Batman & Robin

Nashville Scene

DIRECTED BY: Joel Schumacher

REVIEWED: 07-08-97

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 comics.

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 Batman movie.

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 direction.

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 Dynamic Duo.

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.

--Noel Murray

Full Length Reviews
Batman & Robin
Batman & Robin
Batman & Robin

Capsule Reviews
Batman & Robin

Other Films by Joel Schumacher
A Time to Kill
Batman Forever
Eight MM
Lost Boys

Film Vault Suggested Links
Batman Forever
After the Fall of New York

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