Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Film Review: Batman & Robin

"Batman & Robin"  ** (out of ****)

There is a new Batman in town and the cape crusader must protect Gotham City from freezing over in the fourth installment of the "Batman" series, "Batman & Robin" (1997).

"Batman & Robin" was directed by Joel Schumacher, who had directed the previous "Batman" movie, "Batman Forever" (1995). At its initial time of release some "fan boys" and "Batman" enthusiast felt Schumacher was a poor choice to direct a "Batman" movie, especially when you consider Tim Burton directed "Batman" (1989) and "Batman Returns" (1992) and the approval those movies were greeted with from fans.

What many found so appealing about Burton's "Batman" was its attempt to tell a dark, adult story. Burton's "Batman" was about two disturbed men dealing with their psychological trauma, pitted against one another. It had a great visual style and used Gotham City as a visual metaphor into the mind set of its two lead characters, Batman (Michael Keaton) and The Joker (Jack Nicholson).

In my review for "Batman Returns" I said Burton has injected more humor into the story and given it a sexual vibe with the Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) character. I still recommended that movie but with Joel Schumacher at the helm the "Batman" franchise would continue to move into this campy, humorous direction instead of a more serious approach, examining Bruce Wayne and his alter-ego.

"Batman Forever" was greeted positively by some critics, Chicago Tribune and TV critic Gene Siskel among them, and audiences. The movie grossed more than $180 million in the United States alone, which was more than the $162 million "Batman Returns" grossed. Of course, box-office success or lack thereof, does not nor should not, reflect the quality of a movie and its artistic merit. However, I mention it to show the excitement and support the movie received. Today audiences look down on "Batman Forever" and "Batman & Robin", so I would like to put things into perspective.

"Batman & Robin" however was always considered the weakest of Warner Brothers original attempt at this franchise. At its time of release I thought the movie was an embarrassment. An ill-conceived mess. I re-watched "Batman & Robin" recently and while I don't think it is a very good movie it was not the disgrace I remember it being.

In "Batman & Robin" a new actor would play the caped crusader and millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne/Batman. This time around it would be George Clooney, who still hadn't quite made it as a box-office draw. Some were questioning his judgement in leaving the wildly popular television show "ER". Clooney even postponed the opportunity to play the Green Hornet, a role he accepted at first, which caused the project to be shelved until years later when Seth Rogen would disgrace the character.

Returning would be Chris O' Donnell as Dick Grayson / Robin, a role he played in "Batman Forever", Michael Gough as Alfred and Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon. Also joining the cast would be Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze, Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy, Alicia Silverstone as Barbara Wilson / Batgirl and Jeep Swenson as Bane.

Schumacher and the crew seem to have been inspired by the 1966 television show starring Adam West as Batman. And that is the main problem viewers had with this movie. Like the 1960s TV show the movie is too campy, filled with too many sexual innuendos and double entendres. The movie makes a weird decision to create Batman and Robin's rubber costumes as anatomically correct. The movie goes for cheap laughs by having nipples on the costumes and having close-ups of the character's buttocks.

The movie lacks human emotion and dimensional characters. It has a lot of action scenes but somehow is boring to watch. It feels too long. It lacks suspense. The viewer doesn't accept Mr. Freeze or Poison Ivy as a real threat to Batman and Robin and so the viewer goes from sequence to sequence never fearing the dynamic duo may face their end.

Granted the movie tries to hits on themes of Batman's legacy and deals with themes of family and loyalty, it all amounts to nothing because of the un-even tone of Akiva Goldsman's script. He also wrote "Batman Forever" and would go on to win an Academy Award for his screenplay for the Ron Howard movie, "A Beautiful Mind" (2001). For every attempt at something meaningful in "Batman & Robin" it is proceeded by three scenes of utter silliness.

Like the previous "Batman" movies, "Batman & Robin" gives a lot of screen-time to the villains. Unlike "Batman" or "Batman Returns" this movie doesn't go through great lengths to explain their origins. Poison Ivy is explained in one scene and Mr. Freeze through Batman's voice-over.

Mr. Freeze was a renowned doctor, who in an attempt to find a cure for his wife's disease, was involved in a freak accident which left his body dependent upon freezing temperatures to survive. Poison Ivy, was a botanist known as Pamela Isley, who is working towards creating mutant plants, with the plan of helping nature fight back against a human society which is destroying its land. She falls victim to her plants and toxins and is transformed into Poison Ivy.

Schwarzenegger plays Mr. Freeze for laughs, which lessens an audience's ability to view him as a threat. In one scene Mr. Freeze is watching the classic stop-motion animated Christmas movie "The Year Without A Santa Claus" (1974) as he listens to the Snow Miser sing his theme song, conducting his henchmen to sing along. The character keeps saying phrases like "chill out" and consistently makes puns with a "cold" reference.

Uma Thurman, at times, provides her character with a accent much like Mae West, as she tries to lure men into kissing her poisonous lips. She also tries to pit Batman and Robin against each other, as each man believes Poison Ivy is in love with him.

There are some nice production designs but Gotham City is no longer an important visual element to the story. The movie looks like a cartoon, which was clearly Schumacher's intention, however it was a bad move. Batman shouldn't be funny. That doesn't mean the movie as a whole cannot have moments of humor, but, the tone of the movie should be able to address more serious themes. The real issue deals with a more fundamental problem; how does Mr. Schumacher view Batman as a character? He believes, as this movie and "Batman Forever" would suggest, the material should be more tongue-in-cheek. The identity issues and brooding nature of Bruce Wayne should be abandoned. But, in large part I would believe, that's what makes Batman an interesting character.

In fact, if audiences want to see a movie treat Batman as a serious character, besides the Tim Burton movies which proceeded this, I would also suggest viewers watch the animated Batman movie, "Mask of the Phantasm" (1993), which was a spin-off of the acclaimed "Batman: The Animated Series". Even though it is an animated movie it actually treats Batman and his origins with more respect than this live action movie and takes its story more serious.

George Clooney also doesn't fit in the title role. If anything he makes for a good Bruce Wayne, but, Clooney is no action movie star. Fight scenes as Batman are not his foray.

At one time viewers wanted their superhero movies to have a bit of camp to them. It was supposed to feel like a live comic book with nice visuals, a bit of over-acting, especially from the villain, and exciting fight scenes. Today though audiences want something different from their superhero movies. They want the movies to take place in a world which resembles our own. They want a serious tone. They want the movies to examine the psyche of the characters. In other words, once upon a time a movie like "Batman & Robin" could please some portions of the audience today however the movie is a disappointment.

"Batman & Robin" was such a disappointment that Warner Brothers scraped plans for another entry into the series. Years passed until the entire Batman franchise would be given a re-boot from director Christopher Nolan who would direct "Batman Begins" (2005) and two more "Batman" movies which audiences responded kindly too.

"Batman & Robin" is a failed attempt to breathe life into the "Batman" franchise. It lacks a consistent tone, believable characters, suspense and drama. And even if we accept it on its own terms, its not funny.