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Non-Review Review: Batman Returns

I adore Batman Returns. It tends to be a rather polarising film, and certainly a polarising Batman adaptation. It was famously too dark and too weird for mainstream audiences, with too much creepy and freaky stuff serving to distress the parents of children who gobbled up Batman-themed Happy Meals. I think it holds up the best of the four Burton and Schumacher Batman films, because it finds a way to balance Burton’s unique approach and style with that of the Caped Crusader. While Burton’s Batman occasionally struggled to balance the director’s vision with a relatively conventional plot (to the point where Vicki Vale stuck out like a sore thumb, and the movie wasn’t the most coherently plotted of films), here there’s a much greater sense of balance at play, and a feeling that Burton isn’t compromising, and yet is working with the characters.

Shine a light…

Like most Burton films, Batman Returns is about a bunch of freaks trying to make sense of the world. None of the primary characters – Batman, Selina, the Penguin or Shreck – are anything resembling normal people, and all are trying to make the world around them make sense. It’s a perspective that is not too different from any other film in the Burton canon, so much so that Batman Returns sits comfortably as part of the director’s “Christmas Outsiders” trilogy. The themes aren’t too different. Bruce Wayne and the Penguin feel like they would fit comfortably alongside Edward Scissorhands or Willy Wonka or Ed Wood.

And at the same time, however, the film is very clearly a Batman story. There’s the preoccupation with childhood, as both Bruce and the Penguin deal with their parental abandonment. There’s a healthy dose of duality. Selina Kyle obviously mirrors Bruce Wayne, but it’s fascinating that it takes a combination of Max Shreck and the Penguin to mirror the Batman and Bruce Wayne dichotomy. There’s a sense of tragedy to everything, a grotesque and surreal sense that nobody is going to get what they want out of all this. More than that, Keaton is given a bit more room here to develop his version of Bruce Wayne. He no longer has to awkwardly flirt with a conventional female lead, and instead is given room in which to work.

Hello, Kitty…

Keaton’s Wayne is extremely odd. He’s also extremely introverted. The first shot of Bruce here is waiting in a chair for the Bat-signal to light up, so that he can put on his real face and go out and play. We don’t get Bruce sleeping upside down here, but we get a bit more of a sense of the person beneath the mask. In particular, Bruce seems remarkably childish here, almost innocent. Christian Bale’s version of the character is a man who never allowed himself the luxury of a childhood, but it seems like Keaton is a character who never grew out of it.

Witness the glee with which he sabotages the Penguin’s mayoral bid. He doesn’t just play back the incriminating audio, he remixes it. He bickers with Alfred about letting Vicki Vale into the batcave, despite the fact that was years ago. He overreacts to vichyssoise, evidently completely aware of how the meal is supposed to be prepared. (“It’s cold!” he declares, rather emphatically spitting it out.) There’s a sense that the Joker was correct in the last film when he referred to Batman’s “toys”, because that’s pretty much what they seem to be – gadgets and gizmos to keep him occupied, rather than weapons in a war on crime.

Of men and monsters…

The other main characters are also defined as children. Selina’s apartment is stereotypically girlish, but looks like it was designed by a teenager. There’s neon lettering, stuffed teddies and even a doll’s house all on display. While we hear a message from her ex-boyfriend, it’s clear that the one dominant force in Selina’s life is her mother. (Interesting because her parents – or at least one of them – is still alive, in contrast to the other two of the three comic book characters.)

The Penguin is literally a big baby. His longjohns seem designed to remind viewers of a baby’s outfit. He drives around in a vehicle modelled after the one childish item his parents dangled off the cage that served as a crib. Like Batman, he’s defined by his relationship towards his parents. Batman lost his parents to a random mugging. The Penguin was abandoned by his parents for being a freak. The movie at least implies that Oswald knew that his parents were dead before he made an appearance, perhaps even hinting that he killed them. Trying to articulate his concerns to Alfred, Bruce states, “I think he knows who his parents are. There’s something else.”

It’s a case of the Cobblepot calling the kettle black…

Bruce’s first action in Tim Burton’s Batman was to avenge a mugging that almost left another boy without his parents, as if to explain that Bruce channels his urges into fighting crime so that others may avoid his misfortune. The Penguin works as a direct mirror to Bruce. Instead of channelling his anger and frustration into something good, Oswald is shown to resent and despise children who grew up happier than he did. His plan to take revenge on Gotham first revolves around murdering all the first-born children. Even when the plan changes, he still refers to the citizens of the city as children he wishes to murder. Before the film even starts, it’s implied that the Penguin is a multiple child murderer, with “numerous reports of missing children in several towns” where the Circus had been.

At one point, Oswald claims that a penguin is “a bird that cannot fly.” The Penguin is, in effect, a deeply broken version of Batman. He comes from an aristocratic family, like Bruce Wayne’s. We see the Cobblepot Mansion in the opening scene, and it looks just a bit like Wayne Manor. “If his parents hadn’t eighty-sixed him, you two might’ve been bunkies at prep school!” Shreck remarks, and he doesn’t seem too far wrong. Indeed, when the Penguin first appears, Bruce seems to have genuine empathy for “a child who was born a little… different.” Bruce might not be physically deformed, but he is different. Bruce is stunned to silence watching the story of another lost little freak, only brought back to reality by Alfred, as he sincerely states, “His parents … I … I hope he finds them.”

