Joel Schumacher was resolute: His Batman (portrayed by Val Kilmer and then George Clooney) and his Robin (Chris O’Donnell) were not gay. Nor did he intend to make winking reference to the way people had for decades interpreted the Dynamic Duo’s relationship as being... especially dynamic and non-platonic. In an interview with Vulture that ran last year, the director who died at age 80 on Monday, said that not only did he never consider Batman and Robin to be gay but that if he weren’t gay himself, people would have never suggested that he made the superhero’s franchise gayer, particularly in his notorious 1997 flop Batman & Robin.
You have to wonder, though, if Schumacher weren’t gay, would his film’s gaze have been so attuned to the male form, rubber-clad as it was?
This is footage from the opening sequence of Batman & Robin. Immediately after the titles, it’s: “Holy bat-ass!” And bat-crotch! And bat-nipples! And then there’s Robin, too.
In a way, Schumacher’s denial of the film’s queerness allows it to function as queer-claimed films had traditionally. After the dawn of the medium, for decades viewers had to attune themselves to coding and suggestion in order to glean queerness from ostensibly straight works. Sussing out is part of the fun, and until fairly recently, it was necessary for queers thirsty for representation.
You don’t have to be Vito Russo or even know who that was in order to sniff out the potential queerness of Batman & Robin. There is, obviously, the fact that Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson live together and share a dynamic with an obvious power disparity along the lines of dom/sub or top/bottom. Clooney and O’Donnell’s age difference of 10 years means that they don’t really have a daddy/boy vibe, to use jargon that gay men still employ without much hand-wringing over (or mind paid, I think in many cases) over the invocation of incest—it’s more an older/younger brother vibe, a less-talked-about though still present dynamic that exists amongst some gay couples. In a movie that looks like it was attacked by a blacklight with the runs, the specific way Batman has just a little more emotional power than his partner and is just a little older and wiser counts as nuance.
But beyond the homosocial nature of our heroes, two grown men who live together and obviously love each other, Batman & Robin has elements of the historically gay sensibility of camp. Look no further than the villains, Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman), for a brief lesson in pure camp versus a more diluted variety. Though the script is intentionally corny throughout, Schwarzenegger recites his lines with a total disconnect, as if he learned them phonetically and has no idea what the words coming out of his mouth actually mean. Thurman, meanwhile, camps it up, invoking Mae West and, briefly, Julie Newmar, who played Catwoman in the first two seasons of the 1960s Batman TV series. Thurman camps it up like she just walked off that show’s set and onto Schumacher’s. She’s having fun in bolded quotation marks; Schwarzenegger, meanwhile, is a dissociated blast.
There’s also the matter of editing. The film’s first action sequence, in which Batman and Robin confront Freeze at a natural history museum, contains some 344 cuts in 11 minutes and 7 seconds. That’s more than a cut every two seconds. For some perspective, in his essay that accompanied the 2016 Criterion release of Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, critic Glenn Kenny counted 23 shots in a 42-second sequence that occurs backstage of a rock concert. That’s virtually the same editing pace and Meyer, according to Kenny, “cuts like a madman.” Well, so did Schumacher (via editors Dennis Virkler and Mark Stevens). It’s not that quick cuts are a hallmark of camp—they’re specifically associated with the work of Meyer, which was full of such-larger-than-life satires of heterosexuality that they took on an inadvertent gay appeal. (Regarding Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! John Waters wrote in Shock Value, “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is, beyond a doubt, the best movie ever made. It is possibly better than any film that will be made in the future.”) For being Meyer-esque, the seizure-triggering approach to editing in Batman & Robin, especially in this particular sequence is camp by proxy.
