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Franichise Killers: Batman and Robin

Superhero movies are dominant at the box office.  But that wasn’t always the case.   In the 90’s, Batman was the only successful superhero franchise.  Just two years prior to the release of the fourth film in the series, Warner Brothers was so confident of the caped crusader, they released a movie titled Batman Forever.  It’s true that the studio will probably continue making Batman movies long after you and I are gone, but the next Batman movie they released derailed not just the series but the entire superhero genre for years to come.

It’s been twenty years since the release of Batman & Robin.  Over the past two decades, the movie has developed a toxic reputation.  It’s frequently cited as the worst superhero movie ever made.  It’s not.  Not by a long shot.  There are some truly wretched movies about superheroes.  But up until recently, B&R was undoubtedly the biggest waste of talent and resources.  Given the budget and the people involved, I think anyone reading this could probably make a better movie than Batman & Robin.  Even if all you did was excise 50% of the ice-related puns, that would be a marked improvement.

The series started in 1989 with Tim Burton’s Joker-centric Batman.  Batman isn’t a perfect movie, but it’s an important one.  Following the success of Superman, Hollywood made a few attempts to duplicate its success with comic strip characters like Popeye and Annie.  When those movies failed and the Man of Steel’s series flamed out, the studios figured people didn’t want to see movies about superheroes.  Throughout the 80’s, there were several movies based on comic book heroes in development, but most of them never saw the light of day.  And the ones that did, mostly weren’t worth seeing.

That changed with Burton’s Batman.  Backed by a clever marketing campaign that highlighted the character’s iconic logo, Batman tapped into the zeitgeist in a big way.  Despite mixed reviews, Batman dominated the box office grossing over $250 million dollars.  To put that in perspective, only eight other movies topped $100 million dollars that year.  Adjusted for inflation, the ’89 Batman is still the second highest-grossing movie in the series behind The Dark Knight.  (In case you are curious, Batman V. Superman trails in sixth place.)

Naturally, Warner Brothers wanted a sequel as soon as possible.  Burton was given more creative control over Batman Returns and the end result was a movie that alienated a lot of people.  The movie’s marketing push included a deal with McDonalds, but Batman Returns was a little too twisted for Happy Meal tie-ins.  While still successful, Batman Returns grossed around $100 million dollars less than the original.  Not surprisingly, the studio decided to make some changes.

Burton was given an executive producer credit and shown the door.  Star Michael Keaton followed suit after a combination of creative differences and a salary dispute.  In a lot of ways, Batman Forever was a reboot, but the inclusion of supporting actors Michael Gough and Pat Hingle made it clear the movie was intended as a continuation of the Burton series.

The new director, Joel Schumacher, brought with him a new Batman and a different aesthetic.  Burton’s movies were gothic and moody.  That was arguably their greatest strength.  Schumacher’s were gaudy and bathed in neon lights.  The first two movies distanced themselves from the campy image of the TV show from the sixties.  But Schumacher brought back the camp.  According to Stephen Goldblatt, the cinematographer on Batman Forever:

Joel wanted to literally make it comic book looking. He was very happy as soon as he saw bright colors and homoerotic posing and all of that stuff. He was as happy as the day was long.

After the disappointment of Batman Returns, the success of the third movie came as a surprise to many.  Not only was Batman Forever the second highest-grossing movie of 1995, it sold a lot of merchandise.  Seeing dollar signs, Warner Brothers gave Schumacher two years to turn out another Batman movie.  Their intent was clear.  Sell as many toys, T-shirts and Taco Bell soft drinks as possible.

The studio told Schumacher they wanted the next Batman movie to be “toyetic.”  That meant stuffing the movie with even more villains and sidekicks who could be immortalized in plastic.  Batman Returns and Forever juggled two villains each, but B&R would add a third to the mix.  And Batman’s extended family grew with the addition of Batgirl.  It didn’t matter that the movie was over-stuffed as long as there were lots of merchandising opportunities to exploit.

