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Batman Returns Review

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by Chris McEneany Feb 2, 2009

  • “Bruce Wayne ... why are you dressed up like Batman?”

    It was hard to believe that Tim Burton could have gone darker with the Caped Crusader after his comic-savvy first interpretation wowed audiences a couple of years before, yet that is exactly what he succeeded in doing. With his fabulously skewed world-view and warped visuals decorating another tale of broken minds and outlandish freakery, he took the Bat deeper into the twisted realm of the psychologically damaged of Gotham's sick underbelly. Whereas it was frightening fun to witness Jack Napier's descent into tortured mania in Batman, there was a concerted effort in the sequel to etch the scars of anguish and tragedy of the new villainous double-act of The Penguin and Catwoman right across the screen and our hearts. He created in Batman Returns an insane tableaux of shattered souls tumbling into literal, and metaphorical doom, only to rebuild themselves as embittered avengers seeking salvation and, ironically, a little bit of dignity. Horror and pathos, hand in hand, or paw-in-flipper, if you will. Cleverly constructed, the story makes us genuinely feel sympathy for the devil. Batman Returns isn't, and never was, a kid's film. In fact, other than the forthcoming Watchmen, it is hard to imagine a more perverse tale of super-heroics. The Crow was a mightily valiant attempt to wade through the despair of broken and cursed nobility but, despite its clever tag-line, it was never even close to being “darker than the Bat”. And, in a stroke of genius, this one was set in a demented snow-globe of a Christmas Gotham City, enhancing the motifs of light and dark, jollity and the macabre even further.

    “Remember, Max ... you flush it, I flaunt it.”

    The screenplay by Daniel (Heathers) Waters was keen to probe the outsider status of society's lost and wayward. Poor Oswald Cobblepot, tossed into an icy river and abandoned by parents too horrified of his flippered-deformities to keep him - literally flushing him away, in effect - is a majestically painful way to commence a crowd-pleasing, big budget blockbuster. His subsequent survival, positively thriving down in the squalor and effluence of Gotham's sewage, and rise in status to infamy is the exact flip-side of the American Dream. Or, if you prefer it, a ribald and subversive take on the story of Moses. As the Penguin, as far removed from the dapper TV version as you could possibly get, Danny DeVito inhabited the role with an aching vulnerability, crowned by an obsessive greed and hunger for revenge. His visceral abhorrence - oozing black blood and voraciously chewing down on raw fish - is matched only by his heart-rending plight to find out who he really is and just why he ended up in the garbage whilst those topside prospered. That we see both sides of this persona - the despicable and the pitiable - is down to DeVito's performance. As grotesque as his makeup is, the sly touch is that we can still plainly see the diminutive actor deep within it, although his familiar and cheerful visage has been dragged out into a wicked parody of itself. His masterplan-cum-blackmail scheme to have Gotham's bogus leading light and cut-throat entrepreneur, the cunningly-monikered Max Shreck (a superb Christopher Walken) backing his bid to become Mayor is a delightful satire on everything from Citizen Kane to It's A Wonderful Life (itself, full of Yuletide redemption). A desire for revenge deep within him so festering and undeniable that no amount of rekindled love from the gullible masses can prevent it from exploding into the lives of Gotham's puppet-masters provides the inexorable thrust of a story that acts as an even darker, far less happily resolved nightmarish take on A Christmas Carol. The Penguin can be viewed as a surrogate Ghost of Christmas Past, offering not so much another chance for the ungodly and despicable Shreck, but the unavoidable face-to-face with his own black heart. Destiny is woven as a rich tapestry of guilt, rage and irrevocable choices. Bad choices, usually.

    As a figure of shadowy urban myth, Penguin terrifies. Yet, as a soul-ravaged outcast, we can't help but sympathise. The screenplay even does a fine job of allowing Bruce Wayne a deep sense of conscience for one of his city's most deformed denizens. “I hope he finds them,” a plain-clothes Batman murmurs sincerely as Penguin begins his parental search, perhaps finding, for himself, a potential kindred spirit lost in the cesspool of Gotham. Still, you can't help but snigger when a potential victim is ordered, at umbrella-gunpoint, to “Get into the Duck!” or when an otherwise poignant moment is crushed with the allegation, “True, I was their number one son, but they treated me like number two!”

    “You poor guys ... always confusing your pistols with your privates.”

