We have to wait a little longer to see Christopher Nolan‘s The Dark Knight Rises, and NerdBastards’ Matthew Jackson is dealing with the wait by filling his head with as many other Batman tales as possible. In the six weeks leading up to the flick’s release, he’ll be revisiting all six Batman franchise films so far (yes, even the crap ones) and writing retrospective essays on what worked, what didn’t, and what each film means to the franchise at large.
After my essay on Batman last week, a reader theorized that the biggest problem with the Tim Burton-era Batman films is in fact Tim Burton. After all, he’s been rather publicly dismissive of comic books overall, and he’s always more interested in the visual aspect of his films than the characters that populate them. While it might be the most powerfully distilled version of a Tim Burton superhero movie, and that may be a big problem for some viewers, Batman Returns is a fascinating, darkly gorgeous entry in the franchise with far fewer and (mostly) shallower flaws than its predecessor.
Gotham at Christmas- It seems obvious that Burton and his production designers were never really interested in portraying Gotham as a practical city. We’re not meant to see it as an analogue for New York. This is a dream city, a city out of a comic book panel. It’s one of the most effective things about Batman, and Burton manages to top it for Batman Returns by placing Gotham under a blanket of snow and peppering it with the old-fashioned pleasures of the holiday season. But it’s not just visually arresting. It’s a useful contrast to the even dirtier world this film’s villains inhabit, and when those two opposing aesthetics collide things look even more interesting. Winter is, after all, the season of the Penguin.
Catwoman– In many ways the Catwoman story is the most fascinating thing about Batman Returns. It’s far from the traditional interpretation of Selina Kyle. It’s a much more Tim Burton way of doing it, but I don’t care. Watching Michelle Pfeiffer transition from the outwardly meek but inwardly venomous Selina to the powerfully sensual and violent Catwoman is compelling, indulgent and just too strange not to love.
The Penguin- This is the one nearly all of my Batman fan friends can’t get behind me on. The Penguin’s meant to be debonair, they say. He’s not a monster; he just looks strange. He’s sophisticated, dammit! Yes, that’s true of most of Penguin’s comic book incarnations, and it’s a version of the character that I’d still like to see on the big screen someday. But even having said that, I’ve always loved Danny DeVito‘s full-tilt savagery in the Burton-ized version of the character. Burton was clearly drawn to the Batman films by the idea that trauma can breed monsters of various kinds. It’s something he explored in Batman, mapping the dual paths of Batman and The Joker as they reached the same larger-than-life status on opposite ends of the spectrum. Here, Batman is cemented, so he turns to Catwoman and Penguin to be his freaks. While Catwoman is definitely letting her freak flag fly, Penguin is simply monstrous. He’s not generally concerned with becoming something else, though sometimes he pretends he is. He enjoys biting noses and snarling his way through life. In the end he even rejects the acceptance he wins for himself. It’s a fascinating version of the character, and a gloriously over-the-top performance by DeVito.
Alfred – It’s Michael Gough, and he’s just wonderful. Nothing more to say.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK
Action- As visually fascinating as most of what Tim Burton does on screen is in Batman Returns, the action sequences are proof that it really was time for him to hang up his superhero director hat. It’s not that he doesn’t seem willing to shoot them, or that he blows through them without care. It’s that they’re just so damn slow. Batman climbs out of the Batmobile, gets his cape nice and in order, trudges slowly through the streets of Gotham toward a member of the Circus Gang. He’s then able to defeat that member with a clever little grappling hook trick before any other member of the gang notices he’s around. Which would make sense if it weren’t for the fact that the scene seems to go on forever. Yes, the costumes all look good in action, but the action feels more like a series of poses than an actual flowing sequence.
Max Shreck- I hate to say anything bad about the brilliant Christopher Walken, but even he can’t save this character. Max Shreck has a vital role in the film’s plot. He’s there to knock Selina Kyle down and build Penguin up. He’s there to represent the corruption of the city that each of the flick’s three leads – Batman, Penguin and Catwoman – is in some way at odds with. But other than that he’s a mass of ridiculous makeup, cliched lines and very little substance. At least he’s got that voice.
Batman- And now we’ve arrived at the biggest problem with Batman Returns: the extreme lack of Batman. Yes, he gets some action sequences, but as far as moments of real substance there are really only one or two. He takes a back seat to not one but two villains (or one villain and one antihero, depending on how you see it). The only real weight his character gets is wondering if he can finally have a real relationship with someone through Selina, who’s just as messed up as he is. As it turns out, of course, she’s more messed up than he is, and he’s back to brooding loneliness. But there’s little to no development of the theme of increasing supercrime in Gotham, or the idea that freaks are somehow multiplying in this city, or how Batman will keep up if such things continue. None of this, by the way, is Michael Keaton‘s fault. I’m still a fan of his Batman, and of his awkward, aloof Bruce Wayne. There’s a wonderful moment between him and Gough, when Alfred brings him cold soup. He takes a sip and cries “It’s cold!” Alfred calmly replies “It’s Vichyssoise, sir.” Bruce looks at him, puzzled, until Alfred says “It’s supposed to be cold.” Bruce grunts his understanding and keeps eating as he does his research. It’s a wonderful character moment for both Keaton and Gough, but it’s one of a bare few. For all its visual brilliance and freakish villainy, this is the film’s most glaring flaw.
Despite its lack of Batman-centric plotting, I consider Batman Returns to be the better of the two Burton-era flicks. It’s more visually unified, more graceful in its execution, and feels less gimmicky in its sensationalism (if that makes any sense). It’s still got some major flaws in terms of its mythology, but as a standalone film it’s both well-executed and surprisingly stunning. And compared to the stuff we’re going to watch next, it’s positively a masterpiece.
Next Week: I suffer through Batman Forever for your amusement. Will I find something to compliment? Stay tuned!