ekm’s BAT-MANUAL: CHAPTER 6 – BATMAN & ROBIN (1997)
Until SUPERMAN II, villains attacked our heroes one at a time. It seemed right and proper. Considering that most compelling Bad Guys require an equally-compelling origin story, the screen time necessary to do an adversary justice, all without losing the protagonist in what’s essentially a narrative reset, is fundamental. Zod’s cronies were essentially just hired muscle, and served largely to give him someone to talk to; Lex Luthor was more or less relegated to henchman status, and became the Otis of the picture. The third film in the series recycled the exact same paradigm, with a nefarious creep surrounded by two lesser creeps, with an additional wild card alliance. By the time THE QUEST FOR PEACE sputtered incoherently across the screen, this model had become the SUPERMAN standard, albeit with one-third less Oaf, and one hundred percent more Jon Cryer. Even when we win, we lose.
The big screen adventures of Adam West’s Batman was a four-pronged affair insofar as the Bad Guys were concerned, albeit one without the baggage of introducing villains who’d already appeared on television for an entire season at that point. Origin stories weren’t a priority of BATMAN ’66, given its serialized, intentionally-fluffy nature. By the time Tim Burton’s reinterpretation came along more than two decades later, audiences required gravitas in a way they hadn’t previously from this sort of adventure fiction; the establishment of the Joker as a figure of menace was prioritized over Bruce Wayne’s backstory, which in many ways demystified the antagonist while sustaining the hero’s air of intrigue. Regardless, it was a one-on-one conflict, with both forces coming together for superficial reasons, and ultimately discovering that theirs was a complicated, interlocking relationship built over many years.
This was the last time we’d ever see a Batman battling a singular menace. Starting with BATMAN RETURNS, one senses that Warner Brothers lacked confidence in any co-stars ability to reach the bar set by Jack Nicholson’s Pop Culture-defining performance, and the solution became two villains to equal the charisma of the one they’d mistakenly killed off. Of the two, Michelle Pfeiffer carved out a larger, more narratively valuable section of the film: Catwoman’s relationship with Bruce Wayne and Batman offers both unique character shadings, and insight into the troubled psyche of the figure they reflect through the distortion of a cinematic Funhouse Mirror. The Penguin has less to contribute outside of a traditional Gang War-type storyline, and while his presence helps underline the Christmas Carol elements that may or may not have been intentional, he, along with Max Shreck, could easily be removed without harming BATMAN RETURNS (and could indeed allow for a stronger overall narrative). Even striking one would make a significant difference in a muddled, sloppy affair.
It’s important here to distinguish between Plot and Story. The former is the potted summary, and one that can be told in as little as a single sentence; the latter is the path the characters take, with all the twists and turns that go with it. In short, the Plot prompts the Story. BATMAN RETURNS, along with its follow-ups, BATMAN FOREVER and BATMAN & ROBIN, are almost entirely Plot, with the events that occur coming off as little more than ideas written on index cards, pinned up on a bulletin board. These scenes can be moved and shifted in any number of different ways, and with precious little consequence to the outcome.* If evidence is required, I challenge someone to recount the events of any of these three films, in sequential order, without significant backtracking, or stopping to recall what happened when, or why. There’s no flow, because there’s no real Story.
A fair amount of the blame can be laid at the feet of the scriptwriters, but the greater issue is the swollen ensemble cast. Once the die had been cast, there seemed a mandate to burn through as many Bat-Villains as possible. BATMAN RETURNS featured two gimmicky semi-costumed cretins who had, if nothing else, the contrasting animal theme (typified by an uneasy alliance between a cat and a bird). One can take it a step further if they’re feeling particularly ambitious, and draw the comparison between Batman and The Penguin in that both are oddball, winged creatures who don’t really fit neatly within the natural kingdom; and a bat is nothing if not a flying version of feline prey. It doesn’t always work as perhaps intended, but the argument can be made for this triumvirate of freaks, in the myriad ways they are all both alike and unlike.
