Batman Returns

Directed by Tim Burton, 1992.
Starring Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle, Michael Murphy.
126 mins.

Batman is called back into action when new villains terrorize Gotham City; from the sewers emerges the freakish Penguin and his criminal circus gang; and on the rooftops prowls the mysterious Catwoman….

TIM BURTON DIDN’T want to make Batman II. After directing the 1989 original to huge box office success, he felt he was done with the Dark Knight – only to be tempted back when Warner Bros offered greater creative control over the sequel. No longer would he have to compromise his ideas with those of studio execs, instead his imagination would be given free reign over Gotham City and its legendary inhabitants.

Stepping away from the urban-noir of the first movie, Burton reconfigured Batman Returns, as it was retitled, into his own trademark style; a dark fairy-tale of alienated freaks and outsiders, leaving their own peculiar worlds in doomed attempts to fit into normality and gain acceptance.

Bleak and tragic in part, it’s also a mischievous, satirical, pitch-black comedy, which mocks US conservative values and Americana as a whole. What little plot there is echoes one of the best stories from the 1960’s Batman TV show – the villainous Penguin running for mayor – but skewers politics much more ruthlessly. With an almost vindictive relish, it depicts an utterly fraudulent ruling elite, amoral campaign teams and voting masses that are laughably gullible and reactionary.

The lack of a strong central narrative might be an issue were the characters not so compelling. Leading the charge is Danny DeVito’s waddling Penguin, aka Oswald Cobblepot; a true, unrepentant grotesque, a Dickensian nightmare who delights in outsize displays of evil and perversity. Although he adopts some of the dapper clothing associated with the character, he’s truly hideous to look at; sunken eyes, huge beak-like nose, lank hair, fingers fused into flippers; his face often splattered with goo, other people’s blood, or his own black bile.

The movie never presents the Penguin as a result of his circumstances or upbringing; he’s a monster from the first moment we don’t see him, as a baby pulling the Cobblepot house cat into his cage-like playpen. Yet DeVito somehow conjures an element of sympathy and pity no matter how wicked or depraved his actions. It’s a startling performance and he truly immerses himself in the role, gobbling raw fish and snarling great one-liners (‘They didn’t put me on a pedestal, so I’m layin’ ’em on a slab!’).

And yet even better is Michelle Pfieffer’s Catwoman. We meet her as downtrodden, self-loathing Selina Kyle, a woman whose boss can’t remember her name and who is dumped by answering machine message. Selina is killed and resurrected by a horde of alley cats; but her true transformation comes when she finally snaps, destroying the cutesy, girly knick-knacks cluttering her house and manically crafting a new identity with a black PVC suit and sewing machine.

This Catwoman isn’t so much a supervillain as a mental breakdown, and Pfeiffer is mesmerizing, halfway between whip-cracking dominatrix and little girl lost, alternately alluring, ferocious and playful. She assaults a rapist with home-made talons, but then derides the victim she just saved – ‘You make it so easy, don’t you? Always waiting for some Batman to save you.’

While not suitable for young children, Batman Returns is dark delight for older viewers

Completing the triumvirate is Max Schreck, a new character not drawn from the comics but worthy of inclusion among Batman’s gallery of rogues. A fright-wigged, pin-striped Christopher Walken – wonderfully sinister throughout – is as evil as any of Gotham’s villains, but hides his nefarious acts under the persona of respectable tycoon (described to the naïve masses as ‘Gotham’s own Santa Claus’). His white collar crimes are legion, such as corruption, murder, and the wonderfully outrageous and ill-defined act of stealing Gotham’s power supplies.

And what of the caped crusader himself? When we first find him, Bruce Wayne (Keaton) sits alone in the almost total darkness of Wayne Manor, lost in thought; only coming to life when the Batsignal shines through the window and casts him into heroic light. The aura of mystery surrounding the pointy-eared crime-fighter in the original movie has dissipated somewhat; here he is less intimidating, and slightly more talkative and emotional, displaying bemusement at his opponent’s bizarre antics, making the odd joke to himself, and spouting facts about – erm – mistletoe.

