Whenever I read that a filmmaker is making a movie "in a comic-book
style," I have to wince. As an avid reader of all genres of
comics--superhero, funny animal, dailies, alternative, Archie--I'm aware of
how comics can use the simple and iconic to weave narratives of astounding
complexity and pathos. But that's not what movie directors are talking
about when they say "comic-book style." What they're referring to is an
attitude--a broad, outsized sense of design and an ironic, jokey tone.
Hollywood's understanding of comic books is a Roy Liechtenstein
appropriation of a Jack Kirby panel, not the bold cornball genius of
Kirby's original work.
Batman and Robin is the fourth and latest Warner Bros. film based
on Bob Kane's 60-year-old superhero creation, and director Joel Schumacher
has given the film buckets of Hollywoodized "comic-book style." Which means
there's plenty to dazzle the eye but little to touch the soul. George
Clooney gives an underwhelming performance as the Caped Crusader, and Chris
O'Donnell is repetitively whiny as the boy wonder. Together, they're far
from heroic as they attempt to contain a vampish earth-firster named Poison
Ivy (played with what-the-hell brio by Uma Thurman) and to subdue Mr.
Freeze, a tortured scientist trapped in a refrigerated suit (played by
Arnold Schwarzenegger in full Rainer Wolfcastle mode).
Batman and Robin looks colorful and stylish, and it has
interesting bad guys, but nothing really happens in the film; it's
just a series of poorly edited fight scenes. Plot has taken a backseat to
the feel of the piece, which is all abstraction and outline passing
as action. The movie is the equivalent of doodles in a sketchbook, not real
Then again, Schumacher is merely following the lead of his cinematic
predecessors. None of the four Batman films has been good, not even the
acclaimed Tim Burton installments. From the very first, the series has been
marred by too many characters, too much setup, and not enough story.
Where's the clever detective work that the Dark Knight exhibits in the
comics? Where's the fear he strikes into Gotham City's petty criminals?
Where's his symbiotic relationship with crime, and his antagonistic
relationship with the police? And why is it so difficult for Hollywood to
tell a good Batman story, when they have six decades of narrative to pull
from? At the end of every Batman movie thus far, I've been ready to see a
Maybe it's because the creators of the films have no interest in the
actual ink-stained juvenilia that make up the Batman comic book. They're
more interested in the idea of Batman and how it can be exploited.
Burton used the Batman myth as a framework to hang one of his typically
wan, existential "outsider" fashion shows. Schumacher has turned his two
passes through Gotham into incomprehensible swirls of mayhem and art
As a result, the highlights of the series have been few--Anton Furst's
gothic architecture in Batman, Catwoman's punky, feminist rage in
Batman Returns, Val Kilmer's suave take on the title character in
Batman Forever, and now the chilling angst of Victor Freeze in
Batman and Robin. In fact, this latest episode, though moribund, may
be the best of a bad lot, if only because it has the fewest pretensions and
the most catchy moments. Freeze's predicament is compelling, and both
Alicia Silverstone and Uma Thurman grab the audience's attention as Batgirl
and Poison Ivy. There are even a couple of good action sequences, including
a car chase down the arm of a statue and a giddy bit of sky-surfing by the
But it's all in service of tone, not text. Batman and Robin's bickering
and Mr. Freeze's lame one-liners betray Schumacher's lack of faith in his
source material and his overreliance on Hollywood action-film clichs. The
experience of Batman and Robin, as with each Batman movie, is not
unlike an auto show--the audience sees all the new models, gets a
demonstration of what they can do, and then files out quietly without ever
being taken for a ride. When all the exposition and shtick was over, I felt
like the film was about to begin...and then the lights came up.