It’s December 1st, and it’s time to inject a little Christmas into this blog once again. Last year, I went pretty light on the X-Mas related topics and I intend to do a little more this year. I’ll start off slow with a pseudo-Christmas movie in the form of Batman Returns.
Batman Returns is the 1992 sequel to the mega-successful Batman. All of the major players return from that film including Tim Burton as director and Michael Keaton as Batman. The only notable omissions are Billy Dee Williams as Gotham City District Attorney Harvey Dent; Kim Basinger’s reporter/photographer Vicki Vale, and Robert Wuhl as reporter Alexander Knox. All three characters are absent from the film and were not re-cast. The Vale character was presumably removed so as not to force Batman/Bruce Wayne to settle down, while the other two must have been cut for time (Williams was reportedly disappointed he never got to play Two Face).
The major additions to the cast are, of course, the villains. Going with a “more is better” philosophy, Batman Returns includes three major villains compared to Batman’s one. Created for the film is Max Shreck, played by Christopher Walken. He’s a real-world villain in that he has no gimmick or special abilities, he’s just a greedy, corporate, jerk who values money more than human life and has ties to both of the other comic book based villains. Michelle Pfeiffer plays Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman. Catwoman serves the dual role of being a foe for Batman, and a love interest for Bruce Wayne. Also joining the part is Danny DeVito as Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin, a monstrous take on the old Batman villain. The two “super” villains have a sympathetic angle to play, which I’ll get to in a few paragraphs, and in 1992 both felt like logical inclusions for the big sequel.
The film is virtually identical in look to its predecessor with Gotham taking on aspects of film noir. The technology is modern, or post modern, but with the stylings of the 1930’s and 40’s dominating the landscape, with a touch of goth too. The noir angle is played upon even further with a majority of the film’s colors being black and white. It’s demonstrated in the film’s leads with both Catwoman and The Penguin having a near white complexion to go along with the black and white shades of their respective costumes. This makes what little color appear really jump out, such as the crimson of Catwoman’s lipstick or the yellow of Batman’s logo. Batman, and the other good guys, are depicted with warm, natural flesh tones while the villain Shreck is noticeably pale, but not to the same degree as the other villains. He makes up for that with his bone white hair. The buildings and structures around Gotham are also mostly confined to shades of black and white, as are all of Batman’s gadgets and vehicles. Combining this stylistic choice with the setting of a snowy Christmas time and Batman Returns comes across as a very cold movie, even when compared with the already bleak feeling of the first film.
As was the case with the first film, for better or worse, the villains are meant to be the main driving force of the film. It’s a good thing they’re well-developed as Batman Returns arguably leans even harder on its villains than Batman did with The Joker. Shreck is meant to be the irredeemable villain and serves as a foil to both Bruce Wayne and The Penguin. The Penguin is not a nice guy himself, but Shreck proves to be the true monster of the film when he coldly tries to murder his secretary, Selina Kyle. Shreck is the owner of a department store and he’s seeking the approval of the mayor (and Bruce Wayne as an investor) to build a new power plant. In a sort of goofy Tim Burton type of plot, Shreck’s new power plant will actually syphon power from Gotham and when Kyle figures this out (while working late in an effort to be a better employee) is when Shreck shoves her out of a window. Burton’s twist on Catwoman occurs here, as the meek Selina Kyle is seemingly resurrected when a host of cats attend to her corpse. The scatter-brained screw-up becomes the headstrong and vengeful Catwoman. Kyle is played fairly straight, while Catwoman is intended to represent her ego gone wild which apparently has an S&M twist. Catwoman, clothed in skin-tight leather and armed with a whip, also has the benefit of nine lives. She’s over the top but it works for the picture. Cobblepot, and his family’s rejection of him, is what opens the film. He was a hideous and monstrous baby (who apparently has a taste for cats) and his upper class parents wanted nothing to do with him so they tossed his carriage into the sewer where he was apparently raised by penguins underneath an abandoned zoo. At first his motivations seem are simply to find out his origins while his gang of circus thugs terrorize Gotham. It’s his encounter with Shreck that changes his outlook and sets his sights on being mayor of Gotham. Shreck, needing a new mayor to get his plant approved, thinks he can turn Cobblepot into a sympathetic figure who could win election on that alone (never mind his hideous appearance) and soon the two turn to villainy in order to make The Penguin look good in the eyes of Gotham’s voters.
