How Batman & Robin became the worst blockbuster of all time

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May 24, 2013, 8:53:38 PM5/24/13

Asked in the build up to the release of Batman Begins’ if he had any
thoughts on the reboot of the series, George Clooney responded with a
typical smirk, ‘Yep. I kept the franchise going.’ As deadpan jokes go,
this is an absolute flatliner – the Clooney-starring Batman & Robin
wasn’t just a flop, it was a free-falling fiasco, leaving in its wake
a twisted wreck of soiled reputations and ruined careers that reached
even as far as the seemingly invincible Arnold Schwarzenegger. Despite
this – or rather, because of it – Clooney’s cheeky one-liner contains
more than a pinch of truth. It was the untamed excess of director Joel
Schumacher’s super-camp Bat-sequel, and its round rejection by jaded
audiences, that led Warner to rethink its approach to the caped
crusader, a decision which ultimately resulted in Christopher Nolan’s
new take on the series.

Back in 1995, though, the future for Schumacher’s Batman looked rosy.
The director was riding high after a string of big-grossing hits. He’d
made Falling Down for Warner in 1993, the white-collar vigilante flick
propelling him into the A-list after a decade of stylish but
insubstantial brat-pack vehicles. As a reward, the studio had
entrusted him with not one but two of their most important franchises,
first asking him to helm their latest John Grisham adaptation, The
Client, and then, when Tim Burton vacated the director’s chair,
inviting him to take the reigns on Batman Forever. Both films clocked
up big box-office, with Batman Forever in particular raking in a
massive $336 million – $70 million more than Burton’s Batman Returns.
In August 1995, just two months after the release of Forever while he
was in pre-production on a second Grisham thriller, A Time To Kill,
the studio asked Schumacher if he’d like to make Batman & Robin.

He said yes, of course – he had every reason to. ‘It was so much fun
making a Batman movie,’ the director explained. ‘I felt, having never
made a Batman movie before, that I was in a sense climbing Mount
Everest for the first time. None of us who worked on Batman Forever
had made the previous movies – we didn’t know if our version would be
accepted, let alone accepted as well as it was. That kind of success
is very exhilarating.’

He set about rounding up his key crew from Forever, starting –
appropriately, for his lavish tastes – with production designer
Barbara Ling, who assured him that they ‘hadn’t even scratched the
surface’ of her lurid comic-book vision. Other influential figures
followed – cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt, art director Geoff
Hubbard, visual effects supervisor John Dykstra and costume designer
Ingrid Ferrin, all looking to up the ante on their previous
collaboration, as well as Akiva Goldsman, the scriptwriter behind all
of Schumacher’s Batman and Grisham hits.

The cast also starting falling into place. Chris O’Donnell would
reprise his role as Robin, joined this time by fellow up-and-comer
Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl. Uma Thurman was locked as seductress
Poison Ivy, and after a tug of war with his old action rival Sylvester
Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger signed on as Mr Freeze (Sly ditched
his agent soon after, reportedly miffed that he didn’t land the role).

The only major player not returning was Schumacher’s original Batman,
Val Kilmer, who’d jumped ship to headline Paramount’s equally doomed
remake of The Saint. This suited Schumacher just fine – the famously
easy-going director had struggled to get on with his prickly star
first time round, with on-set shoving matches rumoured to have taken
place. ‘There were good days,’ the director sighed. ‘But when you have
someone who behaves like that, who has no regard for others, and such
an ego problem, the whole crew is “Whoahhh! He’s on today.”’

Besides, with Kilmer out of the picture, the door was open for
Clooney, the megastar-in-waiting, to finally nail the transition from
small to big screen. Schumacher remembers the deal romantically,
spotting Clooney in a From Dusk Til Dawn ad in an in-flight magazine
(‘I looked at him, then drew Bat-ears onto the picture, and I knew I
had my Batman’), but the reality had more to do with industrial
practicalities – as the long-time star of the Warner-produced ER,
Clooney was already a studio favourite, and as both productions were
under the same roof schedule conflicts were easily resolved. This
still left Clooney working seven-day-weeks (ER Monday to Thursday,
Batman Friday to Sunday), but rather than complain, the affable star
told the world’s press that he was just ‘hoping not to be the first
guy to screw it up.’

