It’s been two decades since the release of Batman & Robin and its director, Joel Schumacher, is still doing an apology tour in the press, begging forgiveness for his sins against the Batman brand. I do not understand the need. Much like how Tim Burton’s Batman vision didn’t escape its Studio Notes prison until its second installment, Batman Returns (the greatest Batman film to date), and Christopher Nolan’s second Batman effort, The Dark Knight, similarly improved on its own predecessor, Schumacher’s personal imprint on the Batman series didn’t reach its purest form until the director’s second effort. With Batman Forever, you can feel Schumacher steering the ship away from Burton’s gloomy freakshow back to the live-action cartoon days of Adam West in Batman: The Movie (’66). There’s too much Burton hangover looming in that film for it to feel like its own work, however, leaving a compromised vision not at all helped by the energy imbalance of hyperactive child Jim Carrey and comatose bore Val Kilmer. With the follow-up, Schumacher was allowed to completely cut loose, reportedly directing action sequences with megaphone instructions to “Remember! This is a cartoon!” during shoots. Audiences expecting more weirdo Burton gloom violently rejected Batman & Robin when it first hit cinemas in 1997, but I believe time has been kind to its charming dedication to Adam West silliness and Saturday morning cartoon aesthetics, not to mention its more prurient interests. I have no doubt that a rowdy 2017 midnight movie crowd would have a great time with it as an over-the-top Batman-themed comedy, which is exactly how it was originally intended to play.
The #1 roadblock audiences seem to have with enjoying Batman & Robin is the casting of George Clooney as the Caped Crusader. My guess is that after the Reclusive Weirdo Who Disguises His Voice When In Costume interpretations of the character from Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, and Kevin Conroy, the world wasn’t quite ready to see Batman as the swashbuckling goofball he had been portrayed as in earlier adaptations. Clooney only tackles Batman as the Movie Star Handsome billionaire cad Bruce Wayne and does little to differentiate that presence from his night-time, in-costume persona. That approach maybe less faithful to the character’s dual nature in the comic book source material (I don’t know or care), but it’s not all that different from the more openly-winking Adam West interpretation of the character or, perhaps more accurately, how Batman was brought to life in 1940s serials by Lewis Wilson & Robert Lowery. Besides, even Batman & Robin seems largely disinterested in what Clooney’s Dark Knight brings to the table. Has Batman ever been the most interesting character in his own movies? Why wish for more of a brooding Keaton staring into his fireplace in the dark or more Christian Bale trying to out-gruff Aidan Gillen in his disguised tough guy voice when you can enjoy the simple pleasures of a Handsome Movie Star hamming it up with an ensemble cast of campy weirdos? Schumacher borrows a page from Batman Returns and floods the screen with wacky side characters who fall both in the Good Guys camp (Chris O’Donnell as hot-to-trot boy toy Robin & Alicia Silverstone as a Cher Horowitz-flavored Batgirl) and the Bad Guys camp (Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze & Uma Thruman as Poison Ivy). Clooney mostly just looks pretty and stays out of the way, which is more than I could ever ask for in a Batman performance.
Batman & Robin makes no attempt to hide that Batman himself is not the main attraction. George Clooney’s name is billed second to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s at the top of the credits. When the Batman logo appears it immediately freezes over, visualizing Mr. Freeze’s command of the spotlight. Excepting the disposable scenes of family drama at Wayne Manor, Batman & Robin mostly details Freeze’s plan to literally put Gotham on ice, a plot he hopes to enact with the help of botanist-turned-terrorist Poison Ivy and a nonstop onslaught of sweet, delicious puns. Much like with Schwarzenegger’s career high roles in titles like Commando & Total Recall, his impact as the top villain here is hinged on lizard brain word play (courtesy of screenwriter Akiva Goldsman). He taunts Batman & his bat-crew with some of the world’s most chill, ice-themed one-liners: “Stay cool, bird boy,” “Let’s kick some ice!,” “Cool party!,” “Ice to see you!,” etc., etc., etc. If you do not understand the basic appeal of that kind of pun-heavy joke writing, which is very much rooted in comic book tradition, you cannot be helped. Mr. Freeze sports a cartoonish character design, being kept frozen with “a crypto suit powered by diamond-enhanced lasers.” The character also serves as a rare crossroads where Schwarzenegger’s talents as a chilling 80s villain & a yuck-em-up 90s comedian kids think is cool can co-exist in full self-contradictory glory. Uma Thurman’s anarcho crust punk botany activist turned dive bar drag act is much less interesting as a villain, but there’s more than enough Arnold screentime to make up for any deficiency there. If Schumacher’s main objective was to bring Batman back to its over the top cartoon, pre-Burton Gloom roots, he more than covered it between Clooney’s Handsome Hero and Schwarzenegger’s Goofball Goon. Everything else was just lagniappe.
