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The greatness of Uma Thurman's Poison Ivy
Batman & Robin is generally remembered as being a low point in the Bat-franchise, but it isn't that much more outlandish than the preceding Batman Returns or Batman Forever. Culture was simply changing at the time, so the campy absurdism of the previous films was falling out of favor and would eventually turn to the hyper-masculine vibe of the Nolan era. Or perhaps the seven hundred ice jokes from Mister Freeze finally crossed a line. We can't say for sure what made this film come to be known as "the worst Batman movie," but it wasn't because logic-defying plotlines were a deal breaker for this series overall.
Regardless of any failure of the film, it did still grant us the first movie appearance of one Doctor Pamela Isley, otherwise known as Poison Ivy. Since 1997, Poison Ivy's character development has been nothing short of profound, steering her away from her former identity as a standard maniacal Batman villain and toward building her own identity as a self-isolated, emotionally complex environmentalist.
Looking back on this time period might be a little disorienting in contrast to what we know of Ivy today, but there are still glints and glimmers of her greatness all throughout the movie — for instance, her referring to Batman and Robin as a "militant arm of the warm-blooded oppressors, animal protectors of the status quo." You have to admit, that's a pretty solid Ivy line.
Ivy's origin in Batman & Robin is similar to her comic book story. At the start, she's helping Jason Woodrue with his botanical experiments, but when she realizes how deeply unethical he is and the actual harm he poses to plant life, she rebels. In retaliation, he simply shoves her into his experiments, causing her to morph into the ruthless Poison Ivy. She kills him and goes to Gotham to confront Bruce Wayne for his complicity. This story goes completely off the rails and shows her choosing Victor Freeze for a partner despite their diametrically opposed motivations and power sets. As with any Batman villain, Ivy ultimately goes "too far," and is taken out unceremoniously by Batgirl.
Yet even at her most off-the-wall, when she's talking about the environment, Ivy still isn't wrong. She hands Bruce Wayne a proposal that suggests saving the planet at the expense of human life. Like no environmentalist ever, Ivy shrugs off the potential cost of human life, which allows Wayne to condescendingly say, "people come first" and hand the dossier right back to her. She says that humanity's days are numbered as a direct result of our mistreatment of the planet, which, in using the context clue that this train of thought is laughed at and ridiculed, chances are that threat sounded a lot less absolutely true in 1997 than it does in 2020.
The part of Uma's Ivy that doesn't work is the part of comics Ivy that doesn't work — the sexism, in other words. This character falls for Freeze after spending about twelve seconds in a room with him because she recognizes that he is immune to her charms. She poses almost no physical threat outside of her pheromones and has the completely out-of-character Bane doing all the heavy lifting for her, which completely undermines the awesome power she possesses in comic book form. Likewise, we know from later roles that actress Uma Thurman made for an excellent action hero, so her lack of dynamic mobility in this film is a shame. She's quickly taken out by Batgirl, who, despite having apparently no training whatsoever, makes short work of Ivy, raising endless questions around why Ivy's powers only seem to work on men.
When Ivy fails, it is in no small part due to the fact she is at odds with other women, while cartoon and comics Ivy was very seldom anti-woman even in some of her worst-written appearances. In Batman & Robin, she attempts to murder Nora Fries, which not only opens the door for Victor to have a sympathetic arc that she herself will never have, but also serves little to no purpose. Even if Ivy were suddenly obsessed with Freeze, what threat could a comatose Nora truly pose? Ivy's wild schemes drive the story, but she is little more than a plot device through the last half of the movie, which is a disappointment after her delightfully anarchic opening scene. Most importantly, despite the fact that Ivy's cellular structure has been changed against her will and she is reeling from traumatic betrayal, she is still treated as completely unsympathetic by the script, which is sadly in line with some of her worst comic book stories.
The reason people view Ivy as a misunderstood hero now is that she was long laughed out of rooms due to her strong belief that to save plant life was also, in the long run, to save human life, even if any attempt at preserving humanity would be completely inadvertent on her part and not at all a priority. Batman's inability to reach any place of compromise with someone who was reeling from trauma, who repeatedly expressed interest in holding corporate criminals accountable for their misdeeds, and who prioritized plant life above all else, is one of his biggest failings. Meanwhile, Ivy is nothing if not ahead of her time in her concern in regards to, for instance, mass extinction as a result of mass deforestation.
During the time period in which this film was released, both fictional and real-world environmentalists were often portrayed as having a screw loose, encouraging mockery towards people that are serious about preserving life on earth that continues to affect the U.S.'s overall shocking indifference to climate change today. It's something that is absolutely coming back to bite us now as our planet endures what was once the easily-preventable environmental catastrophe. Examples of environmentally-concerned characters outside of Captain Planet are almost always painted as "going too far" to protect the Earth. The fact that climate scientists and environmentalists have been so long dismissed as crackpots with no attempts to meet them on any level certainly hasn't worked in our favor — which is why takes like these, which prop up the millionaire Bruce Wayne as a savior while condemning Ivy as wildly inconsistent in her goals (women, right?), will continue to age increasingly poorly.
However, none of that should fall on Poison Ivy herself, who remains one of the more compelling parts of a film whose plot is essentially held together by scotch tape. From the fluctuating accent, veering from Mae West to Thurman's regular speaking voice at the drop of a hat, to the inconsistent characterization, this take on Ivy certainly lacked a clear vision. Still, the actress plays this role to the nines and goes along with every wildly veering plot point with gusto. Batman & Robin might be a bad movie, but Thurman's Ivy is not a bad performance, and if things had been just a little bit different, more people would recognize it for how iconic it truly was for a lot of people who would later become her most ardent supporters and fans.