Friday, May 1, 2009

Batman & Robin: Overthinking the "Worst Superhero Movie of All Time"

Joel Schumacher’s 1997 film Batman & Robin is generally considered one of the worst films, certainly one of the worst superhero films, of all time. It currently suffers a measly 12% rating on the movie review website Rotten Tomatoes and a 28% on Metacritic. Usually, such poor reception might be the result of the ineptitude on the part of the filmmaker to hone the formal elements of film to express anything of value. Upon closer inspection, however, Batman & Robin actually reveals a consistent, singular vision. Given the fact that Schumacher is an openly gay filmmaker, one may speculate that the film’s homosexual overtones are the product of the director’s own life experiences and worldview. In particular, the film acts as a commentary on gender and sexuality. Batman & Robin serves as a utopian text favoring homosexuality, in which the characters that conform to the “normal” gender and sexual roles of mainstream society are depicted as villains, deviant criminals incapable of meaningful relationships, while the heroes of the film subtextually exhibit gay tendencies and are ultimately able to form the strongest bonds of all.

Each of the three villains in the film (pictured right) represents and satirizes a different aspect of heterosexuality whose gender and/or sexual roles can often be problematic. The primary villain, Mr. Freeze, exemplifies an individual in a monogamous heterosexual relationship, the standard in mainstream society. He rejects sexual advances by one of his henchwomen and is immune to Poison Ivy’s love pheromones. Freeze and his fidelity to his wife are twisted, however, as he is a criminal whose misdeeds are motivated by his unwavering obsession with curing her of a rare disease. Meanwhile, a scientific accident has rendered him unable to survive in anything but sub-zero temperatures, symbolizing his icy lack of emotion in a stagnant marriage. This is magnified by the fact that he must constantly steal diamonds in order to power his cryogenic suit and the machine that will presumably cure his wife, essentially showering her with an endless supply of jewelry to keep the failed marriage alive. In other words, the character serves as a satire of conventional heterosexual relationships and the materialistic obligations that they sometimes entail.

Moreover, Freeze embodies the quintessence of traditional masculinity. The casting of Arnold Schwarzenegger is key in realizing this representation, as his canon of work consists mainly of high-adrenaline action films, a notoriously “male” genre. The actor boasts a considerably large muscular physique as the result of his former weightlifting career and steroid usage. Even Freeze’s former alias, Victor Fries, is mentioned as being a two-time Olympic decathlete. Both Schwarzenegger and his character are machismo incarnate, at the height of their physical form. In addition, Freeze’s henchmen resemble hockey players, skates and sticks included, associating the villain with the typically male-dominated realm of physical sports. Freeze’s masculinity is perfectly illustrated when he offers a particularly phallocentric word of advice to a fellow villain, “No matter what they tell you, Mr. Bane, it is the size of your gun that counts.”

If Freeze exemplifies the height of masculinity, Bane represents the dangers of masculinity gone awry. Perhaps a commentary on the use of performance-enhancing substances in athletic culture, the steroid-like “Venom” serum augments Bane’s strength to a ridiculous degree, transforming him into a mindless, obedient super-soldier. He works as a minion for the lustful seductress Poison Ivy and wears a mask that resembles the type of bondage suit associated with acts of sexual sadomasochism. Bane signifies a harmful side of sexuality, and his affiliation with Ivy resembles the problematic type of relationship based solely on physicality, as she only uses him for his muscle. Conversely, Bane may also represent another heterosexual stereotype, that of the dumb, overweight husband who is married to the hot wife, the norm of television sitcoms like The Simpsons, Family Guy, King of Queens, According to Jim, etc. Either way, Bane is defined solely by his physicality and relationship to his metaphoric "wife," Poison Ivy.

Poison Ivy characterizes heterosexual promiscuity and lust. She is essentially a prostitute, even at one point auctioning off her own body at a charity ball. She and Bane both arrive at the rainforest-themed event in the guise of apes, symbolizing woman and man in their most primitive, carnal states. She is at one with the true nature of human beings, often declaring herself Mother Nature. With her seductive dance and hypnotic pheromone dust, Ivy is able to charm every male at the ball. She uses her concoctions to force men to do her bidding and kills them with her poisonous kiss. She effectively uses her body as a weapon, a fact impeccably represented when Ivy fixes her hair in the reflection of a knife in the middle of a fight scene. Ivy embodies the way in which sexuality can be misused for personal gain.

