Batman has traveled a long road since Warner Bros. revived him as a Hollywood superhero in 1989. That road doesn't reach a dead end in the new "Batman & Robin," but it gets so crowded and noisy that audiences may not want to take it much farther in seasons to come.
Let's review the history. "Batman" portrayed the Caped Crusader as a moody, mysterious man played by Michael Keaton. "Batman Returns" did the same, adding a megadose of director Tim Burton's quirky cinematic ideas.
"Batman Forever" marked a major turn for the series, replacing Keaton with Val Kilmer - a more conventional actor with a more extroverted manner - and trading Burton's surrealism for the action-movie glitz of director Joel Schumacher, whose credits include high-tech fantasies like "The Lost Boys" and "Flatliners."
Which brings us to this year's episode. Once was apparently enough for Kilmer, who hands the Bat-baton to George Clooney this time around. Clooney's admirers will be delighted, but by now the series has invested so much of its capital in outlandish special effects that it hardly matters whose head is under the pointy-eared helmet. "Batman & Robin" is less a movie than a razzle-dazzle video game.
Not that "Batman & Robin" suffers from a shortage of characters amid the chaos. On the side of the good guys, handsome Chris O'Donnell is back as Robin and perky Alicia Silverstone joins the crew as Batgirl. Also returning are old favorites Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon and Michael Gough as Alfred the Batbutler, who provides some of the picture's touching moments by showing a vulnerability rarely found in the macho Batcave.
As usual in Batman movies, the villains are more interesting and (let's face it) fun. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Mr. Freeze, a coldhearted criminal with a clean-shaven skull, a robot-type outfit, and a mean-looking weapon that can ice a whole city in its tracks. Uma Thurman plays Poison Ivy, a demented botanist with a venomous kiss. The gifted John Glover also makes a brief appearance, giving Ms. Ivy her nasty powers and immediately becoming their first victim.
These are talented folks, and it would be nice to see them in one of those old-fashioned pictures that care about story as well as spectacle. Taking the opposite tack, "Batman & Robin" is about as warm as a blast from Mr. Freeze's ice rifle. Akiva Goldsman's screenplay nods toward family values, with some dialogue about loyalty and a limp father-son conflict between the title characters; and Alfred shows a hint of psychological depth when he faces an illness with uncomplaining courage. But such meaningful moments barely have time to get started before another barrage of action blows them off the screen.
On a purely technical level, "Batman & Robin" is a well-made specimen of its big-budget breed. The first action sequence packs a particularly strong wallop through sheer speed and inventiveness, even though its anything-goes editing and Krazy Kat physics don't make a bit of sense.
But every blockbuster so far this season has the glaring problem of lasting too long, trying too hard, and blitzing us with more technological derring-do than anyone could need. Suggestion to Warner Bros.: How about a sequel that pays more than lip service to human values, adding some Bat-intelligence and Bat-thoughtfulness to its overloaded utility belt?
* 'Batman & Robin' has a PG-13 rating. It contains an enormous amount of action-movie violence.