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Author: Gregg Bray
January 12, 2005


A sequel to BATMAN, as many have pointed out over the years, was inevitable. Rumors began circulating. I had purchased some sympathetically low budget documentary videos, one titled "Batmania," that discussed the character from the comics in brief, spent most of the time on the 60s series, and the fall out after, and then wrapped up introducing Burton's 1989 Batman film. At that time, the rumors were as follows: Cher as Catwoman, Robin Williams as The Riddler, and (the only one that hit pay dirt) Danny DeVito as the Penguin.

Robin Williams would have worked fine as a Gorshin-esque Riddler, and given the depth of his recent performances, I'm sure a more stoic characterization would have suited him as well. To be honest, I have never been a Cher aficionado, and so this rumor was lost on me. Danny DeVito on the other hand? My acceptance would later turn to elation, as Danny has given us one of the most interesting and overlooked performances in recent American film.

The harder information began to circulate around 1991. Much of the information about the film came from sources such as "Comic Scene Magazine," and other magazines whose main purpose was to entice comic book fans with a "coming soon" articles. It seemed that Annette Benning was selected for the role of Catwoman, Danny as the Penguin, and Keaton, of course, would be back as Batman.

When Annette Benning bowed out, the role was up for grabs. In a now famous appearance on the Joan Rivers show, Sean Young went on camera wearing a mock-up of a Catwoman costume, paraded around the front of the set, and demanded a screen-test. Interwoven in this footage were some home videos of her running around a Hollywood lot with a walkie-talking, trying to interrupt a meeting between Burton and Keaton. At the time, I was in high school, and certainly not "in the know" of how to land a role in a major motion picture-having stated this, Sean Young seemed hell-bent on ruining her career, with her pathetic and desperate attempts to get attention. If anything, she made herself look incredibly bizarre, and has not been seen in much since A KISS BEFORE DYING over ten years ago.

She didn't get the part.

The next bit of information I read was about the sets. I remember feeling a pang of disappointment, when I read that the wonderfully Wagnerian sets from BATMAN (1989) would not be utilized for any film property in the future. Tim Burton had several explanations for this, most of which were in retrospect. He desired to work with the people he had worked with on his other projects, as opposed to assigned studio personnel, and the death of designer Anton Furst had left him feeling melancholy. He desired a fresh start for BATMAN, and often discounted the word "sequel" as an undesirable term. In fact, during and interview with Jay Leno, he mentioned, Fellini has films that have the same themes, but he would never call it SATYRICON 2." This is all in retrospect. When BATMAN 2 rumors began to surface, I think most took it for granted it would either be titled BATMAN 2 or BATMAN II.

It was my sophomore year of high school, and I had not spent a great deal of time following the development of the film. The Internet was just post-infancy, and so aside from some comic book themes periodicals, there was very little I could turn to. In fact, it wasn't until I caught a Show West segment on "A Current Affair" that spring that I had any inkling of what the characters would look like.

The footage from Show West began with a strange woman holding a microphone, standing in front of the Batmobile. She mentioned the title, BATMAN RETURNS. So, it's notBATMAN 2 or BATMAN II? I immediately liked the title. It has an obvious nod to Frank Millers 'The Dark Knight Returns.'

And then the footage came, and I felt slightly under-whelmed. The program did not show very much. Quick rooftops fight with Batman. "How could you? I'm a woman." A few bizarre glimpses of the Penguin, but no dialogue, and then a quick cut to Michael Keaton at Show West. "I'm in a little movie, called BATMAN RETURNS. And considering it only cost like nine-million dollars, we've got quite a picture" (audience laughs). The scene transitions back into BR where Catwoman, played wonderfully by Michelle Pfeiffer, says 'To destroy Batman we must first turn him into what he hates the most," (A shot of Catwoman licking Batman's face) "Namely, us."

The scene ended. While I was not impressed with the penguin's aesthetic, I still was curious to see how he was going to be played. He was missing the monocle and was holding his hat. A cigarette holder anyone? Well, there's too much smoking in movies nowadays, maybe it's not that big a deal. Regardless of my mixed feelings, I was left wanting more.

