19 July 2012

BATMAN HISTORY: WHAT KILLED THE DINOSAURS? THE ICE AGE!

1997's Batman & Robin, a film so widely-reviled that flopped so hard that it put the Batman franchise in cold storage for eight years, until a certain Christopher Nolan figured out a way to rejuvenate the character by going as far in the other direction as possible, hinges on the action of two grotesque cartoon characters wreaking havoc on a world that they hate for insane reasons, tearing things apart just because it's in their power to do so. I could be referring to the film's new pair of supervillains, ideologically warped botanist Pamela Isley (Uma Thurman) or demented medical doctor Victor Fries (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who as a result of horrible science-fiction/fantasy mutations turn into, respectively, the half-plant, all-toxic seductive assassin Poison Ivy, and cold-blooded iceman Mr. Freeze; but I am actually referring to director Joel Schumacher and writer Akiva Goldsman, whose work together on Batman Forever two years prior doesn't even begin to imply the nightmarish hatchet job they'd do on their second go-round with the characters. The result is not merely a terrible Batman movie, nor, I would argue, the worst comic book movie ever made; it is among the worst wide-release films of the 1990s, offering virtually nothing in the way of positive compensation other than an excellent chance to mock it with a cadre of like-minded, drunk friends.

It barely feels like it takes place in the same moral or physical universe as Forever; the storybook Gothic/Expressionist universe of Tim Burton's Batman and Batman Returns are no longer even visible underneath the accretions. Herein, Freeze - an Olympic decathlete and Nobel-winning scientist - has been turned into a temperature-sensitive monster in the quest to save his wife from a rare degenerative disease, and to keep his cooling suit powered - and, more importantly, his giant-ass ice gun - he needs lots and lots and lots of diamonds, and it's while stealing a particularly large gem from the Gotham Natural History Museum that he runs into none other than Gotham's finest heroes, Batman (George Clooney) and Robin (Chris O'Donnell), dispatched like it were the opening tutorial level in a video game by Alfred (Michael Gough), trusty butler, who is given a far large part to play in this film than in any of the previous three films (bully for Gough, a sturdy and steadfast presence, and alongside Pat Hingle as the increasingly-invisible Commissioner Gordon, one of only two men to stick it out through all four pictures).

In the meanwhile, Isley - still human - is in South America, where she's trying to develop a new strain of plant/animal hybrids that will be able to fight back against human aggression. In this she is thwarted by her evil colleague, Dr. Jason Woodrue (John Glover), who steals her research to make a hulking, inarticulate super-soldier he named Bane (Jeep Swenson), and tries to kill her. When this instead turns her into Poison Ivy, she kills him and takes Bane to Gotham, where she hopes to convince philanthropist billionaire Bruce Wayne to fund her zany research. Rebuffed, she decides to destroy the city and make it her private plant playground, ultimately teeming up with the mad Freeze, because a man bent on turning the world into an ice cube and a woman dedicated to making it safe for plants are natural teammates.

Also, Alfred is dying of the same disease that Freeze's wife has - which surely will not prove to be a key plot point - and he is visited by his niece, Barbara (Alicia Silverstone), who in due course learns of Bruce Wayne's secret identity, and that of his increasingly resentful ward Dick Grayson, and who can't wait to join in the fun as Batgirl.

The plot is the least of Batman & Robin's problems, but it's still pretty lousy: Ivy and Freeze end up together for no obvious reason than that, after five villains had been and gone, there weren't any obvious names left in the Batman Rogues Gallery; presumably, the combination of arctic-themed male villain and seductive female villain having worked in Returns, Goldsman, or whoever, though it made sense to return to that well here. Batgirl's introduction reeks of a marketing effort (and the decision to make her Alfred's niece and not Gordon's daughter serves primarily to raise the question of why the quintessentially American Silverstone is visiting from England). The world-domination scheme is straight out of the goofiest mode of the '60s Adam West show, but of course, that's right exactly where the filmmakers wanted it to be, because they were nasty, savage people.

