Batman And Robin (1997 film)

Posted: May 17, 2014 in Bane, Batgirl, Batman, DC, Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, Robin

If Superman was the Alpha of comic book movies, Batman & Robin was very nearly the Omega. It was an expensive, garish, day-glo nightmare of a film.

I am, by no means, a defender of this movie. But I do acknowledge that some of the anger that it receives is misplaced. If you look at the climate that the box-office at the time, some of the baffling decisions made during production start to make more sense. Here’s a breakdown of the budget to revenue ratio of the Bat-films up to that point:

Batman (1989): $35 million budget/ $411 million gross
Batman Returns (1992): $80 million budget/ $266 million gross
Batman Forever (1995): $100/ $336 million gross

After making the first Batman, WB had a massive hit and likely weren’t sure how to proceed. Burton was re-hired to direct a sequel and he made a much more “Burton-esque” (and much less profitable) film. The studio decided to take things in a different direction with a second sequel and Joel Shumacher was brought in to add some color and a larger sense of scale to the series. Likely for a number of reasons (cast of popular actors, youth appeal, the hit Batman cartoon on Fox Kids, etc.) this take clicked with audiences. And if studios are good at anything, it’s recognizing when something is slightly profitable and then overdoing the hell out of it. When viewed from the cold, dollars-and-cents perspective of a studio executive it’s frankly amazing that the film turned out as coherent as it did. I mean, sure it was a glorified advertisement for toys but at least it wasn’t a LITERAL advertisement. I can just imagine some exec giving the note, “focus groups say that kids would love the deluxe Snowtracker Batman even more if George actually played with one in the movie, let’s make that happen.”

I wasn’t joking about that.

Listening to the film’s commentary was a rather cathartic experience for me. Like many fans, I have spent years with a certain amount of anger over this movie and the fact that it essentially killed the Bat-franchise for almost a decade. Also like many fans, I placed most of the blame on Joel Schumacher. But after listening to him discuss the troubled production of the film, I realize that he did what he could to salvage it amid absolutely ridiculous studio decisions. I’m not saying that he should bare none of the blame (nor does he, in fact he accepts more responsibility than is probably deserved) but I think the lion’s share should be leveled at WB as a whole. Every single aspect of the making of said film was done with the express concern of selling toys and pushing merchandise. At one point in the commentary Schumacher mentions that producers would look at everything in the movie (concept art, costumes, sets, lighting) and determine how “Toyetic” it was. Adjustments were then made to increase marketability. Think about that for a second. I imagine it would be difficult, if not impossible, for even some of the most respected directors to make a decent movie with that kind of meddling.

If nothing else, there is one solitary reason to appreciate this film. Its failure gave life to the current trend of “serious” comic book films. The studios acknowledged that silliness and over-merchandising aren’t ways to make profitable comic movies. Without Batman & Robin there would be no Blade and then there would be no X-Men, no Batman Begins, no Iron Man and no Avengers. To me, that kind of puts it all in perspective.

You know what, never mind…this is crap.
  1. J.R. says:

    First of all, I would like to say that this is a very well-written and insightful post. I think we are less angry with this movie and more confused over how and why it happened. You shed excellent light on that.

    It always makes me laugh when I watch Batman Returns because I still have Happy Meal toys from that movie. We are talking about a movie where the Penguin bites a man's nose off, uses the word “poontang,” and Catwoman electrocutes a man to death while kissing him in S&M gear. This movie was attached to a Happy Meal. That blows my mind. As you pointed out, that explains why they went for a lighter tone. It worked. I still have my McDonald's Batman Forever drinking glasses and never question the morality of that partnership. Speaking of toys, I find it equally weird that they released a Henri Ducard toy when Batman Begins came out. No child wants to play with that.

    When we talk about comic book movies taking the source material seriously, it doesn't start with Blade. The Crow, Men in Black, the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the Rocketeer all did service to their respective source material. If Batman & Robin is responsible for what followed, it must also answer for X-Men Origins Wolverine (also the fourth film in it's franchise) and The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

    To me, movies in this genre are successful when they offer a sense of adventure, a character you care about and root for, and a balance of sci-fi elements with the real-world. If a film-maker can do those things, I honestly don't care about the source material. I've never read an Iron Man book but I love those movies. Batman & Robin didn't just fail as an adaptation of source material, or as a Batman movie, or as a comic book movie, or even as a glorified ad for toys, it failed as a movie. On every level.

    I know that you know this. You opened by stating that you are not defending this movie. That being said, I submit that you are still giving it too much credit. You are offering the perspective that if Batman & Robin didn't happen, we would not have The Dark Knight, The Avengers, or any of the other wonderful comic book movies that have been released since. There may be some truth to that, but so many other great comic book movies came out before Batman & Robin that I think there is no reason we couldn't have had a better and more serious take on the character earlier. The Dark Knight is basically a gritty 70's cop movie. I really feel that if they let Richard Donner finish Superman II, put the character aside, developed a gritty, realistic Batman (they could have given it to Francis Ford Coppola or someone like that), we wouldn't have had to go through the growing pains of the Burton/Schumacher era to get a truly good Batman movie. They then could have worked Superman into a Justice League movie and we could have avoided Superman 3 & 4.

    Hindsight is always 20/20, but I think that failure is not the only path to excellence. I don't appreciate Batman & Robin. There is no reason we couldn't have ended up with somethings as good as or even better than The Dark Knight thirty-five years ago. Even if their only goal was to sell toys, a good movie will push a lot more product than a bad one.


  2. C_P says:

    The problem is that success doesn't motivate producers nearly as much as failure. Look at the success of X2. And it still took Fox almost 2 years to get a sequel rolling. Now, that's only one example, but it's endemic of their mindset.

    A proper Superman 2 would likely not have lead to any sort of early comic renaissance. It was profitable (but not as much as the first) and for the most part, is still thought of quite favorably. Regardless of which version was released, it likely would have received the same level of success and cultural impact. But I think the main reason is because the culture of the time wasn't ready. Comics were still 5 years or so from the mass “growing up” they did in the 80's and were still largely passed off as kid's stuff (add to that the amount of time it takes film and television to catch up). Superman's success (to say nothing of its quality) with the masses is probably largely due to his status as a cultural icon. Batman was an icon at the time as well, but typically only as a campy joke.

    I think (success or failures be damned) we got the “Age of the Comic Book Movie” at the only time we could. Failure definitely isn't the only path to excellence but it always plays a role. In fact, every single success and failure (from The Adventures of Captain Marvel all the way up to the Winter Soldier) played a role in the current box office climate. There are just certain epochs that are easy to point to and take note of.

    It's also important to note that, like evolution, the comic book movie is never “finished” moving forward. It's not like, post-Blade, every movie will be amazing. There will always be hiccups and set-backs as we move forward.


  3. C_P says:

    Also, excellent comment! God I love being able to discuss/debate comic movies!


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