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Is "Batman and Robin" (1997) Really That Bad?

This year marks the 25th Anniversary of Batman and Robin, widely considered one of the worst superhero films ever. It has been a constant source of ridicule, riffing, and general mockery. However, there has been some reevaluation. In fact, I’m aware this is not the first article like this.

Batman and Robin is a weird case where it does feel like an argument could be made in either direction. There is a lot to dislike about this movie, but there are some good things. After defending Batman ’89 for similar reasons, it is fair to point out the Schumacher movies had to be SOMEONE’S first Batman movie. So, it’s understandable that there’s affection for that reason. Though with the negative reputation, I’m sure there will be a few people responding to the title question without actually reading this.

Mr. Freeze (Arnold) and Poison Ivy (Uma) in "Batman and Robin" (1997)

Mr. Freeze (Arnold) and Poison Ivy (Uma) in "Batman and Robin" (1997)

The Good

One thing that needs to be addressed is this film’s visuals. Joel Schumacher knew a thing or two about making films look good. Every shot has bright colors, vibrant sets, and amazing production design. Even some of the haters have conceded that Schumacher’s Batman movies look good. Schumacher once said he was inspired by the bright colors and designs of golden-age Batman comics. And that influence shows.

Joel Schumacher has given mixed reports on the making of this movie. On one hand, he has admitted studio interference and even apologized for it. That makes some sense. Despite this movie being his scarlet letter, it’s not really representative of his work. On the other hand, there are reports of him telling people on set: “Remember, we’re making a cartoon!” It is possible both of these statements are true. It’s possible that despite having to make a 2-hour toy commercial, he still tried to have a good time.

I also feel like Elliot Goldenthal’s score deserves more credit. Maybe it lives in the shadow of Danny Elfman’s score and Michael Giacchino’s. But it’s still solid. In an interview, Goldenthal said he was inspired to write his theme while picturing a kid playing with his Batman action figures. That is one of the most wholesome superhero movie facts.

Though easily the best part of this movie is Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy. While it’s easy to joke that she’s the highlight because of her looks (I mean, it’s Poison Ivy, she’s SUPPOSED to be good-looking), Thurman understood the assignment. I’ll get to how other actors seemed lost in this film, but Thurman devours scenery with gusto and seems to play the role as if Katherine Hepburn played a 60’s Batman villain. And while all of his scenes are with Thurman, John Glover has a small part as the mad scientist who accidentally gives Ivy her powers. And that guy is always a win.

The Middle Stuff

Despite priding himself in making a cartoon, Schumacher went for some pathos. After four films, Alfred received a subplot where he battles health. (And Mr. Freeze has the cure because of course he does.) Because Michael Gough has played Alfred for four films and we’re familiar with him, the connection works. It’s easy to forget Mr. Freeze didn’t have the origin story of tending to his wife BEFORE the animated series. And maintaining that origin story is one of the parts that works. Then again, this is a movie that gives so few frigs, it uses a sexy version of a 60’s comedy song to introduce a villain. While some of these parts tap into stuff I find entertaining, it’s easy to see why some viewers might wish this movie would pick a lain.

One of the most polarizing parts of this movie is Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze. Yeah, someone like Patrick Stewart would have been better. Or in modern terms, Hugh Laurie or Giancarlo Esposito would be better types. Even Arnold could have been fine if he channeled the Terminator. But that’s not the movie that was made. Like many of his movies, Arnold’s presence and silly one-liners do bring this to so-bad-it’s-good territory. Even when I was a mega-hater of this movie, the scene where he makes his henchmen sing the Cold Miser song was a guilty pleasure.

Chris O'Donnell & George Clooney as the titular characters

Chris O'Donnell & George Clooney as the titular characters

The Bad

It’s funny thinking about how the best part of this movie is paired with the worst part of this movie: Bane. For all the complaints, no villain was done dirtier in any of these movies than Bane. They got the muscles right, but they forgot the brains. Bane wasn’t just a mindless beefcake, he broke Batman physically and mentally. But as he just goes through monosyllabic grunts. Making him mute might have been better.

George Clooney is a mixed bag as the caped crusader. He’s pretty good… until he puts on the suit. Clooney was practically born to play Bruce Wayne. He practically is Bruce Wayne. Overall, Clooney feels like he doesn’t really understand what movie he’s in. He doesn’t really go dark for Batman, nor does he turn himself into a cartoon character a la Will Arnett. While Chris O’Donnell was fine in Forever, Robin can be pretty petulant in this film. (And I consider Robert Pattinson to be the yin to his yang: good Batman, mediocre Bruce Wayne.)

Easily the weak link of the main actors is Alicia Silverstone. Like a lot of people, I enjoy her in Clueless—and she seems likable—but she feels horrendously miscast in this role. I heard reports that Schumacher cut Silverstone’s part after she put on a little weight and he didn’t want people to fat-shame her. That is proof Schumacher was an extremely sweet person. Too bad it feels like he didn’t direct her. Alicia talks like… well, she certainly memorized her lines.

While the humor is mixed, there are definitely clunkers. I’ve heard some pragmatic defenses of the infamous Bat Credit Card. But it’s still a bizarre payoff to the scene. We know Batman is rich, what does the credit card have to do with it? Also, Batman’s line about Batgirl’s name not being PC not only sounds like a joke some boomer would write as a dig at woke culture, it doesn’t even make sense!

Overall, Batman and Robin is kind of on the bad side. There’s been a backlash against Batman movies that are too dark, but if anyone wants lighthearted Batman, the Lego Movies and the Adam West iterations are so much better. Oh, and according to ABC Family, Batman Begins is a lighthearted romp.

Still, Batman and Robin is only kind of bad. Even if I wouldn’t call it good, I don’t believe it belongs in the upper echelon of bad movies. Being colorful and energetic, I’d much rather watch this than a boring movie like Superman IV or an obnoxious, mean-spirited, Seltz-Berg comedy.

© 2022 Alex deCourville