Not a single element of the film is played straight, but this isn't the worst part: the worst part is that nobody takes it at all seriously. Because even dizzy camp can and must be taken seriously, as the '60s show perfectly demonstrates. Schumacher, famously, directs with a pronounced lack of interest in the actual movie, focusing instead on the dopiest elements of the humor he can scrounge up (also the bodies of three heroes, but really just in their introductions: the sight of Bat-Ass is weird enough for it to command attention, but it's not as though the director makes a Bat-Porno. It would probably have been better if he had), and letting Thurman indulge far too much in a showy, horribly melodramatic performance that is, I think, supposed to be her homage to Mae West, but feels like a small child trying to play a thematically inane prostitute. It is a shockingly low moment for a generally talented actress; just one year before her terrible work in The Avengers, it makes you wonder what the hell was going on in her life at the time that was so traumatising, that i led to such unhinged, kitschy acting. Or hell, maybe she saw where the project was going, and decided to have fun with it.

Even so, she and Schwarzenegger are the only real personalities in the movie: Clooney, not yet a movie star in 1998, is wandering and campy and TV-star small; he allegedly played chose to play Bruce Wayne and Batman (between whom he draws no distinction) as gay, but this only informs us that the actor doesn't know what that word means. Schwarzenegger, at least, is just pretty much doing Schwarzenegger, albeit in sparkly blue make-up; he snarls and puns and stomps around looking nasty. He's saddled by Goldsman with an unfathomable number of "ice puns", and to keep myself diverted while watching the film for the third time in order to write this review - three whole times, and now I can't imagine why I'll ever need to do it again - I decided to keep track of just how many. The figure I came up with was that Schwarzenegger delivers a total of 81 lines (some of which are monologues) not including grunts and other illegible vocalisations (and this being a Schwarzenegger performance, there are many of those), of which 31 are either puns or at least references to ice or cold things, 49 are not (but that includes lines as simple as "Kill them!" and "Yes!"), and one line is the statement, "An enticing offer", but he stresses the middle syllable of "entICEing" such that I could not tell if it was a pun or not. But let's say it wasn't and that makes 38% of the things he says idiotic ice jokes. Things like "Cool party!" and "I'm afraid my condition has left me cold to your pleas of mercy" and, most notoriously of all, "Ice to see you!"Thirty-eight percent of that.

Really, what else can one say after that? That Batman and Robin have turned into a bland copy of the Odd Couple, tossing quips at each other and only barely remembering to fight crimes? That Gotham, in this film, has been rendered completely impossible as a plausible city in any regard, with Olympian statues the size of skyscrapers all over, and structures just tossed here and there because the script needs them rather than because they feel appropriate or natural? That in the first big sight sequence, Batman and Robin coast down from thousands of feet in the sky by gliding down on metal plates like they're snowboarding through sky? Because after that image (and there's almost two hours of movie yet after that image) you don't really need anything else. Batman & Robin is full of contempt for the characters it depicts, the story it tells, the people watching it, and the idea that a summer blockbuster needs to be made with any kind of care or sincerity, just because it's all in good, dumb fun. Even dumb fun needn't be this savagely ignorant.

14 comments:

Robert said...

My wife has only seen Batman Forever (of the 2 Schumachers) and whenever she comments on its appalling nature I have the desire to show her Batman & Robin to demonstrate just how much worse it can get. Yet I do genuinely love her. It's a pickle.

Mr. Blackwell said...

If you're considering doing the "drunken lambasting of Batman and Robin" thing, might I suggest that you skip watching all two hours of it and just watch THIS: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VY7MLgy5Whw

Oliver said...

I like this movie. Like, really, I do. More than any of the other original four Batman films. Everything you said about the film, such as the ice puns, just make the film sound insanely appealing to me. I can never not laugh at "ICE to see you!", like, so many questions pop up in my head when he says that and I can only imagine Joel Schumacher's answer being "because I'm a moron". The sheer monumental stupidity of it makes me love it, unironically. This is a completely indefensible opinion, though. I'm so sorry.

KingKubrick said...

