MrMazz

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BATMANBATMANBATMAN: Returns

BatmanBatmanBatman is back with a freshely redited take on Batman Returns Tim Burton's return to Gotham City two years after he built the place.

You can read my thoughts on Batman(1989).

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Tim Burton returned to Gotham City two years after starting the modern comic film genre. Even though Burtons return to Gotham City is more polished and visually striking, it is overstuffed with characters not named Batman.The overuse of villains once again puts the role of Bruce Wayne on the backburner, nothing more than a man to save the day. With its bigger budget Burtton cements his gothic interpretation of Gotham City and its inhabitants, which would be the defacto look of Gotham for nearly a decade.

The smoggy summer nights of Batman(1989) have been replaced with cold dark winter nights. Setting this movie largely at night adds to the macabre visuals. Gotham retains its gothic architecture as seen in the opening shot of the city. This Christmas time setting means all of the vibrant, but muted colors are gone. Gotham no longer appears to be as dirty: its citizens all look like middle class businessmen. The only part of Gotham that is shown is a town square, which resembles Rockefeller Center. Its citizens have dropped their multicolored, sometimes muted, clothing for lots of dark reds and blacks. These colors accent the actors and world giving everything a hard sharp edge. The Penguin exemplifies this sharp style. His skin is shown to be varying degrees of white, countered with his black tuxedos. His gaunt eyes and pointy nose makes him look freighting.

Left Batman(1989) suit Right Batman Returns suit
Left Batman(1989) suit Right Batman Returns suit

The lack of a theatrical or comic book like atmosphere frees up the action to be more impactful as opposed to comical. The action sequences in Batman(1989) were all very stiff with few cuts. Batman lumbered like a tank throwing heavy punches and a kick now and then. Most action sequences in Batman Returns take place in the Gotham Square, allowing for palpable feel of panic when the circus attacks. Tracking shots now follow the Batmobile with shot reverse shots used as he fires his weapons at the scary clowns. Having a larger place for action scenes to exist gives everything a bigger feel, Batman will take out a clown in the foreground while a clown lights a man on fire in the background. Batman now moves quicker and noticeably smaller. The suit no longer has sculpted abs putting scale like armor in its place. He now takes out circus freaks with a variety of punches and the odd Batdevice thrown in.

A new monster is haunting Gotham City's sewers: a birdman. Urban legends aren’t the only monsters in the city, corporate titan Max Shreck tries to push through his powerplant by pressuring the Mayor and corrupt public officials. The birdman, called Penguin recruits Shreck to reintroduce himself to Gotham society and together they might rule Gotham. That is unless the Dark Knight can stop them.

The middle of the movie turns into social satire involving the election of Gotham’s Mayor. Penguin is forced to run for Mayor of Gotham by Max Shreck, who Penguin is blackmailing. This was inspired by a pair of episodes from the Batman(1960s) TV show entitled “Hizzoner the Penguin" and "Dizzoner the Penguin". It comments on the public's willingness to sit idly by as a monster manipulates everyone to assume power. In both cases the Penguin manages to manipulate the media into becoming a hero while demonizing Batman. No longer feared by the Gotham public, tarnishing Batman’s reputation fits the limitations of the Penguin. It is handled competently but little is shown of Batman trying to stop or uncover Penguins scheme. If it weren’t for the Penguin hijacking the Batmobile, Wayne would not have the audio he uses to demolish the Cobblepot campaign.

Batman Returns suffers from too many villains and not enough Batman. Having three villains all tenuously working together would be hard to manage, but is impossible to do so with the uneven screen time. The Penguin, who is the main focus for most of the movie, works best of out of this villainous trio. Christopher Walken as Max Shreck isn’t scary or villainous and doesn't have the crime boss edge of Grissom or Napier from the previous film, Batman. Evil capitalist businessmen just weren’t vogue in 1992. Selina Kyle seems to just wander in and out of the plot while dealing with her own identity issues, which are underdeveloped and overshadowed by the Penguin.

Michael Keaton feels like he is just there to fill out a rubber suit and eventually defeat the villains.

The character of Batman serves nothing more than a function. Instead of being character effecting or being affected by plot, Bruce Wayne/Batman is just a plot device. A tool to be used once all other instructions have been done. Burton shows little of Batman's detective work other than to hint at the possibility that Penguin might be a child murder. His initial curiosity of the Penguin is born out of instinct and distrust, leading Alfred to remark, “Why are you now determined to prove that this Penguin is not what he seems? Must you be the only lonely man-beast in town?”. Penguin even remarks that he is “just jealous, because I'm a genuine freak and you have to wear a mask!”. None of these things lead to any deeper understanding of Wayne as a character and are shallow attempts at characterization.

