With The Dark Knight Rises building momentum thanks to a flood of teasing stills and trailers, it’s hard to remember a time when a new Batman movie would illicit groans from the masses, rather than gasps of anxious joy. But that was the general reaction fifteen years ago today, when the much-maligned Batman & Robin hit theaters and quickly solidified itself as a so-bad-its-good classic (the film holds a 13% on Rotten Tomatoes).
Full of Mr. Freeze ice puns, bizarre product placement (“The Batcard, never leave the cave without it!”) and the infamous Batnipples, Batman & Robin was a low-point cap to the ’90s-era string of Batman films — and if longtime producer Michael Uslan is to be believed, an obvious end point for that series.
Speaking to Hollywood.com, Uslan explains Batman’s unique cinematic evolution: “The first Batman movie was really the Batman of 1939 to ’40, which had been returned in the ’70s,” explains Uslan. “The second movie, Batman Returns, I thought was so utterly dark, it approached the almost vampiric Batman that was really the Batman in the comic books of the 1990s. Batman Forever, to me, clearly, was the Batman from the mid-1940s to the early 1960s. It was Bill Finger’s scripts of Batman and Robin punning their way through crime against a grotesque rogue’s gallery of supervillians, jumping across giant typewriters as they battle them. It very much captured the tone of those. Batman & Robin was clearly the TV series redux. End of story.”
Director Joel Schumacher’s campy turn is a mainstay of Sunday afternoon TBS programming and YouTube montages, but it was never the movie he hoped to make after the colorful, yet grounde Batman Forever. On the DVD commentary for that film, Schumacher let it slip that he hoped to tackle the gritty, realistic Batman: Year One story after Forever — a Frank Miller-penned comic book often cited as an inspiration for Christopher Nolan’s own Batman Begins. Schumacher’s plans — which included the idea of Nic Cage playing The Scarecrow — never came close to fruition, and although Uslan, rights holder of the character’s big screen rights since the late ’70s, was vocal for the need to take Batman seriously, the Hollywood environment at the time was never going to allow that departure.
Uslan puts it simply: movie studios are international conglomerates, and occasionally, they put business ahead of artistic endeavors. “Sometimes, in the industry, corporations lose sight of the filmmaking part and become too enamored by the merchandising part. When the concentration shifts to merchandising, toys and Happy Meals, to the point where movies are being made that are to be light and bright and kiddy friendly and family friendly, catering to the licensees so that as many heroes and as many villains as possible or not possible are shoehorned into the movie with the commandments that each one must have at least two vehicles and two costume changes, then, to me, the tail is wagging the dog.”
The abundance of characters, gadgetry and flashy outfits didn’t leave room for Batman & Robin to actually tell a story, leaving audiences with nothing to swallow. “What is being produced are two hour infomercials for toys, not films. There’s no room for character development or plot. That’s sad. I believe that if filmmakers are found who love the characters, have the passion for the character, have a vision for the character, know how to execute that vision, and you let them go out and make great films, you’re going to sell toys anyway.”
But in the end, Batman & Robin may have been exactly the film fans of the comic book character needed. The over-the-top approach — and the film’s relative underperformance at the box office (Batman Forever grossed around $184 million, while Batman & Robin took home $107 million domestically) — was a kick in the butt to the studio, who began searching for a way to reboot the franchise. “It finally became clear to everyone and every company that the era of campy, pow wham zap Batman, was not the way to go,” reveals Uslan. Batman & Robin inspired a hunt for serious material, with directors like Darren Aronofsky even wrestling with the idea of adapting Batman: Year One. Eventually, Uslan and the studio invested their faith in the current vision of Batman. “We have been lucky enough that folks over at Warner Bros. recognized that and brought in Chris Nolan and the rest has been history. “