As with its prequel, I have a long history with Batman Returns. It was Friday, June 19, and my cousins and I were suffering through the annual summer visit to the grandparent’s house…in Alabama. My southeastern U.S. readers know what that means. Everyone else: imagine being trapped inside a fat man’s wet towel. Now imagine that fat man is obsessed with wearing pine-scented cologne and rolling around in fire ants. Welcome to Alabama in the summer time.
I saw a lot of movies during those summer vacations. Batman Returns was everything a nine-year-old could want and more. It terrified our grandparents for the same reason it entranced we children of Batman. The two villains on the poster tell you everything you need to know. Batman Returns was a doubling-down for everyone, from the top brass at Warner Brothers to the runner who spiked Tim Burton’s coffee with acid every morning. The marketing for this film promised twice the everything. More action. More Gotham. More goddamn Batman.
Instead, everyone involved gave us a film so purposefully off-putting that Batman Returns has actually lost a lot of cultural cache over the years. The first film practically begged you to like it – Look! it said to mainstream America, We cast Jack Torrence and Mr. Mom! You can all come to see our comic book movie, honest! It won’t embarrass you. We promise.
Famous last words. Batman Returns is exactly the opposite and it committed a fatal sin by embarrassing our parental units with creepy sexuality and a thoughtful brand of gross-out humor unrecognizable to the Jackass-stroking idiots of today. So screw them. What did we see on that fateful, June day? And how does it look now?
We open at stately Cobblepot Manor, where Mr. and Mrs. Cobblepot are shocked and horrified by the appearance of their new son…and his habit of eating cats. Deciding to completely alienate themselves from the audience, they toss the baby into a sewer, setting up our credits.
Apparently, Warner Brothers came to Burton with one only decree: the Penguin, supposedly being Batman’s second-favorite antagonist, had to appear in any Batman sequel. So writer Daniel (Heathers) Walters penned a story about Penguin running for mayor in homage to a two-parter from the old Batman TV show. As we now know, nothing good ever came of aping Adam West’s Batman. Even that one porno was just…ewww…
Speaking of ewww, Penguin grows to manhood in the sewers. Thirty-three years later, it’s Christmas time in Gotham City, and billionaire industrialist Bruce Wayne is…wait, no. I’m sorry. He’s off moping in his castle. But billionaire industrialist Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) is hard at work trying to convince Gotham’s Mayor (Michael Murphy) to ease Shreck’s new power plant through development. The Mayor balks at this, claiming Gotham’s running a surplus. Shreck’s
secretary assistant, Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer), asks a question so she can be shot down because the film needs her to (in Walter’s words) begin as a “beaten down secretary.”
Outside, Max threatens The Mayor with a recall, even as the two preside over Gotham Plaza’s annual Christmas Tree lighting ceremony. A gang of circus freaks interrupt the show and they’re a much livelier bunch than the Joker’s goons. I particularly love the organ grinder with the Gatling-Gun-in-a-Box (Vincent Schiavelli).
Commissioner Gordon (still Pat Hingle) fires of the Bat-signal and we cut to the Netherrealm, where Bruce Wayne sits in a chair…alone…brooding. I’ll go ahead and assume Alfred’s off somewhere trying to keep Wayne Manor from falling down around their ears, but where the hell’s Vicki? I know I bitched about her being a totally unnecessary non-character, but continuity’s nice, you know?
Off to the fight scene. In a telling bit of business, the thugs Gordon calls “the Circus Gang” (he may not have a S.W.A.T. team but he’s got a way with words, this one) ignore the Mayor in order to go after Shreck. This only makes sense in a satirical way, because the Penguin’s arc is a social satire, befitting its origins in a satirical TV series that was as thematically far from this film as I am from “Common Sense” Media.
Here’s the punchline: Tim Burton can’t do political satire. His has always been a more cultural brand, poking fun at the broad, unquestioned notions that rule our society. Like beauty, vanity, and the false perceptions we have of what either truly mean. Batman said it best in the last film, “It’s not a normal world, is it?” No, sir…unless the abnormality becomes the new normal through sheer ubiquitous repetition. How do you think the U.S. gets away with running all those “secret” torture prisons?
One could take a story like this down political avenues…if they were smart about it. Burton and Walters, on the other hand, decided to go the dumb route. So, after kidnapping Max, the Penguin blackmails him into staging “a little welcoming ceremony.” Penguin wants out of the sewer, to stop being an urban myth and start being a person. He makes an impassioned speech about finding the keys to his long-lost humanity but Max (smart man) is unmoved. This is a sign of Oswald’s true intentions, because one can always trust Evil Capitalists to be honest judges of character.