Poison Ivy is also consistently associated with Christian imagery and vernacular throughout the film. This is significant in that Christianity has often been a factor in the argument against gay rights in American culture, in which homosexuality is often declared “unnatural” and in direct contradiction with the teachings of the Bible. As Ruth Hubbard explains in “The Social Construction of Sexuality,” “To fulfill the Christian mandate, sexuality must be intended for procreation, and thus all forms of sexual expression and enjoyment other than heterosexuality are invalidated” (52). As Ivy even warns one of her victims before killing him, “It’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature.” In terms of appearance, she resembles the traditional image of Eve from the book of Genesis, a nude woman with her private parts covered in leaves. Her lustful nature and affiliation with produce also recalls the notion of original sin, the eating of the forbidden fruit. Freeze even refers to himself and Ivy as “Adam and Evil” after she explains her plan to allow plants to reclaim the earth from humanity, to create a modern Eden and start anew. Ivy decries the corrupt state of the world as she ponders, “Why should only Batman and Robin die while the society that created them goes unpunished?” Assuming the two heroes are to represent homosexuality, it is as if Ivy is condemning the immorality of mankind as interpreted by the Bible. She contradicts herself, however, in that her sexual promiscuity also defies Christian values. It is this contradiction that delineates Ivy as a satire of the incongruities in the system of Christian beliefs.

Ivy’s complex relationships with the men of the film are of particular interest. Her partnership with Mr. Freeze functions as another failed heterosexual relationship of sorts. Though they share a hatred for Batman and Robin and plot to essentially conquer Gotham City, their super-abilities are in complete contradiction to one another. Freeze represents harsh winter conditions while Ivy symbolizes the thriving of plant life. Usually the two cannot coexist. The failure of their “marriage” is solidified in one of the final scenes, in which Ivy is sentenced to share a cell in prison with Freeze, doomed to a life of conjugal hell. Ivy’s relationships with Batman and Robin are also noteworthy, as they reveal the latent homosexuality and bisexuality of the characters, respectively. As she puts it, “Batface and Birdbrain turned out to be much more resistant to my love dust than expected.” If the two characters were to be interpreted as homosexual, such an aversion would make sense. This also problematically implies that sexual orientation and romantic attraction is merely biological and not acquired by experience or linked with the concept of true love, a hypothesis that is difficult to verify. When Ivy increases the dosage of love dust, Batman and Robin begin to fight for her affections. Robin becomes irrationally jealous when Batman questions his attraction to her. “She has us fighting over her somehow,” Batman says, as if the fact that he is sexually attracted to a woman is unthinkable.

The evidence that Batman is a closet homosexual is plentiful. Even George Clooney openly admits to playing the character as a gay man. Though Bruce does have a girlfriend, Julie Madison, her only role is to conceal his true sexual orientation as his "beard." On several occasions, Bruce dodges questions about the issue of marriage with Julie, not only revealing his discomfort with the relationship, but also effectively making him a foil to the marriage-obsessed Mr. Freeze. Bruce struggles with his relationship with Julie because of his secretive lifestyle, the fact that he is a costumed crime-fighter and, likely, gay. “I know you’ve had your wild nights,” she excuses. “Wild doesn’t quite cover it,” Bruce says. The innuendo is clear.

