Batman Returns (1992)

Batman Returns (1992) – In recent reviews of Tim Burton movies, I’ve written about the difference between Burton the auteur and Burton the director-for-hire. Whichever one is working, his movies have a great signature look but Burton the auteur creates movies that have a level of depth. Burton-for-hire is just kind of phoning it in. Burton the auteur brought us twisted fantasies like Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands and a surprisingly sympathetic biopic of famed Hollywood hack Ed Wood. Burton-for-hire brought his visual sense and not much else to a bland remake of Planet of the Apes, an odd reimagining of Alice in Wonderland, or an amusing-at-best film version of the old supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows. Now the two worlds are not always mutually exclusive. Burton made a pretty good movie out of Sweeney Todd, even though that project was kicked around from director to director for decades. Also 1989’s Batman. Tim Burton is a man who by his own admission doesn’t read comic books. Batman was a Burton-for-hire film and yet it was a much younger Tim Burton behind it and maintains a certain vibrancy and dark vision. For the 1992 sequel, Batman Returns, Burton was allowed total creative freedom. What we got may be one of the most twisted superhero movies ever likely to be filmed with such an iconic character as Batman…

In the prologue, wealthy Gothamites Tucker and Esther Cobblepot (Paul Reubens and Diane Salinger from Burton’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure) are digusted by their disfigured baby and chuck him into the sewer. Thirty-three years later, wealthy industrialist Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) is abducted by the Penguin (Danny DeVito), a deformed man in the sewers. Through the Penguin’s threats, an alliance is forged. Later Shreck tries to kill his secretary, Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfieffer), but she survives and becomes the anti-heroine Catwoman and seeks vengeance on the men who always kept her down (or anyone like them). Oh yeah, Batman is in this movie too (again played by Michael Keaton). He initially feels sympathy for the Penguin but quickly grows to mistrust him. Also in his life as Bruce Wayne he begins to fall for Selina while as Batman he begins to fall for Catwoman. Meanwhile the Penguin has plans hatching that are large-scale and somewhat more Biblical than Batman has had to face before…

Burton’s characterization of the Penguin is far different than the somewhat erudite and genteel criminal of DC comics… In this movie the Penguin is borderline feral and DeVito plays him with a wild untamed ferocity not really seen elsewhere in the actor’s body of work (which admittedly tends to be more comedic… though some of his grosser moments on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia might come close). Stan Winston’s amazing make-up effects turn him into something not-quite-human. The character as seen in the movie is more a reflection of the type of characters Burton loves: outcasts, “freaks” rejected by the world at large. The change is that the Penguin rejects the world right back out of petulant anger. Batman admittedly gets short-changed by the attention to the villains (though that’s true of all the pre-Nolan live action films) but what’s interesting is how the three villains are are grim reflections of Batman. Penguin is an orphan. Catwoman is a masked vigilante. Shreck is a billionaire. All those aspects together make Batman, but separately they make something decidedly more sinister. So how does Batman, also one of Burton’s “freaks” in a way, stay on the side of good? (Answer: he’s Batman.)

This movie actually unsettled me somewhat deeply when I saw it at the tender young age of seven. The Penguin eats a raw fish. Selina pushes her stuffed animals down the garbage disposal (which given my age might have been the worst part for me). The Penguin bites someone’s nose open. And a character gets burnt to a crisp in the end (which, admittedly, happened in Batman as well which I saw even younger and was untroubled by).In later years as I became a twisted teenager and warped adult I’ve come to appreciate the movie a lot more. I think a lot of people have. At the time, though, the consensus was that this movie was just too damn dark. It was bad marketing more than anything. (In The Dark Knight a goon gets killed by a pencil through the eyeball and I don’t remember hearing cries of “too dark” after that one…) It was hard in 1992 for some parents to get that a Batman movie could be that… well not to overuse the word “dark” but… shall we say “Burtonesque?” This was Burton truly making the movie his own and it scared the shit out of Warner Brothers.

As I’ve said, I’ve come over the years to hold this movie in rather high regard. Keaton continues to be a good Batman, but as I mentioned the pre-Nolan films tended to be more about the villains. That’s where Batman Returns really shines anyway. Michelle Pfieffer still defines Catwoman. As good as Anne Hathaway is in The Dark Knight Rises (and she is good) or as good as Halle Berry LOOKED in Catwoman (and look good she did even though that movie is unquestionably excrement), Michelle will always be Catwoman. Her frazzled take on Selina and her confident take-charge Catwoman complement each other well. Christopher Walken brings his wonderful Walken-ness to the part of Shreck, an original character. Burton was reluctant to cast Walken because he said “that guy scares the hell out of me.” TIM BURTON SAID THAT! The character in the script was originally going to be corrupt district attorney Harvey Dent (played by Billy Dee Williams in Batman). The events of the end of the film would have scarred him so he could be Two-Face in the third Burton movie (which never happened). (Tommy Lee Jones was of course recast as Harvey/Two-Face for Batman Forever.) as it is with his wild hair, P.R. gimmicks, and blue collar manner of speaking Shreck is thought to be patterned somewhat after Donald Trump (he does shout “You’re fired!” by the end of the movie… and it also eerily predicts Trump’s later attempts at becoming a political king-maker).

All of this plays out to the tune of Danny Elfman’s wonderful score which, in keeping with the holiday setting, incorporates some Christmas motifs this time around. No distracting Prince songs this time around either. The production design takes Gotham City into an even more German expressionism-influenced direction than it already was in the first film. This is the type of film I would like to see more of from Tim Burton, not Dark Shadows. The uncompromising darkness of his vision was really something else. He had to hand off directing duties on The Nightmare Before Christmas to Henry Sellick to make this movie, so I guess he figured if he was abandoning his baby it better be for something worth it (though it’s not like Sellick dropped the ball). I’m not saying we need to hand over the reins of another high profile superhero franchise to him or anything… because he’s done that. Another Burton superhero movie would not top this one. (I remember the weird rumors that circulated his aborted Superman Lives back in the 90s.) It’s time to set the mad man loose again.

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