    The addition to the cinematic Rogues' Gallery of Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman, was the icing on the frosted cake, though. Of all the relationships that Batman has had in the comics, the on-going battle of hearts and minds with this nemesis and paramour has been the most intriguing. As with all the creations in the world of the Dark Knight, it's been written and re-written many times, but here, in Burton's movie, it receives an incredibly textured sense of almost operatic tragedy. Michelle Pfeiffer effortlessly captures the heart and soul of the mousy and victimised Selina, ambitious but un-confident secretary to the nefarious Max Shreck, and also the playful anger of her slinky, feisty and darkly mischievous alter-ego. That her fall from grace - just one of many literal falls that she makes in the film, I might add - results in her practically magical transformation into Catwoman is, I believe, a note of authentic catharsis in this gothic noir power-play. That Burton and Waters make no attempt to explain how a mob of feral cats licking and nibbling her stricken form, lying broken in the snow, could effect this metamorphosis is not a cheap sidestep at all, but rather a credible and bewitching layer of mystery in a film that straddles the supernatural/heightened reality divide only tentatively. And, man, does she look hot in that stitched-up, figure-hugging costume. Of course, Catwoman's antics are in earnest just as much as those of the Penguin. She may seek revenge on the men who would subjugate her, dismiss her, even kill her, but her inner conflict with who she is and who she has become is the main enemy in her nine lives. When she teases Batman to help her “find the woman beneath the cat,” it is both a challenge and a plea. Selina, herself, is lost within yet another crushed psyche, her mind, like those of almost everybody else unfortunate enough to reside in this haunted Gotham, is a maze of paranoia, fear and self-loathing. The world of Batman is like a shrink's worst (or best) nightmare - literally everybody within it is mad.

    “You got kind of a ... kind of a dark side, don't you?”

    “No darker than yours, Bruce.”

    And what of the noblest lunatic of them all - Batman? Michael Keaton excels here as the Dark Knight as, just like the more matured Burton, he is more sure of himself this time out. He inhabits the newer and more streamlined suit with a stronger, more aggressive attitude. No daft moments of clumsy running in this one. When he strides down a riot-filled street, there's no-one laughing at the costume for long. My complaint about the first film having muscled out the hero in favour of an over-the-top villain would, you'd have thought, been tripled here. But it is not the case, at all. I don't know how he achieved it with this four-way extravaganza, but Burton allows each participant just enough screen time to enhance their presence and enjoy their role with power, wit and grace. Not once does the film feel over-crowded. Keaton also finds time to expand on the Bruce Wayne side of things, too - which was another area I had problems with earlier - providing the playboy with much more gravitas and bearing. He proves himself a fighter when opposed to Shreck's plans, and a thoughtful saviour with regards to his flirting with the enigmatic, re-vamped Selina Kyle. The masked ball sequence, when Bruce and Selina discover one another's secret - a great touch here being that neither of them is actually wearing a mask - ranks as an all-time classic. Burton, Keaton and Pfeiffer nail this crucial, and a little controversial, moment with tremendous subtlety, raising the hidden emotions up to perfection. Selina's fragility and on-the-edge unpredictability gets me every time, and there's a degree of tragedy and fate that encapsulates decades of comic-book narrative and lore in literally the expressions on just two people's faces. Exquisite. Despite its stark visual sheen, the evil in Batman Returns is never black and white. Morals are corrupted, virtue is lost, but deep down there is a sense of a certain clinging to innocence that is thought-provoking, poignant and bitter-sweet. Only the manipulative Shreck is rotten to the core - with his super-slick machinations, back-stabbing duplicity and cool-eye for self-preservation, even at the expense of his own jock-cum-nerd son, Chip.

    “Saved ... by kitty litter.”

    But before we all get maudlin and assume that the movie is just plain depressing, let's remember that no-one makes darkness quite as spectacular or as alluring as Tim Burton. His direction of action this time around, exhibits a confidence he lacked previously and, for that matter, ever since. Now Batman's duels are sly and brutal, each punch a devastating knock-out, his agility far greater in a retooled suit, and his desire to inflict pain almost enough to make Christian Bale proud. Witness the numerous head-butts - one even delivered to Catwoman! I mean, how could he? She's a woman! But just have a gander at that amazing side-kick she slams into his gut from a feral crouch. Yep, there's a delicious intensity to the scraps this time that blows away anything that Kilmer or Clooney could manage with their, admittedly, far more numerous skirmishes. The brawling might not have the pulverising, dirty, no-holds-barred grit of Batman Begins, but at least you can see the blows and the kicks that are being dished out. And, of course, let's not forget that, in this grand outing, the Bat actually kills, too. Holy homicide, Batman! And about time, too. He even seems to enjoy it. Just look at the smirk beneath the cowl when the big clown discovers that he's been wired to blow. And who didn't cheer when the fire-breathing Devil got roasted by Bat-flame? The sense of chaos on the streets when Penguin's Red Triangle Gang of carnival nutjobs goes on the rampage is giddy and gleeful - all the fun and fear of the circus, folks. Those skeleton-headed bikers are so cool too, as is the grenade-toting little dog playing Frisbee with Batman's new smart-Batarang. It is always great to the iconic-faced Vincent Schiavelli getting involved as well. “We want the big guy - the one who runs the show!” he demands from behind a musical machine-gun, a scampering monkey making it difficult to see exactly who, in his own peculiar double-act, actually runs their show - the simian scene-stealer or the organ-grinder.

