Tuesday, October 05, 2010

The Insanometer: Batman and Robin

Part of me wants to say, "This movie isn't insane, it's just awful." And certainly, "awful" is a big part of it--nobody explained to Joel Schumacher that Batman could be other things besides the campy 60s series (not even after the seriously terrible "Batman Forever", which you'd think would have tipped some people off) and he set out to direct a movie that Adam West and Burt Ward wouldn't be out of place in.

(As an aside, I've never really liked the 60s TV series. I know some people say, "Hey, if you manage to set aside the pernicious and detrimental effect it had on Batman as a character, super-hero comics in general, and the reputation of the medium as a whole, it's actually got some funny bits," but every time I watched it, all those funny bits seemed to revolve around the idea that the people making it knew it was crap, instead of thinking they were doing something worthwhile.)

In any event, "Batman and Robin" is terrible, yes. But it's not just terrible...or at the least, it's terrible in such a way that you can't imagine how any sane person could have made it, which is the same thing for our purposes. The film opens smack-dab in the middle of what it laughably calls action, as Arnold Schwarzenegger's Mister Freeze steals a giant fake diamond with the aid of his evil hockey team and ice gun. Although honestly, I think that most of the security guards he froze solid probably preferred the icy chill of death to his constant ice-themed puns.

This is actually one of the strangest things about the movie. They keep the deadly-serious motivations of the villains, for the most part--Freeze is still trying to save his dying wife while trying to find a cure for his own condition, and Poison Ivy is still a madwoman who wants to wipe out the entire human race--but the actors play their characters like the comic relief B-villains. While Bane, who could probably sustain a movie in his own right, is reduced to being the comic relief C-villain...but plays his part relatively straight.

In any event, Batman and Robin spend what feels like forty years trying to stop Mister Freeze, only to fail miserably and get into a fight about how Robin is too impetuous and Batman doesn't trust him. (Hint: This will be a Theme.) Meanwhile, Michael Gough's Alfred tries to play his part with dignity, which is hard to do when your entire role consists of mouthing bland platitudes and then grimacing in pain after everyone else leaves the shot. (See, Alfred is dying. Just in case you didn't get that, the movie takes great pains to drive the point home with wince after wince of anguished pain. After a while, you start wondering if maybe he shouldn't eat an all-burrito diet.)

Then Alfred's hot niece comes to visit, played with role-destroying vapidity by Alicia Silverstone, and then that sub-plot stalls for time until we find out she's actually a rebellious kung-fu biker chick underneath her schoolgirl exterior, but a nice rebellious kung-fu biker chick who would love to channel her energies into vigilante crime-fighting if only she stumbled into the Batcave and found out that her dying uncle had made her a skin-tight spandex outfit. Hypothetically.

Then we cut to plant researcher Pamela Isley, who's insane. But not nearly as insane as her boss, Jason Woodrue, played with enjoyable scenery-chewing skill by John Glover. (Don't get me wrong, everyone chews the scenery in this movie. But Glover at least does it with some panache, and he's playing a mad scientist who's actually meant to be over-the-top.) Woodrue is using her research to create a super-steroid called Venom, which he uses to make a super-soldier named Bane. Then he tries to kill Isley, but only succeeds in turning her into Poison Ivy, which allows her to make a rather more successful murder attempt on Woodrue. (Uma Thurman, by the way, delivers all her lines like she's channeling Kim Cattrall in "Big Trouble In Little China".)

Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne helps a bunch of scientists build a "telescope" which is actually a giant MacGuffin for whatever the plot needs to do in the third act, and we find out that he's got another girlfriend (continuing the streak of having a new "serious girl" every movie. Given that both Vicki Vale and Chase Meridian found out his secret identity, and that both of them vanish without a trace in the next film, it might be worth investigating some of those bottomless pits in the Batcave. Just saying.) Oh, and he announces a big charity auction with lots of diamonds involved, which he's planning as a trap for Mister Freeze because his freeze-gun uses diamonds for fuel. (Despite the fact that synthetic diamonds have been around for fifty years, super-villains who need to use them to power giant lasers always seem to need the real thing. Go fig.)

Batman and Robin show up at the charity auction, because the best kind of trap is always the kind that involves dozens of potential hostages! Poison Ivy shows up too, planning to, um...I guess, something maybe with money, or...maybe she wants...um...in any event, she shows up and uses her pheromones to turn Batman and Robin against each other. This takes the form of them bidding on the right to date her, leading to Batman pulling out the Bat-Credit-Card in what had to be the exact moment where audiences lost their patience with the entire franchise so badly that they wouldn't make another live-action Batman film for eight years, and that only after replacing the director and all the actors concerned.

