Special Review: “Batman & Robin” – Joel Schumacher and the Inevitable Taco Bell Analogy
Produced by: Peter MacGregor-Scott
Written by: Akiva Goldsman
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, George Clooney, Chris O’Donnell, Uma Therman, Alicia Silverstone, Michael Gough, Jeep Swensen, Pat Hingle, Elle Macpherson
Music by: Elliot Goldenthal
Let’s get one thing out of the way, right off the bat (so to speak): There was no way that Joel Schumacher was aiming to be anywhere near a serious tone for Batman & Robin. If you’re one of those people who constantly complains that Batman & Robin wasn’t serious enough, then, well, I’m just going to have to roll my eyes at you and unleash a really loud “Duuuuuh!” straight into your face.
With Batman Forever, Schumacher seemed to be experimenting with placing style over substance, something he did the opposite of with the absolutely mind-numbing A Time to Kill, but he achieved less than admirable results. With Batman & Robin, however, Schumacher didn’t even have a chance, as he found himself at the mercy of the studio, and he was clearly aiming to act out in his lack of say in the film’s production.
You see, word has it that Warner Bros. consulted toy companies before and more often than they did their film’s director, which of course meant that this film would be packed with plenty of merchandising opportunities. This also meant that they had to ensure that families could carelessly take their children to the theatre to see the film without fear of a terrifying clowns, dominatrix catladies, and filthy birdmen mucking up their Happy Meals. In short, the key word for this film is toyetic, a marketing term describing a product that easily spins out lots and lots of cheap, money-making toys and merchandise.
Schumacher was none to pleased with this interference, and he even left a few clues to this fact within the film itself. At one point in the film, Poison Ivy confronts Batman in an ice cream factory with this meta-riffic line: “I’m a lover, not a fighter. That’s why every Poison Ivy action figure comes complete with him!” And of course, she’s referring not to the film’s primary baddie, Mr. Freeze, but to the tacked-on action fig… er, third villain, Bane. Of course, with a third villain comes the need for a third hero, and of course we can’t have a female villain without a female hero, either, and so we get the girl-power infused and equally tacked-on Batgirl, played by 90s teen idol, Alicia Silverstone.
She’s a cute but tough addition, and you know this because she wears plaid skirts and loves her Uncle Alfred, but she also sneaks off in the middle of the night to compete in dangerous motorcycle street races and spouts off topical, tough girl one-liners ready to be programmed into her self-actualization figure (complete with karate chop action). You know, stuff like this gem of a line: “Using feminine wiles to get what you want, trading on your looks? Read a book, sister. That passive aggressive number went out long ago. Chicks like you give women a bad name!”
There are plenty of vehicles to be found, too! In one astounding scene towards the end, we bear witness to Batgirl on a Batcycle riding alongside Batman and Robin in bat-themed vehicles that, according to the Batman Wiki, are called the “Bathammer” and “Batskiff,” respectively, as they all take on Mr. Freeze’s hockey-themed thugs in their ice-blasting “Freezemobile.” … Yeah. Oh, and it bears mentioning that Robin and Batman (played now by George Clooney, who isn’t even trying to act here) have become such good friends since Forever. How do I know this? Because Robin has his own custom Robin-themed vehicles and gadgets! This adds such pathos to the story, you know, ’cause part of Poison Ivy’s scheme is to totally tear the two BFFs apart. She even builds Robin his own Robinsignal to shine in place of the Batsignal! Holy Yoko Ono, Batman!
Of course, this all means that plot really has no bearing on the film’s existence. There really isn’t one to speak of. The whole purpose of Batman & Robin, honestly, is to push for moments that show off more gadgetry and doodads to be licensed out, and not even the film’s cloying attempt at emotional resonance with the impending death of an ailing Alfred could save the film from its unholy conception. Basically what you’ve got to endure in place of a reasonable plot is Poison Ivy, bent on the domination of plant life on earth, forming an unlikely (unseasonable?) alliance with Mr. Freeze, who is bent on using diamonds to somehow find a cure for his comatose wife, who suffers from the same disease as Alfred.
Cue the ice-themed one-liners from the ridiculously cast Schwarzenegger (“What killed the dinosaurs? The ice age!!!!“) and Uma Therman parading around like a Mae West-inspired, plant-wearing drag queen. Also, more Batnipples and codpieces. Those who don’t find their attractions favoring the masculine form are treated this time around to a quick view of Batgirl’s built-in leather thong and conical endowments. … Wait, how is this supposed to be family friendly, again?
I know I spent my last review tearing into Batman Forever for getting a free pass as the supposed “better” half of Schumacher’s Batfilms, but, much like Manos: The Hands of Fate and Battlefield Earth, there’s actually quite a lot of so-bad-it’s-good entertainment to be found in Batman & Robin. Regarding the stigma surrounding the movie’s quality, I do believe that the fact that it’s such a terrible film actually makes it an artistically important piece of work, but it’s been so pounded into our heads over the years that I think we’ve lost sight of all the good this film did for Batman and superhero films in general. And I’m guessing that it’s largely thanks to Schumacher himself that we are in the place we are now with this genre. No, really!