Batman & Robin’s editing, by the way, is one of its biggest problems. Just two years earlier, Schumacher had resurrected the Batman franchise with Batman Forever, a massive hit that made more money than its predecessor, 1992's Batman Returns, and brought a kid-friendly lightness to a series that Tim Burton had effectively darkened. Batman Forever, I think, holds up incredibly well. The action sequences are coherent as Burton’s, the lighting is eye-popping, and Jim Carrey’s performance as the Riddler is a true tour de force. Batman & Robin, though, was a total rush job, a rather shameless attempt to milk the franchise’s renewed momentum for all its worth. In his director’s commentary on the film’s physical-media releases, Schumacher recalls being taught the word “toyetic” around the time of Batman & Robin, meaning the degree to which a film’s elements could be made into toys like action figures and vehicles. “As you can see, a lot of things looked like action toys and action figures because I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what kind of profits those toys make,” he explained. He said there was guidance from the studio to make an even more kid-friendly movie than the last time around. What resulted were things like our heroes sky-surfing...
...and Batman sliding down a dinosaur in a manner reminiscent of Fred Flintstone.
Akiva Goldsman’s screenplay is about as coherent as the film’s editing. The biggest recurring problem of the four movies in this particular arm of the Batman cinematic universe is that they never figured out anything interesting for Bruce Wayne to do besides be rich and date women who could be considered conventionally beautiful. (In Batman & Robin, Clooney’s love interest is played by Elle Macpherson, who has less of an onscreen presence than the dinosaur Batman slides on.) Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, as bloated and pretentious as it became, at least understood there was more to Wayne than a cape and cowl.
Schumacher openly regretted making Batman & Robin. He opens his commentary by guiltily offering to “try to make it interesting for you,” and later says that after the success of Batman Forever, he had hoped to adapt Frank Miller’s classic story arc Batman: Year One. The studio opted for a more conventional sequel, and Batman & Robin makes a big show of having fun while not actually being much fun. It’s chaotic and crammed with characters. There’s a plot about Wayne’s butler Alfred (Michael Gough) dying that resolves happily, rendering all of the film’s attempts at gravitas an utter waste of time. Batgirl is there for no good reason. Alicia Silverstone, who plays her, was ridiculed in the press for her weight in this movie, which is obviously absurd and probably made what seems to have been a miserable experience for her even more miserable.
Needlessly bloating the villain count, Poison Ivy is given a sidekick, Bane (played by professional wrestler Robert Swenson), to whom she refers in self-reference: “I’m a lover, not a fighter. That’s why every Poison Ivy action figure comes complete with him.” Ha ha? Goldsman’s script attempts to poke more self-aware fun at what’s afoot (Ivy says at another point, “There’s something about an anatomically correct rubber suit that puts fire in a girl’s veins,” in reference to Schumacher’s bat-nips revolution, which started in Batman Forever) but the entire production is so hokey-jokey in the first place that it’s overkill. This film has all the joy of someone grinning through tears at a poorly attended extravagant party he threw for himself. Vivica A. Fox makes a cameo and the film briefly looks like a Lil’ Kim video?
It’s just too much. Ivy alone goes through some half-dozen costume changes—I don’t think she ever wears exactly the same ensemble from scene to scene, which completely negates the point of a villain’s costume.
However, it’s hard not to love the fact that Ivy’s coming out of sorts occurs at a party that she enters wearing a giant gorilla costume, a reference to Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus. Which: gay.
As a legendary flop and a movie whose queerness could not be contained, Batman & Robin seems like something that should be at least morbidly fascinating to watch but is every bit the headache it was when it was released hastily 23 summers ago. It has all the hallmarks of so-bad-it’s-goodness and manages to flub every time. I think Batman & Robin is fascinating to think about but a chore to endure. It’s probably best experienced now while listening to Schumacher’s commentary, as he puts some of the spectacle into perspective and has a knack for big-budget wit like: “You get to blow up things when you’re a director sometimes, so we just blew up a dinosaur.” But even Schumacher seemed to struggle to sit through his own film: He exits the commentary about eight minutes before the film’s runtime expires, telling viewers he’ll leave them to complete it themselves. I thought that was really telling.