batman and robin

Batman & Robin is actually a camp masterpiece

Contributed by
Jun 15, 2018

I'm here to say something controversial, something so heretical that I may make myself heretical among many readers: Batman & Robin is an enjoyable, at times even good, movie.

But let's back up. Batman & Robin is, far and away, a bottom tier Batman movie, though I'd argue that Batman Forever is more annoying. What I'm asking is for you, dear reader, to take the "Batman" out of the context of being a "Batman movie" and see it how I see it: as a wonderful, garish, disastrous, and even beautiful work of high camp. It succeeds as camp where it fails as a Batman movie — and arguably may secretly be a great movie in the gay camp canon.

The baseline

Few superhero movies are quite as reviled as Batman & Robin. While plenty of superhero movies have been worse, the movie sat at an unusual intersection. It was supposed to keep the franchise — at that time, one of the few successful big screen superhero film series — going, after the commercial success but critical confusion over Batman Forever, director Joel Schumacher's first time out on the franchise.

1997 was not, in general, a good year to be a superhero movie in the first place. Spawn came and went, and DC/Warner Brothers came out with Steel just a few months after B&R. Plenty of studios were trying for comic book-based films around the time, some (The Crow, The Mask) better received than others (Tank Girl, Barb Wire, The Phantom), whether by critics or box office receipts.

Before superhero films were the norm, they were almost a joke, with two shining exceptions: the first couple entries in the Superman and Batman franchises, which were huge successes in the late '70s/early '80s and late '80s/early '90s, respectively. Partly this was due to the vision of directors like Richard Donner and Tim Burton. (Though famously, the uneven Superman II replaced Donner with director Richard Lester mid-production, with plenty of Donner's touches still flourishing in the film.)

Both Lester and Schumacher represented turning points in the franchise, where the quality began a precipitous decline. After all, Superman II gave us Zod, while Superman III gave us… Richard Pryor, an embezzlement scheme Office Space lampooned, and a pale imitation of Lex Luthor.

Similarly, Batman Returns may have been messy in places (like Superman II) but ultimately gave us iconic weirdness, iconic darkness, and scenery chewing so profound that Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans suddenly looks like a quiet, contemplative drama.

But Batman Forever was garish and weird, foisting two villains with outsized personalities at us at once, clumsily introducing Robin, creating overdesigned set pieces bordering on the impressionist, and reintroducing much of the camp of the original 1966 Batman series, the one that — while iconic to many — also represented a decidedly unserious turn on perhaps one of our most grounded heroes.

I mean, in the way a guy who dresses like a bat and has too much money can be considered "grounded" standing next to an Amazonian goddess, a few super-powered aliens, and a guy who can run fast enough to bend time in the comics. Similarly, Batman Forever made it clear that Tim Burton's dark, gothic, and weird turn on the hero was gone, replaced by something more in line with typical hero fare.

Then Batman & Robin came, alienated fans, gave us terrible one-liners ("it's the hockey team from Hell!") and derailed the franchise for years to come. In some ways, you can possibly draw a line from the wholesale rejection of Batman & Robin to DC and Warner's insistence on "dark and gritty" movies even though Marvel has repeatedly demonstrated that a superhero movie can be both funny and take itself just seriously enough to border on "believable."

The contrarian part of the argument

It's time to get to the heart of the matter. Ok, so here goes: Batman & Robin is not a good Batman movie because it isn't necessarily aiming to be a good Batman movie. It's an affectionate homage to the original television show as well as a successful dissection of the weird homoeroticism underlying the then-60-ish-year history of the Batman comics.

Firstly, there are obvious nods to the male gaze from the get-go. As Batman and Robin suit-up early in the film, there's clearly something… different. Bat nipples and curve-hugging butt plates, two early-on features of the film that left fans feeling as if they'd been had and tricked into buying tickets to a sinking ship. Then comes a battle with Arnold Schwarzenegger and the already-mentioned minions referred to as the "hockey team from Hell" in a set piece bordering on the expressionist.

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As a Batman movie, this seems out of line with everything we've come to love about, at the very least, the Burton films: it has bad costumes, bright sets, and crap dialogue. But if you flip this in your mind, and view it as an unrelenting parody of Batman, you have Batman and Robin slipping on sublimated same-sex desire and joining a carefully choreographed dance number that, while it could have used some Busby Berkeley flourishes, overall establishes that this movie is meant to be a spectacle.

