Happy new book day, everyone! Continuing from last week, for this post I will recount some of my revised and expanded notes I took while watching 1992’s Batman Returns for the first time in nearly a decade. As most of you already know, the film was directed by Tim Burton and stars Michael Keaton, Michelle Pfeiffer, Danny DeVito, and Christopher Walken. Here are my thoughts and observations, grouped around a few specific themes.
The look and feel of Gotham are fairly different from the first movie. Whereas the previous movie seemed strangely timeless, this entry in the series is set around Christmas with a seemingly bottomless, thin, clean layer of snow everywhere. The opening shots of the movie really work in Tim Burton’s quasi-German Impressionistic signature style, which was largely absent from the previous movie.
This style is rarely deviated from for the remainder of the film. One would think that the whole “world of eternal night” look would work for Gotham, but I actually found it distracting. Further, the statues in Gotham’s central square seem to evoke both Soviet propaganda posters and the cover of Atlas Shrugged, which shouldn’t be possible.
There are a lot more minor characters this time around, but the only one of serious note (and arguably a major character in his own right) is Christopher Walken’s Max Shreck, a character unique to the film. An unscrupulous, cowardly businessman and murderer, Shreck is the real villain of the story. In fact, his various plots account for the majority of the conflict in the movie. (On a side note, is the actor playing Shreck’s son purposely mimicking Walken’s signature accent or does he also talk like that? Is there an entire part of the country that talks like that?)
This movie makes it look like Bruce Wayne just sits around brooding inside Wayne Manor until the Batsignal goes off. On that note, the big automated Batsignals surrounding the manor and lighting up the entire grounds seem to be a bit too obvious. I do still like Keaton’s performance, and there is a strong sense of continuity with the previous film because of it.
Another detail I could not help but notice is that Batman continues his killing streak. I counted four victims this time around, but there could have been more. All of the kills were from the Penguin’s creepy circus folk—the two guys on the hood of the Batmobile who get thrown into a burning building and don’t come back out, the fire-breather who gets roasted by the Batmobile’s rocket engine, and the strongman performer that Batman puts a bomb on and drops into the sewer. I would also argue that Batman is at least partially culpable in the Penguin’s death because his manipulated bats cause him to fall and acquire mortal injuries.
Batman’s technology also enjoys more of a spotlight, especially the guided, self-propelled Batarang he uses to knock out several circus folk. I enjoyed the scene of Bruce working on repairing the Batmobile himself after it is hacked and hijacked by the Penguin’s henchmen, however they managed to do that. How they managed to get its blueprints in the first place is a bit of a plot hole.
I enjoyed Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance in this role, but the origin for Catwoman presented here is odd and has no basis in the source material. Sadly, it is also clear that this is the basis for the later Halle Berry flop. I find the scene of the newly risen Selina destroying all of the innocent things (stuffed animals, a dollhouse, friendly messages, etc.) in her apartment saddening, even heartbreaking, and I’m not entirely sure why. Her breaking the neon sign in her apartment that says “Hello There” so that it says “Hell here” is quite chilling. I may come back to this version of the character for close reading in a future post.
Burton’s fondness for women’s shoes demonstrated through Kim Basinger’s character in the first movie is continued here. There are a couple of scenes of Pfeiffer removing her shoes or hunting them after misplacing them that are entirely immaterial to the story itself, and once she becomes Catwoman many shots of her either begin or settle at her boots. There is even the moment where the Penguin vigorously sniffs at her boot when she holds him at bay during their first true meeting. Again, this doesn’t bother me, but I couldn’t help but notice and comment on it after the last post.
On a side note, I wonder if the scene where Bruce and Selina dance and speak at a masquerade ball was the inspiration for a similar scene in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Rises, since I can’t recall a similar scene of any character-defining importance from the source material. Can any of you help me out on this one?
The Penguin/Oswald Cobblepot
The Penguin is one of those rare Batman villains that doesn’t have a huge amount of origin story material in the canon outside his name and deformity, so DeVito’s take on the character is as valid as any. Also, Oswald Cobblepot’s father is played briefly by Paul Reubens, which makes the entire situation creepier for me. I find the Penguin compelling and tragic despite his being genuinely unlikable in many ways, none of which have anything to with his appearance.
That said, the Penguin’s early years, as they are glossed over during the course of the film, seem odd and contradictory. They are at home in a Tim Burton story, but not in a Batman story. For example, young Oswald is abandoned, ends up in Gotham’s sewers, and is raised by a hidden penguin civilization. Later, he ends up in a circus outside the city. That’s all the explanation given for how he recruited his gang.
I don’t like being one of those people who agonizes over details of realism in a work like this, but there are problems here I just can’t overlook. Most of them simply come from a lack of explanation, such as why are penguins living in Gotham’s sewers? It can’t possibly be cold enough for them year-round. And if he spent the first years of his life among penguins, why isn’t Cobblepot more like a penguin version of Tarzan? I almost feel like that was Burton’s intention here (Cobblepot is a wealthy child raised by animals, after all) but it didn’t come through at all.
Other problems in the Penguin’s story come from a failure to explain situations satisfactorily, such as when the Penguin off-handedly remarks on how people always bring produce to speeches when he gets pelted with it. No. Just no. That’s not good enough.
In all, I enjoyed this movie, but I have more problems with it than I do with the ’89 Batman. This is odd to me because, when I was younger, I actually thought this one was the better film. Small complaints aside, the acting, directing, and cinematography all work, and though these characters may not fully resemble other established versions, they work within the bounds of Burton’s version of Batman’s world.
My comic picks for this week:
Batman Eternal #9
Earth 2 #24
Moon Knight #4
Thanks for reading. Do you agree with my assessment of Batman Returns? Do you take issue with this review? What did I miss? What did I get wrong? What did I get right? What are your own thoughts on this film? Let me know in the comments below, or tweet me @quaintjeremy.