“Well, I can respect your opinion.”
“My father once told me ‘to succeed, we need only to pick a star and follow it’.”
Pop culture criticism can do a lot of things. Right now, the fashionable thing to do is to take pop culture and filter it through one’s political sensibilities, sorting out the Good bits, if any, from the Bad bits. But for a long time, the single most popular kind of pop culture criticism was the Snarky Takedown – taking a bad piece of media and ripping the shit out of it. It’s impossible to point to any of the original exemplars, and so I can only point to the ones I personally associate with this mode of writing – Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw with his series Zero Punctuation, Seanbaby as one of the oldest (definitely one of the oldest still operating), the Nostalgia Critic, and Cinemasins. Cinemasins is held up as the pyrite standard of film criticism, a smug, superior sensibility that reduces the art to a checklist of plot holes and things that look like plot holes if you turn your head and squint. This is the part where I’d normally question the conventional wisdom, but I think that’s true, and what’s more it’s the most literal-minded attempt at aping what these other people did. For Seanbaby and Crowshaw, bad pop culture is what politics are to Jon Stewart – a jumping off point for absurd imagery.
Theoretically, Joel Shumacher’s Batman And Robin is a perfect setup for this kind of work. However you feel about it, it’s inarguably a camp film, a garish collection of colours both primary and neon, and it’s absolutely stuffed with strange imagery that begs to be described – I was particularly struck by the requisite Young People hanging out in the abandoned place Poison Ivy uses as a lair, who look like the anthropomorphic personification of energy drinks. There are three problems here though that I’ll get into in increasing order of importance. Firstly, I have little faith in my ability to just be funny – I’m comfortable finding the funniest way of expressing an individual point, but just coming up with funny imagery in a series of setups and punchlines just isn’t where I’m confident. Secondly, this is intentional camp. Making fun of it for being weird and exaggerated is like making fun of a drag queen for being weird and exaggerated. Thirdly… I actually kind of like it. I mean ‘energy drink youths’ as a compliment; most filmmakers would show Frightening Youth Gangs as, like, tattooed punks in leather jackets and jeans, but Shumacher’s Energy Drink Youths are outright alien, wearing eye contacts and painted like Jackson Pollock was doing work for Mountain Dew. The film is full of details like that; I love how Poison Ivy introduces herself to the world by walking on a path of buff near-naked men, and Freeze inexplicably smoking a cigar in his freezer, and the funny hat Bane wears when he poses as Ivy’s chauffeur.
Which brings me to The Nostalgia Critic. Frankly, I always thought he was all over the place in terms of sense of purpose; he was apparently simultaneously analysing pop culture while conveying a particular character, but each episode was barely 1% character work and 99% generic yelling that the movie of the week was bad. My impression is that, when it comes to analysis, he suffers from the exact same problem as a hell of a lot of nerds, in that he has a strong idea of what a movie is supposed to be, and gets frustrated when a movie fails to live up to that standard. Famously, in his video on the movie under discussion, he went apoplectic over the idea of Batman owning a credit card, as if the very concept was fundamentally repulsive to him; Doug Walker has also gone on record out-of-character as saying he didn’t care for The Dark Knight because the Joker isn’t supposed to be an anarchist. My impression based on fan responses is that the appeal of the Nostalgia Critic is that he’s basically Jon Stewart but for movie opinions, telling people they’re not crazy for finding The Pagemaster boring and the Bat-credit-card stupid.
I’m completely uninterested in that, and in a lot of ways it’s diametrically opposed to what I’m trying to achieve. I’m not really interested in questioning whether or not fundamental storytelling choices were right or wrong, only what motivated them, where they go, and what they mean. I look at the Bat-credit-card, I don’t weight it against an internal conception of Batman, I weigh it against other versions of Batman, and against other uses of credit cards, and against the other things Batman does in this movie and the other world details. This Batman is something of a celebrity in his city, appearing at a fundraiser related to a crime he solved; this Gotham is one that operates on an exaggerated cartoon logic, and it does that regardless of what you or I or the Nostalgia Critic think of it. I’m more interested in the fact that the movie is willing to throw in gags about Batman’s wealth like the Bat-credit-card but never seriously questions or plays with the assumption that Batman is a mega-rich superhero.
