The film that put the nail in the coffin of Warner's "Batman Franchise, Mark I" gives new meaning to Hollywood bloat. More, more, more is the order of the day, once again. In Joel Schumacher's first Batman sequel, Batman Forever, he incorporated two super-villains and added heroic sidekick Robin. Batman & Robin uses up two more super-villains—Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman)—and brings Batgirl (Alicia Silverstone) on board. Not content, returning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman further insults fans of the DC Comics by casting the villain Bane (late wrestler Jeep Swenson) as a brainless steroidal thug.
Robin/Dick Grayson is still played by Chris O'Donnell, but Batman #2 (Val Kilmer) jumped ship, allowing George Clooney to make a mistake he's still good-naturedly living down: donning the cape and cowl for Schumacher. In fact, Clooney is nearly ideal as millionaire Bruce Wayne, but Goldsman only gives Wayne and his crime-fighting alter ego platitudes and punchlines. As for Schumacher, he's still intent on dragging Batman further back into camp. In the film's first scene, he reprises his Batbutt shot (coupled with a Robin butt shot), then turns the duo into a George-and-Gracie double act. Robin: "I want a car. Chicks dig the car." Batman: "This is why Superman works alone." Ba dum dum.
It's difficult to tell if Batman & Robin has too much plot or too little, but it all has something to do with Mr. Freeze's customary desire to restore his diseased wife-cicle to health, via a crime spree, and Poison Ivy's warped eco-terrorism; the two converge to rid themselves of their heroic nemeses. The machinations of the script allow for extreme-sports action sequences. In the first scene, the Dynamic Duo activate their Bat-skates for a ludicrous, hockey-themed battle that climaxes with Robin riding a phallic rocket through a round, glass skylight. When the glass shatters in an action orgasm, Schwarzenegger says, "Oh yes!" Then Batman and Robin air-surf to safety. Just...don't ask.
In fact, phallic imagery is a staple of Batman & Robin, in which Schumacher fearlessly brings his gay sensibility even further to the fore. There's something subversive and therefore laudable about taking millions of dollars of studio money to produce a gay superhero fantasia, but Schumacher picked the wrong superhero to mess with. Despite the academic assertion of Fredric Wertham in his absurd 1954 comic-book expose The Seduction of the Innocent that Batman and Robin conducted an implicit "daddy-boy" gay relationship, Batman has never been gay (sorry, GLAAD).
Ignoring this, Schumacher slathers the film with penis imagery and ribald jokes. Mr. Freeze leers, "No matter what they tell you, Mr. Bane, it is the size of your gun that counts." Beside the prodigious Freeze-gun, the villain's car also features a prominent ice-muzzle appendage. The protruding telescope of Gotham Observatory—perched, not so incidentally, on the back of an unclothed muscleman—serves as the centerpiece of the film's finale. In a different fetish category, Poison Ivy enters one scene by shedding a hairy monkey suit and walking on the backs of near-naked musclemen. I'm not sure what Schumacher had in mind here, but I'm pretty sure it's illegal in several states.
The deepest irony is that Batman and Robin makes a pretty good kids' movie. Most adults run screaming from this movie, but on the campy level of the 1960's TV series, Batman & Robin does the job—noisily and senselessly—of a colorful, silly action-adventure. Touchy parents can take comfort in the fact that the double entendres will soar over kids' heads. In counterpoint to the gay subtext, Poison Ivy's pheromones make the heroes squabble out of jealous, heterosexual horniness, and Clooney's Bruce dutifully dates Elle McPherson (even as he tenderly cares for live-in manservant Alfred, on his deathbed due to a mysterious illness).
Ultimately, Batman & Robin is a "family values" movie. Alfred, played for the fourth time by Hammer horror vet Michael Gough, schools Bruce about Dick: "You must learn to trust him, for that is the nature of family." Batgirl—Alfred's orphan niece Barbara Wilson—joins that family, leaving her college education at Oxbridge behind. Silverstone is a complete zero, but her sunny tenacity makes her a passable ab-fab, girl-power hero. (In the comics, Batgirl was Barbara Gordon, daughter of Police Commissioner Gordon, played here—for a fourth time—by Pat Hingle.)
As Freeze (a.k.a. Dr. Victor Fries), Schwarzenegger rarely gets to play it straight, though Goldsman at least pays lip service to the character's now-traditional marital grief. Mostly, Schwarzenegger is forced to let fly with enough bad ice puns to accomodate several movies--nineteen, for the record. Perhaps a drinking game could make the tiresome pattern (increasingly) bearable for adult viewers ("Let's kick some ice!"). Remarkably, twenty-seven years in the business have done nothing to improve the Austrian Oak's marble-mouthed diction. He's an awesome sight in his cryogenic suit and sparkly blue makeup, but he's also a walking joke.
