It’s no secret that 1997’s “Batman & Robin” has a lot of problems. Like, a lot of problems. So many, in fact, that it’s considered the worst Batman movie of all-time. Yeah, it’s got a pretty cool Smashing Pumpkins song in its end credits, but that’s the extent of its awesomeness. While “Batman Forever” — director Joel Schumacher’s first bat-outing — could be considered a valiant effort to homage the ’60s-era Batman comics with its light-hearted tone, “Batman & Robin” is so goofy and contrary to what Batman is, that it in many fans’ eyes, it came off more a mockery of the character than a tribute. However, the ill-received film accomplished one thing no other Batman movie managed to do before or since: introduce Batgirl to the big screen.
Barbara Gordon is set to headline her own solo film as part of the ever-growing DC Extended Universe of films in an outing written, directed and produced by fan-favorite Hollywood royalty Joss Whedon. And while Whedon certainly should most assuredly not look to “Batman & Robin” as a blueprint for getting a live-action Batgirl right, there are definitely a few lessons to be gleaned from Alicia Silverstone’s ill-fated debut under the cowl.
One major thing the film gets right is its portrayal of Batgirl as, frankly, an utter badass. Introduced out of the blue as Alfred’s orphaned niece who randomly decides to live at Wayne Manor with the rest of the bat-gang, Barbara (Pennyworth, we assume, but we’ll get into that in a bit) is a seemingly average schoolgirl who’s soon revealed to be sneaking out every night to engage in motorcycle street racing. It’s goofy as hell, sure, and very ’90s, but it justifies that Barbara has a secret, very useful skill set as a biker that may come in handy as a bat-vigilante some day.
It’s also established that Barbara is quite the tech wiz, as its bluntly stated that she’s a Computer Science student at Oxbridge Academy. These bonafides are largely irrelevant throughout the film, until the end of the movie when she programs satellites to de-freeze Gotham. And despite its many, many flaws, the movie actually does a decent job of establishing Barbara as a useful crime-fighter, even though it never really creates a need for Batgirl in the first place, an issue we’ll examine in just a bit.
The main issue with Barbara in the film isn’t her abilities, which are actually well-established. Rather, it’s that she never exemplifies a desire to help humanity in any way. She just sneaks out at night, races, does nifty computer stuff, and… that’s it. everything she does is for herself. There’s no real desire to help”Gotham City, save innocents or even support her family.
This leads us to one of the key issues with “Batman & Robin’s” Batgirl: for some reason, she’s Alfred’s oddly-young niece rather than the daughter of Commissioner Jim Gordon. If she was Jim’s daughter, we’d get immediately have a shorthand justification as to why she wants to rid Gotham of crime, even if it’s as simple as, she wants to help her dad out. Instead, as Alfred’s niece, she simply stumbles upon the Batcave and decides to fight crime, well, just because.
The film also fails miserably at establishing a good relationship between the bat-family. It gets far too bogged down in the whiny plight of Robin to have more freedom (or something) as he complains to Bruce, “It’s Batman and Robin, not Robin and Batman!” Most of the film deals with the eroding relationship of Batman and Robin for some reason, rendering the addition of Batgirl completely useless, as she adds nothing of value to the bat-family’s issues.
Yes, the film falters in never giving a reason for Batgirl to exist (at all). Despite the promotional material making it seem like she’s a vital part of the film, Barbara only suits up in the last 20 minutes of the movie. Admittedly, she at least gets the chance to kick some serious Poison Ivy ass, and it’s nice that she gets this moment to shine, but it comes far too late, and, really, out of nowhere. If Batman and Robin are so dysfunctional already, why are they okay with Batgirl arriving on the scene and staking a claim to her portion of the Bat-franchise?
However, despite all its flaws, “Batman & Robin” succeeded on one father important level; it managed to bring a self-sufficient Batgirl to the big-screen, an admirable feat in and of itself. Her dubious motivations aside, the character presented audiences something that was a far cry from the damsel in stress that plagued so many action films of the era, superhero-themed or otherwise. Though we hope, and expect, the majority of the Silverstone incarnation of Batgirl to jettisoned from the character for upcoming solo film, here’s hoping the hero’s badass nature lives on.