When it came time to assemble his cast, Schumacher took the “bigger is better” approach.  Arnold Schwarzenegger was offered a ridiculous sum of money to play Mr. Freeze because he was at the time one of the biggest stars in the world.  As it turns out, his career was already showing signs of declining.  Batman & Robin would only contribute to that.

Having butted heads with Val Kilmer while making Forever, Schumacher was all too happy to recast the title role.  The studio looked to George Clooney who was still primarily known as a TV star at the time.  Eager to land a big budget movie, Clooney was willing to work relatively cheap.  He’s spent the last twenty years apologizing to fans for ruining Batman.  But the truth is, he did as well as could be expected with the material he was given.

Chris O’Donnell was one of the few holdovers from the previous movie.  Uma Thurman, hot off Pulp Fiction, was cast as femme fatale Poison Ivy.  For Batgirl, Schumacher wanted Alicia Silverstone who had just risen to star-status thanks to the comedy Clueless.

The end result was a cast of hot actors who weren’t necessarily all that well suited to the parts they were playing.  If you’re looking at it from the point of view of a Batman fan, you would happily trade a big name like Schwarzenegger for someone like Patrick Stewart as Mr Freeze.  By casting names like Schwarzenegger and Silverstone, Warner Brothers thought they were stacking the deck in their favor.  Instead, they were running up their production costs with movie star-level salaries in a movie that didn’t need big name stars.  Two decades later, everyone knows that the characters are the stars of these movies.

What went wrong on Batman and Robin?  It’s almost easier to ask what didn’t.  Warner Brothers practically guaranteed a bad movie with a shortened production schedule and a focus on merchandising.  Joel Schumacher, while more talented than his post-Batman filmography may suggest, was never the right guy to helm these movies.  He simply didn’t get the character.  The script was overstuffed with too many characters for the sole purpose of turning them into action figures and many of the parts were miscast with an eye towards star power.

Reviews for the Batman movies were never stellar.  And honestly, even the best pre-Nolan Batman movies aren’t very good.  They get by primarily on style, but they lack substance.  For the most part, audiences were willing to overlook these flaws for the opportunity to see a comic book character brought to life.  Despite the success of the first Batman movie, big budget superhero movies remained relatively rare through the nineties.

When Batman & Robin opened, audiences ignored the bad reviews.  It opened in first place.  But toxic word of mouth caused it to quickly fall from the top ten.  The movie limped past the $100 million dollar mark to become the twelfth highest-grossing movie of 1997 barely beating out 13th place finisher George of the Jungle.

The failure of Batman & Robin didn’t just kill the Batman franchise, it put the superhero genre on ice for a couple of years.  Studio heads decided that if audiences wouldn’t buy a ticket to a Batman sequel, there was no way they would go see movies starring lesser-known comic book characters.  It would take the success of several Marvel movies to bring superheroes back in vogue.  It wasn’t until after Marvel properties like X-Men and Spider-man that Warner Brothers returned to the genre.  When they did, it was to reboot Batman in a stripped-down movie that stood in stark contrast to the campy neon-soaked Batman & Robin.

Let’s break this down:

How many movies in the series? 4

How many of them were good? 1.5 – The first one is fun and Returns has its moments.

Health of the franchise before it died? Strong

Careers Ruined: 3 – Joel Schumacher, Chirs O’Donnell and Alicia Silverstone.

Likelihood of a reboot? Batman came back in the Nolan trilogy and is a central figure in the DC Cinematic Universe

Any redeeming value? Maybe if you really like ice puns or Mae West impressions

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Posted on June 28, 2017, in Franchise Killers, Movies, Super Heroes and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 34 Comments.

  1. The Nolan films were dark and broody, and became huge successes, but there was a evolution of taste of the movie audience when those films came out. It sounds like to me Batman Returns was ahead of its time back in 1992, hence how off-putting it was back then. It probably would have fared better if it came out around the time the Nolan films did

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    • I suppose “Batman Returns” was a little ahead of its time, and probably would be more retrospective acknowledgement if the narrative would’ve been a little bit more. I think it had something there though.

