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Holy Camp, Batman: The Redemptive Queerness of “Batman & Robin”…

The podcast that I co-host, The 250, will be looking at Batman and Robin this weekend. It is a fun discussion, well worth a listen, and I hope you enjoy. However, I had some thoughts that I wanted to get down before specifically about the film.

Batman and Robin is not a good movie, by any stretch of the imagination.

However, it is somewhat unfairly vilified. This is particularly true in comparison to its direct predecessor, Batman Forever. Very few people would attempt to argue that either Batman Forever or Batman and Robin were good films on their own terms, but the consensus seems to have formed around the idea that – to paraphrase Edward Nygma – Batman Forever was bad, Batman and Robin was worse. This calcified into the idea that Batman and Robin is among the very worst comic book movies ever, and Batman Forever is not.

It is interesting to speculate on why this might be. Batman Forever and Batman and Robin are both cynically constructed blockbusters aimed at the youngest and least discerning audiences, eschewing concepts like plot and characterisation in favour of cheap thrills and terrible jokes. Both films offer incredibly condescending exposition, betraying the sense in which they have been constructed for audiences with the shortest possible attention span. However, while Batman and Robin embraces this cynicism, Batman Forever clumsily tries to disguise it.

Much has been made of the fact that director Joel Schumacher wanted to make a better movie than Batman Forever. He singled out Batman: Year One as the Batman movie that he wanted to make. Traces of this better movie occasionally surface in discussions of Batman Forever and are often framed in reference to the film’s admittedly darker and more artistic deleted scenes. There is a clear sense that Batman Forever harboured something resembling ambition before it was brutally bent and broken into its final released form.

However, Batman Forever also offers its audience condescending and trite pop psychology. The result is a veneer of faux profundity that suggests hidden depths that the movie is unwilling and unable to explore. Batman Forever vaguely touches on the question of whether Bruce feels responsible for the death of his parents and the trouble he has reconciling the two halves of himself, but in no real depth. Two-Face is one of the primary antagonists of Batman Forever, and the film can’t even be bothered to make that thematic connection.

It’s interesting to wonder if Batman Forever has a slightly warmer reputation because of this unearned grasp at weightiness, these small gestures towards the idea of “psychological complexity” and “psychological nuance” in the most trite manner imaginable. After all, Batman Forever is a movie that has Bruce Wayne dating a psychologist, and feel inordinately proud of that idea. It’s easier to pass off Batman Forever as more mature or more considered than Batman and Robin, because it gestures broadly at ideas that are a little darker and more complex.

This is strange, because there’s a lot more interesting stuff happening in Batman and Robin. Unlike its direct predecessor, Batman and Robin makes no broad gesture towards profundity or insight. It is a profoundly stupid movie, and it is cognisant of both that stupidity and the audience’s relationship to that stupidity. However, there’s something much more interesting going on underneath the surface of Batman and Robin, in direct response to Batman Forever.

Batman Forever feels like a moral panic picture, a direct response to some imagined public outrage about certain earlier interpretations of the Caped Crusader. As such, it aims to produce the most generic and vanilla iteration of the character, the most boring and the most normative. What makes Batman and Robin so interesting is that it represents a firm rejection of that conservativism, and actively works to inject a lot of the queerness back into the Batman mythos. It doesn’t do this especially elegantly or smoothly, but it does it nonetheless. The results are compelling and engaging.

Batman Forever was immediately compromised. It followed on from Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns, which remain two of the most distinctive superhero blockbusters ever made. They were hugely financially successful, but met with some backlash. Parents were concerned about the content of the films, Batman Returns in particular. To be fair, this was part of a broader cultural movement, a swing back towards the idea of a moral majority criticising blockbuster entertainment in general.

Nevertheless, Batman Forever was treated as something of a palette-cleanser. Director Tim Burton stepped aside, sensing that Warner Brothers would be happy with a change of direction. Michael Keaton was replaced by Val Kilmer. Batman Forever was designed from the outset to be a film that was much more welcoming to parents and children – and to tie-in brands. Although Batman and Batman Returns both had their share of cross-media promotion, the word “toyetic” became a driving force on Batman Forever and Batman and Robin.

