The first two Batman movies--Batman (1989) and Batman Returns ('92)--were Tim Burton darkfests in which Bruce Wayne carried on like a Wagnerian sufferer. Batman, much more than its dank, poisonous sequel, was an amazingly serioso Gothic fantasia. Burton may have drawn on pulp sources, but his movie wasn't remotely pulpy; it was far too obsessive and full-bodied for that.
When Joel Schumacher took over the franchise with Batman Forever, he clearly wanted to move the proceedings from the opera house to the toy store; if Burton took his lead from Frank Miller's revisionist Dark Knight Returns, Schumacher went all the way back to the Bill Finger/Jerry Robinson Batman of the '50s. Batman Forever ('95) felt like it went on forever because its only allurements were a seemingly endless supply of froufrou frills and in-your-face special effects. It was a colossal video-game movie: Nothing in it, not even Jim Carrey's Riddler or Val Kilmer's sneaky-somnolent Bruce Wayne/Batman, had any more staying power than a blip on a screen.
Batman & Robin features George Clooney as Batman, who's as staunch and square-jawed in the role as...Adam West. Clooney doesn't go in for a lot of heavy brooding like his predecessors, particularly Michael Keaton; Clooney's Bruce Wayne isn't tortured any longer, just a little annoyed. Schumacher and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman concoct a tender confab between Bruce Wayne and his ailing long-term manservant Alfred (Michael Gough), who spouts "wisdom" like Obi Wan Kenobi. (Sample: "For what is Batman but an attempt to contradict death itself?") They also work up peckish rivalries between the Batguy and Robin/Dick Grayson (the ever-bland Chris O'Donnell). But any display of bona fide human emotion in this enterprise is quickly quashed by the din.
The addition of Batgirl (a Val-gal Alicia Silverstone)--introduced here as Alfred's niece, Barbara Wilson--doesn't significantly punch up the proceedings. She seems to be in the movie not so much to give young women in the audience a heroine, but, rather, to set straight our nagging thoughts about two guys wearing capes who live together. Despite the film's pseudo-feminist angle, this new Batman is as macho-fetishistic as ever: The opening credits give us full frontal body armor and codpieces, and, in a touching display of gallantry on the part of the filmmakers, Batman's and Robin's bodysuit nipples are far more pronounced than Batgirl's.
To be fair, we don't get any nipples on Mr. Freeze either--which seems remiss since he's encased in clanking, climate-controlled platinum armor. Freeze's get-up is the one original touch in the movie; he's like a cross between a steroid-pumped Tin Man and Brigitte Helm from Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Freeze got this way because, in his previous life as a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, he screwed up an experiment and now must freeze his body temperature to stay alive. He's still the warmest character in the movie, by default. What gets to you isn't Freeze's attempt to revive the wife he froze until he could cure her wasting disease. No, what touches the soul is Schwarzenegger's heroic attempt to get his mouth around the English language--still. Schwarzenegger is game enough to work his accent into a semblance of a comic style--he pronounces it, "Bat-min"--but he sounds like a Prussian Mike Mazurki. When you can make out what's he's saying at all.
Uma Thurman's Poison Ivy is a slinky creeper who spends most of the movie in various botanically tinted body stockings or magenta gorilla suits. Together with Freeze, Poison Ivy wants to take over Gotham City--the world,--and save the plants. She's a cartoon nightmare of a Greenpeacer--or she would be if the filmmakers had any penchant for satire, or humor above the level of an after-school special. But Thurman has her moments, especially when she's blowing pink love dust at her victims; she's like a rain-forest Mae West. Since she's the only actor in the film who seems to know what to do with a laugh line, we find ourselves in the unusual position of actually laughing.
The people who made this movie--which, as always, is set up for a sequel--will be laughing all the way to the bank. But isn't there someone in that bank who can lock them all inside a safety-deposit vault and throw away the key?
Batman & Robin.
George Clooney, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chris O'Donnell, Uma Thurman, Alicia Silverstone, John Glover, Michael Gough. Written by Akiva Goldsman. Directed by Joel Schumacher. Opens Friday.