Film critics, superhero fans, Batman fans, comic book fans, movie fans, combinations of the above, and just average fans of all the above will agree (nine times out of ten) that 1997’s Batman and Robin is one of the worst films of all time. Many film websites put it as number one (or at least top five) in their “worst superhero films” lists, and it’s been mentioned on a few “worst films of all time” lists. That doesn’t include its bad, if almost comedic reputation.
Seeing the entire backlash for what it’s worth (and reading/watching numerous reviews), I wondered: who’s to really blame for this film? Is it one person or multiple people? And is everything about/contained in it so bad?
Once I finally managed to see the movie my opinion more or less agreed with the general consensus. Yes I think this is one of the worst movies ever made and the worst superhero movie of all time. No, it’s not the absolute worst film ever. That’s a talk for another day.
Many of the comments I refer to later come from the “making-of” features found both in the DVD and webpages through various sites, as well as a few video reviews. I’m not trying to write a review of the film but more of a retrospective. So suit up, get to your bat-couch, grab some bat-refreshments, and get ready for a look back into Batman and Robin (B and R from now on).
Who better to start with than the director for B and R, Joel Schumacher. Some claim he is one of the worst directors of all time, having been involved in numerous flops and being criticized for his style throughout his career. However, he is also a veteran in the industry having been directing movies since the 70’s and being involved in costume and production design before that.
Shoemaker (sarcasm) has proven he can pull off box office successes like Phone Booth, The Phantom of the Opera and Batman Forever, among others. So if he can pull these films off without too much hate, and despite all of his critics already, why does he get such backlash and hate over one movie in particular? Keep in mind this movie ended up making close to $250 million worldwide. That isn’t a bad sum of money.
Here’s where things get started from a filmmaking perspective. Schumacher, according to special features found on the DVD, was asked by Warner Bros. if he wanted to do another Batman film, probably in 1995 after Forever was released.
As he explains, “We were just shooting A Time to Kill [when he was asked to do another Batman film]…it seemed like everyone [at the time] wanted me to do another one”. Why? He just had a huge success with the previous film (BF totaled over $330 million worldwide)! And as any movie fan knows, box office and critical success usually means sequels!
However, the director might’ve known about the huge problems ahead when he signed on. Once he did so, Schumacher was set making a sequel that according to him was “…overhyped right from when we said we were going to do it.” You had a franchise gaining both fans and popularity, a studio trying to cash in on said popularity and you’re making a sequel to the most financially successful (at the time) Batman movie ever. How can that not be overhyped the second the public hears about it? And speaking of sequels, aren’t ones to successful movies usually overhyped?
Look at The Dark Knight, for example. Despite Heath Ledger’s unfortunate death, the film was already overhyped even before that happened. Even more hype resulted from it but the movie turned out to be a worldwide smash hit.
And speaking of smash hits, Schumacher also stated, “[When] you’re supposed to be a blockbuster, then you have to be”. This sentence is very true, but in this case he couldn’t make it happen. Why? Look at the facts. He was trying to make a publicly overhyped sequel become a blockbuster with little time to spare. Here’s what I mean by ‘little time’.
The film was set to begin production in August of ‘95 (according to Schumacher), with the release date June 20, 1997. Normally release dates are made (if it’s a sequel or an anticipated film) before the film is. Now, it takes about two to three years for your typical blockbuster film to be made. Batman and Robin’s timeframe, thanks to the fast tracked release date, was cut down to about twenty months! How can a complete, not to mention successful blockbuster be made in that time span?
By comparison, each of the other Batman films, both past and present, generally took about three years each to make. Even Batman Returns wasn’t made that fast (about three years)! Then again, there have been successful films made in a shorter amount of time, but we’re talking about a big-budget licensed movie.
So the director directed the film, might’ve had a hand in creative control and probably did have a say in story ideas. Nowadays he’s whom almost everyone puts the blame on for this movie. Do I think Schumacher is entirely to blame for this film? I know everyone wants me to say yes, but in my eyes, no; he is to blame for only a part of B and R. A large part, yes, but a part. Another man to blame (and in a big way) is the screenwriter, Akiva Goldsman.
