Monday, June 18, 2012

Batman Movie Batdown Week 3 - Batman Returns

"Batman Returns" is, in my opinion, the finest Batman movie ever made.  More so, if I were to write up a list of my favorite favorite movies I've ever seen, "Batman Returns" would have a happy place within the top twenty, at least*.  I may actually be this movie's biggest fan.  "Batman Returns" also marks a change of epochs for me personally, since this is the first film on the Batdown that was made in my lifetime - its also the first Batman movie I ever saw at the tender age of four.

Following the smash success of 1989's "Batman", Warner Bros immediately decided that there was going to be a sequel.  Before even getting a single bit of ink dry, they spent a quarter million dollars saving the sets from the first movie in preparation for building a franchise.  Three years later, in 1992, they had their sequel.  And really, the studio deserves points for giving Tim Burton almost complete creative control over the direction of "Batman Returns", because this is essentially a perfect specimen of a proper sequel.  Its bigger, its more character-driven, and its significantly more impressive.  Anybody who laments that "sequels always suck" needs to visit the Batman movies, because it isn't just "The Dark Knight" that vastly improved on its predecessor.

By "bigger" I don't simply mean the movie is larger in scale, which is true.  "Batman" had only one villain, this has three:  two supervillains and Christopher Walken.  "Batman Returns" attempts a far deeper storyline than the older Batman movies, which were typically just "Batman fights bad guys, saves day".  This one creates a trio of bad guys, including the Catwoman, a character that deeply touches Bruce Wayne.  Every villain in some way or another is a shade of Batman's own psychic injuries, but Catwoman is the only one Batman directly loves, and the only one he really tries to save.  The Batman-Catwoman dynamic is probably the deepest and most profound character conflict in any Batman movie.  All this tragedy occurs under the moody white streets of Christmas in Gotham City.  Yeah, this is "A Very Batman Christmas".  However, "Batman Returns" is easily the least jolly Christmas movie ever made, a gothic tale of good versus evil while the snow falls.  And its absolutely wonderful.

The Bat.

The 1989 "Batman"'s greatest failing, I think, was largely the utter waste of Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne.  He was largely stuck in a deadpan romance with Vicky Vale, which just never felt quite right.  That romantic mismatch is why I'm not complaining that Kim Bassinger was dumped from this sequel, it only makes that sense that the Vicky Vale-Bruce Wayne relationship wasn't going anywhere.  Michael Keaton's Batman is a desperately lonely person.  His closest human relationship is with Alfred, but you can see that his primary relationship is with his own personal demons.  There's an understated brokenness to Michael Keaton's Batman, its really an extraordinary performance.  This comes off much better in "Batman Returns", since his main female relationship is with Michelle Pfieffer's Selina Kyle.  I'll get to her in a minute, but her character is really a perfect mirror for Bruce Wayne's own issues.  Together they have an excellent chemistry, these are two characters that seem to belong with each other.

The Cat.

Michelle Pfeiffer, however, I think gives the best single performance of the movie.  Her Selina Kyle works as a miserable lonely secretary stuck in a deadend life with nothing but her only mousiness and repression.  An attempted murder by her boss, Christopher Walken, leads her to snap.  She then becomes Catwoman, a whip-weilding inexplicably acrobatic anti-heroine who wanders the streets split between being a supervillain and a superhero.  Selina Kyle comes off as perhaps an even more broken person than Batman, partly liberated in her new monster alter-ego, but partly spinning out of control in an identity crisis.  The only thing that seems to be close to stable in her life is her relationship with Bruce Wayne, and this is made a lot more complicated when Batman and Catwoman have to be fighting on the rooftops every evening.  Catwoman, unlike Kyle is confident and controlling, being able to play off much worse people than herself.  Her costume is shiny spandex covered in staples at wild angles, its probably the most distinctively Tim Burton-ish character design of either of these movies.

The Penguin.

Danny DeVito's Penguin is a lot less complex than the other two.  Batman is good, Catwoman is the gray area, and Penguin is directly evil.  His backstory appears to make him sympathetic, being a deformed child abandoned by his parents** as he was symbolically thrown into the sewers to be raised by a circus.  He's also criminally insane, planning a great revenge on the human society that rejected him.  Danny DeVito's Penguin is a grotesque little man covered in prosthetics, so his back is hunched over, his hands are flippers, and his skin is a pasty white.  He drools black oil every so often.  There's a repeated point about the Penguin being sexual frustrated, as he leers over Gotham's females with animal cravings.  I really don't know what the Bible stuff is about, but it makes him an even more deranged character.  The Penguin is even able to use his disgusting features to build sympathy amongst Gotham's citizens, pretending to be a good man on the inside.  However, as the movie continues you see he's more of a monster on the inside than on the outside.  I mean, his Plan A is to kill every firstborn male in Gotham as part of his recurring Biblical motifs.  And his Plan B is a lot simpler:  blow up the city.  In a lot of ways, I have to say Danny DeVito's Penguin is a bit more scary than Jack Nicholson's Penguin.  He does his hilarious moments, but he's not nearly as charming.  This is just a monster, which is what makes him such a compelling character.