And we move on to Uma Thurman's origin as Poison Ivy. Jason Woodrue, a villain also associated with the Swamp Thing franchise, is experimenting with lethal chemicals, injecting them into a violent criminal who emerges as an exaggerated muscle man named Bane. His costume is S&M gear that would have made after-dark Chris Claremont proud, including a spiked collar. It takes the initial comics costume and makes it a gross, twisted parody of himself.

For fans, this stripped Bane of essential parts of his origin. While in the comics, Bane is strong and powerful but also cunningly intelligent, in Batman & Robin he's a hulking brute with the brain of a stegosaurus. The original Bane costume was already inadvertently homoerotic, but Schumacher makes that overt, creating a bowdlerized Toms of Finland drawing around the Bane outline set in the comics. It's easy to see the disappointment for Batman fans expecting to see the same villain that had broken Batman just a few years early in the comics — but isn't hard, in hindsight, to see that it represented something else entirely.

Thurman's meek Pam Isley argues with Woodrue and is ultimately killed in the confrontation, but rises again as a sort of ultra-powerful, seductive plant goddess Poison Ivy. Her new appearance is something I'm shocked hasn't come up a few times on Drag Race despite ample source material. Bane, the over-muscled parody of what some view as peak masculinity, becomes a grunting henchman, mirroring some of the near-silent female henchmen seen in comics, fantasy, and sci-fi in skimpy outfits as more set decoration than true characters.

Thurman decides to seek revenge on Wayne Enterprises for her new twisted form as a modern-day Beatrice from Nathaniel Hawthorne's Rappacini's Daughter. Batman and Robin end up as collateral in this, with Poison Ivy working to seduce both to pit them against each other. But these scenes, and the escalating tension between Batman and Robin, become again an inversion of the male gaze, seemingly highlighting almost a jealousy not over who wins the disturbed heart of Poison Ivy, but her ability to drive a wedge between their homosocial bond — something George Clooney's Batman/Bruce Wayne soon realizes. He tries to break the spell placed on his young ward, as if indicating a bit of "But I'm still here. For you." that could exist just as much in slash fiction as it does onscreen. Still, it's not quite enough as our heroes are captured by Poison Ivy and held in vine bondage.

Enter Alicia Silverstone's Batgirl, up to here a peripheral character, to save the day, literally sawing them out of bondage.

Freeze!

We've so far ignored Mr. Freeze, somewhat at our own peril. He teams up with Poison Ivy for her nebulous nefarious plot sometime after her first seduction of the dynamic duo. Like most of the costuming for men in this movie, the Freeze costume is a garish armor accentuating the physicality of Arnold's body. When the chest plate is lit up, it, too, has nipples. (To be fair, there is a small nippular element to Batgirl's initial armor costume as well, but perhaps it's more in line with the production design of the rest of the film. Ivy, on the other hand, is in a skintight green jumpsuit.)

Freeze's motivations are similar to most of his other appearances, including Batman: The Animated Series which shows a more subdued design than most other media he's appeared in. The Batman & Robin Freeze costume design is a combination of a modernized look from the 1966 series embodied by Eli Wallach as well as the '90s comic obsession with armor on top of armor on top of — you guessed it — more armor. It's very "what if Rob Liefeld designed Mr. Freeze," right down to the giant gun. And if Rob Liefeld's art is one thing, it's a weird exaggeration of masculinity.

The motivation for Freeze is much the same — he's committing crimes to save his cryo-frozen wife from a debilitating disease — but Schwarzenegger's brand of overacting amplifies an already loud movie into the stratosphere.

And loud doesn't even begin to describe everything wrapped up in this movie. At times, Wayne Manor is an anchor of sanity in set design compared to the acid-drenched Gotham otherwise seen throughout the movie, giving the impression more of a theater stage than a film set. (in fact, the overall movie comes across as if a Batman-inspired stage show than an actual film, something jarring enough that it could add to the poor reputation of the film.)

Everyone in the film is loud and exaggerated, from Batman to Robin to Freeze to more peripheral characters like Gossip Gerty. (Perhaps the only underacted role is Elle MacPherson as Julie Madison, the nominal love interest for Bruce Wayne who doesn't actually have much to do onscreen, and MacPherson isn't exactly a born actress.)

Due to this overall loudness, Freeze and his story serve as a third act motivation, tying the rest of the film together. Freeze shows a stoic sexuality that rejects the advances of others around him despite seductive attempts by Ivy and even his own henchmen. He's got a frozen wife, after all. (She isn't given much to do on-screen.) But perhaps it's a mask for Freeze's own disinterest in opposite-sex attraction, as if able to easily shake off the temptation.