People in glass houses…

I actually really adore this version of the Penguin. I think it’s my favourite version of the character. part of that is due to the fantastic performance from Danny DeVito, but it’s also because the movie finds a way to use the character that effectively mirrors him to Batman. The character has a bird theme, and most version write him as an aristocrat, but that’s about as deep as the broad comparisons go. (In fact, Alfred teases, “Must you be the only lonely “man-beast” in town?”) Burton’s Penguin is a more direct counterpart to Burton’s Batman, a warped and damaged individual.

I have to admit, I’ve always found the argument that the film is too dark to be quite interesting. I think that the movie actually has a very macabre camp to it, a distinctly grotesque theatricality that prevents the darkness from overwhelming everything. These are deeply broken people, and horrible things do happen to them and to others, but that’s off-set by a distinctly surreal campness that arguably rivals anything in the Adam West series or the Schumacher films.

The life aquatic…

The Penguin dresses like a giant baby, and drives a giant rubber duck. The climax features mind-controlled penguins with rockets strapped to their back, somehow controlled by a circus hiding in a run-down zoo. The Penguin doesn’t just hijack the Batmobile, he build a “bat-o-ride” in his campaign headquarters. The villain even gets a strangely moving yet ridiculous funeral procession. Not to mention the fact that his squawk-ish laugh can be heard and his obsession with trick umbrellas has survived from the comics and television show.

The Penguin is basically just a rampaging id. It’s telling that his motivations are relatively simple, despite the complexity of his schemes. He wants to live on the surface. It isn’t his idea to run for mayor, he has to be manipulated. And he is manipulated by the basest of things. Shreck promises him “unlimited poon-tang” and the Penguin spends his time sleazing over every available female. Even when Catwoman manages to get the two working together, the Penguin’s base desires ruin it. “Let’s consummate our fiendish union,” he insists. His psychotic response to her rejection is like a baby throwing a tantrum because he can’t have that toy he wants.

Birds of a feather…

In many respects, the Penguin mirrors the idea of Batman without Bruce. Batman appears to be a creature driven by base desires. He’s pretty brutal here, burning a flamethrower alive because he can, and grinning to himself as he blows up a circus strongman. Batman is strong, stoic and mostly silent – he’s an excuse for Bruce to let out those things inside that he wouldn’t otherwise. It’s telling that – during the film’s climax – Bruce tears off his mask to appeal to Selina. He effectively lets Bruce out. There’s a sense that Bruce hampers Batman, or at least grounds him. It’s not an element unique to this interpretation. In fact, Grant Morrison’s extended Batman run seems focused on the idea that “Batman without Bruce Wayne is a bad idea.”

In order to be a truly credible threat, the Penguin has to be paired with Shreck. Shreck is easily ignored because he doesn’t wear a silly costume and he’s a new character, but I find him fascinating. Effectively, Shreck brings to the Penguin what Bruce brings to Batman. He’s a logical and reasoning impulse controlling a character who is essentially pure id. Burton’s films treat Bruce as a mask Batman wears, but it’s a mask that keeps Batman in check, and anchors him in society. A little bit of Batman might be the healthiest form of self-expression that Bruce can muster, so deeply damaged is the character, but he must be balanced. Bruce can’t ever go all the way. Bruce doesn’t do much here – his only plot-relevent function is to meet with Shreck – but, like in Batman, Bruce is shown to have some tiny role to play in Gotham. In the last film, it was a fundraising casino night. This time it’s standing up to Shreck.

The cat who got the canary…

Shreck is effectively the brains of the operation. Shreck suggests that Cobblepot runs for mayor. Shreck shrewdly manipulate public opinion and gives the Penguin the idea to save the mayor’s child. Like Bruce, Shreck is something of a mask for something more primal, even if it doesn’t have as concrete a form as Batman or the Penguin. As the Penguin observes, Max is merely “a well-respected monster.” Later on, after he’s finished using Cobblepot, Shreck gives us the slightest hint of his true character as he boasts to Bruce, “I am the light of this city. And I am its mean, twisted soul. Does it really matter who’s the “mayor”?”

If the Penguin is Batman at his worst, a rampaging primordial stew of childish emotions, Max is a cynical counterpart to Bruce. Max is a man who has leveraged his wealth and influence to reshape Gotham, much like Bruce has. While Bruce uses it to make Gotham a better place (while indulging his own nocturnal activities), Shreck is – like his namesake – a vampire. It’s easy to read Batman as class warfare. After all, he’s a rich person who beats up the poor, the disenfranchised and the mentally unstable. However, Shreck is that commentary pushed well past that. You could argue that Bruce treats Gotham as his personal playground, disregarding law and order for his own ends, but Max really and truly does.