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      • I meant to write that the “Batman Returns” narrative needed to be a little bit more steady. the art style and tone were clear for that picture, but i believe the storyline really lacked focus.

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        • Batman Returns suffered from too many rewrites. There were several uncredited screenwriters who kept changing the plot. As a result, Penguin’s motivations change about every 20 minutes.

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        • Yeah, that’s true; it seemed everybody except Kim Basinger & Carrie Fisher had a hand in rewriting “Batman Returns”.

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        • Right off the top of my head Penguin’s motivations involve running for mayor of Gotham City, framing Batman for murder, kidnapping the first born children of Gotham, and sending an army of mind controlled little penguins to blow up the Gotham with missiles strapped on their backs. And at least half of those plot points get dropped or are resolved rather quickly.

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        • Indeed they are, although the more I think about it I guess the main point of this film was about not having any resolutions. As for the baby kidnapping scene, I wonder if Christopher Walken had flashbacks to the scene in “The Dead Zone”, when Martin Sheen’s Greg Stillson character uses an infant as a shield.

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    • One key problem with “Batman Returns” is that when compared to the 1989 one, it’s quite apparent that Tim Burton was reigned in for the better on the first one. On “Returns”, it just felt like Burton was making a bitter, moody and downright bizarre arthouse movie (or if you want to call it this, a modern German expressionism movie that just happened to feature Batman) disguised as a Summer blockbuster.

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    • http://forums.superherohype.com/showpost.php?p=34560803&postcount=537

      The emphasis on Burton Goth and freakish characters aren’t true to their origins of the source material. And only share vague similarities with the characters from the mythos it’s based on.

      While visibly darker. And a film without any true heroes. That ends on a depressing note. The film is actually more cartoony and camp here than the original. With no sense of real threat.

      Penguin driving a giant duck mobile. Penguin just coming up with the schematics to control the Batmobile. Little penguins that follow orders and have missiles on their backs. And Batman with a giant ice mobile designed specifically to drive in the sewers is all over the top camp akin to the 60’s series. Straight up cheese and goofiness.

      It’s a visibly beautiful movie. Albeit overdesigned and unrealistic. A total goth fantasy that focuses on being a freak rather than a dark, complex and complicated yet tortured hero. It’s a depressing experience that I want to enjoy but just can’t.

      This was Tim Burton saying Eff You to studios, commercialism and the comic book mythos itself.

      Just because it’s dark doesn’t make it Batman.

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    • To put things in its proper perspective, in the first movie from 1989 ended in a very triumphant note with Batman having defeated Joker, watching the Bat-signal in the sky (with the great Danny Elfman music swelling for good measure). “Batman Returns” on the other hand, ends on a rather bittersweet note, with Batman failing to save Catwoman and having to go back to his life alone. What makes matters even worse is that this would be the last time that we would see Michael Keaton’s take on Bruce Wayne/Batman.

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    • I think that the comparison between the Nolan Batman films and the Tim Burton Batman films are quite superficial at the most. The Christopher Nolan films beginning with “Batman Begins” pretty much had the concept of “What if Batman could plausibly exist in the supposed real world”. “The Dark Knight” in particular could be considered the Batman version of a heist movie like “Heat” or in one review that I heard, “If Sidney Lumet directed a superhero movie.”

      Tim Burton’s movies especially “Batman Returns”, were more or less macabre fantasies, surreal odes to German expressionism, and/or Gothic fairy tales with superheroes. The 1989 movie had a somewhat “heightened reality” that was more of a noirish gangster movie disguised as a late ’80s big budgeted urban action-adventure movie.

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  2. jeffthewildman

    One thing I’ve noticed. While Batman And Robin is widely regarded as a bomb, it seems to be remembered more than Batman Forever. I see it pop up on TV quite a bit. I can’t recall the last time I happened across Batman Forever. That’s probably because Batman And Robin has its reputation, while Forever is more or less a mediocre movie and in some ways, a purely bad movie can be more entertaining than a purely mediocre one.

