Blame it on the sad fact that we’re often remembered for the loudest noise that we make, but it feels weird that Batman is the identifier most attached to Joel Schumacher’s name in articles commenting on the sad news of his death at age 80.
Schumacher has a well-rounded resume filled with interesting films scattered across nearly 40 years as an active director. The high point is doubtlessly his enviable run through the ’80s and the early ’90s, pairing some of the eras shiniest stars — Julia Roberts and members of the “Brat Pack” — with material that challenged them and their developing brands. Count The Lost Boys, Flatliners, and St. Elmo’s Fire among them. Schumacher was basically emo John Hughes. Eventually, though, he pivoted, splitting time between commercial fare — John Grisham legal thrillers like The Client and A Time To Kill, which were, incidentally, the best of that very ’90s sub-genre — and provocative dramas like 8MM and Falling Down that focused on kink, violence, rot, and rage. And then there were those Batman films — Batman Forever and Batman And Robin — memorable and impactful for different reasons, they’re not Schumacher’s best, but they are his loudest noise, and not just because the latter made a thud.
There’s a lot to like about Batman Forever. Val Kilmer is an excellent Bruce Wayne, the rest of the cast is clearly having a lot of fun dining family-style on every scene, and the soundtrack is an all-timer. I’m not just talking about Seal and U2’s contributions. Go listen to Method Man’s “The Riddler” or “Bad Days” by The Flaming Lips — that album is an eclectic batch of delights.
Batman Forever‘s wildly colorful and cartoonish vision of Gotham City is a direct and interesting counter to the grey and bleak gothic color scape of Tim Burton’s more serious Batman films. Unfortunately, those bold style notes get literally iced over and ravaged by weeds in Batman And Robin as the overall film suffers from both a lack of discipline and from paper-thin characters that deliver wince-inducing dialogue. The whole thing overshoots the clever-camp of Schumacher’s first, wasting its stellar cast (George Clooney, Uma Thurman, etc). It’s a spectacle, careening to the screen to make a release date and appease corporate overlords. And so, as the popular criticism goes, they delivered a “toy commercial.” Schumacher has said that he was rushed but took responsibility. He apologized multiple times in the press for the film and also for the dreaded nipples on the batsuit, which he joked would be on his headstone (let’s hope not).
Batman And Robin didn’t sink a studio. I feel like it’s important to say that when remembering the impact of its failure. As box office bombs go, the fallout seems to have been minimal. It made $100 million less than its predecessor and got savaged by critics, but it still made more than $230 million. Really, its legacy is born more from the fact that it erased the franchise’s bulletproof status and gave Warner Bros pause about making new Batman films for nearly a decade after, abandoning plans to let Schumacher make a third film and churning through a few other rumored takes from others. In falling short of expectations, Batman And Robin was like a lot of other comic book movies from that era — films that sucked and/or sank like The Phantom, The Shadow, the first Judge Dredd, and Steel — echoing the message that audiences were tired of being disrespected by the idea that they’d pile into theaters at the first sign of a cape or a cowl no matter how poorly developed the plot or cheesy the action.
Two weeks after it debuted, Batman And Robin got knocked out of the top spot by Men In Black. That’s a wild factoid because those movies feel like they were made in completely different eras. Men In Black is also based on a comic book, but it has multi-dimensional characters, an actual story, and game-changing special effects. It’s fun and funny and aims to please. A year later, Blade opened with a decidedly more grown-up and blood-spattered approach to comic book movies. In 2000, X-Men debuted, nestling mutants within a world that looked a lot like our own. These are three very different movies but they were all seemingly made with the understanding that comic book movies couldn’t survive if they were only geared toward kids and comic book fans. Especially if the idea was to expand out and find success with characters that weren’t wildly familiar icons like Batman and Superman. Jurrasic Park, Independence Day, Con Air, Mission Impossible — this was the competition and the comp.
I’ve written about this previously. It was about 8 years ago, well before the full immensity of the MCU, DC’s shared universe and their current disjointed (but promising) plans were known. I still believe that Batman And Robin is one of the most important comic book films of all time. It’s foundational for the onslaught that has followed, driving pop culture and billions of dollars in business. I’m just not as sure as I used to be about what it all means.
In the 20 years that have followed since that three year run highlighted by Batman And Robin, Men In Black, Blade, and X-Men, comic book movies (and, to an extent TV shows) have ratcheted up the scale of these endeavors and the complexity of their characters and storylines. A transformation largely impacted by the critical success of the trilogy of grounded Batman films that eventually followed Batman And Robin (films that were, incidentally written by David Goyer, who also penned Blade). Adults and teens are the target audience now more than ever. Kids seem tertiary. A full 180 from the mandated focus Schumacher had to make a more family-friendly series of Batman films. These films are still toy commercials, it’s just that the toys are luxury cars, watches, and mobile phones. A fringe benefit of setting nearly all of these films in realistic worlds.
Things aren’t perfect. On top of sometimes heavy-handed product placements, there are missed opportunities to lean into comic book lore’s tradition of speaking, powerfully, to larger issues. Additionally, villains and visuals often feel uninspired — bigger, but not deeper. The homogenization of comic book films is a growing problem, but the floor seems higher than the past era’s ceiling, people get genuine joy from these things, and the potential exists for better and more impactful work (see: HBO’s Watchmen). Though that may be in conflict with a risk-averse business model that seems focused on courting worldwide appeal that insulates these films from the kinds of failures previously seen.
I don’t think it’s conjecture to assume that Joel Schumacher’s Batman And Robin unintentionally became a kind of Keyzer Soze level ghost story that haunted the dreams of studio executives in the late ’90s, sparking this tectonic shift in the way comic book movies (and the business of comic book movies) are approached. What they’ve done with it isn’t so much on him or the film, but you gotta have a spark to make a fire — be it one used for warmth or to burn your house down. I choose to assign that level of import to Batman And Robin because of the anecdotal evidence and because, to be honest, it’s more interesting than the thought of Schumacher as the man who almost killed the Batman franchise. It’s a better, louder, and more lasting noise for a filmmaker who deserves better than to be forever linked to failure.