Batman Returns (1992) – Directed by Tim Burton – Starring Michael Keaton, Michelle Pfeiffer, Danny DeVito, Christopher Walken, Michael Gough, Michael Murphy, Pat Hingle, Vincent Schiavelli, Diane Salinger, and Paul Reubens.
“For much of my life, I lived under the myth that record labels were inherently evil. I was ceaselessly reminded that corporate forces stopped artists from doing what they truly desired; they pushed musicians toward predictable four-minute radio singles and frowned upon innovation, and they avariciously tried to turn art into a soulless commodity that MTV could sell to the lowest common denominator. And that did happen, sometimes. But some artists need that, or they end up making albums like this.” – Chuck Klosterman, “Injustice For All: The Lou Reed/Metallica Album,” Grantland.com, October 25, 2011
In truth, Klosterman’s quote better applies to my Alice in Wonderland review, or most of Burton’s later films and not BATMAN RETURNS, but Burton has come to strike me as a director who needs someone (whether in corporate or not) to more-than-occasionally say, “Yeah, right, listen, this is a stupid idea, Tim. You’re being zany just to be zany. It’s tired. Open up your bag and give us a new trick, eh?” At some point in his career (likely post-Ed Wood with a Big Fish caveat), Burton’s stories became unhinged, and he largely seems to have lost interest in telling stories. So much of Burton’s work has come to be characterized by the all-important, grotesque visualization of the weird and macabre that he rarely bothers to offer any semblance of realistic characters.
And by “realistic characters” I don’t mean characters that don’t have enormous heads or scissors for hands or are played by Johnny Depp.
I mean characters that feel real, that are well-rounded people full of complex emotions and problems, and not just psychological stereotypes that Burton can exploit for the purposes of stylistic weirdness. Unfortunately, BATMAN RETURNS is largely full of the latter.
I know BATMAN RETURNS has become THE Batman film for many people (including Burton), but for me it’s a dull, dreary, stupid first-half followed by a rousing back-half; in some films this would be enough, but while I like BATMAN RETURNS more than I dislike it (thanks almost wholly to the individual performances), it’s almost slavish devotion to style over substance, and it’s almost complete disinterest in either Batman or Bruce Wayne, makes me wish Burton had simply made the The Madness of Catwoman and the Penguin movie he seems so clearly to have wanted to make.
And it’s a shame we didn’t get that movie, because Michelle Pfeiffer (as Catwoman) and Danny DeVito (as the Penguin) are completely fantastic. Well, Pfeiffer is completely fantastic once Max Schreck (Christopher Walken) shoves her out of his office window and she becomes Catwoman. Before her transformation, she’s an idiot of a character, a walking stereotype of the weak-willed, dysfunctional semi-professional woman who’s desperate for a man, ignores calls from her annoying mother, and lives with a cat. Writer Daniel Waters was brought in to rewrite Sam Hamm’s original script, and he told Film Review that “Sam Hamm went back to the way comic books in general treat women, like fetishy sexual fantasy. I wanted to start off just at the lowest point in society, a very beaten down secretary.”
Right. Two things. One, Waters is right that a simple fetish sex-doll wouldn’t have been a positive character, but he’s fooling himself if he thinks that the stupid stereotype he gives us is any better. (With, you know, the usual caveat that the characters that end up on screen might not be the character that the writer put on paper.) Selina Kyle isn’t a person; she’s a dippy, gloomy collection of obnoxious traits. It’s telling that Waters thinks the “lowest point in society” is a “very beaten down secretary,” because I can think of at least one or two lower points. Like, she could be homeless. Or the captive of a religious cult. Or a drug addict. Or a writer for People magazine.
No, for Waters, the lowest point in society is the secretary to one of Gotham’s wealthiest industrialists.
Yes, sir, Selina Kyle has a hard knock life. No doubt about it.
What’s Waters’ definition of “beaten down?” That she can’t get her man to take her away for the holidays, because a woman can’t be whole if she doesn’t have a man in her life, apparently. Oh, and that she has an annoying, incessantly calling mother. Right, because a mother’s voice on an answering machine is very much like being a crack addict. Selina’s boss, too, is a big meanie because he doesn’t want her offering suggestions during Very Important Meetings with the mayor. What a jerk! It’s amazing that Amnesty International hasn’t stepped in to help her!
