When the first “new” Batman movie was released 8 years ago, nearly everyone made something out of how dark it was. People either loved the new tone of the movie or they missed the camp of the old TV show. With the latest installment in the current series, it seems that the pendulum is swinging back.
Batman & Robin is more campy and less dark than any of its recent predecessors, but it’s hard to decide if that’s bad or good. On the one hand, the dark tone was hard to sustain for two hours — both for the filmmakers and for the audience. On the other hand, now we are bombarded by dumb jokey lines like those from the TV series, and we don’t have a mute button.
In the first “action” sequence, after Batman (George Clooney) makes his Fred Flintstone-like entrance via the frozen back of a dinosaur, hordes of cartoonist villains “fight” Batman and Robin (Chris O’Donnell) while everyone makes lame hockey jokes. This first sequence is the worst in the film for cheesy camp, so at least the movie gets better as it progresses. But those first impressions are hard to change.
This time around bat-villains Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman) conspire to wipe out Gotham — Freeze in a misguided revenge plot and Ivy in an attempt to end oppression of plants by animals (notably men).
Freeze is a villain, no doubt, but he is also a dupe — he is much less evil than Poison Ivy. Considering Schwarzenegger’s shoot-to-wound role in Terminator 2, I wonder if he has a clause in his contract that stipulates his characters must have some redeeming qualities. I also wonder if his conservative politics had anything to do with evil Ivy’s association with environmental extremism.
There are some plot threads that deal with the addition of Batgirl (Alicia Silverstone) to the family, the terminal illness of loving servant and father figure Alfred (Michael Gough), and the jealous sibling rivalries that arise between Batman and Robin.
Actually, the “family” subplot of this movie was more thoughtful and honest about family matters than most kids movies are. Batman & Robin deals with trust, competition, caring for elderly family members, and the sacrifices of parents for their children. Don’t get me wrong. Most of the movie is look and action; not plot. But still, it was nice to include a bit of thoughtful fluff in this episode. And while the Michael Medveds complain about a lack of “family”-oriented movies, a big bad action movie gives them just what they asked for — but not necessarily what they wanted. (Goes to show how misused the word “family” is in political and critical circles.)
It’s hard to evaluate “acting” in a movie like this, where the sets, costumes and special effects take center stage, but a good performance is still important.
I had very low expectations for Schwarzenegger, who got top billing. He wasn’t as bad as I had feared, which is not to say that he was very good. Clooney gave the best performance yet as Batman/Bruce Wayne. Michael Keaton made a good Bruce Wayne in the earlier movies, when the neurosis of creating a superhero alter-ego was explored. But Clooney makes a more confident, mature, approachable, and likeable Wayne. (Val Kilmer was practically invisible as the last Wayne/Batman.) Chris O’Donnell’s youthful charm ordinarily makes him hard to take seriously, but he’s perfect for the role of Robin.
But as I mentioned, the stars of this movie are the modelmakers, costumers, and special effects technicians. Gotham’s architecture was nicely displayed, the oppressive size and weight of the city came across well, the cartoonish sets were elaborately decorated, and the special effects were seamless.
There are significant differences between Batman & Robin and the previous Batman movies, in scope, in tone, and in the details. But if you’ve seen the others, then you know what you’re getting into. If you liked the last ones, chances are you’ll like this one.
By the way, depending on your intestinal fortitude, you may want to stick around for the credits. The second song that plays over the credits — Gotham City by R. Kelley (AKA Love Theme from Batman & Robin?) — is really awful. It’s so bad that it’s funny, but it is not for the weak.