As a screenwriter-director combo, Shoemaker and Goldsman (along with Lee and Janet Scott Batchler) already made Batman Forever into an accessible and lighter story than its Tim Burton directed predecessor, Batman Returns. Why couldn’t they do the same here? Maybe it was Schumacher wanting to pay homage to the 1960’s TV show (maybe). Maybe it was the fast track release date. I tend to think it was a combination of both. Before we go on, Goldsman is responsible, however, for writing/co-writing scripts for such successful films as Spiderman (2002), Cinderella Man, I Am Legend, and I Robot. He even won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for A Beautiful Mind in 2001, so yes, he can write critically acceptable screenplays.
If only the script he wrote for this film was as good as any of the ones he’s written since. As anyone who has heard about this movie knows, the script is horrendous in both a Batman sense and an action film sense. It’s even awful in a children’s movie sense! Now I’m going to point out things here many people have already covered in their reviews/overviews for this picture. So if you know this already, skip ahead to the next section.
As for the rest of you, here’s what you need to know. Batman and Robin contains a very campy style of writing, which makes for a very interesting sort of movie, one that big-budget, summer blockbusters usually try to avoid. Camp is defined as, according to the dictionary, “[Something] so outrageous, inappropriate, or theatrical as to be considered amusing.” In other words, not the kind of writing you’d want for a serious superhero action sequel, even one appealing to a wide audience in numerous theaters.
Here’s a taste of the camped-up script for B and R. The villains (and sometimes heroes) say their dialogue in mostly puns, the few good parts of dialogue are mainly overshadowed by said puns, the overall plot is something elementary school children could have made in an afternoon or two (and theirs might have been better), the jokes aren’t funny and completely worthless, and the ‘plot twists’ (if there are any) are somewhat unnecessary. Let’s not even get started with the, ah, inappropriate references.
Overall it’s a complete mess and definitely not a script fitting of a summer action blockbuster. Now as a campy comedy script or even as a Batman parody film it’s very good. However, I don’t believe that was what this movie was supposed to be, even though Schumacher wanted to possibly homage that classic TV show. I also don’t believe he wanted to redo the 60’s scene for scene! If he did, well…that raises a whole lot of other questions, questions which need more space than I can provide to answer.
How much is Goldsman to blame? A lot, however this may be due to timing. As producer Peter MacGregor-Scott (who really isn’t to blame since he just went along with the studio and helped the director) stated, “[We went into Batman and Robin] almost without a break [after making Batman Forever].”
Can you imagine having to write a script almost immediately after the previous film you helped write just got released in theaters? And you were also working on/finishing a different script (A Time to Kill)? Again, you wouldn’t have had a lot of time! Even with the time constraint, I think Goldsman could have done better with what he had.
Now, who else is there to blame? Let’s look at the cast.
With the script (somehow) approved, casting became the team’s next challenge. Their eventual choices consisted of the biggest action star in film at the time, a real-life millionaire playboy actor who wasn’t yet a big star, three returning cast members from the previous film, a recently Oscar-nominated actress, and an up-and-coming actress who was the only choice for her role.
These people happened to be Arnold (the Terminator) Schwarzenegger, George Clooney, Chris O’Donnell, Pat Hingle, Michael Gough, Uma Thurman, and Alicia (Clueless) Silverstone. For the late 90’s this was a pretty big top-list cast assembly! However, for a Batman film…well, here’s my take.
First, you have George Clooney as Batman. Today, almost no fan of the character would believe such a casting to occur due to both Clooney’s and Batman’s extreme personality differences (among others), but it did. As Bruce Wayne Clooney is fairly good. He portrays Bruce as a lighter, less conflicted billionaire then before. Considering how the four films are all supposed to be in the same continuity (try figuring that out), it works well since he’s now in his “prime” as a crime fighter and probably has less time to worry with brooding. The lighter interpretation was, according to behind-the-scenes features, actually Clooney’s idea.
As Batman he’s terrible. The list of reasons can go on and on. I can’t take him seriously, no vocal change, no sense of heroism even, looks bad in the suit half the time, delivers bad dialogue in the suit, lack of emotion, and you get the idea. Probably the only half-redeemable line he has as Batman is his first, “This is why Superman works alone.”
Chris O’Donnell was decent enough as Robin, and he’s probably the best actor in the movie. His only downside was the dialogue that he had to say and poor direction, but we know who to blame the latter on. Alicia Silverstone was awful as Batgirl, just awful and should’ve never been cast. Enough said.
