Batman and Robin is an aesthetic spectacle the likes of which has become faux-pas in the film industry, which is a shame. It is so theatrical that its aesthetic is now only permissible in adaptations of musicals, and there just barely. We demand realism from our (superhero) movies, which is a term I am here using extremely loosely. Realism, as in social realism? As in “how would society respond actually if a guy dressed up as a bat and went around punching women who grow mutant plants?” Is the gray aesthetic a-la Christopher Nolan what reality looks like?
The film that most contrasts with Batman and Robin is another Batman movie- The Dark Knight– part of the next iteration of a franchise born in the social reality of the US circa 1939. I won’t deny this is a great film; I recall being impressed after having seen it in theaters. Then again, I was a teenager. I was of course seduced by the nihilism of the Joker, living in late-stage capitalism as I do. “Some men just want to watch the world burn?” Oh, baby, tell me more…. And how impressive is it that Heath Ledger actually died just shortly after making this film? Of course, his death is made fantastic because of his role as the Joker, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The depressing grittiness of the Christopher Nolan movies led eventually to the crowning achievement of another depressing comic book adaptation: Joker. Some people seem to think they are as dark and dangerous as the Joker underneath their socially-appropriate facade, which has reduced him to the level of just a whiney loser. We live in a society…. In the realm of popular symbology, there’s, like, two degrees of separation between the Joker and Alex Jones. What’s sad is that it is far too believable that a man should become so thoroughly alienated that he would shoot someone on television to express his lament and that we, like, totally applaud that idea. It’s not like a man broke into a theater screening The Dark Knight Rises just a few years earlier to contribute to the US’s trend of disturbing public shootings. Of course, this shooter was alienated as well. They all were, just as we all are. Somewhere in this tangled up mess of assumptions is something like a philosophical stance: we all want love and we all are willing to commit horrible acts of violence until we get love. It’s depressing, but “realism” means the willingness to consume this depressing message in the form of pop-culture products.
That we celebrate Joker and loathe Batman and Robin says so much more about us as an audience than it does about the movies. It says we have become a bunch of cynical pseudo-intellectuals. Who else is feeling like Batman capitalizes off the self-destructive fantasies that have been stewing in our collective unconscious? Has this zeitgeist reached its zenith yet? With the storming of the US capital by disgruntled Trump supporters, have we not had enough?
Batman and Robin is not a bad movie. We are a bad audience.
Consider the audience Batman and Robin is for. Children? In a way. Yet Batman and Robin masks something behind its appeals to family. Batman and Robin is a fetish freak fantasy. It is fantastically kinky. I realized only recently that it had primed me for developing a more kinky sexuality than the protestant ethics by which I was raised would allow, even in my prepubescent state when I first watched the film.
Poison Ivy is a dominatrix. Bane is her sub. Or rather, Dr. Jason Woodrue is her sub. This is where a literal meaning of a text becomes misleading. Dr. Jason Woodrue is defeated by Poison Ivy in a specific way, by becoming aroused by her to the point of docility. The film establishes that she has justified animosity towards him, something his lust causes him to ignore. When she seduces him, she is clearly in control of her thoughts while he is clearly reduced to a quivering pile of desire. After she kisses him while leering mockingly in the distance, she reveals that her kiss is poisonous, completing his humiliation, after which he “dies”. This death is metaphorical. It is immediately after he “dies” that Poison Ivy acquires Bane (a character with whom the audience already links Dr. Jason Woodrue) as a “henchman”. Bane’s costume is loaded with bondage imagery and the henchman relationship is just the way to render his submission palatable to a popular audience while also fitting into classic superhero troupes.
It’s not like any of the film’s sexual themes are even that veiled. Ivy uses pheromones to manipulate her opponents. She seduces them. We’re so accustomed to goofy, hyperbolic depictions of men being attracted to women in popular media that we take for granted when we are basically watching a man cream his pants. Batman and Robin is dripping with sexuality. It revolves around sexuality.
Mr. Freeze is used by Poison Ivy to cuckold Bane, which Mr. Freeze does with pleasure. (“No matter what they tell you, Mr. Bane, size does matter.”) It is no doubt that Mr. Freeze is the bull in the relationship, and I believe this is the basis of the choice for Bane’s body type and for the casting of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Bane needed to look strong enough to be threatening to the good guys, but he needed to look pathetic compared to Mr. Freeze. Thus, Mr. Freeze is played by one of the most archetypically masculine bodies of all time.
