Warner Bros./Everett Collection
David Hochman
June 20, 1997 AT 04:00 AM EDT

It’s not easy being a superhero.

First, there’s the whole suit-and-cape thing. Traipsing around with 85 pounds of molded rubber glued to your back doesn’t exactly put you in the mood to snuff out the vermin of the universe. Especially when it’s summer. In Los Angeles.

”Early September in a batsuit is a living hell,” says George Clooney, 36, who, in this summer’s Batman & Robin, becomes the latest mortal to don mask, cowl, and pointy ears in the name of defending Gotham. ”You can’t hear, you can barely move, and the heat! It’ll just kill ya. People ask me if I did my own stunts. And I say, ‘Yeah, I got dressed and walked from the trailer to the set.”’

Flying’s nothing to write home about either. ”They’ve always got some new ridiculous harness they’re throwing you into,” says Chris O’Donnell, 27, who’s reprising his beneficent (and benippled) role as the wily, thug-sluggin’ Boy Wonder. ”You come to the set and some stunt guy’s been hanging up on the ceiling for 10 minutes, looking like his head’s about to explode, and they say, ‘Okay, Chris, this is what you’re going to do.’ And I’m like, ‘No, no, no, no!”’

But all that stuff’s guano compared with the challenges facing Batman the character, Batman the franchise, and Batman — dare we say? — the American Institution. As the estimated $100 million fourth installment of the series approaches, the movie franchise is ending its first decade, the character is nearing its 60th anniversary, and people are wondering if there are any more surprises left under Batman’s billion-dollar cape.

In Hollywood’s first revival of Batman eight years ago, everything was a surprise. Tim Burton’s kooky gothic fantasy of a Joker-plagued Gotham — featuring Jack Nicholson on a really bad hair day — made the Dark Knight shine again, to the tune of — Pow! — $251 million in U.S. grosses. Batman Returns (1992) wasn’t exactly Battleship Potemkin, but at least it had Michelle Pfeiffer in a rubber catsuit — a detail that undoubtedly helped the tally to a respectable $163 million (Zap!). Batman Forever (1995) showcased new director Joel Schumacher as well as a new man under the mask (scowling Val Kilmer) and, more important, ascendant star Jim Carrey. The take: $184 million (Bang!).

This time around, however, even Clooney admits he’s not exactly reinventing the Batarang. ”Michael Keaton originated the character,” he says. ”Then Val stepped in to save it. I just hope I’m not the guy they say screwed up the whole business.”

Call it the Friday the 13th principle: For some reason, even the most well-intentioned sequels tend to peter out after three. Remember Rocky IV? (No? Two words: Dolph Lundgren.)What about Death Wish V? Is it surprising that Warner Bros. has tried for five years to launch a fourth go-round of Lethal Weapon without success? Unless you’ve got a Bond or a Star Trek series, it’s three times out before self-parody sets in. (Perhaps that’s why Fox has nixed the 4 in the title of this fall’s Alien Resurrection.) ”There comes a point with most sequels,” says producer David Brown, ”where it becomes about milking and milking something until it ceases to be worth it.”

Which brings us back to grown men running around in high boots and oversize codpieces. Even before Batman & Robin takes over every octoplex on earth, the script for a fifth Batman, said to be titled Batman Triumphant and set to open sometime around the new millennium, is in the works. But will it — or, more to the point, should it — ever see the light of day?

“I actually think Batman & Robin may be the last of the Batmans,” says a rival studio exec, requesting anonymity. “I don’t know that there’s a way to make these movies fresh anymore aside from bringing on new famous-faced villains, and even there they seem to have gone as far as they can go.”

The most threatening villain, though, may actually be another DC Comics superhero: Superman. Warner Bros. is readying a Man of Steel flick for next summer (Tim Burton, who relaunched Batman, will direct Nicolas Cage as Superman and, rumor has it, Jim Carrey as Brainiac). Some think it may be the studio’s acknowledgment that for the first time, they’re worried that Batman is running out of gas.

Adding heat to that speculation is buzz that producer Jon Peters is interested in plopping a torch-passing Batman cameo appearance — possibly with Michael Keaton — into the Superman movie. (Peters’ office declined comment.)

Meanwhile, Warner Bros. is practically turning its Batman tie-ins into a congested knot. In the largest-ever assemblage of promotional partners, the studio has okayed everything from Brach’s Poison Ivy gummy candies and Batman Pop Tarts to MCI Pre-Paid Batcards and specially embossed “Bat signal” Eggos. Considering the Bat-barrage, the sight of a new Batmobile should soon pack about as much surprise value as the sight of, say, a ’93 Ford Taurus.

“I worry about too much Batman,” says comic-book editor Dennis O’Neil, who oversees the care and feeding of Batman for DC Comics. “I think there will come a saturation point, and we who are in charge of the character have a responsibility to not overdo something that’s been going strong for 60 years.”

Joel Schumacher knows that the end is near. He’s putting the finishing touches on Batman & Robin. On a soundstage in Culver City, an orchestra serves up crescendo after delicious crescendo in time to the dizzying action on the screen overhead. It’s an important scene: The villainous Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman) has just helped the even-more-villainous Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) escape from jail, and now he’s come back to his hideout in the Snowy Cones Ice Cream Factory.