And let’s not forget that she has a cat, because any single woman that has a cat is clearly a beaten down woman.
Thing #2: the idea that what Hamm wrote was a “fetishy sexual fantasy,” which implies that what we get here isn’t said “fetishy sexual fantasy.” While we don’t get a Scott Lobdellian Starfire here (and if you haven’t read Laura Hudson’s brilliant takedown of the DCnU’s Starfire, go read it now – I’ll wait), thanks largely to Catwoman always owning her sexuality, exploiting herself only when it’s for her benefit and not simply for ours (such as when she slinks all over the Penguin’s bed to get him on bring him into an alliance), there is a fair amount of sexually-driven action and cheeseball dialogue that fails in being groan-inducing largely because Pfeiffer and DeVito are much better actors and Burton has crafted a much darker story than the sexually-driven camp of Joel Schumacher’s two films. There is plenty of shots of latex-hugging curves, however, and Pfeiffer drolls out dribble like:
“You poor guys. Always confusing your pistols with your privates,” to two security guards;
“Your catnip to a girl like me,” to Batman, as she straddles his prone body;
and the obnoxious: “I am Catwoman. Hear me Roar,” it’s only saved by Pfeiffer’s delivery, which has just enough meat in it to keep it from campiness.
Same goes for the Penguin. DeVito’s outstanding performance keeps his sexually-driven dialogue creepy and letchy instead of silly and campy, but there’s still plenty of cringe-worthy sexual allusions and innuendos at play here:
“I could really get into this Mayor stuff! It’s not about power. It’s about reaching out to people, touching people, groping people!”
“You’re beauty and the beast in one luscious Christmas gift pack.”
And the Ah-nuld worthy: “Just the pussy I’ve been looking for.”
What’s unfortunate is that Burton has linked sexuality with Selina and Oswald’s psychoses; sex can’t be something healthy in Burton’s Gotham, and love is a non-starter. During their one “date,” (in which Bruce creepily asks Selina to come to his house instead of taking her on a real date), Selina tells him that it’s the “so-called normal guys” that are eternally disappointing. “Sickos never scare me,” she admits. “At least they’re committed.” Later, when Bruce offers Selina the opportunity to leave the final battle scene with him so they can start a new life together, Selina rejects him by arguing, “Bruce … I would love to live with you in your castle… forever just like in a fairy tale. I just couldn’t live with myself! So don’t pretend this is a happy ending!”
It’s a false choice; Bruce is offering her a way out and a new start and Selina interprets this as some kind of ultimatum. In fact, in that sentence (which is, for all I’ve dogged Waters in this reaction, a pretty insightful take on the character), you can see Selina transforming into Catwoman all over again. It’s not surprising that she chooses the Catwoman persona, of course, since Selina Kyle was such a boring drip of a human.
But that’s what Burton does; he takes a character’s psychological make-up and then exploits it for our benefit. Selina was a drip so the transformation into Catwoman exacerbates the opposite side of that persona, which means an aggressive, sexual, whip-wielding, latex-wearing one-liner tossing babe. She’s changed, and for the better, but she’s still a damaged human being, and her damage is laid out on screen for our benefit. (Seriously, how did Burton not direct Black Swan?)
Bruce makes an attempt to help her, but it comes too late and too poorly-conceived. What Bruce offers Selina is more what Bruce needs to be healthy and less what Selina needs. It’s a great moment and one of the scenes which makes the back-half of this film so darn enjoyable.
Unfortunately, Bruce doesn’t offer to help Oswald. Probably because he doesn’t want to play smoochy with him.
Where Selina’s psychological failings manifest as sexy, Oswald’s manifest as grotesque. Burton delights in showing the enormously fat and short Cobblepot in his one-piece under garments as much as he enjoys showing off Pfeiffer’s latex one-piece. Oswald’s cotton-busting gut and spindly legs very much the antithesis of Catwoman’s latex-hugging curves. Psychologically, Oswald is living with the damage of being tossed away by his parents. It’s understandable that he might be resentful, of course, and want revenge for what’s happened to him, and DeVito is delightfully evil and easily led-astray by both Shreck and Catwoman. When he realizes that he’s been pulled off course and not to his advantage, he reacts violently. DeVito’s Penguin is my favorite of all the Batman villains committed to screen during this 1990′s run of films, and in his own way, he’s the most well-rounded character in either of Burton’s films. Unlike Selina Kyle, who’s introduced as in disarray, we actually get Oswald’s back-story here. Oswald is the one character Burton bothers to develop and thus it’s no surprise that he’s the most realistic character in the film despite his being raised by penguins in the sewers of Gotham.
