Wednesday, May 21, 2014

#746. Blockbusted Blogathon: Batman & Robin

To be perfectly clear: Batman & Robin is not my favorite movie.  It's really not even close.  That being said, I unabashedly love Batman & Robin.

I realize that this is not the usual position to take on this particular movie.  In a lot of ways, its popular reputation is absolutely earned.  This was as close to the 1960s Batcamp as the modern movies will hopefully ever get.  But there's so much to love about it.  

There really is.

Released in 1997, the second (of two) Batman flicked directed by Joel Schumacher (after 1995's Batman Forever), Batman & Robin closed the book on that particular wave of superhero movies, and it killed a four-film-deep series that had begun with Tim Burton's Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992).  It was the second one to feature Chris O'Donnell's Robin, and first (and only) to have George Clooney under the cowl.

In a lot of ways, there's nothing but logical progression behind what this movie became.  Easily best known for its villains, Arnold Schwarzenegger's Mr. Freeze, Uma Thurman's Poison Ivy, and Jeep Swenson's Bane, chances are most of what you know and/or think about it is associated with one or all of them.

For the record, there's also Alicia Silverstone's Batgirl in the mix.

To my mind, the most egregious mistake of the movie is actually Thurman's Ivy.  She's the most irredeemably campy presence in the whole thing.  I love Uma Thurman.  I think my whole generation loves Uma Thurman.  She did what was asked of her.  Didn't ultimately hurt her career, whatever anyone might think of her Ivy.  Such is the power of Uma Thurman.  Schwarzenegger, O'Donnell, and Silverstone all basically kissed their popular movie careers goodbye after Batman & Robin landed as a turkey.  But Thurman, who was never herself considered a major box office draw, didn't really have to worry about that.  A half-dozen years later, she was The Bride in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill flicks.  Legacy assured.

And really, I can even redeem that element of the film.  While the character herself is like Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman stripped of all pretense (I'm not really a fan of that performance, either, clearly), Ivy serves as a strong impetus for the Batman/Robin dynamic that's...pretty important to the movie (if you weren't able to tell from the, um, title).

Associated with Ivy otherwise is Bane, who was only a few years removed from his biggest comics moment when he broke Batman in the "Knightfall" story arc.  Bane in this particular movie appearance is a very dim echo of pretty much every other depiction ever (hopefully).  But it's about as accurate a depiction of the Venom-fueled (read: super steroids) monster aspect as you could hope to find.  This is what baseball fans would be thinking in just a few years.  Just a year later, Mark McGwire would carry that particular era to its greatest popular heights.  But even he would crash back down to earth.  In recent times Captain America's super steroids enhancements fuel him to 1998 McGwire-like, but the truth is, as certainly Lance Armstrong will tell you, people really aren't that hot on this sort of thing.  So Bane in this movie makes perfect sense, especially in hindsight.

Schwarzenegger's Freeze is actually the most redeemable element of the movie.  Yes, I just said that.  I've already admitted that Batman & Robin pretty much destroyed his career.  But it may also be one of his greatest performances.  For years, the future Governator had been trying to be the perfect action movie/comedy star, setting a template his successors still follow (and that's how we got Tooth Fairy).  This is the movie where he combines them most perfectly, as well as his ability to deliver quips better than anyone.  Nearly every line Schwarzenegger delivers in this movie is a quip.  It's so ridiculous it's awesome.  Like Thurman's Ivy, there was every precedent for Freeze in his Batfilm predecessors.  Critics were charging that Jack Nicholson gleefully upstaged Michael Keaton from the start.  Is there really any arguing that?  Batman Returns not only features Pfeiffer's loony Catwoman, but Danny DeVito's cartoonish Penguin (who is arguably even more the star of that one than Nicholson in Batman), and Christopher Walken.  Who is Christopher Walken.  Batman Forever has Tommy Lee Jones mugging awesomely as Two-Face and Jim Carrey.  Who is Jim Carrey.

So by the time you reach Schwarzenegger's Freeze, it's really a heck of a lot more logical than anyone has ever cared admit.  The thing is, just like Thurman's Ivy, this is a Batman villain stripped of all pretense.  He has a great time being a villain.  But he has arguably some of the best moments of nuance for any Batman villain, too.

Really???  Really.

