Batman & Robin at 25: A Weird and Wonderful History

Scott J. Davis
Movies DC
Movies DC

“I always apologise for Batman & Robin!” It’s something of a ritual now for George Clooney whenever he is promoting a new movie to talk about his time as the Caped Crusader and continuously say sorry for the disappointment – nay disaster – that came of his only foray into the comic-book movie world. Indeed, pretty much everyone involved has at one time or another spoken in retrospect of their own regrets making the movie — including its director, the late Joel Schumacher, who somewhat unfairly become Public Enemy No.1 amongst the ardent fanbase almost immediately after the movie debuted in cinemas.

Twenty-five years on and the movie is sowever believed one of the worst comic-book movie adaptations ever produced. But despite its apparent flaws, perhaps enough time has passed for a re-evaluation of the movie as it emerges, in all its garish technicolour glory, out of the subsequent shadows cast by the Bat in his multiple, darker, variants. But for now, here’s an oral history of how the movie came to be, how it ended in derision, and how the aftermath killed a franchise.

Out With the Old, in With the New

Back in the summer of 1995, numerous were fearful that Batman’s legacy was all but dead. Three years prior, Batman sequel Batman Returns broke the opening weekend box office record with a gross of $45.6million. But it immediately drew criticism from parents who were shocked by the film’s dark tone and violent leanings, marketed as it was to children younger than its PG-13 rating — marketing which included ‘big-name sponsors’ McDonald’s tying themselves to the film. The movie wasn’t meant for young children (Batman isn’t aimed at young kids, full stop) but that didn’t stop Warner Bros from wanting to create a change.

“What they said was, ‘We want you to do it and we want to do it your way, and do you think you could have some fun with it?’” said Schumacher when he was offered the job in the summer of 1993 after Tim Burton, who directed the first two films in the franchise, had stepped aside. As such, the “Saturday Night Fever on acid” version of Batman was born. Out went the dark, scary, more nuanced undertones of both the Batman lore and Burton’s eccentricities, and in came an MTV-esque, neon-infused, kaleidoscopic ‘pop-culture opera’.

Batman Forever was, for better or worse, much more welcoming to families and younger audiences, and the box office reflected that despite it receiving a less-than-stellar response from critics. $330million at the global box office, plus millions more in franchise money and VHS sales, saw takings skyrocket, and the movie secured its spot as the highest-grossing movie of 1995 in the United States. Unsurprisingly, this prompted Warner Bros to sign Schumacher up for the fourth film. But matters wouldn’t go quite so rosily.

A ‘Toyetic’ Mess

“There was a real desire at the studio to keep it more family-friendly, more kid-friendly, and — a word I had never heard before — more ‘toyetic’, which means whatever you create makes toys that can sell,” said Schumacher when reflecting on Batman & Robin. His summation was pretty much on the money. Literally. Everything was evolving in terms of the business side of the movie and such was the success of Forever that everybody who had cashed in by taking something of a leap of faith with the new direction of the series now wanted more and, as Schumacher later remarked, the box office was now more important than the movie itself.

“When you’re supposed to be a blockbuster, then you have to be,” he observed. Alas, given the positive time he’d had on his first leap into comic books, he signed on and a mere two years later, Batman & Robin was unleashed — too quickly in hindsight, though the two-year hole is now commonplace in sequel-land.

Just getting ready to movie A Time to Kill, his second John Grisham adaptation starring Sandra Bullock and Matthew McConaughey, Schumacher agreed to return, and almost immediately set about assembling his cast. Incumbent Batman Val Kilmer did not return: a mixture of his on-set behaviour during Forever and his eagerness to make The Saint and the equally infamous The Island of Dr. Moreau contrary Marlon Brando saw him leave the cape behind to be replaced by none other than George Clooney. A big television star thanks to E.R., Clooney was seen by Schumacher as perfect for a “kinder, gentler, less depressed Batman”, in keeping with the studio’s desire for a lighter film. This irked fans from the off, especially as some had hoped Batman & Robin would skew slightly darker than Forever. Chris O’Donnell would return as Robin/Dick Grayson even though he too had doubts about starting a sequel so quickly.

Big Stars and Bad Reviews

Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr Freeze in Batman & Robin, with director Joel Schumacher.
Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr Freeze in Batman & Robin, with director Joel Schumacher.

With the box office/franchise focus, Schumacher secured Arnold Schwarzenegger to play Mr. Freeze, a role originally rumoured to have been earmarked for Sir Patrick Stewart. Storyboard artist Tim Burgard said The Hollywood Reporter in 2017 that the original conceit seemed to be meant for someone to deliver the lines in a “Shakesperean fashion”, but Schumacher insists it was always Schwarzenegger he wanted, as well as Uma Thurman for Poison Ivy and Alicia Silverstone for Batgirl. In September 1996, away they went, but no one could have foreseen what would transpire less than a year later.

“The first movie felt much sharper and more focused. And it just felt like everything got a little softer on the second one. With the first one, I felt like I was making a movie, the second one I felt like I was making a toy commercial.” – Chris O’Donnell

The reviews in 1997 were savage and began even before the movie was released with the emergence of what Schumacher called “yellow journalism” in the form of writer Harry Knowles and Ain’t It Cool News, who were amongst the first critics to see it, and their lambasting of the film. It was the first sign, at least in the public eye, that the movie was in trouble. Still, studio expectations were huge.