Not so with Two-Face and the Riddler. BATMAN FOREVER’s themes of duality are perfectly in keeping with the divided nature of Bruce Wayne’s troubled psyche, but this ground had been covered to greater effect in the preceding films. Harvey Dent becomes redundant, because we’ve already seen the gimmicky conflict he represents addressed initially by the Joker, and on a larger scale, all three adversaries who threaten to squeeze Batman out of his first sequel. As such, he’s reduced to little more than Tommy Lee Jones in gauche makeup, embarrassing himself in a desperate attempt to keep up with Jim Carrey’s Riddler. The thoughtless pairing of these two does neither one justice, whether conceptually, or in terms of the painful one-upmanship between the actors that floors the gas and drives the franchise screaming into the campier areas BATMAN RETURNS threatened -- despite the popular misconception that it’s somehow a darker film than its predecessor. It isn’t, by the way.**
BATMAN & ROBIN bests the previous installment in terms of excess. If our chief complaint is the tone, or even the dialogue, we’re missing the greater problem at hand. The sheer number of characters hobbles any ability to follow a narrative through line, because there isn’t time for one. It’s all Plot (and a paper-thin one, at that), and even at an astoundingly-long two hours and five minutes, there’s absolutely no opportunity for Story.
Once again, there are three villains. Two can be considered primary antagonists receiving equal screen time, with the third fulfilling the obligatory Henchman role (as well as rounding out the mandated line of action figures). Presumably some degree of thought went into another intentional (?) pairing of mismatched nemeses: Poison Ivy is the embodiment of all things that grow,*** whereas Mr. Freeze represents 1) the withering of nature, and 2) un-fucking-funny jokes. Had the two remained at odds throughout the movie, their unique power sets might offer an interesting series of set pieces. However, their union makes no sense, because who gives a shit. Bane, meanwhile, is just there for Fanboy appeal.
The point is, all three require setup. The introduction of Poison Ivy is an almost note-for-note retread of The Riddler, and as with Two-Face, Mr. Freeze provides not only the opening action sequence, but is given a backstory by way of in-no-way-unbelievable multi-camera surveillance footage. Even Bane has his transformation from Steve Rogers into The Hulk for absolutely no good reason beyond merchandising. It likewise follows that the Bad Guys need their own respective agendas, and ongoing interaction with the titular heroes, all of which adds up to an amount of screen time only slightly less terrifying than the sight of Schwarzenegger’s smiling wedding day face.
But that’s not all! Remember Robin? Well, yeah, of course you do; but we’ve practically just met him, given that he doesn’t actually don the official spandex until the third act of BATMAN FOREVER. He is, in effect, a new character, insofar as his place in Batman’s life, and the maturity we’re told he’s experienced since choosing not to kill Two-Face.**** We may have met him once, but now we have to re-meet him, and invest in a guy who’s already at odds with his mentor before we’ve even had a chance to see the two in a relationship we care about. It’s the same issue with Anakin Skywalker in ATTACK OF THE CLONES: the conflict between Master and Apprentice lacks stakes because the potential dissolution of their partnership is threatened too early, and without positive context of what’s on the line.
But that’s not all, again! This time, there’s another “new Batman” – the third to appear in four movies. Clooney’s take is as different as Kilmer’s was from Keaton’s. The first wave of BATMAN movies might not represent a particularly deep well of characterization, but the identifying hero that the series is named for remains so inconsistent that his personal conflict in each film seems at odds with the last. Is he a deeply troubled, borderline psychotic trying to beat his way toward self-comfort? Is he a latent homosexual whose divided nature and secret second life might be more divided and more secret than we suspected? Or is he a George Clooney Bobblehead, endlessly nodding? Never mind, maybe all three takes marry together, after all.
