Is Batman & Robin the Greatest Batman Film to Date?
Riddle me this: can an unpopular movie be a good movie?
March 25, 2016 at 12:58 pm
Many have claimed that Batman & Robin isn’t just the worst Batman film ever, but arguably the worst film in history. While Batman & Robin has its flaws, when viewed strictly for its adaption of the title characters, not only do I believe Batman & Robin does a good job of representing the essence of Batman, it very well may do it better than any solo live-action Batman film to date. Before you kick your desk over in a fit of nerd range, give me a moment to explain my claim.
WHO IS THE BAMAN
Batman is many things: a masked vigilante, a master martial artist, and the world’s greatest detective. He is also part of a superhero team whose headquarters is on the moon, the surrogate father of several orphaned boys, and the proud owner of a rocket ship.
Batman is a comic book character first and foremost. While many of his adventures show him trading wits with criminal masterminds, his adventures have also included space exploration and time travel. So how does that relate to Batman & Robin? Let’s begin with Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, where we are introduced to a Batman who is less detective and more super-ninja. Most of Batman’s detective work is done by his supporting cast of Commissioner Gordon, Lucius Fox, and even his sidekicks like John Blake. When we do see Batman performing detective work, it is often without his Batman costume, such as the scene in The Dark Knight when Bruce Wayne is attempting to foil the Joker’s assassination of the Mayor. While this may seem like a petty complaint, when I pay to see a Batman movie, I expect to see Batman do detective shit. In Batman & Robin, we not only see both heroes research their opponents in the Batcave, but we also see them investigating at the crime site itself.
Some people claim “Batman is better solo. That’s how he was created” and “He’s supposed to be an anti-hero,” but I disagree with said haters. Batman was created in 1939 and Robin was created in 1940. Robin has been around nearly as long as Batman himself. The image of Batman as a “Dark Knight” was not crafted until 1969. That’s 30 years of Batman sliding down a Batpole and teaming up with Scooby-Doo on murder mysteries. The idea of a campy Batman has not only been around for decades, but is still applied to many modern stories. Even in recent comics storylines, Batman is depicted as a public figure, but his sense of humor is still a key part of his character. Batman makes jokes. Deal with it. While some may enjoy the no-nonsense Batman from Nolan’s films, Batman’s humor is an essential part of his character because it shows he’s human — something Batman & Robin does a great job of highlighting.
Batman greeting Superman and Aquaman
Batman also doesn’t kill. This is something that fans of the comic books view as a cardinal rule. Over and over again, characters in the comics have asked Batman “Why don’t you kill the Joker?” Well in Tim Burton’s Batman film, that’s not an issue. Batman pulls his first major foe off a helicopter and lets him fall to his death with no remorse. Apparently, the Batman in that franchise missed the memo on the whole “no killing” thing because his kill count includes Two-Face, Penguin, lighting a henchman on fire, and blowing another one up. Let me repeat that: Batman lights people on fire and blows them up. This is a Batman who clearly ran out of fucks. But Nolan’s isn’t much better. His Batman swears off killing because the girl he wants to bang doesn’t like it. But ole Bruce is good at finding loopholes because he leaves Ra’s Al Ghul to die instead of saving him. Of course, this is after Bruce blows up the guy’s house anyway, killing his master and several former schoolmates. In Batman & Robin, not only does Batman make a point to save his foes, but he turns his primary enemy into an ally. A key aspect of Batman’s character is his faith in his fellow men, both good and evil. Batman believes in his heart that even some of his deadliest foes have great potential for good. Batman & Robin displays this in the successful conversion of Mr. Freeze’s loyalties.
The villains of Batman & Robin get a lot of hate. Many fans view the film’s interpretation of Batman’s villains as an injustice to their comic book origins (and yes, the puns are all intended). Not only are Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, and this film’s adaption of Bane reviled, but so were the actors who played then. Once again, I brush these haters’ claims off. For one thing, Batman & Robin didn’t have a lot of villain options, as Tim Burton’s Batman had a habit of killing off his problems. At this point, the Batman rogues gallery included villains like Crazy Quilt, Mad Hatter, and The Ventriloquist. Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy may not have been good choices, but they weren’t bad either. In many ways, they felt thematically similar to the villains in the previous films. Tim Burton had previously used Penguin and an army of clowns as well as a woman who was resurrected by cats. A man with an army of varsity hockey players and a woman resurrected by plants wasn’t too far off that path.
Many fans hated Mr. Freeze’s puns, but this is not all that different from how the character was originally crafted. Mr. Freeze was a throwaway villain with no true origin story. It was Batman: The Animated Series that gave Freeze the tragic origin story we all know and love today: a loving husband and brilliant scientist, forced to watch his wife die as he falls victim to a freak accident. Something Batman & Robin does (which many of the other Batman films fail to do) is humanize our antagonist. Mr. Freeze is a multilayered villain. On the outside, he is shown to be cold and ruthless, but we see that he is actually very vulnerable and longs for the woman he lost. Many of the other villains introduced in the various Batman franchises lack that kind of depth. Riddler is pissed because he’s a victim of downsizing, Two-Face’s medical insurance apparently doesn’t cover acid burns, and the Joker’s just crazy.
