Hoo-boy, this one has a reputation, doesn't it? A 3.6 star rating on the IMDb, a 12% score on rating aggregator Rotten Tomatoes and many individual reviews and reaction videos hating on Batman & Robin everywhere else. Those that defend it often do so in a manner that’s half apologetic ("Yeah, I know it's crap, but..."). Even Joel Schumacher himself publicly apologised for the film, and George Clooney said that this was the film that officially killed the Batman franchise. Due to this violently negative response, any and all plans for future Batman projects (such as the proposed Batman Triumphant, in which Scarecrow was to be the new main villain) were instantly cancelled. As far as mainstream cinema goes, only The Phantom Menace can hope to beat the legacy of Batman & Robin. Films cancelled, careers stunted, the Bat-signal decommissioned for almost a full decade… that’s a lot of hate.
In the spirit of cinematic re-evaluation, is Batman & Robin really that bad?...... Yes. Yes, it is. Batman & Robin is an over-saturated, kaleidoscopic nightmare of ridiculous buffoonery that barely offers even the most disposable of thrills. There are nods in the general direction of emotional grounding (Alfred's illness and Freeze's wife), but the tissue that surrounds these moments utterly destroy anything that could have value.
Before I go on, I'm going to talk a bit about the writer if this film and its predecessor: Akiva Goldsman. Goldsman is such an interesting case study as a writer in Hollywood. Most of his work as a writer has been as someone who works primarily on adaptations of other works, such as Practical Magic, I, Robot, I Am Legend, The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, as well one foray into adapting a classic TV series, Lost in Space (although most of those are just awful). He even won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for his work on A Beautiful Mind, so clearly the man can produce good work if he wants. However, looking at his track record of involvement specifically on comic book films - Batman Forever, Batman & Robin, Constantine, Jonah Hex - it’s almost all downhill. I mention all this purely to make the point that, for my view, Akiva Goldsman simply doesn’t get comic books. It could be that he continues to hold onto that old chestnut that comics are for kids and idiots, so he believes he can get away with work that is less than stellar. This, coupled with his clear orders from producers, director and studio big-wigs to make things more "kid-friendly", means that Goldsman has produced a script that is an affront to the material he had to work with.
Putting aside the characterisation and dialogue, strictly in terms of character arc and motivation, Freeze is drawn fairly well, so naturally Goldsman didn't do it. The root of all this is defined by the backstory created by Paul Dini for a 1992 episode of Batman: The Animated Series called "Heart of Ice", which won an Emmy for writing and is remembered as one of the best episodes of the series, if not the best. It was so good that the comics even took this origin on board and it has served as the basis for the character ever since. What Goldsman did with this story was utterly destroy it with an all-out assault of dialogue and hi-jinx that's meant to be cartoony, but overshoots and lands in patently idiotic. Freeze becomes a factory of bad one-liners and absurd campery. His lair, his freezing minions, his stupid bunny slippers, and the small moments of pathos that are ruined by crass jokes as soon as they begin to go in the vague direction of genuine emotion. Not only does Goldsman insist on utilising every story cliché, every tired plot device, every achingly bad pun going, but he also crushes any scene that tries to break away from this.
And, if anything, the heroes are treated even worse.
The tentative steps of trust, partnership and what it means to be part of a team that were addressed in the previous film between the two crime-fighters returns again for this one, but just feels so much more forced. Robin wants his share of the glory, but Batman thinks he isn’t good enough yet. Honestly, this whole bit just makes Robin come off like a petulant child, which sort of worked for the frustrated emotional arc in the last film, but not here. And the introduction of Batgirl is just goddamn lazy. Here, she is Alfred’s niece (rather than Commissioner Gordon’s daughter) who shows up, says something about computers, rides a bike and becomes the latest addition to the team… that’s it. She does have other stuff about wanting to take her dear uncle away from his life as a servant, which is supposed to open things up to be a consideration of family, but it’s completely hollow. Effectively her entire drive becomes ‘I’m taking my uncle away from this life of servitude’ ‘But he’s family’ ‘Well, then so am I’. She doesn’t really earn a spot on the team so much as force her way in through some sort of vague sense of nepotism.
Put simply, in this film, George Clooney is not a good Batman or Bruce Wayne, simply because he never stops being George Clooney. Bruce Wayne’s charm is actually just Clooney. Batman’s intimidation factor is non-existent because he’s just Clooney. It’s a wholly unconvincing show from someone I’ve seen do some great work before and since. Alicia Silverstone follows Clooney’s turn and just shows up onset as herself in a costume, and Chris O’Donnell is just a whiny little annoyance, destroying the good will he gained by being pretty decent in Batman Forever.
Here's the thing, though. For me, as much as I dislike Batman & Robin, it's not the film I hate the most in the original run of Bat-flicks.
There are many people that will tell you Batman Forever is the film that truly ended the original Batman franchise, and that Batman & Robin was merely the final nail. Frankly, this is kind of true. Whilst Batman & Robin is objectively the worse film of the two, it was Batman Forever that helped pave the way for this one. If Batman Forever had been a flop, Warner Bros. may have changed their tactics again and may have tried to recapture the darker tone of the first two films, which they at least knew would get them a consistent audience, even if it wasn't as big as they wanted.
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