Welcome back to the WTF Happened? series, a collaborative effort, along with the Jock and Nerd Podcast, to take a look at some of the worst movies imaginable. For this entry we are going to take a look at the film that killed the initial Batman franchise, 1997’s Batman and Robin. So get ready for plenty of cold puns and Bat nipples ahead!
Note: Please remember, what follows is not a 100% accurate recounting of the events that led to the creation of the film, but a speculation based off of research that I have cultivated. Also be sure to listen to the WTF EPISODE RIGHT HERE as well!
THE SET UP
After Warner Bros. saw success from Tim Burton’s Batman film in 1989, they offered him more control over the sequel Batman Returns. Despite being a financial success, Burton’s second Batman outing turned out far darker and more twisted than Warner Bros. expected, and the studio decided to find someone else to continue with the franchise. Joel Schumacher was soon brought in for the third film in the franchise with hopes to lighten the tone and allow Warner Bros. to capitalize on a younger audience for merchandising. After the critical and financial success of Batman Forever Warner Bros. fast-tracked a sequel with Schumacher still at the helm.
MAKING THE FILM
In August of 1995, after the financial success of Batman Forever, DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. Studios rehired both Joel Schumacher and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman to tackle the fourth film in their Batman franchise. They also made the decision to fast-track the film for release in the summer of 1997, despite each previous film having a 3-year gap between them. The writer/director combo would go on to work on 1996’s A Time To Kill first, and hashed out a majority of their story concept for Batman and Robin during pre-production for their dark, courtroom drama. At the same time, Schumacher decided he wanted to pay homage to both the work of Golden Age Batman artist Dick Sprang, as well as the 1960’s tv show that Adam West and Burt Ward starred in.
Meanwhile, back at the casting department:
After Batman Forever, Warner Bros. was more than content with continuing the series with Val Kilmer in the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman, but a scheduling conflict, and differences between Kilmer and Schumacher got in the way. Schumacher and company offered the role to popular TV star George Clooney instead. The film also cast Arnold Schwarzenegger for the role of their main villain, looking to ride on his star power. This would be a running theme in their casting choices as Alicia Silverstone was also cast to portray Batgirl and Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy. Chris O’Donnell was the only main member of the cast to return from the previous film.
The film opened in June of 1997 to a big opening weekend, but mostly negative reviews from critics. It would go on to be the second movie based on DC comic that did not earn it’s budget back in the domestic box office. As time has gone on it has been branded the worst Batman movie, killing the franchise as it was, and it would be eight years before anyone saw Batman on the big screen again.
SO, WTF HAPPENED?
The failure of Batman and Robin has been rather well documented in the near 20 years since the film released in theaters. Audiences had plenty to complain about with the overly campy tone, the ridiculous dialogue, the nipples and cod pieces on the bat suits, the bright colors, and terrible characterizations. There are plenty of layers to this film’s downfall, but all of them can very easily be pointed back at Warner Bros. and their heavy handed involvement in the film’s creation. To understand why that happened, some can actually blame Tim Burton. While Burton had absolutely no involvement in Batman and Robin directly, he left the producer role after Batman Forever, it was his first two films that can be blamed for where the series wound up.
When the original Batman film came out in 1989, it grossed over seven times it’s budget in the domestic box office. OVER SEVEN TIMES! There has not been a comic book movie sense that has come anywhere near that kind of return.
This, of course, does not include their marketing budget, but it also does not include how much money the film made from home video sales or merchandising. Batman was the most successful comic book film ever, and still is to this day. When Batman Returns started driving away merchandising possibilities with its dark tone, and did not see nearly the kind of box office return as the original, Warner Bros. decided they needed to get a tighter grip on the series.
The stricter control held by the studio during the production of Batman Forever saw them earn more money and build a bigger fanbase among kids, especially with the popularity of Batman: The Animated Series. Batman Forever finished as the highest grossing film of 1995, and Bat-mania was at it’s peak. It was only natural that Warner Bros. would get cocky about the film series. Their choice to fast-track production for the sequel would lead to many choices that were quickly executed without much thought put into them. Warner Bros. had many battles to fight in order to remain on top with Batman, but they required a lot of different pieces fitting together at the same time.
Thanks to directors like James Cameron and Michael Bay, the 1990’s saw the rise of the style-over-substance summer blockbusters, and every year meant having to go bigger and more spectacular to compete. Movies needed big action, bright colors, and a-list actors in order to fill seats time and time again. Batman and Robin would quickly fill its ranks with beloved actors of the time, such as Schwarzenegger and Silverstone, in order to catch the eyes of fans that might not buy a ticket to a Batman flick otherwise.
Warner Bros. also knew that Box Office revenue couldn’t last forever. Merchandising was where the real money was when it came to Batman. In an attempt to build on the merchandising success of Batman Forever, Warner Bros. allowed toy companies to actually participate in pre-production on Batman and Robin. Schumacher says that the studio asked for the movie to be “toyetic, which means that what you create makes toys that can sell.” Toy companies, like Kenner, didn’t just get advance access to designs of costumes, vehicles, and weapons; they helped develop them so what was on screen was what kids bought off the shelves. This easily explains the ridiculous designs of the character’s costumes, the sets, and the plethora of over-the-top vehicles and gadgets the film has peppered throughout.
So, the studio wanted a lot of money, but that is the story when it comes to Hollywood, so some of the blame also rest on the shoulders of Schumacher and Goldsman. One can only assume the orders from Warner Bros. for the pair to make a family-friendly Batman film was just the kind of outlet they needed during production on A Time to Kill. Sadly, Schumacher made the same mistake most of Hollywood does when approaching the term “family-friendly.” He and Goldsman assumed that in order to appeal to children they had to talk down to them and avoid anything with emotional stakes. What he, and WB, failed to realize was the popular Batman cartoon in the 90s didn’t rely on either of these aspects. In fact, it wasn’t afraid to tackle deeper emotional stories, like the Mr. Freeze episode “Heart of Ice,” which won an Emmy award and was initially meant to be a basis for Batman and Robin.
Production on the film began in September of 1996 and would run all the way until January of 1997. Despite the six months between the end of production and their release date, the film actually wrapped principal photography ahead of schedule, and it may have been due to the very lax attitude during production. Chris O’Donnell remembers filming Batman and Robin felt “soft” compared to Batman Forever. “On Batman Forever I felt like I was making a movie. The second time, I felt like I was making a kid’s toy commercial.” John Glover, who played Dr. Woodrue, also told a story about Joel Schumacher telling all of his actors before each take to remember that “this is a cartoon.” This would set a tone many of the actors could not shake.
In the years since the film was released, most of the people involved with it have been able to recover, and even laugh at how poorly it turned out, but not without a few apologies being made in the process. On the commentary for the film, Schumacher apologizes to fans that expected a film more in-line with the pervious ones, saying his only intention was to make a film that entertained. Ulitmately, he did, but not in the way he and Warner Bros. had hoped.
Like with the previous installment, we don’t really have a next film slated, since we try to make them a bit of a surprise as well. You’ll just have to check back and see, sooner rather than later.