Parallel to my countdown of favorite superhero films (though not perfectly so as there are far fewer noteworthy in this category), I will also be counting down my least favorite superhero films. As with the other list, the only “rules” for what constitutes a superhero film will be that it reasonably seems like a superhero film. I won’t be applying any ridiculous standards that end up making Batman not a superhero because he has no super powers, or anything like that.
#14: Batman & Robin (1997)
I ended yesterday’s (partial) defense of Batman Forever with the comment that aside from the fact that it was kind of mediocre and had some fairly substantial problems, I think the main reason most people actually hate Batman Forever is that they conflate it with Batman & Robin, and that I think that’s a pretty serious mistake. Batman & Robin is a terrible film. Much worse than Batman Forever. Batman Forever wasn’t exactly cinematic brilliance in the first place, but Batman & Robin actually pulled off the neat trick of ruining three (three) of my favorite villains in the same film. And Batgirl. They also ruined Batgirl. Because you know, why not?
The things that make Batman & Robin so bad are actually much simpler than the things that mitigate Batman Forever‘s badness and led me to defend it. While Batman Forever has Dick Grayson’s anguish over his parents’ death, Bruce’s relating to that and taking him under his wing, the complicated development of a relationship between the two, and Bruce’s own psychological recovery going for it, Batman & Robin has… nothing.
Where Batman Forever was occasionally marred by hints of the nails-on-chalkboard awful dialogue we’d rather see throughout the entirety of Batman & Robin, they were just that: hints. Large segments of Batman Forever involved legitimately interesting character-building and relationship dynamics. Batman & Robin throws a completely superficial conflict between Batman and Robin at us that’s so forced it doesn’t make either of their characters more interesting. The closest thing this film has to “something going for it” is Robin chafing under Batman’s leadership (and one can’t help but wonder if the fact that his Robin costume is already starting to resemble Nightwing’s was hinting at something), and that wasn’t given enough attention to really count as a strongpoint.
You know what? I’m going to say it. Chris O’Donnell as Robin was the only worthwhile thing about this film. I actually really enjoyed his performance. This film could’ve been replaced by 125 minutes of Chris O’Donnell beating bad guys up and it would’ve been a much better film.
George Clooney? I… actually think he might be the worst Batman ever. That might be largely indicative of the script’s failures, but I’m not sure I could’ve bought Clooney as Batman even in a more well-constructed film. That seems like it should serve as the worst possible indictment of the film, but we haven’t even gotten close to the worst parts.
As I alluded to earlier, this film pulled off the shockingly impressive trifecta of ruining three of my favorite (and most fans’ favorite) supervillains of all time, and threw Batgirl in for good measure. To start things off, let’s look at Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy. Ivy is a fan-favorite Batman villain because of her enigmatic nature, and the awkward romantic tension between her and Batman in their various incarnations. Ivy has been portrayed as a temptress, and her connection with nature made her an obvious choice to channel feminists influences into the Batman series. The ultimate depiction of this character is probably in The Animated Series, where she is depicted as subtle but incredibly deadly.
Batman & Robin‘s depiction of the character incorporates some of those elements… in the sense that a few vaguely superficial mockeries of feminist and environmentalist themes are briefly mentioned in Ivy’s psychopathic rant immediately after being transformed and never mentioned again. Oh, and that “subtlety” thing from the other versions of the character? Not so much. She basically parades around in revealing costumes and seems much more sexually available than any other version of her character. (Hey, Schumacher had to distract audiences from the homosexual overtones somehow… right?)
The funny thing is, Ivy might be the least ruined villain in this film. The other major villain of the film is Mr. Freeze. Though Freeze was always noted for having a more “serious” tone than many other Batman villains even in his early days, it was Batman: The Animated Series that gave him the tragic origin story of a fatally ill wife whom he cryogenically preserves in order to protect her until he can find a cure. This depiction was so seminal, it resulted in his comic book incarnations being altered to fit this new origin story, and the episode that introduced this new origin won the Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing in an Animated Program in 1993. As a result, the character has a melancholy nature, and is moreover a seriously driven character.