    “I believe the word you're looking for is ... Aaaarghhhh!

    The late Anton Furst may not have worked on this film, but his spirit has certainly lingered with the look and feel of this new wintry Gotham. Gargoyles project from baroque buildings, gargantuan sets enclose structures both grand and dismal, the limbo-land between reality and myth, in which Gotham is situated, coming across as beguiling as it is unsettling. Many cite the first movie in the series as gothic, myself included, but it is here in Returns, that the label truly fits. The darkness pervading all trapped within this hyper-drama is decadent, rich and sensuous, a sly and festering ever-presence that becomes a character in its own right. The vast subterranean lair for the Penguin, the fanciful rooftop dalliances and, naturally, the fabulous Batcave all exude a spiky air of sinister gloom. And, matching this, Danny Elfman's hugely operatic score skilfully weaves in all the new themes around his ultra-iconic hero cue for Batman, perfectly lending the film an astonishing aural landscape that befits this ghoulish fairytale. For, in essence, that is what makes Burton's Batman so spellbinding. It's a uniquely visionary take on the violent adult fairytale. Innocence lost, masked heroes and monsters, sex and death, all intermingled in one smouldering cauldron, with an added dash of good old fable and social satire to spice it up. We all know how I prefer the realism of a Batman that could exist - a la Nolen's new series - but the thing that the Dark Knight has over many other superheroes is the fact that he can be interpreted in lots of distinct, and different, ways. Burton and Keaton mastered the dark, expressionist and frightening version that worked so wonderfully in the horror-themed comics of the 70's and 80's, whilst Schumacher's attacked the overt flamboyance of the Bat's more garish and kid-friendly guise from the Adam West era (and not as successfully, I might add). Bale and Nolan's spin is the right one for now, with its emphatic, pull-no-punches vigilante stance. But returning to this Batman has been a celebration for me. I had forgotten how good this one was.

    There is a dark beauty to it, a narrative symmetry that is lyrical and classic. There is abundant humour and a grand sense of elegiac tragedy. There is also a deliciously cruel edge to the story that has you dancing with the Devil in the pale moonlight a lot more readily than Jack's Joker ever could. The set-pieces are better this time out, with Batman forced to think fast and act even quicker. The delirious Batmobile joy-ride is both kooky and intense and the penguin suicide-bomber brigade is a concept so utterly bizarre that even the TV show would have baulked at using it. This uncut UK edition also showcases the use of aerosols and microwaves, Catwoman's slinky taste for small-scale Armageddon now unmolested by twitchy censors. Having always had American versions of the film, I can't say exactly what else may be different, but it is definitely worth remembering that Burton allows this second Bat-flick to take more, and riskier chances. That old-school Grand Guignol is very much in evidence. The Penguin offering a captive Shreck the severed hand of a former associate; an annoying PR man having his nose bitten into by Cobblepot; the slightly uncomfortable kidnapping of Gotham's first sons; the gleeful anarchy of crowd-maiming riot squads - the film, despite its noir-fable credentials, takes great delight in subversive behaviour, whether thematic or visual. And the lip-licking lasciviousness surrounding Catwoman, and especially the Penguin's pent-up libido, ensure that the darker slant, this time out, is much more eyebrow-raising than the Joker's rhubarb-rubbing innuendos on the last occasion. The Penguin eyeing-up eager co-eds and slurping a line about “filling” a certain void hit hitherto uncharted turf for the series - turf that, actually, has not been visited since. And I'm not counting the pheromone-intoxicated lust for Uma Thurman's emerald-bathed Poison Ivy in Batman And Robin.

    “I am not a human being. I am an animal! COLD-BLOODED!”

    Burton's love of oddballs, misfits and eccentrics resides at the heart of this tale. It is difficult to imagine any other filmmaker, at the time of Batman's rejuvenation, who could have embraced the classic duality, the harrowing alienation and the urban mythologising that the comic-books had been so brave and intelligent to chronicle, as well as Burton. And, I have to say, that as much I adore (and even prefer) Christopher Nolen's two Gotham outings, they would not exist were it not for Tim Burton's glorious evocation of the man, his mission and the menace that surrounds him. Pampered with assuredness and evocative of so many literary and cinematic masterpieces, Batman Returns offers much reward for your time. That it does so with a quartet of brilliant performances and a haunting after-taste makes it one of the cleverest and most insidious of modern fairytales.

    His beginning was awesome. But the Bat's return was sheer, unadulterated class. Burton's finest hour.