I rewatched this a year or so ago because I wanted to re-evaluate it. I didn’t want to dismiss this movie; I didn’t want to just parrot conventional wisdom that this is two absolutely worthless hours of film. Most fan complaints (the ones trying a bit harder than “OMG batman n robin is soooo ghey,” at least) focus on this movie not being "dark" enough, but I am totally up for a fun Batman (as I’ll talk about when we get to Batman Forever). I thought, perhaps, that I might be able to find some hidden value to this movie that went overlooked amidst all the obvious complaints.
So I watched this movie and set aside all my preconceived notions, and I can assure that this is in fact two absolutely worthless hours of film.
Well, I shouldn’t say “worthless.” It is an absolute treat to watch John Glover playing an over-the-top mad scientist (though I may be biased). I was also intrigued, oddly, by the way Commissioner Gordon is still Pat Hingle, but rather than being dressed in a shirt, tie and overcoat the way he was in the first movies, he’s in some kind of snappy police uniform in this one. It’s an extremely comic book-like signifier -- you can tell he’s a cop because he’s dressed like the coppiest cop who ever copped. It suggests a kind of engagement with stylized comic-book reality at the expense of “realism,” much in the same way that the Wachowskis did Speed Racer. You could also make the case, if you wish to view the Burton-through-Schumacher movies as one continuous series, for “escalation”; Gotham City gets weirder and crazier the more that Batman is around, and by the time you get to Batman & Robin, his influence has morphed Gotham into this glitzy, insane place, and Gordon has to dress in that uniform to keep up, so to speak. In some ways, I'm tempted to say this movie is more ambitious than it is given credit for, or at least it could be. Batman Forever tried to fuse the black-clad Tim Burton Batman with the bright colors of Adam West’s world; Batman & Robin doesn’t just fuse them, it puts 'em in a blender and sets it to "puree."
So why doesn’t it work?
The acting, I’d argue, is a big part of it. It’s over-the-top, but it’s lacking the necessary deadpan. Adam West played the role with such deadly seriousness that people assumed for years that he hadn’t been in on the joke. If you watch Batman ’66, there’s a scene where Batman calls up a naval official who foolishly was duped into selling the Penguin a pre-atomic submarine, and the actor playing the official gives an performance that sticks out like a sore thumb because unlike Burt Ward or Alan Napier, he’s mugging for the camera; he's not significantly more exaggerated than anybody else, but he’s doing everything short of winking at the camera to say “Look how absurd we’re being,” and it kills the moment.
And everyone in Batman & Robin is like that. Uma Thurman plays Poisony Ivy like a Saturday Night Live sketch instead of delivering her lines with the straightfaced absurdity you need to pull this off. If everybody’s falling over themselves to prove they’re in on the joke, there is no joke (there isn’t even any real satire), and since there’s no actual drama either, there’s no point to watching it. By contrast, when West says “To the Batcave, Robin, we haven’t a moment to lose!” you almost believe he believes it, so it’s funny and a little exciting, despite yourself.
The other flaw in the movie is the dialogue. Same problem that The Spirit had too, actually. If you’re going to fill the movie full of stylized banter and repartee, it probably ought to be clever. You can have clever but unrealistic dialogue or stupid but realistic dialogue, but stupid and unrealistic is just wasting everyone’s time. I also would point out that having an actor whose English is somewhat labored deliver English-language-based puns is an unwise decision; Vincent Price’s Egghead could pull it off, Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze less so.
Maybe George Clooney could have made an okay Batman, but we’ll never know, will we? No longer a tortured soul, this Bruce Wayne is growing into the role of Dad in a Bat-Family, a warm, sort of swaggering guy who nevertheless has to keep the kids in line once and awhile. Alfred’s brush with death is an interesting idea, and makes a theoretically interesting pairing with the emergence of the Bat-Family; if his symbolic “father” were to die, it would break the status quo of Bruce as the eternal son, and he could then grow into the fatherly role himself. But the “serious bits” are all handled so perfunctorily; get 'em done and off the screen.
Short version: I bet there is an interesting movie you could make working with the barest bones of what Batman & Robin gives you, but you're never really allowed to connect with characters, the themes, or the “real world/comic world” interface.
Also: how did they manage to cast Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy and end up with a totally unappealing result? It’s like they made an effort. Even now I have trouble believing that this was not the most alluring thing that has ever been filmed.
Next: A Batman movie that was, perhaps, more necessary than it was actually enjoyable.