Thursday, September 6, 2012
Batman Returns (1992)
In 1989, Tim Burton brought one of the best comic book heroes in history to the big screen in a major way with Batman. Gone was the campy Batman from the 1960s who had a wise crackin' sidekick, sprayed fake rubber sharks with repellent, and featured fist fights colored with POW! ZAP! BAM!. For the first time, general movie goers got to see The Dark Knight as creator Bob Kane originally imagined. He was a dark character who hid in shadow, scared those who did crime in Gotham City, and was psychologically scarred due to the sadistic murder of his parents when he was a child. While a controversial casting choice at the time, Michael Keaton wowed the naysayers with a role so different from anything the comedic actor had done before. Jack Nicholson also brought in a huge crowd with his portrayal of the greatest comic book villain of all time, The Joker. Batman was a huge hit critically, commercially, and financially. With all of this huge buzz and success, Warner Bros. wanted to do a sequel.
While Batman was successful, director Tim Burton wasn't sure on making another Batman movie since he wasn't too happy with the style used in his first Batman movie. Burton told Warner Bros. that the only way that he would come back to direct a sequel is if he could have full creative control and make it very different from the first film. Warner Bros. agreed to giving Burton full freedom to make the Batman sequel his own vision. So, in the summer of 1992, Batman Returns was released to theaters. Reprising their roles from Batman were Michael Keaton as The Caped Crusader, Michael Gough as Alfred Pennyworth, and Pat Hingle as Commissioner James Gordon. Joining the cast was Danny DeVito as The Penguin/Oswald Cobblepot, Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman/Selina Kyle, and Christopher Walken as Max Shreck. While financially successful, huge controversy spread from upset parents that the sequel was too dark, adult, sexually explicit, and violent for children considering that McDonald's was in negotiations with Warner Bros. for Happy Meal toys promoting the film like a movie suitable for kids. While this controversy drastically changed the future of the '90s Batman movie franchise, Batman Returns is still an awesome film that many fans have come to love over the years.
It's Christmas time in Gotham City. But, like in most cities, crime doesn't take holidays. Rumor has it that a Penguin man has been living underneath the streets of Gotham, in the dark corridors of the sewer. Gotham becomes under attack by a gang of circus freaks called The Red Triangle Gang. Batman shows up and stops most of them. Max Shreck, Gotham's leading citizen is secretly using the peoples' trust and power for his own scheme. That night, Shreck falls through a trap door into the Gotham sewer to find that The Penguin is real. He's a short obese man with flippers for hands, a pointy nose, black goo drooling out of his mouth for some reason, and likes to weaponize his umbrella collection into knives and guns. Penguin blackmails Shreck into helping him re-emerge into society and threatens to expose Shreck's real intentions to Gotham if he doesn't do what he wants. Meanwhile, Shreck's shy secretary Selina Kyle is always letting men walk all over her. After discovering some files she was not meant to see, Shreck pushes her out a window. But, the stray cats in the area lick Selina back to the living. Selina has a psychotic break down and makes herself a costume to get revenge on Shreck and make sure no man ever mistreats her again. Penguin decides to run for Mayor to further destroy the city that abandoned him as an infant. Batman figures out that Penguin is not everything he seems. Dressed up in a tight leather outfit, Selina goes by Catwoman and teams up with Penguin to take down Batman. Meanwhile, billionaire Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle become acquainted only to discover later that they both wear masks and are the same, split right down the center.
Batman Returns is a film that will always have a special place in my heart when it comes to the character Batman. While the 1989 film was what made me a fan of the character to begin with, Batman Returns was my first time seeing a Batman movie theatrically. I was only like 2 years old when Batman came out and missed seeing it on the big screen, but I was 4 years old when Returns came out and saw it opening day with my Dad. It was my first introduction to both Catwoman and The Penguin. Before this film, the only villain I knew of was The Joker who was the villain in the previous movie. I remember getting the action figures, bedroom decorations, book bag, sleeping mat, bedroom slippers, jacket, the Wayne Manor/Batcave playset, the Batmobile toy, a suitcase, the video game, and of course the Happy Meal toys from McDonald's. Batman was EVERYWHERE back in 1992. The screenplay by Heathers writer Daniel Waters was great in my opinion. I know people give this film shit for being too dark, too gothic, too adult, Batman is a vigilante, some cheesy and perverted dialogue, and so on. You know what? It didn't bother me one bit. It was something different. That's the great thing about comic book characters, there's room for a wide variety of different styles and stories. Everybody has a favorite and more specific take, but I loved and still love Tim Burton's Batman movies. But, I also love Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. I dig em' both for different reasons. While Nolan's definitely had better stories and characterization, Burton's films were dark in a more fantastical/comic booky way. In Batman, Gotham City was a dirty city where you didn't want to live in. In Batman Returns, Gotham is a gothic netherworld where not everyone is who they appear to be. Everybody is wearing a mask whether it be literally or metaphorically.