And Max is nothing if not a Token Evil Capitalist, inserted because Daniel Walters felt it important “to show that the true villains of our world don’t necessarily wear costumes.” No, REALLY?! Well, I NEVER!
This is another great example of the contempt Hollywood held for superhero stories and their audiences throughout the Golden Age of Superhero film. Today we know a lot of the antagonists during the Golden Age of Comics were mobsters, murderers, bank robbers, …garden variety criminal scum. Bruce Wayne’s “superstitious, cowardly lot.” And the occasional corrupt lobbyist out to embroil the United States in Foreign Wars…but we don’t like to talk about that much. Nor do we like to talk about the many, many racist caricatures Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman battled…even before they took on the Axis Powers. Costumed supervillains didn’t really catch on until the post-War years, facing stiff competition for the Villain of the Month Slot from dinosaurs, robots, evil aliens and good ol’ fashioned Communist Spies. To say nothing of Evil Capitalists.
That’s right, Dan: the Evil Capitalist comes in as many shapes and sizes as Capitalism itself. He could be the wizened old vampire tenting the tips of his fingers and saying, “Excellent” or the suave, young, debonair douchebag, disarming you with awareness of his own douchbaggery. Either way, he’s as old as fiction himself. Even Jesus roughed up a few in his time. Fuckers set up shop right in God’s house and spent all their time bitching about taxes. Surely a movement formed, denouncing the Big Temple and its regulations on business. And in the movie-making business, Batman Returns surely inaugurated a trend I like to call Villain Squeezing.
Fifteen minutes in we’ve got our Penguin. Through him we learn just what kind of Evil Capitalist Shreck is. Through Shreck we learn that Selina Kyle‘s learned that Shreck plans to run an Enron on Gotham. His proposed power plant would, in fact, be a giant siphon, sucking Gotham’s surplus power out of the city and storing it for Max…and, eventually, Max’s son, Chip (Andrew Bryniarksi…who oddly enough had a small role in Pearl Harbor and a much larger role in, God help him, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remakes).
Selina finds this out by hacking into Max’s files:
“I figured your password was ‘Geraldo,’ your chihuahua, and it was.”
“Hmm” indeed, Mr. Walkin. “Hmm,” indeed. That was a really dumb password, there, buddy. Especially with the chihuahua stuffed and mounted like a museum piece right the fuck over there. Insisting the power plant is his legacy, Max pushes Selina out a window. Because, you know…it’s not like you could just bribe her to stay quiet about the whole “Evil Plot” thing. It’s not like she might need her job. It’s not like all the proof of your Evil Plot’s completely secure right there in the office. Oh, wait: actually, it’s a lot like that. Better to do anything other than push her out a fucking window so she can get molested by magical cats.
As before, we can see the stories Burton wanted to tell in our villains. Selina’s is a great parable of the extreme, split-personality psychosis our culture engenders in single, white females. Penguin’s is an old fashioned revenge tale complete with intentional Biblical parallels. He even telegraphs his Evil Plot by staging a kidnapping of the Mayor’s baby in order to dramatically return to the world by rescuing it.
Penguin is Gotham’s rejected son, a negative image of Batman because, like Bruce, he lost his childhood to tragic circumstance. Unlike Bruce, that circumstance happened to be his parent’s own prejudice. They tossed him out into a cruel world, alone, because they thought he was a monster. So Penguin makes a big stink about finding them and learning their names, but it’s all smoke. He’s really out to prove them right and becoming a mass child-murderer (on Christmas, no less). That’ll sure show those dastardly Cobblepots not to judge by appearances.
So after holding up in the Hall of Records so he can copy down the names of every firstborn male child in Gotham City (we’ve had the Penguin-as-Moses, so we might as well get the Penguin-as-King-Herod-the-Great, too), Penguin finds his parent’s graves:
“I was their number one son and they treated me like Number Two.”
Stay classy, Batman Returns.
Things keep jumping out at me. Like how there’s no security at the Mayor’s press conference. I mean none whatsoever. This allows the Penguin’s thug to grab the Mayor’s baby out of his wife’s arms after sneaking up behind them all. On the day after a gang of homicidal circus freaks rampaged through Gotham Plaza. This is more than just a reflection of America politician’s pre-9/11 security concepts. More like pre-1911…or pre-1865, actually. You’d think Gordon would at least put a special detail on the Mayor after unicyclists with sub-machine guns starting rolling down the street. Then again, this Commissioner Gordon probably can’t wipe his ass without lighting the Bat-signal.