Expressions of sexuality that deviate from the heteronormative, protestant norm are not only to be found in the “bad guys”. The long-held suspicion that Batman and Robin share a partnership that goes much beyond just fighting crime is here given credibility. Batman and Robin are clearly a couple.
It is in handling the subtext of this relationship while remaining within the bounds of (US, 1997) culture that the film does its most tricky work. It’s the reason why George Clooney, whose Batman is more flirty and charming than has been previously seen, was not a bad casting choice. It’s also the reason that Batgirl needs to exist in the film. In fact, this is Batgirl’s legacy in the first place, to reassure fans that there is nothing romantic going on between Batman and Robin. Yes, I know that there is a difference between Batwoman and Batgirl, comic book fans, and I know these characters have been given robust lives independent of Batman, but symbolically, and particularly in the film, they are both just female-Batman. Bat mask + different genitals = not gay, right?
The majority of the story centers on Robin. Robin is unhappy with the power dynamics of his and Batman’s relationship and he wants to be on top a little bit more. But Batman has trust issues that make controlling to the point of being insufferable. Should Batman and Robin remain committed to one another, or should they break up? What’s tragic is that the new partner Robin is leaning towards, Poison Ivy, would be even worse for him, as evidenced by how she treats Bane. She is everything Robin dislikes about Batman, though he cannot see it. She is only flattering Robin’s ego while priming him to be her new boy toy.
The tension of Robin’s choice between Batman or Poison Ivy reaches its apex when Poison Ivy shines a “Robin-signal” into the night sky. Batman and Robin have a tense conversation in which Batman expresses his commitment to Robin. The audience is left wondering what Robin decided when he confronts Poison Ivy, expressing his desire for her. (“Give me a sign.” “How about ‘Slippery when wet’?” Is that sexual enough for you?) Robin’s victory comes in the rubber lips moment when he not only expresses that he sees what Ivy is doing and rejects her, but he also mocks her, thus inverting the power dynamic. She reacts violently (btw, her weapon of choice here is a whip), no longer needing to keep up the facade, and Batman springs in to save his partner. However we need to clarify that everyone in the room is actually straight so the parents don’t freak out, so Batman is removed from the struggle and replaced with female-Batman. After female-Batman saves Robin, it is then that their romantic union is realized and they can playfully engage in flirtatious exchanges of power. (“That’s pretty good, girl.” “Watch and learn, boy.” “I’ve got you!” “No, I’ve got you.”)
In the end, Poison Ivy gets punished for her sexual promiscuity while Mr. Freeze ultimately does confirm the goodness of traditional marriage, so parents are consciously reassured that there’s nothing too freaky going on here. Robin is in a relationship with female-Batman. And hey, this whole time the movie was about saving a dying old man, Alfred, who is everyone’s symbolic father-figure. He represents the home, stability. Bonus: it was family that made saving Alfred happen. Traditional values affirmed, now you may proceed to buy your kids Batman and Robin merch.
This is all to say that buried beneath a kid’s movie is a film that is rather titillating. I mean, sex is always interesting, especially kinky sex, so Batman and Robin is compelling at least on that level. Even vanilla people get a little curious about handcuffs in the bedroom. And the fact that it was buried beneath a kid’s movie, and that I was one of the kids who got to see this movie… well all I can say is that I believe I owe Joel Schumacher a thank you.
Aesthetically, Batman and Robin is a sensuous pleasure cruise. It is a pure indulgence of color and choreography. The oft-derided rubber nipples invite me to imagine the feel of the characters’ chests, which is the reason I believe that scene is most hated. Viewers were seduced by Batman for a moment. Keep in mind that the aesthetic of wearing a copy of the naked chest as armor, the faux-nipples, can be found in the Renaissance, for example with the sculpture of Giuliano de Medici, and nobody is hating on Michelangelo. In fact, Michelangelo-esque homages to the male body are embedded all over Gotham.