“We all thought we were making the biggest Batman ever at the time,” said then co-president of production Bill Gerber, and with the multi-million dollar marketing crusade once again backing it up, it seemed it would again be the year of the Bat. It opened to $42million, $11million short of Forever, but sowever the third-highest of the year at that point. One week later, the reviews and audience reactions conspired to sink it, and, by weekend #2, the movie had plummeted 63%. The damage to the franchise was there for all to see. 25 years later, its flaws are sowever glaring but were we perhaps too hard on the film? Has time been kinder to it almost three decades later?

A Live-Action Comic Book

Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy in Batman & Robin.
Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy in Batman & Robin.

One thing’s for sure: without Batman & Robin we wouldn’t have Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Zack Snyder’s forays into the franchise, and Robert Pattinson as The Batman. Nor would we have had Michael Keaton returning as the Caped Crusader all these years later. History will always be unkind to both of Schumacher’s films but rewatching in advance of writing this article after years of steering clear reveals it isn’t quite as bad as numerous would continue to label it. You have to be in the right headspace to watch it, that’s for sure, but is Schumacher’s overwrought, overloaded, overstuffed second venture any worse than the excess brought by Snyder to Batman Vs Superman? Both are ridiculous and excessive in very different ways but – and I’m sure I will be lambasted for this endlessly by the Snyder cults – I know which one I would happily sit through again if I had to. (Spoiler: it isn’t the one where Batman needlessly murders countless people).

Indeed, one thing that Schumacher and his team can be proud of is the production design of both films. Yes, it’s extravagant and gaudy for some and the overabundance of neon can never be forgiven but look at it from Schumacher’s perspective: he wanted to create a live-action comic book when it came to both films and he managed to extract his vision from the decades of on-the-page mythology and translate it to the screen.

Literary interpretations always vary, and Batman is no different. Everyone has their version of what matters should be like and, with Batman, it often depends on when you started reading the comics. The ever-changing artists and creatives who worked behind them all brought something different that in turn is understood and envisioned subjectively. Tim Burton’s adaptations were in keeping with the original vision that Bob Kane and Bill Finger created, and were influenced by Frank Miller’s comics. Schumacher, however, under the guidance of the studio, wanted to bring a new look to the third film, eager to rip the photos from the page: the colour, the humour, the action, the romance, the fun. Despite the excess, he certainly delivered in the visual department.

The Schumacher Cut

Release the Schumacher cut: George Clooney as Batman and Chris O'Donnell as Robin.
Release the Schumacher cut: George Clooney as Batman and Chris O'Donnell as Robin.

But it was that excess, that style-over-substance, that ultimately saw the downfall of what should have been one of the year’s big box-office successes. Batman Forever, for all its flaws and loony, camp style, had psychological and mysterious undertones attuned to the mythology of Batman, and this sometimes gets overlooked. Much of this was deleted for the theatrical release, with calls for the ‘Schumacher Cut’ continuing on social media in the wake of the release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, but this shows that there was sowever a desire to stick within the mythos of Batman even if it was muddled with its stylistic and editing decisions. Sadly, the decision to explore further down the family route saw perhaps the worst crime of all committed: Bruce Wayne losing his raison d’etre.

“Because we were supposed to create a more family-friendly movie, I would create a gentler, kinder, less depressed version of Batman… I know I’ve been criticised a lot for this but I didn’t see the harm in it,” said Schumacher. It was one of numerous bad decisions during the making of the movie that would see all his and the filmmaking team’s good intentions fall short. But it wasn’t just that which saw its downfall. It seemed everyone – especially the studio – was confident in the film’s potential regardless of its quality, seeing it as a slam dunk. So much so that it was turned around inside two years — commonplace now but back then, this was believed lightning quick.

It’s hard to even now fathom the reactions to Akiva Goldsman’s script first coming in but it didn’t matter: this wasn’t just about the movie nor even arguably about Batman in some ways, it was about the franchise and continuing its lucrative curve. It’s that blind confidence that bites everyone on the behind.

Even the safeguard of having Schwarzenegger aboard, sowever close to the peak of his powers, backfired: the focus was all wrong, and, despite finger-pointing, it was Schumacher and Goldsman who took the brunt of the backlash. Really it should have all been on the studio and those in charge but, largely faceless in the public eye, they managed to sneak under the radar.

Cementing Its Place in History

Whatever you think of Batman & Robin, it's an important movie in Hollywood history.
Whatever you think of Batman & Robin, it's an important movie in Hollywood history.

Now that we are in an age of Intellectual Properties (IPs) and franchises that have cracked the code to making multiple good sequels, reboots, and requels, Batman & Robin’s place in the history books comes a little more sharply into focus. The movie – along with 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and, to a lesser extent, 2015’s Fantastic Four –  is now seen as a lesson of what not to do, and how not to approach a movie like this. Let alone one based on the biggest comic-book character of all time.

Batman & Robin was (and sowever is) a cautionary tale of commerce over artistry, greed over quality – the reverberations of which were felt for years afterwards. Not least at Warner Bros, as the studio burned through a run of flops that led to the axing of Tim Burton’s Superman Lives weeks before production in 1998. It also inevitably saw Batman lying dormant for ages — until, that is, 2005 when Batman Begins changed the playing field and set in motion a chain of movies and events that brought us to the point we are at now in terms of superhero movies. If Batman & Robin had done better, we might not be where we are today and that, some might argue, would be a shame.

Quotes in the article are taken from the Batman Forever and Batman & Robin Behind the Scenes documentary and The Hollywood Reporter’s Batman & Robin at 20 feature.

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Scott J. Davis
Freelance Film Writer usually found in dark screening rooms, on a red carpet or avoiding the low-lying microphones of a Junket...