From the outset, Batman Forever was designed to be the anti-Batman Returns. Given how kinky and weird Batman Returns had been, that meant that Batman Forever would inevitably be a much more conventional and white bread affair. Batman Returns had paired Michael Keaton with Michelle Pfeiffer in one of the weirdest movie romances ever, even before the actors started groping each other’s form-fitting latex and vinyl costumes. So Batman Forever would tone all of this down.

Val Kilmer was paired with Nicole Kidman. Kidman was playing psychologist Chase Meridian. Chase doesn’t have a costumed identity. Within the context of the film, it’s debatable whether or not she even has a career. Vicki Vale might not have been the most complicated or nuanced character in Batman, but at least there was a sense in which she had a career outside of flirting with Batman and the Joker. Despite working as a psychologist, Chase’s interest in figures like the Riddler or Two-Face is limited to a line of exposition here and there.

Indeed, Chase is introduced ridiculing the idea of kink or fetishism. “Do I need skintight vinyl and a whip?” she teases in her first encounter with Batman, an obvious allusion to Selina Kyle. Batman Forever immediately positions its version of Batman as a character who is much more conventional in his sexual and personal appetites. Meridian is the first leading lady in a Batman movie to go on a bona fides conventional evening date with Bruce Wayne without having an ulterior motive. Chase is the kind of girl that Bruce could take back home to Alfred.

The dynamic in this relationship is incredibly conventional and archetypal. Initially, Chase is attracted to Bruce, but not Batman. This creates a potential obstacle, because Bruce is attracted to Chase. If this set-up sounds at all familiar, it is the basic character dynamics at play over decades of Superman stories. Indeed, the trope was being employed on television in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman at the time that Batman Forever was released.

This speaks to the sense in which Batman Forever tries to erase any sense of kink or weirdness to the title character. It literally ports over the most basic of superhero romantic set-ups, direct from the wholesome and all-American Big Blue Boy Scout. It’s notable that Batman Forever also steals another cue from the Man of Tomorrow, with Bruce taking on a fifteen-minute retirement from superheroism to be with his love, recalling the basic plot structure of Superman II.

These days, it would be almost impossible to imagine a Batman movie that took its cues so overtly from the popular memory of Superman. However, this speaks to the extent to which Batman Forever aspired toward a more generic form of blockbuster. In some ways, it recalls the similar erasure of artistic identity of later films like Justice League or Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker. It is enough for Batman Forever to be a factory-assembled blockbuster, without invoking the distinct aesthetics of Batman and Batman Returns.

However, the issue runs deeper than that. Batman Forever features a pair of antagonists – the Riddler and Two-Face. These opponents are somewhat clumsily paired with the other figures in Batman’s orbit. Two-Face kills John and Mary Grayson, motivating Dick’s revenge against him. Indeed, one of the most interesting things about Batman Forever is how completely disinterested it is in paralleling Bruce with Harvey, in contrasting the duo’s difficulty with duality. Two-Face exists largely as a foil and antagonist to Robin, not to Batman.

This naturally positions the Riddler as a counterpoint to Meridian. Jim Carrey’s performance is arguably a highlight of Batman Forever, the only actor who seems to actually be in tune with what the movie is trying to do. However, Batman Forever makes a point to characterise Edward Nygma as a figure obsessed with Bruce Wayne. His workspace is decorated with magazine pin-ups of the billionaire. He has clearly constructed an elaborate fantasy life around his relationship to Bruce, claiming Bruce hired him “personally” because his name “was on the hiring slip.”

When Bruce rejects Edward’s pitch, Edward is immediately angered and provoked. “You were supposed to understand,” he moans, like a jilted lover. Alfred even makes a point to sarcastically refer to the riddles addressed to Bruce as “love letters” from an anonymous source. When Nygma reinvents himself as an entrepreneur, he models himself on Bruce Wayne – even having a mole placed on his jawline to mirror the billionaire. At the climax, the Riddler is much more interested in bantering with Chase than with Robin, suggesting a point of comparison between the two.

It is perhaps too much to describe this characterisation of the Riddler as an example of “gay panic”, but it’s very clearly intended to have at least some uncomfortable sexual charge to it. Batman Forever uses that weird triangle between the Riddler and Bruce and Chase to effectively assert its heteronormative perspective. Unlike the relationship between Bruce and Selina in Batman Returns, the audience is not meant to find Edward’s fixation on Bruce to be charming in Batman Forever. Instead, it’s designed to serve as a contrast to the conventional relationship with Bruce and Chase.

