When 1997’s Batman & Robin stumbled, its director – Joel Schumacher – was left to carry the can, and made some significant left turns as a result.
In the 1990s, there was a select few movie directors who had a special place in the world of Warner Bros. Probably the king of them was Richard Donner, a reliable go-to for the studio, who’d delivered far more hits than misses, and could always be relied on for a Lethal Weapon film if one was required. He offered far more than just those movies though, and hits he made for Warner Bros across his career included Superman The Movie, Maverick and The Goonies as well.
Clint Eastwood’s production company, Malpaso, had its offices on the Warner Bros lot too, and deals with filmmakers and talent was, at the time, the Warner Bros way. Before it became a company that deleted all-but-completed films because the tax write off was worth more to it than creating something people wanted to watch.
Director Joel Schumacher had already enjoyed a success for the studio as it crept into the 1990s. The Lost Boys to this day is a Warner Bros catalogue favourite. Yet the film that really put him firmly on the studio’s radar was the 1993 drama Falling Down, starring Michael Douglas. The story of one man’s consumer angry against the state of modern society was a very welcome hit for Warner Bros, and for Schumacher, gave him some of the best reviews of his career. But it was also the start of a run that would see him direct a major film for the studio for five consecutive years, with a sixth planned.
Schumacher was picked to direct the adaptation of John Grisham’s novel The Client, a piece of material he did sterling work with, and he jumped straight from that to the studios’ flagship franchise of the era, Batman. Love it or hate it, 1995’s Batman Forever was a full commercial and artistic reboot for the Dark Knight, and would bring Warner Bros the kind of returns that it didn’t enjoy with the far darker and trickier Batman Returns just a few years prior. And so the informal plan then was that Schumacher would do a John Grisham adaptation one year, a Batman film the next.
It was all working quite well too. A Time To Kill, based on John Grisham’s first novel, hit well with critics and audiences in 1996. Batman & Robin was lined up for 1997, and after that Schumacher tentatively had The Runaway Jury – again based on a Grisham book – in 1998, with a further Batman adventure after that.
That plan came to a juddering halt within a week or two of Batman & Robin’s release in the summer of 1997. Whilst not a disaster commercially, the hostile reviews and the significantly depleted box office returns caused urgent meetings to take place on the Warner Bros lot. A change of plan was required, and fast.
Firstly, there was the backlash to deal with. Batman & Robin arrived just as the world wide web was becoming more widely accessible, and one of the first movies to feel the wrath of the internet was indeed Batman & Robin.
While this was going on, Schumacher was still having to travel the world as part of the ongoing press tour for the movie, and it was in the midst of his commitments there that he decided he wanted out. He would reflect to Vice 20 years later that he’d gone to the set of Face/Off to talk to Nicolas Cage about playing The Scarecrow in the next Batman feature, but added “I’m in Rio, cutting the ribbon to yet another toy store with Warner Bros merchandise and I though ‘what the [‘Cluck’ – Ed] is going on?”
He was having doubts.
Schumacher took a holiday to Mexico, and then called the studio to step away from the Batman world. More than that, he’d decided already to go back to the smaller movies that he’d always been more comfortable making, and that he’d built his career on. He decided he wanted to duck out of the blockbuster game. He didn’t just step away from Batman and The Runaway Jury (that would come to fruition many years later under director Gary Fleder, at a different studio), but he stepped away from Warner Bros, his professional home for the best part of a decade.
But he needed to.
Whilst Warner Bros would take many years to work out what to do with its Batman franchise, Schumacher would reboot the direction he was professionally heading in, and did it quicker. He would reconfigure his career, and fairly swiftly sought out very different material, starting with a Nicolas Cage-headlined project called 8mm. A dark thriller, set in the world of snuff movies, it perhaps didn’t fully capitalise on its premise, but it was nonetheless something of a statement of intent.
In truth, it arguably took Schumacher a couple of films to find his feet again. Neither 8mm nor his next film, Flawless, proved to be particularly successful. Yet he found his mojo with a new talent he’d discovered: Colin Farrell (and Schumacher, don’t forget, had a habit of finding and given a chance to new talent: the likes of Julia Roberts and Matthew McConaughey were both given significant career boosts by him, for instance). Casting Farrell in the stripped down war movie Tigerland (and earning the best reviews he’d enjoyed in many years), Schumacher was back in a happier place, and he took on the long in gestation Phone Booth immediately afterwards, transplanting Farrell onto that (after Jim Carrey had spent time considering the project).
Yet Batman & Robin followed him around. Every film that he made, come the press junket, he’d be asked about the movie and duly apologise for it. Filmmaker Jeremy Garelick – who’s recently directed Murder Mystery 2 – was mentored at one time by Schumacher. He told our podcast (below) that Schumacher would be talking around and people would come up to him, to tell him what they thought of his second Batman film. Schumacher would deal with it calmly and take it on the chin.
And he was quick to front up. In recent years, we’ve seen filmmakers very quickly get in front of the social media and news cycle when films haven’t gone down well. Simon Kinberg for instance was quick to concede the problems of 2019’s X-Men: Dark Phoenix when it stumbled, and likewise Tim Miller was equally open about the underperformance of Terminator: Dark Fate. Schumacher got to that approach first.
Furthermore, it didn’t entirely put him off making big movies. He was tempted to direct the big screen take on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical The Phantom Of The Opera – starring Gerard Butler, no less – but hit a sticky spot again with it. Yet prior to his death in 2020, he spent much of the rest of his career seeking out more down to earth productions, albeit still managing to attract star talent to them. His final movie, 2011’s Trespass, paired Nicole Kidman and Nicolas Cage.
Schumacher, though, would still spend many interviews being asked about his response to Batman & Robin, as well as being quizzed on the now-infamous choice to add nipples to Batman’s suit. But it overlooks some interesting work he sought out and completed, arguably as a result of his final trip to Gotham City. And it shouldn’t be overlooked too that remarkable run of hits and successes he enjoyed within the confines of the studio system either. The kind of achievement that modern franchise cinema makes even rarer going forward.
Few, in the end, would take a bullet for Batman & Robin, but Schumacher did. He never shied away from his film, he was open about where it went wrong, and he wouldn’t let anyone but himself take the blame for it. Not entirely fair, of course. But it’s hard to think how he could have responded to its significant fallout in a better way.
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