Monday, February 01, 2010

Movie Monday - Batman and Robin, 1997, Part 1

Our review of big-screen, live-action adaptations of Batman continues with 1997's "Batman and Robin."

See, I was really looking forward to this one, because it is such a misfire on so many levels that I knew I would have plenty to say about it. But now I find I have so many things to say that I'm not sure where to start. Plus, so much of what I have to say is so obvious. One of the best things about that 70-minute takedown of "Phantom Menace" that I linked to a while back is how he's able to completely shred the movie while never even needing to mention Jar-Jar Binks. So for this movie, because it is so bad on so many levels, I'll be going into some detail, but try not to spend too much time on obvious fanboy stuff. Fair warning: we're going to spend two weeks on this turkey.

So where to start?

Let's start at the beginning, I guess. The opening sequence tells you almost everything that's wrong with the movie in one chunk.

It starts out with the WB logo morphing into the Batman logo and freezing. Appropriate, since the movie features Mr. Freeze. But then we shift into a fiery red color scheme, shading into green at the top (to signify Poison Ivy), with the cast names doing fly-bys a la "Superman: the Movie" (they used a similar fly-by style in "Batman Forever," as well). But in addition to the usual whooshing sound effects you usually get with fly-bys, we also hear engine noises as some names pass. And then we get the merging of icons, Batman's and Robin's, followed by the title, finally. A riot of colors, images and sounds without any coherent unifying theme--is that an omen or what?

The filmmakers, BTW, seem inordinately proud that they've given Robin his own graphic symbol. In the comics, Robin's symbol usually revolves around the letter "R" somehow, but the filmmakers have given him a stylized bird icon that they paste on everything, just like Batman's symbol. In fact, at one point, the Batsignal itself is transformed into a Robin symbol, projecting a red bird against the clouds. I think it's a pretty cool graphic, but I wish they'd spent a fraction of the brainpower that went into the graphic design on the story.

The story and screenplay were written by Akiva Goldsman, who had done a rewrite on "Batman Forever." This is the only one of the four films in this "series" that is credited, story and screenplay, to a single writer. For those film fans who believe one of Hollywood's biggest problems is writing by committee, I submit this as a counter-argument. Bad writing is bad no matter how many people do it (although, to be fair, it's not as if Akiva Goldsman was the only person with any input to the story--though his is the only name on it, you can be sure there are lots of incriminating fingerprints to be found). Goldsman was also the auteur behind the big-budget flop, "Lost in Space," before winning a freaking Oscar for "A Beautiful Mind."

That's right. This movie was written by an Academy Award-winning screenwriter.

The film opens with the same type of girding-for-battle montage that "Batman Forever" did, only now we see shots of Robin echoing everything Batman does, down to the butt and codpiece close-ups.

As will become even more evident when we see the final shot of the film, it's clear that Joel Schumacher was trying to establish some sort of franchise framework here. He's establishing common opening and closing shots, much like every James Bond film beginning with the distinctive gun-barrel shot or the Indiana Jones mountain dissolves. It's just that ass close-ups are a moronically inept way to go about it.

And we get a stirring view of the new Batcave and Batmobile, rebuilt since the Riddler destroyed them last film.

And see, this is impressive stuff. Notice how the monitor wall in the background is framed by the Batmobile's fins in the foreground to form the illusion of a brooding face. I never noticed this when I was watching the film. I only saw it in the screencap. But I'll bet you that it was done on purpose.

Batman has received some reconstructive surgery as well, since the role has yet again been recast with George Clooney now playing the Caped Crusader.

I never thought Clooney looked right as Batman. I don't know if it's his round chin or his big eyes (emphasized by really big eyeholes in the mask) or the huge, sardonic brows they sculpted into the mask itself, but something just looks wrong about him.

Speaking of sculpts, let's look at the costumes...

And you can see another problem with Clooney. He's just got a really big head. Which he can't do anything about, but they could have done some redesign on the costume to deemphasize it. Aside from Clooney's enormous melon, the design isn't bad. The yellow spotlight on the chest insignia had been abandoned in the comics by this time, and has been abandoned here as well. Those damned nipples are still there, but the materials and sculpting have continuously improved since Burton's first film. This Batman can actually move in his costume. And I should mention that the capes have been impressive in every film in the series.