If fighting crime and homosexuality are to be associated with one another, one can assume that Batman harbors a romantic infatuation with Robin. The opening titles set the tone, as the Bat-symbol and the Robin-symbol (pictured right) fly together and embrace, the warm red glow of passion radiating between them. The coupled logo then lays horizontally and rushes toward the camera. Next is the first exchange of dialogue, in which Batman establishes his disapproval, perhaps jealousy, of the fact that Robin expresses an interest in women. “I want a car. Chicks dig the car,” Robin says. “This is why Superman works alone,” Batman jokes in reply. He playfully chastises his young sidekick, or perhaps more appropriately, his “partner,” a somewhat loaded term mentioned multiple times in reference to their alliance. The two also argue constantly over the problem of trust, a common issue in romantic relationships, specifically when it comes to dealing with the threat of sexual infidelity. In this case, the threat is Poison Ivy, who remains the point of contention until Robin finally trusts Batman and tricks her with a pair of rubber lips to withstand her poisonous kiss.

Comic book critic Frederic Wertham suggests in his book Seduction of the Innocent that the original comic book characters of Batman and Robin are inherently homosexual. He writes, “Only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry and of the psychopathology of sex can fail to realize a subtle atmosphere of homoeroticism which pervades the adventures of the mature ‘Batman’ and his young friend ‘Robin.’" He then comments on the fact that at home, the two characters “lead an idyllic life. They are Bruce Wayne and ‘Dick’ Gray- son. Bruce Wayne is described as a ‘socialite’ and the official relationship is that Dick is Bruce's ward. They live in sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases, and have a butler, Alfred. […] It is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.” Wertham would surely criticize the questionable nature of Bruce and Dick’s living situation in Schumacher’s films. In Batman Forever, Bruce takes Dick in, despite the fact that he appears to be in his mid-twenties, clearly not a child as in the comics, and therefore does not require a legal guardian. In Batman & Robin, Dick still lives with Bruce. To the outsider, their relationship might more closely resemble a homosexual one rather than a mere friendship or father-son bond.

While Batman exhibits latent gay tendencies, the depiction of Robin expresses much more confusion in terms of sexual orientation, aligning more with bisexuality than homosexuality. As Robert Lang argues in Masculine Interests: Homoerotics in Hollywood Film, it is Robin, “more than Batman—in keeping with biology’s imperative that younger men be more driven by sexual desire than older men—who finds himself responding helplessly to [Poison Ivy’s] toxic allure” (238). His sexual confusion allows him to explore the possibility of romance with a woman rather than continue his homoerotic relationship with Batman. Ivy urges Robin to “’forget the geriatric bat! Come join me—my garden needs tending’—as if the sexual interest she is inviting Robin to take in her were simply the flip side of his interest in Batman” (238). His affections are torn throughout the film by several characters.

Batgirl, also known as Barbara Wilson, serves as another potential romantic possibility for Robin. He marvels at her beauty when she first arrives at Wayne Manor, and curiously follows her when she sneaks out at night. It is worth noting that the filmmakers alter the character’s background from the original comics. The character is normally Barbara Gordon, the daughter of Batman’s ally, police commissioner James Gordon, but in the film her name is changed so that she is the niece of Bruce’s butler Alfred, the surrogate father of Bruce, and by default, Dick. Because of this familial connection, Barbara is off limits to Dick. Indeed, she is treated as more of a sibling in the dynamic of the Bat-family rather than a romantic interest, especially since Dick and Barbara never share an onscreen kiss.

Another reason Barbara may be romantically unavailable to Dick is that she could be interpreted as a lesbian, offering a female homosexual perspective to the heroes of the film. Barbara never shows any interest in Dick, despite his curiosity in her. Moreover, she is interested in traditionally “male” activities like motorcycle-racing and fighting crime. In the climactic final battle, conventional gender roles are reversed when a falling Robin plays the “damsel in distress” and Batgirl saves him with her grappling hook. She also one-ups her fellow crime-fighter when she succeeds in figuring out how to redirect a series of satellites to unfreeze the city. “You’re pretty good at this, little girl,” Robin quips. “Watch and learn, little boy,” she replies. She is essentially a better superhero than Robin, which is significant given the fact that comic books and comic book movies are dominated by male heroes.

