Home Columns SILBER LININGS: BATMAN & ROBIN is better than THE DARK KNIGHT

SILBER LININGS: BATMAN & ROBIN is better than THE DARK KNIGHT

The most hated superhero film of all time is a wildly misunderstood delight.

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The Beat’s Gregory Paul Silber has been accused of having a bit of an… obsessive personality. Each week in Silber Linings, he takes a humorous look at the weirdest, funniest, and most obscure bits of comics and pop culture that he can’t get out of his head.

When Beat boss Heidi MacDonald initially talked me into doing a humor column, the concept was pretty loose. I was and remain thrilled to have a dedicated space to indulge my favorite obsessions and obscurities, but it crystallized when managing editor Joe Grunenwald came up with the title “Silber Linings.” True to the title, and almost by accident, Silber Linings has largely been about finding redeeming qualities in popular culture that’s notably unpopular, from an obscure Kevin Smith supervillain to forgotten ’80s horror.

I’m telling you this because I want to make something clear about the subject of this week’s discussion, the 1997 film Batman & Robin: it’s not “so bad it’s good.” It’s not a deeply flawed film that I’m affectionate towards anyway. Batman & Robin is a straight-up good movie, full stop. My love for it is utterly earnest, and it might be my favorite Batman movie.

None of this is to say that Batman & Robin isn’t COMPLETELY BANANAS. That’s why I love it! But that’s also why it’s one of the most infamously hated superhero movies of all time. It’s on Wikipedia’s “List of films considered the worst.” George Clooney has long been candid about his embarrassment toward his starring role, and has been rumored to give refunds to fans who saw him don the iconic cape and cowl in theaters. Academy Award-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind) apologized for his role in the film as recently as 2020. And Joel Schumacher apologized for directing the misunderstood gem several times throughout his life before his 2020 death.

So let’s start by talking about why Schumacher’s camp spectacular elicited such strong feelings. What it mostly comes down to, whether fans are complaining about the infamous choice to include nipples on Clooney and Chris O’Donnell‘s respective Batman and Robin costumes, or what might be the highest puns-per-minute rate in cinematic history, is that Batman & Robin is deemed too silly.

The infamous Bat-Nipples

I’m not going to argue against Batman & Robin‘s silliness, because of course it’s silly. It might be the silliest big-budget ($160 million in 1997 money) blockbuster ever made. It’s just a question of whether you think that silliness works in its favor. And that depends on whether you think silliness belongs in a Batman movie in the first place.

Obviously, I’m in favor of it. I’ve written about this before, but as a general rule, I believe superhero media should be more willing to embrace the wackiness of their comic book roots. This is especially true of Batman. It’s fine if you like those Christopher Nolan or Zack Snyder movies, but don’t act like Batman isn’t a children’s character who fights crime with a jet-fueled car/boat/plane and little bat-shaped ninja stars. Some people like to claim that Batman must be dark and serious because that’s how he originally appeared, but go read Batman’s first few years of adventures following his 1939 Detective Comics debut. Sure, Batman may have been a little more severe than peers like Superman, but only on relative terms.

Batman & Robin in the Golden Age of Comics. Words by Bill Finger, art by Bob Kane (and probably his uncredited assistant).

On screen (and if we’re being honest, within comics too), the superhero genre has largely tried so hard to shed the image of kiddie fare and Adam West-esque campiness that “dark” and “mature” takes on superheroes have arguably transformed from the exception to the rule. And that’s a shame, because as much as there are plenty of “serious” takes on superheroes that I like, kids love superheroes. That’s one of the many reasons why I hate Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice: there’s little in there for kids to enjoy (not to mention its repulsive morals, but that’s a subject for another essay).

The MCU relishes its quippy humor, and even Snyder’s “gritty” take on DC heroes embraces goofy ideas like Doomsday and Mother Boxes, but no superhero movie (other than maybe Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) has reveled in the joy of comic book silliness since Batman & Robin. It’s no surprise, really, since that film’s reputation remains horrid nearly 25 years later. Ever since the blockbuster phenomenon of Tim Burton‘s 1989 Batman (which is sillier than you likely remember), filmgoers came to expect a grimness from The Dark Knight, and while Schumacher’s mix of slightly spooky aesthetics with glam silliness was well-received when he took over the franchise with 1995’s Batman Forever, his wholesale rejection of any pretense of seriousness in Batman & Robin was met with backlash that’s never fully been reclaimed.

