As we mark its 20th anniversary, is Batman & Robin the worst superhero movie ever made? Possibly ... but there is an upside to that.
The year was 1995. Batman Forever, the third film in Warner Bros.' series of live-action films starring the Caped Crusader, was a hit. With a different director (Joel Schumacher replacing Tim Burton), a different Batman (Val Kilmer stepping in for Michael Keaton) and a lighter, more colorful tone and look to the proceedings, the studio felt vindicated in not wishing to continue the darker, more psychologically twisted vision for the franchise that Burton had delivered with 1992's Batman Returns -- and the box office ($366 million worldwide for Forever as opposed to $266 million for Returns) seemed to support that assumption.
So it was no shock that WB asked Schumacher and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (who had done the final draft on Forever) to come back for their second go at the series. But what was surprising was that the studio fast-tracked the next film, wanting to get it out in two years instead of three. Also predictable: The studio wanted more of the same, a comedic, candy-colored, family-friendly take on the Dark Knight that also serve as the springboard for an unprecedented and massive merchandising and toy campaign -- something that had eluded the series to some degree on the first two, more shadowy films but had brought in hundreds of millions on Forever.
Schumacher and Goldsman were only too happy to oblige. If Batman Forever had flirted dangerously with the camp aesthetic of the classic 1960s Batman TV series (which had influenced a generation of fans but had experienced a backlash in the three decades since it was telecast), they showed no hesitation about diving all the way in with what eventually came to be called Batman & Robin -- and the result would be the near-destruction of Batman as a profitable and creatively satisfying film franchise.
The director and writer began their quest to make a big-screen version of the TV show by choosing a villain who had never really flourished in the comics but was a staple on the ABC series: Mr. Freeze. Although Dr. Victor Fries would later become a much darker and even tragic figure (thanks primarily to Batman: The Animated Series), his abilities and costume were cartoonish enough to fall in line with Schumacher's vision. The same with Poison Ivy, the second villain chosen: she was relatively unknown enough to the public that the filmmakers could mold her into a campy seductress instead of a true bio-menace.
Although early reports that Patrick Stewart was in the running for Freeze were encouraging -- the actor oozed dignity and gravitas -- Schumacher ultimately went with Arnold Schwarzenegger, an intimidating physical presence who nevertheless reduced Freeze to a clownish series of bad puns in a glittering 50-pound suit (other rumored contenders were Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis, who both arguably might have been even worse). After Demi Moore and Julia Roberts were both rumored to be up for Ivy, the role went to Uma Thurman -- again, an actress who could have made a formidable villainess if the part as written wasn't simply a parody.
Oh yeah, there was a third baddie too: Bane, played by the late Robert "Jeep" Swenson, who was demoted from his comic book origins as a nemesis of incredible, drug-fueled strength and intelligence -- the villain who "broke the bat," literally, by snapping Batman's back -- to an inarticulate, empty-headed muscleman and driver for Ivy (Swenson, who began his career as a wrestler, sadly died of steroid-induced heart failure two months after the movie opened).
Schumacher thought he would get Val Kilmer and Chris O'Donnell back as the Dynamic Duo after introducing them in Batman Forever, but he was only half right. A combination of bad deal-making, studio politics and Kilmer's own mercurial nature eventually led him to become the first one-and-done Caped Crusader, with Schumacher turning to the super-hot ER star George Clooney to don the cowl instead. Clooney's lighter touch was probably what Schumacher wanted all along, with both director and new star saying at the time that this edition of Batman would "enjoy" his life and not be as fixated on the death of his parents as he had been in the past (never mind that this was the entire psychological underpinning of the character, but whatever).
To complement Clooney and O'Donnell -- and ostensibly to sell even more toys -- Schumacher cast Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl, although her origins as Commissioner Gordon's daughter were cast aside so that she could be refashioned as Alfred Pennyworth's long-lost niece. Seeing more of Alfred Gough's Alfred -- one of the two mainstays of all four films, along with Pat Hingle's sadly buffoonish Gordon -- was always welcome, but Batman & Robin saddled him with that hoariest of cliches, an incurable disease (conveniently the same one that had stricken Victor Fries' wife).
