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How Batman & Robin became the worst blockbuster of all time

Asked in the build up to the release of Batman Begins’ if he had any thoughts on the reboot of the series, George Clooney responded with a typical smirk, ‘Yep. I kept the franchise going.’ As deadpan jokes go, this is an absolute flatliner – the Clooney-starring Batman & Robin wasn’t just a flop, it was a free-falling fiasco, leaving in its wake a twisted wreck of soiled reputations and ruined careers that reached even as far as the seemingly invincible Arnold Schwarzenegger. Despite this – or rather, because of it – Clooney’s cheeky one-liner contains more than a pinch of truth. It was the untamed excess of director Joel Schumacher’s super-camp Bat-sequel, and its round rejection by jaded audiences, that led Warner to rethink its approach to the caped crusader, a decision which ultimately resulted in Christopher Nolan’s new take on the series.

Back in 1995, though, the future for Schumacher’s Batman looked rosy. The director was riding high after a string of big-grossing hits. He’d made Falling Down for Warner in 1993, the white-collar vigilante flick propelling him into the A-list after a decade of stylish but insubstantial brat-pack vehicles. As a reward, the studio had entrusted him with not one but two of their most important franchises, first asking him to helm their latest John Grisham adaptation, The Client, and then, when Tim Burton vacated the director’s chair, inviting him to take the reigns on Batman Forever. Both films clocked up big box-office, with Batman Forever in particular raking in a massive $336 million – $70 million more than Burton’s Batman Returns. In August 1995, just two months after the release of Forever while he was in pre-production on a second Grisham thriller, A Time To Kill, the studio asked Schumacher if he’d like to make Batman & Robin.

He said yes, of course – he had every reason to. ‘It was so much fun making a Batman movie,’ the director explained. ‘I felt, having never made a Batman movie before, that I was in a sense climbing Mount Everest for the first time. None of us who worked on Batman Forever had made the previous movies – we didn’t know if our version would be accepted, let alone accepted as well as it was. That kind of success is very exhilarating.’

He set about rounding up his key crew from Forever, starting – appropriately, for his lavish tastes – with production designer Barbara Ling, who assured him that they ‘hadn’t even scratched the surface’ of her lurid comic-book vision. Other influential figures followed – cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt, art director Geoff Hubbard, visual effects supervisor John Dykstra and costume designer Ingrid Ferrin, all looking to up the ante on their previous collaboration, as well as Akiva Goldsman, the scriptwriter behind all of Schumacher’s Batman and Grisham hits.

The cast also starting falling into place. Chris O’Donnell would reprise his role as Robin, joined this time by fellow up-and-comer Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl. Uma Thurman was locked as seductress Poison Ivy, and after a tug of war with his old action rival Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger signed on as Mr Freeze (Sly ditched his agent soon after, reportedly miffed that he didn’t land the role).

The only major player not returning was Schumacher’s original Batman, Val Kilmer, who’d jumped ship to headline Paramount’s equally doomed remake of The Saint. This suited Schumacher just fine – the famously easy-going director had struggled to get on with his prickly star first time round, with on-set shoving matches rumoured to have taken place. ‘There were good days,’ the director sighed. ‘But when you have someone who behaves like that, who has no regard for others, and such an ego problem, the whole crew is “Whoahhh! He’s on today.”’

Besides, with Kilmer out of the picture, the door was open for Clooney, the megastar-in-waiting, to finally nail the transition from small to big screen. Schumacher remembers the deal romantically, spotting Clooney in a From Dusk Til Dawn ad in an in-flight magazine (‘I looked at him, then drew Bat-ears onto the picture, and I knew I had my Batman’), but the reality had more to do with industrial practicalities – as the long-time star of the Warner-produced ER, Clooney was already a studio favourite, and as both productions were under the same roof schedule conflicts were easily resolved. This still left Clooney working seven-day-weeks (ER Monday to Thursday, Batman Friday to Sunday), but rather than complain, the affable star told the world’s press that he was just ‘hoping not to be the first guy to screw it up.’

And the early signs were that he hadn’t. All the noises emerging from the set were harmonious. Schumacher called his cast ‘a dream,’ singling Clooney out as ‘a real pleasure.’ They returned the compliment, with a contented Arnie blathering that ‘He makes everyone feel like we’re all working together. There’s no-one above and no-one below. We are all one team.’ Better yet, despite the enormous logistical challenges of the production, Schumacher guided the film home under-budget and two weeks early, claiming modestly that ‘Once you’ve climbed Mt. Everest, when you go back again, you know what equipment to take and who to tie to the rope.’ The studio was more in love with the helmer than ever, with Warner co-chairman Bob Daly grandly stating ‘He’s a member of our family. As far as we’re concerned, we hope he’s with us forever.’ Things didn’t turn out that way.