Elliot Goldenthal’s music is positively apocalyptic, and Schumacher, days away from wrapping up his “living comic book,” can’t stop smiling. “There’s a pagan madness to Batman,” he says, backed by blaring trumpets. “This is the icing on the cake.”

And what a cake. Batman & Robin filled five soundstages with some of the most grandiose sets ever constructed — a 300-foot bridge, a new 29-foot Batmobile (the “wings” on the custom-made jobber blew off during its first 180-mile-per-hour test drive), and a monumental museum complete with an entire “lost world” of ruins, relics, and dinosaur bones. “It was like the most amazing jungle gym in the world,” O’Donnell says. “It was really cool.”

Cool doesn’t begin to describe it. Because Mr. Freeze turns into a Slushie in warm temperatures, the nearly 1,000-member crew had to create the frostiest-looking landscape this side of Reykjavik. Explains production designer Barbara Ling, “We had jagged ice, hanging ice, popping-up ice, dropping ice, dripping-off-your-nose ice, even ice with laser beams inside” — all constructed out of Mylar, plastics, polymers, and tinfoil. And let’s not even talk about Arnold’s costume: a hulking 65-pound piece of metal armature, lit up by 2,800 tiny blue LED lights and sporting a battery pack the size of Poughkeepsie. “I’d look at Arnold,” says Thurman, “and think, ‘I’m not looking at a human. He’s some sort of wrathful Norse god.'”

Clooney, meanwhile, roamed much closer to the firmament. When he tore a ligament during a basketball game on the set of ER (he’d sometimes arrive at the Batman set at 6 a.m. after working until 1:30 on the series), the costume designers cut leg holes in his batsuit to allow room for his cast. “I’d hobble over to the set with a cane,” Clooney says, “they’d say ‘Action!’ and I’d have to walk normally across the Batcave where another cane was waiting for me. Not exactly the stuff of superheroes.”

Still, the suit snafus didn’t make the objets de bat any less appealing. “I wanted to pocket every last gadget,” Clooney says. “If I could get my hands on a Batarang…but they take those suckers away from you the minute after your shot’s done.”

In terms of story, it’s pretty much the same Bat Place, same Bat Time. In short: Everybody wants to kill Batman. That said, there are some brand-new heavies, a redecorated Batcave, plenty of new bat shtick, and a lot more babes: Elle Macpherson, Vivica A. Fox, Vendela, Uma, and, as Batgirl, Alicia Silverstone. “It’s weird having a girl in the Batcave,” says O’Donnell. “My God, people are going to start thinking Batman and Robin are heterosexual.”

Many are the ways to forecast a box office smash. “They’re stealing our posters at twice the rate of Batman Forever,” Schumacher says. “They’ve just stopped locking the bus shelters because people smashed them so much.” Ah, success. Log on to the Internet and it will take you all afternoon to check out the dozens of Batman websites. Although the comics have been in a slump — and, in fact, are currently being outmuscled by Superman titles — there’s still widespread interest in vintage Bat-iana. The Batmobile from Tim Burton’s original fetched $189,000 at auction last year. “There’s all this energy around Batman that none of us have anything to do with,” Schumacher says.

But will the energy translate into a demand for more sequels? “The equation is pretty simple,” says a top Warner Bros. exec. “If people keep coming, we’ll keep making Batman movies.”

That might get tougher and tougher, even in terms of finding suitable Bat foes. The list of potential bad guys is getting down to the Gotham City equivalent of Speaker of the House: Croc, Ventriloquist, and Clayface, to name a few pathetic remainders. “There are only about six or seven Batman villains we consider to be very good bad guys, and many of them have been used already,” says DC’s O’Neil. “Some of the second-string archetypes are so lame it would be a real challenge to do anything with them.”

Scarecrow (a really skinny guy who scares people to death) and Harley Quinn (a sexy cardplaying hussy) have been put on the shortlist for Batman Triumphant. Howard Stern made a fuss not long ago about wanting to play Scarecrow (“It’s not gonna happen,” Schumacher insists), and Jenny McCarthy is said to be in the running to play the seductive Quinn. Add to that a tantalizing tease from Schumacher: “You never know,” the director says, “who might just come back.” Does that mean a fifth Batman movie could lure the likes of Nicholson, Pfeiffer, or Carrey out of Arkham Asylum? “You never know,” he says. “You never know.”

As for Schumacher himself, he says “the audience will let us know whether to make another one,” but he’s more than willing to do a fifth, though it would be his last, and he doesn’t want to wait too long to go back to Gotham. “If I get any older,” says the 57-year-old director, “the next one will be set at the Shalom Retirement Home.”

O’Donnell says he’d suit up again “in a second” if Schumacher asked. Silverstone says she’s game. Clooney, whose reported three-picture, $28 million Warner deal leaves room for another caped crusade that could start in fall ’98, would “love the opportunity,” he says. “If I come back, it means the franchise didn’t fail and I didn’t screw up.” After suffering through this batsuit ordeal, though, he has one request. A small one.

“In Batman 5,” Clooney says, “I’m wearing nothing but a thong!”

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