Also, thanks to Villain Squeezing, this movie’s totally out of order, forced into its current shape by the need to juggle all these plot threads. Apart from a re-introductory Action Scene, Batman once again vanishes until the half-hour mark. But the real continuity flub comes courtesy of Selina.
Before she’s thrown out a window she says she’s “boning up” for Max’s “Bruce Wayne meeting in the morning.” Several days appear to pass (thanks to crappy editing) while the Penguin establishes himself in Gotham’s eyes and suspicion establishes itself inside Batman’s mind. Only then do we get the Bruce Wayne meeting Selina was supposedly “boning up” for “in the morning.” Unless the Penguin managed to save the Mayor’s baby, barricade himself in the Hall of Records, copy all those names down by hand and stage a “Penguin Forgives Parents” photo-op in the space of twenty-four hours.
But that would just be silly. So let’s get back to Catwoman and…who is that confused-looking dude in the suit? Why, it’s Bruce Wayne. Nice to see you, titular character! Bruce meets with Shreck and the two get into a pissing contest over their relative positions in Gotham’s Evil Capitalist hierarchy. Selina arrives to break up the fun, throw some veiled threats Max’s way, and entice Bruce with her frizzy hair, haunted-but-strangely-vacant face and the creepy background music that’s following her around.
Oops. Back to Penguin, since Bruce’s weariness and standing alliance with the Mayor puts a political pin in Max’s power plant plans…unless he can shake up Gotham’s power structure. This is where the film’s pretensions of political satire kick us in our collective face and where the film ultimately falls flat. The whole thing’s too damn easy – contrived down to its bones – bespeaking a political naivete that’s well-meaning but dangerous. Batman Returns is trying to say, “Our political system is so corrupt even a sewer monster can become a figure of note, long as he has friends in high places.”
True. But (as always) the devil’s in the details. Bruce gets his initial case of Penguin-related heeby-jeebies from an old newspaper clipping about Penguin’s last legitimate gig: the Red Triangle Circus…which, according to the paper, “folded its tents after reports of missing children.” I’d think Alexander Knox of the Gotham Globe might be interested in such a story…along with all the other papers propping up their circulation rates with the Hideous Penguin-Man of the Sewers. Personally, I’d like to know where all those missing kids went. Several alternate version of Batman might’ve followed this lead and uncovered incontrovertible proof that Penguin is in fact, the Red Triangle Gang’s mastermind and a child-murdering psycho to boot. But this Batman is nothing if not reactive, brooding in the dark until God, the universe, or whatever, drops leads into his lap. Or Catwomen, as is the case.
Before we get back to her, I want to harp on how stupid Penguin’s mayoral run is a bit more. I mentioned class and, oddly enough, that’s one of the major reasons for whatever popularity Penguin supposedly enjoys. The Oswald Cobblepot of the comics is not only one of Batman’s few legally-sane antagonists, he’s also one of the few that legitimately comes from Bruce’s social class. He’s not a mad scientist or a sociopathic street thug with green hair: he’s a pretentious, upper-crusty asshole who saw high society life for the hollow sham it was and turned to crime for fun and profit. Years of hanging out with “lesser” criminals only reinforced Penguin’s belief that he’s the smartest person in any given room, hence why the Batman constantly antagonizes him: flying fuck always shows up to prove Penguin’s pretensions wrong.
Batman Returns tossed all that in the river so this Penguin could become a crass, classless sewer monster. Yet Burton can’t help himself. He always sympathizes with his monsters because he has no sympathy for the rest of us (we being the real monsters, after all). This comes across in Penguin’s screen time, since the script’s real sympathies lie with Catwoman, leaving Danny DiVito nothing to work with apart from bad jokes and double entendres. They fit right in with Heathers high school setting, but here in Gotham City they sound like forced gags. Or DiVito mugging for the camera. Because they are. My favorite comes when Catwoman shows up at Penguin’s campaign headquarters to propose the now-standard Villainous Alliance against Batman. Penguin responds to her presence with:
“Just the pussy I’ve been looking for.”