Pat Hingle looked too old to play Commissioner Gordon convincingly, and to be honest I never liked Hingle as Gordon in the first place. He just never looked (or acted) like what Gordon should to me. Michael Gough returns for the last time as Alfred, doing his usual good job with the material given. There are one or two good lines in Alfred’s dialogue.
Onto the villains, and cue your favorite ice puns! What can be said about Mr. Freeze in this film that hasn’t been said already five plus times? Since I can’t think of any, it’s time to repeat a few. He’s not believable as a villain, goes over-the-top with everything, has his headquarters in an ice cream factory, the dialogue… no comment and boy did Schwarzenegger get miscast! The only thing he does well is look menacing. Uma Thurman, on the other hand, was trying to do her best as Poison Ivy, but she also comes out over-the-top and not all that intimidating (or gorgeous), unlike the comic adaptation. Yes, there are a couple of decent shots of her in costume, but that’s about it. Bad dialogue for her as well.
My take on Bane’s appearance in this movie is that Goldsman or Schumacher (or both) must’ve thrown him in at the last minute to round out the film’s hero-villain ratio. That’s the only logical explanation I can think of due to the character’s terrible depiction and no respect to the source material.
And if you thought Tom Hardy was hard to understand in The Dark Knight Rises, get ready to try and decipher the language of this Bane. His dialogue mainly consists of short, indecipherable sentences. I have no further comment on Bane, except ”BOMB!” It’s pretty much all he says that’s worthwhile in this movie.
Despite their many flaws and possible miscasting, the cast is not to blame for this movie. They were simply actors and actresses, trying to do the best they could with a terrible script and poor direction. Many of their careers have been restored nicely (except for one or two).
Who’s up next? None other than the shield-wielding studio themselves, Warner Bros.!
Warner had a very successful movie on their hands with Forever, and they knew it. So they commissioned a fast-tracked sequel just to get more box-office revenue. Okay, I’ll admit it right here. Warner Bros. is the problem! WB is the reason to blame for this movie! They’re the ones who decided to ask Schumacher to come back and direct; they are the ones that wanted the quick cash grab!
Glad I got that out of the way. Speaking of cash grabbing, let’s take a look at their marketing strategies for B and R.
Batman and Robin somehow finished filming in January of 1997, apparently a week ahead of schedule, which gave the Warner Bros. marketing department about five months to extensively market the film. One reviewer I watched claimed that within about three months of Batman Forever’s home video release, ads were up and running for this film. Soon after, production tie-ins with other companies were probably being made. The first things to go over are the trailers.
While they weren’t bad by trailer standards (the film happened to provide some decent trailer footage), the taglines in the aforementioned trailers were downright awful. Here’s the main one. “Strength now. Courage always. Family above all.”
If that leaves you asking questions, it’s okay. Something like that, while it may be a nice message for kids, does not belong in a Batman film! The editing was okay and the background music was nice, thanks only to Danny Elfman’s ’89 score being used along with the then- current theme (more on that later). Onto commercials.
The toy commercials were excellent! You can watch the commercials (thanks to YouTube) and practically watch the movie in over half the time as other reviews have pointed out! They showcased the toys in that classic 90’s style of TV commercial that has since been lost in today’s world. No wonder the film reportedly picked up an extra $125 million on merchandising (a bit ridiculous if you think about it)! Also of note were various ads with different sponsors. They ranged from over-the-top to ridiculous.
The posters were good, especially the teaser poster where it just shows the logo (which I have no real problems with), over a red-and-black background. Wait, there’s another problem: that red and black background on the poster. I don’t know if the art director heard this or not, but the main villain is ice-based! Couldn’t WB have made a poster, or more preferably the main titles in the movie, with a blue and white background?
If you’re wondering, they never made a poster (or titles) like that! The main theatrical poster is instead awash with neon, something that sends the wrong message to me about a movie that’s supposed to be a serious Batman film!
Love it or not Batman and Robin was promoted to the max, and considering the shorter amount of time there was to promote the film, WB did a pretty good job. I consider the commercials the best part. However, those commercials were promoting something very important to WB.
