Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Film School Rejects post: BATMAN & ROBIN isn't as bad as you remember it

It's become a rather common occurrence for film and pop culture sites to celebrate the anniversary of some film that carries a great deal of nostalgia for members of a particular generation.  Last month, Ain't It Cool News celebrated the 30th anniversary of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom with a seemingly endless series of articles revisiting this "underrated" film.

Permit me a small digression. I think what turned me off from the Temple of Doom love-fest a bit was that every writer singing the praises of the film seemed to be coming from a place of defensiveness. It was as if they grew up in a world where Temple of Doom was as derided as Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was upon release.  The result were a lot of testimonials that seemed determined to defend the film from an attack it never really faced, and then exaggerating the virtues of the film to prove the "haters" wrong.

Honestly, there was a whiff of the disingenuous to this celebration.  Temple of Doom is a perfectly adequate film.  It's got some great action set pieces and a number of moments that stand with the best of the series.  It also has some really awful ethnic stereotyping, some wretched moments that are comedically tone-deaf, and love interest that's the Jar Jar Binks of the first three films.  There's plenty of stuff to love, but it's got plenty of flaws too.  Maybe the ridiculous dinner scene doesn't bother you.  Perhaps you are inclined to argue that Willie Scott is exactly what Lucas and Spielberg were going for by evoking a specific sort of 1930s archtype.  I don't necessarily agree that authorial intent trumps the effectiveness of those intentions.  Just because Lucas and Spielberg got exactly what they wanted at the time doesn't mean it wasn't a bad idea on its face.

(Don't get me wrong. Temple of Doom gets more right than it gets wrong, but it's not without demerits.  When I throw the movie in for fun, I usually watch the amazing opening sequence up until the raft drifts into the village.  Then I skip to just before the mine car chase.)

It was interesting to contrast some reactions to the Temple of Doom nostalgia to some muted appreciation for Ghostbusters II that arose a few weeks later.  While most people sharing and commenting on the Indy articles were clearly in the pro-movie camp, the Ghostbusters II reactions were more mixed, with a lot of assertions that the people who loved that film did so only because they saw it as kids before they knew any better.

There's a grain of truth to that.  There's plenty in the Ghostbusters sequel that amused me, but I won't pretend for a minute that it's as accomplished as its predecessor. It DOES bemuse me that some people hate it so much though, so passionately that I think they would be the ones most in need of revisiting the film with objective eyes.

Which brings me to a piece I wrote for Film School Rejects.  Rather than revisit a film that was generally considered pretty good and try to upgrade it to "flawless timeless classic," I resolved to examine a truly derided film, one who's name is so synonymous with "worst movie" lists that you can count on it ending up somewhere on the general "Worst Movies Ever" lists and almost always at the top of "Worst Comic Book/Superhero Movies Ever Made" articles.

That's right. I attempted an objective re-examination of Batman & Robin.

I hadn't watched the film in about a decade or so.  Before I revisited it, I had a few theories.  It occurred to me that since this movie no longer carried the burden of being the torchbearer for an entire franchise (or for that matter, the entire genre of superhero films) a lot of baggage became irrelevant.  It was similar to how as a major Superman fan, I rejected Smallville for many years until I learned to just accept it as an alternate universe type version of the characters I loved.

So my mission statement for this viewing - to find out if it was possible to accept Batman & Robin on its own terms and evaluate how well it executes its own ambitions. It clearly wasn't trying to be Tim Burton's Batman, nor was it trying to be in the same vein as Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns.  Beating it up just because it doesn't conform to a Bat-fan's particular preferred incarnation of the character is unfair.

So if one accepts that Batman & Robin is actively trying to be a big-budget version of the 1960's campy TV show, is it possible to appreciate it the same way that most fans have now accepted Adam West's incarnation as a valid interpretation?

Check out my Film School Rejects post for the answer in "Bombs Away: Enjoying BATMAN & ROBIN On Its Own Campy Terms."


  1. Can't go with you on this one, Bitter. I think I get what you're saying; that it's not as bad as made out because it was supposed to be bad, but I honestly don't know if that makes it better or worse. Maybe you can argue it was a victim of context (coming after Burton) and era (long after West/Ward but pre internet-powered nostalgia).
    I've still got love for Batman Forever even though the camp was starting to show through, but I've tried to sit down and enjoy B&R on the level it was obviously intended, and... it's just not happening.
    Agree that it's reputation has snowballed since release, though that may also be context, when you look at what came after. I remember not hating it at the time. But then I also remember convincing myself The Phantom Menace was a work of unheralded genius.

    1. Yeah, I think BATMAN FOREVER is actually pretty decent. That one actually was pretty well received at the time. The bad reputation it got was mostly retroactive, due to people hating B&R and deciding to burn the house down on all things Schumacher.

