RETROSPECTIVE: Batman and Robin and the Caped Crusader’s eternal identity crisis

For its 25th anniversary, Harry Gay reflects on the tug-of-war between grit and camp that led up to the Dark Knight’s most polarising cinematic outing.

On 26 June 1997 – almost 25 years ago to the day – Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin premiered in Australia.. The film, which starred George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell as the eponymous Batman and Robin, was a financial and critical flop, lambasted by audiences and critics alike for its campy tone, and has become a punching bag in the years since for online critics of both the contemporary and nostalgic kind. More recently, however, people have begun reevaluating the film’s, especially in light of audiences receiving their third iteration of the caped crusader in 10 years.

Batman & Robin has an interesting creative history, and is a part of a long running identity crisis when it comes to cinematic adaptations of the caped crusader – the continual ebb and flow between ‘dark’ and ‘camp’.

First appearing in May 1939 in Detective Comics #27, Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s Batman creation drew on horror iconography such as the 1926 film The Bat, which featured a bat-costumed man picking people off one by one using an assortment of gadgets, and warning them of his presence with a spotlight in the shape of a bat. Batman’s arch nemesis, The Joker, was similarly inspired by The Man Who Laughs, a 1928 film about a man born with a permanent smile which drives him crazy. These early horror films birthed the dark and mysterious nature of the comic character.Early stories were quite stripped back and serious in tone, with Batman solving mysterious murders, driving in a regular-looking car and sporting a pistol.

A moral panic swept America post-WW2, and the idea of a serious, gritty comic book was seen as destructive to the minds of youths. The Comics Code Authority emerged in 1954 with the purpose of censoring and stripping back the violent elements of comic books, which coincided with a general need for escapism in the minds of the public as a result of witnessing acts of mass violence, such as the destruction of Hiroshima. What resulted was a more campy, unrealistic take on Batman, and a focus on outlandish stories in bright, kaleidoscopic colour splashes.

This led to the infamous 1960s television series starring Adam West (Batman) and Burt Ward (Robin), which lasted four seasons and spawned a feature film adaptation.. Both the series and film are famous for their humorous dialogue (Holy ____!), iconic moments, onomatopoeic comic book visuals (BAM, ZIP, ZOCK, WHOOSH) and unrealistic gadgets/shark props.

By the 1980s, a group of primarily British authors had collectively decided that comics needed to return to the gritty realism of their past, rejecting the outlandish storytelling of previous decades in favour of a stripped back and ultra-violent interpretation. We saw Alan Moore subvert the origins of Swamp Thing and Miracleman; Neil Gaiman did the same to The Sandman; and Frank Miller dragged Batman into a nightmarish and brutal Gotham in his seminal works Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns.

While there is a lot to say about how this gritty wave of comic adaptations ultimately harmed the industry, the main point here is that Batman has gone through various reimaginings, each just as different as the last, and his film adaptations have reflected this refracted history.

In the late 80s, Tim Burton was given the reins to helm an adaptation of the Dark Knight at Warner Bros, with the studio hoping to distance themselves from the cartoonishly silly Batman of the 60s and return to the darker roots of the character. The 1989 film ended up being an amazing visual feast with a gorgeous industrial gothic aesthetic. The buildings of Gotham extend up into the heavens for infinitum and the streets are dark, decaying and derelict. Danny Elfman’s score is simultaneously eerie and epic. The film proved to be a financial and critical darling, earning the greenlight for a series of sequels.

The follow-up, Batman Returns, proved too frightening for the younger audiences that Warner Bros. was hoping to reel in for toy sales. Their sequel featured Danny DeVito as the Penguin living in a sewer and gnawing people’s noses off, while a skintight, latex-bound Michelle Pfieffer sexually teased Batman as the anti-hero Catwoman. McDonalds, upon seeing the finished product, quickly pulled a lucrative toy deal from the studio, prompting Warner Bros. to initiate series overhaul.

The studio hired director Joel Schumacher, who was hot off the heels of successes St. Elmo’s Fire, The Lost Boys, Flatliners and Falling Down. With this, they hoped to bring a lighter, campier tone to the series to heighten toy sales. Thus, Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, two candy-coated, neon light show renditions of Gotham, were born. Besides references to the 1960s TV show (“Holy rusted metal, Batman!”), Schumacher, a queer man himself, filled the films with camp iconography. One great example sees Poison Ivy making her debut in a gorilla suit at a nightclub not too dissimilar to Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus, a film praised for its transgressive and progressive subversion of gender politics.

While Poison Ivy exudes sexual energy, the films are largely focused on the male form. Our heroes and villains wear muscle clad armour that accentuate their physical features. The nipples, hardened buttocks and bulges on the Batsuit are all there to showcase the body. Even Jim Carrey’s Riddler in Batman Forever wears a green skintight suit that hugs his figure, and his grabbing of his crotch and pelvic thrusts draws further attention to his penis. Large statues of Greek Gods tower over Gotham as well, the muscular figures holding up buildings and highways and staring down at the citizens below.