What was so important to Warner Brothers? It was the toy involvement in the film, of course. As explained by Schumacher, Warner wanted “[The] film to be more family-friendly, more kid-friendly, and a word I had never heard before: more toyetic; which means, what you create makes toys that can sell”.
Wait, what did he just say?
I can’t blame Schumacher for the toys because he didn’t order them to be made. He did go on to admit that yes, he agreed with it. Now imagine if you were in his shoes, had just been hired to direct this movie and you heard a studio exec say, “Oh yeah, by the way, we want this new movie to be ’more toyetic’. Here’s the toy company”. Apparently Schumacher later apologized for the toy placements in the movie!
One question. How do you make a Batman film with this sort of process in less than two years and make it successful? No sane person probably knew the answer to such a statement at the time. However, clueless or not, the crew went on with it.
In Warner’s mind, the answer that the crew didn’t know laid, as you might have guessed, with the toys and other merchandise. “Prominently include the toys in the film”, they probably thought, “and the film will sell itself! Kids will flock to the theaters and because of that, go to the stores in droves! We’ll get more money! It can’t possibly fail!”
Kenner, the company of STAR WARS fame made the toys. According to Macgregor-Scott, during production “[The design team]…[let Kenner] be involved with how [Batman’s tech] was going to [look].” That explains why so many costumes and gadgets in the finished film look like huge, detailed toys! It’s because they technically are.
Then, apparently once Kenner appeared satisfied with drawings and other ideas, they took the vehicle designs, among other things, early. Why? So they could make the toys right as the film was released, as stated by Schumacher. That meant that there was little to no finalizing any of the designs! From the film’s concept art (which you can view some of online), many of the designs look just like they do in both the movie and the toys. The Batmobile too, you ask? You better believe it!
Maybe Chris O’Donnell summed the toy thing up best, “…I felt like I was filming a toy commercial.” Well, you weren’t wrong there, Chris. That is exactly what you were filming. A film that is so based around toys. How could it be successful and promote itself to mainstream audiences, much less adults? To even make it work, you would have to include the actual toys and then use the said toys as they would be used in both the film and the real world! Who would really use a B and R grappling hook? This is yet another reason why Batman and Robin does not work as a theatrical superhero film!
So, Warner Bros.…you’re a great movie company, but this film has to be the lowest of the low you people have ever gotten. You are the reason this movie happened Warner; you yes, you are (again) the ones to blame for this movie. Write it in your historical anthology someday as one of your moments of shame.
Since I’m done blaming people, I want to go into a few quick sections about the designs of costumes, vehicles and a couple of other film-related topics. First up is costume design. Some of these designs were controversial, others looked stupid, but a few were not all that bad.
What else to start with but the bat-nip- I mean, batsuits. The suits in this film are bad, featuring such delightful additions (continuing on from the previous film) as: no visible armor or even Kevlar to speak of, Batman and Batgirl’s suits are navy blue instead of the universally accepted black or gray, Robin’s suit looks a lot like Nightwing’s (Dick Grayson’s alter ego of his adulthood), a huge emphasis on tight/possibly sculpted rubber, and of course, the nipples on the suits. Next question, why does the trio change into silver and blue costumes at the end (which look even worse than the other ones)? If they’re anti-ice based or have something else to do besides have more toys in the mov-oh, wait, that’s why.
The villain’s suits, to sum them up, were toyetic in every sense of the word. Not much to talk about here. Mr. Freeze’s suit looked too big and bulky to even walk in correctly, Bane looked plain stupid considering the source material, and Ivy’s red suit…when did she wear red again? Now in green, she looks a little more like Poison Ivy, but red? Really? No villain suit looked movie capable, but all looked very toy capable.
Next up are the vehicles. In your standard Batman movie the vehicles are supposed to be one of the big highlights. In this case…let’s just get on with the dissection before I go into a full-fledged rant.
First we have Mr. Freeze’s truck/van/rocket/portable freeze gun/battering ram/whatever else you want to call it. Talk about an instant toy. This thing has all the play features built right into it, and we see just about every one of them in use at some point during the movie! Next is Robin’s cycle, which isn’t terrible, but it’s not the greatest looking motorcycle I’ve ever seen. At least the color scheme matches! The other two things Robin and Batgirl were riding on towards the film’s end have no comment from me except, a motorcycle on solid ice? Really?
