, it still fails as we barely see her form any kind of relationship with our two main hero’s. Also, from a writing stand point, her transition to actually becoming Batgirl has got to be the worst ever put to film. We’ve got a virtual reality Alfred suspecting she’d find the Bat-Cave, creates a costume in her size without apposable thumbs, and once she’s suited up she instantly knows how to fight crime, even though she’s had no prior training. Just for that, I’d bet there wasn’t a single script meeting for this film. Now some may prefer Alicia Silverstone’s subdued performance when compared to the bombastic, over the top performances of the villains, which I can respect. However, it’s all subject to personal taste, and I’m just more tolerant of a bad performance that’s entertainingly over the top, as opposed to a dull, boring and forgettable performance, which is exactly the case for Batgirl. Seriously, half the time I feel that Alicia Silverstone is just sleep-walking through her performance. Even when she’s in costume and dishing out some really bad one liners, she still sounds boring.

     While that rounds up that main cast, there’s also an overabundance of supporting characters. Naturally both Michael Gough and Pat Hingle reprise their signature roles of Alfred and Commissioner Gordon for the fourth and final time, but it doesn’t stop there. Bruce Wayne has a pointless love interest that has no bearing on the film at all. The music artist known as Coolio makes a random appearance as a street gang leader. Also, there’s Vivica A. Fox, fresh off the success of “Independence Day”, playing one of Mr. Freezes cronies … clearly that role should have gone to Coolio, sense his name could be credited as another ice pun. One of my favorite appearances comes from a prison guard played by former Governor Jesse Ventura, who’s escorting former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze to his cell. This is actually the third time those two have been in a movie together, the other two films being “Predator” and “The Running Man”. My personal favorite of the supporting cast has got to be the evil doctor, known by comic book fans as Floronic Man, who’s responsible for creating both Poison Ivy and Bane. He’s played by John Glover, and even though he’s only present in two scenes, he still chews up more scenery then all the other 90’s Batman villains from all the movies combined. At last there’s the humanized juggernaut Bane played by the late Jeep Swenson. He serves as the muscle for Poison Ivy, and could have been a potentially cool B villain, but unfortunately, he’s reduced to a big lumbering fool that makes Frankenstein groans. Truthfully, Bane is so underutilized that when I first saw this movie as a kid, I thought he was made up for the film, and had no idea he was a larger character from Batman’s rouges gallery.

     Now I mentioned earlier the overarching themes of family, which have some potential, but certainly aren’t felt that effectively in this movie. In fact, the 2017 film “The Lego Batman Movie” had the exact same subtext of family togetherness, but it was handled so much better. Not only was the narrative more poignant, but I genuinely felt the emotions behind the subtext, and this is coming from a film that stars cartoon bricks as it’s leads. The closest "Batman & Robin" ever gets to conveying something of substance and humanity are when Bruce Wayne and Alfred have their talks. These scenes are genuinely good in of themselves, and there possibly some of their best conversations in the franchise. The two exchange topics on morality, how there’s no defeat in death, and even the true meaning behind Batman. One of my favorite little touches is when Bruce asks if Alfred has ever regretted his life, to which he responds by saying “looking after hero’s, no sir, my only regret was that I was never able to go out there with you.” Then Bruce takes it another step further by stating that not every hero wares a mask. These scenes do highlight the father/ son dynamic between the two and are easily the most touching and emotional moments of the film. There's even some select moments with Mr. Freeze that almost convey some emotion. I like when he just sits down in silence to watch some old videos of his wife, and the simple look on his face carries a hundred words. I even liked that one effect of his single tear freezing on his face.   

     Another small but noteworthy highlight is that “Batman & Robin” features my favorite opening title card of the whole franchise, which is an appeal that future Batman movies would noticeably lack. In this opening we see the WB logo dissolve into a frozen Batman-logo, (effectively highlighting Mr. Freeze as the villain) the cast cards roll out paired with character-based sound effects, then the music builds, both the Batman and Robin logos cling together to form the title, and I honestly get hyped as hell every time I see this. It’s just unfortunate that the rest of the movie can’t live up to the epic-ness of that opening title screen. I also liked the end credit song “Gotham City”, which is performed by R. Kelly. It’s one of those cheesy songs to put on a 90’s sound track, so I can’t help but love it for being such an obvious cliché of it’s time. There’s a number of Easter Eggs spread throughout the film, that are worth taking note of. One of my favorites is a scene in the villain locker room where both The Riddlers costume and Two Faces costume fromBatman Forever” are kept on display. Then there’s that offbeat moment where Batman makes a joking reference to Superman, which was cringe worthy for the time, but doesn’t seem too out of place now with the advent of the expanded DC cinematic universe.

    The dumbest moment of all has got to be that random scene with Mr. Freeze dancing to a singalong of “I’m Mr. White Christmas”, from the holiday classic “A Year Without Santa”. It begs the question, was there anyone on the set, or in the script meets who thought that might just be even the slightest bit stupid? Obviously, there’s a number of scenes that just have me asking one simple question … what where they thinking? Why dose Robin leave behind a perfect outline of the Robin logo when he crashes though a wall on his motorcycle, that’s like something from out of Loony Toons. Why dose Batman lure a dangerous villain to a public event without taking any precaution of keeping innocent people safe? Perhaps he should have staked out the place from the roof, and then made his move when he saw Mr. Freeze’s vehicle approaching. Why is Poison Ivy so easily defeated when she’s kicked into her very own plant, in fact she was sitting in the very thing earlier. I’m not even going to talk in detail about that silly bat-credit card, as that thing speaks for itself. There’s plenty other brainless moments to mention but I’ll be here all day if I did so. Some fans like to right this film off as a comedy, but truthfully, I don’t think it was written with that intent. Nothing about this film is really trying to make us laugh, it’s really just a lot of stupid moments that we can’t help but laugh at. Clearly this was a big throw back to the campy 60’s show, but it’s also trying to be a big, exciting superhero action romp, and the two tones just don’t mix at all.   