      I'd never call TPM "genius" but that's another one where I think geek culture has vastly oversold its flaws. It's not on the level of the original three, but I think that the extreme passion you'll find in most STAR WARS fans makes their intense rejection of it somewhat inevitable.

      There's a certain faction of that audience that takes the films VERY personally. Largely that seems to manifest as intense scorn for George Lucas. Occasionally it leads to some fans being perhaps more kind to the project because they can find something to like.

      My own suspicion is that a more emotionally objective reviewer would watch TPM and say, "It's got problems, but I don't see how you people are all still raging about this 15 years later."

    2. Yeah, I think we've talked before about how the internet has contributed massively to recontextualising some movies. And the way we see movies, the context, is often as important as what we see.

      Believe me, in no way do I consider TPM genius, but I do remember sitting there in the first 10 minutes thinking "this is really wooden" and consciously trying to parse it through some kind of mental filter. I've managed to send us off on a Star Wars tangent but the prequels are a different kettle of fish altogether because there's 22 years of expectation to factor in, which meant they could never be what everyone wanted. Maybe that's another column...

    3. It is also in the last act of the film where Batman gets on a new suit that has silver tones in it which loosely echo they purple, black and grey suit of the West series and the color palette of the comics. Had Schumacher done Batman Triumphant, I believe we would have seen it.

      Film is subjective. I'll give you that. And I agree that at the time. Alicia Silverstone was an unfair target. In fact, I give all the actors a pass on this film because they didn't write the dialog, had a hand in costume design, light the neon set or get behind the camera and go bonkers with dutch angles. Many zero in on the director Joel Shcumacher and the film more or less derailed his career or so it might appear.

      Batman Returns had its problems. I also liked some of it - it is enough to be tolerable. And like the first film, Burton didn't have a decent payoff confrontation between Batman and his foes. Returns is a case where Burton wasn't held in check. The same goes for Schumacher on Batman & Robin. I think most can tolerate Forever, but B&R went too far.

      For a long time it was an uphill battle to take Batman seriously until Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore's Killing Joke graphic novels. Batman as a serious character - the way he was intended - was back. Burton's 89 film got the essence of that. It carried over a bit into Returns, but Burton got too grotesque.
      In any case, here is all this time and effort on re-introducing Batman and to take the character seriously Now comes Schumacher. Codpieces. Bat-nipples. Gotham becoming soaked in a rock concert. Batman and the rest of the characters treated like a joke. That *might* be alright---IF it was in a different continuity as the Burton films. Going back to the spirit of the 60s series was not the way comics fans - and Batman fans in specific - wanted to go. But forget that segment of the populace for the moment. The main filmgoing audience liked Forever's balance but despised the fourth film because it was *that* bad.

      The comics fans hate on this with good reason. You said it yourself--"the film doesn't treat Bruce and Dick like characters" I'll go one step further. The film doesn't treat any character like characters, except maybe for Alfred. The character of Bane was a selling point in this - and nearly broke Batman's back- but he was reduced to thug level and not the essence of what the character was. It might as well been Killer Croc.

    4. As a fan of KNIGHTFALL, I totally hear you on the Bane stuff. It's always odd to me when filmmakers use a character, but change so much about them that it might as well have been someone else. But that's pretty much how I feel about Burton's Penguin. That's also a case where I feel like it's a violation of the comic AND the film character's history and motivations don't even really make sense in terms of just the film.

      But you're right about the second film for each director representing them not having a governor on their excess.

      In your explanation, you actually touch on a lot of the baggage I was saying it's not possible to remove. You're right in that after finally having a movie that took Batman "seriously" (though revisiting the 1989 film now puts in perspective how it was actually fairly comic book-y in it's own way), that B&R felt like something comic fans were trying to live down. So I get that played into the reaction of the time, especially when it represented the fear of how future comic movies would go.

      But 17 years later, that doesn't mean anything. Batman got taken even more seriously on film as a result, superhero films are thriving, and we no longer have to look at Schumacher as the guy who ruined everything. My notion was, forget about any larger context, hatred, nostalgia or whatever - how much does BATMAN & ROBIN succeed or fail purely on its own terms?

      With that, I think it's fair to say the film isn't as awful as its reputation. I don't think it's a huge success either, but as comic book fans, we've endured far worse so it feels like lazy criticism to keep waving this one as the torchbearer for "Worst Movie Ever."

      Oh and the 3rd Act Batsuits are totally inexplicable. There's even an interview somewhere where Chris O'Donnell makes fun of that.

  2. Of course it's crap, it's a superhero movie. The thing that amuses me most is how people who like superhero movies actually seem to expect to be taken seriously.