Stepping up to Bat…

That said, I love Shreck as a character, because he’s one of those rare characters in these films who doesn’t come from the source material, but fits in effortlessly. I like the idea that Shreck is very much the antithesis of Bruce Wayne. While Bruce comes from old money, it’s repeatedly implied that Shreck earned his fortune. He boasts of being just “a poor schmoe who got lucky”, resenting those who came into fortunes through inheritance. There’s contempt as he suggests that “blue bloods tire easy.”

When Bruce questions Cobblepot’s integrity, Shreck is all over him, “Shows what you know, Mr. to-the-manor-born-with-a-silver-spoon. Oswald is Gotham’s new golden boy.” The implication is clear, Shreck is more in touch with the common man than Bruce could ever hope to be. “Let me guess,” he greets Bruce at his fancy dress ball. “Trust-fund goody-goody?” Walken is fantastic in the role, and I think that Shreck is often unfairly ignored with DeVito and Pfeiffer stealing the show.

Having a Shreck of a time…

In fact, one of my favourite moments in the film is even funnier in retrospect, as Shreck manages to reference another grumpy crazy-haired billionaire years before he’d use the iconic phrase. Apparently, despite being one of the most powerful men in Gotham, Shreck is not to quick on the uptake. As Batman and Catwoman unmask, he interrupts, “Selina Kyle! You’re fired! And Bruce Wayne? Why are you dressed like Batman?” Shreck’s one of the characters from Batman spin-off media I actually wouldn’t mind seeing appearing in the comics.

And then there’s Catwoman. Michelle Pfeiffer is impressive in the role. Like Batman, she’s a character who feels threatened by conformity. She’s just as ‘different’ as he is. While Batman is responding to the loss of his parents, Selina is rebelling against a culture that insists on defining the roles that women can and can’t play. Advertising agencies tell her she has to be a male fantasy figure. Her mother tells her to come home and give up the idea of living independently. Her boyfriend doesn’t want to be “an appendage” to Selina – presumably he’d be okay the other way around. (Here she’s a victim of her own success, which seems to be frowned upon for women. “I should have let him win that last racquet-ball game,”she sighs.)

A Cat Burglar…

The male characters consistently refer to her dismissively as a “secretary” rather than her official title, “executive assistant.” During his campaign for mayor, the Penguin asserts that “Gotham City was ravaged by a disease that turned eagle-scouts into crazed clowns and happy homemakers into catwomen!” He doesn’t know anything about Selina, but he feels comfortable enough to make that assumption about her. There’s a complete and conspicuous absence of any strong female characters in the film, to the point where Max even dismissively references his deceased wife.

That, of course, is the point – Gotham City is run by a bunch of men who dismiss and demean the women around them to reinforce their own social standing. (Nobody ever seems to call the Penguin on his blatant misogyny, for example, even while running for mayor.) It’s hardly the most nuanced portrayal, but Burton’s films are never truly ‘real.’ They exist in a sort of heightened reality. After all, this is a world where dressing up as a giant bat is seen as a logical and reasonable thing to do. Selina’s transformation into Catwoman seems just as logical.

It’s a familiar dance…

(That said, I was never sure how exactly that worked. Magic cats brought her back to life or something? It never really made a lot of sense, and I’m pretty forgiving of wacky and contrived plotting. It’s the one sequence of the film I can’t really wrap my head around, but the rest of that sequence, set to Danny Elfman’s haunting music, is powerful enough that I don’t mind glossing over it. That and the whole “nine lives” schtick.)

Pfeiffer has much better chemistry with Keaton, and the pair work much better together than Keaton and Bassinger ever did. (To the point where the movie quite pointedly references how efficiently they dropped the character.) Keaton and Pfeiffer are both playing fundamentally broken people and there’s a wonderfully weird co-dependency and dysfunction at play between the two. They are awkward and stilted with one another, but it still somehow feels strangely comfortable. It’s a very weird dynamic, and the pair play perfectly off one another. That scene at the ball, as they dance, works wonderfully, as does their interaction at the film’s climax – so effectively it manages to anchor a climax involving rocket-carrying penguins.

An hair to a fortune…

The production is, as ever, fantastic. Burton feels a little more comfortable here than he did with Batman. Danny Elfman’s score is even stronger this time around, incorporating wonderfully appropriate musical cues for each of the three leads, and blending them seamlessly. Anton Furst’s design of Gotham remains beautiful and striking, suggesting a weird alternate 1930s were fascism seems to have taken root in America. It feels, as ever, strangely appropriate to both Batman and Burton.

I love Batman Returns. I know it’s not quite perfect. As usual, Burton’s work is stronger with themes and character than plot, but that feels okay here. The Batmobile chase sequence feels a little contrived and forced, but it’s one short action beat. After all, any movie that can turn an army of penguins into a credible threat must be good. I think that Batman Returns is the logical peak for this sort of neo-gothic take on the character, and I think it perfectly encapsulates why Burton worked so well on the character – playing to the Burton-esque qualities of Batman almost perfectly.

3 Responses

  1. I’m always surprised people hate this film yet like Batman Forever.

    • I can;’t account for that. Not least because I think Batman Forever is worse than Batman and Robin. Not that either film is good.

      • I think the reason I hate Batman Forever is because it tries to examine Batman’s psychology and fails while Batman and Robin doesn’t even bother so it gets a pass in that regards.

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