      Now previously when Joel Schumacher directed “Batman Forever”, he gave it a very distinct look, with bright colors, neon lights, but it all balanced out with some heavy shadows and gothic architecture. Here in “Batman & Robin”, Joel Schumacher goes way over-board with the color pallets, over the top set designs, neon lights and it gets to the point where Gotham City doesn’t even look like a Batman setting anymore. In fact, this Gotham City looks more like a combination of Disney Land, the Ringling Brothers Circus, Toon Town, Christmas Town and the city from the 1927 movie “Metropolis”, all rolled into one. Having said all that, this is still a technical achievement to look at, the sets are still very impressive, and while this doesn’t seem like the proper setting for Batman, it still conveys an otherworldly, comic book atmosphere. There’s even some standout locations, and designs, like the new Arkham Asylum building, which feels very reminiscent of the models seen in the earlier Tim Burton films. The Bat-Cave is far more decorative this time, with laser lights, and Bat-symbols all over the place.

     It goes without saying that this film was crafted around a new line-up of action figures and was basically one big promotion to sell toys. Even the Batmobile looks less like a car, and more like a Hot-Wheel, which also has a random disco-ball under the hood. The action sequences have gotten a lot busier, with larger environments, more hero’s fighting more henchman and some insanely over-blown wire work. Seriously, the laws of physics do not apply at all to the action in this film. I get the impression that the filmmakers tried to make the battles seem bigger and more epic then before, but it’s just a little too much to swallow at times. Seeing Batman and Robin surfing through the sky with explosions going off seems to sum it all up. The mandatory car chase this time is staged on a gigantic statue in the middle of the city, which is both an odd set design, and a surprisingly dull place to stage a battle with fast moving vehicles. All the punches and kicks are also complete with cartoony sound effects, most prominent is the goofy sound of someone tripping over a banana peel. Even the fighting choreography is very sloppy. In this regard, the fight that always stood out to me is Bat Girls dual with Poison Ivy, which is so clumsily staged and poorly choreographed that it just comes off as boring to watch. Think about that, a fight between two chicks in tight, body hugging outfits is somehow boring to watch … you have to be some kind of mad genius to pull that off.  

    Then finally we have our big climax, in which Mr. Freeze uses a giant cold gun to blanket the city in ice. Once again, we have an action set piece that’s trying to be a larger scale spectacle then the final battles of the previous films, but it just doesn’t succeed with the delivery. Right from the start, we see our hero’s drive off to save the day while riding these new vehicles meant traversing icy-terrain, and they look hilarious. Seriously, it looks just like something from out of “Power Rangers”, and it begs the question as to how and where our heroes acquired these things. The ensuing battle plays out just as you’d expect, it’s a circus of flashy effects, there’s an onslaught of ludicrous techno babble solving problems, and there's people falling from blinding heights, yet are never in any danger. I will say that there’s some really good practical effects on display, and it was one of the last superhero movies to feature model buildings that get destroyed. It all builds to the big showdown between Batman and Mr. Freeze, which is yet another clumsily choreographed fight, and features a hilarious send off line from Batman, in which he over powers his enemy with this line … “The Heat is On!” When all the action is done, and the city saved, we then come to my personal favorite scene of the whole movie, in which Batman has a heart to heart with the defeated Mr. Freeze, leading to the villain’s reformation. This kind of set-up has admittedly been done more effectively in films like “Spider-Man 2”, but this was still a genuinely good scene. It was fairly well acted, and I always feel a little touched when I see a hero and villain come to an understanding and forgive each other. This one little scene alone honestly highlights what a good film this could have been, but ultimately failed to be. 

     So, why don’t I hate “Batman & Robin” when it’s clearly a terrible movie? Well, let me begin by recapping one of my favorite Highschool memories. I was taking a film class, and one evening my friends and I all got together to watch this film, and we just had the time of our lives ripping this film apart. Truthfully, I’ve never loved hatting a movie more than “Batman & Robin”, as it’s so bewilderingly bad, that it somehow becomes amazing. For me, “Batman & Robin” is on par with movies like Ed Woods “Plan 9 From Outer Space”, or Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room”, where by sinking to new lows, it some how reaches new heights. 

Now obviously there’s a difference between “Batman & Robin” and the two previously mentioned films, as they were both stand-alone movies, while “Batman & Robin” is part of a respected movie franchise. So for that, I can respect why the majority of people hate this movie. One thing that shouldn’t go unappreciated is that, thanks to “Batman & Robin”, we now have both superior Batman films, and superior comic-book movies in general. Truthfully, despite its negative reputation over the years, “Batman & Robin” is still a remembered comic-book movie, is even quotable, and was such a huge impact on the genera that I’d honestly be whiling to write it off as a classic superhero movie. Yes, it’s still bad, but it really dose deserve to be labeled as a minor classic and is largely responsible for the positive state of comic-book movies we’re in right now. It certainly isn’t boring, and for that I’d honestly prefer watching this over something dull like 1992’s “Batman Returns”, or 2016’s “Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice”. If you just want to have fun roasting a bad film, this is the movie for you, but for anyone else, stay away and watch any one of the other superior Batman films.     

I give “Batman and Robin” at least 2 stars out of 5, any more and I might be clinically insane. Stay tuned for review number 11, we’ll be wrapping up all my Batman movie reviews with arguably the best one, 2008's “The Dark Knight”.

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