Other than a quick opening action scene Bruce Wayne isn’t seen again until 25 minutes later. When we do see him, he is more of a bumbling idiot, nearly outing himself as Batman instead of a more seasoned possibly darker version of the Wayne seen in Batman(1989). His professional and personal life once again come into conflict, with a chance meeting of Selina Kyle both pre and post Catwoman. Again like Batman we are supposed to just buy that Wayne is interested in Kyle with only two romantic scenes between the two.

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As the hero of the film and as requirement for its blockbuster status Wayne is once again given a love interest played by a leading lady of the day. Kim Basinger as Vikki Vale fulfilled this requirement last time, but now the role of love interest is played by Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle/Catwoman. Unlike Burton’s previous venture into Gotham City, Pfeiffer and Keaton actually have a little chemistry when their characters meet outside of costume. In costume, Pfeiffer chews scenery as the unrepressed Catwoman making the whole relationship one sided. An ironic turn given relationships in the original Batman. Their best scene together involves Max Shrecks masquerade ball, which the pair have shown up sans masks. A slow dance leads to flirtation under the mistletoe

Selina Kyle: A kiss under the mistletoe. You know, mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it.

Bruce Wayne: But a kiss can be even deadlier... if you mean it.

[silence as they realize each other's identities]

Selina Kyle: Oh, my God. Does this mean we have to start fighting?

This realization about one another's identities completely changes the dynamic between the two. Batman also begins to realize Kyle’s identity issues and wants to save her more from herself than out of love.

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Using Selina Kyle as a character was a gutsy move. She is well known among casual Batman fans and could've added an interesting twist to the typical action hero love interest seen in many blockbuster movies. Her character is too manic and underutilized for her to succeed as an action heroine. Catwoman isn’t a love interest in the end/ She is a warning for what Batman could have become. Her character matches that of a future Wayne love interest, Andrea Beaumont. Both characters fail to properly balance their dual identities and give into the need for revenge instead of moving on.Kyle’s constant brushes with death continually change her personality. The idea of being torn apart by another aspect of your personality is brought up to late. Kyle just comes off as bipolar leading the viewer to wonder about the abrupt changes in character.

At first Kyle as a secretary seems like the lead out of a romantic comedy minutes away from a meet cute. Following a trip out of a window she is transformed into the uninhibited Catwoman. Initially she resembles an undead monster with her pale skin and Frankenstein-esque stitching on her costume. As Catwoman, she is uninhibited by societal norms and is now overtly sexual to friends and foe. Several deaths later Kyle is snapped out of her Catwoman persona and is slowly torn between a fairytale life with Bruce Wayne or revenge as Catwoman.

As the film reaches its climax Kyle is at her most unhinged as she is about to kill Max Shreck , mirroring Batman's dispatching of the his own maker, Jack Napier a film earlier. Her costume is torn to shreds, hair sticking out giving everything a bisected quality. The promise of a fairytale life with Wayne was not real enough, choosing revenge over Wayne and electrocuting Shreck and herself. Her character may be underdeveloped but she is instead turned into one of Batman's many failures, further driving him as he prowls Gotham at night.

Danny Devito as the Penguin manages to show a range of emotions, but never lets the viewer forget that this birdman is crazy. When we first meet Penguin, Devito plays him more like a bird than a man, constantly squakking, drooling over himself gargling his words. As he is introduced to Gotham’s people he sheds the persona of the Penguin taking his given name, Oswald Cobblepot. The only sinister thing he seems to be doing is writing presumably possible names he was given. This middle portion see Devito turns up Cobblepots charm hamming it up for the media and public satirizing the hollow words of public figures. His speech is no longer slurred and the squawking all but stops. This charm isn’t without darkness though as he bites the nose of one of his image consultants. His face now covered in blood looks more monstrous than before. Devito brings back the bird like aspects of Penguin after he is humiliated by Wayne and forced to the sewers once again.

Even though the Penguin is the villain, Tim Burton and writer Daniel Waters with story by Sam Hamm Daniel Waters do a lot to make Penguin a sympathetic character. His origin is the subject of the film's title sequence. We see baby Oswald flow down a Gotham river in Moses like fashion. Years later he becomes the leader of a mad circus, acting as his henchman as he takes on Gotham. Several Elephant Man allusions are made constantly questioning whether Penguin is man or monster. He himself proclaims himself to be a man only to take it back after being publicly humiliated. His eventual death is all a bit sad. The circus leaves him as Batman approaches and he is inadvertently mortally injured by his beloved Penguins. Oswald Cobblepot does not die like a maniacal action movie villain like Hans Gruber, he dies slowly, disoriented, asking for a glass of water alone.