Drawing inspiration from German Expressionist films of the early 20th century, the film cleverly uses each of the villainous trio to highlight a part of Bruce Wayne’s psyche. The Penguin represents the lonely orphan; Catwoman the identity-crisis of the black-clad vigilante; and Shreck the dark secrets beneath the businessman facade. That these three characters attempt various team-ups through the movie but ultimately end up at war with each other says things about Bruce Wayne that could never be presented in a direct way.

As with all Burton movies, Batman Returns is visually delicious. The retro-futurism of the 1989 original is reformed into an exaggerated, wintery, Gothic netherworld; Gothamites seem almost trapped beneath huge fascist statues and towers of black stone; and the camera flies through a frozen, abandoned zoo and creeps through cathedral-like sewers. It all conspires to express the gloom and anxiety of the central characters. There is little of the Joker’s colour here either; at times the screen is almost black and white, reflecting many of the film’s inspirations, including landmark horror movies The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and The Bride of Frankenstein.

Action is not a Burton strong suite. Though there is spectacle and invention to the set pieces, they are stagey and poorly edited, lacking momentum and excitement. The best of the bunch is an unhinged sequence in which the Penguin sabotages the Batmobile and controls it – with Batman inside – from a ride-on replica in his campaign trailer, smashing through traffic and scattering pedestrians like bowling pins. Fight scenes are routine and unimpressive, and Batman’s rubber suit seems much more restrictive than in the original movie; his tussles with Catwoman are dramatic for the clash of characters rather than the choreography.

Batman’s got some wonderful toys though; besides an upgraded Batarang which homes in on multiple targets, he soars over the streets with a pair of extendable bat-shaped glider-wings, and sails beneath them in a sleek, sewer-friendly ski-boat. The trusty old Batmobile doesn’t get left out, now equipped with a bizarre new gimmick which allows its outer body to be shed in seconds to fit through the narrowest of alleyways. Holy Slimfast! In response, the Penguin has a rubber-duck mobile, which is exactly what it sounds like, and can even drive up staircases for the most ludicrous-looking getaways. Oh, and don’t forget his army of rocket-packing penguins.

Superhero maestro Danny Elfman composed his fourth such score in three years (also contributing to Darkman, Dick Tracy and The Flash TV show), but Returns is his best work in the genre. Besides his never-bettered Batman theme, like an oncoming storm, he increases the sinister atmosphere with grinding, grand guignol organs, screeching strings, and beautiful choirs which seem to mock Gotham’s dystopian denizens. He brings a pathetic, clown-like dignity to the Penguin and tragedy to Selina’s descent into madness.

Batman Returns was a box office hit but upset parents and tie-in company McDonalds, and it’s clear why. From the Penguin biting the nose of a sarcastic PR man, to the cruel death of a festive beauty queen, it’s full of nasty little moments – some of which come from Batman himself, such as the sequence where he turns the tables on a fire-breathing thug by setting him ablaze with the Batmobile’s exhaust; or, in a twisted Looney Tunes moment, smiling when another of the Penguin’s thugs realises the caped crusader has strapped dynamite to him. Such complaints ended Burton’s role in the series, and yet annoying the ubiquitous burger-peddlers must surely have pleased him, as it fits in perfectly with the subversive nature of the movie.

While not suitable for young children, Batman Returns is dark delight for older viewers. It remoulds two of comic’s most famous supervillains into deeper, more fascinating characters, and like the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, it’s a perfect example of what can be done when artists with strong creative visions are allowed to play with these icons. Tim Burton and Michael Keaton never returned to the series, but they left on a high with this compelling tale of a pitch-black Gotham and its doomed inhabitants.

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Review by The Wonderful Cocoon Club

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