It’s only a couple of days until Justice League, a movie where advanced reviews seem to give it a begrudging “it could have been worse!” (Read my earlier tangent here.) But a troubled history in bringing the Superfriends to screen is par for the course. An entire documentary was made about Tim Burton/Nicolas Cage’s failed Superman Lives movie from the late 1990s. However, even in a universe with 1984’s Supergirl and 2004’s Catwoman, the most notorious of these films is still 1997’s Batman & Robin. But, as the saying goes, time makes fools of us all because as it turns out – Batman & Robin is really not that bad.
I mean sure, obviously Batman & Robin is a bad movie, there is no getting around that. But the term “bad” encompasses a lot, from the excruciatingly boring to the shockingly incompetent – and Batman & Robin is neither of those things. Rather, it’s the best type of bad movie, an ambitious failure. Joel Schumacher tried to do a live action version of the 1960s Adam West Batman series, and he actually pulled it off for better or worse. (Mostly worse.)
Looking back on the George Clooney-starrer in this interminable era of “dark, gritty, realistic” reboots, there’s something downright admirable about it being the embarrassingly enjoyable antithesis to the blockbusters of today. Once you get past how misguided it all is, there’s even a fair amount to appreciate in it, particularly visually – and not just because the color palette had more than ‘grey’ and you could actually see what was going on in the movie. The craftspeople actually instilled a good amount of creativity and work in the sets, costumes, and props. There’s really no excuse for Bat nipples, but Freeze and his goons, the ice cream parlor lair, even Bane were aesthetically interesting, if completely ridiculous.
Is that what people want/ed in Batman? Of course not. Gotham shouldn’t be a neon wonderland. There shouldn’t be a Bat Credit Card. Instinctively wearing ice skates boots is kind of bizarre. It was too campy, too kitschy. Etc. Etc. Etc. There’s plenty of reasons to rail against Batman & Robin. But when the most beloved incarnation of the Dark Knight in years is literally a Lego man… there’s no reason why we shouldn’t give credit where credit is due. Especially when all of these references are still touchstones two decades later.
However, revisionism is a privilege of the future. Back then, Batman & Robin‘s reputation quickly sank the franchise that Tim Burton started back in 1989 (of note, the path from Keaton to Clooney was only one year longer than that of Nolan’s trilogy). DC has spent the past 20 years trying to distance itself from the stench of Poison Ivy and Mr. Freeze. They pulled it off with the critical and commercial success of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy. Then, in the quixotic attempt for the mega-franchise, they ironically they ended up at the same place they were in 1997, albeit on completely opposite sides of the spectrum.
For as tonally different as Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice in 2016 was, it’s really not all that different from Schumacher’s 1997 disaster. Have any other superhero movies – or movies in general, outside of maybe the Star Wars prequels – been the inspiration for as many articles, videos, and podcasts ridiculing each and every choice made by the filmmakers? Superman responded to being accused with mass murder with complete apathy followed immediately by bathtub sex. It was one of this decade’s highlights in snarky criticism.
Both movies weren’t just products of their time – they were the most excessive versions of their respective periods, and both Schumacher and Snyder were given the unfettered freedom to run amok with their respective visions. Schumacher’s film came at the height of the flamboyant, over-the-top Roland Emmerich blockbusters (Independence Day was in 1996) and the birth of Michael Bay (Armageddon was 1998). Snyder’s came at the height of the grey, miserable, and overstuffed megablockbusters. (While some might credit/blame the Nolan with starting that trend, that misrepresents those films. His trilogy is filled with humor (even from Batman himself), personality, and excellent visuals. This is more The Bourne Effect.)
If you stripped away the melodramatic self-seriousness of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, is it really that much “smarter” than Batman & Robin? That much “better?” Yes, BvS obviously benefits from 2010s filmmaking technology and a filmmaker who can deliver a quality action sequence, but a lot of the elements that were supposed to put it on a next level, weren’t there. The discussion on vigilantism was about deep as Poison Ivy’s rants against global warming. Most of B&R’s pointless subplots actually played into the movie’s narrative (e.g. Alfred’s disease, Barbara’s computer abilities) as opposed to BvS’ ‘everything at the wall’ approach with practically zero pay-offs. Another giant CGI grey monster that doubles as a space laser? Is that really so much more impressive than luchador Bane? A bathroom sink vs. rubber lips? is Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor that much deeper than Mr. Freeze? At least Mr. Freeze had an infrastructure in place for a world encased in ice, what plan did Lex have for a world overrun by a Cloverfield monster? Freeze’s puns were stupidly charming; what positive memories can we have about grade school art analysis and awkwardly feeding a man Jolly Ranchers? Plus Batman & Robin was nearly an hour shorter, so it has that going for it.
Regardless of how Justice League and the rest of the DCEU-no-longer-DCEU turns out, it’s important to remember that for how infamous Batman & Robin was and is, it’s still a distinctive and memorable movie. For as much as we might rail against its campiness, 20 years later, it’s still quotable. Images still remain in our mind. It’s still a pop culture reference point. It’s a ridiculous movie, yes, but it is a fun movie. Even if it’s just to mock it, it’s very rewatchable. Far better to succeed at that than to fail at ham-fisted melodrama and poor, panicked world building. (And no, this isn’t part of the MCU v. DCEU fanboy battle the Internet keeps trying to push; all we, the general audience, want is good movies – doesn’t matter with whom or from whom.)
Will Batman v. Superman have that longevity, with its motifs of darkness and fire and overall dour disposition? How much of last year’s nearly three-hour film actually stands out – other than MARTHA?!? WHY DID YOU SAY THAT NAME?!?? Obviously, any (re)consideration of Batman & Robin is tied into where movies have gone since – grass is always greener – but if it shows one thing, if you’re going to be bad, at least do it with style.