BATMANIA!: BATMAN & ROBIN (1997)

After the success of Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever, it is no surprise that we was called upon to direct a sequel. Schumacher actually had it in his mind to do a prequel, an adaptation of the Frank Miller story Batman: Year One. The film would have featured a younger Batman and a darker subject matter which Schumacher felt would have resonated more with Batman fans. Warner Bros. weren’t so keen on this idea and they pushed him into making something more akin to what he had achieved with Batman Forever. He certainly applied himself in this area as the resulting film, Batman & Robin, is a perfection of the themes explored in the previous film, more coherent and generally better (it’s basically an updated version of the same film). Schumacher was right about one thing though: the darker, grittier Batman prequel would have resonated better with franchise fans, as proven by the later film Batman Begins, and as a result Batman & Robin is one of the most unjustly disliked films in its genre.

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Batman & Robin? Ice puns? Bane as a mumbling, bumbling sidekick? Dumb jokes about credit cards? Weird, otherworldly dialogue about programming brain wave algorithms into the Batcomputer? I wouldn’t blame you if they were, all of those things are very much present in the film. However, what we’re really looking at here is a film successfully striking a tone; it’s just not a tone that people particularly wanted to see. At this point, audiences were ready for Batman Begins, a more grounded and mature take on the material, instead of another bombastic live action cartoon. It’s really this cartoonish lunacy that is the film’s greatest strength, though. This is a film inspired by children’s playground games. In order to fully enjoy Batman & Robin one must endeavour to be thirteen.

Check out those transparent bits!

Remember that time in your life when sex was icky and members of the opposite gender were alien to you? At that point, your world was small and you cared not a jot for the serious matters or the bigger picture, you simply cared about where your next Batman action figure was coming from. Well, worry no more, for a “new villain” has just broken into the museum to steal a diamond! He’s calling himself Mr. Freeze and he’s played by Arnold Schwarzenegger! He comes with interchangeable goons, available in packs of two, he has a freeze gun accessory, also available in life-sized form to freeze your friends with, Freeze-Mobile sold separately. And how about Freeze himself? Check out those transparent bits on his costume, this shit has been focus-grouped, kids love transparent bits on their toys.

In order to stop Mr. Freeze, Batman (George Clooney) and Robin (Chris O’Donnell) drive to the museum play set in their individually marketed vehicles, play some ice hockey, get blasted into space in a Freeze rocket (Your friend has one of these but the door is broken on it and all the stickers are peeling off) and descend back into the city on surfboards. After all that, they still fail to stop this nefarious villain from stealing one diamond. We have to assume that the museum workers and police officers on the scene are dead at this point, but who cares about them? They’re not available as cool toys. We can’t let Robin die though, that would be monstrous. You’ll pay for stealing that one diamond, Freeze!

That was awesome, what’s the next scene? Wait, Uma Thurman as Dr. Pamela Isley is now on-screen and she’s vocally CARING about THINGS!? Oh, it’s okay, the guy in the next room is abusing her caring about things research to make a super soldier called Bane, look at all his awesome muscles and those green plastic tubes sticking out of his head. Can’t wait for this guy to fight Batman. Oh, come on, the girl is caring again. She doesn’t approve of cool muscle dudes, obviously. Oh good she’s dead. Then what happens? She comes back to life as an embodiment of mother nature called Poison Ivy and kills the other guy by kissing him… on the mouth? She’s gross and weird, and yet she now controls Bane who was uncontrollable before and is therefore cool and awesome. I’m confused.

So Batman and Robin appear at a charity auction for a giant diamond, in an attempt to lure Mr. Freeze out into the open where they can attempt to catch him again. What they don’t count on is Poison Ivy showing up and confusing them both with sex feelings. Batman doesn’t even have sex feelings for his girlfriend (although they do hold hands at one point, it’s so embarrassing), so obviously there’s some trickiness going on here. Phew, Mr. Freeze does show up and he’s immune to the sex feelings because he’s sad about his frozen wife or something, he steals the diamond and the Dynamic Duo give chase, driving their cool vehicles along giant statues of men! Finally, Batman catches the dastardly diamond thief and locks him up without trial in an insane asylum.