Even before the film’s official release things started to go wrong. Batman & Robin was one of the first victims of internet-mobilised global geekery. In 1997, during the build up to the film’s June premier, Harry Knowles’ Ain’t It Cool News website ran a series of damning reports from preview screenings that set the tone for the film’s press reception (‘Nothing can prepare you for the sheer glorious travesty of the 200-megaton bomb of a film this is,’ wrote Knowles with typical restraint.) It was a watershed moment, catapulting the nerd champion into the national consciousness and waking Hollywood up to the growing influence of the internet. Studio executives complained that their movie had been sabotaged, but the truth was simply that word of mouth was making a tech-boosted return.

The real problem, of course, was that Batman & Robin was a terrible movie; Harry Knowles and his advance guard just made it harder to cover it up with lavish advertising. Describing his vision for the film, Schumacher said he ‘thought we could start from where we had left off – take the humour, the action, the colour, the framing, the living comic book we tried to create, and build on that.’ But where Forever had delivered a tight mix of Burton’s bleak, broody Batman with a new, family-friendly vivaciousness, Batman & Robin had swung wildly out of control.

For starters, the story was weak. The over-used and under-imaginative ‘scientist-given-superpowers-in-an-experiment-gone-wrong’ angle had already been tapped for Jim Carrey’s Riddler in the previous film, but that didn’t stop Goldsman recycling it not once but twice for Batman & Robin (it could have been three times, but Dr. Jason Woodrue – AKA the Floronic Man – was killed off early on.) Fans also reacted with fury to the woeful deployment of Bane, a relatively fresh face in the D.C. universe who had quickly been established as one of Batman’s most powerful enemies (he was tagged ‘The Man Who Broke The Bat’ after snapping the caped crusader’s back in the ‘Knightfall’ comic-book arc). The film’s mangled, monosyllabic interpretation of the character (played by wrestler Jeep Swenson, who died of heart failure a month after the film’s release) infuriated the Batman faithful.

Worst of all, though, was the representation of Bats himself. Schumacher’s take on the Dark Knight was, well, not very dark. ‘We’ve progressed from Forever here,’ he misguidedly explained. ‘We’ve moved on from the self-obsessed angst. The first three films had Batman brooding over the death of his parents. George is 36 years old, if you haven’t gotten over it by then, well, you just want to shriek “Come on! Lighten up!”’

Telling Batman to lighten up, of course, is a little like suggesting to Captain America that he think about emigration, or advising Superman to cut down on all that flying lark; brooding angst is his very heart and soul. Schumacher’s hero was reduced to a straightforward costumed crime-fighter, his only emotional conflict a laughably homoerotic rivalry with Robin for the attentions of Poison Ivy. Between O’Donnell’s stiff adolescent whining and Clooney’s straight-take Batman, the whole thing played farcically.

If Batman’s mood had been incongruously brightened, so had the production design, to catastrophic effect. The costumes were preposterously garish – even if you ignore the Batnipples and Mr Freeze’s neon nightmare, there’s still the unexplained phenomenon of Poison Ivy turning up at a party disguised (disguised!) as an giant, pink, furry gorilla. In building the sets and props, Schumacher’s crew seemed to lose all sense of scale and proportion, as Ling basically admitted. ‘The screen kept making the Batmobile smaller,’ the production designer babbled, ‘so I wanted this one to feel like it was half a block long. We wanted a moving engine, and a single flame was not enough so we opted to use three flames on each fin.’

It was gratuitous, uncontained madness, that led to a series of embarrassingly misjudged set-pieces: the dynamic duo skate-fighting Freeze’s minions in a shimmering ice museum, clicking heels to sprout Bat-blades; the pair air-surfing back to Gotham from Freeze’s rocket, Robin yelling ‘cowabunga’ without a trace of irony; and – almost entirely unrelated to the desperately flagging plot – a gang-run backstreet motorcycle race resembling nothing so much as a high-camp musical version of The Warriors. When Batman and Robin finally stopped parading and got down to fisticuffs, the action was so stilted – thanks to truly appalling wire-work – that the pair looked like stiff-limbed toy versions of themselves.