While casual Batman fans hated Mr. Freeze, it was Bane whom the comic book community reviled most in Batman & Robin. The man who broke the Bat in an iconic Batman story made his cinematic premier as Poison Ivy’s grunting sidekick. While it is true that his introduction into the Batman universe involved the complete defeat of our hero, I’m not so sure Bane’s interpretation in Batman & Robin is inaccurate. Soon after his introduction in “Batman: Knightfall” he was essentially reduced to a B-list villain, usually working alongside other villains and battling Robin. While I’m not a fan of a Bane who can’t finish a sentence, it’s not terribly far from the way the character has been treated recently in the comic books. Bane is the Vanilla Ice of Batman’s rogues gallery. He came out with a big hit, and everyone remembers his first performance decades later, but anytime Bane is asked to do something new, the audience is disappointed with his ninja rap.
I love watching Batman open up a six pack of whoop-ass on some punk thugs. Many of my favorite memories involve watching Batman and Robin defeat an overwhelming mob of opponents. Seeing our heroes fight against all odds and winning, through backflips, batarangs, and overly dramatic punches is all part of the fun. There’s a thrill that’s hard to explain when you see Batman face a mad mob head-on without blinking. Batman is a comic book character, and as much as I love a good plot, sometimes I want to see ridiculous actions scenes with unrealistic outcomes. Batman & Robin pits the dynamic duo against their top opponents and we watch them win through their will, skill, and resources. We also see Batman actually defeat his opponent. That might seem like a ridiculous critique, but when you sit back and look at Batman in Christopher Nolan’s films, he doesn’t have a good track record on his own. He didn’t defeat Scarecrow in the first film, he couldn’t defeat the Joker without help from Lucius, Catwoman took care of Bane, and with the others…well…if you can’t catch’em, kill’em. Ra’s, Two-Face, and Talia all ended up 6 feet under. In Batman & Robin, Batman defeats Freeze twice without getting his love interest kidnapped once. Good job, Bruce.
Gotham is as important to Batman as his pointy ears. It’s a city that created a sea of monsters only Batman can stand up to. But many people despise the bright lights of Batman & Robin’s Gotham. It’s true that even in Batman’s campiest stories, few artists have displayed Gotham as a neon nightlight. But is that Batman & Robin’s fault, or the fault of those that came before? In Batman Returns, a major plot element was that one of the antagonists, Max Shreck, is attempting to turn Gotham into “a blanket of stars.” Batman & Robin took a story beat many overlooked and ran with it.
THE BAT NIPPLES
Now for the topic everyone has been waiting for me to defend. Everything people loathe about Batman & Robin can be summoned up with one word: “Batnips.” The wardrobe in this film is viewed as the worst of any Batman film, and the use of close range butt and boob shots didn’t make the movie look any classier. While I am no fan of man nipples, I don’t believe many people keep the source material in mind when discussing these costume designs. Let’s keep one thing in mind: this movie is based off a world where a grown man thought it was a smart idea to dress like a giant bat. Let me say that again: this is a story where a grown ass man hides in the shadows as a bat.
If that’s not ridiculous enough, how about this: Batman & Robin is a movie based on a story where a grown man dresses as a blue bat with underwear outside his pants and a bright yellow logo on his chest. Oh, and in case he’s too hard to spot, he makes sure to keep a young boy in a green speedo near him at all times. Green speedos with green pixie boots and a yellow cape. It took over 40 years for someone to say “hey, shouldn’t Robin be wearing pants?” Then there’s Batgirl, who fights crime in high heels. That’s how her costume originally was, and many of the costumes have not all gotten better with time. I’ve seen Batman wear a mechsuit, Robin wear robotic wings, and Batgirl wear purple spandex. Oh, and Nightwing rocked a mullet. That happened. And it can never unhappen. If you’re walking into a comic book movie and expecting a wardrobe that seems realistic, you’re gonna have a bad time. Comic book costumes by nature are over-the-top and impractical. Batman & Robin simply showed its viewers a part of Batman’s mythos many would rather not think about.
While Batman & Robin is not a perfect film, it references a greater DC universe, provides entertaining action sequences, and remains true to many of Batman’s iconic incarnations. It’s a movie about Batman and Robin going on an adventure. Nothing more, nothing less. Not every comic book film has to be a summer blockbuster that attempts to challenge your moral beliefs in 3D. Sometimes I just want to watch a movie for the ride. I don’t want to have to worry about who the good guys are or who the bad guys are. I want to sit back and enjoy over-the-top action, corny lines, and justice prevailing without the hero sacrificing everything that makes him human. Sometimes I just want to watch a superhero movie, and that’s what Batman & Robin is.