Robin's costume has been transformed into something that looks more like Nightwing's from the comics, only with the red Robin insignia, obviously. And he still has a cape. Otherwise, for all his bitching about living in Batman's shadow, this Robin has an impressive array of gadgets that are all marked with his own unique insignia and identity.

Anyway, after some lame banter, Batman and Robin take off on their new mission, set up by Commissioner Gordon via some of the clunkiest exposition ever.
Batman, a new villain has commandeered the Gotham Museum. He's frozen the antiquities wing. He's turned the security guards into blocks of ice. He's calling himself Mister Freeze.
Even Pat Hingle can't save this dialogue.

So the Caped Crusaders arrive at the museum, where they encounter Mister Freeze, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Oh, God.

Freeze is like a microcosm of the entire film in one character. On the one hand, he's a throwback to the 60's TV series: Freeze with an Austrian accent, in an over-the-top, pun-filled performance by a Special Guest Villain, complete with Tilt-a-Cam. On the other hand, this is obviously a modern big-budget Freeze, in an elaborate costume with way too many colored lights and an incredible make-up job. And like the other villains in this series, he alternates between scenes of (attempted) pathos and tragedy and way too many silly wisecracks. He is, in short, an incoherent mess.

And he has his own signature vehicle, a tank-like car that looks like a ship out of Flash Gordon.

Batman and Robin arrive at the museum, which is covered in ice that has frozen everything except the colored lights, natch. And at a signal from Freeze, a horde of henchmen suddenly appears, on ice skates. There's a big fight.

Big impressive set, silly action. Batman and Robin sprout skates from their boots and play hockey for the big diamond Freeze is trying to steal. But Freeze escapes in a rocket that launches from his Freezemobile.

But the sequence isn't over yet. Batman and Robin ride along. Freeze immobilizes Batman with ice, sets the rocket to self-destruct and jumps out. Robin rescues Batman, but they can't stop the rocket from self-destructing. So they eject and skysurf down on the doors.

And by this time, even the hard-core fans are rolling their eyes and saying, "Really?" But the sequence still isn't done. They battle Freeze all the way back down to ground level, where Freeze hits Robin with his freeze ray, encasing him in ice. Batman must let Freeze escape in order to save Robin's life.

Whew. Fifteen minutes in, and we haven't had a moment to catch our breath, what with the racing and the fighting and the rocket and the falling. I'm ready to take a breather and relax with Bruce Wayne or somebody normal. Take some time to let the real story begin in a more leisurely fashion.

Oh fuck. Seriously?

I mean, it's a cool matte painting and all, but this lurch from frantic to crazy is just making me care less and less about any of this shit by the second.

This remote mansion, located somewhere in South America, is inhabited by Dr. Pamela Isley, soon to become the villainous Poison Ivy, played with finger-pointing ineptitude by Uma Thurman.

It's possibly the worst performance I've ever seen in a major studio release, although most of the other actors in the film give Uma a run for her money. She had to work hard to be the worst actor in this film.

Isley shares a lab with Doctor Jason Woodrue, played by John Glover. And though this film is almost universally despised, I'm sure steampunkers around the country are looking at Woodrue's glasses and thinking, "We wants it, my precioussss."

Woodrue has been stealing Isley's research to use for his own project, a super-soldier serum that creates the monstrous Bane.

And here is where the fanboys start checking out of the film, if they're still hanging in there after the skysurfing sequence. Because as cool as it is to see characters out of the comics that don't date back to the 60's TV series, especially significant characters like Bane, what they do with him is fucking ignorant.

Not to be anal about the source material or anything, but in the comic story which introduced Bane and made him a significant figure in the Batman universe, he was an intelligent and crafty master villain who beat the fuck out of Batman and broke his back. And not just because he was strong, but because he was smart. Cunning and deadly, that was the Bane that fans knew going into the film.

And what is he here? A moronic brute who can barely string two words together. Even worse: he's a fucking Marvel rip-off, an idiotic amalgam of Captain America and the early Hulk (he's even green). He has gone from a deadly master villain to a comedy relief henchman, which is a double waste. Not only does he serve to overcrowd this already crowded film, but now you can't use him as a real villain in any potential future franchise installments.

And now we're 20 minutes in, and we still haven't had a normal quiet moment with any characters that we can give any shadow of a fuck about. But finally, we get a moment of reflection in the Batcave, as Dick shivers under blankets and Bruce reviews the origin of Mister Freeze. Are we finally now to start seeing a semblance of a real story?

Oh hell no.

But that's next week.

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