Perhaps this isn’t so surprising – Schumacher complains on the US special edition DVD commentary that he was under pressure to include as many gadgets as possible to spawn potential merchandising. Executive Producer Michael Uslan, who had been with the series since Burton’s 1989 opener, agreed, damning the film in a 2005 interview. ‘Sometimes,’ he lamented, ‘you get to the point [where] you’re not making movies, you’re making two hour infomercials for toys. And that’s sad. Because, if a filmmaker is allowed to just go out and make a great film, I believe you will sell toys anyway.’

The strangest thing about Batman & Robin: The Flop is that it wasn’t much of a flop at all. Worldwide grosses of $237 million, combined with tie-in licenses and future TV and home video sales, saw the film turn a solid profit. But the healthy numbers were something of a mirage. Tom Shone writes in his book, Blockbuster, that in the 1990s Hollywood had developed an almost critic-and-audience-proof way of generating hits, rejigging a famous Spielberg quote to the effect that ‘they could now sell it faster than we could smell it.’ So while a multi-media marketing blitz was enough to drag Schumacher’s glitzy flick into the black, a truer gauge of audience reaction came through the week-on-week sales; in the States, $75 million of the film’s eventual $107 million haul was generated in the first ten days. The message? Once fans saw the movie for themselves, business stopped dead.

The fallout was devastating. Just weeks after the film’s release, Schumacher announced that he was taking a step back from mega-franchises. ‘I began small, and all of these things just started happening and before you knew it I’m up to my neck in John Grishams and Batman films,’ the weary director explained. ‘I’m grateful for all of it, but felt, especially on Batman & Robin, that the box-office had become more important than the movie. I want to return to filmmaking, not blockbuster-making.’ Low-key gems Tigerland and Phone Booth were the result.

The effect on the actors was even more severe. O’Donnell and Silverstone went from rising stars to has-beens, practically overnight. Silverstone in particular was treated abysmally by the press; long-running jibes about her weight culminated in the beleaguered star being chased through an airport by leering paparazzi calling her ‘Fatgirl.’ Neither has had a hit since. Even the indomitable Arnie suffered. After Last Action Hero, Batman & Robin was the final proof needed that the action star’s invincible ‘80s heyday was gone for good. A medical hiatus for back trouble and heart surgery highlighted his off-screen frailties, and his return heralded a wave of duds – End Of Days, The 6th Day, Collateral Damage – before he cashed in his last sure-fire hit with T:3 and called it a day.

Clooney was the only one to emerge, not only unscathed, but positively boosted by the film. The star had always viewed it as a potentially huge career move, and that’s how it turned out. ‘Batman was still the biggest break I ever had,’ he says. ‘It changed my career, as weak a film as it was, and as weak as I was in it.’ Crucially, Clooney nailed the deal for his next picture after the super-smooth production but before the disastrous release – that film was Out Of Sight, which launched his film career proper and brought him together with Steven Soderbergh, with whom he would launch production shingle Section Eight (at Warner, of course), and crowbar independent talent into mainstream Hollywood for the next 8 years. Clooney’s gone from strength to strength, and now stands as perhaps the most articulate and intelligent actor/director since Clint Eastwood.

The studio seemed to learn from the fate of its actors – megastar fortunes were failing, indie spirit was prevailing. Scrapping a further instalment of the over-wrought series, Warner announced plans to reboot the franchise, with Darren Aaronofsky and Frank Miller collaborating on a lean, mean version of Batman: Year One. In the end it was Christopher Nolan – who had worked with Section 8 on Insomnia – who was placed in charge of what became Batman Begins. Shadowed, sinister and shot through with a menacing realism, Nolan’s excellent movie was the antithesis of Schumacher’s mistake.

But perhaps we shouldn’t judge the Batman & Robin director too harshly, as so many venomous fans have. In a heartfelt apology to audiences, Schumacher has earnestly – almost touchingly – stated, ‘If there’s anyone that, let’s say loved Batman Forever and went into Batman & Robin with great anticipation, and if I disappointed them in any way, then I really want to apologize, because it wasn’t my intention. My intention was just to entertain them.’

 

This text originally appeared in Total Film #135

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 3, 2013 2:19 am

    Great article. This was the best insight I’ve seen into the disaster that is B&R. That said, I do enjoy watching this movie for laughs – it’s so bad it’s great!

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