Contrary to its reputation as a garish, headache-inducing day-glo nightmare, Batman &Robin is, in fact, a sensitive, heartfelt examination of power, frailty, family, humanity’s custody of the earth, the ties that bind and the mysterious ways of the human heart.
I kid, of course. Batman & Robin, as every schoolboy knows, is ridiculous. A ludicrous traffic-jam of a narrative, it makes no goddamn sense whatsoever from any conceivable point of view. However, that does not mean it is unworthy of study. To paraphrase Charlie Brown, if one learns more from one’s mistakes, that must the creators of Batman & Robin the smartest storytellers who ever lived.
No fewer than six main characters vault into the narrative of Batman & Robin, each with his or her own agenda. Some of these agendas cohere into a compelling, thematically- linked narrative. Others, well, not so much.
BRUCE WAYNE barely manages to hold on to the “protagonist” status he achieved in Batman Forever — he’s closer to a traffic cop here, trying to balance the life of a busy industrial captain with the life of a superhero. In Batman & Robin he must cope with a vengeful ex-employee (another vengeful ex-employee), a bickering super-partner, a dying servant, a fractious love-life and a sneaky houseguest — as well as attending no fewer than three charity events. Oh, and he has to save the world, of course, when his schedule allows. Given all this, it’s small wonder that Bruce’s main issue in the narrative is one of control. Bruce’s desire for control, the narrative says, stems from the shock of his parents’ death, but with all the crap being flung at him in this movie, his parents’ death feels utterly beside the point.
DICK GRAYSON, meanwhile, develops into something like an antagonist for Bruce. Dick is chafing under Bruce’s desire for control (Dick is also chafing, most likely, under his rubber pants, but that’s another story), and says he wants his own “Robin signal.” Dick forgets, of course, that the Bat-signal is lit by the police commissioner in times of emergency, it’s not a theater marquee. (Speaking of which, I admit that I’m a little mystified by the Commissioner Gordon of the Mark I Batman movies. The police department of these movies seems to have no role whatsoever in fighting crime in Gotham City, and Gordon does little besides ask Batman for help and look confused. Batman & Robin does not improve the situation.) Dick’s adolescent desire for independence comes to a head when Poison Ivy shows up to divide and conquer the dynamic duo. By the end of the movie, Dick has learned to trust his mentor, to not trust older women, and to welcome aboard a teenage girl to the team. No way that could lead to anything bad.
MR. FREEZE wants to cure his beloved wife Nora from the deadly disease she’s got. A brilliant doctor, Freeze’s plan is: stage a series of heists, which will afford him a cache of enormous diamonds. Some of these diamonds he will use to power the special suit he needs to stay alive, some of them will be used to build a giant whatsit that will transform the Gotham Observatory telescope into a giant freeze-gun. With Gotham hostage and the world next, Freeze will then demand the money he needs to continue his research.
Yes, that’s right, that is his plan. He’s a brilliant doctor working on a cure for a deadly disease, and his plan for getting research funding is to hold a city hostage with a giant freeze gun made with enormous diamonds.
Let’s go through that one again. Mr. Freeze is a brilliant doctor. He’s already figured out a cure for certain stages of this deadly disease, but that is not enough to attract funding for his research. He’s developed the technology to build a freeze-gun, but the patents for that device are not enough to attract funding for his research. He’s staged dozens of robberies in order to steal hundreds of diamonds, but the value of the diamonds themselves are not enough to fund his research. He’s figured out how to turn a telescope into a giant freeze-gun that could potentially destroy the world, but again, it’s a dead end — no funding could possibly come from gigantic-freeze-gun technology. No, to build the giant freeze-gun and hold the world hostage — this is the only way to get the funding he needs to continue his research to save his beloved wife. Once again: Mr. Freeze intends to 1) steal a bunch of enormous diamonds, 2) use those enormous diamonds to fuel his suit/build a giant freeze gun, 3) use the giant freeze gun to hold the world for ransom, and therefore collect the money he needs to fund the research that will save his wife’s life. Once he has his money, he will be free to devote his life to pure research. Once he has installed his giant freeze-gun in the Gotham Observatory and held the world for ransom, then he will finally have the money — and the time, and the peace and quiet — he needs to complete his research.