In fact, I’d argue that Schumacher, in full on self-aware mode, rebelled against the studio and toy maker execs and purposely created a film that would bomb hard, despite all the marketing thrown at the film. It’s like an ironic twist on the first Batman film, which came out of nowhere and was such a success that the marketing couldn’t keep up with the demand for Batman-themed products. With Batman & Robin, despite all the built-in merchandising, ticket sales actually plummeted a whopping 63% in its second week thanks to word-of-mouth! Much like Mr. Freeze in the film, it’s almost as if Schumacher had a change of heart and realized all the pain he was being asked to inflict upon Batman fans and filmgoers here and heroically volunteered to put his reputation on the line in order to create one of the worst films of all time.
If you listen to his commentary for this film, it’s actually quite heartbreaking to hear how apologetic he is, taking the burden of blame away from writer Akiva Goldsman and the rest of the cast and crew and placing it entirely upon his own shoulders for having given in to Warner Bros. He even reportedly wanted to do right by critics of his previous works with what would have been his third film, Batman Triumphant, and even at one point pitched the idea to adapt the acclaimed Batman: Year One comic in order to give fans of the Dark Knight the film he believed we deserved.
Ultimately, the studio that used him as a means to a monetary gain would also abandon him like a used rag when Batman & Robin bombed, turning down his proposals and seeking out a new direction and, with it, a new director. What we eventually got would turn out to be one of the most revolutionary superhero films of all time, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, but within the eight year span between Batman & Robin and Nolan’s Batopus, however, I have to admit — it kind of would have been interesting to see what Schumacher could have done with the franchise after having gone straight (again, so to speak).
Calling Batman & Robin “not a good film” is kind of like calling Taco Bell “not Mexican food”: Of course they’re not! In fact, you could hardly even call one a “film,” the other “food.” They’re more like a haven of bad marketing ideas that have somehow congealed into an ugly, neon mass, ready for your ironic or maybe even curiosity-driven consumption. Is it good for you? Absolutely not. But behind the synergistic ideas behind their offerings lies an absurd sort of beauty that takes a special perspective and mindset to enjoy them.
We may not like what Taco Bell does to Mexican food just as much as we may not like what Batman & Robin did with the Batman universe. Both cheapen the original concept, stereotype it, and make you feel bad for even giving it a shot, each in their own respective ways, and yet, it’s almost an enjoyable experience despite it all. You might be nauseated afterward, but it’s a good sort of nausea that gives you perspective on life. That’s not a taco you’re eating — that’s FritoLay and Yum! Brands getting together and telling you, “You eat Doritos and you eat tacos, so why not eat them together? It’s so crazy good, we’ll even call it a Doritos Locos Taco!”
But the funny thing about it is that I don’t think that the Doritos Locos Taco is going to make people want more Doritos nor more of Taco Bell’s filler-laden tacos. I think instead that it’ll make people dabble a bit before realizing what they’re really doing. “Hey, remember the Doritos Locos Taco?” they’ll say. “Man that was nuts! Let’s go to that taquería down the road and get some real Mexican food, instead!”
You see, Batman & Robin is the Doritos Locos Taco of the Batman franchise — it is an experiment that is fun to try out and make fun of, but it was also the film that made us realize what we truly wanted. (Funny enough, its creation even led to the theoretical results that Warner Bros. was searching for, only eight years down the line.) But like the bowels that suffered though our experimental eating habits, it took a sacrificial lamb to get to the results that we wanted and possibly even needed. With Batman & Robin, Schumacher essentially played the role of that lamb, laying his career on the line, taking the marketing synergy, and running it into the ground until it achieved its inevitable conclusion, all so that both the audience and the studio could gain some perspective on not just Batman, but superhero films in general.
With all the sarcastic winks and nods that Schumacher threw into this disaster, I’ve come to respect Batman & Robin, not as a serious examination of what it means to be a masked vigilante, nor even a campy satire of its often ridiculous source material, like the Adam West series. Instead, I’ve come to see it as a sort of secret ironic critique of the inherent marketing opportunities that are present in all superhero films and how, despite all the wonderful toys we get from them, ultimately, what we are left with is the sorry feeling that we’ve been somehow duped by the hollow marketing of an inferior product. Perhaps it’s a message that was even present in Batman Forever, which may have been a failed effort to achieve the same sort of out-and-out madness that its successor does.
Batman & Robin achieves a level of stupidity that is almost so painfully awful that Schumacher must have been doing it on purpose, as I do not believe that a man of even his own meager directing skill could ever look upon this mess and deem it worthy of being released without having some sort of reason for it. And, honestly, it’s either that, or Schumacher’s a dastardly bastard who doesn’t really care what happens to Batman. In the name of being a fair and forgiving person, I’m choose to give him the benefit of the doubt.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 1.5 / 5 (Which, in the spirit of this deranged review, is actually 0.5 more than what I gave Batman Forever.)