For nearly two decades, a popular contender for “Worst Movie of All Time” from multiple mainstream media outlets has been Joel Schumacher’s 1997 bomb, Batman & Robin. The question I’ve since asked myself is, how bad is this movie, exactly? Well, I will say I have watched Batman & Robin several times and will assert, right off the bat: It isn’t bad enough to be considered “Worst Movie of All Time”, but believe me when I say, it’s pretty bad.
First it’s important to lay out some context; Batman & Robin may seem anomalous by today’s standards, with its neon colors, flashy costumes, bad one-liners and cheesy performances, but this was the late 90’s, people! If you did not grow up in the period, from about 1997 to 2003, we witnessed a virtual legion of over-the-top, goofy, brightly-colored pooch-screws that dominated cinemas. Some of these contemporary flicks were passable; Most of them were terrible. However, for its time, B&R was not really all that out of place aesthetically or in its tone.
Now, let’s paint an objective picture of Batman & Robin before we delve into everything wrong with this money pit. First off, Joel Schumacher was not a bad director before this film more or less ruined his career. He did make the (I would say ‘classic’) film Falling Down starring Michael Douglas, the sleeper thriller Flatliners, the dramatic courtroom epic A Time to Kill and the arguably-underrated 8mm. He isn’t a slouch or an underdog in spite of what one may think of these movies, and yes, I DID like Flatliners. So, hot off the heels of the successful-but-underwhelming Batman Forever (which primarily rode the popularity of Jim Carey at the time), Schumacher did not do much differently with this final entry in the 80’s-90’s Batman Saga. The tone was the same, the ideas were similar and the bleakness of Tim Burton’s vision of Gotham City was replaced with one that was more cartoonish and reminiscent of the ’60’s TV series; whether or not this is a good thing is debatable. Now, the casting was more than a little questionable. It’s obvious there was some hesitation on the part of the casting director to bring in someone who is too “different”, and they wanted stars who were recognizable to help Warner Bros. attach butts to theater seats. So, by that standard it made sense to cast Alicia Silverstone (who was still riding her Clueless fame), Arnold Schwarzenegger (who was top-billed) and George Clooney (who’s portrayal of a passionate pediatrician on the hit series ER made him a super-star). I think it is safe to declare it a fact that Batman & Robin was handcrafted to be a hit; or, at least, that’s what WB hoped…
Now, for a more subjective perspective, let us consider what made Batman tick as a series leading up to the 1989 Burton film. The comics took a much darker turn in the 80’s, focusing more on the societal conflict of the presence of Batman as a vigilante than it ever had before, and the vision of Batman went from blue and purple to grey and black. Why? It was a sign of the times, a shift in the idea of comics as the age of the average reader increased, but it was also a reflection of the period. As crime continued to rise throughout the 70’s, the following Neon Decade wasn’t all Lauper and stretch pants. Dramas and crime thrillers turned to brutality as an answer to the projection of inner cities from news, movies and TV, and films like Robocop satirized the extremes we could have been headed toward. Yet, this did not translate well to the big screen if I was to be entirely honest. Most of the movies from this time were too dark and often gross in their depictions of grit. The few films that did work landed because of the underlying idea within their plots being more than just bleakness, offering us characters and stories that reach beyond the cynical depiction of a collapsing social contract. Where does Batman fit in to all of this pretentious rambling? Well, the 1989 Batman was great. It had that darker mood we expected from the time but it shared it in a way that was still humorous. The evil, murderous Joker (played masterfully by Jack Nicholson) injected memorable moments into the film, his bright purple getup and wild antics being a stark contrast to the drab, unpleasant aesthetic of Gotham City. Even the city’s ray of hope in Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams) was somewhat shadowed in suspicion, especially for fans who knew what Dent was to become in the future. Sadly, we never got that Two-Face.
