Batman & Robin (13+, 124mins) Directed by Joel Schumacher **
The first cycle of blockbuster Batman movies had a pretty large impact on 1990s pop-culture.
Prince was hired to curate and write the first film’s soundtrack, Hollywood stars lined up to be a part of this pretty-much new-fangled idea of a superhero franchise and merchandise meant billions for supervising studio Warner Bros.
But, by the time we got to outing No. 4 in 1997, things were starting to more than fray a little around the edges.
We were already on Batman No. 3, with Val Kilmer’s unhappy time on Batman Forever resulting in his non-return, meaning a gentleman best known for being the biggest star in the ensemble that inhabited TV medical drama ER was asked if he’d like to don the cowl and cape. And George Clooney’s version of the Bat-suit infamously came with nipples.
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It was also saddled with a plot that brought together two lesser-known Gotham City villains. Mr Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman) weren’t even regulars on the Batastically-camp ’60s TV series.
However, a spectacular opening sequence gave little hint of the trauma and travesty that was to come. We discover that ol’ Victor Freeze’s icy heart was – naturally – caused by falling into a vat of liquid nitrogen he’d set aside for his wife in an attempt to prolong her life after she contracted a rare disease.
Condemned to live a life without warmth, he decides the only thing to do is to steal enough diamonds to power a freeze gun, so he can then hold Gotham to ransom to raise enough money for more research.
If that wasn’t enough of a handful for Bruce Wayne’s alter ego, along comes another scientist transformed by “an accident”. Having already seen experimental drug Venom transform a serial killer into a hulking monstrosity dubbed “Bane”, Dr Pamela Isley’s (Thurman) attempts to stop her boss from going further are thwarted by a cocktail of toxins.
However, far from killing her, they instead transform the nerdy botanist into a voluptuous siren (“Poison Ivy”), one now determined to help Gotham and Wayne Enterprises see the benefits of more organic ways of living. Ivy’s first stop? Seducing both members of the eponymous dynamic duo (Clooney and the returning Chris O’Donnell), causing ructions between the pair.
Completing their bad week, beloved butler Alfred (Michael Gough) is ill, which means his niece Barbara (Alicia Silverstone) is another addition to the crew residing at stately Wayne Manor.
Batman & Robin really feels as if director Joel Schumacher was painting by numbers. Plot predictability abounds, while the copious one-liners are delivered with a clang, rather than a flourish. Most annoyingly though, everyone seems to be acting with a smirk – even in supposedly life or death situations.
Clooney, despite his obvious charisma, is the biggest offender of smugness, while O’Donnell’s Robin has only one setting – stroppy. It’s a combination that would later appear in one comic-book superhero, whose second sequel suffered from a similar overstuffing of bad guys and sub-plots – Tobey Maguire in the equally temporarily franchise-killing Spider-Man 3.
To be fair, Schwarzenegger and Thurman were both well cast, they were just lumbered with characters and a script that were truly one-dimensional.
Sure, it is a real rollercoaster of a film, providing constant action in a way that only the late ‘90s could, unrelenting in its destruction and mayhem, but ultimately feeling rather unsatisfying.
Forget The Dark Knight, this renders Bob Kane’s creation as more of a dusky grey, the collaborators of this farrago taking his “comic”-book roots a little too literally, as this tone-deaf adventure can’t decide if it wants to make Clooney the next Michael Keaton, or Adam West.
It all just lack something – like depth, or care.
This was the moment we knew something was rotten in the city of Gotham, and it would take almost a decade – and Christopher Nolan – to stop the poison and start afresh.
Batman & Robin is now available to stream on Netflix.