Batman Returns

Could've been
Tim Burton
Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken
The Setup: 
Burton's Batman is back, now facing three villains.

So after seeing The Dark Knight Rises, I wanted to watch Tim Burton's Batman again, which was speedily accomplished, and impressed me more than ever with its style and melancholy tone. But the inclusion of Catwoman in Rises made me eager to see this one again, as well as Halle Berry's disastrous Catwoman, both also done easily enough. I had particular interest in re-evaluating this one, especially since I hated it when it came out, and hated it a few more times when I specifically watched it again to see if it had any redeeming value. Things I hated about it were, primarily, that what was once grim and melancholy now seemed just gross and wallowing in filth, the story was rather aimless and mean-spirited, and the ending just a senseless melee. Well, in the intervening years Joel Scumacher set about the systematic destruction of everything good about the Batman films, the Christopher Nolan Batman films have come and gone, and I've grown up. And now this film seems sad and beautiful in ways I never could see before.

We open with the Warner Brothers logo over falling snow, and will soon see that winter itself is a main feature and theme of this movie. We have a wealthy father awaiting the birth of his child, then hear screaming from the nursery. Later, the horrified parents regard the locked box in which their deformed child lies--a hand reaches out and snatches up the cat and eats it--and take the child out to the park. They drop a basket with the baby into the river, intending to quietly kill it. Then, as the credits unfold, we follow the basket as it floats through the sewers, finally taken in by a bunch of penguins. Guess who this character turns out to be?

In the present day, we meet Christopher Walken as Max Shreck, owner of a huge, Macy's-like department store. He is named, by the way, after the actor who portrayed Dracula in the classic film Nosferatu. We learn that he wants to build a huge power plant, although Gotham has no need for it. He has a mousy, insecure assistant in Michelle Pfeiffer's Selina Kyle. At this time the Penguin is some sewer-dwelling terrorist who causes mayhem with his troupe of former circus clowns, including familiar face Vincent Schiavelli, and Rick Zumwalt of Over the Top, continuing Burton's theme of classic figures of childhood delight appearing in these films as creepy bringers of macabre horror. We see a headline: "The Penguin: Man or Myth?"

Meanwhile, Selina Kyle is working late and discovers that Shreck's power plant is actually meant to drain power from Gotham, that he can then sell back to them. Shreck finds her, and pushes her out a window. She falls, broken by numerous canopies, and lands on the ground, where she is suddenly surrounded by cats, one of whom appears to kiss her. She arrives home all a mess, trashes her apartment, and pulls out a slick black raincoat, which she cuts up and starts making into a costume.

Then the Penguin has one of his minions steal a baby, only so he can publicly "rescue" it. He makes his appearance aboveground, saying that he wants to find his parents and join society. He uses his research time supposedly finding his parents to write down the names of all first-borns in Gotham. Shreck latches onto him and creates a mayoral campaign for him, so the Penguin can be a mayor under Shreck's control. There's a humorous scene in which the Penguin's campaign office and posters are revealed, as well as the introduction of two image consultants, who try to spin the Penguin's disgusting appearance into something positive. By now we've noticed that the Penguin spits black bile when speaking, which is disgusting to look at, and bites the nose of one of his image consultants, one of those things that just seemed really gross and mean-spirited the first few times I saw this. Not to mention the Penguin's stained long underpants. Watching it now, it all seemed part of a piece and didn't bother me that much.

As this is happening, Bruce Wayne starts romancing Selina Kyle. Then there's a big melee in which the Penguin takes control of the Batmobile and uses it to frame Batman for murder. Catwoman blows up Shreck's department store, and all three meet outside, with Catwoman showing up and delivering her famous line: "Meow." She and Batman have a flirt-and-fight. By now one has noticed that the script here is almost entirely puns and spins on cliches. In the previous film, The Joker spoke in ironic cliches, and it worked for his character, but here, almost everyone is all cliches, all the time, and it can get a bit wearying. Also in here we have a scene in which Catwoman rescues a woman from being mugged, then upbraids the woman for not fighting back herself, which is important, as it positions Catwoman as a kind of hero in her own right, not just some strange woman with no real purpose, like in the Halle Berry film of Catwoman. And it must be said that Michelle Pfeiffer, while not really having all that much to do in the film but hang around, is so fabulous it doesn't matter, and she handily steals the film. It doesn't hurt that she looks amazing in her catsuit, and probably holds even greater charm for straight males.