Production on the film commenced in September 1996 and proceeded relatively smoothly; although the budget reportedly ballooned from $80 million to $100 million, Schumacher actually finished principal photography 10 days ahead of schedule. Warner Bros. signed a huge and potentially lucrative sponsorship deal with Taco Bell, and the toy factories were preparing to roll out an ocean of new products for Batman-happy kids (and fanboys) to snatch up. The movie finally opened on June 20, 1997 -- and that's when the foundations of this particular Batcave came crashing down.
In its opening weekend in North America, Batman & Robin took in $43 million; respectable, but nearly $10 million less than what Batman Forever earned. The critics were merciless on the film too, citing the overly campy tone, Clooney's passionless performance as Batman and the mindless emphasis on nonstop action as its biggest drawbacks. Batman & Robin was also one of the first movies to be directly impacted by the still-nascent but growing power of the Internet, where budding fan-driven sites like Aint It Cool News slammed the film relentlessly.
In its second week in theaters, Batman & Robin plunged 64 percent in ticket sales. Its final North American take was $107 million, barely surpassing the film's budget; its worldwide total was $238 million, the lowest of the series and a devastating blow to Schumacher and Clooney, who both took personal responsibility for its failure. A fifth film, Batman Unchained, was scuttled even though Schumacher had already commissioned a screenplay (that script, which has reportedly never leaked online, was said to be a return to a darker Batman story featuring the Scarecrow and Harley Quinn) and despite rumors that Kurt Russell was going to replace Clooney in the cape.
Today, Batman & Robin is derided as not just the worst Bat-film ever made (yes, even counting the quickie big-screen spinoff of the TV show released in 1966) but one of the two or three worst superhero/comic book movies of all time. Watching it now, under the guise of reappraisal, it has not improved in any way with the passage of time. It fails on almost every level, with Clooney, Schwarzenegger and Silverstone giving miserable performances and only Thurman getting by on her sheer charm, although even her Poison Ivy is mostly cringe-worthy. The tone is execrable, the screenplay and dialogue are hideous, the production design ludicrous and ostentatious (remember nippled Batsuits?) -- the thing is a mockery from top to bottom.
And yet ... I don't hate it, and neither should you. Why? Simply because in a weird way, we have Batman & Robin to thank for the Golden Age of superhero films that we are living in now.
The failure of that movie put a temporary end to Batman as a film franchise, but Warner Bros. kept looking for six years to find a way to reinvent the property -- to "reboot" it, to use that now over-employed term. If Batman & Robin was a success, the studio might have been perfectly happy for Schumacher to continue along the same path. But instead, Batman was thrown into a six-year purgatory of abandoned and half-started ideas (that's a whole history onto itself) and emerged in the hands of a young and little-known filmmaker named Christopher Nolan.
While the X-Men and Spider-Man franchises kept comic book movies alive and even prosperous during the early part of the 2000s, Nolan's 2005 Batman Begins re-introduced a darker, more serious and grittier Caped Crusader to the world to both fan and critical acclaim, as well as reinvigorated box office. And when both the X-Men and Spider-Man series began to creatively sputter in 2006 and 2007, it was 2008's The Dark Knight that catapulted superhero films into another realm entirely, both critically and financially. Even with their own flaws (and including 2012's underrated The Dark Knight Rises), Nolan's trilogy of Batman movies remain the gold standard and were the first in the genre to hit the billion-dollar mark at the box office, kicking open the door once and for all for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the DC Extended Universe, the Fox Marvel Universe and the ongoing abundance of riches we have today.
So yes, let's celebrate the 20th anniversary of Batman & Robin by not watching it, not giving it a second chance, and simply remembering just how worthless a film it is. But let's not hate it, because in the fullness of time it can now be seen as the sacrifice needed to get Batman -- and perhaps comic book movies as a whole -- back on track. To bend a famous phrase from The Dark Knight, Batman & Robin wasn't the superhero movie we deserved, but the one we needed.