Roger Ebert described the visuals in Batman & Robin as “an Art Deco garbage disposal.” While that sounds like a criticism, I see it as positive praise. Batman & Robin has one of the most striking aesthetics of any movie. Made entirely out of practical sets, this version of Gotham City feels like a mad fever dream of swirling, glowing neon. It's like the WPA was forcefed ecstasy, and was then commissioned to build a gay nightclub. It's part city, part theme park, and part comic book gone mad. You can't say that's not a glorious thing to behold.
And I include the costumes in the above statement. Batman and Robin are both dressed in shimmering sculpted armor that only accentuates how theatrical they were all along. These guys wear capes and masks, for goodness' sake. Don't think Batman doesn't want to be seen. Theatrical heroes ought to look theatrical, and they ought to have theatrical villains. Then you look at Mr. Freeze, and you think that all is right with this world. He's dressed in a shimmering suit of complex metal knickknacks that looks, well, pretty awesome. He's like a ice-capades version of Tetsuo: The Iron Man. Again, you cannot say that's not glorious.
Batman is, we must recall at this juncture, based on a comic book for children. Although he has always had an angsty origin (his parents were gunned down in front of him), Batman has, through many early iterations anyway, been a lighthearted and fun character, surrounded by clowns, jokesters, penguin men, catwomen, and other colorful things. The bright, stark colors we tend to associate with comic books are on full display in Batman & Robin. Here is a movie that took a certain era of comics – Batman's Silver Age specifically – and adapted it for a late '90s audience with, you must admit, a good deal of visual success. The tone of the film is playful and cartoonish, full of puns and weird weapons. This is the only Batman movie – other than the 1966 original – that feels like a comic book.
And before you go whining about how Batman should feel darker and more tragic than what we see in Batman & Robin, let me remind you of the broader history of the character. Batman has not always been dark and broody. He hasn't always been what he was in the Christopher Nolan movies. Batman has been many things in many times. There was a time when he would outrun giant pennies and ride on the backs of missiles. There was also a time when he would cry, alone in his batcave, contemplating his efficacy as a crimefighter. He's been a detective, a bully, a hero, a tragic figure, and a borderline villain. And through it all, he has survived in the public consciousness. Just because this version of Batman doesn't match what you are used to, doesn't mean it's bad.
One of the central problems with the recent Christopher Nolan Batman films is their serious tone; they have become so serious and realistic that Batman, with his theatrical cape and silly little pointy bat ears, doesn't even fit anymore. His inherent theatricality is undermined by the dark violence of his surroundings. Batman & Robin, however (like the Tim Burton films before it), took the wise creative route of starting with Batman, and then building the world around him. Batman just can't live in the real world, so you have to alter the world to fit him. And what kind of world would Batman live in? Why something noisy and goofy and colorful and cartoonish, of course. Batman's world contains things like Batmobiles, Riddlers, and Mr. Freezes. He fits. Everything is appropriate.
I should perhaps point out that Leslie Martinson's 1966 Batman: The Movie is one of my favorite Batman films. It is a camp-lover's delight. A comedy with a deadpan superhero sensibility, goofy dialogue, bad puns, and a sense of fun that you won't really find in any movies anymore. What Batman & Robin does is provide a valuable modern analogue for the 1966 film and TV series. As a result, the film has a kind of tongue-in-cheek gee-whiz quality that is actually kind of infectious. And don't think this was accidental. Batman & Robin knows what it's doing when it comes to camp. And camp, I argue, is no bad thing.
Batman, in the post-Nolan era (if I must call it that), is often seen as a broody character, constantly struggling with his irrepressible need to dress in a rubber bat outfit and punch people in the face. But it must not be forgotten that Bruce Wayne is, during the daylight hours, a millionaire playboy. He owns a mansion, dates supermodels, and attends well-moneyed parties dressed in expensive suits. In many ways, Bruce Wayne is like James Bond. So what's wrong with giving him a little charm? A little sparkle in his eye? A little sense that he's actually having fun with all this? And who better to play a sparkling charmer than George Clooney, a man so preternaturally charming, he can wink women's panties off?
Chris O'Donnell subverts the cutesy elements of Robin to make him into something of a rough-trade hardass. He's the roommate you didn't want to admit you secretly had a crush on. Uma Thurman is clearly having a ball doing her Mae West impersonation as Poison Ivy. Alicia Silverstone reprises her Clueless valley girl schtick as Batgirl, and she's good at that. Michael Gough is playing Alfred for the fourth time, and is completely at ease with the role. Schwarzenegger notwithstanding, the cast seems pretty solid in tackling the comic material with gusto and energy. No one is half-assing it.
Bane is not an interesting character. No, he isn't. In The Dark Knight Rises, he was changed into an interesting character, but originally, he wasn't. Invented in 1993, Bane hailed from a fictional Latin American country, and could make himself stronger with a special steroid called Venom (not to be confused with the Spider-Man villain). And that's it. He was a bad guy on steroids. In Batman & Robin, he's... well he's also a bad guy on steroids. In the movie, though, he doesn't speak, having been reduced to a brutish mute sidekick who can utter only monosyllables. This was a wise move. I don't want to hear what Bane has to say in this universe. I like him as a mute thug, or as Tom Hardy. Anything else is too much.
Women have come on to Batman in the past (as in Returns and Forever), but it never felt right to me. Batman is not much of a sex symbol in most iterations. Schumacher, however, saw that Batman's outfit was a great deal of the appeal, and tried to make his film as sexy as a PG-13 rating would allow. We are given loving closeups of gleaming buttons, ripped armored chests, perfectly shaped bosoms, and numerous skintight outfits. Alicia Silverstone is a sexy woman, and Chris O'Donnell was something of a youth sex symbol himself in 1997. Uma Thurman vamps like a bedroom siren, and do I need to say anything more about George Clooney. Finally, here's a Batman movie that acknowledges that human beings have libidos. True, no one has sex in the movie, but they dress like they're on the prowl. This is a positive thing.
There is an air of fetishism hanging over the Batman world. Would Batman be Batman if – as it has been asked – he didn't get to wear the costume? Most Batman stories ignore this. Batman & Robin places it front and center. Yes, there are nipples on the costumes. Yes, the costumes look like elaborate S&M outfits. Yes, Batman and Robin look like they're capable of dropping to the floor and making out with one another at any moment. But this is not a bad thing. Batman's costume is perhaps 90% of the appeal of being Batman. It may not be as sexy as something that would show more skin, but it certainly has the odor of a fetish bar on it. The costume is not, as the Nolan films would have you believe, merely a tool for fighting crime. No, it taps into something far more mischievous. Batman & Robin finally acknowledges this.
A friend pointed this out to me, and now it's the only possible way for me to see the film. If you turn on the Spanish language track on the DVD, and watch Batman & Robin with subtitles, you begin to see its true nature. This is not a comic book movie. This is a lucha libre movie! This is the best movie that El Santo and Blue Demon never made! It's an outrageous, cartoonish, over-the-top film about a goofy folk hero who fights oddball monsters! We all enjoy watching Santo wrestle Dracula to the ground, and, in a way, we're watching the same thing when Batman wrestles Mr. Freeze to the ground. These are técnicos and rudos at the top of their game, but finally given a big budget. And there's no way you can convince me that luchador movies are not wonderful things.