POISON IVY loves plants. She feels that humans are bad and plants are good. Therefore, she will team up with Mr. Freeze to cover the earth in a blanket of ice. Because then, and only then, will plants be able to reclaim the planet and — um, wait a minute…
ALFRED is dying — coincidentally, of the same disease that felled Nora Freeze. He’s looking for his brother, Wilfred, to come and replace him in the vital job as Batman’s butler. (Not too long ago, Alfred was urging Bruce to give up all this Batman bullshit. Now he talks about it as though serving Batman is the greatest honor of his life. By the time The Dark Knight comes along, Alfred will be kicking Bruce’s ass and telling him to stop being such a pussy. Alfred changes his mind a lot about how he feels about this Batman thing.)
BARBARA PENNYWORTH is Alfred’s niece. She has come to Gotham City to get Alfred out of Wayne Manor before he dies. To do so, she must compete in an illegal underground motorcycle rally. Later, she will find out that Alfred is Batman’s butler,and forget all about her vow to get him out of Wayne Manor. Instead, she will become a sudden instant crime-fighter. I think Visconti once made a movie with this same plot.
Hey, did you know that Batman villain BANE is in this movie? He is! Unfortunately, he doesn’t have an agenda, he just follows Poison Ivy around (and, later, Mr. Freeze) and repeats his bosses’ commands in one-world reductions like “Bomb” and “Kill.” Few things in the cinematic Batman world depress me more than the sight of Bane acting as, yes, chauffeur to Poison Ivy.
Just as much of Batman Forever‘s problems stem from the decision to make The Riddler its main antagonist, Batman & Robin‘s troubles begin with Mr. Freeze. Because Mr. Freeze makes no goddamned sense, it follows that the rest of the narrative will follow suit. He fell into a vat of cold stuff, and therefore he can only live in sub-zero temperatures. Mr. Freeze is a cool (sorry) idea that has been retro-fitted to make some kind of bullshit pseudo-science sense. Once you bring that level of who-cares silliness to your narrative, you’ve got to bring the rest of the story up to that level or else your premise won’t make sense any more. An entire universe of bullshit must be created in order to sell your initial premise. And so in Batman & Robin we have not one but two villains who are created when they fall in pools of deadly liquid, a third who becomes a big strong guy when pumped full of toxins, a getaway car that, for some reason, comes with a built-in rocket ship, a prison cell that comes with a “cold zone,” a personalized Batman credit card, a stuffed dinosaur in an art museum, and on and on, absurdity after absurdity piling up as high as the colossal statues that tower over Gotham.
If nothing else, Batman & Robin is the purest example I can think of of the Somehow Syndrome. When a movie wants a narrative effect but doesn’t want to do the work to get there, things just happen “somehow.” Somehow Mr. Freeze’s suit is powered by dumping handfuls of diamonds into a hole in the sleeve, somehow Pamela Isley is buried alive in a pit of plant toxins and is re-born as the deadly Poison Ivy, somehow a telescope can be turned into a freeze-gun, and somehow a few strokes on a computer keyboard will turn the freeze-gun into a heat ray. Somehow Barbara gets into the Batcave, somehow the dying Alfred anticipates her every move and makes for her a bat-suit, even though he’s dying, somehow Batman can show up for a celebrity auction sponsored by Bruce Wayne without anyone catching on to his true identity. There’s a somehow every minute in Batman & Robin, including “somehow this script got green- lit.”
Obviously, it is not a movie to be taken seriously, but it truly sets an all-time record for what-the-hell-ness. The 1966 Batman is a sober, clear-eyed procedural in comparison. Audiences roundly rejected it when it came out, which I think is a good thing — I can’t imagine where the series could have gone if it had been a hit.
The design elements, which were clearly meant to be the movie’s calling card, mostly leave me cold (sorry). The one exception, I feel, is Mr. Freeze’s makeup — not his ridiculous Disco-Tin-Man suit, mind you, but his actual make-up, which I actually find rather compelling.