But that’s still not all, again! Remember all the fans asking for Alicia Silverstone to lisp her way through a barely-passable Batgirl performance? Were you one of them? Well, fuck you, too. Suit me up, Uncle Alfred!
It’s all too much. This isn’t news to anyone. If there’s a surprise, it’s that there’s literally no story being told. Remember that time I dared you to remember the order of events in BATMAN & ROBIN? If you’ve already forgotten, it’s because this article is likewise a ramshackle explosion of the sort rarely seen outside the bathroom at Arbys. Nevertheless, the challenge is there. Stand up, and take a break from work. Walk away from the computer. Grab someone – preferably someone who seriously does not give a shit, please – and tell them you’re forcing them to become part of my bizarre social experiment. Don’t think about the film; don’t get your thoughts together. Just say: There’s this asshole named ekm, and he asked me to torture you. Now stand there and casually eyeball the available exits while I stammer my way through what is probably going to be a wildly confusing, inaccurate retelling of BATMAN & ROBIN. So, I think it starts in a museum. Yeah, it starts in a museum. So Batman and Robin show up and there’s some ice skating, and then…wait, who called Security? Hey! Hey, let go of me! I wasn’t doing anything wrong! I’m celebrating the work of an Academy Award-winning screenwriter! Ow, you broke my arm! Who knew a parking lot could hurt so badly when you enter it face-first? Guess it’s time to find new employment; maybe Arbys has a bathroom that needs cleaning? Hey! WHO LET THE AIR OF OUT OF MY TIRES?
This is why I don’t have any friends, and it’s also why I’m grateful to you, my dear, captive reader. You don’t have to agree with me, but you too care entirely too much about this sort of thing. If there’s one thing we can likely agree on – regardless of our feelings about the Christopher Nolan or Zack Snyder films, or any of the rest to come before, and all the rest that will follow, ad infinitum – it’s that Batman remains a reliable character. Even his “bad” movies have some redeeming quality, be it to supply fodder for excessively-overwritten pseudo-analysis, or even just the opportunity to have a laugh at its expense. BATMAN FOREVER comes dangerously close to being unwatchable; BATMAN & ROBIN plummets over the edge of the cliff. It’s not the jokes, or the tone, or the character design – these things certainly don’t help, but strung upon a competent framework, there’s the ability to forgive it its trespasses. Too many cooks goes the saying, though Too many villains is just as appropriate.
*The greatest example of this is the fabled Director’s Cut of BATMAN FOREVER, which was supposedly as much as twenty minutes longer (!) in its first assembly. While it’s hardly atypical for films to be shorn of length during the journey to Final Edit, there were evidently key story points – including, among other things, the nature of Bruce Wayne’s guilt over his parents’ murder, and what he considers his involvement in these events – that were excised without changing the outcome one bit, or our understanding of it. Given the disconnected nature of the final product, this revelation only underlines the problems inherent in the scripting process.
**BATMAN RETURNS is gross, and grossly sexualized, but in a way that feels kinky rather than genuinely disturbing, or even insightful. The high-key lighting, coupled with the proliferous use of puns and one-liners, suggests that Burton was having fun this time instead of burning himself with hot candle wax and listening to Nine Inch Nails. Such an overwhelming shift toward self-conscious comedy turns BATMAN RETURNS into a surrealist comedy, and though it’s hardly what anyone necessarily expected (or wanted) from a Summer tentpole film, the more disturbing imagery seen by way of the Joker’s rictus-grin victims and electrocuted Mob rivals, is neither attempted, nor matched.
***Including Robin, one might infer.
****Batman insists that a hero doesn’t murder his adversaries, despite making a regular habit of it. He goes so far as to lecture Robin about taking the high road when confronted with his parents’ killer, which inspires Dick Grayson to do just that. Five minutes later, Batman kills Two-Face. The nagging question remains: is Batman a dick because he’s a hypocrite, because he sends mixed messages, or because he cheats Robin out of a therapeutic feeling of resolution…or all of the above?
Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)