And the early signs were that he hadn’t. All the noises emerging from
the set were harmonious. Schumacher called his cast ‘a dream,’
singling Clooney out as ‘a real pleasure.’ They returned the
compliment, with a contented Arnie blathering that ‘He makes everyone
feel like we’re all working together. There’s no-one above and no-one
below. We are all one team.’ Better yet, despite the enormous
logistical challenges of the production, Schumacher guided the film
home under-budget and two weeks early, claiming modestly that ‘Once
you’ve climbed Mt. Everest, when you go back again, you know what
equipment to take and who to tie to the rope.’ The studio was more in
love with the helmer than ever, with Warner co-chairman Bob Daly
grandly stating ‘He’s a member of our family. As far as we’re
concerned, we hope he’s with us forever.’ Things didn’t turn out that

Even before the film’s official release things started to go wrong.
Batman & Robin was one of the first victims of internet-mobilised
global geekery. In 1997, during the build up to the film’s June
premier, Harry Knowles’ Ain’t It Cool News website ran a series of
damning reports from preview screenings that set the tone for the
film’s press reception (‘Nothing can prepare you for the sheer
glorious travesty of the 200-megaton bomb of a film this is,’ wrote
Knowles with typical restraint.) It was a watershed moment,
catapulting the nerd champion into the national consciousness and
waking Hollywood up to the growing influence of the internet. Studio
executives complained that their movie had been sabotaged, but the
truth was simply that word of mouth was making a tech-boosted return.

The real problem, of course, was that Batman & Robin was a terrible
movie; Harry Knowles and his advance guard just made it harder to
cover it up with lavish advertising. Describing his vision for the
film, Schumacher said he ‘thought we could start from where we had
left off – take the humour, the action, the colour, the framing, the
living comic book we tried to create, and build on that.’ But where
Forever had delivered a tight mix of Burton’s bleak, broody Batman
with a new, family-friendly vivaciousness, Batman & Robin had swung
wildly out of control.

For starters, the story was weak. The over-used and under-imaginative
‘scientist-given-superpowers-in-an-experiment-gone-wrong’ angle had
already been tapped for Jim Carrey’s Riddler in the previous film, but
that didn’t stop Goldsman recycling it not once but twice for Batman &
Robin (it could have been three times, but Dr. Jason Woodrue – AKA the
Floronic Man – was killed off early on.) Fans also reacted with fury
to the woeful deployment of Bane, a relatively fresh face in the D.C.
universe who had quickly been established as one of Batman’s most
powerful enemies (he was tagged ‘The Man Who Broke The Bat’ after
snapping the caped crusader’s back in the ‘Knightfall’ comic-book
arc). The film’s mangled, monosyllabic interpretation of the character
(played by wrestler Jeep Swenson, who died of heart failure a month
after the film’s release) infuriated the Batman faithful.

Worst of all, though, was the representation of Bats himself.
Schumacher’s take on the Dark Knight was, well, not very dark. ‘We’ve
progressed from Forever here,’ he misguidedly explained. ‘We’ve moved
on from the self-obsessed angst. The first three films had Batman
brooding over the death of his parents. George is 36 years old, if you
haven’t gotten over it by then, well, you just want to shriek “Come
on! Lighten up!”’

Telling Batman to lighten up, of course, is a little like suggesting
to Captain America that he think about emigration, or advising
Superman to cut down on all that flying lark; brooding angst is his
very heart and soul. Schumacher’s hero was reduced to a
straightforward costumed crime-fighter, his only emotional conflict a
laughably homoerotic rivalry with Robin for the attentions of Poison
Ivy. Between O’Donnell’s stiff adolescent whining and Clooney’s
straight-take Batman, the whole thing played farcically.

If Batman’s mood had been incongruously brightened, so had the
production design, to catastrophic effect. The costumes were
preposterously garish – even if you ignore the Batnipples and Mr
Freeze’s neon nightmare, there’s still the unexplained phenomenon of
Poison Ivy turning up at a party disguised (disguised!) as an giant,
pink, furry gorilla. In building the sets and props, Schumacher’s crew
seemed to lose all sense of scale and proportion, as Ling basically
admitted. ‘The screen kept making the Batmobile smaller,’ the
production designer babbled, ‘so I wanted this one to feel like it was
half a block long. We wanted a moving engine, and a single flame was
not enough so we opted to use three flames on each fin.’

It was gratuitous, uncontained madness, that led to a series of
embarrassingly misjudged set-pieces: the dynamic duo skate-fighting
Freeze’s minions in a shimmering ice museum, clicking heels to sprout
Bat-blades; the pair air-surfing back to Gotham from Freeze’s rocket,
Robin yelling ‘cowabunga’ without a trace of irony; and – almost
entirely unrelated to the desperately flagging plot – a gang-run
backstreet motorcycle race resembling nothing so much as a high-camp
musical version of The Warriors. When Batman and Robin finally stopped
parading and got down to fisticuffs, the action was so stilted –
thanks to truly appalling wire-work – that the pair looked like stiff-
limbed toy versions of themselves.

