I think I first saw Batman & Robin (1997) when it came out on video. I couldn't remember much about it other than it clearly wasn't as good as the earlier movies in the series. I never thought much of it until I discovered the film's reputation on the Internet, and since then, as a pop-culture aficionado, I joined in mocking and deriding it any chance I could. Still, I always felt awkward making fun something I could barely recollect, and I've always admired director Joel Schumacher's honesty and willingness to accept the film disappointed people. He's even apologized in interviews. With that in mind, I decided to revisit the picture and see what value I could gleam from it.
Batman (George Clooney) and Robin (Chris O'Donnell) have a new enemy: Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a brilliant scientist turned super villain after an accident mutated him, forcing him to keep his body at sub-zero temperatures to survive. Freeze has been driven mad in his pursuit to cure his cryogenically frozen wife who is dying of a rare disease. At the same time, another villain, Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman) wants to reclaim the world for plants starting with Gotham City, and to do that, she's using a pheromone to pit Dark Knight against the Boy Wonder. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne's longtime butler Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Gough) is dying, and he summons to Wayne Manor his niece Barbara (Alicia Silverstone), who by film's end joins the team as Batgirl.
I've always believed less is more. Understatement and subtlety go a long way while going over-the-top and in-your-face, which certainly work sometimes, can quickly become grating and distracting. There are the seeds for a compelling Batman story (or three) in Batman & Robin, but they are buried beneath a sea of gaudy, neon lighting; tacky sets; ridiculous costumes; uninteresting action; cornball dialogue; and embarrassing and embarrassed performances.
When Tim Burton held the reigns of the franchise in Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), he kept things edgy, in the shadows, and controlled. Schumacher lets everything get away from him, losing sight of the plot and characters in the process. There's just so so much auditory and visual activity bombarding the picture, you just sit there overwhelmed while watching. It's too bright, too loud, and too chaotic.
There are three potentially interesting story lines in the movie (There are more than three plot threads, but these are the only ones of any interest): Mr. Freeze's tragic background and his being goaded into attacking Gotham, Poison Ivy manipulating the Dynamic Duo into fighting over her, and the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Alfred as the latter hangs perilously close to death. Only one of these story lines works.
Schwarzennegar is horribly miscast. His persona overshadows the entire movie, and instead of a haunting, tragic Mr. Freeze, we get a goofball in a silly costume spouting terrible one-liners about cold and ice. While his background is right, his actions are nonsensical. Instead of working toward curing his wife, he makes his henchmen (dressed as Eskimo hockey players in case we didn't get the cold motif) sing songs from Christmas specials. Meanwhile, Thurman, a good actress elsewhere, is just awful as Ivy. Instead of cunning and seductive, she's freakishly vampish and overplays the villain aspect. I didn't even mention Bane (Jeep Swenson); in the comics, Bane is the brilliant strategist who is also strong enough to have broken Batman's back. Here, he's a roided-up, nearly mute brute who acts as Ivy's lapdog.
The heroes aren't much better. I've always insisted Clooney could have been a good Batman in a better written movie; since his turn as the Dark Knight, he's played a surprising number of edgy, quirky characters given his superstar status. Here, he's given nothing to work with, and a result, he's an empty suit. O'Donnell as Robin is worse, coming off as an entitled, whining little shit that you want Batman to punch out. Silverstone contributes nothing, hardly factoring in until the end.
What works? Gough brings dignity as Alfred, making his subplot the only story of any emotional resonance. His scenes with Clooney are the best because they are quiet, patient, and heartfelt. They get the mood right, and treat the situation seriously. Like everything, it's limited to a few token scenes, but I'll take what I can get.
Is Batman & Robin the worst movie ever made? No. Although there's very little to recommend about and it is certainly the nadir of the Caped Crusader on the big screen, it's mostly just disappointing, filled with missed opportunities; underdeveloped characters; contradictory tones; and ridiculous costumes, sets, and special effects.There is a fair degree of technical competence and a few moments worthy of the Batman legacy, but everything boils down a misplaced level of intent that pushes the film in the wrong direction at nearly every step. In the end, it's a poorly written, empty shell.