Parents came down hard on Batman Returns for being too dark and adult. Maybe so, but I was 4 years old and I loved this movie back then just as much as I do today at 24. But then again, I was fascinated by dark and gothic stuff at an early age such as Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Tales From The Crypt, and the like so that may explain why it didn't scare me like it apparently did some youngsters back in 92. Batman offs some circus freaks in this movie. Honestly, I get where people are coming from with Batman not killing the criminals, but I dug that Burton and Keaton took this character in a much darker direction. Would I want Batman to be a straight up Frank Castle, Nick Hume, Eric Draven, or Paul Kersey? Not exactly, but I appreciated them doing something darker with the character. When Michael Uslan decided to return Batman to his darker roots, I don't think he imagined them taking him to the darkest depths of the abyss. Bruce Wayne is an even more damaged and tortured soul in this movie than he was in Batman '89. There's a great moment near the beginning where Wayne is sitting in a dark room and only shows interest when the Batsignal shines through the room into his face. It's like being Batman is all there is to him. When he's not Batman, he has nothing.
The portrayal of The Penguin in this film is really well done. Personally, Penguin was always one of my least favorite Batman villains. He was just a short fat man with a big nose, top hat, and carried an umbrella. In Batman Returns, The Penguin is given a ton of depth. He was born deformed and to a wealthy family on top of that. After being horrified by his appearance and ashamed, they tossed his baby carriage with him inside it into the sewer like they were taking out their garbage. All Oswald wanted was to feel like he belonged, but society wouldn't accept him due to him being different so he wants revenge by dragging their children down to the dark waters of the sewer and toss them into a deep, dark, watery grave. Cobblepot also makes Gotham think that he will clean up the city as Mayor, but secretly plans to destroy those wretched pinhead puppets of Gotham after he plays this stinkin' city like a heart from Hell. Oh, he also loves to eat raw fish, spit out black goo, reach out and grope people, has a sexual attraction to Catwoman, and attach missiles to his Penguin army. The Penguin is one freaky dude and I liked that. Although, they basically did give him Killer Croc's origin story and I still have no clue as to what the black goo pouring out his mouth is. I guess cold blooded saliva? Anyway, Penguin is pretty awesome in this movie.
The portrayal of Selina Kyle/Catwoman is honestly my favorite take on the character thus far. And it ain't because this film introduced me to her either. It's just a really great character study. Selina starts out as a mousy secretary letting people walk all over her, but then is killed by Max Shreck to return to the living as a woman set out for revenge for the wrongs that were done to her. She is a woman who will fight, scratch, whip, and make a man's penis and balls burst from being so fucking sexy. In fact, Catwoman has sex appeal written all over her. Dark eye shadow, red lipstick, tight leather, a whip, claws, high heels, a seductive voice, and teases with her body while causing pain as a defense mechanism. Catwoman is every guy's sexual fantasy. The women want to be her. The guys want to play with her. There's always been something fascinating with women and felions, which is why I think the cat image works great for a woman villain. Cats can be very mischievious creatures. They can climb really high with their claws and can pounce on you surprisingly. While I'm more of a canine person when it comes to pets, I do find cats to be interesting animals. In the past, Selina has been a prostitute, an animal activist, and a great thief. She's definitely a cat burglar. But, I like that Burton and Michelle Pfeiffer took the character in a completely different direction like with Penguin and added the more supernatural mythology of cats. I also really dug the scene when Selina and Bruce Wayne are dancing and find out each other's secret identities. Two characters who share so much in common, but can never truly be together due to their different missions in life.
Max Shreck is a character who was created exclusively for this movie. Shreck is just a really cold hearted bastard. He's greedy. He does what he wants even if it severely hurts Gotham. He's a thrust for power even though he already has power. Basically he's the Batman version of Lex Luthor. The corrupt businessman who just craves more power. He destroys documents that prove him to have evil intentions. He chops up old business partners who ask too many questions. The guy is just a total scumbag who everyone thinks is building a better Gotham, but it is all just an act to let him control things his way. The only time we see an actual soul in this man is when Penguin tries to kill his son.