Perhaps this isn’t so surprising – Schumacher complains on the US
special edition DVD commentary that he was under pressure to include
as many gadgets as possible to spawn potential merchandising.
Executive Producer Michael Uslan, who had been with the series since
Burton’s 1989 opener, agreed, damning the film in a 2005 interview.
‘Sometimes,’ he lamented, ‘you get to the point [where] you’re not
making movies, you’re making two hour infomercials for toys. And
that’s sad. Because, if a filmmaker is allowed to just go out and make
a great film, I believe you will sell toys anyway.’

The strangest thing about Batman & Robin: The Flop is that it wasn’t
much of a flop at all. Worldwide grosses of $237 million, combined
with tie-in licenses and future TV and home video sales, saw the film
turn a solid profit. But the healthy numbers were something of a
mirage. Tom Shone writes in his book, Blockbuster, that in the 1990s
Hollywood had developed an almost critic-and-audience-proof way of
generating hits, rejigging a famous Spielberg quote to the effect that
‘they could now sell it faster than we could smell it.’ So while a
multi-media marketing blitz was enough to drag Schumacher’s glitzy
flick into the black, a truer gauge of audience reaction came through
the week-on-week sales; in the States, $75 million of the film’s
eventual $107 million haul was generated in the first ten days. The
message? Once fans saw the movie for themselves, business stopped

The fallout was devastating. Just weeks after the film’s release,
Schumacher announced that he was taking a step back from mega-
franchises. ‘I began small, and all of these things just started
happening and before you knew it I’m up to my neck in John Grishams
and Batman films,’ the weary director explained. ‘I’m grateful for all
of it, but felt, especially on Batman & Robin, that the box-office had
become more important than the movie. I want to return to filmmaking,
not blockbuster-making.’ Low-key gems Tigerland and Phone Booth were
the result.

The effect on the actors was even more severe. O’Donnell and
Silverstone went from rising stars to has-beens, practically
overnight. Silverstone in particular was treated abysmally by the
press; long-running jibes about her weight culminated in the
beleaguered star being chased through an airport by leering paparazzi
calling her ‘Fatgirl.’ Neither has had a hit since. Even the
indomitable Arnie suffered. After Last Action Hero, Batman & Robin was
the final proof needed that the action star’s invincible ‘80s heyday
was gone for good. A medical hiatus for back trouble and heart surgery
highlighted his off-screen frailties, and his return heralded a wave
of duds – End Of Days, The 6th Day, Collateral Damage – before he
cashed in his last sure-fire hit with T:3 and called it a day.

Clooney was the only one to emerge, not only unscathed, but positively
boosted by the film. The star had always viewed it as a potentially
huge career move, and that’s how it turned out. ‘Batman was still the
biggest break I ever had,’ he says. ‘It changed my career, as weak a
film as it was, and as weak as I was in it.’ Crucially, Clooney nailed
the deal for his next picture after the super-smooth production but
before the disastrous release – that film was Out Of Sight, which
launched his film career proper and brought him together with Steven
Soderbergh, with whom he would launch production shingle Section Eight
(at Warner, of course), and crowbar independent talent into mainstream
Hollywood for the next 8 years. Clooney’s gone from strength to
strength, and now stands as perhaps the most articulate and
intelligent actor/director since Clint Eastwood.

The studio seemed to learn from the fate of its actors – megastar
fortunes were failing, indie spirit was prevailing. Scrapping a
further installment of the over-wrought series, Warner announced plans
to reboot the franchise, with Darren Aaronofsky and Frank Miller
collaborating on a lean, mean version of Batman: Year One. In the end
it was Christopher Nolan – who had worked with Section 8 on Insomnia –
who was placed in charge of what became Batman Begins. Shadowed,
sinister and shot through with a menacing realism, Nolan’s excellent
movie was the antithesis of Schumacher’s mistake.

But perhaps we shouldn’t judge the Batman & Robin director too
harshly, as so many venomous fans have. In a heartfelt apology to
audiences, Schumacher has earnestly – almost touchingly – stated, ‘If
there’s anyone that, let’s say loved Batman Forever and went into
Batman & Robin with great anticipation, and if I disappointed them in
any way, then I really want to apologize, because it wasn’t my
intention. My intention was just to entertain them.’


May 26, 2013, 7:40:58 AM5/26/13
On May 25, 1:53 am, TMC <> wrote:
> Asked in the build up to the release of Batman Begins’ if he had any
> thoughts on the reboot of the series, George Clooney responded with a
> typical smirk, ‘Yep. I kept the franchise going.’

This could be true inasmuch as it inspired others to do something,
anything, to pull Batman back from the abyss of crapiness.

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