Batman & Robin‘s version of the character is pretty much the worst reinterpretation anyone could’ve come up with. The utter stupidity of this film’s characterization defies all reason. Schumacher opts to keep Freeze’s tragic backstory, but depict him as a beyond-campy, pun-spouting, shallow caricature played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. It is virtually impossible to overstate how completely wrong this character is.
And he isn’t even the worst one. Linked to Ivy (for reasons passing understanding) throughout the film is Bane. Fans of the Batman comics will remember Bane from the Knightfall arc, during which he proved to be a physical and intellectual equal to Batman, eventually actually defeating the Dark Knight and knocking him out of commission completely for over a year. That’s not in-story time, that’s real-world time. There was a year of comic books published during which Bruce Wayne was crippled and someone else was Batman.
What many later interpretations failed to “get” about Bane, even The Animated Series, is that his awesome strength isn’t his biggest asset, it’s his incredible intellect. His plan to take down Batman is ruthlessly brilliant. Seriously, if you aren’t planning on reading Knightfall, just read this summary. It’s one of the best Batman storylines of all time. The thing is… as lacking as every attempt to reinterpret Bane into other continuities has been, Batman & Robin was unquestionably the absolute worst. Did it fail to make him an intimidating criminal mastermind? You could say that. Batman & Robin reimagines Bane as a petty criminal who becomes super-strong only because of Venom. Calling him Ivy’s henchman would be giving him too much credit: he’s her slave. And for most of the film, he seems incapable of speech.
Ill-content to merely ruin the film’s villains, Schumacher next turned his attention to Barbara Gordon… no, wait, I’m sorry, we’re calling her “Barbara Wilson” here. Because, for no apparent reason, Barbara is now Alfred Pennyworth’s niece. She’s played (badly; you had to see that coming by now, right?) by Alicia Silverstone. She rides motorcycles (so she can identify with Robin and get in a really stupid motorcycle race that’s one of the film’s worst scenes) and is said to be a computer expert (so the film can allude to her comic exploits as the Oracle without doing any actual work.) Everything she ever does with or says about computers in the film makes absolutely no sense, and would make someone with an even rudimentary understanding of computers feel vaguely violent. The hints of romantic tension between her and Dick Grayson in this version come off as more than a little creepy since Alfred basically functions as Dick’s uncle.
Oh, yeah, speaking of her relationship with Alfred, here’s the best part: Alfred created a costume and gear for her and wrote a program in the Batcomputer just in case she ever needed to become Batgirl for no apparent reason, without Bruce knowing. You know. Bruce. Bruce Wayne. Batman. The incredibly paranoid guy who takes down criminal geniuses for a living. (Wait, no, I forgot: there aren’t any criminal geniuses in this version. My bad.)
Now… you could probably take all of these horribly, horribly butchered characters and actually write a pretty interesting movie about them, but as I already said, that didn’t happen. Dick Grayson’s introduction in Batman Forever is duplicated almost beat-for-beat in Barbara’s introduction, only without the orphaning and with a great deal more awkwardness and terrible acting. The “point” of the film seems to have been to introduce the “Batman Family,” but you can get a better introduction of that concept literally almost anywhere the concept has been depicted.
So, the obvious question. Why isn’t this higher on my list of least favorite superhero films of all time? Well, here’s where you’re going to want to throw stones at me again: I… actually kind of enjoy it. I’m not saying I enjoyed it when I was a kid, when I was supposed to enjoy it and didn’t know any better (although that also is true). I… actually still enjoy it to this day. Chris O’Donnell’s performance as Robin (probably aided by the fact that I have a serious crush on the character) remains compelling to me for some reason, and no matter how bad this film is, and no matter how thoroughly it butchered the characters and stories it ripped off… I can totally watch it as a guilty pleasure, which I can’t say about a lot of other films on this list.
You know what? Screw it. Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Joel Schumacher is hardly the first person to look at Batman and go, “You know… that’s kinda gay.” He’s just the first one to make a lot of money off of it, and I kind of actually love him for that. I hate what he did to a lot of my favorite characters in the process, but I just can’t direct the kind of venom (no pun intended) at this film that others can. It’s bad. It’s awful. I acknowledge that it might very well be the worst superhero film of all time… but I can’t hate it as much as I’m supposed to.