Highly recommended: watching Batman and Robin with the director's commentary. It taught me the phrase "toyettic" (a word used by movie producers to signify how well a character or vehicle in a film can be translated into action figure form). Schewl-maker discusses how the producers forced him to make everything toyettic and he originally wanted to do a dark intpretation of Batman: Year One, because, as his "fans know", he likes to dark and edgy material. I'm a schewl-maker fan in that if I'm going to watch a bad movie, I'll toss on one of his films before a lot of others because they are always interestingly terrible. Also recommended: D.C. cabs just for the scene of a 20 something Bill Maher holding back an enraged Mr. T!

dfa said...

Since there's little to be said about this insutling film, I just want to express the desire that your TDKR review will be your longest yet. One can always hope.

dfa said...

Ok, what in fact I could humbly add from a personal perspective, is that I am sad Alicia Silverstone's career went downhill probably after this; the girl had charm, I even liked her in Blast from the Past.

Trish said...

Blackwell, thank you for that link. It reminds me of the fact that I have tried to watch this movie many times out of morbid curiosity. And EVERY time I do, it loses me in the EXACT same place: the scene where Uma Thurman is dancing in a fluffy pink gorilla costume for... reasons that are unclear. Yes, even in the context of this impressively silly movie.

And thanks for using that quote as the title because, no. No it did not. That happened millions of years later. (Gets iced by Freeze.)

Colin said...

"...it's not as though the director makes a Bat-Porno. It would probably have been better if he had."

Batman XXX: A Porn Parody. Watch it. Love it. Review it.

Benjamin said...

@KingKubrick: I can't speak for the rest of his ouvre, but Schumacher's 8mm, if not dark and edgy, is certainly dispiriting (not unlike this movie, hoo-ha!).

Tim, I'm bummed you didn't review the 60s Batman movie. When might you again have the occasion?

Surly Duff said...

This is one of the few times that I am sorry that I attempt to watch the same movies you include in your retrospectives. While obnoxiously awful, Batman and Robin doesn't even reach the threshold of "so bad its enjoyable" for me. Yes, Schumacher has gone on record blaming the pressure to create a marketable product that would lead to product tie-ins, but this still does not change the fact that he made a horrible movie, and that is was horrible for the choices he made.

I do not think that there was one good choice made in the whole movie-the plot, the characters, the acting, sound effects, the dialogue-all of it was awful. Visually, the movie is atrocious, with all the garish neon, that serves no aesthetic purpose, and the ridiculous sets. The physical implausibility of the car chase scene down the arm of the oversized statue (how would a car be able to drive smoothly down an bronze/iron or concrete statue arm)is less bothersome to me than why such a poor choice was made in the first place. Why even think that would be a good idea?

Lastly, I agree with you that camp needs to be well-done if that is the route taken, and even camp overdone, can still be done well. But again, the choices are so poor and so often that I wonder why no one saw the obvious horridness of it all. Batman sliding down the back of a dinosaur like Fred Flintstone? Bat skates? Mr. Freeze forcing his minions to sing a song to an obscure 70s stop-motion TV special? The use of ridiculous sound effects to mimic the "Bangs" "Whoops" and "Kapows" of the 60s TV show. Everything was a choice detrimental to the film in every way. Sure, Warner Brothers may have provided some pressure to create a rushed product, but that in no way absolves Schumacher making this albatross that hangs firmly around his neck. I am just sorry that it did not end his career.

And as mentioned above, yes 8MM was a dark movie, but it was also a bad movie. If there was true justice in this world, Batman and Robin would have debased Schumacher's name so that he would not have been able to unleash more films like 8MM, Number 23, Bad Company on the rest of the world.

Surly Duff said...

Frankly, I think the fundamental problem with Schumacher's Batman films is his complete misunderstanding of comic book. Schumacher ended up making a live-action version of a cartoon instead.

Trish said...

"Schumacher ended up making a live-action version of a cartoon instead."

Which is a deeply strange thing to say given how the episodes of "Batman: The Animated Series" centered on Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, Batgirl, et al are among the best in the already terrific series.

Surly Duff said...

Okay; While the Batman: The Animated Series may have been a "cartoon" in the traditional sense that it was a 2 dimensional drawing on television, it was true to the comics or at least the spirit of the comics. Batman and Robin was simply cartoonish.

Groggy Dundee said...

"Ice to see you" is actually from a Simpsons episode (Last Exit to Springfield, IIRC), not this movie. I'm da pahtee poopah.