It's odd how Hollywood has treated the medium of comic books.
On the one hand, it is enamored of the colorful, iconic images
and mythic, action-packed storylines. On the other hand, there
isn't a single person on the West Coast of America who understands
what they're really all about. "Comic book" is, more
often than not, used as a derogatory term to describe simple-minded
stories, preposterous characters and visual overkill. Read the
works of Art Spiegelman or Will Eisner sometime and tell me that
comics are an unsubtle medium. The "comic book" movies
that have genuinely succeeded can be counted on exactly one hand
(Darkman, Robocop and The Rocketeer to name the
few). Those that have failed to live up to their potential are
innumerable (Darkman 2 and 3, Robocop 2 and 3,
The Shadow, The Phantom, The Punisher, Captain America, Judge
Dredd, Blankman and Meteor Man to name just a few).
Somewhere in-between lie the Batman movies.
For those keeping track, Batman & Robin marks the fourth
installment of the megasuccessful series. This time around, TV
hunk George Clooney steps into the title role (making him the
third chap to don the rubber codpiece of justice). The question
on everyone's lips is, "How is Clooney as Batman?" That's
a question that everyone has asked about every actor to take on
this role, and it's a bit of an odd question. "Who cares?"
is the correct answer. The Batman films have always been more
about spectacle than acting or story or much of anything else.
And Batman & Robin certainly tops them all when it
comes to the spectacle department. Thanks to director Joel Schumacher,
B&R is less like a comic book and more like the most
flamboyant Broadway musical ever staged--imagine a cross between
Ice Capades and the Disney World Main Street Electric Parade.
Schumacher isn't one to shy away from that "visual overkill"
we were talking about. In addition to Clooney as Batman/Bruce
Wayne, we've got Chris O'Donnell as Robin, Alicia Silverstone
as Batgirl, Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze, Uma Thurman as
Poison Ivy, some no-name as muscle-bound baddie Bane, several
gratuitous cameos by the likes of Jesse "The Body" Ventura
and Coolio and, just for good luck, a sprinkling of supermodels
such as Elle MacPherson and Vendela. Whew!
So with all that high-wattage star power, where exactly is there
room for a story? That's a puzzle worthy of the Riddler. Surprisingly,
though, Batman & Robin has more going for it than most
of the previous outings. It took me a little while to warm up
to this one, but warm I did. Granted it's got more in common with
the campy '60s TV series than it does with the brooding comic
book; but once that's understood, things clip along at an entertaining
pace. With so many damn stars, the film is forced to be fairly
democratic and dole out a little bit for everyone to do. The biggest
problem with previous films was that personalities like Jack Nicholson
and Jim Carrey were allowed to dominate the proceedings, often
derailing the plot with their camera-hogging antics. Amazingly
enough, Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn't run the show here. Sure,
he gets to spout his usual tired catch phrases ("Chill out!"
and "Everybody freeze!" are just a couple of the choice
nuggets), but we've got plenty else going on. First of all, the
villains are given solid backstories to play with. Mr. Freeze
is searching for a cure for his terminally-ill wife (she's been
cryogenically frozen for safekeeping). Poison Ivy, meanwhile,
is a radical environmentalist (she wants to kill all the mammals
on earth and replace them with intelligent plants). Does anybody
have any idea exactly what the Riddler was doing with that giant
TV set of his in Batman Forever? In addition to the more
stable character motivation, we've also got some great hero-to-villain
interaction with the vampy Poison Ivy (Thurman is in full-on Mae
West mode for this one) and some compelling domestic drama going
on in Wayne Manor.
On the down side, several characters get pushed so far into the
background, it's a wonder why they even bothered to show up for
work. Vivica A. Fox (Will Smith's squeeze in Independence Day)
is supposed to be Freeze's sidekick. She says one line and walks
off screen forever. Under similar thankless circumstances, Elle
MacPherson is saddled with the task of being Bruce Wayne's girlfriend
(not exactly a job with staying power). She needles him about
marriage in one scene, but that's about it for her. As for those
expecting to see a lot of Alicia Silverstone decked out in rubber
fetish gear, you're sure to be disappointed. Batgirl only shows
up in the last few minutes of the film. Fortunately, Uma Thurman's
sexy bad girl turn more than makes up for it.
I'm guessing if you're a hard-core Batman purist, then you've
given up on these circus tent shenanigans long ago. If, on the
other hand, you're willing to suspend your belief in the laws
of logic, coincidence and (on more than one occasion) gravity,
then Batman & Robin is some prime candy-colored entertainment
for the summer season.
--Devin D. O'Leary
Full Length Reviews
Batman & Robin
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