After Tim Burton’s return to Gotham in 1992, Warner Bros. was reportedly unhappy with the director’s second Batman movie’s large budget and decidedly smaller box office. At $266 million, Batman Returns was arguably still profitable, but a steep downturn from the first movie’s over $400 million gross. But that wasn’t even the deciding factor in the studio’s move away from Burton’s gothic vision for Batman. Nope, it came down to something far stranger: Happy Meals.
A series of complaints by parents groups to McDonald’s saw the studio faced with accusations of marketing violent movies to children, which led to the WB parting ways with Burton and agreeing to allow McDonald’s script approval over the next Batman film. In pursuit of a more family friendly alternative to the creepiness of the first two films, the studio hired Joel Schumacher, a Hollywood director who they felt fit better with their vision for what they called “their biggest asset.” Three years after the release of Batman Returns, Batman Forever was unleashed onto screens, changing the legacy of Batman… forever. Well, at least until Christopher Nolan got his grimdark hands on him.But we’re not here to talk about Batman Forever, the supposedly superior of Schumacher’s two seriously schlocky additions to the Bat-canon. We’re here to revel in the joyous, silly, star-filled, neon-hued wonder of 1997’s criminally underrated Batman and Robin. The film that saw George Clooney squeeze himself into the now notorious Bat-nipples is often declared to be the worst movie in the history of the Bat. But Batman and Robin is in fact a celebration of everything great about the wacky origins of the Caped Crusader. Though it’s in no way perfect, it’s actually a wonderfully fun exploration of Bat-lore and a love-filled homage to the colorful capers of Batman ’66.
From the first over-stylized opening cut shots of Batman and the Boy Wonder getting suited up in their ridiculously anatomically correct suits, this is a film that knows its only job is to be an over-the-top, good-looking couple of hours about a man who dresses up like a bat and fights criminals with pun names. And boy does it deliver. Being on the cusp of the move from practical effects to CGI does Batman and Robin a huge deal of good, as the practical work builds a fantastical world that looks like it’s straight out of the pages of a kids’ funnybook. As it’s the fourth film in a series, it wastes no time with origin stories or exposition. The first three lines in the movie are literally just the film’s burgeoning Bat-family quipping at each other about pizza, the Batmobile, and the first hint at the DC Expanded Universe: “This is why Superman works alone.”
The lack of desperation to reestablish the Bat-mythology with flashbacks or exposition creates a narrative that’s reminiscent of classic cinematic serials, jumping straight into the action with no apologies. Within the first five minutes you’re already in Clooney’s über Batmobile, speeding through the strangely pink-hued tunnels that run under the streets Batman so longs to protect, being warned about the newest threat to Gotham: a madman called Freeze who’s frozen the antiquities wing of the Gotham Art Museum! Sorry, can we just stop and look at how quintessentially Golden Age Batman that is? Though the Dark Knight has long been tarred with a grim and gritty brush (thanks, Frank Miller), his classic origins–though admittedly darker than a lot of your other cape comics of the time–were still often completely outrageous. (Remember the week where Bruce had to wear a different technicolor version of the Batsuit each day? ‘Cause I sure do.) Those vintage tales focused far more on the crazy capers of Gotham’s many madly monikered villains than they did on the tortured soul of Bruce himself.
Back in Schumacher’s glorious Gotham, we arrive at the Art Museum, where we’re introduced to Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s top billed big bad, Mr. Freeze. Oh yes, Arnie is also number one in the the world of Batman and gets top billing above Bruce Wayne himself, George Clooney. Schwarzenegger’s over-the-top performance is one of the film’s highlights, featuring an incredible practical suit that truly makes him look like a creation from Rob Liefeld in the early days of Image Comics. You’d be hard-pressed to find any film that looks more like a direct descendant of the ’90s comic book explosion. Mr. Freeze is a man not only devastated by his wife’s untimely terminal illness and cryogenic freezing, but also a man driven by a desire to make a pun at every possible opportunity. As his first line–“The iceman cometh.”–leaves his lips, you can almost see the word balloon appearing around it.
As with every good rendition of Gotham’s most famous son, its power comes from his rogues gallery. Uma Thurman’s iconic turn as Poison Ivy completing the film’s villainous roster with a veiny and monstrous Bane as her sidekick. The most stylish and empathetic of antagonists, Thurman’s Pamela Isley is a goddess who toys with our Dynamic Duo at every turn. Her lush costuming and poisonous power set are to die for, making Ivy worth the price of entry alone. An inversion of the damsel in distress trope, she chews up the screen around her and destroys the men within her reach using nothing more than a kiss, all the while saving the planet and looking completely badass doing it. Pamela is the hero we all need but none of us deserve.
Though Batman is often thought of as a lonesome figure perching on the rooftops of Gotham, historically he’s rarely been alone. Although Chris O’Donnell’s Robin is a barely sufficient parody of an annoying teen sidekick, this film is notable for being the first exploration of the beloved Bat-family on the silver screen. Alisha Silverstone’s righteous rendition of Barbara A.K.A. Batgirl is a delight. Dressed as if she just left the set of Clueless, Silverstone’s perpetually annoyed secret motorcycle racer is a wonderful addition to the Bat-team, bringing a strange mix of “badgirl” comics and teenage innocence. Batgirl is sadly (or luckily, depending on how you view those suit designs) only in the suit for the last third of the movie. But Alicia Silverstone’s sarcastic performance and thoroughly ’90s style saved many of our teenage lives.
Ultimately, this movie finds strength in its world building. Freeze’s henchmen are an ice hockey team, licking icy bricks encasing frozen TV dinners as they sit around his lair. Ivy creates a literal urban jungle in an abandoned building, and the final fight scene is based around an exceedingly preposterous setup of very intricate satellites and a telescope. Nothing’s too ridiculous for Schumacher and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman’s Gotham, and there’s such reckless joy to be found in that. A truly fun vision of Batman’s world where heroes can surf through the atmosphere and villains can kill you with a kiss after making you fight your best bud for the right to receive that deadly smooch–what’s not to love about Batman and Robin?
So is this a take so hot it could melt Mr. Freeze’s icy heart? Have you too been harboring a secret love for this most underrated of superhero movies? Or had you never heard of this unloved period of Batman’s past are going to have to explore it? Let us know in the comments!
Images: DC Comics/Warner Brothers Entertainment