    At the time, this went into production, the main movie success Clooney had had was with From Dusk Till Dawn. Once he got this and One Fine Day out of his system, he was on a winning streak. Starting with Out Of Sight in 1998, he’s rarely stepped wrong.

    I agree with a comment I saw elsewhere on here, that in the long run, it was a combination of the failure of this, Excess Baggage and Blast From The Past that knocked Alicia Silverstone off the a-list. I’d say that the latter two did more damage overall as they were headlining vehicles for her. This one had her as a supporting player.

    As for Arnold, in some ways the under-performance of Eraser the previous year had started to offer hints that his time had passed. By the late 90s, Arnold and the action movie tropes associated with him were seeming passe to a significant portion of the public. Mr. Freeze definitely had the worst dialogue. When you think of bad dialogue in this movie, usually the ice puns are the first thing to come to mind.

    This isn’t the worst movie ever nor is it the worst superhero movie ever. I can think of a few superhero movies that are far more painful to watch than this and that’s without doing nay research.

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    • That’s sad to me if “Batman and Robin” is remembered more than “Batman Forever. Looking back, I can see the quality taking a turn for the worse in the Forever film, yet I think it escapes with some decency & respectability. “Batman & Robin”, on the other hand, other than the affecting portion of the story about Nora Fries, seems to me like it never stood a chance of being any good (and that’s why Superman works alone).

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      • “Batman & Robin’s” biggest problem is that it seemed to have no idea whom it was marketed towards. On one end, it seems to want to be a ’90s homage of sorts to the campy 1960s incarnation of Batman with Adam West yet at the same time, it has stuff that we’re supposed to take very seriously like the Nora Fries (as well as the “Alfred is dying”) subplot from the animated series.

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        • I also think that “Batman & Robin” gets deservedly dumped on because it’s simply put, the epitome of a lazy (the filmmakers pretty much took the basic formula of “Batman Forever” and dumbed it down even further), soul-less, and most importantly, cynical cash-grab. I think that Chris O’Donnell said it best when he said that when he made “Batman Forever” it felt like he was actually making a movie. Whereas on “Batman & Robin”, it just felt like that he was making a two hour two commercial.

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        • Chris O’Donnell was there on set, and many viewers of the film say that same thing, and I’m glad he said that. For many of the performers there, it might have been the worst project they were involved in, especially considering the expectations.

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    • Doug Walker perhaps summed up “Batman Forever” as best as anybody could possibly do in his Nostalgia Critic review of “Batman & Robin”. “Batman Forever” while I to wasn’t exactly good, wasn’t at all terrible either. It was at the end of the day, the Batman film that the studio always wanted, safe and marketable. It’s kind of those, “I saw it once, but I really don’t need to see it again!” type of movies (if that makes sense).

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      • I liked it more when I viewed it at home years later than when I first saw it in the theater, but I do understand that point of view. I don’t think it’s a must-see film; I kind of feel about it how I feel about “Lethal Weapon 3”, which is that although I don’t find it particularly memorable, I may get sucked in if it’s on TV.

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    • Alicia Silverstone also already had a bulls-eye on her back so to speak by somehow gaining herself a lucrative production deal with Columbia Pictures so soon after “Clueless”. I’m willing to bet that many within the industry felt that it was undeserved for somebody who was still in the early phases of her career. Also, Alicia’s attitude and work ethic like that bratty sounding interview with “Movieline”, her weight gain while making “Batman & Robin”, and her alleged feud with the director of “Excess Baggage” didn’t help her cause.

