I purchased the Batman Anthology Blu-rays recently. Even though it included movies I'm not fond of, the deal was too good to pass up. I watched all four in the span of a few days and came to two surprising conclusions.
First conclusion: Batman and Robin was the best thing that could happen to this franchise.*
You see, none of these movies are good. None of them. There are moments throughout the series that are good or there are likable aspects. As a whole, not one movie is good.
They started out with potential, but about an hour into the first Batman movie, things quickly fall apart. They all are showcases for big name stars on some level, vanity projects if you will, some more than others. This happens right off the bat (no pun intended) with Jack Nicholson as the Joker. He overshadows the lead character in the movie and in some ways, Nicholson himself overshadows his own character.
This gets worse in the first sequel, Batman Returns. In the first 35 minutes, Michael Keaton is on the screen for five minutes at most. Christopher Walken on the other hand might as well have been the lead actor in this movie. The plot, what little there is of it, centers around him. The Penguin and Catwoman are additional nonsensical side characters that take away from Batman/Bruce Wayne. The movie was called "Batman Returns," but he hardly showed up.
Batman Forever might center the most on Batman out of the four. Even still, there are many problems with this movie that only get worse with its follow up, Batman and Robin.
So, with that said, Batman and Robin was the best thing that could happen to this franchise because without something coming along and outright killing it, it would have continued in it's mediocrity.
Second conclusion: Batman and Robin is not as bad as everyone says it is.
Let me be clear, Batman and Robin is a horrible, horrible movie, but it is not the worst movie ever made and it is not even the worst movie in this franchise. If you'll indulge me, I'd like to defend this movie just a bit but I'm going to take a long way to get there.
I don't think Joel Shumacher gets Batman. He wasn't the best choice to make Batman movies. He has an interesting style and I've seen movies of his that are good, but Batman was not something he got. However, I think Joel Shumacher made the best Batman movie of those four. Batman Forever is a fun movie with potentially the most solid plot of the four and the best to do any sort of character development. Held up to the other three, Batman Forever gives us the most comic faithful characterization of Batman (a Batman who won't kill for one). Sure...the ending is hacked out, Tommy Lee Jones was out of place and too over the top, and Batmobiles shouldn't drive up walls. I grant you all that and more. Batman Forever is not a perfect, nor really a good movie, but it's the best of the four.
The second best is the first movie of the series. It's in second place, because it has a weak plot that does not focus on character development and instead relies on Jack Nicholson being Mr. Funny Guy. Batman doesn't really do anything all that cool. He barely saves Vicki Vale and is shown as fairly inept throughout the movie (dropping Jack into the chemicals and not being able to aim with the Batwing guns). It gets credit for establishing a mood and beginning the trend of being able to take comic book movies seriously again.
Batman and Robin is the third best...er...second worst movie in this franchise. Yes, the dialog is full of horrible, heavy handed puns. Yes, the action sequences are absurd (I about lost it when Batman and Robin air surf down from the rocket ship at the beginning of the movie). Yes, Arnold Schwarzenegger was horribly out of place. Yes, they completely butchered the character of Bane. Yes, Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl might be the worst casting decision ever in a super hero movie. But, I give them credit for trying. Not a solid plot, but there is a plot in this movie. There are even a couple decent subplots that aren't too bad. Alfred gets sick and goes on a hunt for his replacement. This sort of culminates in a nice scene between Bruce Wayne and Alfred which gives Michael Gough something to do since telling stories to Vicki Vale in the first movie. The subplot about Batman not trusting Robin is trite, but a worthy effort to advance a plot point from it's predecessor and say something about Batman. Batman is portrayed as competent and strong. He is slightly more than human, he is a hero.
It would have taken a lot of work to make Batman and Robin a good movie, but it would have been near impossible to make Batman Returns workable at all. This movie was an absolute mess and should have been titled "The Many Failures of Batman." Batman does not win in this movie other than he is able to kill the Penguin. Even then, he almost dies at the Penguin's hands (or flippers) and it's only dumb luck that keeps him alive. There is no plot in this movie and what little there is, we're told about it and not shown. There's a lot of talking and scheming, not much action.
And things don't make sense. Who raised the Cobblepot? Was it penguins? Why were penguins in Gotham? How did they care for a humanish child? Was it the circus? If so, why was Cobblepot the leader of the group and not one of the circus guys? What's the deal with Penguin anyway? Why is he so freakish? Why do the penguin pallbearers show up at the end and how do they get him into the water without touching him? Are they telekinetic penguins? If so, that might explain how they raised him. And what's the deal with Catwoman? She falls out a window and some cats come running out from every which direction, chew on her hand and she comes back to life? It makes no sense!
So I'm glad I watched all of the movies again. I feel like I've been unfair to Batman and Robin. I hadn't watched it since I saw it in the theater all those years ago. It had been so long, that I felt like my opinion of it was no longer my own. It was easy to jump on the hate Shumacher bandwagon and I felt like it was justified based on my own earlier experience. After seeing it again, I can't say that Burton was a better choice at all. In fact, even though I said Shumacher didn't get Batman, I'd definitely say that Burton understood him even less. So I will no longer bad mouth Joel Shumacher. At least, not without badmouthing Tim Burton even more.
* While I was looking for images, I found an article stating that Marvel Studios president of production Kevin Feige believes that Batman and Robin is the "most important comic book movie ever." Interesting article that explains his thoughts on it and mirror what I was saying but on a much larger scale.