Lessons to Learn on the Batman and Robin 20th Anniversary

Often when we look at movies that defined our youth, we attempt to cling onto some aspect of nostalgia that can repair any visible flaws. Maybe it saved you from the boredom of summer. Maybe it kept you company during a sick day at home. Everyone has that movie, the one they will defend against any sort of criticism, and for the longest time (until I turned into some form of grown adult), that movie was Batman & Robin. 

Now, looking back on it 20 years later, it is quite clear that my tastes have changed since June of 1997. No longer am I entertained by Uma Thurman dancing in a gorilla get-up, nor do I accept that dumbed-down version of Barbara Gordon, and I can now completely confirm that I will absolutely, one hundred percent, never register for a Bat Credit Card.

But there is a much more deeper question to ask when it comes to this anniversary post: what can we actually learn from Batman & Robin? Is it an important film in the legacy of DC’s live action adaptation history? Well chill, because we’re going to examine this one from top-to-bottom. Let’s explore the good, the bad, and the Bane of Joel Schumacher’s “masterpiece” and what it has taught the comic book genre over the years. Instead of hating it, maybe we can thank Papa Joel for giving us a guidebook on what Batman movies shouldn’t be.

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“Bombs away, Batman!”

When looking at Batman as a property, one can clearly find a divide between his comic book version and his cinematic counterpart around the mid-90’s. On the page and animated TV screen, Batman was dark and brooding. He had a sense of justice before any sort of personal gain, along with a somewhat introverted nature. Movie Batman shared these qualities during the Burton years, with the darkness sometimes tipping the scale over the lighter aspects of the character. Unfortunately, this version of the Dark Knight left many families disappointed, thus resulting in Batman Returns not being the box office juggernaut that Warner Bros. wanted (especially when compared to the first movie).

Enter Joel Schumacher and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, who (with their work on Batman Forever) turned Burton’s version into a hero that smiles and speaks sassy catchphrases. The dark and twisted villains like Catwoman and Penguin were traded for more colorful antagonists, including Jim Carrey as a neon green Riddler and Tommy Lee Jones as a manic and over-the-top Two-Face. Even the memorable score by Danny Elfman was switched out for a slightly more upbeat score by Elliot Goldenthal. Obviously, the caped crusader that had been established on the silver screen in 1989 was shifting into the one that Warner Bros. felt could be more approachable (and profitable).

The irony of this, from my personal perspective, is that Batman Forever actually scared me more than Batman Returns. Maybe the ’90s animated series had preconditioned me in the best way possible, but the muted tones of Burton’s Gotham put me more at ease as a child than Schumacher’s overwhelming rendition of Batman. There was just too much happening. Between the shift in humor, sexual overtones, ridiculous villains, and Val Kilmer’s creepy vocal delivery, young me was just not having it.

But when trailers started popping left and right for Batman and Robin, I had mentally prepared myself to see the next installment in Batman’s movie adventures. And during that first viewing, I was entertained. Yet even at such a young age, there was a feeling deep in my core that this was a strange experience. Perhaps this was the birth of my love of bad cinema, or just me being in denial, but it was a sensation that I’ve only recently put a finger on.

But my fascination with the movie was not shared by the rest of the world. Financially, it is still the lowest grossing live action Batman film to date. And with it holding 10% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Batman & Robin did a fine job in killing Batman’s cinematic potential for the better part of a decade.

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“To succeed, we only need to pick a star and follow it.”

It is important to know that, when Batman & Robin was in pre-production, Joel Schumacher was at a strange fork in the cinematic road. He either could attempt to make a truly great sequel to his first Batman movie or fall under the pressure of Warner Bros., who wanted the greatest toy commercial of all time. And if you’ve seen the finished product, you know what road he turned his Batmobile toward.

There are times though when a comic book movie can be more than just a way to sell action figures and instead strive to tell a legitimately good story – and we can thank Joel Schumacher for paving the way for Christopher Nolan. Of course, I’m talking, about Batman Begins, the 2005 movie that revitalized Batman’s image. Though it was a gamble for Warner Bros. to even hire such a young filmmaker who was, at the time, unproven in the big-budget arena, they needed someone with fresh ideas to reboot the character for modern audiences. And with his melding of Hitchcock-ian mystery and attention to realism (which he previously showcased in movies like Memento and Insomnia), Nolan was just that guy to lead the charge.

It’s interesting to see how many of the plot elements of Begins come from abandoned ideas that Schumacher himself suggested for cancelled or dismissed Batman projects, including the use of the Scarecrow as the main villain and the suggestion of making a Batman prequel movie based on Frank Miller’s Year One series. And though it would have been entertaining to see some of Schumacher’s ideas come to the big screen (Nicolas Cage as Scarecrow, anyone?), we can all agree that everything worked out for the best.

Instead of focusing on the possibilities of making the character profitable and interesting to families, Nolan developed a Batman that could exist in a post- 9/11 environment. Schumacher’s Gotham is not a believable place, but rather exists more as an overcooked, colorful fantasy. It’s clear this was done to be more inviting to kids, especially since much of the designs (such as the vehicles) came from the many partnering toy companies working with the studio. Nolan, on the other hand, filmed in parts of Chicago – his Gotham was just as real as the cities you see on the news.

The same can be said of Christian Bale’s take on Bruce Wayne, who couldn’t be more different than the emotionless pretty boy of George Clooney’s performance. In fact, Bale understands the three sides of Batman: the man who the public sees, the one that Alfred knows, and the crime fighter that bad guys fear. Clooney plays the character as if these three elements don’t exist, while Bale makes them all uniquely his own. To best understand (and respect) Batman, we have to witness all those facets of his personality.

Though there is the myth that kids will buy into anything, there’s a clause in that formula: the fantasy has to be believable and Schumacher’s Batman & Robin is nothing of the sort. Though Batman Begins might not exactly be the best example of something that audiences of all ages adore, if we look at DC’s competition, Marvel is the one that gets this right. Yes, Thor and Loki exist in the same world as Tony Stark and Spider-Man, but audiences buy into this universe because these characters and their world feel organic and their relationships make sense. It might have ridiculous visuals and action sequences, but you never question the legitimacy of what’s in front of you.

This is a lesson that only Warner Bros. is recently starting to understand in their own comic book films, and with Justice League, we will have to see how much they’ve taken from both Nolan’s successes and Schumacher’s flaws to create something that functions better than a colorful, feature-length music video that exists only to spawn more movies.

Speaking of which….

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