Batman and Robin’s set design owes so much to the stage, as does the tradition of film in general, obviously. As with stage performances, I as a viewer still get sucked into the drama of the narrative despite everything my eyes are seeing that tells me what I am seeing is not real. I don’t need a gray filter over every scene, nor do I need any other device to situate the narrative “in reality”. The film, as with any good narrative, generates its own reality. This is called suspension of disbelief.
This gets to what I think Schumacher’s real crime was. He explored the subtext of superhero fantasy too deeply and, in doing so, discovered that being a superhero would be… fun. There are good guys and bad guys in Batman and Robin, but the bad guys are excessively performative in their badness. It’s a fantasy. It’s a role-playing game you play with your sexual partner(s) in the bedroom. (Oh I have been a bad, bad girl). Fantasy is fun. The good guys are having fun. The bad guys are having fun. They are indulging in the fantasy because, and here’s where the real bad guy of the movie emerges, Alfred is dying of what appears to be an incurable disease (AIDS, much?). Alfred’s confrontation with the reality of his death necessitates the sexual fantasies of the other characters. The death of the loved one is akin to one’s own death, a reminder of mortality. Batman is a way of defeating death (“For what is Batman, if not an effort to master the chaos that sweeps our world? An attempt to control death itself.” “But I can’t, can I?” “None of us can.”) In hyperbolically indulging in the fantastic nature of the narrative, viewers were confronted with fantasy’s ineptitude. The party cannot go on forever. Alfred ultimately survives, but his survival feels insincere. A consolation prize. Bruce Wayne was preparing, throughout the film, to let Alfred go.
The one thing Batman is no longer allowed to do is have fun. When I was a kid, Batman was cool, but now I think he’s depressing to the point beyond boring. Like, who would ever want to go grab a drink with this guy? I remember when “because I’m Batman” was a joke, but it’s like all the bros congregated in the comic book world and took that joke deadly seriously. “Bro, he can bench, like, 10,000 pounds and dodge a punch from the Flash because… he’s Batman.” What I’m taking from this is that we’ve become a pretty depressing audience. I remember when people thought Superman was lame because he’s so powerful. In truth, people stopped liking Superman because he’s happy. Being Superman would be too much fun. We reject fantasy because we want to prove something to ourselves, that we can confront reality. We want a Batman that is more and more depressing because we are afraid that fantasy indulges a type of weakness.
The only one on Batman’s level, who can break the bat, is the one who is willing to go even further in his confrontation with the real: Bane. No, not the Batman and Robin, emasculated Bane, but his updated version closer to his comic book referent (although it might be interesting to consider these two Banes as fundamentally the same, by I digress). Bane in The Dark Knight Rises is so fucking woke that his lines were written for Twitter: invigorating short statements, redundant and underwhelming when taken as a person. Bane is MMA bro basic. He clearly is okay with the reality of death. Bane is, however, not Batman’s ultimate bad guy. Bane swings too far in the opposite direction away from fantasy, which is why The Dark Knight Rises was such a letdown. The Joker emerges as the ultimate bad guy because his fantasy is so compelling that it can be taken as reality. The fantasy is a sort of pop-cynicism: society is the bad guy and I am its downfall. Bane actually attempts a fundamental structural change, to touch the real. Symbolically, he doesn’t need Batman. The Joker, however, perpetuates a fantasy that is convincing enough to appear as real. Batman vs. Joker. “I think you and I are destined to do this forever.” It never has to end. Alfred never has to die. The fantasy audience wants is the one we can believe in, not the self-conscious fantasy of Batman and Robin. We want to believe we are confronting reality in order to avoid it like the plauge.
Why should Marvel movies be celebrated as a success while Batman and Robin is dismissed as trash? Guardians of the Galaxy is campy too, albeit in a nostalgic sort of way. If Batman and Robin is trash, at least it relishes in being trashy. It is campy in the true sense that celebrities are now self-consciously trying to imitate. It’s actually a fun waste of time that just might awaken your inner freak. It’s like a drag show that turns the joke around on the audience. “Are you calling me gay? Honey, you’re about to see just how gay I can be.” I heard rubber nipples make you nervous. It’s about time we apologized to Joel Schumacher and started enjoying our fantasies. You want something exciting? Let Schumacher make another Batman film. Let’s avoid producing more Jokers.