Imaginary Story: Batman and Robin

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It’s June 20, 1997. The top song is Puff Daddy and Faith Evans feat. 112 with “I’ll Be Missing You”; Hanson, Mark Morrison, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, and the Spice Girls also chart. The top film is, regrettably, this; lower in the top 10 we find My Best Friend’s Wedding, Con Air, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, and The Fifth Element.

And here we have the movie which, legendarily, killed the Batman film franchise started by Tim Burton’s Batman. Is it really that bad?

Well, yes, but not for the reasons usually given.

The usual complaints one hears about this movie is that it is silly and campy; straight male reviewers also often complain of discomfort at the way the camera frames the titular characters, especially in their “suiting up” montage. But the 1960s Batman film was silly and campy, and it was the best live-action Batman film of them all, so that can’t be what’s wrong with Batman and Robin. As for the framing of the characters: yes, the camera lingers on Batman and Robin’s legs, buttocks, and chests, and their costumes now emphasize their nipples. But the camera also lingers on Batgirl’s legs, buttocks, and chest, in a costume that emphasizes her nipples, and it lingers on Poison Ivy’s legs, buttocks, and chest, in a costume that emphasizes practically everything else. In short, Batman and Robin are just being subjected to the same male gaze as practically every woman in practically every movie ever, and critics’ selective discomfort is down to them not liking it when characters who resemble them are sliced by the frame into discrete, objectified body parts. They’ll survive.

No, the problem is that this is still the world where the Joker won. The garish neon colors of Batman Forever have faded into the sickly glow of a black-light poster on some weed-addled college freshman’s wall, the unfunny slapstick antics replaced by an endless stream of unfunny puns, but it’s otherwise pretty much the same.

Added to all the problems of Batman Forever are an overstuffed (and interminable–the film is two hours long and feels like seven) script that tries to juggle three origin stories, character arcs for both the titular characters, an “Alfred is dying” melodrama, and multiple races, car chases, and fight scenes. Then on top of that are severe tone issues, the most obvious of which is the choice to adapt Mister Freeze’s tragic DCAU origin story while trying also to have him be the film’s main source of comic relief.

But again, this isn’t a review. If the surface-level problems were all that was wrong with Batman and Robin, we wouldn’t be talking about its problems; the point here is to dig deeper. We’ll start by looking at how it handles Batgirl.

At first glance, she is horribly miscast. Not even a leather jacket and a motorcycle, or a bat-themed rubber fetish costume, can make Alicia Silverstone seem like anything other than a sheltered ingenue. She is simply not convincing as someone who got kicked out of a private school and made her living in London’s underground racing scene, let alone as someone who can take on a supervillain in a fight.

But this may be deliberate. During the otherwise pointless motorcyle race, her helmet clearly has an angel painted on it, mirroring the “devil horns” hairstyle Poison Ivy sports for much of the film. And indeed, Ivy is in full-on femme fatale mode in this movie, her main superpower no longer control over plants, but rather control over men. Batgirl is the innocent, purehearted schoolgirl to Ivy’s wicked, seductive mad scientist, the angel to her devil, the caregiver to her succubus. In short, the two are a straightforward Madonna/whore pair, and in that light Silverstone’s casting is spot-on.

Of course, the Madonna/whore complex is deeply misogynistic, as we’ve discussed before. The “good” girl is–as Batgirl is here–basically helpless, lacking any agency of her own, and indeed Batgirl has no apparent desires other than driving motorcycles and caring for her uncle, Alfred. It is his choice for her to become Batgirl, and he leads her down that path, even making a costume for her. Poison Ivy, meanwhile, uses her agency solely to hurt and manipulate men, including attempting to murder Freeze’s wife and pin the blame on Batman.

Indeed, Ivy’s–or, rather, Pamela Isley’s–politics are equated to evil throughout the film. Much of her early dialogue is a twisted parody of feminism, in which she blames all the ills of the world on “men” and “mankind” (with heavy emphasis on the first syllable), and replies to Bruce Wayne’s rejection of her scheme by asserting that a few million dead men are no real loss. It’s not just her, either; Dr. Woodrue’s rain forest restoration project is a front for developing super-soldiers. Environmentalism is characterized as blind opposition to industry and humanity, with an end to fossil fuel use described as an economic disaster that would lead to famine and people freezing from lack of fuel. There is, in Schumacher’s Batman, no making things better; your choices are pollution or destruction, the subjugation of one gender or slaughter of another.

There’s a third woman in the film, one presented as even more angelic than Batgirl: Nora Fries. She floats serenely between life and death, draped in a gauzy, flowing gown, the only character in the film who is never subjected to the ugly colored lighting that suffuses practically every scene. That, apparently, is the ideal, out-Madonna-ing the Madonna: a frozen, helpless, trapped woman unable to say or do anything, a woman literally reduced to an object. She has a reflection, too: Madison, Bruce Wayne’s disposable girlfriend of the indeterminate time period, who dares to express desires of her own–specifically, a desire for Bruce and for a commitment from Bruce, framed in the least aggressive or demanding terms imagineable–and then leaves him because he’s fixated on another woman. She never shows up in the film again.

Those are the four categories of women the film acknowledges: evil sexpots, women with agency (who try to entrap or abandon men), perfectly pure innocents whose greatest achievement and fulfillment of their potential is to become a man’s sidekick, and little statues carved of ice that can be carted around and, occasionally, gazed upon longingly.

Things don’t get much better when we look at the men. Just as Batgirl and Poison Ivy reflect one another, so do Robin and Mister Freeze. Both spend much of the film denying how emotional they are; both are driven by anger that they paper over with jokes, and both turn against Batman because they believe he took away, or is trying to take away, a woman that “belongs to” them. Ultimately, both are manipulated by Poison Ivy, but turn against her thanks to finally listening to Batman–whose own arc is about learning to ignore his (artificial) feelings for Ivy and admit to his feelings for Alfred.

Batman and Robin is, quite simply, a misogynistic movie. It is not only sexist in the ways action movies and superhero are usually sexist; it presents female agency as evil, and desire for women as the source of evil in men. Its happy ending is that one woman vanishes out of the film entirely, another remains frozen forever, a third becomes subordinated to male authority, and the last is stuck, stripped of her power and freedom, in a cell with a man who hates her and expresses sadistic delight at having her in his power.

We established with Batman Forever that the Schumacher Batman films represent the Joker triumphant. The same violence for violence’s sake that is the aesthetic of Batman Forever holds here; but just as Joker hates everyone, but treats women specifically with contempt, so does this film now single out women for worse treatment, limiting its violence against men to fistfights and a bit of metaphorical dismemberment by the camera.

This misogyny, misanthropy, Joker-ism, is why calling the films campy is a misnomer. Camp is fun; it entertains because it is silly, because it looks at the absurdity of life and celebrates it. The 60s were an era of camp because the pop culture of the 60s–or at least those bits of it we think of when we think of “the 60s”–was in love with life. It was anti-violence and anti-authority, anti-taking things too seriously, pro-joy and pro-silliness. There’s no trace of any of that in Batman Forever or Batman and Robin; the hammy delivery of the villains’ lines and equally flat delivery of the heroes’ may recall the 60s Batman, but surrounded by decay, ugliness, and hatred, they become grating reminders that something called “fun” might possibly have existed in some long-forgotten era.

By the next live-action Batman film, even the word will have been forgotten. But that’s a story for much later. For now, let’s let Superman bring some sun back in.


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