These lines are an endurance test, set up by Walters, Burton, DiVito, and whoever else contributed to the Penguin’s dialogue. He’s a sexist monster, yes, but he’s also a Tim Burton monster, so your willingness to sympathize with Penguin is directly proportionate to the amount of gross bullshit you’re willing to put up with from him. By the time he’s remote-controlling the Batmobile and screaming at Batman over a closed circuit TV, you’ll either love him or hate him. Can’t be neutral on a moving train.
Now that we’re exactly halfway through the film we can finally talk about Catwoman because, at this point, Bruce runs into her on the street and invites her back to Castle Dracula for din-din. Now that I’ve bitched and moaned for forever I guess it’s time to say something positive, so here goes…ahem…I love Bruce and Selina’s little dialogue. Through their awkward small talk, we learn things didn’t go so well with Vicki Vale…as if her absence weren’t clue enough:
“What went wrong…? Hang on, I think I know: you kept things from her.”
“…No, told her everything.”
Oh, you lying sack of no-good, rich, vigilante shit! Alfred was the one who told her everything. You were too chicken to lay it all out when you had the chance, alone, in her apartment, before the doorbell rang. Then, in the name of chivalry, you did something really stupid and tried to out-crazy the Joker. As if you could do that in your civvies. Now, in a further act of superheroic genius, you’re starting this relationship off on the right foot with more lying. Nice to know you’ve learned absolutely nothing from past experience. Almost as if you were written by a completely different writer…hmm…
Sorry, had to yell at Bruce for a second. Because he’s an asshole! And as an asshole, this offends me. Batman is not one of us. He’s too damn altruistic…at least when he’s written well. As when the films that bare his name actually bother to be about him.
“And the truth frightened her?”
“Well, there are two truths.”
Oh, God, are we going to talk about the definition of “is,” now?
“Well, was Vicki right about your…difficulty with duality?”
“…See…if I say ‘yes’…you’re gonna think of me as a Norman Bates/Ted Bundy type and….ah…well, you might not let me kiss you.”
“It’s the so-called ‘normal’ guys that always let you down. Sickos never scare me. At least they’re committed.”
Ha-ha! Multiple entendre!
Here’s the other story you can tell Burton actually wanted to tell: two damaged people who’d be perfect for each other if they weren’t such polar opposites. We can see this in Bruce and Selina’s make-out scene, which could’ve gone fine if not for the various wounds they’ve inflicted on each other over the course of the movie. And after the Plot Specific News Network forces each to depart for their own reasons (Penguin’s kidnapped Gotham’s Ice Princess and planted evidence to frame Batman, another plot right out of the 60s), Burton underlines the parallel even harder. Bruce goes down to his costume vault and picks a suit and boots off the rack before climbing into his armored wonder car. Selina struggles into her costume while driving back to town one-handed, picking the various bits out of everyday car detritus. Theirs is the best-acted, most-interesting relationship in the film and, if not for Villain Squeezing, it would the film’s central axis.
Instead, the Catwoman-Batman story’s sidelined to force the Penguin-Batman story on us. Even Alfred gets a shot in when he asks Bruce,
“Must you be the only lonely man-beast in town?”
A line later echoed by the Penguin’s charge that
“You’re just jealous because I’m a genuine freak and you have to wear a mask.”
Batman admits Penguin might be right, showing us just how self-centered and crazy this Batman really is. The film thinks this is its great commentary on superhero-supervillian relationships. It’s all about professional jealousy, don’t you see? As opposed to, say, the Penguin’s plot to commit mass infanticide on Christmas! (Won’t somebody please think of the children?!)
Again, the “squealing, wretched, pinhead-puppets of Gotham” are easily swayed by deft manipulators of perception. That’s why Penguin and Catwoman can so easily frame Batman with a couple of (well done, I’ll grant) action scenes and a plant in the crowd. (Unless that guy didn’t mean to shout “Hey, Batman pushed the princess” so unconvincingly. In which case, he’s just a bad actor.) That’s why Batman can so easily turn them against Penguin with a few well-timed recorded messages and the longest-range frequency jamming system in existence.
Don’t ask how the Red Triangle figured out Batman’s tech to the point where they could easily sabotage the Batmobile. I smell cut scene! Speaking of which, major shout-out to uncredited re-writer Wesley Strick, who did the film it’s biggest favor by deleting Robin. As I hope these incoherent ramblings have shown, Batman Returns is already an overcrowded slave ship, and it’s not at all shy about tossing characters over the side. It’s a film with too many ideas, which is better than having none at all, except when it leads to incoherence.
