What do you get when you cross the normative masculinity of the superhero genre with the defiant queer sensibility of Joel Schumacher? The answer is Batman and Robin, the most notable of several franchises and genres – such as The Phantom of the Opera – that Schumacher supposedly polluted with his queer approach during his unusual off-Hollywood career. While Batman Forever was starting to move in this direction, Schumacher still seemed hesitant to break from the classicism and conservatism of the two Tim Burton films, but with Batman & Robin he comes into his own, crafting a queer deconstruction of the superhero genre that’s also addictively, giddily exhilarating to watch. For the most part, it feels more like a ride than a film – a series of ever-escalating set pieces that play like RuPaul’s Drag Race crossed with early Guillermo del Toro, as Schumacher pursues increasingly ingenious forms of grotesquerie that are totally dissonant with the gravitas and hubris of the Burton films. It feels right that this is the only live appearance of Batgirl to date, played memorably by Alicia Silverstone, since Batman & Robin is less interested in its leads, and their masculine pretensions, than any superhero film made before or since, which is presumably why it was so panned at the time – and why (ridiculously) it’s still counted as one of the worst films ever.
Schumacher’s vision stands up on the strength of its set pieces alone, starting with an extraordinary opening sequence that utterly dispenses with exposition to take us from Bruce Wayne’s mansion to the Gotham Natural History Museum, where a new antagonist is causing chaos – Mr. Freeze, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who helms an ice gun that freezes anything and everything that comes into his path. Escalating with every beat, this opening takes us on a chase through the museum and down a Brontosaurus tail, before turning into a lethal ice hockey match and finally rocketing us into outer space, before Batman (George Clooney) and Robin (Chris O’Donnell) descend back to earth. They never quite get there, however, and the film never quite gets there, since nearly all of Schumacher’s set pieces careen through the top canopy of the city, with most of the plot points eventually converging on the refurbishment of the Gotham Observatory, which sits so high above the streets that even the elevated highways are almost impossible to discern. Directors of the 90s often used weird, disconnected, aerial spaces to gesture towards a broader fragmentation of cinematic time and space in the face of digital transformation – especially Michael Bay, who spent most of Armageddon asking us to imagine an oil rig on an asteroid as it sped towards earth, the harbinger of a destruction and resurrection that was both existential and cinematic in nature.
Schumacher’s observatory fulfils a similar function here, but in a queerer vein, and with a more explicit focus on the imminent transformation of cinema. While Burton’s Batman was a pretty pervasive philanthropist, rehabilitating the observatory seems to be the only real contribution that Clooney’s superhero makes to the cityscape. Even then, however, the observatory quickly exceeds Batman, becoming the locus for Mr. Freeze’s ultimate plan. We quickly learn that Mr. Freeze requires a certain kind of crystal to maintain the sub-zero temperature of his cold suit, and that these crystals are best harnessed when they are used to focus light. In other words, he needs a lens to focus his augmented perception, and he finds this lens in the observatory, staging a heist at the end of the film in order to transform the telescope into a giant camera commensurate with his post-human needs. Since the telescope is attached to satellites capable of providing a simultaneous, real-time “global image,” Mr. Freeze ultimately seems to be waging war on the film itself, gesturing towards a new kind of viral image that exceeds the power of the cinematic hero, much as the traumatic footage of the September 11 attacks prompted a superhero lexicon to try to cinematically contain them.
Compared to Mr. Freeze, Batman and Robin are presented as basic, boring and conventional as can be. From the very outset, it’s clear that Schumacher has no real interest in either of his two superheroes, consistently drawing out the resting douche face of both actors, and channeling all Batman’s emotional energies into his insipid relationship with Julie Madison, played by Elle Macpherson – light years away from the agonised and soulful romantic entanglements of Burton and Nolan’s Batmen. Since Batman and Robin do have to be in the film, however, Schumacher tends to deflect their shared mythos into either homoerotic signifiers or incessant camp. Time and again, Batman and Robin are absorbed into their suits, which are more frankly fetishistic than in any other Batman film, proliferating out into a series of male torsos that literally contour the film, from the giant marble busts that hold up Batman’s fireplace, to the enormous muscular statue that the two superheroes drive down in the midst of the main chase scene, using their Batmobile and motorcycle to trace out every sinew, muscular curve and rippling masculine texture. Concomitantly, Schumacher removes even the slightest trace of hubris with an almost aggressively camp approach, resulting in the degree-zero – pun intended – of Arnie one-liners, exhausting every “freeze’ joke imaginable.
Even with Mr. Freeze as the only antagonist, Batman & Robin would thus be a pinnacle of camp aesthetics, but the film’s entire outlook ultimately serves to prepare us for one of the greatest superhero “villains” ever conceived – Poison Ivy, a scientist played by Uma Thurman, who mutates into a humanoid plant after her superior tries to sexually assault her. Poison Ivy’s main gripe is precisely the toxic masculinity that the traditional superhero more or less espouses, but she quickly generalizes her gendered project to a broader environmental imperative, advocating a restored attention to the botanical world, and a broader consideration of plants in the relationship between humans and their planet. In effect, she’s an environmental activist working at a time when the prospect of global warming can only be articulated in supernatural terms – a figurative burden she shares with Mr. Freeze, an advocate for global cooling whose motivations can only be understood in sentimental and individual terms, as a response to the trauma of losing his wife to a deadly Gotham disease.
Poison Ivy is the real protagonist of Batman & Robin – the final stage in Schumacher’s project of queering the film, partly because of how elegantly and eloquently she queers Mr. Freeze. While Mr. Freeze is undoubtedly disruptive, his ambitions are initially quite heteronormative – to restore his relationship with his wife, no matter how many people he has to kill in the project – but Poison Ivy gradually dissuades him from all that, quickly convincing him that the only viable outcome for both of them is to initiate a new ice age and then repopulate the earth with an entirely botanical lifeworld. Poison Ivy drives the most extravagant mise-en-scenes in the film, and forms its motor engine, initially attracting both Batman and Robin, but dismantling that attraction in the same breath – literally – since she’s ultimately a parodic performance of precisely the alluring femininity that the superhero subsists upon, taking the entire gender relations of the genre and reframing them as drag. Of course, since this is a Hollywood film, Schumacher has to dispose of her in the end, but even then he does so in a parodically peremptory manner – by collapsing her into a vagina dentata turned Venus Flytrap before cutting to a ludicrously sentimental ending in which Mr. Freeze is permitted to recover his humanity while she rots in jail, despite the fact his death toll is much higher. Like so many camp interventions in Hollywood, it’s a non-ending, so abrupt that it leaves Poison Ivy centre stage, as the queer antihero that the Joker always wanted to be, and the world Batman fears.