The elephant in the room

There are more than a few obvious connections to the 1966 Batman TV series, with over-the-top villains, ham-fisted acting, goofy set pieces, and a general sense of high camp that's given it a cult classic reputation today. It's enough that the series even got its own modern-day comic adaptation set in that show's relative continuity.

While Batman comics have, for much of their existence, been fairly dark, the 1940s and 1950s issues tended towards more weird, garish science fiction than dark 'n' gritty detective. This, in turn, gave it a campy and even homoerotic edge that drew the attention of Frederick Wertham, whose infamous book Seduction of the Innocents set back American comics a few decades by scaring parents to the "truths" of comic books as a breeding ground for sexual deviancy, juvenile delinquency, and other behaviors that 1954 suburban America was unwilling to let fly.

It was these stories that colored the world of the Adam West and Burt Ward Batman more so than the more pulp-inspired early works. It also added to the public perception of a covert or overt sexual dynamic to Batman and Robin that is unavoidable even today. Books have even been written on the way 1950s Batman comics, and the television series inspired by them, caused Batman to "read" as gay. Even when Batman comics returned to a more serious tone in the 1970s, the public perception was unavoidable. It may, too, have delayed the introduction of Robin to the movie series until Schumacher, who is openly gay, took over the franchise.

Batman & Robin was a catastrophe in the eyes of many. DC stopped making superhero movies for another seven years, surfacing with the poorly received Catwoman, which is arguably worse than Batman & Robin. Unlike Batman & Robin, Catwoman has achieved the "so bad it's good" cult movie status. The next year, a decidedly serious, sober take on Batman emerged with Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, which kicked off a trilogy of dark and gritty, grounded Batman tales that refused to entertain some of the more excessive villains for a "real world" take that tried to get as far from Schumacher's movies as possible. (No one wants a repeat of Jim Carrey's Riddler. No one.)

Batman & Robin 1997

Credit: Warner Bros. 

Some will say Batman & Robin killed the comic book/superhero movie for a time, though Blade was a huge success just the next year and X-Men came out three years later and revitalized interest in mainstream superheroes on-screen, eventually leading to the renaissance today. (Somehow 1999's Mystery Men didn't quite cut it.) It's become the sort of myth that's crept into quasi-fact in the minds of many fans.

And it goes without saying that it does, in fact, rob 1990s comic fans of the type of Batman movie they'd hoped for after the almost-too-dark Batman Returns. The 1990s Batman comics were grim and violent, flourished with disturbing villains and agonizing cruelty to Bruce Wayne/Batman as he became paralyzed and watched as a violent vigilante took his place. While Batman comics were getting darker, the movies were getting lighter. Nolan's Batman films were a fulfillment of the post-1960s Batman, one that returned to the roots of the character as a disturbed vigilante detective instead of a wacky inventor and his pubescent pal. Batman could break. The Joker could kill or maim in twisted fashions. The Dark Knight Rises was imperfect but gave the world a better Bane than Batman & Robin could provide. The Dark Knight may be one of the best superhero movies of all time.

So Batman & Robin is not a good Batman movie on the surface. But perhaps some of the backlash was amplified by the homoerotic subversion of Batman, an element that had been noticed since the 1950s that Schumacher essentially put on wide display in the film for all to see, none-dare-challenge him. In some ways, Schumacher's take was only marginally sillier than Tim Burton's take — witness the twisted take on The Penguin that aims for disgust over a trueness to the comic book origins, or the S&M overtness of Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman, or even the ham-fisted take on The Joker that unevenly combined the camp of the 1960s cartoon with a more sinister edge.

Schumacher lightened the tone a bit, but there was still a connection to the Burton films that gave it a throughline. Schumacher took Burton's ideas and added in the homoeroticism that had been under the surface of the 1940s/'50s/'60s Batman. This, in turn, was rejected by fans not wanting to confront that this wasn't as far from Burton's films, or even the comics, as they'd hoped.

Batman & Robin deserves a cult status of its own. Remove it from the context of a Batman franchise film and view it as a breakdown, a parody, and a circus-like show and it takes on a charming campy quality that works as an essay on the things we aren't always confronting about Batman, that there's a silliness and a subversion wrapped up in the mythos, that there are qualities to the history of Batman that are worth interrogating with a wry smile. View it as a Batman drag show or expressionist theater piece, and you suddenly have a work of high camp that can be jarring to some audiences but perhaps richly deserving of its own acolytes.

Also, it's ultimately better than Batman Forever. Fight me.