Uma Thurman's Poison Ivy cuts a sharp and accurate figure in her basic costume (though her later double-beehive is an unfortunate sight gag). Ivy's origin story is fairly represented, when John Glover's mad scientist chemically mutates Pamela Isley into a powerful manipulatress of plants; Ivy springs improbably from the ground in a dream-like rebirth. While Thurman is suited to the role, the comic tone leads her to adopt an odd dialect. At times, she sounds British (Madonna-style); at other times, she does a full-bore Mae West impression, another huge miscalculation.
The cringe-worthy style choices pile up like junk mail: a Coolio cameo, a Clockwork Orange-themed street gang, a random motorcycle-race sequence, a Max Headroomed Alfred, a Bat-credit card ("GOOD THRU FOREVER"), a weed innuendo shared between Batman and Robin, and the requisite garish finale. "We have less than eleven minutes left to thaw the city!" the heroes fret, then take the time to change into matching silver-gilded supersuits. Right about then, comic-book fans had to breathe into paper bags or put their heads between their knees.
Schumacher shot his inspirational wad on Batman Forever, leaving Batman & Robin to creative exhaustion. Some cool fight stunts make the best of the camp approach, but the inclusion of cartoon sound effects are buzz-killers. Goldsman includes a costume ball, a setting already explored by Tim Burton in Batman Returns, and whips up more overt psychoanalysis for Batman. Alfred posits, "For what is Batman if not an effort to master the chaos that sweeps our world? An attempt to control death itself." Okay, fine, but we get this and dick jokes?
Released to Blu-ray as part of the five-disc Batman: The Motion Picture Anthology 1989-1997 set, Batman & Robin looks and sounds better than ever in high-def. Like its predecessor, this transfer features strong color rendering and detail, though the extreme lighting allows the overall results to sometimes look softer than what one might expect from the most recent film in the set. It's impossible to complain about the definitive audio presentation, with Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes offering crystal clarity for what's to be found in the original soundtrack.
All of the DVD bonus features return here. The commentary by Joel Schumacher includes some production info, some excuses and some conditional apologies, eventually falling into long patches of somewhat comical silence. If you can't say anything nice...
Part six of the ongoing mega-documentary Shadows of the Bat: The Cinematic Saga of the Dark Knight is "Batman Unbound" (27:01, SD) Schumacher, producer Peter Macgregor-Scott, Chris O'Donnell, Val Kilmer, George Clooney (vintage), Arnold Schwarzenegger (vintage), Uma Thurman (vintage), John Glover, Alicia Silverstone (vintage), screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, 2nd unit director Peter Macdonald, and executive producer Michael E. Uslan.
The Beyond Batman featurettes this time are "Bigger Bolder, Brighter: The Production Design of Batman & Robin" (10:00, SD), "Maximum Overdrive: The Vehicles of Batman & Robin" (9:55, SD), "Dressed to Thrill: The Costumes of Batman & Robin" (12:13, SD), "Frozen Freaks and Femme Fatales: The Makeup of Batman & Robin" (9:23, SD) and "Freeze Frame: The Visual Effects of Batman & Robin" (9:02, SD). Schumacher (contemporary and vintage), O'Donnell, production designer Barbara Ling, Schwarzenegger (vintage), Clooney (vintage), Thurman (vintage), conceptual artist Ron Mendell, Macgregor-Scott, vehicle supervisors Allen Pike and Charley Zurian, illustrator Harald Belker, specialty costumer Linda Booher-Ciarimboli, costume coordinator Randy Gardell, Batsuit wrangler Day Murch, Batshop painter Michael McFarlane, Alicia Silverstone (vintage), Mr. Freeze makeup designer Jeff Dawn, key makeup artist Ve Neill, costume constructor Dragon Dronet, make-up artist Brian Penikas, Jeep Swenson (vintage), visual effects supervisor John Dykstra, miniature effects supervisor Ian Hunter (vintage), visual effects supervisor Eric Durst (vintage), and visual effect supervisor Andrew Adamson (vintage).
Batman: The Heroes profiles include "Batman" (3:33, SD), "Robin" (3:08, SD) and "Batgirl" (2:34, SD), while Batman: The Villains profiles include "Mr. Freeze" (3:24, SD), "Poison Ivy" (2:30, SD) and "Bane" (2:09, SD). Participants include Clooney (vintage), DC Comics editor Mike Carlin, Uslan, Macgregor-Scott (vintage), writer-producers Al Gough and Miles Millar, Schumacher (vintage), writer-producer Paul Dini, DC Comics VP, Editorial Dan DiDio, O'Donnell (vintage), writer-director Kevin Smith, Silverstone (vintage), Schwarzenegger (vintage), Thurman (vintage), and DC writer/editor Denny O'Neil.
Also included are the Deleted Scene "Alfred's Lost Love" (:45, SD), the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (2:25, SD), and Music Videos "The End is the Beginning is the End" by The Smashing Pumpkins (5:13, SD), "Look Into My Eyes" by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony (4:56, SD), "Gotham City" by R. Kelly (5:03, SD) and "Foolish Games" by Jewel (4:00, SD). Fans can hardly ask for more than this special edition treatment, though it would have been nice to see the documentary material in HD.
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