The fact that Batman & Robin serves as a homosexual allegory within the superhero genre is noteworthy, as it represents a “subversion and appropriation of mainstream media.” Schumacher takes an extremely popular character from an increasingly prevalent genre, and transforms them both to fit his own personal vision. Given the reins of the Batman franchise after Tim Burton’s two comparatively darker installments, Schumacher chose to take the series in a decidedly campier direction (much like the 60s Adam West series), first with Batman Forever and even more so with Batman & Robin. The dialogue consists almost entirely of clichéd one-liners and bad jokes, such as Batman’s “You break it, you buy it,” or Mr. Freeze’s “Let’s kick some ice!” As Larry Gross outlines in his essay, “Out of the Mainstream,” “the classic gay (male) strategy of subversion is camp,” an attempt to undermine mainstream media’s often negative representations of homosexuals, among other minorities. “The sting can be taken out of oppressive characterizations and the hot air balloons of official morality can be burst with the ironic weapon of camp humour” (68).

This film also uses the convention of good versus evil inherent in comic books as a weapon against mainstream representations of gender and sexuality. Simply put, the good characters are homosexual while the evil characters are heterosexual. As such, the film serves as a utopian vision of a world in which homosexuals emerge victorious, pointing out the contradictions of heterosexual tradition. Schumacher utilizes the formal techniques of cinema to establish this gay utopia, specifically through the emphasis on and idealization of the male body. His Gotham City consists of godlike, skyscraper-sized nude statues over which the heroes and villains chase each other. Such figures also adorn Bruce Wayne’s mansion as well as the museum at the beginning of the film, cementing the motif. The influence of nude figures even finds its way into the costume design of the film. In the documentary Shadows of the Bat: The Cinematic Saga of the Dark Knight Part 6: Batman Unbound, Schumacher explains that the nipples, robust rear ends, and large codpieces on Batman and Robin’s costumes (pictured left) are inspired by “Greek statues that have perfect bodies” and are “anatomically erotic.” Close-ups accentuate these features during montage sequences in which the heroes suit up to go battle evil. The male body is literally in the face of the viewer.

Perhaps it is this utopian vision of homosexuality that turned mainstream viewers off of Batman & Robin, causing the bombardment of harsh criticism. The traditional language of film is often constructed for heterosexual understanding, so any alternative would naturally alienate viewers. The film ultimately undermines the conventions of the heterosexual mainstream, which is likely the reason for its embarrassing legacy. Perhaps the still-homophobic filmgoing majority is simply not ready for films like Batman & Robin that challenge the standard in terms of gender and sexuality.


McWriter said...

This is awesome

Andrew Y.K. said...

An incredible analysis of the latent content manifested in one of the most flamBOYant movies of all time.Nicely done.

Chelsea VBK said...

This was amazing! Very good read!Im very impressed, and hope to read more in the future :)

Jake B. said...

Freaking fantastic. This only cements my thoughts that panned mainstream films are sometimes more provocative than Oscar Bait.

Counter: I would have to academically disagree with you a bit on Bane/Poison Ivy's relationship. I've always perceived it as less muscle and more "fat"; something tells me, based on Schumacher's predilections towards Adonis-like Greek wonderboys, if he wanted to take the "comic-appropriate" route with Bane (who is actually smart and buff) he could have. But Bane's physicality is more Peter Griffin than Brawny Man. Perhaps it illustrates a different negative heterosexual stereotype: that of the thick, dumb husband married to the MILF-WASP wife ideal (Family Guy, Simpsons, Honeymooners, Flintstones, According to Jim, and any Castanza relationship on Seinfeld). As for Ivy's "Venom", I can't decide if it is more a risk of STDs from a promiscuous, unchained woman of power, or liquified feminine sexual potency. (Or perhaps that's the same thing?)

Kudos on actually raising issues from a film so many easily dismiss. I'm inspired! Now this is film scholarship!!!

Cam Siemer said...

Jake, I added a brief blurb about Bane based on your suggestion, which I think is totally valid, though it doesn't necessarily have to negate my initial claim. Thanks! Hope you don't mind...

Ryan said...

Your argument that Batgirl is a lesbian is poor. You write that the good guys, who fight crime, are homosexual. In analysis of Batgirl, you argue because she is fighting crime, she is a lesbian. Because of your circular reasoning, I reject this part of your essay, although the rest was rather insightful.

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