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
Posted on June 28, 2017, in Franchise Killers, Movies, Super Heroes and tagged Alicia Silverstone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Batman, batman & robin, Chris O'Donnell, george clooney, Joel Schumacher, Uma Thurman. Bookmark the permalink. 34 Comments.