Oh God, I’m About to Defend ‘Batman and Robin’

Posted: August 17, 2011 in Threat Quality
Tags: , , , , ,

This goes against every instinct I have. Every shred of my being for the last 14 years, every bit of movie and comic book based understanding that has told me that this movie was utterly terrible and directly contributed to the early demise of the superhero movie AND POSSIBLY SOCIETY.

But having rewatched it for a critical reappraisal, I must admit that Comics Alliance was right: Batman & Robin is actually not a bad movie.

I don’t even mean, “Not quite as bad as people say it is.” I mean, by the standards we judge movies by, it’s…actually pretty enjoyable.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a capital-G Good movie – it’s surely not something you’d recommend to some delightful hermit who just ventured out of a cave and said, “I’ve heard tell of this ‘Bat-Fellow’ you people seem to enjoy, what can you tell me of him?” – but it doesn’t deserve the reputation it’s gotten (mostly by people like me, granted).

Viewing it as a “not all that bad of a movie” does require us to accept that there are, in fact, different ways of watching movies, and of accepting variations on a theme. And with Batman, a character that has been built a dozen different ways in his lifetime, that’s an important caveat.

But let’s dispense with what is still undisputedly bad about it, before singing its modest praises.

Mr. Freeze is still ridiculous. One minute he’s forcing his henchmen to sing along with Rankin-Bass Christmas specials and

Pictured: A future elected official

making awful puns, the next he’s weeping icy tears over the state of his dying wife (while still making awful puns – dude seriously loves his ice-based puns). It would seem that what Victor Fries sees as a deadening of his emotions is what most people would call bipolar disorder. And hey, it’s got “polar” in the name, so he should still be cool – get it?! – with that.

(“Cool,” he says! Heh heh…yeah, I can see why he’d get attached to those ice-puns.)

It’s really two contrasting drafts that never cohered – one that embraced the campy 60’s version, and another that shot for the pathos-riddled Dini/Timm reinvention. 5 seconds of dialogue – “But the freezing process drove him utterly mad” – could’ve done so much.

Batgirl is still pointless. There’s a strong, emotionally resonant b-story going on here – Bruce Wayne has, by letting Robin into his life, created a surrogate family for himself, but Alfred’s potential demise, and Bruce’s stubbornness, endangers that familial ideal. And that’s GREAT. After four films, the idea of Bruce growing past the loss of his parents in his own way makes a great deal of sense. Being Batman has allowed him to come to terms with loss, and to open up his heart just a little. And oh the irony – it’s just when his true father figure is facing his own mortality.

Unfortunately, Batgirl has fuck-all to do with any of this. Those wonderful talks Alfred and Bruce have only include Barbara to the extent that Bruce recognizes that Alfred has outside kin – not, “If they can throw a punch, they are my family.” Remove Batgirl from 98% of the film and nothing has changed (other than an easy rewrite of the last Batman vs. Poison Ivy scene to be, “Robin regroups and rescues Batman, proving his value to the team/family dynamic they were bickering about earlier,” which actually strengthens the narrative).

This is not Bane. At all. This whole defense is predicated on the ability to accept different versions of a character, I know. But aside from the luchador mask, this grunting ape-man bears no resemblance to the diabolical nemesis he’s based on. Again, one more pass could’ve fixed this, by say, turning him into Killer Croc. (John Glover: “Ah, my formula has merged man with crocodile!” See? Done.) Then Poison Ivy’s got a henchman who’s based on one of nature’s greatest predators, which really fits in better with her motif (though does not help explain the ape-costumes).

Chris O’Donnell and Alicia Silverstone are Not Good. Oh man. Chris O’Donnell has such a uniquely punchable face and…can you have a punchable voice? Silverstone…look, I’m gonna cut her some slack just because I can’t believe anyone had the nerve to say she looked fat.

Now, the good parts:

It’s campy. This used to be a criticism, but as we get older, I think we can accept that intentional campiness isn’t a sin. This film is, yes, goofy as hell – see: Bat-credit-card – but that’s not by accident. It’s a deliberate and internally consistent motif. It’s only by trying to jibe it with the Burton movies that it feels like a tonal mistake.

