Gotham City faces two monstrous criminal menaces: the bizarre, sinister Penguin (Danny DeVito) and the slinky, mysterious Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer). Can Batman (Michael Keaton) battle two formidable foes at once? Especially when one wants to be mayor and the other is romantically attracted to Gotham’s hero?
Batman Returns 8.25
eyelights: Danny Devito. Michelle Pfeiffer. the art direction. the set design. the costumes. the score.
eyesores: the animatronic penguins. the hijacking of the Batmobile.
“You’ve got kind of a dark side, don’t you?”
I’m a big fan of ‘Batman Returns’. Although ‘Batman‘ was far more popular at the box office, netting 50% more on half the production budget, I think that its 1992 sequel is the more consistent, creative and fun one of the two. Without a doubt, for me it’s the highlight of that Batman series: it finds Tim Burton at the top of his game both as a director and as a visionary.
Exerting more creative control on this production, Burton brought in his production designer from ‘Beetlejuice‘ and ‘Edward Scissorhands‘ to develop a darker but more fantastical and visually stunning universe. In ‘Batman Returns’, he created precisely the kind of spooky yet magical atmosphere that would entrance future audiences with ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas‘.
Let’s just say that it’s not your average bright and spandexy superhero movie.
Burton also insisted on directing a standalone story, instead of a direct sequel: it has little connection with ‘Batman’, with no reference to The Joker, and only a passing one to Vicky Vale. This time, our picture finds The Dark Knight fighting two villains at once: the repulsive and mysterious Penguin, and the captivating Catwoman (with whom he shares a strong sexual attraction).
What’s interesting is that once again, the picture is more about the villains, not the hero: ‘Batman Returns’ focuses primarily on the origins of both Penguin and Catwoman and their individual story arcs – which happen to coincide with Batman’s. Mind you, this is hardly surprising coming from Burton, who has built his career on sympathizing with the misfits and outcasts of society.
Here, Penguin begins as Oswald Cobblepot, a creepy, deformed child who has been tossed in the Gotham sewers by his wealthy parents, and who returns to the surface to reclaims his birthright. Meanwhile, Serena Kyle is an overworked and under-appreciated secretary to Max Shreck, one of the city’s most powerful men, whose failed attempt at murdering her creates Catwoman.
Without a doubt, they are the most interesting characters of the picture, if not the whole original series.
On the one hand, The Penguin can be pitied because his fate was not his doing: he was born grotesque and his parents’ rejection only exacerbated his downward spiral. Although he has become a despicable character, he remains a victim of circumstance, and one can’t help but feel for the lost child inside.
On the other end is Catwoman. Selina Kyle is a timid woman who wishes that she were more assertive. But, after unexpectedly surviving a multi-story fall, her mind snaps and creates two distinct personalities: a straight-and-narrow one for her everyday life, and a more impulsive and dangerous one.
- Danny Devito is absolutely brilliant as Cobblepot/Penguin. Masked by layers of prosthetics and make-up, he makes us feel his vulnerability and desires: he is a growling, drooling, leering, lethal little creep who has always watched Gotham from afar and now wants it all. Now, given the opportunity, he plans to.
I always thought Devito would be perfect as The Penguin, but never did I imagined him this good; it’s certainly one of his most memorable roles.
- Michelle Pfeiffer is equally unforgettable in her dual role. While her Selena Kyle is a rather forgettable mouse, it’s the contrast with her smouldering, earthy Catwoman that shows off Pfeiffer’s talents: she uses the former for sympathy and comedy, and the latter to express sexiness and wickedness.
Images of her bad-@$$ moves and the way she grooms herself or “kisses” Batman will never leave my mind. Smokin’ hot! She just exudes sexuality: the voice, the moves… Roooowr.
- Michael Keaton, surprisingly enough, holds his own rather well in such fierce company, as both Bruce Wayne and Batman. While the former only speaks his first lines over thirty minutes into the film, Keaton is as good or better than he was in the first film. As Batman, he’s even better: now Batman can actually move. And fight!
In ‘Batman Returns’, he finally looks and feels like Batman! He’s fully up to the challenge of facing his two adversaries.
- Finally, there’s Christopher Walken as Max Shreck. He’s a terrific character actor, and has a great presence, but he has a predilection for the theatrical – something which frequently hobbles his performances. Here he keeps it on the down low to some degree, making of Max a subtly sinister fiend – until he ruthlessly strikes, that is.
Another important character in this picture is Danny Elfman’s score. While I had mixed feelings about his work on ‘Batman’ (it’s serviceable, but not especially memorable), I felt that this time around he created a far more textured and even playful set that is really not that far removed from his work on ‘Edward Scissorhands’ and ‘ The Nightmare Before Christmas’.
The picture not only sounds better than its predecessor, but it also looks better, with even more creative and elaborate set designs. Granted, they all look like sets, but they’re pretty impressive to look at. And gone is the first picture’s matte problem, in which we could easily tell where the sets ended and the paintings began. Here, it all blends together nicely.