Then Mister Freeze shows up, and after a brief, embarrassingly perfunctory fight scene, he's captured and sent to Arkham. Poison Ivy decides to break him out so that they can team up and destroy the human race. Because nothing makes a more natural team than a plant-themed villain and one who wants to freeze the entire planet in sub-Arctic cold! Oh, yeah, that's Freeze's new motivation, because Ivy murders his wife and blames it on Batman. Which creates conflict, because Bruce finds out that Alfred is dying of the same rare disease that was killing Freeze's wife, and Freeze is the only one who knows how to save him!

During the break-out, Robin gets hit with another dose of Poison Ivy's pheromones, and decides to strike out as a solo super-hero. Which is somewhat ironic, as this movie was so terrible it actually acted as a speed-bump for his acting career. Playing a character who wants to be more ambitious and stop living in other people's shadows, even as the part winds up forcing him to take supporting roles for a while? Yeah, that qualifies. I think. In any event, Batman and Robin are totally on the verge of breaking up their partnership, and it's certainly not the kind of problem that can be solved by a wooden, unconvincing speech delivered with an utter lack of interest by George Clooney. So there's that, then.

Then we get into the third act. It turns out that by sheerest coincidence, Bruce Wayne's "telescope" can be used to beam freezing cold all over Gotham City, and Freeze plans to do exactly that! Robin tricks Poison Ivy into telling him by pretending he's still under her spell, then Batgirl defeats her in an awkward, stilted, hideously sexist sequence that neither actress will ever live down. By the way, this is the point where the script remembers that everyone already knew Barbara was going to be Batgirl.

Then it's just a matter of defeating Freeze and beaming heat all over the city to melt the ice, which can apparently be done with Bruce Wayne's "telescope". It is really damned hard to escape the conclusion that Bruce Wayne built a gigantic, obvious super-weapon as a lure to maniacal super-criminals all over the world just to give himself something to do. Afterwards, they show footage of Ivy confessing to Freeze's wife's murder, reveal that she's not quite dead yet after all, and offer Freeze facilities in Arkham to cure his wife if he'll only save Alfred. It's sort of like a plea bargain, except that the actual law doesn't get a say in the matter. Freeze agrees, handing over the cure and saying, "Take two and call me in the morning." That's this movie's Mister Freeze in a nutshell--no matter how bleak his life and his outlook, he still has a sunny quip for every occasion!

So the movie ends happily. Alfred is cured, Poison Ivy is in jail (with Mister Freeze as her wacky cell-mate), and Batman and Batgirl and Robin go off to fight crime. And we're happy, because the movie actually ended. As bad as the description of the plot sounds, it doesn't do justice to the terrible performances, the bizarre art direction choices (every set looks like it was decorated by a twelve-year-old girl and then lit by blacklights) and the incompetent action sequences. The film itself? About an eight on the Insanometer. The fact that everyone concerned, at every step of the process, thought that this was going to be a quality summer blockbuster with the potential to set up a fifth film, "Batman Triumphant"? That's got to be an eleven. Maybe even a twelve.


Eric Qel-Droma said...

John, come on. Calling the 60's series "pernicious" is stretching it, don't you think? Considering the shape that Batman comics were in at the time and the sheer insanity of the sci-fi Batman stories of the 50's, the TV show started out well.

I won't defend the depths to which it sank, but it was smart and funny for the first half of the first season, at the very least. And it did absolutely no damage to a children's character. I love Batman in large part because of the show. I was also able to accept that the character wasn't limited to the camp portrayal, as were many fans.

It's perfectly fair not to like it, of course, but come on...

John Seavey said...

No, I think that "pernicious" is exactly the right word. Consider the dictionary definition: "causing insidious harm or ruin; ruinous; injurious; hurtful."

Now consider the fact that even in 1997, after "The Killing Joke" and "The Dark Knight Returns" and "Year One" and the entire Denny O'Neil run, to say nothing of "Maus" and "Sandman" and "Preacher" and "Cerebus" and a host of comics written by and for grown-ups in the time between 1968 and the premiere of the "Batman and Robin"...

A major Hollywood director and the entire studio backing him made a $140 million dollar movie predicated on the notion that a Batman story cannot be anything other than a brightly-colored camp-fest filled with deliberately terrible acting and deliberately nonsensical scripts, pitched at the approximate intellectual level of a six-year-old.

