Batman & Robin: How representation can make a bad movie bearable

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Jan 17, 2017

If you were to ask any Batman fan which of the Batman movies of the late '80s/early-to-mid-'90s was the worst, you would get an almost unanimous response: Batman & Robin (1997).

For 20 years, the Joel Schumacher film starring George Clooney, Chris O’Donnell, Uma Thurman and, most notably, Arnold Schwarzenegger as the cold punning Mr. Freeze, has stood as a camp-tastic beacon of exactly what a Batman movie shouldn’t be. The film is full of terrible dialogue, awkward performances, strange costume choices (nipples. on. the bat suit.) and an internal logic that is anything but logical.

It is, in a word, ridiculous. But while it’s certainly a strange and terrible film, it remains, to this day, near and dear to my fangirl heart for one very important reason: Batgirl.

Childhood heroes

I was eight years old when this film came out in 1997 -- probably the perfect age for the tone and stakes of a Schumacher Batman movie -- and was starved for pop culture role models. My parents were never the kind to impress their own favorite things on me and my sister, so most of the things we enjoyed we came to on our own. That's not to mention the fact that neither of them are comic book readers or superhero-types. This is why, in 1997, I had no idea that there was such a thing as a Batgirl.

Yes, Barbara Gordon had been introduced way back in the 1960s, and yes, she had appeared in Batman: The Animated Series in the early '90s, but at eight years old I had consumed neither of these series nor had I read any of the comic books. They just never crossed my path. I knew who Batman was largely by reputation. And who among us didn’t know about Batman even before our first encounter? Batman was ubiquitous. Batgirl was a novelty. 

Up until I was introduced to the Batgirl of Batman & Robin, my biggest childhood hero was probably the Pink Power Ranger. Kimberly took no crap, kicked lots of ass, fought bad guys with her sick martial arts skills (and a bow and arrow) and got to drive a pterodactyl, which is arguably the coolest of the dinosaurs (I'm looking at you, Red Ranger and your T-Rex). The Pink Ranger was as much of a strong female character as I was likely to find on TV in the mid-'90s, and I responded to it like catnip. While most girls wanted Barbies, I wanted a bow. And where my friends asked for dance lessons, I begged to take karate.

When Batgirl showed up, that burgeoning fandom was kicked into overdrive.

Better than you think

Here is the thing about Batman & Robin: it’s not as bad as you remember. I’m certainly not going to go so far as to claim that it’s in any way good, but it does manage to get a few things right. For example, Mr. Freeze’s motivations make perfect sense. The logic behind how he goes about acting on them certainly doesn’t, and Schwarzenegger's over-the-top performance is distracting, but the core of the character's story is actually pretty solid. The same can be said for the idea of a Batman film that relies on underlying tension between himself and his sidekick.

But we don't remember the things that worked. We just remember Bat nipples and cold puns.

I rewatched the film recently in preparation for this article and realized that my own opinions of the movie were heavily colored by those of other Batman fans who had impressed upon me over the intervening years just how terrible it was. I have been known to say, even, that the portrayal of Batgirl was terrible when, in reality, it actually wasn’t. Yes, the performance is odd, and yes, her origin isn’t true to the source material, but if you take a step back and release the iron grip on said source material, this interpretation of Barbara does maintain a majority of the comic book character's key attributes.

For one, she's a bit of a badass, even before she suits up. When she arrives in Gotham City, she's recently dropped out of school to race motorcycles for money. It's a rebellious kind of badass, but you have to be a bit of a rebel to become a bat-themed teenage vigilante ... especially when you're (usually) the daughter of the police commissioner. 

For another, she's stubborn and stalwart. The entire reason she travels to Gotham in the first place is to whisk her Uncle Alfred away from his life of servitude. It's actually quite interesting to see a character take the side of butler liberation in the wealthy boys club of Wayne Manor. How does she plan to do it? By using the money she's won racing motorcycles, of course.

But in perhaps the biggest holdover from the comics, once she dons the Batgirl suit and assumes her new heroic identity, she saves the damn day. Not once, but twice. And in what is perhaps the most entertaining holdover from the comics, she does it because the men are incapable of doing so themselves (not that they are willing to admit it).

And yes, I’m going to break it down for you, because it's great, even in its incredible cheesiness. 

Honestly, it was an inspired choice to make Poison Ivy one of the villains in a film introducing Batgirl to movie audiences. The rift she causes between Batman and Robin creates what, in another film, may have been an interesting dynamic. She also becomes the perfect adversary for a female hero. While she renders the men heroically impotent, Ivy’s wiles have no effect on Batgirl, allowing the nascent hero to defeat her first villain while the men are … otherwise engaged.

Some time later, following the trio's tag-team defeat of Mr. Freeze, the fate of Gotham rests on Barbara's shoulders and her knowledge of computers. With the city in desperate need of a thawing out, Batgirl out-tech-supports the Boy Wonder and saves the day. Did I mention she's a computer genius? I told you they stayed true to the essence of the character. 

Better than nothing

At the end of the day, my affection for this film is likely just as colored as my dislike of it. It is colored by nostalgia -- and, oddly, colored by representation. The nostalgia is quite obvious. I came to this film as a child when it was just a loud, colorful superhero film perfect for a child’s unformed brain. Even though I grew up, actually read some comic books and came to see the film for the flawed parade of insanity it is, there is always a part of me that will love the film for what it is and what it did for at least one eight-year-old girl.

But colored by representation? How can representation color my opinion of what is ostensibly a bad a movie? Easily. It gave me something that other movies, at least those I had experienced up to that point, simply hadn’t done: it gave me a female superhero. More than that, it gave me Batgirl, a character that has continued to influence me well into my adult life. 

Representation is important. I say it all the time, but it's so unbelievably true. Seeing characters who look like us, act like us, love like us, but who do things we can only dream of are what inspire and motivate us to be better, to do more, to reach higher. But how can we be so inspired when that representation simply does not exist? 

It’s that lack of representation which draws us to subpar media. When there is a dearth of characters and stories that you recognize or identify with, something is better than the nothing you're used to.