July 5, 2014

Batman Returns (1992)

Three years after Batman become a monster worldwide hit, the franchise returned with Batman Returns. This second film saw both Michael Keaton return as star and Tim Burton as director, as well as adding Michelle Pfieffer as Catwoman and Danny DeVito as the Penguin. I'm not even going to hide my bias: Batman Returns is my favourite of the Batman quartet by a country mile. Beyond that blanket statement, however, it gets a little bit complicated.

Batman's return sees him pitted against underground criminal leader Oswald Cobblepot (Danny DeVito), aka the Penguin, and corrupt Gotham City industrialist Max Shreck (Christopher Walken). Their battle is complicated by the arrival of Catwoman (Michelle Pfieffer), aka Selina Kyle, a rogue element who at different points in the movie fights against all three. Outside of their costumes, Bruce Wayne and Selina begin a romance, unaware that they're fighting each other on the rooftops at night.

When Warner Bros wanted Tim Burton to direct a second Batman movie, and Burton vacillated, Warner executives made the decision that would simultaneously make and break Batman Returns: they offered Burton full creative control. The result is a movie that allows Burton's creativity to unfold in a much more assured and confident manner than in Batman, but at the same time presents a massive challenge to a studio planning to license the film out for action figures and fast food tie-in merchandise. Warner Bros famously freaked out, and fairly soon afterwards Joel Schumacher was hired to continue the Batman franchise.

My usual line regarding Batman Returns is 'good film, bad Batman', and upon re-watching it last week that line seems to hold up pretty well. Pretty much the entire Tim Burton standard aesthetic is here, and in many respects this and Edward Scissorhands come to define how audiences perceive Burton's movies. The design is dominated by so much black and white that it's almost monochromatic. It's covered in snow and set during Christmas. Danny Elfman's score twinkles and thumps its way beautifully through the background. Half the cast are dressed in pin stripes, and there's a stylised circus aesthetic through the entire movie thanks to the Penguin's Red Triangle circus gang.

The whole film was shot in the studio, and with location shoots and an aesthetic that is soaked into every costume and bit of set, Batman Returns winds up hermetically sealed: unlike Batman, which looks like the late 1980s film it is, Batman Returns could almost be produced and released today. It's so overwhelmingly designed that it's simply failing to date.

The plot certainly makes more sense than its predecessor, for the most part at least. The film's final act sees the plot go spectacularly- not off the rails, per se, but certainly off the reservation. An army of penguins with rocket launchers converging on central Gotham does seem to come almost entirely out of left of field, and the movie strains to accommodate the sudden shift.  Before that, and it's actually rather admirable how many narrative balls are kept juggling in the air: there's Shreck's plans to overthrow the mayor, Cobblepot's plans to kidnap all of Gotham's children, Catwoman's revenge on Shreck and her developing fight with Batman, and Selina and Bruce's budding romance. I've heard people criticise the plot of Batman Returns over the years, but to be honest I think it's worth marvelling at how much plot there actually is and how it almost manages to work. Is it a mess? Yes, but it's a glorious mess and certainly never gets boring.

The cast are pretty much uniformly great, although Pat Hingle is still stuck with a fairly ordinary role as Commissioner Gordon. The two standouts are Danny DeVito and Michelle Pfieffer. DeVito is stunning as the grotesque, loathsome Penguin. I have never been a fan of the Penguin as a character, but here he's transformed into something that's both disturbing and funny. The make-up team have done wonders with him as well: even in high definition the prosthetics hold up today in a way that the Joker's don't.

Michelle Pfieffer does a fabulous job as Selina Kyle who, as the Catwoman, essentially undergoes a psychological breakdown over the course of the movie. It's particularly impressive because she was a last-minute replacement, cast at short notice when original actress Annette Bening fell pregnant and pulled out. She and Michael Keaton share a great chemistry as well, particularly in my favourite scene of the film: Bruce and Selina meeting at Shreck's costume ball and discovering each is Batman or Catwoman, surrounded by people in masks, but Bruce and Selina dressed as themselves - which of course means each is wearing a mask of sorts. In the background plays first "Super Freak" and then Souixsie and the Banshees' "Face to Face". If the scene had any more symbolism in it the whole film would probably collapse, but the direction, the music and particularly the performances make it work.

Christopher Walken is great, and indeed I find Shreck often gets overlooked by viewers today despite being the primary antagonist of the movie and the instigator of the entire plot. I've always wondered why DC Comics has never considered poaching the character: he'd be a great antagonist for Bruce Wayne with a lot of story potential.

As I mentioned earlier it's a great film, but it is fairly terrible Batman. One of its chief problems is body count: Batman's fairly well established as a guy who doesn't ever kill, and yet once again the villain is plunging to his death by the film's conclusion. What's more, Batman kills at least two circus freaks during the course of the film - one he incinerates with the Batmobile, and the other he attaches a bomb to and then hurls him into a sewer. What's worse, as the poor clown explodes behind him, Batman smiles. It works within the context of the film, but any Batman die-hard would be forgiven for shaking their first and cursing Burton's name.

I think one of the strengths of Batman as a piece of pop culture is his versatility: Batman Returns stretches him into a very specific direction, but it's a direction that works - and of course the character can safely slip back to more familiar ground in future productions. I completely understand why it's a less popular film than its predecessor, but I also appreciate it far more because it represents such a strong directorial vision. It's no surprise that the sponsors freaked, however: it's fairly hard to sell DeVito's raw fish-eating, physically deformed, dubiously stained Penguin in Happy Meals.

This is the 850th post on The Angriest. As always, thank you for reading.

2 comments:

  1. Easily the best of the pre-Nolan live-action movies. If not for the superb, animated Mask of he Phantasm, it'd be the best of the pre-Nolan lot.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I wouldn't argue with that opinion.

    ReplyDelete