      You brought up “Eraser”, but funny thing is that “Eraser” by most accounts was a big hit. It grossed worldwide, $242 million against a budget of $100 million and was the tenth highest grossing movie of 1996. It however, is one of those movies that were hits of their day, but don’t seem to be talked about by the general public anymore:
      http://thefreewheeler.proboards.com/thread/16711/forgotbusters-eraser-1996

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      • That’s for sure about Alicia Silverstone; it looked like she was headed down the wrong road anyway, it’s just that along that road she happened to participate in a poor Batman film.

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        • Another thing that perhaps didn’t help Alicia Silverstone’s cause is that during the press junket for “Batman & Robin”, she quite glibly say that even though she did watch the Adam West TV series beforehand, she didn’t know that there was even a Batgirl. I guess Alicia stopped or blocked out Season 3 when Yvonne Craig joined the cast.

          It’s just that the way that Alicia said it, it sounded without the slightest hint of irony or reverence to the source material:

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    • I think the fundamental problem with George Clooney’s interpretation of Batman is that he was simply way too apathetic, detached, ironic, and “too cool for school” (Clooney didn’t even “theatricalize” his performance in the Batsuit by altering his voice like Michael Keaton and Val Kilmer did). I can somewhat understand the logic that Bruce Wayne four movies in would’ve considerably mellowed as he got older, but with Clooney on board, he just makes Batman too much of a generic hero. Completely gone is the sense of intensity and sense of danger from when Michael Keaton originated the role back in ’89. It was as if by “Batman & Robin” just about anybody could’ve played that role.

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      • I think that’s true enough; it seems George Clooney played a laid back Batman, with none of the darkness or pathos the Keaton or even the Kilmer Batman had. I don’t think Clooney was bad, I just don’t think he was Batman (I think he played it more like someone who was dressed up as Batman for Halloween).

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        • I wonder if one small factor for why “Batman & Robin” failed is that audiences were becoming wary of the frequent changes in the lead actors in a short time span. In three succeeding movies, we went from Michael Keaton to Val Kilmer to George Clooney. Not even the James Bond franchise had such a dramatic turn over. At least there, they went back to Sean Connery for one movie after the George Lazenby experiment failed before settling on Roger Moore.

          That’s one of the biggest problems with the Tim Burton-Joel Schumacher era Batman movies. There was never any real sense of continuity either visually or from a storyline/narrative perspective. They really all felt like their own individual episodes (ironically, just like the Bond series) unlike say what you see now with the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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        • Maybe that was a factor for some, but then again Superman was played by the same actor, and people grew weary of that franchise due to the decline in quality. For what it’s worth, I preferred Michael Keaton as Batman, I didn’t mind Val Kilmer (at the time, I wasn’t aware that he was difficult to work work for a lot of directors), and I was just getting used to George Clooney, but he didn’t swing the film one way or another for me.
          I agree though Batman ’89-’97 overall really lacked any sort of flow or continuity; it was a continuous franchise, but except for “Batman Returns” (and only a little bit for me), it didn’t feel like it. Superhero franchises surely have come a long way in the last 17 years!

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        • I recall that while doing press for the movie, George Clooney tried to defend or rationalize the more “laid back” approach to Batman. I’m paraphrasing but he said that Bruce Wayne is a 35-ish year old man who lives in the lap of luxury and has excess to all of the coolest toys he got get a hold of. Therefore, by this phase in his life, he shouldn’t go all “Woe is me, my parents are dead!” I kind of get what Clooney is perhaps trying to say in that Bruce Wayne should be Batman for “the greater good” (it kind of goes back to what Michael Keaton told Kim Basinger’s character in the first movie regarding why he has to be Batman, “Because nobody else can!”) a la Superman and not as purely an exercise to cope with his childhood trauma.

          However, this is problematic because Bruce Wayne is for all intents and purposes, at the very least, a borderline sociopath. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to believe that this guy is a tinge bit insane. We’re talking about a man without any superpowers, who dresses up in an elaborate Halloween costume to play nighttime vigilante. It’s almost like a more fantasy version of I don’t know, maybe “Death Wish”. If you take that away, then you’re pretty much taking away the very essence of Batman at his core.

          https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=batman+interview+clooney

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        • Right, other than the Adam West Batman (that series was in a different time and went for fun, like a beach party with Gidget or Frankie & Annette), the man who dons the cape and cowl doesn’t take to crimefighting as a hobby and is working through some serious emotional issues (like the answer Batman gave to Zatanna in the animated series when she asked what happened that made him put a mask on: “A painful memory and a promise”).