More would arrive in the form of a trailer in the movie theater. Again, we had the Catwoman fight, some bizarre imagery, and then I heard Danny DeVito's voice, and my fears were laid to rest. "Maybe this isn't a good time to mention this, but my license has expired." "My dear Penguins. The time has come to punish ALL of Gotham!" I loved the Penguin controlled birds, Penguin's umbrella, and Catwoman's performance. And the trailer ended with Keaton ("What do you want?") DeVito ("You don't really think you'll win, do you?) And Pfeiffer (Laughing on the bed), and snow blowing across the Bat-emblem.

I was excited. I saw some images that made me wince slightly, including a weird motorcycle helmet that looked like a skull, with superballs for eyes, but other than that, I was ready for the film.

Finally, I managed to go on to a Bulletin Board Service (think The Internet of the early 90s), and read a breakdown of RETRUNS. In this breakdown, Robin is mentioned, and it seems the Penguin is responsible for the Graysons' deaths. While it tied the Grayson's into the story via the Red Triangle Circus, the treatment I read was far too forced and cluttered. I felt that Robin was entirely out of place in the story. I hoped that his character would skip this film, and would be introduced in a later installment. I got my wish.

The next bit of hype, I recall, was a half-hour special on RETURNS hosted by Robert Urich. In this special, they gave us some excellent interviews with the cast, with Bob Kane, and with Burton on his re-envisioning of the Penguin. Including his flippers. My excitement for this film built, but it was slightly different. Where as BATMAN 1989 seemed to promise a thinking person's action film, this film did not seem too focused on the action. Burton used the word "psychology" when defining the characters, and I really felt, and still feel, that this says a great deal about him as a filmmaker. He truly cares about his characters enough to make sure their actions are properly motivated.

MTV began its end of the hype machine, including interviews by Chris Conolly with the cast of the film, and Cindy Crawford promising 'more bang for your seven bucks.'

Keaton stated "my hunch is, it's a better movie." McDonald's began its merchandising push, Kenner toys flooded the market (including a Penguin action figure that bore no resemblance to DeVito's character), and all seemed right with the world of the Bat.

I remember viewing the film, on the last day of regent's exams, with my friends and father. The long line was buzzing with this film. The anticipation was slightly different than with BATMAN (1989). It was a desire to see what would come next. Already, people were discussing what BATMAN 3 would be, or what the title would be, or what villains needed to appear, or how Robin should be brought it, etc.

We sat down in the theater. After a few unremarkable previews, the film began.

When the opening concluded, my friend, Jay, turned to me, and stated 'That was kind of a silly opening.'

And I had this odd feeling I was in for a different kind of film - one that I was not entirely used to. I had no idea how much time and energy I would spend over the next 13 years interpreting the film and its components. I was in for a film that I would be writing about for a long long time.


Some films are disposable action films. They entertain, they distract, but after all is said and done, not much as really happened over the past few hours that's worthy of reflection. I have nothing against these films. People go to the movies for many different reasons, and one of my most enjoyable times at the movies last year was seeing THE RUNDOWN, which I expected very little off, and was delightfully surprised at its entertainment value.

Other films seem to want to say something more. They either hold up a mirror to ourselves as a society to say something deeper, such as Clint Eastwood's MYSTIC RIVER, or they hold up a fun house mirror to explore human themes while not necessarily using characters we identify as humans--in this rather broad category I would include films such as SHREK 2 and BATMAN RETURNS.

RETURNS is not a summer blockbuster flick. It's not a popcorn flick, nor does it pretend to be, despite studio bigwigs trying to find lines of merchandising opportunities through McDonalds, for example. It's a film that tries to say something about human relations, human conditions, while using characters that are metaphorically heightened in comic book situations

Each year, studios ushers in bigger American blockbusters with an increasing amount of computer effects, inexpressive performances and poorly constructed screenplays. Mainstream Hollywood is not the type taken to alter the fabric of its own conventions and sanctified "classics." There are some extremes to bear in mind: satire is scarcely tolerable in Hollywood cinema, and sincere parody is often written off as a campy commodity. Experimentation within the art form is often met with commercial disdain banishing its auteur to "basement cinemas." So where is the common ground?

