Sunday, 9 October 2011

Batman & Robin (1997)

STRENGTH. COURAGE. HONOUR. AND LOYALTY.

I know, I know, I’m horrendously late with this one. Believe me, I never thought it would happen on Batman Week. Still, you don’t want to hear me go on about why I’m late… you, for whatever reason, want to read my thoughts on the fourth film of the original run of Batman films that started in 1989 with Tim Burton’s Batman and ended in 1997 with Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin, which has gone on to become one of the most reviled films ever made. Well, you’ve all waited long enough; let’s get to it.

Batman (George Clooney) and his partner Robin (Chris O’Donnell) work together to stop the new bad guy of Gotham: Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a sub-zero scientist stealing the city’s diamonds. Tensions appear between the duo, made worse when another villain comes into town, Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman). When the two evildoers join forces, it takes the crime-fighting pair to breaking point.

It’s a bit difficult to find things to say about a film like Batman & Robin. Not because there’s nothing to say about it, be it good or bad, but really just because so many people have already gone to town on it. You go to the IMDb page for this film and you will see a slew of one- and two-star reviews and comments that so thoroughly tear it a new one that it seems unnecessary to go over the same ground. Those that defend it often do so in a manner that’s half apologetic. Even Joel Schumacher himself went on record apologising for the film, and George Clooney said that this was the film that officially killed the Batman franchise. This would seem like a pretty solid statement considering that any and all plans for further Batman films and projects were instantly halted and cancelled due to the critical battering this film took. You have to admit, rarely has a film had such a negative impact as this one. Films cancelled, careers stunted, the Bat-signal decommissioned for almost a full decade… that’s a lot of hate. But is it all justified? Is this truly worthy of the vicious tirades and outbursts it receives?

Well, yes, kind of. However, let’s have a proper look at it and measure the damage of what’s said to be one of the worst films to make almost twice its budget back in box office returns.

Primary writer of Batman Forever, Akiva Goldsman, returned to scripting duties on this film, conceiving of story (alongside Schumacher), character arc and dialogue. Goldsman is such an interesting case study as a figure in Hollywood, but particularly a writer. Most of Goldman’s work as a writer since his beginnings back with 1994's The Client have been as someone who works primarily on adaptations of other works, such as A Time to Kill, 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. You may look on these and think to yourself that this guy does nothing but write scripts for awful, but financially successful films. In that case, you’d be wrong, since he actually won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for his work on A Beautiful Mind, which won quite a few other awards, like Best Film and Best Director. So clearly the man has something in him that can produce good work. However, looking at his track history, as writer or producer, specifically on comic book films (Batman Forever, Batman & Robin, Constantine, Jonah Hex), it’s almost all downhill. I mention these things purely to make the point that, for my view, Akiva Goldsman simply doesn’t really get comic book films, though I’m sure he has tried to educate himself in the ways of medium. It could be that he continues to hold on to some worn out notions of stylisation, character, or simply the commonly held belief that comics are for kids and idiots, so any hackneyed storyline is acceptable. This, coupled with his clear orders from producers, director and studio big-wigs to make things more kid-friendly and cartoony, means that Goldsman has produced a script that is an unholy concoction of flat characters, truly grating dialogue, and a story so simple and dull that you would struggle to care less about it.

The tentative steps of trust, partnership and what it means to be part of a team that were addressed in Batman Forever between the two crime-fighters returns again in Batman & Robin, but just feels so much more forced. It’s been over a year since Dick Grayson partnered up with Bruce Wayne to kick Gotham’s criminals in the collective nuts, but they still seem to have a problem with trust, partnership and what it means to be part of a team. Robin wants his share of the glory, but Batman thinks he isn’t good enough yet. Honestly, this whole storyline just makes Robin come off like a petulant child, which sort of worked for the frustrated emotional arc in the last film, but here is very off-putting. And the introduction of Batgirl is just clichéd and 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.

Poison Ivy’s storyline is one born of environmental mania, with Dr. Pamela Isley trying splice the genes of plants and venomous animals to create plants that can fight back against their human predators. However, she is killed by the other mad scientist in her South American laboratory, who is busy creating a chemically-enhanced super soldier called Bane, who is to be auctioned off to the standard line-up of crazies bent on world domination. Three things: 1) The mad scientist creating a super solider bit is so trite that it’s painful; 2) It utterly destroys the character of Bane, turning the super strong and super smart monster of the comics into a walking blunt instrument; and 3) The bit about Dr. Isley being murdered by a co-worker only to be resurrected by the thing she loved in life, thus turning her into a villain defined that thing, is a near carbon copy of Catwoman’s origin in Batman Returns. When Ivy comes to Gotham, she starts using pheromone dust to drive men wild and turn Batman and Robin against each other, but it all seems so unnecessary. Her ultimate goal is make plants rise up against humanity, which she plans to do with a special flower/snake hybrid she created, but then why bother with anything else? She’s already made the plant, and has shown that she can grow things almost instantly and with a minimum of fuss, so getting near Bruce Wayne, messing with the crime-fighting duo, and teaming up with Mr. Freeze is completely pointless. She could have gone to a local park, planted whatever she wanted and had a floral army almost immediately. By showing up and aligning herself with the bad guy, she put herself in the firing line. She’s just thrown in to further aggravate the Batman/Robin conflict. She is almost nothing but plot hole.

