Friday, July 7, 2017

'Batman & Robin' review: 20 years later

Overacting. Corny dialogue. Awful wire work. Cheesy special effects. Yup, I'm talking about "Batman & Robin," which came out 20 years ago.

I must be a glutton for punishment since over the course of a couple days I watched two of the worst superhero films ever made, "Green Lantern " and now "B&R."

"Green Lantern" mostly was the victim of poor writing and trying to jam too many things into an origin movie.

But let's be honest about "Batman & Robin": There are large parts that are — just — so bad it makes me slap my head. Or at least shake it in disbelief. Did director Joel Schmacher and his team know it was this bad while making it?

Not everything about "B&R" is awful — contrary to what fans say.

Batman's vehicles and the Batgirl cycle are pretty snazzy and aside from the questionable return of the infamous Bat-nipples, the Batman suit is pretty darn cool. The "partners" scene at the very end, then the shadows of Batman, Robin and Batgirl running toward the audience — yeah, I dig those too.

George Clooney gives an earnest performance, delivering a well-adjusted and composed billionaire Bruce Wayne. His scenes with Michael Gough's Alfred Pennyworth are touching. Some fans may say they're overly emotional, but I prefer my Batman and Bruce Wayne to be humane.

Clooney's Batman is a bit of hard-headed douchebag when it comes to partnering with Dick Grayson/Robin (an exuberant Chris O'Donnell). Just keep in mind that that characterization rings true with the Dynamic Duo clashing in the comics from the early 1980s through most of the next ten years. The a**hole Batman also was the way to write him when "Batman & Robin" came out in 1997.

Uma Thurman has a lot of fun vamping it up as Poison Ivy. She pours on the femme fatale schtick to the hilt, but at least she's all in. Thurman may be in on the joke, but at least she's having fun with her role.

While I always have to admit to enjoying Ivy's overdone seductive entrance to the cover of the "Poison Ivy" song, that scene and the preceding one with the jungle dancers in no way feel organic. Except for the heartfelt scenes between Wayne and his father-figure butler, what really does feel natural here...?

Alicia Silverstone is adorable. The creation of Barbara Wilson as Alfred's niece for "B&R" is unfortunate. Just keep in mind that Pat Hinkle's bumbling Commissioner Jim Gordon  does very little over the course of four movies, so it would have been a stretch to suddenly introduce his daughter.

Silverstone honestly isn't given much to do but look good in Barbara's biker gear and the Batgirl costume. On the other hand, Batgirl comes to the Dynamic Duo's rescue when they are trapped in Poison Ivy's hideout, saves Robin's bacon when he's about to fall to his death and is the one who can reprogram the satellite computer to thaw out Gotham City. Silverstone was cast for the young-adult crowd (as I was in 1997), but there it is.

The less said about the cartoonish buffoon Bane and "Ah-nuld" as Mister Freeze -- not to mention his god-awful puns -- the better. Oh and the Batman credit card too. Uuuugh!

The actors and actresses handling the bit parts seem like they took their acting direction from Bad Acting 101 -- and were on the second time through taking that class. (Still not sure if they miserably failed Bad Acting 101 or passed it with distinction!)

It's not their faults their roles are poorly written. Then again, those same actors and actresses didn't have to go so big they're cringe-worthy. Unless Schumacher told them to; and in that case, those over-the-top acting jobs make me believe the director paying homage to the "Batman" TV series with "Batman & Robin." (More on that in a few paragraphs!) It's poor performances like these that make a bad film even worse -- not to mention hard to watch.

Those people playing policemen, security guards, party attendees and other minor characters seem to have been told to go big, cheesy and overexaggerate their lines, expressions and reactions. What idiot thought these actors were the best choice? Bad, bad, bad!

There are two times when the wire work is obviously poor -- even to the untrained eye: Robin leaping onto Mister Freeze's spaceship as it rockets out of the museum (how did it get there exactly? and why?) and Freeze jumping during the botanical party fundraiser he invades.

Now I'll try to put "Batman & Robin" into the greater historical context.

First, it was a rush job. Warner Bros. green-lit it and demanded that "B&R" come out two years after the success of "Batman Forever" (which Schumacher also directed and has more than its fair share of over-the-top acting too -- and not just from the bit players and extras!).

Schumacher has said "B&R" was supposed to sell toys, so obviously quality storytelling took a back seat to merchandising and big-name stunt casting -- problems that run rampant through the Schumacher and Tim Burton's four "Batman" movies.

"B&R" has the same visual style as "Batman Forever" -- big names, bright lights, a color palette based mostly on primary and/or fluorescent colors, vibrant and loud costumes. Pretty much style over substance.

The onscreen tension between the Dynamic Dup is similar to the comics, as I mentioned. Mister Freeze's obsession over his sick, comatose wife and particularly the necklace she wears are homages to "Batman: The Animated Series."

Honestly, the majority of "B&R" feels like an extended homage to the "Batman" TV series (referred to now as Batman '66). The Caped Crusaders' fight with Mister Freeze's henchmen on ice skates ("the hockey team from hell!") would feel right at home in the world of the late Adam West and Burt Ward. The oversized statues are straight out of the 1950s through most of the 1960s comics. And doesn't Clooney's compassionate yet buttoned-down Batman and Bruce Wayne remind you of West's?

(Just how influential was Batman '66 on the Tim Burton-Joel Schumacher films? More than you might think. Read my October 2015 op-ed in which I delve into that.)

I'd like to think Schmacher and the screenwriters were going for a big-screen take on Batman '66, but that's probably giving everyone far too much credit.

Grade: C+

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