Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Movie review: Batman & Robin (1997)

batmanandrobinposterBelieve it or not, I never saw Batman & Robin in the summer of 1997 when it was originally released. I’m not really sure how that’s possible since I was very much into comics at the time. It was probably due to a busy work schedule and so little extra cash for entertainment back then. Or maybe it was because I was disappointed in Batman Forever and heard nothing but bad things about this movie. I figured I’d catch it on home video eventually but I never did… until last night.

Yes, it’s true. Up until now I had never seen Batman & Robin in its entirety. Sure, I’ve seen plenty of clips from various reviewers (see below); but I never once sat down and watched it from beginning to end. Going into this, I was expecting the absolute worst; something on an epic-fail scale of Waterworld, Cutthroat Island or Battlefield Earth. What I saw was Batman Forever: Redux. Having just watched that movie a few days prior, I realized this movie was more or less the same, but with the outrageous comical and campy elements maximized. In fact, I must say I am a bit baffled by the vitriolic hatred this movie receives because it’s quite clear from the moment it begins that it cannot be taken seriously. Consider that this is the opening scene:

SCENE: Batcave
Robin: I want a car! Chicks dig the car.
Batman: This is why Superman works alone.

Oh, did I use that exact same trope in my review of Batman Forever? If Joel Schumacher can do it, then why can’t I? I must admit that the montage of the Batsuits and the zoom-in on Batman and Robin’s butts made me laugh out loud. When a movie begins on this juvenile of a note you know it cannot – in a million years – be seen as anything approaching realistic or earnest. That was the tone set by the previous film, and it continues here to an even higher and more ridiculous degree. I think the people that hate this movie feel that way because they view it through the lens of a movie trying to be suspenseful or thrilling. Those previous mentioned “epic fails” bombed because they wanted to be taken seriously and didn’t realize how stupid they were. Batman & Robin knows it’s stupid, embraces its stupidity and never apologizes for it. Given that premise, I think it actually kind of works.


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That’s not to say that I think this is a genuinely good movie, just that it’s not the god-awful unwatchable drivel I had been lead to believe it is. What makes bad movies truly bad is that they’re inconsistent. There really isn’t any inconsistency to Batman & Robin – it’s actually quite consistent with its silliness. Since it’s so inherently cheesy, you really can’t fault it for whatever unbelievable moments and elements it contains. Within this context, everything that happens is not just par for the course – it’s expected. If its clichés and tropes were missing, then it would be grating. Take it at face value, view it as a live action cartoon, and think of it as a comedy and it’s remarkably watchable.
And with that in mind, allow me to point out some of the things I liked about this flick:

Arnold Schwarzenegger makes a good villain

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Much like Jack Nicholson in the original 1989 film, it looks like he’s having a blast with this role (if only Ah-nold were 1/100th the actor that Nicholson is). We usually associate him as playing the tough guy, so it’s pretty funny seeing him depicted as a buffoonish villain. A lot of people hate his constant puns, but I thought they were funny.

George Clooney is the best Batman of the Burton/Schumacher franchise

As I said in my reviews of Batman, Batman Returns and Batman Forever, I always thought Michael Keaton and Val Kilmer were incredibly stiff and monotone. Keaton was just too small in frame to pull off either Batman or Bruce Wayne, and Kilmer could’ve been better had he just emoted a little. In this movie, Clooney demonstrates actual range (though limited, at least it’s more than a 1-degree deviation). His constant head bobbing is a little annoying, but I can at least buy him as Batman/Bruce Wayne. I could even see him playing Batman earnestly a la the Christopher Nolan films (or maybe someday in the future as a retired Batman if they ever make The Dark Knight Returns into a live action movie).

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There’s actually more than one female character!

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The three previous films all failed the Bechdel Test miserably, but this one passes it (barely). Not that Batman & Robin is a feminist manifesto, but it does feature three female characters instead of the usual one: Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman), Barbara Wilson/Batgirl (Alicia Silverstone), and Julie Madison (Elle MacPherson). And sure they’re all stock characters and sure Poison Ivy is just a redux of Catwoman and Barbara is a redux of Dick Grayson and Julie really doesn’t do anything other than stand there and look pretty, but at least they’re there is my point. I was hoping the Batgirl versus Poison Ivy fight sequence would last a bit longer than five seconds, but it was fun while it lasted. Of all the Burton/Schumacher/Nolan films, this is the only one to feature a female hero (as small as her role might be).

The villains don’t die in the end

If you know Batman, you know he has a no-killing-allowed honor code. That’s not something that works well in big Hollywood productions like these. He pretty much assassinated The Joker, The Penguin and Two-Face in the previous films; but here he’s more concerned with saving Gotham City. In fact, he actually needs Mr. Freeze’s help at the end. Granted, this was probably the lamest and least thrilling ending of the four Burton/Schumacher movies, but it was rather original.

It works as a comedy

Whereas Batman Forever desperately clung to the notion that it was a genuine action and adventure thriller (that was lighthearted in nature), Batman & Robin ups the ante to the extreme and goes all-out in its campiness. It even uses stock cartoon sound effects at some points. Pretty much everything that was meant to be funny in this movie I laughed or at least smirked at. I know a lot of people face-palm or forehead-to-desk when watching this movie, but for whatever reason it just didn’t bother me (including the infamous Bat Credit Card).

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Final Thoughts

Someone should get a Kickstarter going to have Batman & Robin adapted verbatim into an animated feature and drawn in the style of the old Filmation or Hanna-Barbera series like Super Friends. If viewed in that style, it would be a completely different (and more accurate) experience.

The Nostalgia Critic’s review (probably NSFW)

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