As I discussed in my review of Superman IV, not many movie series reach a fourth installment. When this happens, however, the results usually aren’t pretty. Case in point: 1997’s Batman & Robin, otherwise known as the film that killed a franchise.
While it currently seems to enjoy a positive reputation, when it hit in 1992, Batman Returns appeared to damage the franchise. Audiences tired of the unrelenting darkness and nastiness, and Warner Bros. tried to give them what they wanted. As such, 1995’s Batman Forever provided a less intense experience, and crowds responded accordingly; the sequel performed well at the box office and it looked like the franchise was back on track.
During Forever, director Joel Schumacher maintained some of the darkness found in the two prior Tim Burton affairs, but he leavened it with more color and some campy humor. Those elements didn’t become overwhelming, but they were much more prominent in his world.
Apparently emboldened by this success, Schumacher delved deeper into the lighter elements of the series with Robin. From the opening close-ups of costumed body parts, the emphasis clearly went with a broad, self-mocking tone, and it really didn’t work. The old Sixties Batman could be fun because it so overtly went over the top; it was a comedy masked in superhero tights. However, Robin wanted to have it both ways; it tried to laugh at and with our characters, and it failed in both regards.
In many ways, Robin repeated the structure of Forever. Both films start with extended action pieces during which we meet a villain who’s already established in Gotham City. Here we get Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a burly dude who uses cold to get what he wants. For reasons we soon learn, he craves diamonds, and the dynamic duo try to stop him from getting his latest haul.
Freeze escapes their clutches, and tensions ensue because Batman (George Clooney) doesn’t fully trust Robin’s (Chris O’Donnell) instincts. Meanwhile, a botanical researcher named Dr. Pamela Isley (Uma Thurman) stumbles on a co-workers scheme to engineer super-warriors; in front of an audience of bidders, Dr. Jason Woodrue (John Glover) creates Bane (Jeep Swensen), a bulky, monosyllabic beast of a man.
Since Isley won’t go along with his plans, Woodrue tries to kill her. However, a combination of chemicals and her beloved plants resurrect Isley as a new woman - literally. She turns into the villainous Poison Ivy, a serious eco-terrorist who will stop at nothing to force plant domination of the world.
When she discovers that Wayne Enterprises - as in Bruce Wayne, the alter ego of Batman - funded Woodrue’s work, she immediately kills him, nabs Bane and heads to Gotham. There she tries to push her agenda, and eventually she pairs with Freeze to get her needs. Along the way, she uses a special dust to intoxicate all around her, which includes Batman and Robin. The two feud over Ivy, which intensifies their tensions.
In the meantime, Wayne’s longtime butler Alfred (Michael Gough) starts to take ill, and it looks like he may not have much time left. His niece Barbara (Alicia Silverstone) arrives at Wayne Manor under semi-false pretenses. Eventually she discovers the secret of the Bat and becomes a superheroine herself as Batgirl.
That’s a lot of characters and stories to cover in one 125-minute film. We have three heroes and three villains, plus Bruce maintains a love interest in the form of Julie Madison (Elle MacPherson). The latter gets very little screentime, partly because there wasn’t room, but mainly because Elle can’t act. Of course, neither can Silverstone, at least not in this role; she seems stiff and unconvincing at all times.
Among the females, Thurman fares the best, if just because she has the most natural talent. Her work should seem abysmal, as she goes for the most over the top tone even for this goofy flick. However, because she embraces the comic side of things, her performance seems most logical; while the rest of the film tries to have it both ways, she shoots totally for camp, and she succeeds.
Otherwise, the cast doesn’t do well. Each of the three modern Batmen has approached the role differently. Michael Keaton played Batman/Wayne as distracted and obsessed, while Val Kilmer went the morose playboy route. Clooney tries for a more fatherly tone, I guess because he has to shepherd two kids this time. I like Clooney, but his attitude was totally wrong for the role; Batman should never come across as paternal, and he feels like a sap.
O’Donnell was a minor breath of fresh air in Forever, but he quickly wears out his welcome in Robin. He appears very obnoxious and grating, which makes it easy for us to understand why Batman doesn’t trust him. Granted, some of this was intended by the script, but I think O’Donnell could have added a little more natural and likeable qualities to the role.
Schwarzenegger was the big draw in Robin, but he failed to do much with the part. Admittedly, this wasn’t unexpected, as no one ever considered him to be a versatile actor. Still, the stiffness with which he delivered his many jokes appeared somewhat surprising; Arnie looked pretty good in the suit, but otherwise Freeze was a dud.
