The Batmobile Blows A Tire

IT MAY BE PROFITABLE, BUT IT'S sort of sad what's become of the Batman franchise. The series began, under Tim Burton's twisted gaze, with a grave Gothic grandiloquence that appealed to kids and grown-ups alike. Now it's just silly. Batman & Robin is a costume party for 9-year-olds - albeit with kinky, S&M-inspired costumes. Noisy, campy, overproduced, it's abdicated all solemnity in pursuit of a boom-kaboom videogame esthetic.

As his sidekicks proliferate, the new Batman (George Clooney) almost seems superfluous to the story, which is turned over to the villains. This time out it's Arnold Schwarzenegger's Mr. Freeze - a giant human popsicle who turns his enemies to ice - and Uma Thurman's Poison Ivy - an eco-freak femme fatale with a deadly venom kiss - who team up to bring Gotham City to its knees. Arnold's silver-skinned Mr. Freeze makes a wonderful objet d'art, but ""Revenge is a dish best served cold'' is not a line that trips mellifluously off the Big Guy's tongue. Uma is amateurish as the mousy botanist Dr. Pamela Isley, but once she metamorphoses into the vampy Mae West-ian Ms. Ivy, her appeal is self-evident.

As for our heroes, Chris O'Donnell's Robin has become a petulant brat, Alicia Silverstone's Batgirl is a Valley Girl lightweight, and the attempt to wring pathos from Alfred the butler's terminal illness produces not a single genuine emotion. How is Clooney? He's got all the right stuff to be terrific, and nothing to play. Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman has written quips, not characters: in lieu of a part, Clooney just wears a mischievous little smile to go along with his anatomically enhanced rubber suit.

Joel Schumacher still seems miscast as a Bat-action director: he stages the mayhem confusingly and the comedy too broadly. He does, however, have an eye for spectacle: the one aspect of ""Batman'' that remains seductive is designer Barbara Ling's Gotham City. There's a potent, dangerous allure to these looming cityscapes. If only the drama were commensurate to their wonder.