Subverting its welcome return to a time when Kids’ Stuff was treated like Kids’ Stuff, Batman & Robin also stands as the most aggressively queer major studio superhero film to date (with Bryan Singer’s sexless X2 standing as its closest competition, I suppose). I’m not sure how many out, gay directors have had a crack at major studio superhero properties (I’m guessing the answer is Too Few), but Schumacher took the opportunity to play up Batman’s queer kink potential to its most PG-acceptable extreme (how the film instead got saddled with a PG-13 rating, I’ll never know). The opening sequence of quick cut closeups is a Russ Meyer-esque assault of Batman & Robin’s leatherclad bodies as they suit up: nips, butts, crotch, butt, nips. Later, when Silverstone first gears up in her Batgirl costume, her leather clad posterior is immediately covered with a heavy cape, the same leering attention completely drained from the moment. Poison Ivy gets a fair amount of kink play in herself, dragging her power bottom sub Bane around by the leather collar & iron clad chastity belt and setting up her headquarters in a day-glo bathhouse. Any man who dares to kiss Ivy, the only sexually available woman in the movie, immediately dies by the toxins in her poison lips and Robin’s line, “You’ve got some real issues with women, you know that?” begins to feel as if it applies to the movie at large. Schumacher seems conspicuously disinterested in his female characters, which might help explain why Thurman’s performance as Ivy feels a little flat and why Silverstone’s Batgirl has a perfect Tom of Finland beard stubble ring of car exhaust when she removes her bike helmet after her big motorcycle chase scene, essentially wearing masculine drag. While waiting for a cure for his frozen wife, Mr. Freeze spurns the advances of Poison Ivy & his closest female crony, dismissing the come-on “I’m feeling hot,” with the quip, “I find that unlikely.” Bruce Wayne has a supermodel beard he only interacts with at public events and is only attracted to Poison Ivy whenever drugged by her weaponized pheremone potion. He mostly just focuses on his masculine relationships with Robin, the Boy Wonder, & Alfred, The Butler. Ultimately, Schumacher’s explicit, deliberate repurposing of Batman as a queer kink icon is mostly relegated to those early leering shots of leatherclad bat-nipples & bat-butt, but since that perspective is an underrepresented minority in the genre, its potency as a novelty cannot be undervalued (and it does unintentionally spill over into other aspects of the work).
I get the sense from the Christopher Nolan & Zach Snyder takes on Batman that the two directors were almost apologizing for the goofier aspects of the material. Tim Burton’s definitive adaptation at least understood the camp value lurking under Batman’s gloomy sheen of vigilante orphans brooding in black leather. I’m by no means a Schumacher fanatic in a general sense, but I appreciate how weirdly personal he made the return to that barely-buried camp. Every frame of Batman & Robin is excessively stylized, like a superhero comic book version of Michael Bay’s Armageddon (which I mean as a compliment). Looney Tunes sound effects, gigantic diamonds so cartoonish they look like clip art, sky surfing, ice-skating goons, a dinosaur bones display that roars in pain when it’s knocked over, Mr. Freeze’s (oddly pun-free) meta-commentary about how he hates “when people talk during the movie”: every decision projects the feeling of a Saturday morning cartoon come to life. I suppose someone had to eventually make a movie specifically targeted at queer children who aren’t yet entirely sure why Batman makes blood rush to their crotches and if that’s the only worthwhile thing Schumacher ever achieves in his lifetime, at least he filled a niche. What’s beautiful about it is that he got a major studio to foot the bill. Whenever a Coolio cameo or an American Express ad placement (“Never leave the Bat Cave without it,”) or a moment of well-aged special effects spectacle interrupt Schumacher’s leering at Clooney’s bat-ass or Schwarzenegger’s steady stream of super cool ice puns, the film’s strange crossroads of Art & Commerce becomes amusingly absurd. Movies this blatantly commercial are rarely as bizarrely cartoonish or as deliriously horny as Batman & Robin. It’s time we ask Schumacher to stop apologizing for making Batman silly again and instead congratulate him for making him so subversively weird.