The one interesting arc for the film comes from Mr. Freeze, who was a former Olympian turned Nobel prize-winning biochemist. When his wife contracts a deadly disease, he puts all of his effort into finding a cure, but an accident turns him into someone who can only live in sub zero temperatures. He then becomes a villain, but only to fund his own research to cure his wife. This is actually really good stuff, because it’s got heart and tragedy, as well as the moral questions of doing bad for a good cause. However, much like the Poison Ivy origin, it’s also got nothing to do with Akiva Goldsman. This arc was created 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, if not the best, episodes of the series. It was so good that the comics took this origin on board and has served as the basis for the character ever since. What Goldsman did with this story was utterly destroy it. Partly because it’s supposed to be cartoony and partly because Schwarzenegger was cast, Freeze is a virtual non-stop pun machine (a “machine pun”, if you will) and completely ridiculous. He hangs out in an abandoned ice cream factory, wears huge bunny slippers and forces his freezing minions to sing cartoon songs for him. The small moments of pathos are ruined by crass jokes as soon as they begin to go in the vague direction of genuine emotion. For example, when a lackey interrupts Freeze watching old home movies of his wife, he freezes him solid and says “I hate it when people talk during the movie.”... Christ. 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 the dialogue… dear sweet zombie Jesus, the dialogue is abysmal. Almost no one is immune from the clunky, awkward, unfunny words being forced upon them. Only Alfred manages to get away from this, but only because he’s British and dying.

You know what? I think I’ve harped on about Goldsman long enough.

Joel Schumacher takes the overblown approach he used in Batman Forever and manages to outdo himself in Batman & Robin. Supposedly before every shot, he called out to his cast “Remember, this is a cartoon!” This is an easy indication as to how he saw these films. As I said in the Batman Forever review, these were his orders from the studio. He was told to make a film like this, but even this was too much. Aside from helping Goldsman come up with the storyline for the film, he has turned the world of Gotham into a campy, colour-blitzed playground for people to jump around. Every character seems to come with their own signature colour, so the instant they show up, the whole lighting scheme in the room changes. In fact, the visuals match the script perfectly, holding the same subtlety and delicacy as using twenty sticks of dynamite of wash a dinner plate. He also compounds his bizarre addition of nipples to the costume designs by adding abs and asses. His casting choices are just as foolish.

Put simply, 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. Chris O’Donnell is just a whiny little annoyance. Alicia Silverstone follows Clooney’s turn and shows up onset as herself in a costume. The worst stuff comes from the villainous sector. Arnold Schwarzenegger is as bad as he always is, so there’s little surprise there. The thing that makes it more painful is that his was the most interesting character with the most potential. I’m not sure I really blame Arnold for this, though. He does show signs that he’s trying, but this is just something that's beyond his capabilities as an actor. Uma Thurman doesn’t really get the same consideration. Though not exactly one of the most revered actresses, she can pull off a decent turn when she wants to. The character of Poison Ivy is weak, and the direction was bad, but Thurman is hardly blameless for the twitchy and over-the-top show she puts on.

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 I will hold that Batman & Robin is 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 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.

I’ll say again that Schumacher apologised for this film, saying that all he wanted to do was entertain. I understand this, as I think we all can. Nor do I really blame him entirely for Batman & Robin, or the demise of the original franchise, mainly because so many other people are equally responsible. Akiva Goldsman, Warner Bros., Tim Burton, the cast, the production crew, everyone who had their hand in making these films that pandered and patronised the audience at every turn. But most of all, the cinema-going public is responsible for this film, and I include myself in this. Only a few complained about the first two films being too dark, but we all had a part in allowing the change to happen. When Batman Forever dropped, we should have called it quits then and there. But we didn’t, the film became a massive success and made the filmmakers think that this is what we wanted as an audience. The most powerful people in the film industry are, and have always been, the audience. We let these things happen, by letting the crass commercialism and juvenile story-telling dictate where the series went.

We should all very ashamed of ourselves.

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