Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Director Report Card: Tim Burton (1992)

5. Batman Returns

The studio system depends on sequel driven, superhero tent pole releases these days. Aside from the moribund “Superman” series, there was no prior example of a long-running superhero franchise in 1992. Even if “Batman” made a shitload of money, there was no guarantee its sequel would. Tim Burton was a proven hit maker by that point but was reluctant to return, citing dissatisfaction with the first film. Warners Brothers enticed the director back by promising him more creative control. With “Batman Returns,” Burton made the world of Gotham totally his own, creating, if not the darkest Batman movie, then certainly the weirdest one.

Set an undetermined amount of time after the first, Gotham continues to be under Batman’s protection. Out of the sewers emerges a new threat, a deformed crime boss known as the Penguin. The disfigured Penguin, in order to advance his own nefarious plans, presents himself as a heroic figure, winning the favor of Gotham’s citizens. Meanwhile, wicked industrialist Max Shreck plans to build a power plant that will drain energy from the city, hoarding it for his own fortune. When his dowdy secretary Selina Kyle finds out, he pushes her out a window, leading to Selina's rebirth as Catwoman. The different plots converge when Shreck decides to back the Penguin as a candidate for mayor. At the same time, Catwoman teams up with the Penguin to take out Batman, the thorn in their mutual sides.

The original “Batman” was a dark film to begin with, filled with shadowy images, intense violence, and dark themes of revenge. “Batman Returns” takes this even further. The movie explores ideas of identity. Both Batman and Catwoman struggle with who there are, battling against their own darker instincts, perhaps finding redemption in their romantic feelings for one another. The movie is also a dark political satire, presenting Gotham as such a fucked-up place that it would be willing to back a deformed, homicidal freak as mayor. Meanwhile, it’s main business magnet, Max Shreck, commits murder with little motivation and plans to steal from the city. "Returns" is about as bleak as superhero movies are allowed to get.

Penguin and Batman are presented as parallel figures. Both were born in luxury. One is an orphan, the other is abandoned by his parents. One keeps his darkness inside while the other is visibly warped. Batman uses his inner darkness to fight for the innocents of the city while Penguin plans to commit mass infanticide, as perceived vengeance against his parents for abandoning him. Such dark elements inform the entire film.

“Batman Returns” is not well regarded among comic enthusiasts for taken wild liberties with the source material. Both the Penguin and Catwoman are radically altered. In the comics, the Penguin is a dapper gentleman thief with a slight bird obsession, operating out of an Arctic themed night club. In the movie, the Penguin is a vulgar, grotesque flipper baby who lives in the sewers and plots to kill babies. Black slime occasionally leaks from his mouth, he chews on raw fish, bites a guy’s nose off, and crudely hits on most of the women around him. He is more Penguin then man. For reasons never explained, beyond Burton liking it, the Penguin hangs around with a circus-themed gang of criminals, a move probably better suited to the Joker. About the only obvious connection this version of the Penguin has with his source character is a shared affinity for umbrellas.

Catwoman is significantly altered too. In the comics, Selina Kyle is a morally ambiguous thief who steals for the excitement, for herself, and occasionally to help other people. Her origins have varied over the years but she usually has a checkered past and is working to move pass it. In the movie, Selina starts out as a dowdy secretary. Nearly being killed pushes her to a mental breakdown. Catwoman is reimagined as a darkly feminist avenger. She takes revenge on Shreck, blowing up his department stores. She protects women on the street from assault yet comes dangerously close to blaming the victim. She’s a psychologically damaged character. Bipolar in her desires, she’s torn between having a happy life with Bruce or taking bloody revenge on Shreck. Burton’s Catwoman is as strong and independent as her comic’s counterpart but is considerably more twisted and complicated.

Fan boys also criticize “Batman Returns” for its more surreal tone. The first “Batman” went out of its way to separate itself from the Adam West TV series. One of the plots of “Returns,” meanwhile, was directly inspired by that series. No matter how weird Gotham is, it’s preposterous to think that this version of the Penguin could ever be a plausible political candidate. When the city turns on him, they pelt him with rotten vegetables, a cliché the character points out. Catwoman looses several of her nine lives in increasingly silly ways. While falling from a roof, she conveniently lands in a truck of kitty litter. Secondly, she’s dropped through a glass greenhouse. Her subsequent screams shatters the glass. Even some of Batman’s lines, like “Eat floor – High in fiber” are incredibly goofy. Not to mention sillier scenes like the Penguin’s kiddy-ride version of the Batmobile or Bruce Wayne “scratching” a CD like it’s a record.

A big problem with the first “Batman” was its muddled screenplay, the writers never giving the Joker a consistent goal. “Batman Returns,” unfortunately, carries on that tradition. The Penguin’s political endeavors dominate most of the movie. Despite trying to win the public’s trust, he continues to carry out villainous acts. After his dreams of being an elected official are crushed by Batman, the Penguin turns towards his plot to murder the first born sons of Gotham. After exactly one attempt to pull this plan off, a plan he’s been plotting the entire movie, the Penguin changes strategy again. He shifts gears and decides to blow up the city with his army of weaponized penguins. The constantly shifting villainous plan makes it seem like the screenwriters never had a clear bead on the character. Even Catwoman’s motivation suffers. Her campaign against Shreck makes sense but there’s never a good reason for her rivalry with Batman. Her partnership with the Penguin is short-lived and not well thought-out. It’s rather naïve on her part to think he wouldn’t murder to further his goals. With all these separate plot lines buzzing around, the movie still has to make time for Max Shreck’s corrupted business schemes. This is mostly forgotten by the half-way point. With such much going on, it’s no wonder the last act feels a little cluttered.