The Christopher Walken.

The final major character in this movie is Christopher Walken***.  He's the most simple character of them all:   an evil industrialist trying to corner Gotham's power system by building a power plant that somehow steals energy from the city.  Unfortunately he can't get it done because of the interference of Gotham's ineffectual but generally positive mayor.  So Walken tries to supplant the mayor with the Penguin.  Walken also is Selina Kyle's boss, and Catwoman's creator since he's the one that throws her out of a window.  That doesn't break Kyle's body like h hoped, but it definitely breaks her mind.  Still, for all of Walken's simple evilness, he does have an excellent Beethoven haircut.  And he legitimately loves his son and heir, Chip.

"Batman Returns" despite its dark character conflicts, is also in a few ways a campier movie than its predecessor.  The Joker commanded the Gotham Mafia, the Penguin, however, rules the Red Triangle Gang.  They are a gang of ex-circus performers that dance across Gotham using their usual talents to cause mayhem.  So clowns somersault around kidnapping babies, fire breathers burn through crowds, one lady has a trained poodle that sets off grenades, and there are other hangers-on who just carry rocket launchers.  The Penguin also has an entire army of radio-controlled penguins with rockets strapped on their backs, a sight so bizarre that it defies words.  That's the sort of business I'd expect out of the old "Batman" TV show, not the darker Nineties movies.  Still, I guess its a personal decision, you can decide that an army of rocket penguins is either the stupidest thing you've seen and shut the movie off, or you can be like me and yell out "AWWWWESOME!!"

I think "Batman Returns" hits a perfect medium in terms of camp versus realism.  There's enough grit and darkness that you can care about the characters, but there's just enough silliness that the movie comes off completely excellent.  In some ways, Christopher Nolan's movies are a bit too serious.  Nobody ever spouts one-liners, everything has to make technical sense, so the Batmobile can't be equipped with a flamethrower in its engine or the other six dozen gadgets it comes with like in this movie.  I guess realism is fine, but it excludes a lot of fantastic possibilities.  Like my personal favorite vehicle in any movie ever:  the Penguin's Duck Car.  This thing is basically a giant rubber ducky with tank treads, but its also a scizzor-lift and a boat!  I want one!  Too bad Batman's Batboat slices it in half at the end of the movie.  I guess what I'm saying is this:  you don't have to be afraid to be a bit silly and impossible.  It is a superhero movie, after all.

 It helps a lot that the crazy things happen in Burton's Gotham, a city already heavily stylized to be part dystopia part fascist capital, with snow falling on darkened streets while stern-faced metal masculine ideals stare blankly into the abyss.  Did I mention last week that I love Burton's Gotham?

Still despite the over-the-top action scenes and adventures, the core of this movie is in the relationships.  There are several brilliantly powerful scenes in this movie, which I'd rank as some of the best Batman moments ever.  Selina Kyle's mental break to Catwoman is clearly shown in her two entrances to her apartment.  First she comes into her sickeningly sweet home with cheesey girly decorations to wallow in her own loneliness.  Then she has to leave to get back to the office in the dead of night, which means Kyle stumbled onto Christopher Walken's evil plan.  After being thrown out the window, Kyle stumbles home, filled with rage.  She tears the entire room apart, spraying black paint over her dollhouses, stuffing her toy animals into the spinning blades of the sink garbage disposal, and tearing up her cloths.  I love this sequence.

In fact, I could spend another fifteen paragraphs going gaga over this scene or that scene, since there are about a million that I love in this movie.  However, to save us all a lot of reading and writing, I'll simply knock it down to two more.

The first is a dancing party where Selina Kyle and Bruce Wayne are together.  Together they stand under mistletoe, which leads them to accidentally reenact some Batman-Catwoman banter from an earlier fight in the movie.  Suddenly they both realize that the person in front of them is their arch-nemesis, and are completely unsure of what to do.  Instinctively they grab at each other, trying to be comforted in their lover's embrace, a gesture that's made a lot more perverse since their alter egos are trying to kill each other.  Kyle has to wonder "do we start fighting?"  What is the social etiquette when you realize your romantic interest is the superhero you're trying to knock off?  Their confusion and fear in this moment goes right to the heart of the entire issue between these characters.