If you’re willing to accept the fundamental aesthetic and story concepts, the flaw isn’t that it does it at all, it’s that it doesn’t fully commit. I hate cliches that are repeated unthinkingly, so when I say that Uma Thurman and Arnold Schwarzenegger know what movie they’re in, I mean that they deliver caricatures and exaggerated poses that fit the caricatured and exaggerated filmmaking. A lot of nerds don’t like this movie’s take on Mr Freeze, finding it less sincere than the version of the character presented in Batman: The Animated Series, but I actually find them about toe-to-toe; the movie has a really sophisticated handling of the tone of the character, putting all his puns and hammy acting in the fight scenes and letting silent, still, and eerie imagery carry the sad scenes in a way that neither undermines the other. I also think this movie sets up Uma Thurman’s role in Kill Bill while being surprisingly distinct, as she shifts not just from pose to pose but caricature to caricature, from ragged hippy scientist Pamela Isley to femme fatale Poison Ivy to Poison-Ivy-in-disguise to the mad wreck at the end; her villainous monologues convey her shifts in motivation with campy style.
If only our heroes received the same treatment. It’s a cliche that villains are more fun than heroes, and in this case that’s because Shumacher breaks his winky, campy tone and starts taking things seriously. As far as I’m concerned, George Clooney had two options in acting as Batman: he could have done a heroic version of what the villain actors did, someone with cartoonish swagger as Bruce Wayne and cartoonish poise as Batman (his performance towards the end of Gravity is the kind of thing I mean). Or, he could have played it all at an ironic distance, the comic foil to the absurdity of the world he was in. The script throws him a few lines that hint this way and he pulls them off pretty well (“Great stems though.” / “Buds too.” / “Yeah, those are nice.”) – after all the years of people complaining about too many meta, winking jokes in things like the MCU, it’s almost refreshing to come across a superhero movie that could actually have used more irony. The big problem, though, is a muddled script.
The opening is great, laying out a perfectly fine story about the Dynamic Duo going through a rough patch because Robin is too cocky and impulsive, and the way it interacts with the villains is ridiculous but also pretty fun. It interacts slightly less well with the story of Alfred dying and much less well with the story of Barbara Wilson, Alfred’s niece (who, hilariously, studied at “Oxbridge”); there’s hints of romantic interest between Robin and Barbara, but it never really goes anywhere. As always, The Shield points the way in that if this plot were much faster, it would probably be more interesting, as the questions of legacy and family take on an all-too practical meaning as Batman, Robin, Barbara, and Alfred navigate their relationships with one another. Regardless, the movie feels the need to take this plot thread much more seriously than the villains, which means a lot of Meaningful Glances, which is a lot less fun to watch than Thurman chewing the scenery. The one and only time that the Batman thread is as fun as the villains is right at the end, when Batman delivers a monologue to convince Freeze to kinda-sorta go good; it’s a cheesy heroic equivalent to the villain’s monologues all through the film, and Clooney knocks it out of the park.
If I have any conclusions to take from this, it’s that Batman And Robin is maligned because people refuse to take its point of view seriously, but even if you do it’s a flawed movie. And that one of the difficulties in talking about movies is that people are frequently caught up in their idea of what a movie is supposed to be, ironically but especially with properties as flexible as Batman – perhaps people refuse to let go of the image of Batman they created in their heads when they were a kid? That’s a quality I hope I never express. Finally, a Snarky Takedown is another one of those tasks I admire from a distance but can’t quite seem to pull off. Maybe I should try again with Michael Bay’s Transformers or something.