It’s not the actors fault. I love everyone in their respective roles, even Michael Keaton’s awkward, lying sonofabitch Bruce Wayne. Michelle Pfeiffer, by playing the sexiest crazy I’ve ever seen, turns her simple Madonna/Whore Complex of a character into a desperate, actually-quite-believable anti-hero…who eventually forgoes the cat-shtick entirely and shows up at Max’s annual Christmas Maxquerade Ball with a Derringer strapped to her leg and intent to do serious harm. Bruce attempts to dissuade her and she manically-laughs him off before they figure out eachother’s Secret Identities by sharing a kiss under the mistletoe.
As ever, Penguin interrupts before we can get any actual character development, kidnapping Max and giving our costumed anti-heroes a chance to split-up, suit up, and have it out.
I know. Weird little movie, right? It certainly seems a lot campier than it did in 1992, but I blame myself for that. I’ve watched a lot more episodes of the original Batman show in the interim and familiarity with that source material only breeds more contempt. Batman Returns takes place in the same kind of hyper-world as that series, in a Gotham the size of a backlot, populated by a skeleton crew of extras. To be fair, this is Tim Burton’s version of “camp,” so between the Psycho Circus and the incompetent authority figures, I wouldn’t want to live in this town either.
If I may quote the next movie in the series, there’s just too many questions. How much time actually passes in this story? Is Selina still going to work by day? Taking dictation for Max, serving him coffee, letting her anger build, give her focus, make her strong in the Dark Side? Or does she just stay in bed and lick herself until the sun sets? (Seems to be Bruce’s deal, unless he’s got a meeting in Gotham’s One and Only Plaza.) How come Gotham’s sewers look so much like London’s? How’d Batman convince the Organ Grinder’s monkey to carry his little note back to Penguin’s lair? Why didn’t he follow the monkey back? Or hang one of the Red Triangle clowns off a ledge until they spilled? Why warn Penguin at all? All it does is give Penguin the excuse to deploy his Penguin Army after an Obligatory Patton Speech.
Seriously, though: I want my own Penguin Army. And the ending? Totally kicks ass.
In fact…apart from the Catwoman stuff…you could cut the whole middle third of the film out and not only would the ending still make sense it would still totally kick ass. Bruce again tries to talk Selina out of killing Max (for some reason…and considering the body count he’s wracked up in two films…). Selina says it’d be nice and all but tells Bruce to fuck off so she can get her revenge…and an ambivalent non-death, complete with Sequel Bait during the denouement.
We talked about what became of that Sequel Bait back in March, and will not speak of it again. That was a bad, bad film. Batman Returns is…something else entirely. It leaves me feeling…ambivalent. It avoids Catwoman‘s problem of being two different movies slammed together for the benefit of a corporate cash-in by being three: Penguin’s, Catwoman’s and Shreck’s. Can you spot the missing person there? I’ll give you a hint – he supposedly Returns, even though he very obviously hasn’t moved at all between films.
The one thing it does better than any other Bat-film outside Mask of the Phantasm (which, being animated, has an automatic advantage) is create a coherent atmosphere. Unfortunately, it’s the stagnant, dusty atmosphere of a run-down spookhouse, in keeping with the Penguin’s motif. That leads me to believe this was a conscious choice on our director’s part, and that this is pretty much the Bat-movie Burton wanted to make.
I applaud that, and the obviously monstrous efforts of everyone involved. Everyone from Stan Winston (who designed the Penguin effects) to the lowliest set-builder deserves high marks for excellent craftsmanship. This Gotham has much more scope than its predecessors…once you get off the streets. From the rooftops it’s a city with more creepy Art Deco statues than a gallery of Ayn Rand novel covers. On the ground, its an empty-but-still-claustrophobic place with more vacant real estate than Detroit and more narrow alleys than Paris.
Even I gotta admit, Burton played this stinkin’ franchise like a harp from Hell. But its characters are all insane. It could’ve easily been Burton’s Ishtar if it weren’t so inherently cool by virtue of featuring Batman. Instead, it’s the sophomore slump in Burton’s early-90s Trilogy of Awesome, which he thankfully followed with his much-better magnum opus, Ed Wood.
It’s even more unfortunate Burton’s aesthetic overreach triggered a backlash that would ultimately doom this franchise and end the Golden Age of America superhero movies. But it’s also a tale for another time, kiddies.