Monday, June 20, 2022

We're Going To Need A Bigger Cave: Batman & Robin at 25

The famous line in The Dark Knight is "You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain" but with movies, it's all about going the distance. Over time, many movies that were reviled on their original release see their reputations improve. The longer that a movie is out there, being watched and rewatched, the better the chance that it's going to finally find an appreciative audience. Movies are constantly being reappraised, long after their initial release. If nothing else, once enough years go by, people inevitably find themselves getting nostalgic for almost anything. 

Now that a quarter of a century has passed, are we finally at at the point where we can say whether time has redeemed Joel Schumacher's Batman & Robin? When it was released on June 20th, 1997, it was instantly vilified. Schumacher's Batman Forever (1995) had been a successful shot in the arm for the franchise after Tim Burton's Batman Returns (1992) had made it unsafe to sell Batman Happy Meals to kids so to have Schumacher come back for more seemed like the safest move imaginable. I'm sure the attitude of the studio was "That thing you did, just do it again." And to be completely fair to the man, that is exactly what Schumacher did.

Having George Clooney, still in the early days of his movie stardom after leaving ER, step into the role of the Caped Crusader seemed like such a slam dunk at the time. Just a flawless choice. You only had to look at Clooney's performance in From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) to believe that he could easily be the best Batman yet (reportedly, Schumacher drew a cowl over Clooney's face on the Dusk Till Dawn poster when he was considering offering him the role). Then you also had Alicia Silverstone hot off of Clueless as Batgirl and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze (questionable casting there but whatever) and Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy (spot on!) so, you know, on paper everything about Batman & Robin was looking good. Better than good, maybe. I'd say it was looking great! 

So with all these promising elements, and with a proven director in charge, what could go wrong? Or let me put it this way: what could go so catastrophically wrong that this would be torture to watch? If you had told most people ahead of time back in '97 that this would be a total disaster, they'd have brushed that kind of talk off. You know, even if it isn't great it'll be mindless fun. A good popcorn movie, as they say. 

I mean, come on, it's Batman! 

Then the movie came out and, oh my God. 

I say again, OH MY GOD.

I remember sinking into my seat on opening night, right from the start of the movie, mortified by what I was seeing, and it never got better. But hey, that was then. Were we all just being too hard on it? I know that no matter how much time goes by this movie is not going to magically morph into The Dark Knight or even into The Dark Knight Rises (a lousy movie, just not Batman & Robin lousy) but is it at least looking a little better these days? I think the assumption would have to be that, yeah, it must be.

Sadly I have to tell you that, no, it's still every bit as horrible. That in itself, though, is actually kind of impressive. If there's such a thing as doing a great job of making a terrible thing, holy shit, they did it.

Listen, I would like nothing better than to report that Batman & Robin is waaaay more fun than people initially gave it credit for. As a movie fan, I think the best thing is to revisit a movie that didn't click for me only to see it again and suddenly find myself loving it or at least having a better appreciation for it. However, as much as moments like Batman sliding down the tail of a brontosaurus can be a kick (let's not be completely anti-fun here), Batman & Robin is still a bust. If someone were to tell me that they loved Batman & Robin, I'd be very happy for the joy it brought them. I would only wish I could experience it through their eyes. 

For what it's worth, I do believe that Schumacher and everyone involved made an earnest effort to give the people what they thought the people wanted, to give them another Batman Forever, but it just didn't work out. Batman Forever had managed to fall on the right side of a certain line while Batman & Robin just careened over it. Why one struck the right balance and the other didn't, who knows? All the ingredients were essentially the same, they followed the same recipe but somehow one was tasty and one was inedible. 

One positive thing that the last 25 years have done for Batman & Robin is to put it in perspective. We're two successful Batman reboots down the line so we're long past the point of having to blame Batman & Robin for killing the series. Batman has long since proven his resiliency. That said, the franchise did not escape completely unscathed, with the chief casualty of Batman & Robin being Robin himself. This movie did what the Dark Knight's entire rogue gallery never could - it killed the Dynamic Duo. We've had eight solo Batman movies since 1989. Over those eight movies we've had five Batmen (with, of course, Ben Affleck as Batman in the Snyder-verse entries BvS and Justice League) but yet Chris O'Donnell remains the only Robin in all that time (and no, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character in Rises doesn't count). For a character that is so integral to Batman's mythology, that's crazy.

 Sure, we've seen Dick Grayson and Jason Todd in Titans but as far as having Robin in a Batman movie, forget it. As far as the big screen goes, Robin is a bird that's as extinct as the Dodo. I will say, though, that Matt Reeves' The Batman did leave me with the hope that he was setting the stage to re-introduce Robin. The way Reeves leaves things off at the end of The Batman, with Bruce embracing the idea that he can be and should be a symbol of hope, that the citizens of Gotham need to see him as a hero, I felt for the first time since 1997 that we might actually see Batman take on a partner again.

Reeves is much more interested in bringing a comic book sensibility to his Batman than Christopher Nolan was and I suspect the arc of Reeves' trilogy will be to transition Batman back into classic superhero mode with not just a new Robin but eventually the whole extended Bat Family of Huntress and Batgirl and others potentially making their way to Gotham City. This is just idle speculation on my part, of course, but I have a feeling that under Reeves' watch, the Bat Cave won't stay so empty.  

When he was on the press tour for The Batman, Robert Pattinson stated that he thought there was no such thing as a bad Batman movie, saying "...None of them are bad movies. People kind of shit on some of them, but they're not actually bad." I think that was very cool of the new wearer of the cowl to say and, you know, maybe he's right. But even if you agree with his assessment that there are no bad Batman movies, I think you still have to concede that even 25 years later, Batman & Robin remains the closest that they've come.  

No comments:

Post a Comment