Naturally, their dealings put them in conflict with Batman as everything becomes twisted and murky. The Penguin, together with Shreck, emerges as a viable candidate for mayor while Catwoman seeks vengeance against Shreck. She starts by attacking his department stores which puts her in conflict with Batman. With Batman as a common foe, this pairs up Penguin and Catwoman who then concoct a plan to frame Batman and turn Gotham against him. It’s a fairly clever pot and Burton should be commended for being able to get this trio of villains to fit together well and the framing angle makes for good drama. Unfortunately, Burton has never been one for realism. We don’t mind when that takes the form of a monster baby killing a cat or a man in a bat costume gliding over the entire city, but he leaves lots of loose ends in his plots and asks the audience to simply overlook them. The framing plot, for example, is never really resolved. Batman is made to look like he kills the Ice Princess, a mini celebrity of sorts, and by exposing The Penguin as a bad guy (but not as the person truly behind the murder) is apparently good enough for Gotham and it’s police department (to make it even more convoluted, the people don’t even know that it’s Batman that made The Penguin look like a bad guy as he hacks into a PA system while Cobblepot is making a speech, using pre-recorded taunts).
Once The Penguin is exposed, the film’s climax is put into motion where The Penguin, now abandoned by Shreck, decides to murder the first-born sons of Gotham’s wealthy elite, including Shreck’s son Chip. He has his circus gang abduct the kids from their cribs and personally attempts to abduct Chip, but Max volunteers in his place. Batman, of course, saves the day which just angers The Penguin even more forcing him to send his penguin army into the city to fire off a bunch of rockets and level a chunk of the city. Catwoman, having also been betrayed and “killed” by The Penguin, is drawn out after Shreck and all three collide for a fitting resolution.
A great deal of the film rests on the Catwoman and Batman conflict. With the characters in costume, their encounters become a fun bit of violent flirting, with all of the flirting basically on the part of Catwoman. As Selina and Bruce, the two have a sometimes warms romance that develops a bit quickly with Bruce as the aggressor. The two have a nice scene together where they both figure out each has a dual identity which is resolved during the final scene pairing Batman and Catwoman. The film’s end suggests that Catwoman was to play a role in a future film, but perhaps because both Keaton and Pfeiffer were uninterested in continuing in their roles, this Catwoman would never surface again.
Batman Returns shares a lot of similarities with its predecessor, one of which being a rather major flaw in that sometimes each film doesn’t necessarily feel like a Batman film. Batman Returns is even more guilty of this as the Batman character is really pushed aside in favor of the villains. Perhaps Burton felt like he had more freedom to do this since the previous movie covered Batman’s origin, but we really learn nothing new about the main character. In one respect, it does help to add more importance and excitement to the scenes that actually feature a costumed Batman, but it feels like their could have, or should have been, more from our hero. The plot does mostly work though, even with the bloated cast, but it clearly had to make sacrifices somewhere and it’s debatable those sacrifices were worthwhile.
The first film set a fairly high-standard for special effects and gadgets that Batman Returns is able to live up to. The big spot occurs with the Batmobile once again, this time with it transforming into the Bat Missile. Batman also debuts his ski boat during the closing moments of the film which serves as an interesting take on the more traditional bat boat seen in the comics and television series. There’s also the previously mentioned gliding scene for Batman as he makes greater use of his cape. Catwoman has some pretty spectacular death scenes as well and there’s plenty of fire and explosions throughout. There are a few moments that scream “Tim Burton” that look kind of stupid, notably the penguin army and the final shot of a villain’s corpse at the end. Some people are unwilling to forgive Burton for the campy penguin army, though I also kind of viewed it as Burton’s nod to the campy origins of the television show, and when viewed in that light, it doesn’t really bother me as much. As a Christmas movie, there isn’t much here. The film just happens to take place at Christmas, something Burton is quite fond of doing. It does give the set designers a chance to play with snow which is kind of cool, and the only real mention of the holiday occurs during the final scene.
All in all, Batman Returns is an entertaining film with quite a number of flaws. It’s pacing isn’t always ideal and the attention to detail is lacking where the plot is concerned. The Batman character at times feels ignored, but the film is elevated by the performance of the villains and the way all of the major characters intertwine. Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is a fun take on the character even if it isn’t that radical a departure from other portrayals. The sexually aggressive Catwoman plays off of the more stoic, and sometimes naive, Batman rather well with the only drawback to those encounters being that they make Batman look pathetically boring. DeVito received a Razzie nomination for his take on The Penguin which I never understood. DeVito’s Penguin isn’t as overly campy as the character had been in the past, he has his moments but he’s mostly well done and I still enjoy this take on the character. The makeup crew should be commended as it’s sometimes hard to believe it’s DeVito underneath all of the prosthetics. Walken’s Shreck is perhaps the star, as he’s just so good in this role. Shreck is hate-inducing, and he’s able to needle the audience in just about every scene he’s in. The score, provided once again by Danny Elfman, is also adequate as are all of the other sound effects used in the film. It’s the classic case of a flashy and big-budgeted film trying to compensate for some underlying problems, which are more obvious this time around than they were with the film before. Batman Returns is far from being among the worst Batman films produced, but it’s also not really one of the best either.