erik lundegaard

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Batman & Robin (1997)

All Batman series descend into camp. Batman starts out as a vigilante (Batman (1943) and Batman (1989)), becomes a crime-fighting institution (Batman and Robin (1949) and Batman Returns (1992)), then, weighed down with co-stars and gadgets, gives way to absurdity and camp. The Adam West Batman series from the ’60s was intentional camp, and tweaked the ’40s serials and ‘40s sensibilities as much as the Batman universe itself. It was also funny. Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin, in contrast, pulls off a neat trick: it turns Batman into a joke without being funny at all.

Schumacher fetishizes Batman’s gear. He gives Batman and Robin glib and juvenile dialogue. He puts together two supervillains, Poison Ivy and Mr. Freeze, whose goals are diametrically opposed (ice vs. greenhouse). He adds Batgirl and fetishizes her gear.

As in Batman Forever, the casting works in theory but not in practice, which I assume we can blame Mr. Schumacher for as well. When I heard that Arnold Schwarzenegger would play Mr. Freeze, all I could think of was McBane, the parody of Schwarzenegger on The Simpsons, who, in one of his “films,” emerges from an ice sculpture around a table of villains (who are toasting to evil), and, mocking the bad puns of Schwarzenegger’s flicks, says, “Ice to see you,” before blowing everybody away.

We don’t get that bad pun but not for lack of trying. Some of Freeze’s lines:

  • “The Iceman Cometh.”
  • “What killed the dinosaurs? The ice age!”
  • “OK, everyone. Chill, chill, chill.”
  • “Allow me to break the ice.”
  • “Let’s kick some ice.”

When his henchman, Mr. Frosty, speaks while Freeze is watching his old wedding video, he freezes him, then says, “I hate when people talk during the movie.” When Poison Ivy and Bane deliver his cryo-suit to the prison, he says, “Wow, a laundry service that delivers!,” and later, “No matter what they tell you, Mr. Bane, it is the size of your gun that counts!” Plus there’s Schwarzenegger’s numerous attempts at madman dialogue:

  • “Yes, kill them! Kill them! Yes, destroy everything!”
  • “If I must suffer, then humanity must suffer with me!”
  • “I will blanket the city in endless winter! First Gotham and then the world!”
  • “First I will turn Gotham into an icy graveyard, and then I will pull Batman’s heart from his body and feel it freeze in my hand! Ha! Revenge!”

Really? Revenge?

Schwarzenegger has always been a fairly clumsy, musclebound actor whose taciturn characters are more often the result of his inability to get his mouth around the English language, and he definitely doesn’t show off his best here, but the other actors don’t fair well, either. Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy hams it up. Poor 27-year-old Chris O’Donnell is forced to whine like a teenager again, while Alicia Silverstone, all muckle-mouthed, is asked to graduate from Clueless to playing an “Oxbridge” dropout who races motorcycles, kicks ass, and turns into Batgirl. Her complete inability to pull this off turns the enterprise into more of a joke than it already is. Silverstone wasn’t believable kicking the ass of a purse-snatcher in the Aerosmith “Cryin’” video, so why should we believe it here?

The one who acquits himself is Michael Gough, reprising Alfred for the fourth (and last) time. His conversations with George Clooney’s Bruce Wayne are just this side of touching. While Clooney makes a good Bruce Wayne (playing him a little like George Clooney), he may be the worst Batman ever. Batman should be obsessed and slightly insane — how else are you going to get yourself to dress up in a batsuit? — but Clooney is all cool, ironic detachment and self-awareness. He’s too aware of the absurdity of this universe to live in it. When Commissioner Gordon tells him the name of the latest supervillain, he repeats the name with a kind of verbal shake of the head: “Mr. Freeze.” When Barbara bouncily introduces herself as Batgirl, he responds, “That’s not awfully PC. What about Batperson or Batwoman?” His subtext is basically How dumb is it that we wear these costumes and use these names? Michael Keaton’s Bruce could hardly wait to be Batman, whereas Clooney’s Batman, you get the feeling, can hardly wait to take off that silly costume and be Bruce.

Here’s the plot if you want it. Mr. Freeze needs diamonds to keep his cryo-suit cold, and himself alive, so he can cure his wife of her disease, Macgregor’s Syndrome, and Poison Ivy, a plant come to life, wants to rid the earth of humans, and thinks she and Freeze can do this together (“Adam and Evil,” he says), and Robin thinks Batman doesn’t trust him, and Alfred suffers from a lesser version of Macgregor’s Syndrome. During the final battle, in which Batman learns to trust Robin, Batman convinces Freeze (or Prof. Fries) to cure Alfred, and all ends well, and vaguely misogynistically, since Freeze is also put into the same Arkham Asylum cell as a scatterbrained Poison Ivy. “Surprise!” he tells her. “I’ve come to make your life a living hell!” At the very end we get the Schumacher silhouette of Batman, Robin, and Batgirl all running toward the camera, promising new adventures that, because of the sheer stupid weight of this one, never came. Hasta la vista, baby.

—June 10, 2008

© 2008 by Erik Lundegaard