And then we have Batman/Bruce Wayne who connects all the above characters together in one giant Christmas gift pack. Bruce is dating Selina. Batman has an attraction to Catwoman. Batman is out to stop Shreck and Penguin. While Batman is a smaller character, he is the glue that connects the film and characters together. The thing I've always loved about Burton's Batman movies is that we are basically seeing Batman through Gotham. The guy comes in and out of the shadows and he doesn't talk a lot, letting his facial expression and his body language do the talking for him. We also get to see the Batboat, which looked pretty badass. I like the mirror of Batman and Catwoman yet the polar opposite with Batman and Penguin. Batman was wealthy, loved by his parents, and a huge chunk of him died when his parents were murdered causing him to brood into a much darker form of himself. Penguin on the other hand was born into a wealthy family, yet abandoned by his parents who didn't want him. Max Shreck is like if Bruce went corrupt and used his money for his own personal gain rather than to protect the innocent and helpless.
The really interesting thing about Batman Returns is that everyone's wearing masks. Bruce dresses up as Batman to fight crime. Selina dresses up as Catwoman to seek revenge and female empowerment. Max has Gotham thinking he is giving back to the city, yet is underneath taking away from it. And then Penguin like Max has Gotham believing that he wants to clean things up as their Mayor while actually planning on using that power to make them pay for what his parents did to him as a baby. Returns is about power and disguise. And to match this surrounding of shadow and mystique is a darker and more gothic Gotham City. Batman '89 was the closest look of Gotham City from the comics of 1939. The previous film had almost a 1940s vibe to it when it came to the city and the wardrobe of the citizens and gangsters. Returns goes into a much deeper and netherworldly place that is probably as dark as the Batcave.
The dialogue like the previous film is extremely quotable especially The Penguin's lines. Waters filled Returns with plenty of sexually perverted jokes, but without turning to extremely silly camp. It's more like adult campy humor than the more family campy humor that we got with the '60s television show or the two Joel Schumacher sequels.
The music by Danny Elfman is phenominal in both this film and in Batman. Elfman's score became so attached to the character in the early '90s that Bruce Timm and company used it for Batman: The Animated Series which would premiere shortly after Returns went into theaters.
Tim Burton brings escalation to the Batman universe that he set up back in 1989. Love the designs of the characters, bringing back that kickass Batmobile, introducing the Batboat, Batman having an entire gallery of Batsuits, giving Penguin a duck vehicle, and I really loved the netherworldly look of Gotham. Burton really put the Goth in Gotham. Personally, this is one of my absolute favorite Tim Burton films. Burton really made Batman his own just like Christopher Nolan did in 2005 with Batman Begins. It's a real shame that Burton never got to direct another Batman film because I would have loved to have seen his version of Batman Forever.
The acting is just spot on. Michael Keaton reprises his role as Batman/Bruce Wayne for the second and sadly the last time. Still my personal favorite Batman besides Kevin Conroy and Christian Bale. Keaton goes even darker with the character in this movie. Michelle Pfeiffer was AMAZING as Catwoman/Selina Kyle. Best Catwoman ever. I'm sure Anne Hathaway will be great in The Dark Knight Rises coming out next month, but Michelle Pfieffer will forever be my favorite Catwoman. Just purrfect! Pfeiffer reunited with Burton this past May in Dark Shadows. Danny DeVito was great as The Penguin/Oswald Cobblepot. He gave a character that is one of my least favorite Batman rogues a lot of depth and made him freakishly awesome. I could have done without the black saliva drooling out of his mouth though. Christopher Walken was also great as Max Shreck. This began Walken's collaborations in future Tim Burton films such as playing The Headless Horseman in Sleepy Hollow. Michael Gough reprises his role as Bruce Wayne's loyal butler and father figure Alfred Pennyworth. Pat Hingle did a cameo, I mean reprised his role as Commissioner Gordon. All in all great cast.
Overall, Batman Returns was a great sequel and I actually thought it was better than the first film. Definitely my favorite comic book movie of the '90s besides Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, Spawn and Blade. Sadly, this would end the Tim Burton era of Batman and shift into the lighter Joel Schumacher duology of camp, humor, nipples, neon, bat asses, ice puns, and lots of toy merchandising.