The result is a movie that feels like an attempt to erase any hint of kinky sexuality that might possibly have carried over from Batman Returns. Indeed, it arguably recalls the moral panic around Batman comics during the fifties, in response to Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent. Wertham argued that comics like Batman were perverting young readers, suggesting various homoerotic interpretations of the Batman mythos revolving around Bruce’s unique relationship with Alfred or Dick.

In the fifties, even the suggestion of homoerotic subtext was enough to make publishers panic. The Batman comics of the fifties and sixties worked hard to assert Bruce Wayne’s heterosexuality, introducing supporting characters like Kathy Kane’s Batwoman to serve as a potential romantic interest. Similarly, the comics pushed away from the iconography of the lonely old bachelor living alone with his old British butler and his young male ward. Alfred was briefly killed off, and the character of Aunt Harriet was introduced to bring a maternal influence to Wayne Manor.

To a certain extent, it makes sense that this paranoia would creep back into the mainstream during the mid-nineties. A lot of nineties pop culture seemed inherently skeptical of the sexual revolution of the sixties, and so harked back to the repression of the fifties. This outlook was perhaps best articulated by the treatment of Jenny in Forrest Gump. It also played a significant part in the public debate around the Lewinsky Scandal, which cast Clinton’s abuse of power as a representation of the lingering legacy of sixties sexual liberation.

So while images of gay couples and gay characters did enter the mainstream during the decade – notably in shows like Friends, Ellen and Will and Grace – there was a strong conservative pushback at play as well. Maureen Dowd would famously accuse the Republicans of “trying to repeal the sixties.” Indeed, this fifties nostalgia arguably became part of the culture itself, reflected in films like Pleasantville or even The Truman Show, both of which arguably rejected this attempt to push back at shifting social norms.

Batman Forever feels like a low-key cinematic version of that, working very hard to avoid any possible reading of Bruce Wayne or the larger Batman mythos as either kinky or queer. Of course, there are elements that perhaps weigh against that – the nipples on the bat suit, the crotch and ass close-ups in the “suiting up” montage – but these feel more like an extension of the late eighties obsession with “hard bodies” than an overt attempt to queer the Batman mythos. The film’s protagonist is almost as sexless as most modern blockbuster heroes.

Schumacher has clarified that he had played up any coded subtext around the character’s sexuality. “If I wasn’t gay, they would never say those things,” Schumacher observed of these criticisms, and there’s a hint of truth to that. The sexuality of Batman Forever is much less weird than that in Batman Returns. Still, Schumacher has taken some pride in the reclaiming of Batman and Robin as a piece of gay cinema, “I never thought it was an important moment in gay cinema, but hey, I’ll take it.” In contrast, George Clooney insists that Schumacher told him that “Batman was gay.”

This is what makes Batman and Robin so interesting. It seems to exist largely as a rejection of that vanilla and bland sexuality in Batman Forever. If Batman Forever felt like an uncomfortable embrace of the homophobic paranoia of Seduction of the Innocent, then Batman and Robin plays like a firm rejection of the philosophy of Frederic Wertham. There is something quite compelling in all of this, and Batman and Robin is fascinating to revisit in that context.

In fact, there are points at which Batman and Robin seems to be directly engaging with, and rejecting, Batman Forever. At the climax of Batman Forever, the Riddler tries to force the hero into a sadistic choice – to choose between being Batman and being Bruce Wayne. The Batman side of the equation is represented by Robin and the Bruce side by Chase. Batman Forever therefore positions Robin as something close to a business acquaintance while aligning Chase as a more personal companion.

In the opening minutes of Batman and Robin, Mister Freeze forces Batman into a similar situation. Making his escape, he forces the hero to choose between fulfilling his obligations as the Caped Crusader and protecting a loved one. Here, the choice positions Robin as something close to a damsel in distress. “What will you do?” Freeze taunts. “Chase the villain or save the boy?” It’s an interesting twist on a familiar set-up. In most similar movies – even in Batman Forever – the villains challenge the hero to “save the girl.”

The most obvious point of departure between Batman Forever and Batman and Robin is the character of Poison Ivy. As played by Uma Thurman, Pamela Isley is very far removed from the characterisation of Chase Meridian in Batman Forever. Indeed, the closest that Batman Forever offers to an analogue for the character of Chase Meridian is Julie Madison, the socialite girlfriend of Bruce Wayne played by model Elle MacPherson. Julie is a barely existent character, with neither Bruce nor the film itself remotely interested in her.

