This weekend just gone, despite all the evidence to the contrary, I thought it would be a good idea to watch Batman & Robin, routinely referred to as the worst of the Batman series. And as the film progressed, it got me thinking, why is this film so bad? What made this perfect storm of a terrible movie possible?
And thus, here we are.
Before we get into the meat of the analysis, I do want to define what I mean by a terrible film. This is something more than a flop, more than a financial disaster. Many good films fail by a bad marketing plan, bad scheduling or a random October Surprise. That is not what I’m looking at. Batman & Robin is a bad film. Bad. Like real bad.
There are two areas to look when trying to work out why a film sucked so bad, who made it and what they made. First thing first, lets look to the culprits.
Our first port of call has to be the actors. They are the face of the film and a lot of the success will ride on their acting chops. Many a film is made good by the actor choices (Steve Buscemi is the king of this) and even more films brought low by bad picks (Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler spring to mind). Picking the right cast holds a film together. This film was the first and only outing as George Clooney as the Dark Knight, but with Chris O’Donnell returning as Robin. On the bad guys side, we have The Governator as Mr Freeze and Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy. Nothing in these castings belies a misstep.
Clooney, whilst possibly not having the action credentials to pull off the Batman side of things (excluding the early career work in films such as Combat Academy, Return To Horror High and Red Surf), certainly looks the part. He’d show early promise with Dusk Til Dawn but this didn’t seem to translate well into the larger-than-life world of Batman. This being said, he is still the best portrayal of Bruce Wayne to date, his easy charm being the perfect for the millionaire playboy. It is noticeable that he has shied away from any sort of blockbuster action film since. On the sidekick side, Chris O’Donnell proved in Batman Forever that he can pull off a convincing Robin/Dick Grayson and the father/son relationship he develops with Clooney is certainly as fleshed out as any relationship within the comic book genre, at least prior to the MCU. He also bring an charisma to the role, creating a Robin that works within the world of this film. And whilst many may now claim pre-knowledge of the failure of this combo, I remember with real clarity the hype and excitement that surrounded the casting of Clooney, many prophesying the best BatActor to date.
With Micheal Gough as returning Alfred and Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon we should be in safe hands, both having proved their abilities in the earlier Batman films. The only slight questionable inclusion on the good guys is the casting of Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl/Barbara Wilson, an actress who will always have a place in my heart due to teenage crushes, but she is deserving of her Razzie for this role. But one bad role does not a failure make.
So on to the bad guys. Arnie and Uma. Up first, The Governator. Whilst Arnie has never really pushed his acting chops into subtle and quiet drama, his work in films such as Total Recall and True Lies certainly show a larger range than just that of muscle-bound action thug. Whilst the playing of a scientist stretches the imagination of the even the most open-minded, this is a 90s comic book film, reality was never the aim. He’s good with a one-liner and certainly bring a bearing to the film, a character you feel could stand toe-to-toe with Batman.
Uma, despite such clunkers as My Super Ex-Girlfriend and The Avengers (not that Avengers, this Avengers), has more than proved her acting abilities and her action abilities, (Kill Bill anyone?). The role of a seductive scientist should a breeze for her. Both of these characters are well within the creative reach of these actors, even if the characters they were asked to portray weren’t right for this film.
So as no real mistake can be found in the actual casting of the films, we must turn our attention to team behind the camera. In crafting a film of this size, there are only a few folks with the clout to affect the film enough, merely the writer, the director and the producer(s). So firstly, The Writer.
Akiva Goldsman. This is where we first start to glimpse where this juggernaut of a film might have started to jump the rails. Pre-B&R, Akiva had 4 screenplays under his belt. Three of these, The Client, Silent Fall and A Time To Kill, all dealing with the intricate details of the aftermath of a horrendous incident. The other? Batman Forever. Since B&R, his CV has been a story of two halves, he seems to be responsible for some very subtle and inspiring films in Cinderella Man or A Beautiful Mind, but also for some of the biggest clunkers of actions films; Lost in Space (A film so bad that even I refuse to watch it again), I Am Legend or Da Vinci Code. He seems very at home telling human real stories but seems to get lost when presented with anything of a larger scale. That being said, he wrote I, Robot and has of late been involved in the writing of Fringe, but it worth noticing that both of these stories are about human tales amongst the action.
Next up, the Director. More than any role on a film set, we hold a director responsible for a film. They win the Best Picture Awards, they should be the overriding creative drive behind a film. And this one was helmed by Joel Schumacher. Prior to B&R, Joel had a very impressive CV, covering Lost Boys, St Elmos Fire, Flatliners and Falling Down. He also helmed the much less derided Batman Forever. So there should be no inherent reason why he failed here. He had a history of well done drama and action and had actually made a decent goddamn Batman film before! Post this film, his CV hasn’t been as blockbuster filled, but certainly not devoid of quality, with films such as Veronica Guerin, Tigerland or Number 23. But whilst this film does stand out as a failure for him, it does also stand out style-wise, the signature neon explosion of this film is yet to to appear again in his filmography.
Last, but by no means least, we come to the Producers. In this day and age, the producers are the protectors of the film, the one who need oversee the train, keeping the creative and practical elements in a balance, an delicate dance of money and desire. And who do we have guarding this film? 5 culprits, Mitchell E. Dauterive, William M. Elvin, Peter Macgregor-Scott, Benjamin Melniker and Micheal E. Uslan. The first two of these have such short producer CVs to easily be considered vanity credits. Which leaves us 3: Pete, Ben and Mike. For Pete, this film seems to have all but ended his producing career, but with hits such as Under Siege and Fugitive under his belt, he obviously knows how to craft an engaging and realistic action film, what went wrong here? Our last two, Mr Melniker and Mr Uslan are both producers on the current crop of Batman films, so it seems well within their power to create a successful Bat-film. So if we don’t have any mistakes behind the camera, which good producers who aren’t likely to be swung by personal, desires, where does it leave us?
There is no glaring error in the production of the film, everyone in its creation has proved their creative worth. The actors can act, the writer can write, the director can direct and the producers can produce.
So where did it all fall apart? My honest belief is that the critical error was no-one looked at the bigger picture. Whilst all the elements in their own right were of an admirable quality, they simply didn’t gel. The disparate parts did not make a cohesive whole. Joel Schumacher was obviously after the crazier and kookier edge of the Batman mythology (believe me, its not all brooding and damaged psyches) but had the wrong cast and story. With Mr Freeze and Poison Ivy as the villains, two scientists, an interesting narrative could have taken shape, a battle of wills rather than a battle of fists. But instead we got slapstick henchmen and corny one-liners, and forcing them into those roles damaged their credibility with the audience. More than the character, Clooney was the wrong person for this Batman. Whilst his performances over time have shown him more than capable at playing roles dark, he is not the man to play this kind of goofy Batman. As much as I love them both, he and Arnie are not actors who belong in the same film.
This film is a smorgasbord of misaligned talent, but without any overall direction. A misfire in the annuals of comic book films. A badly fitting cast, with a clunky and stupid script, directed by a man lost in his own imaginings, overseen by people blinded by the merchandising rights. A perfect storm of film failure.
Well, that and Batnipples.