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        • The ironic thing is that Adam West should get more credit for his conviction to the role. I would actually compare decidedly “too causal for his own good” George Clooney’s approach to playing Bruce Wayne to Lyle Waggoner’s in the screen tests (he was apparently, the runner up behind Adam West) for the 1966 TV series.

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      • What ‘Batman & Robin’ Can Teach Us on Its 20th Anniversary

        http://www.slashfilm.com/lessons-to-learn-on-the-batman-and-robin-20th-anniversary/

        Instead of focusing on the possibilities of making the character profitable and interesting to families, Nolan developed a Batman that could exist in a post- 9/11 environment. Schumacher’s Gotham is not a believable place, but rather exists more as an overcooked, colorful fantasy. It’s clear this was done to be more inviting to kids, especially since much of the designs (such as the vehicles) came from the many partnering toy companies working with the studio. Nolan, on the other hand, filmed in parts of Chicago – his Gotham was just as real as the cities you see on the news.

        The same can be said of Christian Bale’s take on Bruce Wayne, who couldn’t be more different than the emotionless pretty boy of George Clooney’s performance. In fact, Bale understands the three sides of Batman: the man who the public sees, the one that Alfred knows, and the crime fighter that bad guys fear. Clooney plays the character as if these three elements don’t exist, while Bale makes them all uniquely his own. To best understand (and respect) Batman, we have to witness all those facets of his personality.

        Though there is the myth that kids will buy into anything, there’s a clause in that formula: the fantasy has to be believable and Schumacher’s Batman & Robin is nothing of the sort. Though Batman Begins might not exactly be the best example of something that audiences of all ages adore, if we look at DC’s competition, Marvel is the one that gets this right. Yes, Thor and Loki exist in the same world as Tony Stark and Spider-Man, but audiences buy into this universe because these characters and their world feel organic and their relationships make sense. It might have ridiculous visuals and action sequences, but you never question the legitimacy of what’s in front of you.

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  3. I think Lebeau gave some good stats, but if we’re going to break the number of good films in this franchise into portions, the number I’d give is 2.25: first film gets a 1, second gets a .5, third film gets a .75 (yeah, I actually kind of like it), and I already gave the fourth film money, so it gets no more from me.

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    • To be brutally honest, I never found Uma Thurman to be THAT attractive to the point in which she would be looked at as inherently desirable as Poison Ivy. I wouldn’t exactly put her up there on the list of the “hottest women in a Batman movie” next to Kim Basinger, Michelle Pfeiffer, or Nicole Kidman in “Batman Forever”. Hell, I would take Elle Macpherson or Vendela Kirsebom (who had smaller roles in “Batman & Robin” as Julie Madison and Nora Fries respectively) before I would take Uma.

      The thing about Uma Thurman is that she lacked magnificent bone structure and her nose is too long and wide. She is tall and slim but her legs are not that proportioned. In effect, she’s attractive in a decidedly unconventional way. What didn’t help is that she looks like a drag queen in her Poison Ivy get-up.

      If it were up to me, I would’ve gone with somebody like Marcia Cross (you know from “Melrose Place” and later, “Desperate Housewives”) as Pamela Isley. I’m willing to bet that she wouldn’t have imposed upon use a horrific Mae West impersonation like Uma Thurman did.

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      • I never got that riled up about Uma Thurman myself when it came to attractiveness (for example, I preferred Janeane Garofalo in “The Truth About Cats & Dogs”, so I had difficulty in believing the plot there:-).
        Marcia Cross? That could’ve been interesting; plus, she’s a natural redhead.

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