Despite having so many characters and subplots, “Batman Returns” still winds up giving Bruce Wayne more to do then the last film. He spends more time in the Batsuit, fighting more thugs on a one-on-one basis. Michael Keaton and Michelle Pfeiffer have great chemistry together. Their romantic scenes wind up powering large portions of the film. Selina Kyle is a more believable love interest then Vicki Vale, as the two have more in common and more visible passion together. Bruce also has several great scenes with Alfred, the butler given more of a supporting role in his master’s quest against crime. Batman even gets to do some detective work, investigating the Penguin’s past and ultimately bringing the villain down more with his brains then his brawn. (Though I object to the Batmobile’s computer system being so easily hacked.)

Befitting the rules of superhero sequels, “Batman Returns” features more action then its predecessors. How much of that action works is a matter of opinion. Batman’s first encounter with the Red Circus Gang works fantastically. The Batmobile continues to be a dynamic device, as he takes out evil stilt-walkers and motorcycle riders with the car’s gadgets. Batman’s martial art skills are displayed again, as he fights off a gang. However, the suit continues to be stiff, making it difficult to buy him as a kung-fu master. One of the more embarrassing scenes has a circle of thugs standing around while Bruce takes them out with a Batarang. There are still some strong action beats, like Batman escaping Gotham Plaza on a hang-glider. Probably the stand out sequence is a car chase. The Batmobile, taken over by the Penguin, careens through Gotham, overturning cars. The cops chase after him which leads to a fairly dynamic crash, the Batmobile shedding its armor to fit through an impossibly thin alley. Burton’s strengths aren’t in action direction but “Returns” is probably smoother in that regard then the first one.

Despite its many flaws, “Batman Returns” is still a hugely entertaining film. The colorful cast is a huge reason for this. Danny DeVito, Pfeiffer, and Christopher Walken are all perfectly cast and allowed to go nuts. DeVito speaks with a course voice throughout the whole film. This fits the character, who is frequently vulgar. Yet he can still inhabit the character’s speech with sincere pathos. He is frequently hilarious, adding a lot of comedic punch to small lines. Daniel Waters’ sarcastic dialogue is a great fit with DeVito’s ability. Pfeiffer, meanwhile, makes Catwoman totally her own. She plays the pre-accident Selena as a flighty spinster. After her transformation, Pfeiffer has a ball playing up Catwoman’s kinky, bipolar nature. Her performance, eccentric but committed, would widely define the character for a generation or two. Christopher Walken, meanwhile, does his thing, exploiting each line of dialogue for maximum Walken-ness. The actor’s unique delivery not only makes Shreck far more memorable then he would have been otherwise but also makes minor lines of dialogue hilarious and unforgettable.

Burton being given more control over the film not only shows itself in the darker themes or weirder tone. “Batman Returns” drips even more with his trademark visuals. Gotham appears practically apocalyptic here. The buildings, towering and crowded together, recalls “Metropolis” even more then before. We frequently see beautiful matte paintings of the city, looking like the World’s Fair has gone to hell. Every building in the city seems to jut out at an awkward angle. When straight angles come, they are oppressive and blank. The Gothic architecture is given a more exposure, like the weeping statues in Gotham’s main square. The Penguin’s underground lair, set in an abandoned zoo/amusement park, is highly Burton-esque, full of Expressionistic spirals, black-and-white swirls, and off-putting illustrations. As is the villain’s main mode of transport, a giant rubber ducky on wheels. The director continues to frame shots like comic panels. My favorites are a solitary, snow-covered Wayne Manor or Catwoman being carried over the city by Penguin's helicopter-umbrella. To further prove how much of a Tim Burton movie this is, the story is set at Christmas, which is blatantly contrasted against its dark and violent content.

The film’s treatment of its villains also show Burton’s sensibilities. The Penguin is a classic Gothic grotesque. He is unrepentant in his villainy and hideous to look at. However, there’s something sympathetic about him. The character is frequently framed by bars. The bars on his cage as a child become the bars of the sewer. He becomes a monster through the world’s rejection of him. His decision to commit to villainy, to abandon redemption, is mostly treated as a dark joke. However, it speaks to the film’s themes, that there’s no room in the world for true freaks. After he dies, the Penguin is carried to his watery grave by his penguin cohorts. Throughout the whole film, he was searching for acceptance, without realizing he had a family beside him the whole time. He’s a despicable, disgusting character but you ultimately feel bad for the Penguin. Even Batman shares something of a kinship with him, recognizing him as similarly misunderstood. This further connects the film with the themes of classic horror movies. Burton even blatantly acknowledges this, with visual references to “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and “Phantom of the Opera,” not to mention Max Shreck's familiar name.

Matching the film, Danny Elfman’s score is even darker and more brooding then his work on the first. Each of the three central characters is given a reoccurring motif. Batman’s powering, iconic theme from the first film returns, often appearing to pump the audience up before big action scenes. The Penguin’s tragic roots are powered by a forlorn, Gothic organ. Catwoman’s splintered mind is represented by chaotic strings that also bring to minds a cat’s moaning and scratching. Unlike the first film, this one even organically incorporates pop songs into the score. Though Siouxsie and the Banshee’s dark, seductive “Face to Face” is far better fit to the material then Prince.

Is “Batman Returns” an accurate adaptation of its source material? Probably not. Is it the best Batman movie Tim Burton could have made? I’m inclined to think so. Though suffering from many of the same problems the first film faced, it’s a far smoother ride. By entrenching the material so firmly in his own sensibilities, Burton made “Batman Returns” unlike any other superhero film before or after it. It’s fabulous to look at, fantastic to listen too, and frequently great to watch. [Grade: B+]

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