But the Burton films were also campy (see: Everything the Penguin does, especially those rocket-launcher penguins). Burton just masked it behind a veneer of, well, Burtonosity, where ludicrous things are somehow taken more seriously because they look creepy.

And Schumacher’s homoerotic neon day-glo Gotham is no less ridiculous than Burton and Anton Furst’s pointy-uber-expressionist Gotham. It’s just a more blatant kind of ridiculous.

George Clooney’s a Really Good Bruce Wayne. This is something I want to stress. He really sells the idea that through Batman, Bruce Wayne has evolved, growing past the need for vengeance that his parents’ death gave him and into something a little more…relaxed. Clooney’s Batman is pretty cool and calm, with an easy Bond-esque humor in the face of danger. In Bruce mode, he just chills around the house in a bathrobe most of the time. He’s even beyond sniping at Alfred about letting girls into the Batcave – now he asks advice, and is even open enough to tell Alfred he loves him. Clooney’s a Cool, Mature Bruce Wayne.

The costumes were the best yet. OK, just hang on a second! I’m not about to start defending the nipples and codpieces (or the toyetic, silver accented cold-suits that show up for the final fight scene). Those are still stupid choices. But watch the movie, and compare the freedom of movement to Michael Keaton’s “Stand there and occasionally try to kick someone” style of fighting. In this one, Batman and Robin run, jump, flip, throw punches, do roundhouse kicks. Batman can turn his head… It’s almost like some designer realized Batman and Robin were supposed to be action heroes.

Oh man, Keaton would've KILLED to be able to lift an arm over his head like this

Granted, these guys are flung around on wires to the point where there’s no real sense of gravity. But this isn’t a movie where gravity’s a requirement (you go to the Nolan films for weight of movement). It’s a movie where Batman can slide down the neck of a dinosaur and nobody blinks an eye. And being that it was filmed just before Matrix action sequences and CGI became the norm, 13 years later, it comes off as a neat stylistic choice.

Here’s the most important Positive, though:

Batman & Robin recognized there’s more than one way to do Batman and Robin. From the 70’s on, it was a bit verboten to admit that Batman was anything other than the Grim Avenger of the Night that Denny O’Neill brought back in the 70’s and Frank Miller crystallized in the 80’s. In this regard, B&R is actually a bit ahead of its time.

I don’t know if it’s the ready availability of trade paperbacks from different eras, general internet access to older material, or just Grant Morrison telling us that, like The Doctor, every version of Batman is Cool In His Own Way. Whatever the case, I think the comic book reader has become savvy enough to accept a larger interpretation of what a character can be – that it’s better to have multiple ideas of What Batman Is, and that every iteration has its own merits.

Dammit, O'Donnell. Close. Your Damn. MOUTH.

In those terms, Batman & Robin is an attempt to reclaim the campy Adam West Batman ideal for a modern (well, now a 14-year-old version of modern) audience. And while the 17-year-old me scoffed at it, the 31-year-old me can now look at and say: Yes, that’s still Batman. Maybe not the Batman I’d hold up as great art, but certainly one I recognize as valid, and even kind of fun.

And as an uncle of young children, this is a better way of getting them into Batman than trying to explain what the hell was going on in the Burton movies.

“Uncle Jeff, why is Batman throwing guys off a clock tower?” is a tough question to answer.

“Uncle Jeff, what is the Penguin trying to do here OH MY GOD WHY DID HE BITE THAT GUY’S NOSE OFF?!” Even tougher.

“Uncle Jeff, why is Batman skating down the neck of a dinosaur?” So much easier.

“Because he’s Batman, dear, and he’s the coolest superhero in the world.”

HA! “COOL”! I kill me!

(Or, I suppose, they could just watch The Brave and the Bold.)

  1. Daniel says:

    Damn fine defence of a not-as-terrible-as-is-accepted movie. I remember coming out of the cinema with a massive smile on my face, which is sometimes all you want from a Saturday night trip to the flicks. Fun is fine by me.

    Plus it has the best delivery of a bat-line in any of the movies:

    “She’s trying to kill … you Dick.”

  2. Jeff Holland says:

    God I loved that.

  3. braak says:

    For as much as I like Chris Sims and David Uzumeri, I think that they were both unduly harsh and often wildly off the mark in their criticisms of the 1989 Batman. While the script was less than perfect — and as it’s an established fact that Tim Burton can’t choose scripts for shit and his involvement never, EVER makes a bad script better — there is still a lot of strength to it, and a lot more to it thematically that Sims and Uzumeri dismissed out of hand.