Tim Burton, as a modern auteur, fits nicely outside the mold, but not to the extreme that his films will be limited to audiences whose total disdain for commercial cinema will keep them from multiplexes and movie houses. Through out Burton's many worlds; dark comedy is strategically contorted, subverting theme and Western culture through melodramatic tragedy, intentionally interwoven clichés and grand theatrics. While his plot line in BATMAN RETURNS is at once extended, predictable (Batman defeats the villains) and over the top with cartoonish passion, it is also double-edged - it gives the audience the customary and the subversive in one sitting.

BATMAN RETURNSs is a film richly morose in its language and representative of Burton's foremost ideals. It offers a multitude of ideas to explore, entering realms of the Gothic and the combined intertextuality, subversion and transformation that come as a result of this. Liminality blares at us for over two hours of this text, as we see a lack of clear resolution, lack of definition (but strong reflection) between the heroes and the villains, and the scrutiny of gender roles through the Catwoman/Selina Kyle character.

Unlike the commercialistic counter parts, it is in the characters, rather than the plot or the story line, that we understand the film's content. To be honest, the plot is disjointed, at best, though this is not necessarily a fault in the film's fabric. The viewer is lead into a nether-world setting, pushing away any notions of reality. The intertextuality begins almost immediately with the gothic setting. The city is very much a character in this film. The cornucopia of German impressionistic architecture, along with Victorian cathedrals supports this idea, along with film noir style apparel and gadgetry one would expect in a super hero flick.

A timeless landscape partially free of modern constraints is magically created. Burton has placed four central characters (each one a woven from intertextual material) that are Bruce Wayne/Batman (Michael Keaton), Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), and Penguin (Danny DeVito). Each character dons at least two separate and distinct personalities. Bruce Wayne, much like the comic he's based on, is billionaire businessman during the day light hours, Batman by night. Bruce Wayne is actually the mask for Batman. In the comics, we learn that when thinking to himself, he never refers to himself as "Bruce." This idea, although not blatantly stated, is apparent in the Burton translation. Selina Kyle adopts the mantle of Cat to fight that, which has created her - male dominance. Geeky, beaky, Selina Kyle is transformed into a new personality, at the hands of her employer, Max Shreck, who is the living personification of Gotham City. Penguin is the eyesore left to die by his parents due to his physical deformities. His psychology is a fun-house mirror's of Batman's. He seeks revenge, but enacts it on the denizens of Gotham City. These bizarre characters come into this nether world through intertextual references and forms of satire.

The Penguin is a re-envisioning of Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919); Max Shreck is the actor's name in Murnau's Nosferatu (1921). Departing slightly, but not completely, from the comic view, this character is a "ghastly grotesque." Penguin's existence in the film extends the idea of the over-the-top villain as a means for intertextuality. Biblical references reveal themselves in his origin. His parents toss him in the sewers, and - much like Moses - floats away from his proper home and is found by others who would raise him. (In this case, penguins are his foster parents. I did mention this film's irreverence towards realism.) The reference to religious allegory does not end there. His plot is to kill every first-born son of Gotham City. The physical distortion is Dr. Caligari, the means to enact revenge is part The Angel of Death, and the method is very much the pied piper (as we see him attempting to lure children into the sewers). We are given visual signs of reincorporation. The Penguin clutches bars of his cage as a baby, then again the sewer grate before phase one of his revenge is enacted. In addition, he spits up black bile, which in Middle age English literature was considered one of the four, humors-this one representing evil.

Another prominent, duplicitous figure in this Gothic landscape becomes manifest in millionaire Max Shreck. His duality reveals itself in his affection for his son, for whom he commits all his crimes. Shreck's love fosters his cruel deeds, including the near murder of his secretary Selina Kyle, to protect his legacy. At a greater level Shreck personifies the vampire spirit. No, he does not suck blood, however his legacy is a power plant that actually stores and stockpiles power from the city. In other words, he's sucking out the life force. This again ties into his Nosferatu roots, as the vampire sucks the life force out of the living. (Max Shreck, after all, as the name of the actor who portrayed Nosferatu.) The public, ever unaware of his philanthropist by day, metaphoric vampire by night, buys into his superficial gestures and giving of baubles. The satire bites deeper when Max's plot is revealed.

