Cod-piece psychology

Batman & Robin Joel Schumacher (PG)
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The first two Batman films, both directed by Tim Burton, were solemn character studies in which the characters concerned just happened to be superheroes or grotesque megalomaniacs. When Joel Schumacher stepped in as director on the third instalment, Batman Forever, he gave the franchise a thorough spring-cleaning and dusted away the cobwebs. As you watch Batman & Robin, you may pine for those cobwebs - they lent the place a hint of gothic menace, a dash of personality. It seems even Batman himself has exorcised the demons that once hounded him into fighting crime. Now he is as sane and well-adjusted as any man who spends his evenings wearing pointed ears and a rubber cod-piece can hope to be.

Fans of the television series ER will be saddened to learn that George Clooney was required to turn in his mercurial charms before being allowed anywhere near the Batmobile. Relieved of anything resembling charisma, he fits the lead role as snugly as the Bat-suit fits him. This is a Batman without ambiguity or intensity; even the news that his butler, Alfred (Michael Gough), is dying prompts cosy flashbacks rather than existential dread. Has the independent wealth of his daylight alter-ego Bruce Wayne finally bought happiness? We aren't told, though when his girlfriend suggests marriage, he protests: "There are things about me you wouldn't understand." Indeed. Such as how a disturbed, antisocial millionaire, previously impervious to affection, could have effortlessly maintained a year-long relationship.

And why he spends his spare time playing dressing-up games with a spunky young motorcycle enthusiast. We first meet Robin (Chris O'Donnell) alongside Batman in a series of rhyming close-ups that compare the duo's pert buttocks and splendid chests. After this splash of half-hearted homoeroticism, the film introduces two female characters for them to squabble and coo over. Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman) is a femme fatale with a killer's kiss. In the picture's one good joke, it is revealed that Robin has survived her embrace by wearing rubber on his lips - an excessive but prudent extension of safe sex.

Barbara (Alicia Silverstone) - later to become Batgirl - is Alfred's niece, who turns up on the doorstep in her school uniform, hotfoot from the mythical city of Oxbridge, England, harbouring a terrible secret: she's a secret motorbike racer. Like the R-Whites addict, Barbara steals away after midnight, though her compulsion leads her not to a clandestine liaison with a bottle of lemonade, but into a run-down ghetto where she re-enacts stunts from Streets of Fire while extras from A Clockwork Orange look on.

When Robin presses her on this, she has an explanation prepared. "Both my parents were killed in a car accident," she announces blithely. "I guess all the speed and danger took my pain away." Welcome to Gotham City, where superheroes are cheap, but psychology is cheaper.

The screenwriter Akiva Goldsman has a rather disconsolate stab at recapturing the earlier films' brooding psychological overtones when he allows Alfred to argue that the very concept of Batman is an attempt to master death - an audacious assertion, but one that goes unchallenged since it is delivered directly to Batman himself, who just nods along to anything that will make him sound a bit enigmatic.

You might wonder why the line is there at all when Goldsman spends most of his time sabotaging rather than propagating Batman's mystique. Appearing at charity functions was never going to be a sensible move for the superhero who cares about his image, and Batman and Robin's personal appearance at a fundraisers' ball does seem a trifle pathetic. There is also an embarrassing scene where the duo start bidding cash to spend the night with Poison Ivy, until Batman trumps his sidekick by whipping a customised Batman and Robin credit card from his utility-belt just as a menage-a-trois seems the only possible solution.

It's mildly interesting that there is dissension in the ranks. When Robin launches into one of his many complaints against his employer (he wants a Robin logo projected in the sky alongside the Bat signal), Batman sighs: "This is why Superman works alone." What was intended as a flippant quip jolts you out of the film. Does he mean Superman the comic-book character? Or does the actual Superman exist in the same world as Batman? Do they shop together? Pop down to the local? Argue about who has the nicest costume?

Ridiculing superheroes can be a lovely source of entertainment, as proved by the Australian comedy The Return of Captain Invincible where Alan Arkin played a caped crusader who turns to the bottle during a period of prolonged unemployment. But the Batman we see in Batman & Robin is something else entirely: a defunct icon struggling to restore his glory with misplaced self-deprecation.

That description might also apply to Arnold Schwarzenegger, who appears here as the villain Mr Freeze, cracking a string of feeble one-liners in his strangulated accent (you'd be forgiven for mistaking his tirade against "The Bat and bird" as a rant about "Da Battenburg"). Mr Freeze is a prosaic creation who only exists to underline the film's endorsements of family life - he's keeping his dead wife cryogenically frozen while he works on a cure for the disease that killed her. Even the moderately attentive viewer will spot that Mr Freeze has a chance to change teams if he chooses to save Alfred. The casting makes this unequivocal: gone are the days when Schwarzenegger was free to accept a role as morally irredeemable as the Terminator.

By the time Goldsman gets around to welding these sub-plots together, all semblance of logic has vanished. What do you expect from a film in which Batgirl reels out feminist rhetoric as she nimbly fights crime in six-inch stiletto heels - hardly practical footwear for the superhero- about-townn

`Batman & Robin' opens tomorrow