Julie seems to exist so Bruce can reject the idea of a hetero-normative marital relationship with her. Reporters ask whether Bruce is ever going to ask Julie to marry him, and she seems keen on the idea, but Bruce makes it clear that he is not “the marrying kind – there are things about [him that she] wouldn’t understand” This marks a clear distinction in how Batman Forever and Batman and Robin approach the title character. Bruce was head-over-heels in love with Chase and ready to give up his double life in Batman Forever, but he has no real interest in Julie in Batman and Robin.

It’s notable that the film’s general ambivalence to marriage extends beyond Bruce and Julie. Victor Fries is motivated on his crime spree by the separation from his wife. Nora Fries suffers from a rare condition that Victor is working to cure, and so he has trapped her in ice in order to keep her alive. Victor and Nora Fries represent the movie’s most explicit engagement with the idea of heterosexual marriage, and they are very pointedly stuck (or frozen) in time.

Victor is presented as more of a fifties mad scientist than any cinematic Batman villain to this point. However, even outside of the character’s design and aesthetic, what little Batman and Robin suggests of his lifestyle hints at a character stuck out of time. His lair seems like a time capsule, as he lounges around in a silver smoking jacket and tries to lead his men in a wholesome sing-along of Snow and Heat Miser. It’s a parody of fifties wholesomeness. He watches home movies, trying to capture a past literally trapped in ice.

In this context, it’s interesting that Batman and Robin doesn’t end with Nora Fries resurrected. In comic books or television shows, there would be a practical reason not to reunite Victor and Nora: there might be a follow-up story to be written. However, in a feature film like Batman and Robin, there are no such constraints. As played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Victor Fries seems unlikely to return for the next film in the series, so there’s no reason not to give Victor that happy ending. Instead, Batman and Robin insists on keeping its conventional nuclear family stuck in limbo.

Considering these portrayals of Julie Madison and Nora Fries, the most significant female character in Batman and Robin is Poison Ivy. Interestingly, Batman and Robin seems to backtrack a little bit on the erasure of Batman Returns by Batman Forever, perhaps representing a reversal of a reversal. Pamela Isley’s conversion plays as a twist on Selina Kyle’s transformation in Batman Returns. It makes about as much sense, and even slots Jason Woodrue into a role roughly comparable to that of Max Shreck in Batman Returns.

Batman and Robin would never get away with that level of overt sexuality. Thurman’s performance in Batman and Robin is not as overtly sexual as Pfeiffer’s in Batman Returns. It is consciously heightened. Thurman plays Poison Ivy as an exaggeration of a character from the thirties or forties. Poison Ivy introduces herself to Gotham with a striptease in a gorilla suit, a direct shoutout to Marlene Dietrich’s famous dance from Blonde Venus. Photos show her arriving in Gotham on what looks like a mail plane. Bane drives her around like a chauffeur, complete with a fedora.

Thurman’s performance constantly and consciously pitches itself towards camp and even drag. Thurman’s delivery and style evokes the Hollywood of the Production Code, when so much sexual content had to be sublimated and repressed. Indeed, Poison Ivy often feels like the female lead in a movie like Gilda, the woman exists largely to diffuse the idea of sexual tension between the two male leads. It’s notable that both Batman and Robin end up drawn to Ivy, and find themselves fighting among themselves for her attention.

There’s a lot at play here. Notably, Poison Ivy does not seduce men using her own sexual energy. There’s no sense that any of the characters in Batman and Robin would be attracted to her if she didn’t have the ability to chemically alter their minds to make them desire her. Indeed, Batman and Robin presents the idea of this heterosexual attraction as a violation – it seems at least a little comparable to Woodrue’s filtering of the “Venom” directly into Bane’s skull in order to render him docile and complicit. (Venom is, after all, derived from Isley’s research.)

For her part, Thurman herself has argued that at least some of the more extreme backlash to Batman and Robin from hardcore fans was rooted in the rejection of camp as a synonym for gay:

Well, it came out in a different time when people were still being bitchy about campy. Humor being campy and campy being a code word for gay has changed. I think one of the most beautiful things I will get to say I’ve witnessed in my lifetime is to have lived through part of the major movement of trying to quell persecution of human beings who have a different sexual orientation.