Now onto the Batmobile! This version of the classic car is very long with some nice styling. It’s an open cockpit design and it looks similar to an old roadster. All of these things are good and add to the car’s toy appeal and its legacy (whatever it has left). Here are the problems. It has a lack of any offensive firepower or unique gadgetry to speak of (besides a video communicator and a motorcycle disable system), it’s too flashy, there’s too much internal neon, and the turbine in the front is just plain stupid! What is that thing’s function and why, oh why does it look so similar to a disco ball??
So is there one vehicle I do like? Well, there actually is. It’s called the Bathammer (try and figure that name out) and it appears towards the end of the movie when Batman and company are going to stop Freeze. I like the idea of Batman having a vehicle that can be a sort of a snowmobile/boat when the situation calls for it. The actual vehicle has many flaws (looks just like the car, only uses one gadget), but the idea and concept are good additions to the universe. Why no one explored the idea in future adaptations I don’t know.
Let’s talk about production design. In the classic first film, the sets were very dark, gritty, gothic, and believable, and the same was true for the second one. When Shoemaker came aboard, he changed things completely. In Forever the lights were more in number and neon was everywhere. Even the Batcave was full of blue illuminating lights! However, there were still some dark scenes and spots in the film, so the lighting worked as a balancing effect or as a way to show sets off. It was flashy without being campy.
In this film, however, Joel and Co. go all out. To start with, the Batcave is lit with neon and laser lights, spotlights are everywhere, and every other surface in the entire movie seems to have color! These colors include (but are not limited to) blue, purple, red, blue, green, blue, neon green, or white. So to sum it up, the film is very flashy. Not strobe light flashy (thank goodness) but annoying flashy. Again, it’s supposed to be a Batman film. You fill in the rest.
One more thing we have to talk about is the musical score for the film. Like Batman Forever, Elliot Goldenthal composed the score, starting work on it before the film was even shot. Overall, it’s underrated. Please see my post “Score review: Batman Forever/Batman and Robin” for my full thoughts.
Okay, so that wasn’t the last thing to talk about. I am sure all of you are by now asking where in Gotham it is so I’m finally going to mention it!
Cue screaming! The name alone makes me smile with inward laughter. Whoever thought of this (Goldsman, Schumacher, and Macgregor-Scott are my top candidates) made one of the (if not the) stupidest decisions ever in a superhero film or just film in general.
For those of you who do not know what this is, the Bat-Credit-Card is a dark gray credit card with a raised silver Bat-symbol on the front. The bottom reads, in yellow letters on either side of the symbol: ‘Issued to: Batman’, and ‘Good thru: Forever’. The words may be a nod to Batman Forever, but nothing about the card is a good thing. It’s only seen once, when Batman and Robin start bidding on Poison Ivy at a jungle-themed auction (don’t ask) and B-Man whips the card out, complete with cheesy sound effect to end the bidding war. Its presence does bring up a point: does Batman ever go shop-okay, I am not sure what I was thinking there but anyway, the card is pointless, it’s worthless, and it’s probably the most despised object in a superhero film. Ever.
Now what do I think about Batman and Robin? The film was and still is, terrible. Time hasn’t changed it for the better, except maybe its become funnier. It was supposed to be a superhero action sequel, and what we got instead was a rushed movie that was more comedy and camp than anything else. Whatever it was, it was anything but a Batman film for the late 1990’s. The logo was decent; I liked the commercials and the debut of the Bathammer plus the musical score, but that’s about it.
Although there are a few redeeming shots in the film and about four lines of decent dialogue, bad dialogue takes over quickly. A fast release date, plus a terrible script, combined with some poor directing, plus horrible studio decisions, plus sub-par marketing, and way too many ice puns gives us the worst superhero film of all time.
Batman and Robin, dir. Joel Schumacher. 1997, Warner Bros., film.
Batman: The Cinematic Legacy of the Dark Knight, Part 4: Batman Unbound, 2005. Youtube, 2015.
Batman and Robin (1997 film), Batman Wiki page.
Batman and Robin, Wikipedia page.
Batman and Robin Soundtrack (bootleg), score composed by Elliot Goldenthal. Youtube, 2014.
Batman and Robin, theatrical trailer, teaser trailer. Youtube, 2014.
Batman and Robin reviews, various, Youtube.