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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
Continuing on from Part One, where I looked at the first three entries in the 1989-1997 Batman franchise, it is time to look at 1997’s infamous Batman & Robin.
Full disclosure: I find this film, with no irony attached, to be a masterpiece in its own way. Let me make one thing clear, this film is truly awful. However, I think it is so bad, that it transcends its awfulness into something else entirely, and I am in pure awe of it. Here we have George Clooney as Batman, and Joel Schumacher giving completely into studio demands to make the film even more campy and a device to sell copious amounts of merchandising. The result killed the franchise dead and severely maligned all the principle cast members’ careers at that point. That said, I highly recommend listening to Schumacher’s audio commentary. Not only is he incredibly honest about the movie, but he accepts full blame for it.
You can read a lot about the shortcomings of Batman & Robin online, but one positive that often gets forgotten about is that this movie, out of all the previous Batman films, is completely consistent with its tone. The previous entries swerved from serious and brooding to corny and utterly silly (for example, Penguin’s tragedy coupled with mind-controlled penguins with rockets on their backs in Batman Returns). Batman & Robin, on the other hand, knows exactly what it is and does not relent from that trajectory.
Honestly, I could and should write an entire series about this movie. There is so much to explore.
The Batman franchise was put in a tailspin after the critical and financial failure of Batman & Robin as Warner Bros. did not know what to do with it. May options were considered including a fifth entry directed by Schumacher, a Batman Beyond movie, and a young Bruce Wayne TV show (this idea eventually became Smallville). You can read more about these false starts here. Ultimately, Warner Bros. hired Christopher Nolan to restart the franchise with Batman Begins to get things back on track.
Despite these movies all having the name “Batman” in the title, none were really about Batman. They primarily focused on the villain. The only one that comes close to giving Batman any sort of character arc is Batman Forever, and much of that was cut from the film. Nolan’s Batman Begins centers squarely on Batman/Bruce Wayne, but even Nolan ditches that in his sequel. None of this really surprises me as Batman is largely uninteresting while his enemies are endless playgrounds.
It is also interesting to note that each of these movies featured fairly big stars of the day which one would not necessarily associate with doing a big superhero movie, especially during a time where superhero movies had a large stigma attached to them. Jack Nicholson? Danny DeVito? Who would have thought they would sign onto a project like Batman? By the time Schumacher took over, some of the “star power” had dropped, and it became more of “who is currently popular”. Jim Carrey’s comedies were box office gold, and Tommy Lee Jones was still fresh off his Oscar win. Uma Thurman had her Pulp Fiction cred, and Alicia Silverstone was still an “it girl” for many teenage boys.
Even though the Batman series was a functioned as star vehicles, I have to admit that everyone involved (with the possible exception of Tommy Lee Jones) seemed to be completely into their characters. Say what you will about Batman & Robin, but it is obvious Uma Thurman is completely having fun with the film’s over-the-top nature. It would have been so easy for stars of this nature to simply sleepwalk through their roles and collect a paycheck, but they did not. Personally, I think that is what makes these movies so watchable (even the bad ones). Everyone is having fun and it shows up onscreen.
These movies really made Batman big in the public eye. I would argue that he was always popular to some degree, but once 1989’s Batman hit, everything changed. Batman moved beyond Adam West and something for only kids. This series also launched the comic book genre into new heights, and while the genre did not become mainstream until this past decade, the groundwork began here.
The Batman series, particularly the first one, also was instrumental in launching the big summer blockbusters. While those have always been a part of modern cinema, the hype and anticipation for Batman was unprecedented at the time, and something like that is now taken for granted. For example, you know those character-specific posters movies have? That started with this series. Honestly, is anyone surprised at the pre-release reaction The Avengers got or The Dark Knight Rises is getting? Of course not. It is now common place. It was not then.
Also worth noting is that, unlike most franchises today, these Batman films did not have an interlocking, continuing story. Sure, previous events or characters were referenced in subsequent entries, but each installment stood alone, much like the James Bond series. You can almost argue that Schumacher’s films are its own thing from Burton’s entries given the different aesthetic and direction. It is strange and interesting to see how these things have evolved.
Sure, the Nolan films are great, but there is something about this earlier series that I will always find comforting. Maybe it has to do with the fact that I grew up with them, so I have some nostalgic connection to it. Maybe it is because they are just darn cool, and the films are not afraid to be goofy at times. I do not know, but I bet that I and others of my generation will always be willing to sit down and watch Keaton, Kilmer, or Clooney beat up some thugs.
Well, maybe not so much Clooney.