BATMAN ON FILM, since June 1998!

A RETROSPECIVE OF BATMAN RETURNS

Author: Paul J. Wares
Monday, April 20, 2006:

It’s the debate that has raged for over 13 years. "Is Batman Returns good?"

For some the answer to that question is a resounding “Yes”, but for every fan that loves Tim Burton’s Bat-sequel, another hates it. It’s one of those strange things that completely polarizes the Batman fan community -- you either love it or hate it.

Fans of the movie staunchly and sometimes obsessively defend the film and those that hate it do so with a vengeance!

I have sat on the fence regarding this movie for a couple of years now, but with the recent release of the Special Edition DVD, I felt that the time had come for me re-evaluate the movie as I did with my Batman ’89 and Batman Forever Anniversary Retrospectives. Let me preface this with a little history. After the release of Batman in 1989 and it’s subsequent box office performance, a sequel was most definitely assured. It was a given that Michael Keaton and Tim Burton would return and Warner Bros were paying a premium to ensure the sets at Pinewood were left standing. Rumour had it that the film would feature Catwoman and The Penguin.

Now Catwoman I could get on board with. I mean what heterosexual, red-blooded man wouldn’t, but The Penguin? He was my least favourite villain from the comic-book and I never understood the fascination with him. Unlike many other villains in Batman’s rogue gallery, his origin was poor and he had no real psychological grounding. To me he was nothing more than a funny man in a tuxedo. Remember, this was long before his portrayal in the comics as a Gotham Crime Boss, a position that does seem to suit the character much more.

It was soon announced that the Penguin would indeed feature and would be portrayed by Danny DeVito. Perfect casting aside, I was less than thrilled by the inclusion of the character. Soon after it was announced that due to being very impressed with her performance in Grifters, Tim Burton had cast Annette Benning as Catwoman. I wasn’t familiar with Benning’s work at all, but before I could begin my research into her ability to play the character, the studio told the world that Annette Benning had been dropped due to her unexpected pregnancy and would be replaced with Michelle Pfeiffer. Now this was much better, I thought. Pfeiffer was (and is) seductive and sexy and her reported affair with Michael Keaton could only infuse the movie with more sexual tension.

Although I don’t know the exact details, it was reported that Anton Furst, who’d won an Academy Award for his work on Batman, would not be returning to Gotham City. This was reportedly down to contractual obligations that Furst had. Furst was replaced by Bo Welch, whom Tim Burton had worked with previously on Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands. Sadly, Furst committed suicide soon after and his genius and vision will be greatly missed.

Information regarding the film was very hard to come by back then. This was pre-internet when we had to wait for nuggets of information that would eventually appear in newspapers, genre, or trade magazines. The next news bite left me feeling very disappointed. News spread that WB and Tim Burton had decided to move the production to the soundstages of Los Angeles and the Pinewood sets were to be demolished. I was disillusioned for two reasons, firstly I took a great deal of pride from the fact that Burton’s masterpiece, Batman had been shot here in the UK and secondly, that Furst’s beautiful designs would not grace our screens again. About the same time Christopher Walken joined the cast and then it went very, very quiet.

And so I waited.

Christmas ’91 came and went and then early in the New Year, I saw my first photos from the production now officially named Batman Returns. The pictures appeared in the UK newspaper the Daily Mirror and featured a still of the scene where Catwoman licks Batman’s face. The picture was printed upright, giving the impression that Batman was somehow bound and at Catwoman’s mercy.

I’d waited a long time for these images and I was far from disappointed. They truly were beautiful. Keaton and Pfieffer looked amazing as I expected them too. What was unexpected was how good Danny Devito looked. Suited and booted in prosthetic makeup, Devito looked very little like his comic counterpart and was completely unrecognisable as himself! In my opinion the visual direction that they had taken the character was much, much better and frankly downright sinister.