The films lean in to, rather than stray away from, the homosexual subtext,that was always present in the comics but never fleshed out. Robin is wisely aged up, however.Rather than being an underage boy hanging out and living with an older billionaire, he is a grown man.

Audiences and critics hated this interpretation of the titular character, and for years afterwards, Batman & Robin was considered the final nail in the coffin of superhero movies – at least until Spider-Man, X-Men and Blade came along in the 2000s. Plans for a third Schumacher film, Batman Triumphant, which reportedly had Scarecrow as the main villain and would have featured Man-Bat as a supporting foe, were quickly scrapped.. Batman & Robin was later ridiculed ferociously online and used as the example for what not to do when adapting a comic book character, with a lot of these criticisms mostly consisting of thinly veiled homophobia. It became such a meme to dunk on this film that Joel Schumacher had to issue an apology after the fact, and George Clooney has stated he has an image of himself in the bat suit sitting in his office as a reminder never to take similar roles in the future.

Once Christopher Nolan arrived on the scene and delivered a complete 180 in terms of tone with his Dark Knight trilogy, it became even more commonplace and accepted to shit on Schumacher’s duology. But in the years since, as we ran through Nolan’s trilogy and later received Zack Snyder’s grungy, murderous rendition of the Bat, some movie lovers have looked back with fondness on Schumacher’s vision.

Online personalities like Patrick H. Willems have pointed to Schumacher’s films as a breath of fresh air in retrospect. After receiving gritty reboots and interpretations of silly comic book characters one after another, it’s nice to watch something that didn’t take itself so seriously. Everything is dialled up to 11, from the way the capes move, to Batman’s entrances through a flurry of glass falling from the ceiling, to the Gothic rendition of Arkham Asylum. Schumacher was a talented director, having proven his skills in his previous films, so the over-stylisation was clearly intentional.

These films also sought to explore the psychology of Bruce Wayne more than had been done previously. In a dream sequence deleted from Forever, the protagonist symbolically comes to terms with the darker side of himself by embracing a giant bat. Schumacher’s first film is all about duality and identity, with Two Face (Tommy Lee Jones) being thwarted by his dependence on the dual nature of the coin, Bruce struggling to reconcile his double life, and Riddler obsessed with the identity of Batman, so much so it consumes him and he himself is haunted by visions of a Bat by the end. 

Batman & Robin sees Batman face off against morally complex villains: one merely trying to revive his dying wife, and the other seeking to bring environmental justice. It’s about desires, and how these prove counterintuitive to the characters’ needs. Our heroes are lured in by the seductive charms of Ivy, which derails their mission. Ivy teams up with Freeze despite his goal to bring about a second ice age, presumably killing a lot of plants in the process. Freeze too is allured by power, despite it conflicting with his mission to save his wife. At the same time, there is an ebb and flow of power plays and dynamics, both emotional and sexual: Batman controls Robin, Ivy controls Batman and Robin, Freeze holds his wife captive, Bane is submissive to Ivy and wears a very sadomasochistic bondage mask, and Batgirl’s destiny is forged for her by Alfred.

One must also appreciate Schumacher’s vision for Gotham City. While Nolan merely had his Gotham set in a generic Chicago/New York lookalike, and Snyder’s Gotham is literally just a nondescript cityscape, Schumacher’s world clearly has a vision and identity. Drawing on the German Expressionist, hyper-industrialist city in Burton’s films, Schumacher introduces kaleidoscopic neon lights and monolithic God-like human structures. It feels like our heroes are dwarfed in this environment that is simultaneously trapped in history but also wretched into modernity. Matt Reeves’ The Batman also recognised the need for Gotham to have this distinct, striking identity, with the city constantly bucketing with rain, soaking in dark shadows and artificial, flickering lights. But I think Schumacher’s city remains unmatched in terms of cinematic interpretations of the comic book world.

This year’s The Batman also understood the need for an over-the-top, campy tone. Paul Dano’s Riddler is comical in his performance, clearly intending to elicit laughs from the audience as he shrieks and turns up the crazy during the interrogation scene. Additionally, in a nod to the 1960s film, Reeves ends his movie with a hint towards a rogues gallery being established, which could feature the same lineup as the Adam West adaptation (Penguin, Joker, Riddler, Catwoman).

Aside from these movies acknowledging the campier side of the character, the comics industry itself has also begun recognising the necessity of these light hearted versions of the Caped Crusader. Geoff Johns’ storyline ‘The Three Jokers’ saw Batman come to realise that he had encountered three different versions of the Joker in his crime fighting career, each one a rendition of a different period of the character’s comic book life. The arc served as a meta-commentary on the Batman fandom, and suggested that all these adaptations, from the super serious to the super silly, were valid and worthy of inclusion in the pantheon of Batman stories, whether fans liked it or not.

Batman & Robin, while not a perfect film, has been given an unfair rep in the past. In the years since, fans have begun to see the film for what it truly is: a fun throwback to the early comics, with great production design and a hint of something deeper going on beneath the surface.

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