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Batman Returns (1992)


Tim Burton's Batman Returns is one of the strangest summer blockbusters I've ever seen. It's not the dark whimsy on which the director has been coasting since Beetlejuice* that bugs me. My issue is that he and writers Sam Hamm and Daniel Waters cracked the door that let Joel Schumacher's Technicolor nipple parade bury this franchise for more than a decade. Watching the movie for the first time since I was fifteen, I really noticed how campy, gross and cold it is--playing like Burton acting out his art-versus-commerce guilt-struggle on the international celluloid stage.

As in the first Batman, Michael Keaton stars as Bruce Wayne, the billionaire philanthropist of Gotham City who--with the help of his tech-whiz butler, Alfred (Michael Gough), and a mansion-lair's worth of sleek, black gadgets--keeps the streets safe from freakish thugs. The latest batch of villains are a rogue circus act known as the Red Triangle Gang, who terrorize the citizenry under the guidance of a deformed, sewer-dwelling cast-off called The Penguin (Danny DeVito).

The Penguin recruits a sleazy industrialist named Max Schreck (Christopher Walken) to help introduce him to the world as a sympathetic figure. Schreck takes things a step further by positioning his new ally for a mayoral run--in the hopes that having a puppet in office will allow him to build a power-sucking energy plant, unencumbered by snooping regulation advocates.

Schreck's secretary, Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer), is thrown into the mix when he throws her out of a highrise window. She'd come across some incriminating documents and, like a stammering idiot, told her boss as much. Not to worry, though: a tribe of CPR-trained alley cats emerges from the shadows, transforming her from a mousy assistant into Catwoman, a whip-snapping, criminal mastermind in a leather bodysuit.

It's been said that Batman Returns' biggest issue is its lack of concrete villains. Max Schreck is like Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor, if he'd had balls; Catwoman is a split-personality trauma victim; Penguin is a birth-defect case with a chip on his shoulder and a fetish for rubber ducks and umbrellas. Unlike Jack Nicholson's Joker from the previous picture, Batman doesn't have any spectacularly evil opponents here. With the exception of Scrheck, when Batman beats up on his Returns foes, I got the icky feeling that he was abusing the mentally and physically challenged.

It doesn't help that Selina Kyle and Bruce Wayne develop a bizarre, romantic relationship. They bring out the psychopathy in each other in a script that's played for laughs. Keaton and Pfeiffer have great chemistry, especially in a later scene where they figure out one another's secret identities--but Hamm and Waters refuse the challenge of having their alter egoes go at it after the Big Reveal. Instead, this really interesting side story is steamrolled by Penguin's late-picture, Old Testament scheme to kill the first-born child of every family in Gotham.

Yes, that contradicts what I just wrote about Penguin not being a real bad guy; I scratched my head, too, when he announced his intentions. Though there are clues throughout the movie that he's up to something sinister, his grand finale involving mass kidnappings and an army of penguins with back-mounted rockets and targeting systems seems to come out of nowhere. Was that all part of a contingency plan? Had he been preparing to be humiliated and booed off the steps of City Hall when Batman revealed him as a scheming phony? Penguin's motivations are never clear, and the mental "freak/foe" waffling eventually becomes so frequent that it's hard to care which angle is true.

There's a big difference between writing villains with shades of emotional complexity and writing villains who may or may not actually be villains. Not helping matters is the Penguin's tragic, lumpy appearance. He shuffles about in dirty undergarments, oozing green-black slime from his mouth, and awkwardly barking at "normal" people. This is a far cry from the strange-looking-yet-debonaire crime lord from the comics (or even Burgess Meredith's TV take on the character). Burton and company have propped up a gruesome little monster with mixed motives as a foil for Batman; in the process, they've turned an iconic evil genius into the kind of sniveling toady one of Penguin's henchmen might send on errands.

As non-villains go, though, Pfeiffer is at least interesting to watch (and not just in the catsuit; though I have no complaints with it). I like the distressed flightiness of her post-fall daytime persona. She's a crazed Carrie Bradshaw, whereas before her "death" she was more like a lonely Sex and the City fan. But when Pfeiffer suits up, the degree of deep-voiced camp becomes as criminal as her character's new profession. She successfully sells Selina's duality, but the Catwoman persona is embarrassing to watch.

Besides the character problems, Batman Returns' biggest hurdle is its lack of scale. Burton's first Batman film felt expansive, as if it were shot in real locations that had been built out or stylized. The sequel could very well have taken place on a single, closed-off sound stage, with slightly different building facades being swapped out from scene to scene. Even the handful of crowd shots only feature about fifty citizens, and I wouldn't have been surprised to see a model train chug through a scene at any moment. Tangentially, I guess Burton wanted to give the film a "timeless" quality, but he dresses everyone as if they're extras in a 1940s screwball Depression comedy who haven't had a proper wardrobe fitting.

Note to future filmmakers: It may not be the best idea to set your summer blockbuster in the middle of winter. Just sayin'.

Like its own crazed, unconfident characters, Batman Returns is a slick fantasy scrambling to find the identity it dropped in the sewer. Its drama is too Melrose Place-y to take seriously, and its comedy is more Cesar Romero than Heath Ledger. When Burton's first Batman film came out, the talk of the town was that its darkness signaled a new era of comics not being for kids anymore. Batman Returns takes that to a new level entirely by not being for anybody.

*Excepting Ed Wood, of course.

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