Note: This is the final review of the seven Batman serials and movies that prefigure the current Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale cycle. For many, it'll be too much information. For others, it won't be enough. Apologies all around.
All Batman series tend to descend into camp. Batman starts out as a vigilante (Batman (1943) and Batman (1989)), becomes a crime-fighting institution (Batman and Robin (1949) and Batman Returns (1992)), then, weighed down with co-stars and gadgets, gives way to absurdity and camp. The Adam West Batman from the '60s was intentional camp, and tweaked the '40s serials and '40s sensibilities as much as the Batman universe. It was also funny. Joel Schumacher's Batman & Robin, in contrast, pulls off a neat trick: it turns Batman into a joke without being funny at all.
Schumacher fetishizes Batman's gear. He gives Batman and Robin glib and juvenile dialogue. He puts together two supervillains, Poison Ivy and Mr. Freeze, whose goals are diametrically opposed (ice vs. warmth.). He gives us an absurd Batgirl. He fetishizes her gear.
As in Batman Forever, the casting works in theory but not in practice. When I heard that Arnold Schwarzenegger would play Mr. Freeze, all I could think of was McBane, the parody of Schwarzenegger on The Simpsons, who, in one McBane film, emerges from an ice sculpture around a table of villains, says, "Ice to see you," then blows everybody away.
We don't get that bad pun but not for lack of trying. Some of Freeze's lines:
"The Iceman Cometh."
"What killed the dinosaurs? The ice age!"
"OK, everyone. Chill, chill, chill."
"Allow me to break the ice."
"Let's kick some ice."
Don't even get me started on Schwarzenegger's numerous attempts at "madman" dialogue:
"Yes, kill them, kill them! Yes, destroy everything!"
"If I must suffer, then humanity must suffer with me!"
"First I will turn Gotham into an icy graveyard, and then I will pull Batman's heart from his body and feel it freeze in my hand! Ha! Revenge!"
Schwarzenegger has always been a fairly clumsy actor whose taciturn characters were more often the result of his inability to get his mouth around the English language, and he definitely doesn't show off his best here. Neither do the others. Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy hams it up. Poor 27-year-old Chris O'Donnell is forced to whine like a teenager again, while Alicia Silverstone, all muckle-mouthed, is asked to graduate from being Clueless to being an "Oxbridge" student who races motorcycles, kicks ass, and turns into Batgirl. Silverstone wasn't believable kicking the ass of a purse-snatcher in the Aerosmith "Cryin'" video, so why should we believe it here?
The one who acquits himself is Michael Gough, reprising Alfred for the fourth (and last) time. His conversations with George Clooney's Bruce Wayne are just this side of touching. Clooney, meanwhile, makes a good Bruce Wayne (playing him a little like George Clooney), but he may be the worst Batman ever. Batman should be obsessed and blindered -- how else are you going to get yourself to dress up in a batsuit? -- but Clooney is all cool, ironic detachment and self-awareness. He's too aware of his crappy comic book universe to live in it. When Commissioner Gordon tells him the name of the latest supervillain, he repeats the name to himself, drawing out its absurdity: "Mr. Freeze." When Barbara bouncily introduces herself as Batgirl, he responds, "That's not awfully PC. What about Batperson or Batwoman?" His subtext is basically "How dumb is it that we wear these costumes and use these names?" You always got the feeling that Michael Keaton's Bruce Wayne could hardly wait to be Batman; with Clooney, you get the feeling he can hardly wait to take off that silly costume and be Bruce Wayne again.
Here's the plot if you want it. Mr. Freeze needs diamonds to keep his cryo-suit cold, and himself alive, so he can cure his wife of her disease, Macgregor's Syndrome, and Poison Ivy, a plant come to life, wants to rid the earth of humans, and thinks she and Freeze can do this together ("Adam and Evil," he says), and Robin thinks Batman doesn't trust him, and Alfred suffers from a lesser version of Macgregor's Syndrome. Got that? So during the final battle, in which Batman learns to trust Robin, Batman convinces Freeze (or Prof. Fries) to cure Alfred, and all ends well, although vaguely misogynistically, since Freeze is also put into the same Arkham Asylum cell as a scatterbrained Poison Ivy. "Surprise!" he tells her. "I've come to make your life a living hell!" Then we get the Schumacher silhouette of Batman, Robin and Batgirl all running toward the camera, promising new adventures that, because of the sheer stupid weight of this one, never came. Hasta la vista, baby.
Of course every ending leads to a new beginning.