Before he died in 2020, director Joel Schumacher shared his regrets over 1997's Batman & Robin for a new book
His candid comments appear in Movies Go Fourth by Mark Edlitz, who spoke with the filmmaker in one of his final interviews
Find out what he had to say in our exclusive preview of this indispensable book about Hollywood fourquels
In the roll-call of the grandest follies in movie history, it’s difficult to beat Batman & Robin.
A film with an ignominious 12% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (to give this context, the execrable Sharknado 2: The Second One has 61% and the much-reviled Cats 19%), it’s become a byword — in the years since 1997 — for when franchises jump the shark, for when $$$$ matter more than ideas.
Even its star, George Clooney, later admitted that it was "a pretty horrendous film", while Chris O’Donnell, who played his sidekick Robin, said he felt like he was making a “kid’s toy commercial”.
So how did Warner Bros. manage to screw up one of its most precious and lucrative franchises? When the studio replaced Tim Burton with the more less outré choice of Joel Schumacher for 1995’s Batman Forever it seemed to work.
Tasked with giving the series a kiddie-friendly makeover after the Burton-directed, adult-skewed Batman Returns made $150 million less than its predecessor, Batman Forever introduced a new Dark Knight in the form of Val Kilmer and made Warner Bros a tidy $336m at the box office.
Even the critics seemed to dig it, with Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman writing excitedly that “Schumacher directs [Batman Forever] like a musical, turning each image into eye candy, weaving one lush set-piece into the next, as if he were the Vincent Minnelli of blockbusters.”
A fourth film, then, from the same creative crew, was a no-brainer. What could go wrong?
“I think it is over the top,” the director, who died in 2020, says in Mark Edlitz's Movies Go Fourth.
“I think it is too over-the-top. I think with Batman Forever we sort of maintained the right balance on the tightrope. Maybe it worked because we didn't know what we were doing, and I just did what I thought I would like. But with Batman & Robin, it just felt like it needed to be bigger and better.”
The movie didn’t get off to the smoothest of starts when newly-installed Batman Val Kilmer bailed on the project. George Clooney, who was then riding high as one of the hearthrob stars of TV medical drama ER, was suggested by Warner Bros.’ Bob Daly as a possible replacement.
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“I went to meet George, and to know him is to love him,” Schumacher says in the book. “He's such a sweetheart. Val has a very disturbed psyche, and George does not. And that shifted the tone too.”
While Tim Burton’s duplet of Batman films were lauded for moving the character away from the campy excesses of the 1960s TV show, Batman & Robin appeared to lean back into them. Like the Adam West TV series, visually the film looks like an explosion in a candy factory, with a gaudy, OTT aesthetic that dwarfs its characters.
“I got carried away by the whole thing,” Schumacher told Edlitz.
“No excuses. But there's a French expression that I will not do justice to, but I never got my ass in the seat right. Maybe it was too much too soon. But the film looks gorgeous.
"There's a lot of amazing talent in it and I've made so many movies since then. It came out in 1997 and A Time to Kill came out in 1996. I was making a movie a year. Sometimes two movies a year. I never had much time to look back. I couldn't get my ass in the seat right. There's no one to blame but me.
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"I'm a big boy and I went in with my eyes wide open," Schumacher adds in Movies Go Fourth. "I don't know. I think it just got bigger and louder. I think Batman Forever was a lot about less is more. I think Batman & Robin was about more is more.”
Certainly there’s a sense in which Batman & Robin feels overstuffed. Batman Forever had introduced Robin into the Bat family, while Batman & Robin brought in Batgirl (played by Alicia Silverstone) as well as two oversized villains in the shape of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr Freeze (responsible for the movie’s most risible dialogue from “You’re not sending me to the cooler!” to “Alright, everyone – chill!”) and Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy.
“Some fans were dying for a Batgirl and maybe that was too much story,” Schumacher reflects in Movies Go Fourth. “Maybe we just overloaded it. But that all comes back to me. I'm the person who gets to say yes or no. Maybe we were trying too hard.”
As Schumacher was directing Batman & Robin, he and Warner Bros were already eyeing up a Batman 5. He’d even met with Nicolas Cage to play the Scarecrow, and had plans to bring back Jack Nicholson for a cameo as the Joker. But that never happened. After a critical mauling and lacklustre box office (it made £100m less than Batman Forever), Warners pulled the plug.
Yet while Batman & Robin clearly killed the series that had started in 1989, you could argue that its campy excesses helped inform the back to basics approach of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins eight years later.
Read more: George Clooney Jokes That He ‘Destroyed’ Batman Franchise (Variety, 2 min read)
Yet it’s clear that most of everyone associated with Batman & Robin came out of it bruised. Clooney still talks about it to this day, admitting that he won’t let his wife Amal watch the movie. “There are certain films I just go, ‘I want my wife to have some respect for me,’” he joked to Variety in 2021.
“Somehow you have to explain yourself,” Schumacher told author Mark Edlitz. “They present it to you like you killed babies. Nobody sets out to make a bad movie.”
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