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Difficulty with Duality: The Batman Films of Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher

Written by: Monte Williams, Special to CC2K


 

ImageBatman and Robin‘s aesthetic is even more blinding and overblown than that of Batman Forever. The Batmobile now looks like an art-deco dildo sculpted from disco balls and neon tubing, and damned if Mr. Freeze’s robotic “cryosuit” doesn’t look almost exactly like my light-up Targus mouse I mentioned earlier. Poison Ivy runs afoul of another gang of street toughs, and this time the blacklight effect highlights the trim of their jackets and the lime green chains they use as weapons so that everything looks like those wristbands filled with glow-in-the-dark goo to keep children safe on Halloween.

The action sequences in Batman and Robin are jarring, not because they’re intense or creative but because they require the actors to utilize wires, and none of the resulting puppetry rings true. Heroes and villains and objects alike fly through the air in the most sideways, awkward manner. During the opening confrontation between Mr. Freeze and Batman and Robin, Robin speeds through the air on his motorcycle, but the wires suspending him hold him aloft too long, and he flies through the air too slowly. It’s disorienting. Worse is when Robin hits a patch of ice on the museum floor and he and his bike slide into a giant vase, which flies twenty or thirty feet straight up into the air–the sound effect this time is barely more discreet than a slide-whistle. Then Robin kicks Freeze’s giant ice-rifle across the museum, and it lands atop a statue, but the wirework is so bad that the gun lands, then scoots over a few more inches after it has stopped. Or something like that. Honestly, I watched it twice and I’m still not sure what exactly is wrong with the way the gun lands, but it’s mesmerizing to watch. The whole scene is so disarmingly horrible that one cannot look away.

The chunks of “ice” dangling from the frozen statues are so obviously made of plastic that they wobble when the actors run past, and when Batman and Robin are surrounded by Freeze’s ice-skating henchmen (Robin describes them as “the hockey team from Hell”), their solution to the crisis is perhaps the most famous of the movie’s countless moments of stupidity: the dynamic duo regard one another calmly and then bang their heels together, at which point skate blades protrude from the bottoms of their boots like switchblades. I thought it was unlikely that Batman would anticipate a scenario that would require his car to shed two-thirds of its mass in order to drive through a narrow alleyway as it does in Batman Returns (this is more sensible than the upgrade in Batman Forever, which permits the Batmobile to drive up the wall of a skyscraper; the driving-up-the-wall scene conveniently cuts off so that no one gets to observe the awkward fact that there’s no way to get a car from a wall back onto the street), but secret pop-out ice-skating boots are the most nonsensical Batman gadget since Adam West retrieved a can of “shark-repellant” from his utility belt in the 1960s Batman film. And you can’t even suggest that Batman created such boots in case of a battle with Mr. Freeze, because he’s already responding to the Batsignal when Commissioner Gordon contacts him via the videophone in the Batmobile’s steering wheel to tell him a “new villain” is attacking the museum. But I am growing agitated at Popeye’s lit pipe. Let us move on.

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze is even more painfully exaggerated and corny than you might expect or remember. He randomly shouts ridiculous battle-cry witticisms like “What killed the dinosaurs? The Ice Age!” Here are some of his ice-related puns and not-quite-puns:

“The iceman cometh!” (That’s the first thing he says.)

“Very nice.”

“All right, everyone. Chill!”

“Cool party!”

“Chilled to perfection.”

“If revenge is a dish best served cold, then put on your Sunday finest. It’s time to feast!”

“Let’s kick some ice.”

Keep in mind that Joel Schumacher used Paul Dini’s award-winning Batman the Animated Series origin for the character, meaning Freeze is supposed to be committing all his wicked deeds because he is desperate to find a cure for his ailing wife. The failure of his dialogue to reflect his ostensible turmoil reminds me of the scene in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows wherein Peeves sings, “We did it, we bashed them, wee Potty’s the one, and Voldy’s gone moldy, so now let’s have fun!” and a nonplussed Ron says to Harry, “Really gives you a sense of the scope and tragedy of the whole thing, doesn’t it?”