Because that's there, too.  Schwarzenegger's Freeze is a tragic villain, and the true genius (I just said that) of the performance is that his best moments are actually subdued.  The complete opposite of anything else you know about it.  Freeze has a wife who is mostly completely left offscreen except in her holding tank.  There's a flashback to Freeze's origin, and the end of the movie, which I will get back to.

What I love so much about Schwarzenegger's Freeze is that he set a positive precedent.  He really did.  Another of my all-time favorite superhero movie villains, Thomas Haden Church's Sandman from Spider-Man 3, might not have happened if it weren't for this performance, this depth in the heart of a movie that seems to lack it.  But it's there.  It's there in spades.  But I'll get back to that.

Another big precedent Batman & Robin sets is big action in a superhero movie.  Until then, the most outlandish thing fans could expect from them was believing a man could fly.  Technology just wasn't ready for anything bigger at that point.  The Batman flicks had been upping the ante with each entry.  By this point, all stops had been let loose.  Batman no longer resembled the Gothic vigilante.  There's very little about this movie that resembles Gothic.  Completely the opposite, really.  But this was one step along the way to reaching The Avengers, the most financially lucrative superhero movie ever.  In other words, a movie that the fans loved.  Big time.  But in order to reach that point, Hollywood had to know that big risks could pay off.  They could achieve the kind of action comic books had featured for decades.  And that started in Batman & Robin.  

The thing to love best about Batman & Robin, though, is its heart.  The whole thing, rather than being about the cartoon villains, is for the first time wholeheartedly about Batman.  This sounds like an odd statement, because this is perhaps the movie out of the first four with the least focus on Batman.  Clooney's Bruce Wayne receives the least screen time out of all three original actors to play the role.  It's pretty much the opposite of his predecessor, Val Kilmer.

And yet this is a Batman whose career has significantly advanced since the last time we saw him.  He's become a media darling.  But he also has a partner now.  Robin.  That was the true legacy of Batman Forever, too.  The decision to feature an older version of the character than was traditional in the comics had a significant impact.  Batman and Robin were from the start, in this version, far less a matter of hero and sidekick, and  By the end of Batman Forever, that hadn't really been resolved.  Batman & Robin is in a lot of ways a resolution of its predecessor.  Robin learns about what it means to accept personal responsibility both from the rivalry Poison Ivy ramps up with Batman as well as the introduction of Batgirl, who is really a means of forcing Robin to see things from Batman's point of view for the first time.

With a lot of dayglo, by the way.

Part of the reason I've always liked Batman & Robin more than is reasonably common, I admit, is that I'm a fan of George Clooney.  In an alternate universe, he would have been easily digestible as Batman.  He's a natural.  It's just, in his one appearance in the role, he's got a supporting role, just like Keaton in Batman Returns.  This was one of Clooney's first movie roles, and to this day still one of his few efforts to make a truly mainstream movie.  You might almost say that the failure of this effort allowed him to do what he wanted to do, and that's been pretty good for his career.

But the element I love best about Batman & Robin is Michael Gough's Alfred.  Gough played Batman's butler in all four movies from this era.  He was such a reliable presence (even moreso than Pat Hingle's Commissioner Gordon) that he was easy to take for granted.  In this fitting finale, he finally steps into the spotlight.

That's the arc you really ought to pay attention to.  Bruce Wayne has a love interest (played by Elle McPherson, by the way!), but the relationship that matters most in this movie is the one that endured the whole series.  It's a classic case of emotional manipulation, of course.  Alfred becomes significant because of a mortal illness.  But it works.  It works completely.

And it just so happens that Alfred's illness is the very same one that has been plaguing Mr. Freeze's wife.  This sets up the ending, where Freeze finds redemption by agreeing to work with Batman to cure Alfred.  It's the rare instance where the villain, who in comics is typically some kind of genius who "if not for..." would probably be of great benefit to mankind but instead is trapped in a loop of their worst impulses, actually steps away from their petty nonsense.

Granted, Freeze has very little left to lose.  He's already been defeated.  He's lost his wife (seemingly).  But Batman saved her.  And now everything he's been doing as a villain is actually...meaningless again.  So he can go back to what he was.  Which was actually a pretty nice guy.

Which, again, also saves Alfred's life.