The Guardians of Gotham City

There’s also this other girl (Alicia Silverstone) who Robin is having caring girl feelings about and Batman’s butler (Michael Gough) is dying and he’s all sad and stuff, but who cares about feelings and things? Apart from the sex feelings, those are getting interesting, right? So this other girl finds out about the Batcave and becomes Batgirl and saves Batman and Robin from Poison Ivy because they can’t defeat her while they’re confused by sex feelings and keep falling out with each other. Batgirl doesn’t have sex feelings about anyone so she can defeat Poison Ivy with ease. So they all go after Mr. Freeze who has made a giant willy gun to freeze everyone in the world and stop them growing up and they are able to punch his face enough times to stop him but it turns out he is doing all of this because he cares about his wife and that’s how Robin is starting to feel about Batgirl and he’s confused because he’s starting to see how caring feelings and sex feelings can be connected but can also conflate each other or become muddled because Batman cares about his butler but doesn’t want to sex with him. Oh okay, I’m not confused anymore. Hey, we should go and play with our toys together, you can have Poison Ivy because she’s a girl toy and you can style her hair and I’ll be Batman and I can punch baddies, but it’s okay because we’ll still be playing together and maybe we can even hold hands if your dad isn’t looking?

Okay, we’re all adults again now and yet we are enriched for our journey back into the adolescent understanding of Batman & Robin. Yes, it’s about coming to terms with the icky new feelings you’re starting to experience and letting you know that when it comes time to put down the toys, you might actually manage to be well-rounded and okay. If you’re not well-rounded and okay, you’re going to end up like Mr. Freeze who literally wants to stop everybody’s development while proving his male dominance at the same time. He hates women, apart from his entrapped wife who might as well not exist. He is obsessed with phallic enhancements: his suit, his gun. his space rocket, his car, his giant freezing telescope thing. He is a boring grown up with a serious issue of arrested development, just like Batman and Robin. Poison Ivy is different, she represents a desire to develop but manifested through juvenile ideas. She is a seducer, yes, but she is also won over by Freeze’s maleness. He is a sexual adult trapped in a sexless position and she is a sexless girl attracted to the idea of raw sexuality. In the middle of all of this is Batman, a grown man who embodies a child’s toy but also wants to be a father figure. In the end, there is dangerously little progress made with the lead characters. There is some hope, perhaps, for Robin and Batgirl, their relationship might serve to save them both from becoming like Batman, but Freeze and Ivy are forced together in the end, him the dominant man and her the child, but this is not a father/daughter relationship, it is something much more damaging and it happens at the behest of Batman himself. Batman is the real villain in this film, intent on halting development and stemming its potential even in the already developmentally stunted. The heroes are Robin and Batgirl, the young people for whom there is still hope.

Villains getting cozy.

Joel Schumacher himself describes the designs of the film as “toyetic”, meaning that everything was designed with goal of eventually becoming an action figure. These characters essentially become living toys in this regard, every bit as much as the characters in Toy Story. Every eventuality is catered for in the Bat-suits: ice skating, vine cutting, thawing out frozen people, you name it. Not only does this appeal to the child-like mentality of toy playing, it also raises the idea of having toy variants. Ice Hockey Batman, anyone? This is even addressed in the dialogue as Poison Ivy sends Bane to fight Batman (“I’m a lover, not a fighter. That’s why every Poison Ivy action figure comes complete with him! “) This is how the film appeals to the sense of undeveloped, juvenile sensibilities before introducing the more unusual sexual elements.

The real highlights of watching this film come from the performances of Uma Thurman and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Thurman delivers a hilariously over-the-top seductive quality that reads like how someone who doesn’t understand anything about sex might go about trying to appear as though she did. Schwarzenegger brings the same kind of perfectionist quality that Carrey had for The Riddler in Batman Forever, and the sheer fact that he can make a bouncy rubber toy look like an actual weapon that weighs something is rather amazing in itself. They’re perfectly cast and deliver excellent performances, but as I said earlier, it’s all about the tone. People see actors like this hamming it up and delivering terrible puns and they don’t particularly see the appeal. I do, but then I’m clearly crazy.

