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Bat-Damn: Was Joel Schumacher's Batman Really That Bad?

  When director Joel Schumacher (1939-2020) died, there were plenty of people who worked with him who lined up to pay tribute, as he was very well-liked, especially among actors, and had a reputation around Hollywood as one of their real characters. He had claimed to have had sex with ten- to thirty-thousand men in his lifetime, and that had been a colourful existence where he never apologised for his lifestyle, his motto being a cheery "Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke!" But one thing he did apologise for was his second Batman movie, Batman & Robin (1997), which had come to be regarded as one of the worst superhero flicks ever made.

But was it that bad? Despite that reputation, and that of his first attempt, 1995's Batman Forever where he took over from Tim Burton, there was a certain degree of snobbery and worse, of passive aggressively judging Schumacher for his personal life: time and again the main issue many would have was that sequence where Bruce Wayne suits up and we got a shot of his backside and one of his chest, revealing the nipples on the costume. For many Bat-fans, this was just too gay, and bought into what they regarded as the unsavoury idea that Batman and his ward Robin had some kind of sexual relationship, the stuff of playground taunts.

When Pat Mills and Kevin O'Neill made their Batman spoof in a Marshall Law comic to "celebrate" the fiftieth anniversary, they revealed their villain (a supposed hero for the public) to have preyed on teenage boys, not sexually but as organ donors against their will, to keep him young. But even that was more acceptable than the notion that Batman would be gay, and as if to counter that there were a lot of scenes in Batman Forever where stars Val Kilmer and Nicole Kidman's Chase were romancing each other, Schumacher playfully seeming to make Kidman's psychiatrist more of a beard when Chris O'Donnell showed up to play the loyal sidekick.

As if denying his true feelings, Bruce Wayne tries vehemently to persuade Robin (actual name: Dick) not to take up the ways of a costumed vigilante, but could this be a stand-in for Bruce trying to deny his true gender bias? He seems to fret over his relationship to Dick and Chase more than he does the ostensible villains, Tommy Lee Jones as Harvey Two-Face and the real star of the show, Jim Carrey as The Riddler, who was the hottest ticket in Tinseltown off the back of his Ace Ventura: Pet Detective sleeper hit. Schumacher had been hired because he, unlike Burton, was a genuine Batman aficionado, and deemed a safe pair of hands for the franchise.

Plus he was intended to be lightening the tone, after Burton's horror-oriented material meant potentially multi-million dollar sponsorship from fast food proprietors McDonald's was cancelled because they didn't believe Batman Returns, Burton's second instalment, was family friendly enough. Just look how Bat-fans lapped up the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy, which emphasised the "dark", and you would see why anything harking back to the Adam West Batman of the sixties was rejected, it was too much to consider a Batman movie should be fun and lighthearted. This left Batman Forever aptly in two minds.

Two-Face is obsessed with duality, tossing a coin to make up his mind on his big decisions, and so it was that Bruce and Batman had to reconcile each other if they were to be content in themselves: possibly because Bruce was a closet superhero. As for The Riddler, Carrey gave it his all, but with no real laughs the biggest surprise was that Batman didn't realise he was Edward Nygma even before the riddles revealed his identity - guess it's always the ones you least expect. Besides, Corey Michael Smith on television's Gotham, who really is gay, served up the best Riddler to date, with apologies to the sterling work of Frank Gorshin on the sixties original.

Indeed, Gotham owed more to Schumacher than it ever did Burton or Nolan, it was just far more violent. But for Batman & Robin, Schumacher had been ordered to emphasise the potential for selling toys; what he really wanted to do was make a "dark" Batman movie, and had his eye on Frank Miller's comic book Batman: Year One, which would have been a smaller, grittier effort, so had his second attempt at the series done well he was hoping to be rewarded with precisely that opportunity. Alas, though it cleaned up at the box office, it pissed off a lot of people, including the diehards, and was so lambasted that it ended the franchise.

Schumacher was going to direct a fifth instalment with Scarecrow as a bad guy (he would be played by Cillian Murphy for Nolan) but that was that as far as Warners were concerned and he never helmed anything quite as big again. That gay element was an issue more than ever with Batman & Robin, a film where Bruce Wayne tells a man he loves him and gives him a big kiss: no, he wasn't Robin, he was Michael Gough playing an ailing Alfred the butler, but there were overtones to Batman's relationship with his sidekick that saw them bicker like an old, married couple. And it was because a woman had come between them, Uma Thurman's Poison Ivy.

Her power to use plant pheromones to have men do her bidding left Bruce and Dick falling out, and you could see Ivy as a troublesome female ruining a loving, male relationship very easily. She even throws a spanner in the works of the other villain's hetero love, icy Mr Freeze, played by a puntastic Arnold Schwarzenegger, by switching off his comatose wife's life support. Alicia Silverstone was the other star, as Batgirl, landed with vicious press proving there's none more bitchy than a tabloid reporter (this was before reality TV stars began to take up their time and vitriol). But Schumacher stood by his Batman & Robin cast, more than he had Val Kilmer on Batman Forever.

It's actually a shame that Schumacher, who otherwise sounded fairly fond of the film, was moved to apologise for it. For George Clooney, who played the hero, it's a joke, but a useful one that at least proved to Hollywood he could headline big movies. And Thurman, completely to her credit, expresses her affection for her Ivy role because she had a lot of fun performing it (which shows). It simply doesn't fit the self-serious Dark Knight mould, it's a movie aimed at families to sell toys and because of Schumacher's perceived non-straight gender influence it's treated with contempt by those who prefer Nolan or Zack Snyder's take on DC characters.

But as you can see above, you can read a lot of teh gay into Schumacher's Batman, yet it doesn't mean that was all there was – he denied the characters were ever gay - and Batman & Robin was an improvement on Batman Forever because Schumacher was more comfortable with what was required, it was a pity populism is no good if the population reject what you have conjured up. That may have been down to the promise of a next series entry more to his sensibilities, but hating on Batman & Robin purely because of him is not a good look. Was it as bad as Spawn, or Catwoman, or that cheapo nineties Captain America embarrassment? Of course not, and for years there have been plucky bands of fans pointing out that calling this one of the worst superhero movies - one of the worst movies evah, in fact - is misguided. Lighten up and you might enjoy yourself... remember Joel's motto.
Author: Graeme Clark.

 

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