That's the pernicious effect of the 60s Batman series: It near-permanently relegated comics to a child's medium in the public eye, even though the medium itself has proven to be far more versatile. Comics are, in the public consciousness, "Biff!" "Pow!" "Zonk!" "Don't worry, old chum!" "Holy stupid catchphrase, Batman!" and so on, ad nauseum. That makes it a lot harder to get people to take comics seriously.

See where I'm coming from, there?

Eric Qel-Droma said...

I've already stated that I will not defend the depths to which the program sank, but blaming the show for the public's perception of comics when comics were perpetuating that perception very well for years seems excessive to me.

Hollywood releases bad campy movies every few years, believing that the "joke" will cover up the lack of quality. Batman and Robin also features action and plotting right out of the Michael Bay school-of-spectacle. Would you blame Revenge of the Fallen on the Batman TV show, as well?

The argument that the TV show is solely to blame for Schumaker's travesty ignores the existence of Batman 89 and Batman Returns, which in many ways effectively disconnected Batman from the TV show. Remember that Burton's "dark vision," which is miles removed from the show, took over the box office in 1989. Had someone of Nolan's caliber taken over in 94/5 instead of Schumaker, we might very well have had Returns, Robin, and Triumphant turn out to be very good movies.

Instead, we got what we got. Did the TV show have something to do with it? Maybe. But I'd argue that even more than the TV show itself--the core idea of which I will still defend as smart, funny, and multi-leveled--the MENTALITY that led to the show's demise was also to blame for Schumaker's ascendance. Someone in Hollywood always wants to go for the cheap gags, the guest stars, the pointless spectacle, instead of aiming at the heart of the central concept. The long, long list of putrid movies Hollywood has produced that have very little to do with Batman testifies to the ubiquitous nature of this weakness. The show and the movie suffer from this weakness in parallel ways, not in causal ways.

Comics' reputation certainly had more to do with the shoddiness of Golden Age and many Silver Age stories, Wertham's influence, and a general rejection of "picture storytelling" as serious art than it did with the show, specifically.

I'd also argue that the idea of consistently taking superheroes remotely seriously really only starts post-Batman and Robin with moderately coherent hit movies like X-Men and Spider-Man. In fact, I see Batman and Robin as the last hurrah of any of the old fetters of "comics are for kids" that lingered from the 20th century. I think we're living in a new age of comics as a "legitimate" form of media which will be soullessly cannibalized by Hollywood on an equal opportunity basis, and not on a ghettoized basis.

So I am forced to disagree with your application of the dictionary definition of "pernicious," because I don't believe any lasting effects of the show *caused* any harm for B&R, nor was the show's effect insidious or ruinous.

Had the Murray/Murphy Batman and Robin been made, now THAT I would have blamed on the show...

Justin Garrett Blum said...

I'm with Eric on this. I've often heard the accusation that the old Batman tv series set back the public perception of the character for years, but honestly, I don't see the evidence of it, especially in light of how insanely bizarre the comics, themselves, were (seriously, every other week Batman was fighting an alien). Actually, I sort of credit the Adam West series for bringing back a classic rogues gallery.

Besides which, if it were true, then why did Tim Burton do such a dark film and why, of all of Batman films, was that the hugest smash hit? Why did the comics themselves progressively become more and more gritty starting in the 60s? Why was Batman: TAS so mature?

You really have nobody to blame for Batman & Robin beyond Joel Schumacher. It's arguable he would have made the exact same film even without the prior existence of the Adam West Batman.

As to Batman & Robin, I think your review is pretty much dead on, and it's not surprising that this film is absolutely loathed by everybody, judging by the 3.5 average rating on the IMDb.

The thing that bothered me about the film is that all three of these villains had been handled about a gazillion times better in Batman: TAS--a kids show. Yet when employed in a film that was meant to be enjoyed by all ages, the characterization dropped to the bottom of the Saturday Morning Cartoon barrel. I'd have been embarrassed by the quality of that writing when I was six.

R. W. Watkins said...

DC Comics in general had been pretty much rendered a corny joke by the early 1960s--especially alongside the burgeoning 'Marvel Age'; the Batman television series could in no ways have made matters worse for the comics at that point. Even the oft-maligned (and unfairly maligned) Charlton and Gold Key companies fared better quality-wise alongside the majority of DC titles throughout the '60s--especially after Gil Kane moved onto independent work (e.g., His Name is...Savage) and gradually took up residence at Marvel.