Bruce and Selina have a short date, which both of them have to quickly leave to change into their respective secret identities and make it to this big party. It's better than nothing, but looking back, their relationship could have been really intriguing and downright moving, had it been given the proper weight. They connect because they both have divided identities, and by the end Bruce is calling to help Selina turn hers around and not let it drive her crazy. But it just hasn't been given enough development. This was, unless I'm mistaken, the first superhero film to have way too many villains, so many that the film can't handle them or give enough time to each, and, inexplicably, many superhero films have just continued this losing strategy (Yes, Spider-Man 3, we're looking at you).

At the big party, The Penguin, his mayoral plans destroyed by Batman, shows up to kidnap Shreck's son (played by Andrew Bryniaski, who went on to play Leatherface in the 2003 Texas Chainsaw Massacre). He also announces his plan to kidnap all of Gotham's first born, which is a good evil plot--that goes nowhere because it is instantly squashed by Batman, story thread over. At a certain point this film's new Bat-mode-of-transport, this watercraft, launches a bunch of live bats, and by that time you can see that the whole film is just starting to fly apart. Then, just at the climactic moment--my Netflix disc dies. I'm forced to go to YouTube to watch the conclusion in little bits and pieces.

All three villains are gathered in the Penguin's lair. Batman defeats the Penguin. Then Catwoman shows up and wants to kill Shreck, saying that "Laws don't apply to him--or us," causing Batman to respond "Wrong on both counts." He then pulls off his mask, revealing himself as Bruce Wayne, and tries to get her to not kill Shreck, and to come be with him in some sort of healing relationship. She--idiotically--chooses to electrocute both herself and Shreck, when she easily could have just killed Shreck. Then the Penguin gets up, nauseating black fluid streams out of his mouth, and he dies. Then--and here was the very last straw on earlier viewings--a bunch of actual penguins line up and act as pallbearers to the Penguin, escorting him to a burial in the water. There's a last little coda in which we see that Catwoman is still alive, which I'm fairly sure was tacked on later, using earlier footage (it was, using a stand-in), since her suit is once more intact, where had had been messed up pretty bad by the end of the movie.

As I said, I enjoyed it much more this time than ever before. Part of it is that I was girding myself up for the grotesquery--and the moronic penguin pallbearer nonsense--part of it is that I have a better sense of what Burton is doing, which is have a movie that is about freaks and perversions and grotesques that is also sad and beautiful. It is ambitious, and a thoughtful way to build on the world created in the first film, and it works fairly well--but just enough to make one wish it had been formed into the masterpiece it flirts with being.

As noted, too many villains. There's just too much to juggle. And surprisingly, these too-many-villains superhero movies never engage with the obvious problem--which is the hero having to deal with all these villains at once! The result is that the film seems scattered, and no one theme is allowed enough time and space to develop. One can admire that in the Burton films the villains come from places of psychological damage and pain, and can be seen as sympathetic characters. The story of the Penguin here could be shaded and moving, there's just not that much focus on him. His mayoral candidacy never gets enough development to be interesting, and his plot to kidnap all of Gotham's first-born is over as soon as it is enacted. As a result, the overall movie is engaging, but unfocused. It just continues on without gaining much momentum or thematic resonance.

What seems a real loss now, looking back, is that we couldn't have ditched the Penguin and had the whole thing give enough focus to the relationship between Batman and Catwoman--especially while we have Pfeiffer's electrifying Catwoman. It's a good relationship, with a lot of intriguing themes and parallels in their stories, and the ending here hints at what could have been a tragic and moving story of doomed love.

This movie was far less well-received, and parents balked at how nasty and mean-spirited a lot of it is. McDonalds dropped their tie-in partnership, which I suspect was the death blow. It seems that Burton just went a bit too far, and what was playfully macabre in the first film tilts too much into actual nastiness here. I have started watching the Schumacher Batman films now (even the first of which, the "not THAT bad" one, makes these look like Tarkovsky), and it seems that Burton and Keaton were signed on for a third film, but Warner Brothers asked Burton to step back into a producer role, at which point Keaton dropped out. The studio wanted to make the films more family-friendly... and I think we all know how that turned out. In any case, it's a shame Burton and Keaton didn't have one more chance.

Should you watch it: