And then this happened.
With BATMAN & ROBIN, the franchise that had been reclaimed for adults by Tim Burton in 1989 was turned back over to children (and not bright children) by Joel Schumacher in 1997. Schumacher took everything he’d done in Batman Forever and turned it up, as they say, to 11. He wound up with a cacophonous freak show for idiots.
It’s not entirely clear what took the lead in the “you’re fired/I quit” dynamic between Schumacher and Val Kilmer, but the upshot was that Batman had to be recast, and to his everlasting regret, George Clooney took the part. Ironically, as we’ve seen Clooney take on darker, more complex roles in the past 15 years, it’s entirely possible that he had a strong Caped Crusader in him. Not here, though. He’s the worst of the Batmans (Batmen?) because he has absolutely nothing to play. Since Batman had been “cured” at the end of the last movie of his neuroses, and Bruce Wayne had been integrated with his superhero persona, Clooney is handed Batman as a virtual sitcom dad, coping with an aging surrogate father and those crazy Bat-kids who just won’t listen to him. He barely even bothers to modulate his voice when wearing the suit, making it even dumber than usual that no one recognizes Bruce Wayne under the mask. Clooney has a good few moments with the stalwart Michael Gough as Alfred, but that’s the best you can say about his work. Chris O’Donnell remains bland as Robin, turned here into a typical adolescent who doesn’t understand why dad won’t let him stay out at night. And god help us, Schumacher and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman added Batgirl this time around, in the form of the vacuous Alicia Silverstone, who seems to be anticipating the CW version of the tale.
That’s not even the worst of it. Arnold Schwarzenegger has the lead villain position as Mr. Freeze, and every piece of dialogue out of his mouth is a quip, a pun or a one-liner–often, all three. Goldsman must have worn out his thesaurus looking for phrases incorporating cold, cool, ice, chill and every other word indicating a draft. By the end of the movie, you wish Freeze dead just so he’ll shut up. Uma Thurman at least tries as Poison Ivy–she puts on a Mae West voice and slinks through a dance number halfway through (just when you’re thinking the movie is so garish and overblown it might as well be a musical, Schumacher throws that in), but Ivy is just warmed-over Catwoman, a wallflower turned murderously seductive madwoman, except without any of the layers Michelle Pfeiffer and Burton gave that role. A footnote to Batman movie history is that Bane is the other villain in this one, but as he’s just a chemically-enhanced muscle-bound ox who speaks in monosyllables, one assumes Tom Hardy won’t have much trouble surpassing him in The Dark Knight Rises.
Schumacher has never been one for understatement, but the design of Batman & Robin (he used the same cinematographer, costume designer, production designer and composer team he’d had on Forever) could give you a headache. Everything is fluorescently candy-colored (the gang with the phosphorescent masks and walls are back, only this time they’re in pastels) and bright enough for squinting. There are more shot of backsides clenched in latex, not to mention nippled batsuits–it remains more than a little odd that even as Schumacher was swearing that everything he’d done to the franchise was to make it more of a family entertainment, he felt it important to include those costumes and close-ups. Schumacher, given a mammoth (for 1997) $125M production budget, makes the action sequences go on forever, with legions of faceless extras fighting and blowing up in the giant, mostly ugly sets.
The boxoffice doesn’t always provide justice, but Batman & Robin was a disastrous flop, earning $77M less than Forever on a larger budget. (Burton’s Batman was the #1 picture of 1989; Returns was #3 in 1992; Forever was #2 in 1995; but Batman & Robin was in 12th place in 1997, behind the far cheaper Good Will Hunting and My Best Friend’s Wedding.) Even worse, it gave the series nothing to build on for the future, because it had gutted all the substance from the franchise. Despite Schumacher’s insane idea that he could talk Warners into letting him do another sequel, there was nothing to be done but let Batman rest for a few years and start all over again. And hope the franchise could find a knight (even a dark one) of its own.