So I love that.  Unabashedly.  A lot like The Amazing Spider-Man 2, if you mostly ignore the elements that don't work as well as its best elements, you end up with something pretty awesome.  Maybe it's harder to see with Batman & Robin.  But I've never really had that problem.

One last thing worth mentioning about it.  The soundtrack boasts the song "The End is the Beginning is the End" from the Smashing Pumpkins.  This song is awesome.  It was featured in the original trailer for Watchmen.  One of the best trailers ever.  Premiered in front of The Dark Knight.  That's a kind of redemption, too, isn't it?

This post was part of the Blockbusted Blogathon hosted by Girl Meets Cinema's Katy, which I learned about from the Geek Twins, who encouraged me to participate.  So you can blame them for this defense of a defenseless movie!


Pat Dilloway said...

One time my sister and I counted the one-liners in that movie and I think the total was somewhere around 160. It is an irredeemably horrible movie, but I did like the Alfred thing.

I think what saved Clooney's career was a year later I think it was he did Out of Sight, his first team-up with Steven Soderbergh.

Maurice Mitchell said...

I guess it's true if you ignore everything bad then the movie is good. Patrick Stewart was originally cast as Mr. Freeze. I wonder how that wowould have been?


The Tragic arc of Dr. Victor Fries was embodied on Batman the Animated Series. I have a hard time enjoying Schwarzenegger's Freeze for this reason. I think when the Batman movies started getting away from the dark brooding Batman into the more cartoonish toy selling one, it lost its potency. It was a watered down movie, but you already knew that. ;-)

msmariah said...

Good choice for the blogathon! I'm not a fan of this film. It was one of the few movies I almost walked out on. In some strange way I think George Clooney was the worst thing in the film (although I think he's a great actor).

Tony Laplume said...

Pat, Out of Sight was easily the first time anyone saw Clooney on his own terms. That's a huge reason why it was such a success for his career. The Clooney anyone really knows (outside of ER) was born in that movie.

Maurice, I assume that Patrick Stewart's casting would have either have drastically change the movie itself or Stewart's career. There's really no middle ground. At the time he was making a fair stab into the movies, with projects like Conspiracy Theory and Masterminds, both of which were released the same year as Batman & Robin. The roles are polar opposites, but neither belong in the context of Mr. Freeze as depicted by Schumacher and Schwarzenegger. So that's certainly something to consider.

David, I was at one time a huge fan of Batman the Animated Series. I think my view of it has softened over the years. At this point its real lasting legacy is Batman Beyond. It's undoubtedly (arguably) the finest animated superhero TV series ever. But since the Nolan films, my definition of the ideal screen Batman has shifted. As well as best depiction of villains. So a lot of such thoughts have become relative. Which puts these two Mr. Freezes on the same level as far as I'm concerned.

msmariah, I would assume you found Clooney disappointing because he was such a passive presence in the movie. He didn't quite achieve what Keaton did with the role. Keaton turned a comedic persona into a deadly serious one in one effort. Clooney didn't really change anything about his acting. It was just upstaged. In this instance, I think it really is a matter of the director. I'm not sure Schumacher particularly cared who was Batman after the falling out with Kilmer. Because he later connected exceptionally well with Colin Farrell, so he certainly knew how to do that sort of thing. One of the true missteps. I'll certainly admit that.

Tony Laplume said...

*I really wish there was an obvious way to edit comments on Blogger. Because too often I don't take the effort to do so before publishing. Hence, at least the opening of my remarks to Maurice sound...kind of idiotic. This is to say I noticed that.*

Tony Laplume said...

It also occurs to me, now that I'm busy looking back over the Maurice comments, that a good barometer for Stewart's potential as Freeze could probably be compared with his later Professor X. Truth is, I'm not sure he's really connected with the role, except in scenes directly opposite Ian McKellen. That's probably the biggest question I have about X-Men: Days of the Future Past. Can he do better this time?

Jack said...

Batman creeped me out so badly when I was a kid....well, still does. But there is one line from Batman and Robin I still love. I still quote it too, every chance I get.
The, "Holy Rocks, Batman!" "What?" "The rocks, they're full of holes."

Tony Laplume said...

It's actually from Batman Forever, and is a reference to what Robin was always saying in the 1960s TV show. But memorable all the same!


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