When a corrupt businessman and the grotesque Penguin plot to take control of Gotham City, only Batman can stop them, while the Catwoman has her own agenda.
The Comic Book Psycho Drama…
You know those films you watch as a kid; the ones that are fun and entertaining…then when you grow up and watch them you realize there’s so much more going on beneath the surface?
1992’s “Batman Returns” is not only one of those films…it just might be THE film that’s defined by that concept.
At first young glance, “Returns” is a sparklingly Gothic adventure with bold lighting, over-the-top action and a hard-edged, well-formed artistic aesthetic that is undeniably the creation of director Tim Burton.
But there’s a strong psychological foundation upon which the film is built, it’s coursing through the picture…instantly making it one of the most fascinating comic book films there is, more than others would lead you to believe. And it’s certainly the most artsy film in the sub genre.
From the melancholy opening with the calm snowfall and haunting baroque score, it’s made clear that we’re in for a dark thrill ride that’s far spookier than its 1989 predecessor.
The film opens with a regal Gotham high society couple (Burton alums Paul Reubens and Diane Salinger) as they give birth to a hideously deformed son; their screams split the air as the nurse flees and the doctor stands in shock. Unable to handle the monstrosity they’ve brought into the world, they place their “Penguin-Son” into a prison-like bassinet and toss him into the dank Gotham sewers.
Thirty-three years later, as bad guy business tycoon Max Shreck (sinisterly portrayed by Christopher Walken) gives a speech in Gotham Plaza, the Red Triangle Circus Gang attacks the event and the patrons. Batman (Michael Keaton returning to the role) makes his first appearance sporting a new suit, eventually saving the day. Shreck is soon kidnapped by the circus gang and black-mailed into endorsing the political return of the baby from the sewers, now a fully-grown man known as Oswald Copplepot (Danny DeVito in hideously perfect make-up), whose motives for the return are suspicious only to Batman.
Meanwhile, Shreck’s awkward and mousy assistant Selina Kyle (played perfectly by Michelle Pfeiffer, who, quite frankly, deserved more recognition for her performance) stumbles upon a white collar crime Max plans to commit under the noses of the mayor and the city council. Shreck attempts to off her by pushing her out a window. Miraculously, Selina survives…but her psyche is fractured and she transforms into the deliciously sexy and psychotic Catwoman. She’s out for revenge against Shreck but harbors, for some unexplained reason, a deadly vendetta against the caped crusader.
”Batman Returns” is as bleak as they come. Even regardless of Batman’s involvement, the film in and of itself is a strong artistic expression; a very powerful presentation of the vision from one of the most bizarre and poetic filmmakers in Hollywood.
In life, we’re all fed the optimistic line that “we all have the power to be happy,” but the world around us is still consumed in agonizing suffering. The best we can do is ignore such suffering, and try to think that the optimism still applies, even when in reality it only applies to some of us.
This movie shatters the idea in every facet imaginable. The world is not a perfect place, not even where everybody can make do and learn to live with what they are given. The three main characters here are deeply-wounded people; people who can’t integrate into society and be happy like everybody else…even if they tried.
Keaton’s return as Batman is more than welcome. His satirical bad ass nature fits with this approach to the character and his psyche is more refined and examined here. One the one hand, his dark knight is a brutal one…punching guys without even breaking stride (that’s my personal favorite moment in ANY Batman film) and that sinister smile when he tricks the Strong-Man with the dynamite. He’s psychologically scarred; emotionally conflicted…his world isn’t like that of Peter Parker’s. It’s darker, it’s worse and ultimately Keaton’s Batman still preservers amidst an onslaught of tragedy.
“Oh I’m sorry…you know what? I mistook me for somebody else, sorry…”
I love that line.
DeVito’s Penguin is an odd one. There are times where you completely sympathize with him and his predicament, such as when he “rescues” the mayor’s child. But unlike Alfred Molina’s Otto Octavius, whom you sympathize with the entire time…Cobblepot is always a manipulative and menacing villain that you sympathize with in spite of how evil he is. You still want him to get what’s coming to him, especially for turning all of Gotham against Batman, but you can’t help but pity this pathetic creature as his dead body is carried into the waters. His “Patton” inspired speech is also very good, showcasing to us a vengeful and passionate character that has nothing left to lose in his lashing out at a society that completely shunned him.
The supporting cast is great as always, although both Pat Hingle’s Commissioner Gordon and Michael Gough as Alfred aren’t given anymore to do from the first picture (in truth they’re actually given less to do). Gough thankfully does play somewhat of a vital role in foiling the Penguin’s schemes near the finale, however, which was nice. Christopher Walken on the other hand has quite the presence in the movie, pretty much in the same vein as Jack Palance in the original film. Named after the famous actor who portrayed the original cinematic vampire Nosferatu, Max as a character is even more sinister than the Penguin, like a wolf (or rather a monster) in sheep’s clothing. For all the interaction between the three main characters who bare animal motifs (Bat, Cat, Penguin) Shreck is more of a beast then any of them…and he represents “Man,” so that should tell you something.
