Batman Returns


Certificate: 15
Running time: 126 mins
Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Michael Keaton, Danny De Vito, Michelle Pfeiffer
Genre: Comic book, Action, Adventure
Country: USA

It’s Christmas in Gotham and a mysterious penguin man, a forgotten child or wealthy socialites has returned to take his natural position in the hierarchy of the great American city.  Unconvinced of Cobblepot’s motives Batman (Keaton) sets about investigating and preventing his devilish plan to get event with the city’s privileged.  Matters are further complicated by the appearance of another vigilante, latex wearing, bull whip cracking Selena Kyle (Pfeiffer) better known to fans of the DC Universe as Catwoman.

Burton (Director), Keaton (Star), Waters (Writers) and co return for a highly anticipated sequel to their 1989 hit Batman with a festive offering no less than 100% extra villain (if you don’t include Christopher Walken).  The first thing that’s evident about Burton’s second outing behind the camera is the improved narrative.  The issues of electoral corruption, a financial downturn and the notion of status is all things relevant in the 1980’s and the early years of the 90’s.  1992 sees the departure of George Bush from the White House after one term of office, the entrance of a highly charismatic and intelligent leader (in William Jefferson Clinton) and the beginning of the most prosperous era in American history.  These themes set against the comic book world of Gotham and its Dark Knight gives an all over sense of realism, which is a wonderful touch.  The architecture is, surprise surprise, incredibly dark, gothic, German in tone and psychologically realistic with special mention going to the amazingly constructed penguin lair in the depths of the city sewer system. 

The Batsuit has seen some minor overhauls, nothing overly drastic (ala Schumacher era) but enough that the mobility issues of Burton’s first film have been ironed out.  No longer does Batman struggle with the simple task of arriving on screen – though he’s still unable to use his neck (this issue will not be solved any time soon).  Similarly there have been minor adjustments all round, most appreciatively to the score as Elfman crafts a fairytale piece somewhere between Beatlejuice and A Nightmare Before Christmas with a nod to the novelty acts of Tod Browning’s Freaks for the umbrella welding Penguin (Danny De Vito).

Burton’s use of lighting has never been better than in the sewer sequences with Penguin, especially his interactions with Max Shreck (Walken) as the underlit ripples of the water cast shadows and reflections across set and performer alike.  This creates an uncertainty of what lies in the margins of the screen, the uncertain and ever changing shadows.  It also serves as a device for Penguin’s recounting of his history as it resembles the editing devices used in decades passed that would ripple and give way to a flashback.  Keaton (as Bruce Wayne/Batman) is solid, he gives not just what’s expected post Batman but a more assured and at times powerful performance, though he still doesn’t seem to have much of a back story, no residual trauma surrounding his parents death and little issue with keeping his secret identity secret from women who are the last women who should know – how and why and how Bruce?  You’ve made some bizarre choices there man.  Pfeiffer (as Selena/Catwoman) gives two very distinct performances, it’s almost incredible really.  As Selena Kyle she’s scattered brained, uncertain with her words, her movements and direction.  She seems out of place, out of time and beyond awkward.  As Catwoman she is everything you would expect from her – though the transformation makes zero sense…actually less than zero sense, minus sense.  Her Catwoman manages to cut and paste the best qualities of Lee Meriweather and Julie Newmar before her.  Physically strong, unquestionably sexual but with a severe touch of mental illness (something that was lacking in previous incarnations).  Her scenes with Keaton are some of the best work that not only Pfeiffer has done, in terms of acting “the small stuff” but also some of the best committed to the Bat films.  The reason I say this, as it’s quite a large statement, is because of the duality of both performers and how it plays out narratively and within the audiences knowledge.  It’s not just Bruce talking to Selena, it’s not just Batman talking to Catwoman but it’s Bruce talking to Catwoman trying to be Selena, it’s Selena talking to Batman trying to be Bruce, it’s the constant to and fro and re-correction of balance between two highly skilled actors who are clearly having a great time juggling their identities.  What will prove interesting shortly is how Christian Bale and Anne Hathaway will handle this dance of duality in The Dark Knight Rises.