Expanding on this, Ivy has a kind of ownership of Bane that could be described as maternal. He is certainly an indirect product of her works. Bane and Ivy’s relationship is one of the archaic mother and phallic child. The archaic mother, in lieu of her having a phallus of her own, uses the child as a phallic stand-in. Bane’s presence is most certainly a phallic one; a male figure of pure destruction who defeats attackers purely by virtue of his immovability. When Ivy becomes aware of Mr. Freeze and his various phallic enhancements, her attentions turn toward getting him on-side. Not, however, in mother-child relationship, but in a sexual bonding. She attempts to do away with Freeze’s wife to this end. Bane, not an especially Oedipal presence, latches onto this new father figure and is eventually emasculated by the two young lovers because of the power of their potentially normal relationship. This emasculation is his undoing and he is no longer able to serve his new father figure as yet another of his phallic enhancements, but new daddy obviously forgets all of this because he has an enormous telescope gun now. Ivy uses sex as a weapon, Freeze uses weapons as sex, Bane is a weapon and a symbol of sex and is not allowed to develop as either because of the nature of his parental relationships.

A lot of the ire toward this film, I suspect, comes from adult Batman fans who wanted a film aimed at them. They were not ready for a film that was not only aimed at children, but actually explored the ideas of their development into maturity, especially as it was quietly damning of someone who might have reached adulthood and, to give a random example, was more interested in comic books than people. Hell, people already made it clear that they didn’t want a return to Adam West Batman when Tim Burton was in the seat, this film owes so much to that campy old TV show – right down to the coloured lighting and Dutch angles in the villains’ lairs – that it hurts. That’s not to say that Batman & Robin holds any contempt for its audience, if anything it only pokes lighthearted fun at people the director will certainly have related to (remember it was him who wanted to adapt Batman: Year One initially). I think friendly reminders now and then that you could be outside engaging with members of the opposite sex instead of filling your heads with self-important power fantasies can be valuable.

Poor Bane.

Consider the Robin and Batgirl characters. Nobody wants these characters to appear in a Batman film because there really isn’t any way you can maintain the impression that Batman is a mature character if you start putting kids in the suits and letting them play with the Bat-toys. Those Bat-toys aren’t toys! Christopher Nolan made it clear early on that he would never use the Robin character in any of his Batman films because he does not match the tone that those films are aiming for. Here, they are very much the hero characters, the ones onto whom we apply our personal ideas. We want them to be well-adjusted, but we wonder at what hope they have with the company they keep. The film should have been called Robin and Batgirl because we don’t need Batman anymore. He’s old hat, he’s your boring dad, he’s a virgin pushing fifty who still plays with figurative toys and never does anything that could genuinely make the world a better place.

Perhaps the problem comes from the kids at the time who couldn’t accept that maybe their favourite hero Batman wasn’t the one true and correct entity in their new Batman movie. After all, if the villains represent various issues with sexual development, maybe Batman’s asexuality is the right way? I can see how you could imagine the film to be arguing this, but I think it would an enormous dunderhead to actually make a film like that. I have to assume that Schumacher is not only quite intelligent, but genuinely thinks that sex is a generally positive thing to have in one’s life, just so long as you don’t let it rule you. Given the depiction of Gotham City’s various neon-painted street gangs in both this and Batman Forever, and the fact that Batman himself never bothers to go down there and solve the real problems in his city, instead choosing to chase costumed jewel thieves across rooftops and hang around with a kid who’s just as broken and developmentally stunted as he is and can only become more so by hanging around with the guy in the bat mask. Way to go, Batman! You’re a working class hero!

The Dynamic Trio?

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About Ian Maddison

British film critic Ian Maddison is a regular contributor and editor for the Current Releases section of Something Awful. He is also often found tweeting about aspect ratios and Star Trek.

Posted on July 15, 2012, in Batmania, Discussion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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