But the breakout for me was Michelle Pfeiffer. She plays both the awkward Selina Kyle and dominating, latex clad Catwoman with so much energy and conviction. I especially loved her in the scene between her and Michael at Max’s costume ball, where she goes from determined and creepy to laughing hysterically to looking sorrowful and confused…and that’s all in the span of five to six minutes (!!!). And that scene where she ultimately rejects Bruce is just so heartbreaking.
Technically, it’s a visual marvel of a picture. Between Bo Welch’s gritty Art Deco production design and Stephan Czapsky’s stark, black and white approach to the cinematography it very much takes its visual cues from Expressionist films like “Citizen Kane.”
The sets are extravagant and majestic, particularly the Penguin’s Lair in the defunct Gotham Zoo’s Arctic World exhibit, complete with twisted storybook like murals of seals and whales…then there’s Shreck’s huge office with that awesome conference table. My favorite set might be the new Batcave, which Welch described as having a cool airport type atmosphere. In fact, the “Returns” Batcave is probably my favorite depiction of Batman’s headquarters ever put to live action.
Gotham itself is beautiful, with a far more neo-noir approach to design than the proceeding depiction. The giant statues adorning Gotham Plaza are incredible.
Czapsky’s lighting plays very well with shadows, such as those formed by Penguin on the wall of the sewer…or Batman and Catwoman’s shadows stretching across brick walls and skyscrapers.
The bright white of the snow is a great contrast to the city itself.
On a side note, I have to admit…setting the film in the winter/Christmas time is pure genius. Whoever came up with that setting decision, be it Burton, Hamm or Waters, absolutely made the right choice.
Then there are the costumes. The Batsuit is a more streamlined, deco piece of work…it looks like something you could see on display in a museum (which I have a few times). I also love the approach taken to the Catsuit — how it’s stitched together, mimicking Selina Kyle’s fragile mind…and how throughout the film its torn and fractured more and more just like she is. Those are probably my two favorite costumes in the piece. The rest of the cast is adorned in these wonderful timeless winter ensembles, with huge overcoats and hats; I especially love the wardrobes of Max and Chip Shreck with their pinstripes and fur collars, looking like Gothic psycho-renditions of the Vanderbilts.
There isn’t that much action, but what of it there is gets handled quite well. The chase scene where Penguin is controlling the Batmobile is adrenaline filled and I always get goosebumps when Batman transforms the car into the Bat-Missile and dodges the Police, making his escape. Such a great moment!
And there’s the Bat Ski-Boat sequence, which is both great and controversial for many people.
You guessed it…the rocket-toting penguins. Now personally I’ve never had a problem with them…I mean you have to always keep in mind that this is based in the realm of comics. For people to make such a big deal about them is puzzling. For years, Cobblepot has used various birds and such in the comics…why on earth should that be any different here? Next you’re gonna tell me he shouldn’t have so many different kinds of umbrellas…I mean come on, its fantasy, you’re afforded to cut it a break once in awhile.
Another great moment is the infamous rooftop scene where Catwoman straddles on top of Batman and licks his face. To find that level of pure eroticism in a mainstream super hero film is always a delight, letting us know that no punches will be pulled with the material. They aren’t treating us to a cartoon, thankfully. And that bit where Batman unfurls a Bat-Wing glider from his back and takes flight above the Plaza is breath taking, even to this day. Between Nolan and Burton, Burton’s flair for the operatic always DID bring about some of the best “Bat-Like” imagery for the character.
As far as score, composer Danny Elfman gives us such a slew of new material. Prominently, we’ve got the “Penguin Theme” and the “Catwoman Theme” and they’re both excellent pieces of material. Where the original 1989 score relies more on brass and percussion, the “Returns” score is fleshed out more so with strings (such as the high, spine tingling strings for Catwoman) and woodwinds (there are a lot of cues of the “Penguin Theme” throughout the film that work off of flutes and oboes that are very soft and almost sad). But the “Penguin Theme” also plays very strongly with shaking tambourines that give it a sense of royalty and it’s very driving at points, such as when Oswald visits his parent’s grave.
Like it or hate it, “Batman Returns” is a rare commercial blockbuster that is clearly and deeply personal, and that seems to really rankle many. I truly think the film gets a bad rep just for being a “Batman” movie in various circles even though it’s a superior piece of work by Mr. Burton.
It’s a great movie and a great interpretation of Batman that in its runtime examines the character and makes definitive statements about him within its narrative outline, specifically in its final confrontations when considered with the rest of the film (both the Batman/Penguin and Batman/Catwoman battles during the finale center around personal duels which give us payoff in regards to the psychology of the titular character).
“You’re just jealous, because I’m a genuine freak and you have to wear a mask!”