Speaking of those gags, they created one of the movie’s main problems. Man, was this thing packed full of lame one-liners! It felt as though no action could occur without a resulting wisecrack, virtually none of which even approximated anything funny. During Forever, some of them worked, but that was due to the presence of Jim Carrey. To state that Thurman and Schwarzenegger aren’t in his comedic league is a gross understatement. Actually, Uma has some good comic chops, but she doesn’t possess the skills to make this tripe entertaining.
Overall, Robin felt recycled and flat. It followed the structure of Forever awfully closely, right down to the nerdish personalities of the Poison Ivy and Riddler alter egos. Actually, some of the same elements appeared in Returns, but the similarities seemed more glaring between the two Schumacher flicks.
When I watch a movie and experience yearnings for Forever, I know something’s wrong. Despite all of its flaws, Batman Forever was a fine piece of work compared to its sequel. Frankly, I don’t dislike Batman & Robin with the intensity maintained by many of its detractors, as it occasionally offered some decent action material. However, the film indeed failed on most levels, as it went with an obnoxiously cute and campy tone that proved to undo it.
Cultural reference possibility: when Ivy emerges at a big Gotham charity party, she does so to the strains of a dance remake of the Coasters’ old tune “Poison Ivy”. To my ears, this rendition bears a very strong resemblance to the version of “Like a Virgin” Madonna performed during her 1990 “Blonde Ambition” tour. Coincidence or additional thievery? I’m going with the latter; the two songs are awfully similar.
Batman and Robin appears in both an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 and in a fullscreen version on this double-sided, single-layered DVD; the widescreen image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Only the widescreen picture was reviewed for this article. Although the movie remains watchable, Forever was one of the earlier DVDs to hit the market, and the picture definitely has started to show its age.
Sharpness appeared consistently crisp and detailed, as the movie exhibited virtually no signs of softness. Occasional examples of moiré effects appeared, and I also witnessed a fair amount of edge enhancement. Digital artifacts were another problem throughout the movie. The darkness of the settings helped hide these elements at times, but they often appeared very clear, and the entire package frequently displayed an edgy, digitized look that made it somewhat unsatisfying to watch. Otherwise, I saw some speckles, but most print flaws seemed absent.
Colors periodically looked quite good, as Robin featured some nicely bold and vibrant tones. However, these hues often became heavy and runny, and they could seem too thick. Colored lighting caused most of these problems; within other situations, the hues looked fine, but lights were problematic. Black levels came across as deep and rich, and shadow detail appeared clear and appropriately opaque. Unfortunately, the positives couldn’t outweigh the problems, as those negatives became fairly severe at times.
Much better was the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Batman & Robin. As one might expect from this sort of film, it offered a very active and involving affair at all times; from the opening credits through the conclusion, the mix seemed top-notch. All five channels received a solid workout, as they blasted music and a wide variety of effects. The latter elements provided the best parts of the track, as the action sequences really kicked in strongly.
Audio quality also seemed to be good. Some speech sounded a little edgy, but mostly the dialogue appeared natural and distinct, and I experienced no problems related to intelligibility. Music appeared to be bright and vibrant, while the effects were loud and accurate. Those elements packed a serious punch when appropriate, as bass response sounded deep and rich. Ultimately, the minor vocal flaws were the only complaints I had about the audio of Batman & Robin; otherwise this was a stellar soundtrack.
When you click on the “Special Features” menu for Batman and Robin, you may initially believe that the disc includes a wealth of extras. In addition to the standard Cast and Crew area, a whopping 10 additional options appear. However, these are all cut from the same cloth. Each of them offers nothing more than a few screens of text production notes. Admittedly, most of the material was actually fairly informative and interesting, but don’t expect a great deal of depth.
In the “Cast and Crew” domain, we find entries for actors Arnold Schwarzenegger, George Clooney, Chris O’Donnell, Uma Thurman, Alicia Silverstone, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle, and Elle MacPherson, plus director of photography Stephen Goldblatt, writer Akiva Goldsman, producer Peter MacGregor-Scott, and director Joel Schumacher. These were decent discussions of the participants’ careers but they didn’t go into a lot of detail.
We occasionally hear talk of special editions for the Batman films. Batman & Robin doesn’t usually appear in such discussions, but I think a lot of folks would like to see it get the deluxe treatment. Perhaps then we’d find out what exactly all the participants were thinking when they made this dud. I didn’t feel that Robin was a total loss, but it had many more negatives than positives, and little of it worked well.
The DVD also displayed some concerns. While the audio seemed to be genuinely terrific, picture quality showed many flaws. In addition, the package lacked any significant extras. In the end, Batman & Robin stands as a generally weak film and a sub par DVD.