Awards Circuit Presents: 30 Days of Batman
It’s sort of hard to imagine now, what with The Avengers having demolished seemingly every box office record in existence, but prior to the New Millennium, comic book superhero movies were not the ubiquitous Hollywood staples that they have become today. In fact, prior to Bryan Singer’s X-Men kicking off the entire craze and even for a few years after, studio honchos were rather unsure of how to go about bringing even the most iconic superheroes to the big screen. Of course times are much different now; especially since 2008, when the two watershed films Iron Man and The Dark Knight became the go-to templates for seemingly the entire genre (“dark and aggressive” or “humorous popcorn romp”). While I very much enjoyed both of those films, I now have to concede that they were the ones that really snowballed the superhero genre into their current state of artistic predictability that make me sick of the whole thing now.
This brings me to Batman Returns, the sequel to the 1989 cultural phenomenon Batman that Tim Burton only agreed to direct on the condition of full creative control. Such a grant from Warner Bros. is frankly impossible to imagine now, even to a superstar like Christopher Nolan, but this was a time before “fanbases” and “the established mythos” were given much weight by, well, anyone. The result of a highly unique (at the time) auteur allowed to do his own thing to a major property that he frankly was never that invested in is one of the most fascinating failures ever marketed as a summer tentpole; a movie equal parts perplexing, deeply flawed, funny, disturbing, and for better or worse, completely unique. The negative fan reaction to such in-your-face weirdness comes as no surprise in retrospect, and of course the backlash to such a depressing and macabre follow-up to one of the most successful films of the eighties would later lead to the neon camp of Joel Schumacher, resulting in Batman Returns garnering a passionate cult following over time. But does twenty years after its polarizing release and a more objective evaluation reveal it as a better Batman film than the public originally gave it credit for, or, more importantly, does time reveal it as a good film in general?
After personally seeing it again for the first time in over ten years, I can definitively say, “Well, sort of…” One thing I can assert without hesitation is that absolutely no one improved its legacy better than Mr. Schumacher, who proved with his disappointing Batman Forever and train wreck Batman & Robin (stay tuned later this week for reviews of those two from Mark and Terence, respectively) that Burton’s vision for the series, however misguided, was at least bold and original. But as much as I’d like to champion it as some kind of misunderstood masterpiece, the same problems that plagued Batman Returns in 1992 remain the same problems that hold it back from greatness today.
Picking up where its predecessor left off, Bruce Wa-no, actually we go back thirty-three years to the Cobblepot family deciding to throw their deformed son into the sewers than have to raise what is by all impressions a horrible little monster. We then flash forward to see Batm-no, wait, now we’re introduced to Christopher Walken as Max Schreck (in a nod to Nosferatu so obvious I’m pretty sure I’m wasting space just bringing it up), a wicked business tycoon planning to build a shady power plant that actually saps and stores energy from Gotham City. The mayor won’t back him, though, so he plans to overthrow him with a grown-up, sewer-dwelling Oswald Cobblepot/Penguin who rises in popularity after something something forgives his parents. Meanwhile, meek secretary Selina Kyle discovers Schreck’s dastardly plot and is thrown out of a window before being resurrected by…cat licks, and is reborn as the vengeful Catwoman. And somewhere along the way Batman swoops in the stop them.
Trust me, this is about as coherent a plot synopsis as I could muster. The overall story of Batman Returns is, to put it kindly, disorganized. This is odd, because the individual beats of the narrative are much stronger and indicate a clear guiding hand when separated from how they all come together (the short-lived team-up of Catwoman and Penguin especially comes off as forced). Even more bothersome – and this is a rare case where I will side with the fanboys – is that the titular character isn’t in the film that much. It takes a full fifteen minutes before we even see Batman, and while I have never timed it I wouldn’t be surprised if he shared less screen time than the film’s villains. Artistic license or no, it doesn’t make much sense to put “Batman” in the title of your movie and not show a lot of interest in him. Returns, as it turns out, became the first example of a cardinal sin of superhero movies that sink many of them to this day: too many damn villains. Stuffing a movie with so many characters means that a) at least one of them is bound to get short-changed, and b) the plot(s) is often a loose scattershot (see also: Batman Forever, Spider-Man 3, X-Men: The Last Stand, etc.). The low point of such disjointed storytelling is its climax, which abruptly shifts from a deeply unpleasant plot of Penguin trying to kidnap and murder young children to amassing an army of rocket-equipped penguins to wipe out the city. Huh? Was this really the best climax that screenwriter Daniel Waters could think of? Even one of Penguin’s own henchmen brings up how…icky the whole thing comes off as.