And now for my favorite scene of "Batman Returns", the death of the Penguin.  After his Penguin Rocket Army backfired on him, the Penguin's lair is in ruins.  The movie is already largely over, with Catwoman ultimately rejecting Bruce Wayne's offers to save her in order to destroy Christopher Walken.  But the Penguin pops in, hoping to kill Batman.  However, he's choking on his own bile, and he keels over with black tar filling his throat.  From the sides come six mourning emperor penguins, leading the Penguin's body into the water of Gotham's sewers like the pallbearers of a funeral.  Danny DeVito falls into the water, black ooze spilling out of his mouth into the water, and the penguins watch on, having lost their master.  I get the sense there's some deeper symbolism here with the mourning penguins, but I can't quite put my finger on it.   I'm simply stunned by the gothic beauty of it all, this was the single scene that stood out to me most when I was four-years-old.  Its a powerful scene, much more powerful than you'd expect out of a superhero movie.

In conclusion, "Batman Returns" is more or less a perfect movie.  I can conjure no negative comments about anything with this film.  It has great action, it has a great style, it has a few good laughs here and there, and most importantly, its characters are exceptional.  I'm just repeating myself at this point, I think, but my accolades for this film really go without end.  This may be the best single movie I've ever reviewed on this blog, its tough to choose between this, "Toy Story 3", and "The Raid".  Even if you don't care for the Tim Burton style of Batman movies, "Batman Returns" is worth a view.  Its worth ten, actually.

"Batman Returns" was another huge financial success for Warner Bros, but its reception was mixed.  Many parents at the time considered the movie to be far too dark and grim for their children, which makes me wonder if those parents actually saw "Batman" in 1989.  This movie is probably a bit more violent than the first one, since the Penguin commits several murders right on camera, but the Joker wasn't exactly Ronald McDonald either.  It could just be the general mood of grim failure that this movie ends on, it isn't a final triumph for Batman over evil, he lost as much as he won in this film.  Still, its quite a thing to note that parents were freaking out over "Batman Returns" in 1992, when just sixteen years later nobody was complaining about "The Dark Knight", which I consider to be the most violent movie to ever come with merchandise at Toys'R'Us.  The mixed reaction to "Batman Returns" would have terrible consequences for Batman's future.  Of course, my own thoughts on this issue are pretty clear.  Anybody who decides that "Batman Returns" is too dark for their children is pretty much an asshole, plain and simple.  At some point your kids are going to need to experience some forms of artistic expression that can show the world in tons other than happy sunshine and laughter.  I watched this movie as a four-year-old, and I'd show it to my four-year-olds if I had any.  And if my future wife has a problem with that, I will voluntarily sleep on the couch.

What will I be watching on TV while on that couch?  "Batman Returns" of course!

Oh, as a strange epilogue, "Batman Returns" actually was meant to have two sequels.  There were, of course, plans for "Batman 3", I'll get to that story two weeks from now when we visit "Batman Forever".  However, there also were plans to make a stand-alone movie for Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman.  Pfeiffer was the best single actor in this movie, and her response was 100% positive.  The movie ends with Catwoman standing over the city, having survived the events of this movie thanks to some kind of Cat Magic.  As a kid, I assumed her appearance was merely symbolic to show her spirit lived on defying even death in the end.  But no, Warner Bros had plans for this character to continue.  The stand-alone "Catwoman" project, unfortunately, wallowed in pre-development hell for a decade as the studio stupidly wasted their chance to use Michelle Pfeiffer again.  When the "Catwoman" movie was finally finished, it had nothing to do with the Batman films****, starred Halle Barry, and was a hilarious trainwreck disaster of a movie.  I don't know if "Catwoman" would have worked even if it were in canon with "Batman Returns", but it sure makes for a weird story:  one of the best superhero movies ever spawning an ill-conceived disaster which made no sense on any level.  That's Hollywood for ya.  If you ever wonder how the Tim Burton Batman movies devolved into the mess that was "Batman and Robin", remember that Warner Bros is the same studio that crapped out "Catwoman".

Next week we leave the world of live action to "Batman: Mask of the Phantasm", the only Batman movie to ever directly flop at the box office.  Which is quite the thing, since "Mask of the Phantasm" is an amazing beautiful movie.

Also, I promise that I'll actually get the Batdown done on time for once.

