In 1992 some damn silly, so-called Christian organization threw a bullying hissy fit at McDonalds for its Happy Meal deal tie-in with Tim Burton‘s Batman Returns. McDonalds, true to form, prematurely withdrew its merchandising. Rumor has it that McDonalds issued a stern warning to Warner Brothers not to tap Burton for the next Batman film. For whatever reason, Warner Brothers caved into the golden arch and, consequently, put its franchise into a decade long grave with the unwise hiring of director Joel Schumacher.
Only the fundamentalist mindset can associate Big Macs with a certain brand of morality. Looking at Batman Returns (1992), one wonders what the Christian organization was bitching about. The Bible is all throughout the film and, actually the good book itself has far more sex and violence than Batman, Tim Burton, Warner Brothers and McDonalds combined.
Regardless, Batman Returns remains the greatest cinematic comic book movie to date and one of Tim Burton’s most uniquely accomplished films. Admittedly, I am not a fan of comic book movies, even if I did read comics some when I was kid, but then most kids I knew did. I was in the minority in preferring DC to Marvel, and I guess I am sort of looking forward to the new Green Lantern movie, mainly because the Green Lantern/Green Arrow comic was a favorite when I was a wee lad in the 1960s and 1970s. That was a comic that was delightfully of its time, a bit like Star Trek in espousing an ultra-liberal message with all the subtlety of a pair of brass knuckles. Even though Green Lantern himself was a bit too righteous and bland, I liked that he was obsessed with the color green and was rendered impotent by the color yellow. There was something surreal in that, and I find the insistence of realism in comics to be a huge oxymoron. Perhaps that’s why the dark surrealism of Batman Returns did not bother me like it did mainstream audiences, comic book geeks, and militant pseudo-Christian organizations.
Even though Christopher Nolan’‘s Dark Knight (2008) was well crafted, it would not have worked without Ledger’s performance holding it together. Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne, however, pales compared to Michael Keaton’s much more intense, internalized, subtle and complex Wayne. Finally, Nolan’s film feels like it has one subplot too many. Comparatively, Tim Burton’s Batman Returns is a genuine freak show, which is as it should be. This is the Dark Knight filtered through a young Tim Burton still channeling the influence of Tod Browning. It is an inimitable, energetically enthusiastic film which revels in its weirdness with a style and texture all its own.
The deformed Penguin is born to rich parents (Paul Reubens and Diane Salinger, both of 1985′s Pee Wee’s Big Adventure) who dispose of him in the sewer like Moses being dumped in the Nile (choreographed to composer Danny Elfman’s wordless choral music). Penguins and circus performers rescue their potential deliverer, and the saga begins 33 years later (Christ allegory there). Characteristically, Burton propels us into a yuletide world, only this is a season as envisioned by the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come in the expressionist land of silent film forefathers. Fritz Lang, Guy Maddin, and Jack Skellington know this Gotham.
Christopher Walken emerges as the beautifully ludicrous-wigged energy tycoon Max Schreck (named after the actor who played Count Orlock—AKA Dracula—in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu). Schreck lives in his Metropolis-inspired ivory tower and emerges to give a holiday speech to the crowd below. The infamous Circus Gang interrupts the proceedings via a giant Christmas present which literally rolls into the town square, shooting forth clowns on motorcycles, strongmen, fire eating jesters, and a machine gun wielding monkey.
Commissioner Gordon (Pat Hingle) turns on the Bat Signal not a moment too soon, because Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) is alone in his mansion, getting ready to turn on “Blue Christmas.” Batman saves Schreck’s secretary, Selena Kyle (Michelle Pfeifer), from a killer clown with a tazer, but Schreck is nowhere to be found. That’s because he has unwittingly stumbled upon the underground sewer abode of the legendary Penguin Man (Danny DeVito). The Penguin’s lair looks like a cross between the Phantom of the Opera’s cavern and Vincent Price‘s Theater of Blood(1973).
This is not Burgess Meredith’s Penguin (taking nothing from Meredith). Devito’s Penguin is, by turns, empathetic, repulsive and genuinely threatening. With Schreck’s help (via blackmail) Penguin intends to ascend to the world above, locate his parents (already dead, probably by the Penguin’s hands) and take over Gotham as the new mayor. He also has a secret plan of revenge against the whole of Gotham by killing every first born male child (shades of Ramses and King Herod). Meanwhile, Schreck “kills” Selena by pushing her out a window after she stumbles upon some hidden files. However, Selena is revived by flesh-eating kitty cats. She returns to her Barbie doll apartment, turns “Hello There” into “Hell Here”, fashions a black leather cat suit on an old sewing machine, and Catwoman is born.
Pfeifer, who can often be stoic, is amazing here. It is the best performance of her career and she is full of surprises. Like Penguin, she arouses empathy and she arouses Batman/Bruce Wayne as well. Not only is Wayne sexually attracted to her, but he senses a truly kindred spirit. In the first Batman (1989) Wayne’s romantic relationship seemed a mismatch but here Wayne’s falling in love with Selena/Catwoman is natural and understandable. You really want them to make it, although you know it is, as Catwoman predicts, “not a fairy tale to be.”
Even the loathsome Schreck has a degree of empathy in his love for his son, which leaves us the character of Batman. Here, Keaton’s Wayne is not saddled with the unfolding of his origin story, as he was in the previous film. Oddly, many critics of the first film commented that Keaton’s performance paled next to the extroverted Jack Nicholson. Seen today, Nicholson’s performance seems obvious while Keaton’s has grown considerably in stature. Keaton’s Batman is the eye of the hurricane. In Returns, Wayne’s inner angst is already firmly established. Here, he suffers more from restlessness, lack of direction, his inability to connect, boredom, intense loneliness, and seasonal blues, which makes his unease with the world much more vivid. In the guise of Batman, Wayne is not above igniting one opponent and blowing up another (in fact he clearly enjoys it), all while lecturing Selena for wanting to kill Schreck. Keaton does not resort to a tried and true lazy playboy act. It is very apparent to all that Bruce Wayne is as disturbed as Batman. Batman/Bruce Wayne fully fits in this quartet of freaks.
When his collaboration with Schreck predictably sours, Penguin, with the help of rocket launching penguins and a henchman who must have taken kidnapping lessons from Robert Helpmann’s Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), ignites his plan to mass murder the children.
The scene in which Selena and Wayne find out the truth about one another is well done and probably is the only time this plot element has worked in any comic book film (the uncovering of the ‘secret identity’ did not work at all in the firstBatman film, in Superman, or in the Spider-Man film). The boat ride in the sewer recalls Phantom of the Opera (1925), and the unmasking of Batman in front of Selena echoes Lon Chaney and Mary Philbin. Despite Penguin’s terrible plans, his fate is a sad one.
Batman Returns erupts in a dizzying apocalypse straight from the theater of the absurd. This is a superhero burlesque as only Tim Burton, at this stage in his career, could have delivered. At the center of this burlesque are freaks we care about; only they are not really freaks, and the film ends with a bit of sad reflection and an urge to turn on “Blue Christmas.”