Danny De Vito (as Oswald Cobblepot/Penguin) is excellent.  I’ve always liked De Vito as an actor and for the most part, because of his stature and “star quality” in Hollywood he’s always been a likeable character, even when he’s not meant to be (Romancing The Stone for example).  In Batman Returns he gets to leave the cuddly at the door, he gets the opportunity to play unlikeable straight up.  It’s a testament to his acting ability that he manages to make interesting and personable one of the most problematic antagonist from the Batman realm.  Penguin has always been a character I have had issue with and in order for him to truly work as a villain he must be the most dark and emotionally twisted person alive.  He’s never going to have the physical prowess of a Bane, or the mind of Riddler but by definition he can be an animal.  One devoid of human feeling.  Penguin’s almost biblical crusade against Gotham is wonderful and De Vito is without peer – though he is responsible for strike one which I’ll come to shortly.  It’s no surprise that Nolan has avoided this character in the three Batman films under him guidance.  One graphic novel depicts the Penguin as a depraved child snatcher and eludes to a sexual preference towards them, though it’s an interesting direction to take the character I’m not entirely sure how anyone would put this on screen.  Walken gives an interesting, almost mob affiliated Willie Wonka-esque performance as Shreck.  He’s brilliant though, two faced, crooked, underhand, wonderful.

This all makes it sound so brilliant but there are problems with Batman Returns.  The first that this is again a “Tim Burton film” and not a “Batman film”.  I’ve mentioned how Batman/Wayne has no back story, it’s pretty much left to the audience to fill in the blanks with their own knowledge.  The second major issue with this film is it’s place within any kind of linear world.  Burton has forgone any real lineage or causality.  You could watch Batman Returns before Batman and both films could be viewed without confusion.  They exist in their own realm, outside of any relationship with one another, it’s almost as though the Joker never happened.  This might seem like a minor problem but when you spend time establishing your villains and their back stories but neglect your hero and the world in which the whole thing occurs it takes you out of the reality of it.  One of the best things about Batman Begins and The Dark Knight is how Batman’s actions in BB have ramifications in TDK.  It’s a small thing on the surface but it gives the audience so much more.  With the core creative team from Batman still on board any issues from the previous film that have not been highlighted in this can be read as existing, because they do.  They’ve accepted the plaudits of the film’s success but not learned from the mistakes.  Finally, and I did promise to get to this.  We have the issue what I like to call “Gothic Erosion and the Three Strikes that kill The Bat-Man”.  It’s probably no spoiler to state that the forthcoming reviews of the Schumacher era will not be favourable.  Many fans of Batman have pondered the moment in which it all went wrong.  The singularity of awfulness that took Gotham’s finest from the course of The Dark Knight and set it back twenty years.  Rather than adhering to the notion that there was one defining moment I’ve singled out three strikes, three critical body blows that killed off the Batman franchise until Christopher Nolan took up the challenge.

The first strike of the “Gothic Erosion” comes in the latter stages of this film, when Penguin rallies his penguin troops with a Churchill-esque speech that sends them off to wage war on Gotham.  It’s a step too far, one that goes against the ethos of psychological realism and grounding the fantastic in the mundane and sadly everything goes the way of the pear from this moment on for Batman Returns.  It’s a real shame as this Christmas based offering was promising to be one of those few cinematic sequels that surpasses it’s original.  In the end it stumbles across the finishing line as an unbalanced, uneven mish-mash of dark and dreamy desire and downright dreadfulness all topped off with a protagonist the film makers don’t seem too interested in presenting to their audience.







Movie Bar HEROES! featuring a foursome of fantastic yet forgotten Superheroes including The Champions of Justice and 3 Supermen Against Godfather can be booked by clicking [here].





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