Equating Max with a vampire is equally supportable by the coffin material lining his wall and the ascent up the staircase when Selina is working late - a visual reference to the now famous shot of the vampire rising from the coffin. His cufflinks are human molars (according to Christopher Walken in various interviews). In addition, the fright wig is indicative of German expressionism villains--even silent movie villains in general (see Professor Moriarity in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes starring John Barrymore, for example, or'London After Midnight starring Lon Chaney, although he's not really a villain after all in that film).

Unable to sway the politicians to grant him the opportunity to construct the power plant, Max enlists the aid of the Penguin by posing him as a political candidate who will overthrow the mayor. Big business will be behind the political monster to ensure his deeds will be implemented. At the same time, the Penguin has a natural gift for American political rhetoric. After "saving" the mayor's baby, he turns to the public and proclaims "I may have saved the mayor' baby, but I refuse to save a mayor who stood by helpless as a baby while Gotham was ravaged by a disease; that turned eagle scouts in to crazed clowns, and happy homemakers into cat-women." This style of romancing the public with rhetoric while not clearly having a political platform is a stab at the very heart of American politics. During a TONIGHT SHOW interview, Burton told host Jay Leno that the character was based on all "the current political candidates." It shows. The alliance between the two is blatant satire of the real life political situation.

Shreck has a motif. Much like the "golden arches" of McDonald's, Shreck has a large the cat's head corporate logo. It is at once reminiscent of Felix the cat, and also and indication that Shreck has an eye on every area of Gotham City. It serves, most strikingly, as an indication of events to follow for secretary Selina Kyle, whom Shreck pushes out the window.

Resulting from his corruption, Selina Kyle is reborn as Catwoman. As Selina plummets from a high-rise window, canvas awnings slow her fall enabling her survival. Although not realistic, this action should be interpreted from a symbolic viewpoint. Upon hitting the asphalt, Selina's former self dies, and has a rebirth as Catwoman. Patriarchal domination results in a feminist character. The docile gender roles and altruistic leanings based on sex all but evaporate. Upon returning to her house, she makes short work of all her belongings. The smashed sign that read "Hello There" now blares "Hell here." Just as Bruce Wayne is a mask for Batman, Oswald Cobblepot is a mask for Penguin, philanthropist Max is a mask for the vampyric counter-part, and Selina is an evasive front for the true personality. Catwoman and Batman may share numerous characteristics, but there is a departure when considering the pursuit of justice. Although Batman is more of an anti-hero (very rarely to heroes place bombs on unarmed thugs, or blast them with an inferno of exhaust), his justice is limited to "evil-doers." Catwoman is far more destructive and indiscriminate. This isn't to say that her justice has no foundation. Blurred lines between what is traditionally good and bad, right and wrong. This kind of moral ambiguity apparent in both the heroes and the villains lends itself to the post-patriarchal idea that the so called heroes always act in the name of good, just as villains are evil due to internal malignity, with little external factors or explanation.

In fact, her character embodies the idea of both modern and postmodern thought. Selina is clearly the modern thought. She longs for a man to fill the void in her life, and create comfort and stability. On the other hand, Catwoman dismisses Selina's unattainable quest for completion through male companionship. This film presents us a woman who slips from forced conformity into the dual identities of her and the woman she once was. This comes to a head as her mind is overtaken by the pursuit of vengeance-namely, killing Max Shreck.

In her final scene, Catwoman has tracked down Shreck to Penguin's lair. She is given the option of killing Shreck or riding off with Batman into the sunset. Her line is as follows: "Bruce, I would love to live with you in your big castle, forever just like in a fairy tale. I just couldn't live with myself! So don't pretend this is a happy ending!" This subverts the audience expectation for some form of romantic reconciliation between the two. Through out the film, Batman/Catwoman have been fighting, yet there lies an unspoken sexual attraction. Bruce and Selina, unaware of one another's alter ego until the third act, carry on a brief love affair. Bruce's plea to her follows his removing of his cowl, to plead with her as Bruce Wayne. Catwoman has consumed Selina, this resulting from her inner repression.

Batman brings us to the concluding element in BATMAN RETURNS' analysis. His character, as previously mentioned, is a combination of aspects of the archetypal force of good, with liberal application of anti-heroism. (Batman's origin, although not shown in this film, is well known enough to not need detail. Bruce witnessed his parent's murder, and as he grew so did his pain. His pain was turned into Batman, so he could fight back against the world that created him, in the name of justice.)