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* Of course, I probably never could actually write a list of my favorite movies.  The list would go for about a hundred entries, and even then I could find another hundred movies I'd feel guilty about ignoring.  Putting "Batman Returns" in the top twenty might sound like damning with faint praise, trust me, it is not.  Its hanging out with greats like "Star Wars", several Miyazaki films, "WALL-E", and "The Lion King".

** The Penguin's father is played by non other than Pee Wee Herman of all people in a the tiniest of bit parts.

*** Another fun fact:  Tim Burton suffers from Walkenphobia, the irrational fear of Christopher Walken.  He sucked down his fears for this production, and we can all be thankful for him.  Burton's fears of this man probably explain why he named Walken's character "Max Shreck" for the silent movie actor who played the vampire in "Nosferatu".

**** Which is why it is not included in this Batdown aside from that lone paragraph.

9 comments:

  1. blue since your going to review Batman Forever and batman and robin Again are you going to copy and paste the one from tales from the Q?
    or are you going to type a new review?

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    1. Lol, I didn't think anybody remembered those dusty old things. No, I'm not so lazy that I'd merely repost ancient reviews. There will be totally new reviews up, since my opinion of Batman and Robin is a lot more favorable than it used to be, and there's actually a lot more to talk about now that I'm viewing the whole Batman history here.

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    2. We can only hope someone actually saved the Final Fantasy IX review, and shares it so we can spread it on the net.

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  2. I love how Batman and Robin is actually a decent movie. Why does everyone hate on it? I mean, sure, it's overly campy, but it's a comic book movie! FOR KIDS!!

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  3. I checked out why parents complained about this movie and not the dark knight was because mcdonalds made a penguin toy and the moral guardians panicked and then you know the rest.

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  4. I'm sorry Blue dut reading this review didn't bring back any pleasant memories. Not of the movie of course, the movie was great! But of the video game "Batman Returns" for the Super Nintendo. "Shivers" Oh god I remember the hours trying to take down those clowns on stilts while using the grappling hook to swing over the fire. Then somehow when you make it pass all that you have to fight Catwoman on top of the roof and SHE NEVER ONCE STAGGERED WHEN YOU HIT HER! I'm sorry I'll just go and try to erase those memories with a good Batman game, like Arkham City.

    BTW: Can't wait for next Batman movie review. As a kid I thought Mask of the Phantasm was boring as hell and the only scene that I remember from then was when he was chasing the Phantom through the abandoned studios. But I do remember seeing it again a few years ago and realized that this movie was made way before it's time.

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  5. To the Current Thought: Don't worry Blue I'm sure it's way better then those smochs at Rotten Tomato are talking about. And I just check it and it bumped at 74%.

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  6. Here's what I got from Batman Returns. It is a retelling of Dickens' Christmas Carol- Bruce represents Scrooge(empty, solitary; almost bereft of compassion), the Penguin is a flipside of Bruce's past(losing his parents, having his childhood tragically cut short), Selina is a flipside of his present(creating an animalistic alterego to fight her adversaries), and Schreck as the stone-cold psychopath is Bruce's "future that may yet come to pass"- if Bruce continues to lose himself in his alterego of the Bat, he will ultimately lose his humanity. Schreck has no humanity, because he has no compassion, no empathy. He appears to care for his son Chip, but this is only down to his need to preserve his "legacy".

    In fighting the three villains, Bruce is really fighting himself. At first glance, Batman Returns appears to be quite a depressing tale, but on closer reflection it is a tale of redemption: when we first see Bruce in the film, he sits alone in an empty dark room, seemingly bereft of purpose until the bat signal streams in through the window. Bruce's encounters with Catwoman and Penguin force him to take a good look in the mirror- especially when they trap him in the tampered Batmobile (which then proceeds to mow down innocent civillians) and force him to see the world through the eyes of a true villain.

    As Bruce gets to know Selina(sans mask/costume), he finally meets someone struggling with the same duality he is, but Selina is losing and by the end of the film Bruce cannot save her(failing to stop her from killing Schreck) but through his feelings for her, he rediscovers his empathy- so in effect she saves him. As Bruce watches repectfully and silently on while the emperor penguins carry out Oswald's funeral procession we see further evidence of Bruce's new-found compassion, even though the two were mortal enemies, all that remains now is the truth that they were both irrevocably scarred by their tragic pasts.

    Herein lies the meaning of the title. At the start of the film there is little humanity to Bruce- he has all but lost himself in the mantle of the Bat. As he regains his humanity however; Batman returns. It is a fucking awesome film.

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  7. Wow. That is an interesting take. I have to watch this again.

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