The focus on Selina, Shreck, and Oswald during the first-half of the movie makes BATMAN RETURNS a dreary film to watch, however, and I was constantly left wondering what role Bruce and Batman were supposed to play. Burton simply has no interest in the character, which is a decided shame because once again Michael Keaton is phenomenal. As Bruce, he’s a cerebral, introverted grown-up who’s finally learning to become a man. While he’s still no good with the ladies, we actually get to see Bruce the Businessman here, and the boardroom scene between him and Shreck is the best scene in the film’s opening half. I could watch Walken and Keaton play off each other all day and it’s a pity there’s more scenes between Shreck and Kyle and Shreck and Oswald than there is between Shreck and Bruce.
Even their brief interaction in the film’s climactic action sequence is a great one. After Batman rips off his mask to reveal himself to Catwoman (which he doesn’t need to do because they already know each other’s secret identity, but maybe he thinks the appeal as Bruce will carry more weight). Shreck asks, “Why is Bruce Wayne dressed as Batman?” “Because he is Batman, you moron,” Catwoman growls back.
“Was Batman,” Shreck corrects, and then shoots him, conveniently getting him out of the way so Catwoman can blow her and him up.
Another problem with BATMAN RETURNS is Gotham, itself. In BATMAN, Gotham was a living, breathing entity – very much a character in its own right, but in RETURNS it’s just a set. There’s no sense of city, of community, of people being anything more than background extras.
What it is, unfortunately, is another indication that Burton is more interested in style over substance.
I’ve done two things I don’t like to do in this reaction to a movie. The first is I’ve gone out of my way to rip the writer. Making movies is such a collaborative business that I usually feel like ripping the writer is largely unfair; it’s much wiser to rip the director. In this case, however, Waters quote opens him up to criticism because he seems to be tacitly admitting he’s cool with what made its way onto the screen. Plus, he’s ripping another writer on a draft of a script we can’t see. (But, as a caveat, there’s no online link to that Film Review article and a search of their website doesn’t turn the article up so I can’t read the entirety of the piece. So it’s a mildly dumb thing for me to go off a quote reprinted on a Wikipedia page, so if the rest of that article shows a deep satisfaction with the finished product on Waters part, it’s totally my bad.)
The second thing I’ve done that I don’t like to do is concentrate too much on the negative. You might be surprised to find that I don’t hate BATMAN RETURNS. I like it, but I’m frustrated by its opening half. Once all of the pieces are in place and the action starts, RETURNS picks up. And, as I mentioned, the performances here are stellar right across the board. For all of my issues with Burton’s storytelling, the man does manage to get great performances out of actors who don’t overstay their welcome in his oeuvre (Depp, Helena Bonham Carter).
And, you know, for a movie called BATMAN RETURNS, it’d be nice to see Batman at the center of the film. If the rest of the film worked, I probably wouldn’t care as much, but Batman/Bruce is the fourth most important character in this film. I feel like we’ve lost out not seeing more of Michael Keaton in this role; even his small scenes (and they’re mostly small scenes) are so good here it’s telling that Burton just has no interest in this character because otherwise he would have used him more. I love the bit between him and Alfred (Michael Gough), when Alfred is preaching the need for security when repairing the Batmobile. Bruce replies, “Security? Who let Vicki Vale into the Batcave? I’m sitting there working. I turn around, there she is. ‘Oh, hi Vick. Come on in!’”
BATMAN RETURNS is a good film, but it’s not as good as BATMAN, and it’s not as good as either of the two Christopher Nolan films, even with the bravura performances from the four leads. There’s just too many indications here of the Burton excesses to come. For a director who’s given us the heartwarming and heartbreaking Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, and Big Fish, Burton is often one of the coldest directors towards his characters. Other than the Oswald Cobblepot arc, I don’t feel like Burton cares about these characters for anything more than what he can do with them visually.