For me, ‘Batman Returns’ is a feast from start to nearly the finish, when it starts to come apart slightly:
- I adore the whole opening showing the origin of young Copplepot as a creepy, cat-eating child who is locked up in a black box with bars – and how his parents dispose of him. It’s grim, yet fantastical, due in part by the set design and the costuming. Plus it’s mildly campy and it’s infused with the magic that only Christmastime brings (yes, the picture is set during the holiday season).
- Our introduction to Max Shreck was cynical but appropriate: we first see him twisting arms in a boardroom to get what he wants, only to immediately put up a front at a tree-lighting ceremony, where he gives gifts and makes an uplifting speech. The public face of Shreck is of generosity and goodwill to all men, but behind the scenes there is no mask hiding his heartless ways; he is not a nice guy. Brrr…
- I love seeing Serena Kyle talking to herself, seemingly hapless and disheveled, but kicking herself for not being stronger. You really feel for her because she gives the impression that she’s barely keeping it together.
- Not seeing Oswald Cobblepot until a little later was great. I love how there’s a build-up, how we’re not shown The Penguin right away – we only see moving shadows and his claw hands at first. We know he’ll be grotesque, but we don’t know exactly what to expect. Nice. Well-played.
- After being rescued by the Batman, Serena zaps and kicks a clown who attacked her. You could feel all the pent up frustration coming out. Sweet. It’s nice to see her finally get a backbone. And it set the stage for her split personality.
- Serena Kyle’s near-death experience, in which she is revived by cats, is just so inexplicable and weird – but in a good way. And then she goes home stunned, and completely confused, but otherwise unhurt. It’s both funny and tragic at once: She then loses it, tears the place apart and makes a catsuit out of an old raincoat. Brrr… girl gone gaga.
- The whole sequence when Penguin comes out of the sewers, finds his parents, and wins the sympathy of all of Gotham is both touching and troubling – because you know there’s something going on, but you don’t know what it is. It’s a disquieting mixture of feelings.
- When Catwoman starts crime fighting, she’s more aggressive than Batman; she’s ruthless. Woah. And then, after her first outing, she just backflips out of the picture. Wow. Impressive.
- The whole sequence in which Max decides to try to get Cobblepot elected mayor, when they realize that people love him even though he’s grotesque. So Max gets him some image consultants, in a hilarious bit that shows the superficiality of some people. Ha!
- As I mentioned before, I really loved seeing Batman fight for once – which is truly apparent when Penguin’s gang terrorizes the city. He can really move this time. Nice.
- Catwoman hops about, skipping through Gotham City streets using her whip as a skipping rope. It’s demented fun.
- Batman’s first encounter with Catwoman is brutal; she actually gets through his armour. Wow, what a match-up! But what’s great about the scene is that it sets up the best part of the finale, when Bruce Wayne goes to Schrek’s ball to see Selena and, as they dance and make out, they discover each other’s identity.
It’s all good stuff. But, as with any Tim Burton picture, some things just don’t add up:
- Young Oswald Cobblepot winds up in Gotham’s sewers with a bunch of penguins. Um… why are there penguins in the sewers? And, anyway, the animatronic penguins are terrible. The real ones, well, they’re cute.
- When Schrek gets attacked by The Penguin’s gang during the tree-lighting ceremony, a call is sent for the Batman. Then we discover that Bruce Wayne had HUGE Batsignals installed on turrets on each side of Wayne Manor’s roof so that he can’t miss the call. Um… doesn’t anyone else see these when they visit him and wonder what they’re all about? Or, even, wouldn’t some passer-by see the Batsignals shine on his mansion and make the connection? I mean, it looks cool, but it’s a pretty weak gimmick.
- When Batman first shows up in the picture, fighting crime, he gets caught in a corner, so he turns the Batmobile around 180 degrees – via a cylindrical pillar that lifts the car from down its centre before rotating. Um… where does it come from? Wouldn’t the cockpit -and Batman- be in that location? WTF.
- The Penguin and Shreck stage the kidnapping and immediate rescue of the mayor’s baby, turning Cobblepot into an instant hero. It’s such a simplistic set-up and it’s so obviously staged, but people fall for it anyway – no questions asked. Ugh.
- Um.. so… how exactly does the Penguin get the blueprints to the Batmobile? WTF? And how do they find a way to remote control the car – using a toy Batmobile for kids that Penguin rides and uses to make the real thing ransack Gotham. It’s gimmicky and silly, which should be fun – if it made any sense at all
- Batman gets to the remote control device on the Batmobile by punching through the bottom of the cockpit! You mean his fists are THAT strong?
- Gotham turns on Batman because of the whole Batmobile incident. Geez, these Gothamites are so gullible and fickle. And the moment that Batman turns the tables on The Penguin, by hijacking Cobblepot’s speech, they turn on the creep as well. Sheesh.
Still, between Burton doing a stellar job of creating this fantastical, shadowy world, and the three main actors more than doing their part, this motion picture is quite a riveting watch – even though Batman becomes a secondary character in his own movie. It’s only at the end that it starts to come apart slightly. So, to me, it’s definitely the better of the two Tim Burton Batman films.
Which inevitably makes it the best of the original series. No doubt about it.
Because, yes, Batman will be back – with diminishing returns.
Date of viewing: April 20, 2016