  4. Erin says:

    Holland: I respect your guts but didn’t share your reaction. I re-watched it last month and time has yet to heal the wounds: http://tinyurl.com/3pc3utn

  5. Jeff Holland says:

    @Erin: That is all I ask. This is a tough sell, I recognize.

  6. Jeff Holland says:

    @Erin OK, now I have read your post. This really is a raw wound for you. You will heal. Some day. Some…day.

    I haven’t really begun to ponder this seriously, but I’m curious for your thoughts:

    Knowing that WB already wants to reboot the franchise once Nolan is done with his thing, what would you want to see?

    (And @Braak, you start thinking about this too, I feel like there’s a column in here somewhere.)

  7. Daniel says:

    @braak Basically, all the world’s ills could be sorted out as long as Tim Burton stops taking John August’s calls.

  8. Erin says:

    Holland: I want the characters and writing from Nolan’s movies and the setting from Tim Burton’s original attempt. That’d be a good place to start anyway.

  9. Jeff Holland says:

    @Erin: OK, perfectly reasonable – but what if that wasn’t on the table? If you had to create a new Batman franchise from whole cloth, and it couldn’t resemble the previous films…where would you go with that?

    I’m asking you, but mostly I’m just putting this idea down so I can play with it later, too (as of right now I have no answers other than a shrug of, “Maybe let’s make the 50’s sci-fi Batman?”).

  10. Erin says:

    Well, none of the movies have managed a decent Batsuit yet: grey suit, black symbol, black cape and mask, canvas belt.

    The writing shouldn’t be campy, but the setting shouldn’t be “real.” Batman isn’t real, Gotham isn’t real; no reason to pretend otherwise.

    There seems to be a belief in Hollywood that you can’t make a serious movie about a comic universe without abandoning the trappings (i.e.: the sidekicks, gadgets, vehicles, cave, etc.). I don’t buy that. The animated series had some very dark and serious episodes without abandoning the foundations of the DCU.

    For a villain, I’d want to aim high. Killer Croc or Clayface would be cool. And there’s no reason to water down the concept and turn them into “realistic” characters with “real world” medical conditions. Movie audiences will accept freaks and mutants if you make the story and setting compelling.

  11. Jeff Holland says:

    Oh man, completely agree on the costume, that’s always driven me nuts. ESPECIALLY in B&R, where the black chest symbol is IN AN OVAL THAT IS ALSO BLACK. (And can we get a cape that drapes around the front, please?)

    I’m trying to think of a way you could play up the detective angle, something that’s never really been articulated fully in any of the movies (other than that bullet striation thingy from DK, and Batman’s Chemistry Set from the first one). Like, the idea of Batman actually investigating a crime scene, and testing theories, and talking to snitches.

    Detective movie tropes in a superhero film. It wouldn’t be terribly action-packed, but I’m sure that would only help the budget.

  12. Jeff Holland says:

    In this idea, I’d use Killer Croc as an enforcer for Black Mask, who’s always been a weirdly great combination of “masked villain” and old-school gangster.

    And I kinda want Robin to reappear in the movies again. There’s no place in Nolan’s films for a Robin, but I’d like to watch a movie where there was that opportunity.

    Specifically Tim Drake, a smart kid who figured out Batman’s deal and was rewarded by becoming his apprentice. And that’s a nice place to finish a first movie while creating a franchise (]hey there, DC/WB, wouldn’t you like a Robin movie?)…

  13. braak says:

    Yeah, I don’t know. The more you guys talk about it, the happier I am with the Batman animated series.

  14. Eric Teall says:

    I just found this, and while I don’t agree that any of this redeems the movie in… any… way, I definitely agree with the idea that Batman need never be monolithic as a franchise. The Adam West camp is as valid as Burton’s melancholy or Nolan’s “realism.”

    Personally, I’d really like to see a return to or reinvention of the Batman of the 1970’s (and early 1980’s, especially in the hands of Barr), who was tough and smart but not magically invincible. A Batman who had friends, contacts, and connections-in-general to the world.

    That particular version would work very, very well in a TV show, I think.

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