My name is not Oswald! It's Penguin! I am not a human being. I am an animal! Cold-blooded!
My name is not Oswald! It's Penguin! I am not a human being. I am an animal! Cold-blooded!

The Penguin is not a physical threat to Batman. Never has been, never will be. He is a Cobblepot; a mixture of old school Gotham aristocracy and underworld crime boss. He is exceptionally smart, the script plays to these strengths showing him execute several plans to frame and terrorize Batman and Gotham. This lack of physical threat leads to the finale being more of a dramatic talking scene than climatic battle atop a cathedral. Batman attempts to talk Catwoman down from the metaphorical ledge instead of beating up Penguin and Shreck both, walking away from the explosion like a badass. This lack of a physical climax replacing it with a dialog driven emotional one is a gutsy choice, but doesn't pay off. Selina Kyle's character and her relationship with Bruce isn’t strong enough to fully carry the weight of the movie's climax.

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Burton's second Batman film was met with a bit of controversy from parents about how “dark” and overtly sexual the movie was. The complaint about its subject matter isn’t unfounded having your villain abdicate infanticide and starting off with attempted child murder is up there in terms of darkness. Beyond that images of people on fire and Batman blowing up a clown are the only other moments I would consider to be dark. By this time Burton had become known and expected to give all his movies a dark gothic design to his worlds.

The consistent innuendo is another matter. On one hand when I originally watched it when I was around 10 that all went over my head. Looking back it was a bit of an abrupt shift from the lighter humor of Batman(1989). It is however completely reasonable given the repressed nature of the three leads. Penguin has been amongst circus freaks all his life mixed with his hideous appearance make his outbursts both frightening and sad reminding the viewers this guy, no matter how charming is dirty: literally and sexually. Batman is stone cold (once again) now bumbling around when he is shown as Bruce Wayne. His character is too much of a blank slate for his sexualtiy to really matter. Selina Kyle is the only one not repressed but in order to reach that state she must become Catwoman who turns it up to 11 constantly speaking in a hushed voice intimately to her prey. The costume is dominatrix inspired with her suit and whip. Reading into the sexual side of Batman Returns is one of the more interesting things this film has going for it.

Batman Returns when its over feels overstuffed. Like someone started too many fires, causing them to all snuff each other out. Only the Penguin is given any chance for his story to be told standing out amongst Batman and Catwoman due mainly to Devitos performance. The character of Selina Kyle becomes nothing more than a pale warning of what could've happened to Bruce Wayne if he gave into revenge. Bruce Wayne is given nothing to do except to show up at the end and be the hero with little shown as to how he figured it all out.

Music

Danny Elfman returned to compose the movies score. By this point Elfman was part of Burtons normal gang of workers. The score for Batman Returns being a sequel is a lot like its original but Elfmans tendency to right the same basic theme in every Burton film is starting to show.

Warner Bros stepped away from a massive transmedia strategy with only 1 pop sound for the soundtrack "Face to Face" by Siouxsie and the Banshees. The previous Batman soundtrack was just a Prince album with Batman on the cover. They did however make a music video for Batman Returns by using Face to Face and editing in clips from the movie. The video in general is pretty prosaic and attempts to be surreal and artsy but is just kind of weird.

As far as soundtracks go this one is pretty forgettable. I generally hate most of Danny Elfmans music now. “Face to Face” hasn’t lasted as long as “Kiss from a Rose” from the Batman Forever OST.

Other Thoughts

  • The first time Batman and Penguin meet each other is a nice Western style meeting. The law man/hero sees through the outlaws plot and just tells him to stop. A more recent example would be from Justified with Raylon Givens and his conversations or lack thereof with Wynn Duffy.

  • I read online that they wrote the role of Penguin with Devito in mind since there isn’t many short fat actors in Hollywood. Who would you have chosen for the role? Bob Hoskins and Joe Pesci come time mind. Hoskins being British could of added extra snobbery to the role. Pesci well I love My Cousin Vinny though a Penguin from Jersey and Italian would be the polar opposite of an aristocratic crime boss.

  • I could say I didn’t like Keatons two performances as Bruce Wayne. It would be unfair to judge it though since HE HAD NOTHING TO DO BUT PUNCH PEOPLE.

Supplamental Reading

Michael Mazzacane can be found many places on the internet but mainly onTwitter @MaZZM and on Tumblr at mazzz.net

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Until next week when we look at one of the best Batman films ever Mask of the Phantasm

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