Schwarzenegger’s lone advantage over his castmates is that there’s not much Schumacher can do to lessen his acting ability, since Schwarzenegger never had any acting ability in the first place. His performance as Freeze is glaringly stupid, yes, but no more or less so than any other Schwarzenegger performance. That said, it’s pretty depressing that Schwarzenegger is required to shed a tear during a pivotal scene and the tear has to be added via CGI. In the role of an Arkham Asylum security guard, meanwhile, Jesse Ventura seems to really believe in his dialogue, even when he’s saying things like, “All right, Freezy, you can’t live outside the cold zone!” I guess all those years as an announcer struggling to provide context for professional wrestling matches prepared Ventura for the towering absurdities of the Batman and Robin script.

If Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze has anything going for him, it’s that he is completely unimpressed with Batman. During the museum scene, Batman races to apprehend Mr. Freeze, and Freeze can’t even be bothered to look at Batman; he just gives him a backhanded slap. It’s a surprisingly funny moment, but like literally every funny moment in Batman and Robin, it’s not intentionally comedic. Next, Freeze traps the dynamic duo in the most phallic-looking rocket in movie history–he moans “yes, yes” while he fiddles with the rocket’s controls, as if he’s having an orgasm–and then he points to the rocket’s altimeter and says, “Watch the numbers, Batman, for they are the harbingers of your doom!” Here’s how Freeze greets the guards at Arkham Asylum: “Allow me to break the ice. My name is Freeze. Learn it well, for it’s the chilling sound of your doom.” The ice jokes do serve one valuable purpose: without them, every character’s dialogue would be interchangeable. For better or worse, when Mr. Freeze speaks we know that it’s Mr. Freeze speaking. Not so in this exchange between Batman and Robin:

Who invited you?

I was just hanging around.

I thought you’d stay in the museum, round up some thugs.

Now what, call a taxi?

Watch the first step!

Surf’s up!

Can you distinguish two distinct personalities here? Or even one? That’s not fair, actually–it’s easy to distinguish Robin’s character, for he is easily the most annoying character in the film. Surfing back to Gotham from outer space on a chunk of the rocket–I don’t know how it stays attached to his feet when he keeps flipping all over the place, nor how that damn pipe stays lit–Robin shouts “Cowabunga!” This was seven years after the Ninja Turtles wore out that particular catch-phrase, which was never clever or endearing in the first place. Robin combines the worst traits of young Anakin Skywalker and Kicker from Transformers Energon: he hoots and whoo-hoos his way through danger, but he also whines about Bruce’s tendency to overprotect him (“How are we supposed to work together if you won’t trust me?”).

Batman and Robin also provides a new female villain, with the apparent goal of helping the viewer to develop even greater appreciation for Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman. When Uma Thurman transforms from Pamela Isley to Poison Ivy, she explains to her first victim, “I think I’ve had a change of heart. Literally. The animal-plant toxins had a rather unique effect on me. They replaced my blood with aloe, my skin with chlorophyll, and filled my lips with venom.” (If this scene took place in Batman Returns, her victim would respond, “Which lips?”) The insurmountably stupid flaw of this origin scene is that Pamela Isley has only been resurrected for thirty seconds or so when she delivers this self-aggrandizing soliloquy–how can she know all the details of her body’s internal transformation? Also, Thurman delivers some but not of all of her lines with a faltering sort of accent that’s kind of similar to a southern drawl. Why? Is this a lit-pipe protest on my part? Patient readers, I don’t even know anymore.

Alicia Silverstone’s Batgirl is no better. Her thrill-seeker tendencies combine with her character’s general shallowness so that she comes across like one of Alicia Silverstone’s characters in an old Aerosmith video. She hacks into Alfred’s laptop and discovers blueprints of the various Bat-vehicles, and she doesn’t drop her jaw or gasp or look taken aback in any way. She smiles as if she’s reading a sweet message scrawled in a greeting card.

In one of the clearest Jump-the-Shark moments in a movie filled with them, Batman and Robin are feature attractions at a charity auction hosted by Gossip Gerty. This scene reminded me of the episode in the fifth season of Angel wherein the titular vampire was transformed into a Muppet. My friend Chip enjoyed the episode, but he felt that the plotline nonetheless made clear that it was time to end the Angel series. His exact words were, “Once you turn the vampire-with-a-soul into a Muppet…” Chip did not finish the sentence, because it was not necessary to finish the sentence. I bring this up because Batman and Robin‘s auction scene is like Angel turning into a Muppet: once you allow your dark, insane, shadow-dwelling, vengeance-seeking vigilante to show up smiling to support and endorse a charity auction hosted by an empty-headed tabloid dimwit named Gossip Gerty, it’s time to end your movie series. Or reboot it in eight years, I suppose.

