Legacies are a funny thing. In Hollywood, they outlive a person, and can overshadow or even overwhelm any other aspects of a person’s career and character. Deadline is reporting that film director Joel Schumacher has passed away at the age of 80, and while there will be many articles talking about his legitimately great films Falling Down and Phone Booth, in nerd culture, the discussion will be centered around one movie more than any other: 1997’s Batman & Robin.
Sometimes proclaimed “the worst movie ever made” (it isn’t), Batman & Robin was the result of many factors, including the backlash against 1992’s Batman Returns for being too violent for children (even though in a lot of ways it’s actually less brutal than 1989’s Batman, but that’s a subject for another column) and the success of 1995’s Batman Forever. Also director by Schumacher, Forever had the best opening weekend of all time when it came out, and with less nightmare fuel and Jim Carrey on wacky bad guy duty, it was the sort of superhero movie that made Warner Bros. executives happy. Naturally, they wanted more of the same with Batman & Robin, and with George Clooney as The Caped Crusader and Arnold Schwarzenegger set to cool things off as Mr. Freeze, what could go wrong?
It turned out a lot…but also not nearly as much as the internet might lead you to believe. Batman & Robin is often condemned for being too comedy-heavy, but it was intended–at least on paper–to bring Batman back to his more lighthearted days of the 60’s, particularly the beloved Adam West TV show. Critics were quick to hate on it, but it was the early days of dial-up AOL online chatter that might’ve brought the movie down to its bat knees. In the end, despite a strong opening weekend, Batman & Robin barely crossed the $100 million mark, and was largely considered a box office disappointment.
But that’s all stuff you’ve heard before. You’ve all probably watched Batman & Robin by now, but for me, after I finally caught on Cartoon Network in 2008, I found it amazingly…well, likable. I’m not sure if that makes it “good” per se, but it’s likable. Schwarzenegger is goofy as Freeze–as anyone who had seen Forever would expect–but is also poignant and even effectively bittersweet when needed. Uma Thurman is a hoot as Poison Ivy (and, yes, easy on the eyes), clearly having a ball with the role, and even the movie’s ridiculous take on Bane earns some laughs even if for how stupid it is. I won’t defend the movie’s take on Batgirl–that truly is terrible, from her horrible costume to cringe-inducing one-liners (“You’re about to become compost!”). But Clooney, Bat-nipples and all, makes an appealing and refreshingly relaxed version of Bruce Wayne/Batman. As Schumacher said on the commentary included on the DVD, Wayne has been through unspeakable horror and pain, but he’s also super duper rich, and it’s been a long time since his tragedy happened. He’s allowed to be happy at this stage of his life.
So there you have, Mr. Schumacher. You were someone who, as far as I can tell, never become overly bitter over your defeats, and seemed like a perfectly nice and decent human being. If you’re able to read this, I salute you–and even your silly little film Batman & Robin.