“You might be right…”
“Selina…don’t you see? We’re the same…we’re the same. Split…right down the center.”
As far as there not being enough Batman, he’s in the film a lot after the first 35 minutes or so which are clearly (and necessarily) dedicated to building up the other characters; obviously this is important to the structuring of the film inherently and the development of these characters works to enhance the examination of the Batman/Wayne character under that structure. But the “there’s not enough Batman” argument feels null to me. After the first half hour, it’s very Bats heavy both in its content and its intent.
As far as definitive interpretation? Please…there is none; even when just considering the Kane/Finger era, which about says it all. But yes…for my tastes I like the depressed, psychotic Batman that Burton gave us and I think it’s a logical idea. Not definitive, but it’s certainly as valid as any other.
Burton played up the original grim vigilante theme, right down to the killing, that Kane/Finger started with themselves — on a purely aesthetic basis such as that (and considering the rather blank nature of the character in regards to psychology at this point…mood, overall action and look are about the only important things to translate from those earliest of stories, which I think Burton did rather masterfully), it was more based on Batman’s early beginnings than most other stuff when looking at its overall noir presentation as far as both mood and character.
The Kane/Finger Batman, in simplest terms, was a lone vigilante that was soon revealed to be driven by the death of his parents — all of this can be said for Burton’s Batman as well, with the main difference being that he was most interested in the psychology behind the actions of the main character (including the killing that is notably present in the two versions) rather than just the actions themselves as far as point A to point B narrative resolution.
I think it’s largely forgotten in many comic story lines that the underlying basis for Batman’s nightly jaunts is psychological imbalance — both as far as the depression and the heavily weird/illogical/psycho way he chooses to deal with that, by dressing up as a bat of all things. If you portray this on film and want it to be taken seriously at all, I think the point has to be made that this is not a psychologically healthy character at all, otherwise you run the risk of getting camp.
If you don’t deal with the central idea being a character that acts out in the manner he does because of lacking mental health in much the same way as the villains he encounters — it’s obvious, but sometimes forgotten, that the basis of so many of these characters stems from their psychological traumas, and that Batman’s the same when you contrast underlying motivations.
In the end it’s easy to understand the mass disappointment that followed the release of “Batman Returns” and the fallout between Burton and Warner Brothers. The film might not have felt like a “Batman” blockbuster for the audiences at large and some of its sequences, such as cats gnawing on Selina’s dead fingers and the Penguin spewing bile and blood in his death throws, were very much frowned upon by parents. It led to fans of the character questioning if Burton really knew who Batman actually was or even if he cared about the character as much as he cared about the film fitting in with his usual themes of beautifully haunting art direction and misinterpreted, lonely characters who rarely conform with societies standards and expectations.
For me, those very people completely missed the point. Again, there’s no set in stone way of depicting Batman; there never has been and there never will be. But on a psychological level, I thought Burton brought something quite special to the table. In the process, through “Batman Returns,” Burton created a stunningly ballsy piece of cinema that remains a personal favorite of mine.
He took an incredible risk with the picture that ultimately was misunderstood…but now, given time to grow, it has grown to garnish the respect it so rightfully deserves.
‘Batman Returns’ (1992)
Directed by … Tim Burton
Story by … Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm
Screenplay by … Daniel Waters
Based on the DC Comics Character Created by … Bob Kane and Bill Finger
Executive Produced by … Benjamin Melniker, Michael E. Uslan, Peter Guber and Jon Peters
Produced by … Larry J. Franco, Denise Di Novi, Ian Bryce and Tim Burton
Cinematography by … Stephan Czapsky
Production Design by … Bo Welch
Costume Design by … Bob Ringwood and Mary Vogt
Editing by … Chris Lebenzon and Bob Badami
Original Motion Picture Score Composed by … Danny Elfman
Michael Keaton … Bruce Wayne/Batman
Danny DeVito … Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin
Michelle Pfeiffer … Selina Kyle/Catwoman
Christopher Walken … Max Shreck
Michael Gough … Alfred Pennyworth
Michael Murphy … The Mayor
Cristi Conaway … Ice Princess
Andrew Bryniarski … Charles ‘Chip’ Shreck
Pat Hingle … Commissioner James Gordon
Vincent Schiavelli … Organ Grinder
Steve Witting … Josh
Jan Hooks … Jen
John Strong … Sword Swallower
Rick Zumwalt … Tattooed Strongman
Anna Katarina … Poodle Lady
Travis McKenna … Fat Clown
Doug Jones … Thin Clown
Paul Reubens … Penguin’s Father
Diane Salinger … Penguin’s Mother
Stuart Lancaster … Penguin’s Doctor
Sean M. Whalen … Gotham Globe Paperboy
Erik Oñate … Aggressive Reporter
Henry Kingi … Mugger
Joan Giammarco … Female Victim
Elizabeth Sanders … Gothamite #4
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