This is a shame, because taken separately the Penguin’s silly/macabre satire of urban society and the doomed romance between anti-heroes Batman and Catwoman both have their merits…if admittedly one ends up much stronger than the other. I will definitely not argue that a man with flippers being raised by actual penguins in the sewers and then effortlessly running for mayor of a major metropolitan city has even the slightest bit of plausibility. I would, however, argue that straight “realism” was never the aim of the film. At the height of his powers, Tim Burton was always best at contorting and twisting the familiar into a bizzaro gothic reality that made true observations on a different level, particularly about the misfits of the world. On the one hand, you have Penguin as boisterous politician able to sway the public with soaring speeches that don’t actually say anything of value, but beneath the flashy exterior is a grotesque monster easily manipulated by the rich and powerful (pretty ruthless satire of politicians even today…though really, is it that far off?). On the opposite end is Bruce Wayne, a reclusive billionaire falling deeper into the Batman psyche that his “real” personality starts blurring between the two.
And then there’s Catwoman. I must admit, if I’m being somewhat kind to this film relative to others with comparable flaws, this character and the actress portraying her may be instilling a slight bias in me. For I absolutely adore Catwoman in Batman Returns, and until Heath Ledger came along I would assert without hesitation that Michelle Pfeiffer gave the best performance of a Batman character in any film. Forget for a second her silly “resurrection” scene (not strict realism, remember?), her transformation from the mousy and pathetic Selina Kyle into a weapon of feminist rage at the patriarchal world that oppressed her alter ego is not only the most effective expression of Burton’s themes of moral ambiguity in his two Batman films, but is brought to mesmerizing life by Pfeiffer. As Selina she is heartbreaking, trying so hard to find hope in a new life with Bruce even as she visibly cracks psychologically. As Catwoman, she slinks and leaps effortlessly while delivering some of Waters’ funniest lines as if she’s sampling fine wine. It is a superb mixture of camp, dementedness and pathos that is one of the actress’s career-bests. Batman Returns has many shortcomings, but it positively soars whenever she is on screen.
But there are other things to admire in Batman Returns, most notably its impressive visual landscape, rich in German Expressionism and Gothic architecture. If not quite the equal of Anton Furst’s epic design in the previous installment, Bo Welch’s truly nightmarish re-rendering of Gotham City hews more to the vision of its director during arguably the most artistically fruitful period of his career. The worthless Vicki Vale is nowhere to be found here. The exploration of duality and hiding one’s true self from a despairing, ugly world – so muddled in Batman – is fleshed out to much greater effect here. In fact, nearly every idea in Batman Returns is taken from Batman and expanded upon to create the most cerebral Batman film of the Burton/Schumacher era.
This all comes back to the film being more “Burtonesque” than the previous film, both in visual shaping and thematic content, and in the nineties this was not a description that invited mockery or weariness, but curiosity. While perhaps a terrible Batman film (as far as faithfully representing the spirit of the character), it is certainly a great Tim Burton film, and there is something to be said for the kind of studio tentpole that is so unmistakably the product of an idiosyncratic directorial hand…even if it fails to stick the landing. I had the same reaction to Ang Lee’s Hulk, a mess of execution filled with interesting ideas from a great filmmaker that just didn’t “get” comics or even the characters they were tasked with bringing film. While I never really liked any of the Burton/Schumacher adaptations of the caped crusader, I admire Batman Returns the most because it’s the kind of failure borne out of vision, originality and risk that we desperately need more of in superhero films these days.
Tags: Batman Returns, Christopher Walken, comics and superheroes, Danny DeVito, Historical Circuit, Michael Keaton, Michelle Pfeiffer, sequel, Tim Burton