Things looked good going into Batman Returns, but Burton took things a little too far. While I actually like many elements of this first sequel, I recognize it as a dark departure to a story that was far too disturbing for young kids and far too… ‘Burton’ for many adults. It has gained some cult status for this reason and I think deserves a second look to those who haven’t seen it since the early 90’s. The biggest mistake following the criticism of ‘Returns’ was the over-correction on the part of Warner Bros. and their board room full of aging, out-of-touch executive producers. Their attitude was contrasting the reception of Batman Returns with that of the masterwork that was Batman: The Animated Series. Their solution was to turn the Dark Knight’s film franchise into a live-action cartoon, apparently having not spent ten minutes watching the actual TV show they thought they were planning to mimic. If they had, they’d have realized that Batman: TAS was a well-thought-out, sophisticated, smart and surprisingly-mature show. That is NOT what we got with Batman Forever… Now, don’t get me wrong, Schumacher gets some blame in this as well, and it’s obvious he didn’t put up much of a fight because “Batman Forever” has studio stink all over it. Therefore, I can safely skip over most of “Forever” because it is effectively a cinematic dead zone. It isn’t quite terrible enough to dwell on, but it was an odd attempt to wring Tim Burton’s style out of a director who really only worked on thrillers, dramas and INXS music videos while tossing in a bit of cartoon antics to make things seem a little softer. The movie did okay, but that was more due to Jim Carey than anything else, as he was THE hot comedy commodity at the time.
So, this brings us to Batman & Robin. The problems with this one are lengthy, so bear with me. First the movie is ugly; very, very ugly. Every scene is poorly-lit, over-exposed and oddly-designed. Dutch angles and wide-angle lenses are used in excess (a trend at the time) and every single scene in the movie is way, way too long. Dialogue was inundated with bickering, pointless banter, and face-palmingly-bad “zingers” grumbled, grunted and bawled with comical vocal inflections by obviously-bored actors. The forced tone of this film reeked of action-figure-friendly filmmaking with a tone-deaf attempt at giving us a more adventurous, exciting universe. It did have everything WB could have wanted out of a money-printing marketing fountain, but what the actual filmmakers seemed to have forgotten was how to tell a story. The plans of the villains were paper-thin and their actions often made little sense, each character’s place in the events that transpire is awkward and poorly-planned, and events jump around as if somebody edited the movie using a roulette wheel… with a ping-pong ball… while drunk. Also, is it even possible for a story with this many ‘lead characters’ could even work in this sort of film? Large casts can do okay when they are tied together with a tight script (i.e. Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption), but here, since every line is belted and nauseating, this many overpaid presumed-to-be-adults on screen just becomes distracting.
So, most importantly, is Batman & Robin even fun to watch? I would have to say ‘no’. The excess on the screen, complete with skyboarding, lame ‘girl power’ with Silverstone’s motorcycle racing and the contrived turn as Batgirl, and bizarre and mostly-confusing sexual undertones, drag it way down. On top of that, it’s easy to forget how boring this movie is. Sure, it has action, explosions, yelling of one-liners and attempts at dramatic tension, but man is it dull. More than half of the movie involves tight shots of characters talking and often arguing (insert dutch angle). The heroes deliver their bland lines over each other quickly, but with no rhythm, so there’s nothing keeping an engaging pace with the dialogue (not to mention there being nothing of substance to discuss). To contrast that, our villains talk slowly with strange, ill-advised puns. It doesn’t make sense because there is no consistency through the film, so each dialogue scene either spins your head or leaves you shouting “Just finish your damn lines already!”
However, where does that place Batman & Robin in the grand scheme of things? I will be clear in stating it is certainly not the worst movie ever made. It isn’t even the worst movie I’ve seen in theaters in my lifetime! As far as blockbusters go, it’s bad, but it isn’t as obnoxious and aggravating as Bay’s Transformers movies, or as cynical and self-indulgent as anything Adam Sandler has starred in. It is just bad in the most obvious ways possible; bad dialogue, bad visuals, bad acting, bad story. But nothing really drags it down below that standard ‘bad’ that we all know. If you disagree that’s cool, but do go sit through Pink Flamingos, The Fat Spy and anything from PureFlix and get back to me on that sentiment.
I usually try not to give movies precise scores but for this I will say Batman & Robin sits safely at around a 3 out of 10. I think it fails to be interesting enough to be so scorned. It’s like calling Might No. 9 the worst game of all time; it’s terrible, but not in any particularly special way. It fails at everything, but only in a way where it doesn’t really do anything right, as opposed to something like “The Room” which managed to fail at just about every aspect of filmmaking outside of simply getting the thing released. Many people (myself included) love Wiseau’s Magnum Opus, yet hate Batman & Robin. I guess Batman & Robin is so despised because it just quite isn’t bad enough to be loved…
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