You could argue that Batman and Robin only attend the auction because they know Freeze is going to attack it, but this ignores the fact that Batman and Robin choose to stand under spotlights with shit-eating grins on their faces in a room filled with thousands of people who you’d expect to be curious about their identities. Hell, Robin’s only got his eyes covered. This is all reminiscent of the tone of the 1960s Batman television series, which featured a fully-deputized Batman chilling with celebrities and chatting up the local citizenry. I am not a fan of Joel Schumacher, but his filmography makes clear that he is a competent director, and so I can only assume that all this silliness is intentional. The latest Batman cartoon, Batman Brave and the Bold makes clear that there is an audience for a lighter, campier take on the Batman character. But 1997 was not the time, and a pair of sequels to a brooding couple of films was not the place.

The writers of Batman the Animated Series made their feelings on Joel Schumacher’s Batman films clear. In a later episode entitled “Legends of the Dark Knight”, written by Robert Goodman and Bruce Timm, three children debate who Batman really is–or what he really is; one of the kids believes he’s something like a giant pterodactyl. Suddenly, a new boy with long hair and an effeminate affect arrives on the scene, lovingly caressing a pink feather boa. He says, “Hey, who’s talking about Batman? I love Batman. All those muscles, the tight rubber armor, and that flashy car. I heard it can drive up walls.” The scene comes across as needlessly homophobic, but the children’s tired dismissal is satisfying: “Yeah, sure, Joel.”

Today, those three words–yeah, sure, Joel–are enough to put Joel Schumacher’s garish Batman movies in their place, because we are smugly convinced that Christopher Nolan has protected the Batman franchise from further stupidity and incompetence. But Christopher Nolan insists that the third film in his current Batman series will be the last, and we all know that Warner Brothers will not respect his wishes. There will be a fourth Batman movie in the current cycle, with or without Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale’s involvement, and there is little chance that a new director will create anything as artful or bold as Nolan’s Batman films. On the other hand, a crappy superhero movie is no longer the bummer it was as recently as the late 1990s, because studios have become reboot-happy, due pretty much exclusively to the success of Christopher Nolan’s reboot of the Batman franchise. These days, if your favorite comic book hero appears in a weak film, you need only wait a few years and he’ll have another go.

Having said that, I want to suggest that the best way to follow Christopher Nolan’s act without falling prey to another Joel Schumacher-style disaster is to produce a series of theatrical Batman anthologies. Give a few visionary directors fifteen minutes each to tell their Batman story. This way, a singular but divisive aesthetic like Tim Burton’s won’t stand as the only representation of a flagship character for an entire decade. Warner Brothers could release an anthology every year or two, and in that context, even something as misguided and insular and off-putting as Joel Schumacher’s take on Batman might be welcome to some extent–see again the success of the cheerfully ridiculous Batman Brave and the Bold. Imagine watching a fifteen-minute Christopher Nolan Batman movie followed by something like the celebrated Batman fan-film Dead End. Alongside them in the same anthology, a surreal, ten-minute version of a campfest like Batman and Robin would just be a fun novelty to cleanse the palate, because it wouldn’t have to singlehandedly carry the responsibility of sustaining an entire media juggernaut for several years.

Warner Brothers will not produce a series of anthologies, of course, and perhaps I am mistaken to think there would be a market for such an experiment. But Warner Brothers must choose its screenwriter and director carefully when the time comes to follow up on Nolan’s Dark Knight Rises. Consider: in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, Batman was out to stop Penguin from killing a bunch of people, sure, and there were penguins with rockets, granted, but Batman’s overriding quest was to become whole, and to help Selina Kyle do the same. Two movies later, the quest in Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin ends with Batman using satellites to reroute sunlight from the Congo in order to thaw a frozen Gotham City.

This strikes me as the wrong note on which to end a Batman movie.

 

Author: Monte Williams, Special to CC2K

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