You Tried: Uma Thurman in ‘Batman and Robin’

You Tried celebrates remarkable performances in widely hated films — actors who kept us watching long after we should’ve left the cinema in disgust. Eliza Janssen chooses one such role each month and figures out its appeal amidst an otherwise shit movie.

THE MOVIE: Batman & Robin (1997), the Joel Schumacher film widely credited with (briefly) killing the Batman franchise.

WHY IT SUCKS: This is one of those bad movies that everybody’s seen, meaning it perhaps gets a worse rap than is deserved. And compared to Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed but joyless trilogy, which would kick off eight years after Batman & Robin’s evisceration by fans and critics, at least Schumacher’s final BatFilm doesn’t take itself too seriously.

But then there’s the puns. The lovingly outlined nipples and crotches on Robin and Batman’s suits. Elle MacPherson seemingly being held at gunpoint to appear as Bruce Wayne’s begrudging beard. Batman’s credit card, which is ‘good thru forever’. When Alicia Silverstone first shows up to help Batman and Robin out and, despite looking exactly like Alicia Silverstone wearing a thin black mask that only covers the area around her eyes, she helpfully clarifies, “Bruce it’s me, Barbara”. One particular shot-reverse-shot where the camera angle unfortunately makes Chris O’Donnell look like a tiny elf man gazing up at a huge Alicia Silverstone. The hilariously ineffectual Bane. 

At least Batman Forever (1995) had the courtesy to wrap things up with ‘Kiss From A Rose’; this movie’s credits play out over a song entitled ‘Gotham City’ by R. Kelly, of all people.

THE PERFORMANCE: Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy

WHY IT’S GREAT: Thurman plays her villainous tree-hugger as some combination of a drag queen and Barbara Stanwyck, moaning every word and pissing all over the runway in whatever costume she’s wearing. It’s clear that Thurman was totally attuned to Schumacher’s intentions to adapt the plasticky camp of the 1960s Adam West Batman into film form; not only in its cartoonish style, but also in its queerness. This is, after all, a film in which the central conflict is whether or not Batman and Robin can resist their attraction to a woman in order to stay true to one another.

The height of the film’s post-modernism is when Thurman rips off Marlene Dietrich, sensually emerging from a gorilla suit in obvious homage to Blonde Venus (1932). And she fucking pulls it off! Admittedly Arnold Schwarzennegar does get his own scene of tinselly mid-century camp when Mr Freeze forces his henchmen to sing along to the Snow Miser song from claymation Christmas special A Year Without Santa Claus (1974). Regardless, Thurman is the sole performer to not only perfectly reflect Schumacher’s weightless camp, but to enrich it, never self-consciously winking at the ridiculousness surrounding her. 

BEST MOMENT: It’s the gorilla suit moment, but I also love when Poison Ivy briefly admires her reflection in the surface of her tiny switchknife. It’s something Divine would’ve done tbh.

DID UMA THURMAN REDEEM BATMAN AND ROBIN? As is probably clear from the last instalment of ‘You Tried’, Batman & Robin is not the Batman film I hold in lowest regard. Its goofy ambition and Gothic production design can even be admirable at times. I know that in the public imagination, this movie is still squarely considered to be so bad it’s good, and Uma Thurman, being only one of the film’s three villains (four if you count the looming threat of stolid heterosexuality), simply isn’t in the film enough to rescue it from that distinction. 

But Poison Ivy does remain a glimmering high point whenever she’s on screen; an orange-and-green beacon of a bygone millennium, before we were expected to genuinely care about superheroes and could just watch them leap around and show off their nips.

**********

Eliza Janssen is a Melbourne writer of criticism and screenplays who wants you to know that there are pterodactyls in the background of the breakfast table montage in Citizen Kane. For more information visit elizajanssen.com / @eliza_janssen.

Eliza Janssen