But I think at the time the idea of taking a male superhero and having fun with it and someone using the c-word [campy] on it caused people to be very nasty. And that kind of nastiness was acceptable on those terms. And I think that’s the reason some people were particularly annoyed. They didn’t like seeing that tone applied to their heterosexual male icon.

It’s a perfectly valid point, and it seems fair to suggest that at least some of the more hardcore insecurity around the film is rooted in an anxiety over that camp aesthetic.

More to the point, it’s a sharp inversion of the dynamic between Edward Nygma and Bruce Wayne in Batman Forever. In Batman Forever, the relationship that could be coded as homosexual or queer was framed as disturbing or unsettling. In contrast, Batman and Robin seems just as perplexed and unsettled by the idea that either Bruce Wayne or Dick Grayson might possibly be attracted to a beautiful woman.

This gets at the big arc for Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson in Batman and Robin. It is a story about two men who share a secret life together, learning to trust one another and learning to embrace one another. Even without that longstanding homosexual subtext between Bruce and Dick, it wouldn’t be hard to read Batman and Robin as a film celebrating that partnership in explicitly queer terms. At its core, Batman and Robin is about a woman who disrupts the harmony of two men who live together.

Batman and Robin is hardly subtle in this. Bruce struggles to find an emotional rapport with Julie, but the film makes a big deal of his ability to say “I love you, old man” to Alfred. When Dick heads out to confront Ivy alone, Bruce grabs him forcefully. “She has clouded your mind and you’re not thinking straight,” Bruce protests. Dick responds, “I am thinking straight, for the first time in a long time.”

A large part of the tension in Batman and Robin derives from Bruce’s efforts to impose a heteronormative dynamic upon his relationship with Dick. If Bruce believes that Batman and Robin are “family”, then he seeks to define the relationship as paternal; Batman is a surrogate father to Robin. Batman and Robin repeatedly suggests that Bruce is struggling to accept that queer coding of his relationships. After all, Bruce has maintained a long relationship with Julie, despite what appears to be a clear absence any emotional attachment to her.

The inference from all of this is that Bruce cares about how he is perceived, and is not necessarily ready to come to terms with how he lives his life. In some ways, this feels like a welcome rejoinder to the facile logic of Batman Forever, where Bruce is able to maintain a healthy relationship with Chase and continue to be Batman. Batman Forever features a weird surrogate nuclear family, with Robin as a surrogate son. In the end, Batman and Robin forces Bruce and Dick learn to see each other not as a father and son, but as “partners” in a shared “family.”

George Clooney has since suggested (most likely only half-seriously) that he played Bruce Wayne as gay, explaining to Barbara Walters, “I was in a rubber suit and I had rubber nipples. I could have played Batman straight, but I made him gay.” Even if Clooney was being serious, there was no clear communication. When informed of Clooney’s comments, his co-star Chris O’Donnell remarked, “Then I screwed up, because I played him straight.” As such, it’s hard to argue that there was any clear intent here.

Indeed, the presence of Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl arguably undercuts any such reading of Batman and Robin, as Wayne Manor only really finds its balance with the introduction of an otherwise absent female influence. Again, Batman and Robin is far too muddled and unfocused to make a cohesive thesis statement. Even then, it’s notable how much Silverstone is pushed to the margins of the film, especially compared to the introduction of O’Donnell in Batman Forever.

Perhaps Barbara can be read as a subversive twist on “the token gay friend”, a familiar pop culture stereotype where a usually female character happens to have one very broadly drawn gay friend. Perhaps Barbara serves as the token straight friend to a family unit codified as gay. Although her introductory scene hints at a possible flirtation with Dick, it’s notable that Batman and Robin avoids even a token romance between the pair. Barbara is not presented as the “virgin” to Poison Ivy’s “whore”, to peddle in well-worn clichés, but instead as a largely asexual figure.

Batman and Robin doesn’t work as a film. It’s a spectacular mess and misfire. However, there is something vaguely appealing in the way that the film feels like a response to and a rejection of the cautious conservatism of Batman Forever. It also feels like an explicit rejection of the homophobic gay panic that has haunted so much of the Batman franchise and comic books in general since the publication of Seduction of the Innocent. It’s not good, but it’s interesting.

If nothing else, Batman and Robin at least marks a welcome evolution from Batman Forever.

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