The warning signs were already there with Batman Forever, Schumacher’s first go-round with the Caped Crusader, which starred a new actor (Val Kilmer) and embraced a broader, more kid-friendly storytelling approach than Tim Burton’s two attempts. That film made a perfectly healthy $184 million in 1995—but that was far less than Batman, which had grossed $250 million six years earlier. Reviews were far less kind, and on-set relationships was somewhat troubled, with Tommy Lee Jones (Two-Face) telling Jim Carrey (The Riddler), “I cannot sanction your buffoonery,” and Schumacher calling Kilmer “childish and impossible.”
The phenomenal success of Batman had spawned a new wave of Hollywood superheroes: There were hits like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Crow, bombs like Judge Dredd and The Rocketeer, and cult favorites like Darkman and Tank Girl. The producer Jon Peters was trying to get a rebooted Superman film into theaters, with Nicolas Cage going as far as doing costume tests for a film tentatively titled Superman Lives. No studio had ever really considered the idea of a “linked universe” that would eventually become commonplace—the idea of Superman and Batman, brethren in the comics pages, interacting onscreen was not a priority.
Superhero movies were not very different from any other action event of the 1990s—they were star-driven exercises first and foremost, made with little fealty to their source material. No Batman film really resembles any of the hero’s best-known comic-book works (which Christopher Nolan would later draw from for his Dark Knight trilogy). Marvel Comics, which in the 1990s was in the midst of serious financial struggles, was a long way away from funding its own movies and steering their production to be more faithful to their works of origin (a highly successful project it began in 2008 with Iron Man).
Today, any studio would balk at the idea of paying a huge star like Schwarzenegger a massive paycheck (he made $38 million in today’s dollars to play the villainous Mr. Freeze). Superhero franchises are about more than one film, and getting less well-known stars (as Marvel did with actors like Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, and others) is a way to plan for the future economically, rather than get tied into giant paychecks right away. Batman & Robin did star a relatively cheap Batman—George Clooney, then best known for the TV hit ER—but its budget was far larger than most of its superhero rivals.
Batman & Robin debuted to horrible reviews and worse word-of-mouth, with particular derision aimed at Uma Thurman’s Mae West-esque take on Poison Ivy, Mr. Freeze’s repetitive insistence on ice-related puns, and the merchandise-focused action sequences. Schumacher had made a film that leaned even further into the campy 1960s tone of Adam West’s Batman at a time when audiences were craving something more serious. I saw the film in theaters, aged 11, and even though it was aimed straight at my demographic, I emerged confused—it was probably the first time I had truly disliked a movie.