In taking the role of the hero, Batman denounces public adulation. He is concealed in the persona of Bruce Wayne, a shrewd billionaire bachelor who spends his time brooding in his castle on the hill, or in frank business meetings with Shreck. Unlike Selina, Wayne is the emotional outlet for Batman. In this approach he becomes little more than an extension of Batman, having surrendered his soul to the crime-fighter the very night he first wore the Bat-suit. Burton seems to be playing with the notion that Batman and Bruce Wayne are two distinct personalities, being reconciled, rather than one being a mask for another.

To illustrate this point we draw on the episode where Bruce, in the Bat cave, is examining a series of articles on the Penguin's origins. Talking to Alfred, faithful butler of thirty-odd years, his voice is free of any menace - Wayne is equally at peace with him as he is with the public. Shortly thereafter, one identity relegated by another in a costume, Batman converses with the butler via remote intercom. The altered voice immediately surfaces; manifesting itself in a deep, mean rasp. Is this not the same man Bruce spoke to minutes earlier at Wayne Manor, to whom he confides his double-life, and thus needn't worry about concealing himself? This is reincorporated in the concluding scene. Batman, at the risk of revealing the face under the suit, tears off his cowl and the rasp, which so forcefully tells Shreck "You're going to jail," changes to the softer Wayne tone. The most telling moment, however, is when Bruce ascribes his familiar recognition of Selina (when he has in fact met her before, but as Batman) by inadvertently saying "I mistook me for somebody else." Here his intention was to say 'I mistook you for somebody else," but with Batman/Wayne occupying this split psyche, words become mixed and they endanger a secret by telling truths.

At the end of the film, we see Bruce Wayne brood, just as he had in the beginning. There was no resolution with Catwoman, and Batman is never seen redeemed in the public eye after being framed, although there is a telling moment, during the coda, where we see the bat-signal alight, and Catwoman stand to view it.


It is, in fact, a GREAT Batman film. Above we have studies of the German impressionism influence on BATMAN RETURNS, as well as an analytical reading of the work. But the ideas present in the film are from the comic books source.

Let's begin with German Expressionism. Batman creator's Bob Kane and Bill Finger, cite two very specific silent era works when discussing Batman's creative influences. The first is The Bat Whispers,' from 1930. The film directed by Rolan West featured a detective who secretly killed people dressed as a bat.

The Man Who Laughs (1928), directed by Paul Leni, is another. The story focuses on a man whose face was scarred by gypsies into a permanent rictus. In addition, many of the supernatural elements, from Dr. Evil, Dr. Hugo Strange, The Monk, Giants, etc., were present in the earliest comics. Looking over the hard covered archives book, I can see many direct visual influences from the page to the screen.

In addition, the Penguin of the comics rejects the name Oswald Cobblepot, nearly as much as his onscreen counter part. At least during the golden age run. His reimagining in recent comics as a Kingpin is about as different from the original intent of the character, as, well, giving him flippers. Like his comic book counter part, he does have some business and political aspirations, resulting from the rejection of his identity, and has an arsenal of umbrella-weapons at his disposal. If his character is not entirely narratively faithful from one medium to another, it's not that great a loss, considering he is being interpreted as one of Batman's 'tragic' villains.

In more recent comics, many villains have been given tragic origins. The Joker was a decent man, a stand up comedian, whose life was ruined in a day. Two-Face was Gotham's Apollo -a handsome District Attorney, who had a healthy dose of psychological baggage from his past, which exploded into an alternate personality. Just add acid. Mr. Freeze, as written by Paul Dini, is a man whose quest for revenge is entirely sympathetic, given what has been taken from him.

Burton's Penguin fits into this category of villain. His life began as a tragedy, we have some sympathy for him, but ultimately we know his actions have caused us to root for his downfall.

Catwoman perhaps is given the most faithful treatment in this film, with regards to the source material. Although her origin was updated in recent years, her first origin was that of a cat burglar known as The Cat. Eventually, she donned a costume. We learned, according to the Golden-Age persona, that Selina is actually a good person who, after surviving a terrifying accident (I believe it was a plane-crash) developed a second personality as a result of her head trauma. She walks the line between good and evil, and eventually loses the "bump on the head" story, and admits some deeper turmoil. Elements of this reading are present throughout BATMAN RETURNS, from Selina's origin, to quieter moments, such as those where she questions her motives - "why are you doing this?" This question is something she has posed in the comics before.