As with Batman 1989 the next few months were filled with the odd photo here and there, but it wasn’t long before the hype was upon us again and the first trailer aired. This trailer blew me away more than the trailer for Batman ’89. The film looked very promising and every newly released picture was a visual treat. Before too long I was standing in the queue for the movie and not long after that, I’d seen the movie six times!

I was sixteen years old at the time and I loved every shadow soaked frame of the film. “Flaws? What flaws?” Was my response to any criticism of the film. This is an opinion however that has changed over time. This is a retrospective for a reason!

Keaton once again, is excellent as The Dark Knight. With “Dark” being the operative word. The Batman/Bruce Wayne of this film is not exactly the character from the comics nor is he a carbon copy of the first film. In this movie Keaton’s Bruce Wayne is essentially Batman without the cape and cowl. There is no discernable difference between the two personas for the majority of the film aside from the different voices Keaton employs for each persona. We’re given the impression that in the years following Batman, Bruce Wayne has all but given up his playboy/eccentric millionaire persona and has sank deeper into the darkness.

Now I don’t really have a problem with this, however we’re not given any real reason for this to have occurred, which weakens the character greatly. Why has Bruce Wayne become more sullen and withdrawn? Because Vicki Vale left him? Come on! This is a Batman movie and the one character that seems cheated out of any real development is Batman himself. It certainly gives the impression that Burton was indeed far more interested in exploring the villains of the piece.

Keaton does dominate the scenes he is in though. His Batman is an undeniable badass and very much the anti-hero as I know and love him, but for this viewer it is not enough for the Director to suggest through expressionism, the character’s motivations and psyche. Far more exposition was needed for the audience to successfully feel all the empathy for the character and the plight of his situation that they should have. Other than that though, this is MY Batman. That said, I still have problems with Batman killing, particularly when he’s depicted as a cold-blooded murderer as he is when he blows up the Strongman.

Pfeiffer is absolutely electric as Catwoman/Selina. She is sultry, sexy and dangerous and her chemistry with Keaton is sensational. She truly embodies the essence of who the character has been since her creation. Some have complained that her origin isn’t that of the comic books, but frankly there have been so many origins to this character that I don’t see how this interpretation can be deemed any more incorrect than any other. The Catwoman plot elements and especially Bruce and Selina’s relationship is in my opinion the highlight of the entire film. I can find nothing to fault it. If I have any problems at all with Catwoman, it is entirely plot related, but more on that later.

Perhaps the most divisive element of Batman Returns is the portrayal of The Penguin. This Penguin is most definitely not a literal translation from the comic-book. For that I am quite thankful, but I completely understand why it has so many fans foaming at the mouth. What Burton does keep intact from the comics, is the Penguin’s need to feel accepted while at the same time feeling superior to those around him. As far as origins go though, I think this is the biggest departure any of the other movies made. It is a brave and bold move and from my point of view a better interpretation than I’d previously seen, but again my biggest problem with the treatment of The Penguin comes from the plot and not the characterisation, which both Burton and DeVito handle superbly.

Overall the depiction of most of the characters in the film is handled exceptionally well while most of the problems stem from the plot and for me makes some of the mistakes spawned from it very nearly unforgivable. The following is a list of what I consider to be the biggest plot holes:

1. Exactly what happened after The Penguin was dumped in the sewer? If my memory serves me correctly, the novelization explained that Oswald was found by a member of the circus and that person raised him. Why couldn’t we the audience, have received that information via some kind of expositional dialogue. As it stands the movie makes it appear as if Oswald was found and raised by Penguins!!! This completely destroys any plausibility or verisimilitude for the characters origin. Rank amateur filmmaking in my opinion.

2. How on earth did Selina become a world-class martial artist capable of rivalling The Batman? I buy her near death and rebirth and let’s lay this to rest right now, she was not brought back to life by some mystical cat. She fell through several awnings, which slowed her fall and into snow, which broke her fall. She was then reborn with a new persona, or the trauma awoke a dormant one. Great, I buy that. In the context of the film that’s certainly plausible, but the one thing that completely destroys that plausibility is the fact that she is now magically able to do back flips and martial arts. Once again the plausibility could have been maintained by some throwaway exposition. Maybe making mention of Selina’s past athletic ability or maybe even show it in the form of High School trophies in her apartment.

