Batman & Robin - * *

Batman and Robin

Batman is back, this time not only saddled with Robin, but Batgirl as well, and facing some of the series’ most lightweight villains to date. Unfortunately, the caped crusader gets no help this time from the filmmakers. A truly awful script and some misguided direction from Joel Schumacher mar this outing, making it the worst of the four recent Batman films.

Batman and Robin continues to expand on the flaw that has plagued the Batman series since Batman Returns: too many characters, and not enough time to develop them. Whereas the original Batman had three main characters, Batman Returns had four, and Batman Forever had five, now Batman and Robin has six main characters, four of whom have never been seen before (not counting George Clooney’s take on the caped crusader). The film is half over before all the introductions are complete.

Clooney does a competent job with the Batman role, though the script does him no favors. Whereas the earlier Batmen (Michael Keaton and Val Kilmer) were bland when compared to the showier villains, at least they had some development. This time around, Batman is truly given the short end of the stick. An aborted attempt at a romance (with Elle MacPherson) merely dilutes the film further, and his scenes with the aging Alfred hold little dramatic weight. When the film doesn’t have him spouting wisecracks, Batman spends most of his time looking annoyed. It is as if crime-fighting has lost its dangerous alure, and is now a tedious, mundane task.

Robin (Chris O’Donnell) has returned, and his in-your-face cocky naivete is so irritating that if you were his partner, you’d look annoyed too. The qualities that made him seem fresh in Batman Forever are more pronounced and less appealing here. From his opening whine, “I want a car”, and throughout the film, he inspires more derision than adulation. As if the dynamic duo wasn’t enough, Batgirl (Alicia Silverstone) has been added to the mix. Departing from her traditional origins, she is now Alfred’s niece (an orphan, like nearly everyone else). Apparently, proximity to the Wayne household is the only prerequisite for hero-dom. At least Robin was an acrobat when he was introdced; apart from some rudimentary computer skills and a love for motorcycles, there’s nothing in Batgirl’s past that would indicate she had what it takes to be a superhero. Or perhaps those details were squeezed out by the rest of the overstuffed plot.

And now for the villains. Like the Bond films, the Batman films can be primarily characterized by its colorful villains. Unfortunately, the well of well-known Bat-foes has just about run dry (even Batman Forever’s Two-Face perplexed those unfamiliar with the comic). This time, Batman’s primary nemesis is Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Borrowing the plot structure, as well as lots of other things, from Batman Forever, the film opens with Freeze in full-villain swing, with his origin shown in flashback. Once he was Dr. Victor Fries, a former decathlete and brilliant scientist. However, when his wife is stricken with a incurable disease, he has her frozen until a cure can be found. Unfortunately, after an accident with the cryo-fluid, he must maintain a body temperature of zero degrees to survive. With a cold heart, he has turned to a life of crime to gain funding for the research that may save his wife. Although he is given that backstory, you couldn’t tell it from the dialogue, which contains one of the worst assortments of Schwarzenegger one-liners in recent history (“Chill!”, “Cool Party!”, “The Iceman Cometh!”…at least he didn’t say “Ice to see you!).

The other two villains in the story work as a team: Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman) and Bane (Jeep Swanson). Ivy’s origin as it appears here is an amalgam of Catwoman and the Riddler. She’s an obsessed, but nerdy, scientist whose invention transforms her into a super-villainess after apparently being killed by her evil superior. She returns as a beautiful plant-woman, whose goal is to rid the world of animalkind. Her special abilities are an irresistable “love dust” pheromone, and deadly poisoned lips. Providing the brawn for her operations is Bane, a scrawny serial killer who, with Ivy’s Venom formula, is turned into a mammoth, but dimwitted wrester-type Thurman has the film’s cleverest one-liners (but that’s not saying much), and seems to enjoy vamping it up in the role. Swanson’s monosyllabic role doesn’t have the comic effect that’s obviously intended, and this take on his character is likely to irritate fans familiar with him from the comic book series.

There are a few good visuals in the film, though director Schumacher way overdoes it. The first freezing and pheromone effects are interesting to watch. But the umpteenth time they are repeated, you desperately crave something new. The same thing goes for the closeup batsuit shots. In Batman Forever, they were humorous, unexpectedly pointing out the fetishistic details of Bat-dom. However, in Batman and Robin, Schumacher gets self-indulgent to the detriment of the film.

There is some interesting fight choreography, though it seems more in line with the campy 60’s TV show than with the recent movies (as does much of Batman and Robin). In fact, given that the first fight scene involves skating, ice hockey, and surfing, all that seems to be missing are the “BAM” and “POW” cutscenes.

The script is another matter. Written in a heavy comic tone, it mostly falls flat. Nearly half the dialogue in the movie are comic one-liners that are truly horrendous. The plot is thoughtless, borrowing most of its elements from the earlier films (as did, strangely, the music…most of Goldenthal’s score seemed to be lifted directly from Batman Forever). Granted this is a comic book of a film, but even in that company, the script is rather pathetic.

It’s not really a bad film, just a mediocre one. However, if you go in with high expectations from the earlier films, or if you hold any reverence for the Batman character and mythos, then you will definately be disappointed.

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