1997's Batman & Robin has no shortage of detractors, and star George Clooney is among them. Clooney is not only aware of the stigma surrounding the fourth and final entry in the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher series, but seems happy to accept personal blame for "killing" the franchise. Like Batman himself, Clooney is willing to become a pariah, even if he doesn't really deserve it.
No one is going to argue Batman & Robin isn't one of the weakest DC movies to date. Frankly, we should all hope no others rise up to challenge its claim to that particular throne. But for all that Batman & Robin gets wrong about the Dynamic Duo, little of the blame rests with Clooney himself. In fact, he's actually a pretty great Bruce Wayne, all things considered. In Day 4 of our ongoing look back at the many live-action Batman actors, we explore why Clooney succeeded in bringing a little bit of light into Batman's dreary world.
A More Lighthearted Batman
With Batman & Robin, director Joel Schumacher again faced the unenviable task of casting a brand new Dark Knight after Val Kilmer dropped out. Schumacher and Kilmer tended to offer conflicting explanations over the years (Kilmer had a scheduling conflict with The Saint, Schumacher fired him in light of unprofessional behavior on the Batman Forever set, etc.), but it's clear at least that everyone was happier with the prospect of Kilmer moving on. Cue Clooney, an actor just making the jump from TV to Hollywood superstardom.
If Forever tries, not entirely successfully, to toe the line between the relative darkness of the Burton films and the humor of the 1966 series, Batman & Robin veers fully into camp territory. Co-star Chris O'Donnell even described the sequel as less a movie than "a toy commercial" in the 2005 documentary Shadows of the Bat.
As Batman, Clooney tries to make the most of the bizarre and often baffling material he's given. Batsuits with built-in ice skates? Ok. Batman carrying around a personalized credit card with the expiration date "Forever"? Sure, why not? A wrestling match with a mute, barely intelligent version of Bane? Ehh…
For all the neon-colored insanity in this sequel, Clooney does a surprisingly effective job of grounding the story in some semblance of reality. He brings an earnestness to the role not really seen since the Adam West days. Far removed from Michael Keaton's aloof and vaguely psychotic Dark Knight, this is Batman at his most wholesome and likable – traits the ever-charismatic Clooney excels with.
This is a Batman who shows real compassion for both enemies and friends. For all the movie gets wrong with its inane portrayal of Mister Freeze, it does at least draw on the villain's tragic back-story introduced in Batman: The Animated Series. Clooney is able to draw on that connection between Bruce Wayne and Victor Fries, showing us a Batman who would rather save his enemy than condemn him.
And while Clooney's Batman is neither particularly intimidating nor very impressive in battle, Clooney does at least have the perfect superhero jawline. That has to count for something.
Building the Batman Family
If Freeze and Poison Ivy's world-conquering plot leaves the viewer feeling a little cold (might as well continue the ice puns), Batman & Robin does find some emotional weight elsewhere. In terms of Bruce Wayne's arc, this sequel is all about learning to appreciate the family you've built rather than mourning the ones you've lost. It's a shame that Alicia Silverstone's Barbara
Gordon Wilson isn't introduced more organically, but even she plays a key role in re-centering the franchise as a story about found family.
The film wisely downplays Bruce's romantic struggles for a change, with Elle Macpherson's Julie Madison only appearing for one brief scene that emphasizes Bruce's growing loneliness.
Cutting through all the camp and excess, Batman & Robin is surprisingly competent in that area, and that's thanks in large part to Clooney's earnestness and innate charisma. The film capitalizes on the connection fans had built to Michael Gough's Alfred Pennyworth by that point (Gough being one of only two holdovers from the Burton days), showing even Bruce Wayne's erstwhile butler isn't immune to the ravages of time and fictional comic book diseases. Like Keaton before him, Clooney conveys the love Bruce feels for his only remaining father figure, making the quest to cure Alfred all the more urgent.
The Batman: Every Live-Action Version of Catwoman, Riddler, Penguin, and More
At the same time Bruce is dealing with Alfred's seemingly terminal state of affairs, he also faces the prospect of losing the increasingly hotheaded and independent Dick Grayson. Even Chris O'Donnell's redesigned Robin suit is meant to evoke Dick's Nightwing persona from the comics, created after Dick leaves Gotham behind and emerges from Batman's long shadow.
If there's one scene in Batman & Robin that embodies Clooney's Bruce Wayne, it's the moment where Bruce tries to close the rift with Dick, telling him, "Friend… Partner… Brother… Will you trust me now?" It's a scene that showcases Bruce at both his most vulnerable and most inspirational. The fact that this all happens in a scene with no capes or masks makes it all the more impressive.
Jesse is a mild-mannered staff writer for IGN. Allow him to lend a machete to your intellectual thicket by following @jschedeen on Twitter.