In addition, the visual of her being found in the alley by cats, after her fall, is visually lifted (more or less) from "Her Sister's Keeper." Add the rooftop fights and meetings that have become common place for Batman and Catwoman, and you have something that is quite close to the comics.

Her motivation, in the film, is to get back at Shreck, by breaking into his store, and destroying a few floors of it. Shreck is the personification of Gotham City itself. Here, she is getting back at Gotham itself. Of course, that she's also taking away from the rich and powerful serves translates the character's motivations as well.

Now, on to Batman. Batman is close to various interpretations of his comic book counter part. There is no such thing as a "real" Batman, just preferred interpretations. His character has changed dramatically over the years. In the original comics, and The Dark Knight Returns (comics that Burton was influenced by), Batman kills. Many audiences today have a difficult time with this, as according to the updated Batman (courtesy of "Batman: Year One") Batman has a far more rigid moral code, and would never commit murder. But in his earlier cases, such as "The Case of the Chemical Syndicate," Batman pushes villains off rooftops, and threatens, "Tell me gentlemen. Or I'll kill you." Machine guns are present on his vehicles, and he uses a machine gun to end a villain in DKR.

And then, there's the Adam West Batman.

Or the comics from the 1950s, where Batman had quite a large Bat-Family, and visited other planets, dimensions, and waved to the public in broad daylight.

Batman's personality has evolved over the years too. I believe that Burton nailed a number of aspects of his persona, from the duel personality of businessman/loner and crime-fighter. In fact, the three villains Batman faces in the film are mirrors for his own personality. The Businessman (Max Shreck), The Vigilante (Catwoman), and The Orphan (The Penguin.) "If his parents hadn't eighty sixed him," Shreck tells Bruce Wayne of The Penguin, "you two may have been bunkies at Prep-School." Batman walks a fine line in his mission, something that has been explored in the films, the comics, and the animated series. Each villain represents what Batman might turn into, if he does not keep his sense of justice, and protecting the innocent, in check. They are very much like the three ghosts who visit Scrooge, each showing him what he could be, or what he could turn into, if he isn't careful. Ultimately, the qualities that make this character great are in the eye of the beholder.


When I first viewed the film in the theater, I saw several children being dragged out by their irate parents. This was not a film for the kids, at all. McDonald's faced some heat due to its merchandising tie ins, and many on the business end of the film and its merchandising, backed away from the film a bit.

A short-lived organization called DOVE, created a "Seal of Approval" to authenticate films that signified wholesome family viewing. I supposed they had never heard of the MPAA, or that the film was rated PG-13. While many critics were wowed, BATMAN BEGINS became a love it or leave it variety of film. The audience that fell in love with this version of Batman, will defend it tirelessly, as those who did not enjoy this particular reading of the comic book legend, will never quite understand what the rest of us see in it.

"Some critics believe that BATMAN RETURNS, however uneven, achieved a certain Gothic grandeur and was most true to the spirit of its source in pushing its protagonists to the extreme. Others found it too dark and perverse, especially for a movie bound to attract large numbers of children."-Les Daniels, "BATMAN: THE COMPLETE HISTORY."

Despite being the biggest blockbuster of 1992, with 163 million, it paled in comparison to the financial success of the first film. It was apparent that Burton would not return in a directing role. Keaton dropped out of the next sequel soon after.


I would like to thank Jett for this wonderful opportunity to share this retrospective with all of you. This has truly been a labor of love.

A number of these thoughts were written in papers for New School University, when I was working on my Masters, but many were triggered by my friends at the BOF forums. Among them include Omega Aenima, ITBM28, BatmAngelus, zDBZ, Shadowman82, Pennyworth, SamSAIRUS NapoleonBlownapart42, and of course, BATMAN RETURNS' staunchest defender, Batlugosi. Thanks guys, for your wonderful conversations.

For other thoughts on this excellent film, I recommend checking out the "Influences" topic in the "Burton/ Schumacher" area of the BATMAN ON FILM forums. Some wonderful thoughts!

Gregg Bray is a contributor and forum mod for BOF

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