- Batman & Robin's rushed production schedule and limited time for the comic adaptation resulted in the omission of certain elements, but it also streamlined the story and made it more palatable for comic book readers.
- The comic adaptation prioritized characters over merchandising, removing attempts at promoting toys and happy meals. This allowed the comic to focus on the main plot points and individual narratives of the characters.
- Despite its commercial failure, Batman & Robin derived its conflict from memorable villains and personal drama, providing a solid foundation for the actors. The campiness of the film adds to the fun and harkens back to the cult following of the '60s Batman show.
Bringing comic book characters to live-action media is a tough job. Many things can go wrong, from the look and feel of the set to the execution of the plot and costumes. The culmination of all these factors can either turn the production into a timeless creation or forever mark it as a product of its time. 1978's Superman: The Movie, DC's first superhero movie adaptation, certainly falls in the former category. There's also a tradition of basing comics on these films as part of the marketing effort for their motion picture counterparts. However, just as is true in novelizations of films, passing a story through so many hands can be a recipe for creative dissonance.
So, when Batman & Robin made it to the screen, a one-shot comic from DC was inevitable. The publication of Batman & Robin: The Official Comic Adaptation (by Dennis O'Neil, Rodolfo Damaggio, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Albert DeGuzman) coincided with the release of the 1997 movie. Although it was primarily promotional material for the full-length feature, the book got lost in the critical storm that surrounded the film's release. These days Batman & Robin's financial and critical disaster is common knowledge. But the official comic adaptation has significant merits, and it managed to iron out some of the film's worst problems.
Batman & Robin Sank A Flourishing Franchise
Tim Burton's Batman films gave a distinctive style to Gotham City. It was ugly and Gothic but there was beauty in its elaborate art-deco installations that turned it into a smog-ridden concrete jungle. However, when the late Joel Schumacher took the reins of the franchise, he turned the city into a perpetual rave party with colorful neons and over-the-top performances. His idea was to create a Batman movie for all ages, taking inspiration from the campiness of the Golden Age comic books. While Schumacher's first endeavor was a moderate success and made decent money at the box office, Batman & Robin disappointed audiences immediately. The bad optics surrounding the film stalled all further sequels in development and made film studios wary of the franchise; it took filmmakers like Christopher Nolan over a decade to dismantle Batman's bad reputation in Hollywood. Despite the glamorous sets and star-studded cast, Batman & Robin didn't invest much in its screenplay, and this led to its downfall.
Batman & Robin's rushed production schedule also didn't help matters. It affected all aspects of the project, including the development of the comic book adaptation. With only an early draft of the script and limited time to make the comic, the creative team had the daunting task of bringing Schumacher's neon vision to life in the printed media. However, movies change a lot during production. So, some elements, like chase scenes or Alfred's family ties, that are in the movie were missing from the book. Legendary DC writer and editor, the late Denny O'Neil, worked with talented artists to keep the story streamlined and incorporate as many elements of the set design into the artwork as possible in the given time window. While it is disappointing to see the notorious Bat-Credit Card cut out of the adaptation, O'Neil's omissions made the tale more palatable for comic book readers who were looking for a less campy story, and saving the best aspects of Batman & Robin.
The Comic Adaptation Prioritized Characters Over Merchandising
Unlike the film Batman & Robin, the Official Comic Adaptation wasn't aimed at making money, for obvious reasons. As a result, the book removed all attempts at merchandising. Since the days of the Star Wars franchise, film premieres and toy marketing have gone hand in hand. However, 1989's Batman revolutionized, or rather weaponized, the idea of selling toys and happy meals for publicity while raking in hefting licensing fees. By the time pre-production began for Batman & Robin, toy companies had more say in the plot and aesthetic of the movie than the creatives themselves. In an interview with the YouTube podcast Traversing the Stars, producer Michael Uslan said:
"Joel [Schumacher] was given a directive by the studio. At that time, the studio was very enamored with toys and Happy Meals. And coming out of the Tim Burton movies, they wanted to cater to that side of things and they wanted movies that were lighter, brighter, more kiddy, and family-friendly. And the toy companies and everyone, their request was like, ‘Well, how about three heroes in every movie and three villains in every movie? And each one with two vehicles and two costume changes?"
He admitted that Warner Bros. "directive" directly led to Batman & Robin's downfall, turning it into a "two-hour infomercial for toys." Meanwhile, free of these restrictions, the comic cut dramatic costume changes and heroes riding toy-ready Bat-vehicles into battle, instead sticking to the main plot points. The comic adaptation even cut down Mr. Freeze's overbearing ice puns and Poison Ivy's raunchy double entendres, focusing on the individual narratives of the characters. This left the comic with a bare-bones structure that, unfortunately, turned the comic's storytelling into a monotonous recitation of the film's events. Some interpersonal interactions also work better onscreen with an orchestral music score than on the printed page. But to its credit, the comic adaptation changed the story's tone completely. Moving away from the frantic displays of colors and camp, the comic managed to differentiate Batman's dual identities better than the film. Even the tension between Batman and Robin played out better with fewer distractions, making the Dark Knight really go overboard when he needed to keep his ward in line.
The Comic Adaptation Highlighted The Best Parts Of The Comic Adaptation
Despite its commercial failure, Batman & Robin was able to recoup all of its movie budget through toy sales alone. So, in a way, Warner Bros' efforts to market the movie as a family-friendly, toy-selling venture worked in their favor. However, scathing reviews and negative word of mouth harmed its reputation and damaged it at the box office. Batman & Robin became the poster boy for how not to make a superhero movie. Audiences wanted mature takes on favorite comic book properties and were tired of seeing the same unfunny gags recycled on-screen. A year later, Blade came out and changed how movie fans saw comics yet again.
On reflection, Batman & Robin doesn't deserve its terrible reputation. As its comic book adaptation shows, the plot derives its conflict from memorable villains and personal drama. That, along with the human stories behind the romp and pomp, gave the actors a solid foundation to stand on. It's obviously campy, but it adds to the fun, harkening back to the '60s Batman show, which again has a strong cult following. Even though George Clooney's unending apology tour for Batman & Robin has done more harm than good, fans who have revisited the film appreciate it, understanding that it's the kind of superhero film Hollywood won't be making for many years to come.