3. How the hell did Penguin get the blueprints to The Batmobile? I’ve racked my brain over this sucker I can tell you. There is NO plausible way for this to have occurred. None that I can think of. Not even Penguin’s boast “You flush it, I flaunt it” can be applied here. There is no way Batman would have thrown something so valuable away and he most certainly wouldn’t have allowed plans to his most important arsenal to fall into the public domain. No way, no how. This plot point cheapens both the movie’s portrayal of Batman and the film as a whole.

4. Make up your mind, is Batman a killer or not? It is very clear throughout the movie that this Batman is a killer. It could be questioned whether it was Batman’s intent to kill the Firebreather at the beginning of the movie. The man is a fire eater so the audience could assume that the costume he is wearing is made of a protective material. However, it cannot be argued that Batman didn’t murder in cold blood the Circus Strongman. Seems clear right? The Batman in Returns is a killer. Let me draw your attention to this exchange:

Catwoman: “Don’t be naïve the law doesn’t apply to people like him, or us?”
Batman: “Wrong on both counts.”

This one line of dialogue from Batman, while completely in keeping with The Batman that many of us know and love, completely contradicts the character we’ve been watching for the last hour and forty-five minutes, unless of course Batman doesn’t consider the morbidly obese to have the same civil rights as the rest of us. Perhaps it could be argued that this is the character arc for Batman in this film. He’s disillusioned with his mission and has taken to dispatching criminals permanently when the mood takes him. He meets Selina, sees her plight and how revenge is destroying her and thus receives a wake-up call. Nice idea, but there isn’t any kind of scene that could be provided as evidence for this.

These are what I consider to be the worst aspects of the film, but there are more. Many that are subjective and down to my own particular tastes, but I don’t believe the plot holes I have listed above to be subjective, they are simply down to poor filmmaking and unfortunately for me it’s these aspects that makes Batman Returns so frustrating to watch. However, continue to watch it I do, in fact it’s the one film of the series that graces my DVD the most, simply because there are so many great ideas present in the film, even if some of them are poorly executed. The responsibility for these flaws rests squarely on the scriptwriter’s and Tim Burton’s shoulders. Most of the above complaints could have been ironed out with further drafts of the screenplay, or with Burton relying on a more literal style of filmmaking instead of just the expressionistic.

There are other elements that I love. The production design is utterly sumptuous. The sets are glorious and grand with the only major downside being that it does all look as if it is shot indoors. I understand the desire to make the sets feel claustrophobic, but claustrophobia on rooftops doesn’t work at least it doesn’t for me. Those rooftop scenes are very nearly destroyed as they go no way to convince that location is real and surely that is the primary function of any set.

The political comment that permeates The Penguin plot is also extremely well executed as are the explorations of duality, which I still believe no other Batman movie has done as much justice as Batman Returns. The use of expressionism is also beautiful to behold, if overdone at times and the films final scenes are simply the best of any Batman movie. They are beautifully written, directed, acted and shot and if the rest of the movie had been as good as it’s final fifteen minutes, Batman Returns would have been my favourite movie of the series and I doubt it would have as many detractors.

Batman Returns is a very mixed bag. For every idea it executes superbly there is another that is poor. I believe any position of love or hate of this film can be related primarily to what the viewer is prepared to forgive. This may seem like a simplistic generalisation to some, but chances are if you can get over the gaping plot holes and the sometimes, loose translation of the characters from their original form, then I suspect you love the movie. If you cannot then you join the equal numbers on the other side. Me? I’m content to continue my balancing act on the fence, however precarious it may be

Paul J. Wares is the UK editor of BATMAN ON FILM.

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