I also can’t shake the feeling that a not-insignificant amount of the hate Batman & Robin received had something to do with homophobia, consciously or otherwise. That’s not really my lane as a straight man, and I don’t know if the average 1997 filmgoer was aware that Schumacher was gay. But there’s an undeniable homoerotic undercurrent to Batman & Robin, not to mention an unapologetic campiness. I have to imagine some men were uncomfortable when confronted by the aesthetic suggestion that, as queer comics icon and legendary Bat-writer Grant Morrison once put it, “gayness is built into Batman.”

Even among people who talk favorably about Batman & Robin, it’s usually on “so bad it’s good” terms similar to infamous flicks like The Room and Cats. But I’d encourage you to rewatch Batman & Robin now that it’s streaming on HBO Max, and open your mind to the idea that Schumacher knew exactly what he was doing. (You can subscribe to HBO Max at this link. Note this is an affiliate link and The Beat may receive a small commission if you subscribe).

I mean, come on. You can’t tell me Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman, in a performance inspired by Mae West) doing a striptease out of a gorilla suit isn’t (A) hilarious and (B) hilarious on purpose.

And don’t you dare try to convince me Mr. Freeze’s constant deluge of ice puns, as delivered by Arnold Schwarzenegger, are anything short of delightful. I have to imagine Akiva Goldsman cackling as he wrote each one.

Batman & Robin is one of those movies people call “unintentionally hilarious,” but that’s an inappropriate phrase for it. It’s a hilarious movie, yes, but it’s clearly intentional. It has to be. You can’t film Batman sliding down a dinosaur statue before fighting “the hockey team from hell” without enjoying the utter ridiculousness of it all. That people could watch Batman & Robin and think their laughter is accidental is nonsense to me, but that’s how most people seem to engage with it.

Humor isn’t the only reason I love Batman & Robin. It’s a visual wonder, too. Schumacher’s vision of Gotham doesn’t look like a city that could exist in our world, and that’s how Gotham City should look. It’s the kind of movie that transports you to another world. It doesn’t even look like any particular Batman comic I’ve read, and I’ve read a lot of Batman comics. It looks like a city that Batman would live in if he were real, and that’s what matters.

Plus, it’s easy to be cynical about how toyetic Batman & Robin is, but what’s wrong with making a superhero movie kids would like that fills their imagination with cars and motorcycles and gadgets they wish they had? As much as I love Logan, superhero movies should, by default, consider the fact that kids love superheroes and want to watch them, PG-13 or even R-rating be damned. And if you’re making a Batman movie that doesn’t include a bunch of cool things kids would want toys of, you’re doing something wrong. I love those glimmering snow costumes and shiny nonsense vehicles. They wouldn’t make sense in any context but this movie and that’s why they’re perfect.

None of this is to say that Batman & Robin is a perfect movie. There are some jokes that don’t land, and while trying to intellectualize Batman & Robin is a fool’s errand, that doesn’t change the fact that the plot doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny. Batgirl (Alicia Silverstone)’s introduction is a tad skeevy. Clooney didn’t want to be there and it shows, even if he gets a few good line deliveries (listen to him sneer the name “Dick” in an argument with his sidekick). The biggest problem is that the somber subplot about Alfred (Michael Gough) falling ill and nearly dying is out of place in a movie that otherwise doesn’t ask the viewer to take anything seriously.

In my recent rewatch, I got the impression that the “Alfred is dying” subplot may have been added just to give the audience opportunities to breathe amidst an otherwise madcap pace. Say what you will about Batman & Robin, but it’s not boring. The breathless barrage of action and jokes and incredible set pieces combine for an experience that’s perfectly designed for imaginative 7-year-olds sitting on the living room floor during a rainy afternoon. It’s utterly entertaining.

Batman is my favorite superhero. That’s the most basic comics bro opinion one could have, but I love him with every ounce of my soul. I went through a stage that I’m sure many teenage Bat-fans do in which I insisted The Dark Knight must be dark and serious and edgy, but as I get older, something I appreciate more and more about the character is his versatility. Just as Batman by Dick Sprang is no less valid than Batman by Frank Miller, Schumacher’s vision of Gotham City is no less valid than Nolan’s.

Schumacher’s just happens to be better.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I disagree. The movie IS boring. It’s just a chore to watch through it. And truth be told: Batman Forever isn’t as good as I remembered it either. Batman and Batman Returns have the right amount of silliness. However, I do agree that there is too little silliness in superhero movies. That’s why I love the Flash and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. They have literally lifted the comics from the pages of the comic books, and made live action out of it. And that’s when you realise how silly superheroes really are. But Flash and Legends just goes with the flow, and delivers everything tongue in cheek. And they do it so much better than B & R.

  2. Sorry, no. This is the worst piece of shit toy commercial Hollywood ever produced outside of Godzilla and I was 10 when I saw, didn’t much care if Batman was serious, and hated it then and now and always.

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