‘Batman & Robin’ Added Online Trolls To The Rogue’s Gallery
Today (June 20, 2017) is the 20th anniversary of Batman & Robin, the infamous Batman film that changed a lot of things for its stars, director and the state of superhero movies. There’s plenty to be written about (and that has been written about) concerning what exactly happened, why it happened that way and what happened next. Suffice it to say director Joel Schumacher and star George Clooney have not stopped apologizing since the film arrived in theaters and continue to do so to this day (which is apparently still news to people). Among the many things to get into concerning a film best known for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ice puns and the nipples on the bat suit though, is the adverse effect it had on the burgeoning internet community at that time.
I need to add some caveats now, as this is somewhat impromptu, but I also didn’t want to make some overlong thread on Twitter about a bad superhero movie. It is evident to me that Batman & Robin arrived a number of years after the beginning of the internet. I also know The Simpsons and The X-Files are two major pop culture institutions that helped online communities grow. And for the sake of trivia, 1994’s Stargate was the first film with an official website. I’ll also note that I did very mild research, just for the sake of argument, so apologies if there are any discrepancies in the timeline or even a lack of major dates stated in some elaborate, JFK-style approach to this non-conspiracy I’m proposing.
Getting back to Batman & Robin, for the record, I don’t like the film. I also don’t believe it to be the terrible dumpster fire it gets made out to be. I’d much rather take an outlandish, over-the-top film such as this, with all the money on the screen, as opposed to something that has no idea what it wants to be (Blade: Trinity), a film that badly squanders its potential (Suicide Squad), or a movie that’s outright boring (Elektra). Batman & Robin is a lot of things, but it’s never boring. It doesn’t deliver on certain characters and is just plain silly most of the time, but it has a few things going for it as well.
I don’t need to dwell too much on criticizing or praising the film, but for all its ridiculousness involving how to direct these wacky characters on screen, there is a good idea buried in the movie about Bruce Wayne dealing with the next step of his adult life. Since the series had tackled the death of his parents, having Bruce become the surrogate father to a family of his own (Robin and Batgirl), let alone gain a potential wife (Elle Macpherson’s Julie Madison), while his surrogate father (Michael Gough’s Alfred) may die is a good concept. It may be running in the background, while Mr. Freeze and Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy (with special guest Bane) plot to freeze the world and then grow plants over it (?), but it’s there.
The final product didn’t go well, as many already know. The reviews were harsh, the $125 million dollar film (with rumors that it cost much more) did not play well at the box office ($107 domestic, $238 worldwide), and Batman would not be seen in a major film again until 2005 (Batman Begins only made a respectable amount of money, but people also liked it – that helps). The other downside for Batman & Robin was the ire that came out of fans with a newer outlet to share their thoughts on – internet message boards.
Now clearly Batman & Robin was not the first film to be talked about poorly. Word of mouth is a strong tool/weapon (it’s how we used to get our history and news). That in mind, considering just how frequently-discussed superhero films are today for the average movie geek in an online world, it’s hard not to see Batman & Robin as the movie that spawned a population of internet trolls.
To be fair, it’s not like the film didn’t set itself up to be made fun of. As mentioned the star and director constantly apologize for making it. It’s also not at all wrong to dislike and make fun of the film. I may think it’s been piled on a lot more than it needs to be, but I can’t say I haven’t indulged in giving the film grief (by the way, coming soon: an Out Now podcast commentary that will likely mix jokes about the movie with a defense of various choices). It is the lasting effect of the constant mockery, however, that has created a villain more powerful than intended. And since this film only led to a better direction for Batman, while still leaving that villain to grow stronger, as the Batman & Robin soundtrack single by The Smashing Pumpkins states, “The End is the Beginning is the End.”
With internet message boards to at least somewhat anonymously share thoughts and make fun of things, tons of people back in the late 90s had the ability to place lots of spiteful energy on one of the biggest films of the decade. Yes, let’s not forget how the 90’s era Batman films were the biggest films hitting theaters at that time, aside from an occasional James Cameron spectacle. Having a major tentpole film, featuring one of the most popular comic book characters ever, led to lots of people pouncing all over it, given the direction it took. Never mind how the film was a response to the success that came from going campy in Batman Forever (which itself was a response to going away from the negative attention received by the “dark and gory” Batman Returns), Batman & Robin was a film people loved to hate.
This would carry on, and while I don’t have pages of footnotes and citations to help, it’s not illogical to say that all geek-centric films (primarily mainstream superhero movies) would be facing scrutiny all the time, leading up to and beyond their release dates. While there are plenty of positive online forces sharing casting announcements, set visits, interviews and more, it has remained just as easy to find all the comments you can that talk down, make fun of and flat out object to how things are progressing. Nobody wants another Batman & Robin and while it may not have a major impact, the groups happy to vent frustrations or simply be negative about everything have the outlet and means to put their thoughts out there.
It’s a problem that extends far beyond thoughts on movies and while Batman & Robin is not the film I’m going to say started the problem with the online world, it may be fair to say that the many who feel the need to troll everything related to movies/TV/pop culture were seeded by those finding a major Batman movie that was easy to pile furious venom upon. A film that was made by a studio that pushed too hard on ramping up the camp factor and making everything toyetic became an everlasting hub for scorn that would continue to spread.
Travel through the years and find complaints about the family-friendly Fantastic Four characters becoming too much of a family-friendly film in Tim Story’s two attempts (yes, I know those films have other issues too). Make one Google search to see just how much hatred Spider-Man 3 gets for daring to be incredibly comic book-y melodrama (sure, it tries way too hard to be everything). But how about the films that work overall and still get criticized by the groups these films cater towards?
Cut to today and find that while general audiences appear to love superhero movies (complain about fatigue all you want, but box office numbers, cinemascore and generally positive reviews don’t lie), there is plenty of abhorrent behavior found among people simply because Marvel and DC are both making movies. Regardless of the general reception, many people (okay, mostly males 13-35) cannot wait to throw shade, insults and a variety of hurtful gestures at others simply over whether or not they liked a movie. Whether it’s criticizing the directorial abilities of Zack Snyder or chastising Marvel Studios for adhering to a formula, those happy to take advantage of social media by way of unproductive negativity engage in it regularly.
The sad part is there’s no stopping it. It stands to reason that it doesn’t have to be stopped and many are simply using the internet as an outlet for thoughts that ultimately don’t matter compared to the “real world.” Whatever thoughts may be expressed, it doesn’t stop any of these people from seeing every one of these films. However, there’s acidity to the way views are expressed that can only be countered with an inherent good that I find to be in people or at the very least, taking the time to think before speaking (or typing).
Batman & Robin seems to have held onto a number of legacies, and many of them are negative (and I can only hope to receive a flurry of responses from people un-ironically championing the film). The most impactful, however, is the power it seemed to give to those discovering a darker take on the internet. One could argue another film could have come along to have done the same thing or how endless scorn pointed at one superhero movie led to good coming out of others, but it also doesn’t change the notion of trolls taking up arms and doing their best to rail against so much. So given the surprisingly controversial role Batman has played in pop culture, he seems to once again stand as the hero we deserve, but not always the one we need.