Monday, May 17, 2021

Bat-May: Batman Returns (1992)

I was four years old at the time, but I remember Batman Returns feeling like the most important movie ever made. I had an oversized “making of” book that I read practically to shreds. I studied the biography of Tim Burton, pored over the photographs and teasers for the plot. I could even name for you the producer of the film (Denise Di Novi, a wonderfully Gotham-esque name). I had the toys, the fast food cups. And yet, I have no memory of when I first saw the movie itself. In a way, that’s the best metaphor for a review of Batman Returns – chock-full of unforgettable bits and bobs and yet so unwaveringly strange that the whole gets lost amid the mad sum of its ludic parts.

Batman Returns is the story of three freaks – The Bat (Michael Keaton), The Cat (Michelle Pfeiffer), and The Penguin (Danny DeVito). After the events of the first film, Batman spends his nights waiting for action, silently anticipating the call to fight crime. Amid an invasion of circus clowns, The Penguin arrives from the sewers, pleading with Gotham for an opportunity to learn the truth about why his parents abandoned him. Meanwhile, exhausted secretary Selina Kyle is defenestrated and murdered by her boss (Christopher Walken), only to be reincarnated with nine lives, a feline fixation, and a Shakespearean desire for revenge.


Just like I can’t say when I first saw Batman Returns, I can’t remember how many times I’ve seen it, but on this latest viewing I was largely unprepared for just how weird this movie gets. I have always maintained that the difference between Burton’s two Batman movies is that Batman is a Batman movie directed by Tim Burton, while Batman Returns is a Tim Burton movie (co‑)starring Batman. The difference is so apparent in this one; the Gotham sets are freakishly Burton, all odd angles and grim shadows, and Returns doubles-down on its predecessor’s premise that freaks beget freaks, with a brooding meditation on how these freaks find their place in a hostile society (they retreat, or they rebel).


In short, Batman Returns is so idiosyncratically Burton that it is impossible to imagine a major franchise film – a sequel, no less – surrendering so entirely to its auteur’s vision that the titular hero ends up being subsumed by the villains. (Today, the claim is usually the reverse, that the villains are largely indistinguishable when the movies are governed by the large personalities of franchise heroes. Can you name, for example, the three villains of the Iron Man franchise?) Indeed, Burton is much more fascinated by the monstrous Penguin and the sideways-feminist Catwoman (“I am Catwoman – hear me roar”), with Batman relegated to a largely supporting role in a film that is nominally his. Keaton’s Bruce Wayne is heroic mainly in that he has sublimated his freakish impulses and wears a mask of normalcy, which Penguin is unable to do while Catwoman is entirely unwilling. In a standout sequence, Bruce and Selina attend a masked ball sans disguise, underscoring that their civilian identities are the costumes. (It’s an image that has been appropriated forever since, with a notable reprise in The Dark Knight Rises.) Penguin, meanwhile, crashes the party, as DeVito crashes the film itself, all shouts and gurgles, bile and bodysuits. 


It's clear, however, that Burton’s sympathies lie with the villains. The film begins with the birth of Oswald Cobblepot, ultimately cast into a river for his monstrous appearance; despite the fact that the infant Oswald is clearly dangerous, murdering and devouring the family cat, Burton manages to find pathos in this act of attempted filicide. Likewise, at film’s end, Burton stages Penguin’s final scene as high tragedy, with oversized penguins waddling in what appears to be an impromptu funeral procession. In much the same vein that Batman (1989) belonged to Jack Nicholson’s Joker, Batman Returns is paced as if it’s Selina Kyle’s film. Selina gets a full origin story and ends up in a sort of inverted will-they-won’t-they, akin to Bruce’s arc with Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) from Batman. Again, Burton feels more sympathy for Selina than he does for the curiously submissive Batman, evidenced by an elegiac sequence where Selina relives the trauma of her murder and proceeds to dismantle her entire apartment in a fugue of rage.


Putting it into plain English makes the film sound entirely normal, but I can’t undersell how bonkers this movie gets by adding a number of elements together. And these are all things that happen in the same movie: There’s an extended subplot about Penguin’s borderline-Trumpean bid for mayor, buoyed by Christopher Walken’s industrialist Max Shreck, who wants mayoral regime change to greenlight his construction of a power plant that will instead drain power from Gotham. (Shreck’s son, meanwhile, is played by Andrew Bryniarski, doing a transparently meatheaded Walken impression.) Circus clowns invade the edges of the frame, with Danny Elfman’s score veering carnivalesque at each turn. The whole thing is set at Christmas, casting a Burtonesque pall of sarcastic cheer over the affair. There are actual marching penguins, wearing rocket launchers, plotting to murder the children of Gotham. As delightfully strange as the movie is, one has the acutely nagging question during the whole film, “Warner Brothers was okay with this?!” (Spoilers for next week – they weren’t.)


I mentioned Danny Elfman, and he’s one of the main reasons this film succeeds. A good score can buoy any film, and while his Batman Returns score isn’t as bombastic or iconic as his work on Batman, it works really well by being dialed into exactly the movie Tim Burton wants to make. It’s traditionally superheroic when it needs to be (in those rare moments that Batman is doing hero work), but more often than not it’s playing in a strange realm of uncomfortable tragedy. His descending Penguin theme grows more and more militaristic, balanced as it is by the aforementioned carnival music. His Catwoman theme, on the other hand, plays like a tragic music box, swirling like his Edward Scissorhands work while highlighting the tragedy of Selina’s fall from innocence and her attempts to claw her way back toward peace.


Batman Returns is a film of beauty and of pain, in distinctly Burton ratios, but it is also a film almost as broadly painted as Batman ’66. Walken plays Max Shreck like a boogeyman, right down to the electrified hairdo, while DeVito’s Penguin is a thing of perverse revolting fascination, gruesome and grotesque in equal measure. Burbling black-green bile and groping every woman he finds, it is nearly impossible to find the tragic sympathy Burton feels for this grunting, snarling antagonist, who is handily the most revolting Batman foe ever committed to film. And yet, there is something expertly calibrated about Burton’s Gotham; as exquisitely eccentric as Burton’s vision may be, his Gotham seems very much of a piece with the comic book depiction. Gotham is a city of unending crime and corruption, of perpetual peril. Despite the mayor’s objections, a marauding gang of killer clowns seems to go hand-in-hand with Gotham City as a whole, particularly given the intimation that the clowns constitute a kind of haunting courtesy of Nicholson’s Joker. It’s almost a chicken-and-egg situation, where it’s unclear whether the comics birthed Burton or if Burton’s shadow warped the comics in his wake. (I’ll go out on a limb and venture the latter, though it’s equally Frank Miller’s fault.)


When I drew up the Personal Canon in 2016, there was no question that Batman belonged on it. That movie was nigh elemental in my love of superhero narratives. But Batman Returns was always the weird younger brother, the one who went away to art school and came back a changed man. I was never all the way comfortable with it, but neither could I relinquish it entirely. It’s always had a weird pull, especially as distinct from the twin day-glo Schumacher films; it was, before Christopher Nolan, what Batman movies ought to be.


Batman Returns is rated PG-13 for “brooding, dark violence.” Directed by Tim Burton. Written by Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm. Based on the DC Comics. Starring Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Christopher Walken.

For more Bat-May action, the good folks at Collected Editions posted my review of Batman: The Movies, the comic book adaptation of the Batman Quadrilogy. Give them a click - no one reviews comics like Collected Editions!

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