Here are two duds with a fair bit in common. Both feature brawny heroes born of comics’ Golden Age (Batman debuted in 1939, Supes a year earlier), both were released fourth in their prospective series, and both prompted a certain amount of head-shaking from their leading men (as recounted on the site Wikipedia, pre-Sopa). “I think we might have killed the franchise,” Batman and Robin‘s George Clooney opined. Actor Christopher Reeve wasn’t any more forgiving of his own flop. “The less said about Superman IV, the better,” he said. It seems that they, like the legions of fans worldwide, knew something that certain others didn’t. When it comes to these heroes, there’s a legacy to be upheld.
Director Joel Schumacher (Falling Down, Tigerland) didn’t seem interested. His Batman and Robin is a live-action deliriant, an exaggerated attempt to re-create the cartoonish camp of the 1960s TV series. All traces of filmmaker Tim Burton’s funereal contributions to the franchise have been entirely bled out. Bat-nipples and enhanced cod-pieces have been added in.
The movie continues the trend begun in Burton’s Batman Returns of using multiple villains, this time with three: Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy and the monstrous Bane. But with Robin (Chris O’Donnell) returning and the introduction of a new hero in Batgirl (Alicia Silverstone), perhaps it’s only fair. Here’s a synopsis. German scientist Dr. Victor Fries (Arnold Schwarzenegger) turns sub-zero criminal after a laboratory accident effectively chills his body temperature to nil. Aided by an assortment of ice-themed technologies and a frustrating collection of one-liners (all of Schumacher’s Batman foils have comedic skills), he plots to freeze Gotham for a tidy ransom. Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman) is only too glad to help. With a poisonous kiss and the power to seduce any man, she makes plans for a new world, ruled by toxic plants.
To be fair, the decision (by Schumacher, by Warner Brothers, or whoever) to lighten the tone of the series wasn’t completely out of nowhere. Camp is as much a part of Batman’s history as grit, as the somber atmosphere audiences now enjoy in Christopher Nolan’s Batmans. Revisit the antics of the popular television series for the proof. Batman surfed. Batman danced. Look back to the comics of the 1940s and 50s. Mogo the Bat-ape? Yes. Bat-van Winkle? You betcha. In one early issue of Detective Comics, Batman donned different colored costumes to distract the public from Dick Grayson/Robin’s broken arm, to protect his identity. I wonder what happens when he gets a cold-sore? The better question though is whether filmgoers are in the mood for this style of Batman today. I think we know.
In more serious hands, Freeze and Ivy could have been better exploited as complicated villains. Like Bruce Wayne/Batman, both are characters driven by obsession, Freeze in trying to cure his wife of a deadly disease and Ivy in her fight to protect the natural world. But this is not a movie that cares to flesh out its villains or challenge Wayne/Batman intellectually or psychologically (the most intriguing aspects of the character). It lives for the Ka-pow! Aside from two undeveloped sub-plots dealing with Alfred’s health and Robin’s suitability as a side-kick, the world’s greatest detective can put his brain in a jar. As for the leads, Clooney and Schwarzenegger are equally unwatchable, but what else could they do? Their performances suit just the type of film that Schumacher was trying to make.
Christopher Reeve and the talents behind Superman IV had a very different kind of problem. Money. After the chagrin that was Superman III, producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind sold the rights to the series to Cannon Films, best known for low-budget/high bodycount productions the likes of Cobra and Missing in Action. The result was a film of high hopes on half the initial budget. For a story that requires a certain amount of resources to create its illusion (even of Superman and Lois’ romance, as when they fly), the disappointment is pervasive. “You can tell from the very first credit…that something is terribly wrong in Metropolis,” says co-screenwriter Mark Rosenthal. His DVD commentary gives an insider’s look at the box-office bomb.
The story will lack the currency today that it had in the mid-80s. As the world’s superpowers stockpile nuclear arms beyond rational levels, Superman (Reeve) finds himself at a moral crossroads. Should he stand on the sidelines of human destiny as instructed by his Kryptonian elders, or take proactive measures for the sake of his new home? During a visit to a very un-United Nations (Metropolis never looked so anemic) he makes his intentions clear, then begins snatching the world’s nuclear missiles out of space (Wouldn’t they be stored underground?). Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) meanwhile has concocted his own personal nuclear threat in the form of Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow), a fashion faux-pas with radioactive fingernails and enough coiffure to front a hair-metal band. To the man, woman or child responsible for this character, report to the Phantom Zone immediately. Financial issues aside, Nuclear Man is the film’s biggest setback and a slight to anyone who knows a fundamental tenet of the genre: the hero is only as good as the villain.
Which brings us to more important matters on Vs., not which film’s baddie looks most like a hairdresser in a Crunchie bar wrapper, but which of them “wins.” It’s a difficult choice this week, and one that requires a litmus. The question, “Which film entertained you most?” is out. Both capers left me feeling betrayed in their own special ways, Batman and Robin for its nauseous use of primary colors and Schwarzenegger’s endless punning, Superman IV for its B-movie effects and buffont villainry. No, the only question appropriate enough to decide a victor must tie itself to a comment made in the opening paragraph, concerning a hero and his or her legacy. “Which film betrays theirs the least?”
I think we’ve been spoiled by the films that began each franchise. Batman (1989) was dark, delicious fun that shocked the wider public into thinking about the crusader in a new way. Finally, the Dark Knight had his brains and balls. Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) made us believe that a man could fly while giving us permission to root for a do-gooder in tights without chuckling. Sadly, there’s more to guffaw at for the two movies concerned in this review, but Kal-el has an edge. Mark Rosenthal: “…even though everyone knew terrible things had been done to this, Superman IV was done with such good intentions, led by Chris Reeve and everyone associated with it…” I tend to agree.
If Superman IV is bad, which it is, it wasn’t for lack of purpose. I like to play a game of sorts after watching a low-budget blunder. Imagine the film again with the bank-roll needed to properly realize the vision. Does it work now? In the end, Superman IV suffers the same fate as Batman and Robin of course – its shortcomings kill it for the more serious fans, or at least the fans who prefer it to be taken seriously. But the film has merits. The producers scored a coup in getting all the principals to return. Reeve, Margot Kidder (Lois Lane), Hackman, Jackie Cooper (Perry White) and Marc McClure (Jimmy Olsen) were all pitch perfect in the original. They’re still a pleasure to watch this time around, just slightly out of their element. At times it’s as if they wandered onto the wrong set.
And the “winner” is: Superman IV