Batman Returns Retrospective

Directed by: Tim Burton
Produced by: Denise Di Novi, Tim Burton
Screenplay by: Daniel Waters
Story by: Daniel Waters, Sam Hamm
Based on Characters appearing in magazines published by: DC Comics
Batman characters by: Bob Kane
Starring: Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle, Michael Murphy, Vincent Schiavelli
Music by: Danny Elfman
Cinematography: Stefan Czapsky
Edited by: Chris Lebenzon
Production company: Warner Bros.
Distributed by: Warner Bros.
Release date: June 19, 1992 (United States)
Running time: 126 minutes

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Where were you in 1992? I would have been very young, too young for this film and would not see it until home release I believe. Honestly, I cannot remember given these were early years for me so it is hard to completely and accurately recall. The 1989 release of Tim Burton’s Batman was a huge movement in both comic book and cinematic history. There was never a marketing campaign like this before. There was a Batman logo smack dab in the middle of New York Times Square. People are going to the theaters just to watch the trailer for the film prior to its release. Bus stops are having the Batman promotional posters being cracked open and stolen. The film opened to #1 in the box office, staying in theaters for well over five months raking in over $411 million worldwide on a $35 million budget. WB had a possible franchise on its hands. Tim Burton had no interest in a sequel as he went on to make Edward Scissor Hands instead over at Fox. WB greatly wanted a sequel and finally got it when they welcomed Tim Burton back and giving him full creative control, telling him to basically make a Tim Burton film.

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I do not recall the general buzz and reception of the film. The way I recall it was good but not as good as the first, which was typical of sequels back then. This is almost lost on us today with films like Spider-Man 2, Captain America: The Winter Soldier or The Dark Knight. The film met generally good reviews yet made less from the first. Batman Returns pulled in over $266 million worldwide on an $80 million budget, only staying in theaters for four months. Granted, back then sequels did not always out gross their predecessor back then. On top of this Batman merchandise did not sell as well as the first film due to parental backlash to the films darkness and sexual innuendos. Because of this the film lost its McDonald’s Happy Meal promotion. As of today though it sits at an 80% on Rotten Tomatoes, with a 73% audience score, a 7.0 on IMDB, a Metascore of 68 and users giving it 7.8. Hell, go on Amazon and it has 4/5, therefore the audience seems to love this film. There is a niche’ fan art community for it as well. Regardless of how you feel about the film you can find some great fan art on it. The film went on to loosely inspire Batman: The Animated Series as well. Yet, it is 25 years later and there is always one critic films need to keep in mind – time. Has the film aged well? Today we have so many other Batman films and comic book movies to compare it to. We also have more access than ever before to Batman comics with digital comics and collected editions to buy on-line rather than rummaging through back issues in our local comic shop to aid us in providing context and comparing it to the source material.

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One common thing in all reviews rather positive or negative is how dark this film is. It seems nowadays that is a negative thing, your comic book hero should never be dark unless it is in the title of course or maybe you are The Punisher. But when we look back the film has a lot of silliness and dare I say some camp. Many would argue that Schumacher is the beginning of the end, but I would surmise that this film is. For example, carnie folks somehow got the blueprints to the Batmobile and are engineers all of a sudden and basically hack the Batmobile. This is followed by the Penguin using a Kiddie Ride to drive the Batmobile against Batman’s own control. Let that sink in for a moment. Let us also not forget the Penguin’s giant rubber ducky vehicle that this film gets plenty of mileage in. He uses actual penguins with missiles strapped to their backs and runs for mayor which I remind some of you out there, that the latter was an episode in the Adam West Batman T.V. series. Meanwhile, you have Catwoman who is all meow and actually gives herself a bath like a cat would in one scene and why? Because… reasons. She places a bird in her mouth on the basis she will eat it because she’s Catwoman, get it? Plus, her origin is based on cats resurrecting her, we think; we are not sure to this day in the logistics of this scene to be honest. Burton has not been helpful in this on the commentary he notes…

“…you see the creation with the cats coming around her. It’s not supernatural. But we feed into the sort of mythology a little bit; of cats and nine lives and all that sort of thing […] It’s not supernatural, but you don’t really know.”

Yes, this film is packed with lots of dark elements. The film opens on the birth of Penguin who is a deformed baby that his parents respond to by locking him up in a box so he can later eat the housecat and then they decide to do the next best thing. They take the baby and dump it in the river. I hope no highly devout Jews out there were offended. The Penguin later on speaks of killing the first born sons of Gotham; again, I hope no one of faith was offended here. He himself is something of a sexual predator in a film with violence towards women, Batman murdering criminals in a few horrific ways and let us not forget as Kevin Smith put it many of times – THIS FILM HAD A HAPPY MEAL! Oddly though, Tim Burton felt this film was actually lighter than his previous work.

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In all honest truth, darkness is fine. The entire Nolan trilogy is rather dark and the first Batman film under Tim Burton was considered dark for its time. He proved to you that your father’s Adam West Batman was dead, this is a new Batman. Then Zack Snyder’s Batman which lifts from Frank Miller with a Batman dripped in xenophobia and PTSD. Other comic book films like The Punisher or Logan are also dark. The difference between these and Batman Returns is the lack of consistency in tone, with darkness feeling as just filler. In essence, Burton made parts in the film dark just to be dark. He delivers a macabre sense of humor though along with pretty bad dialogue that creates a gruesome film. Case in point, Penguin delivers his Patton speech to a flock of Penguins stating “Why be biased?! Male and female! Hell, the sexes are equal, with their erogenous zones BLOWN SKY-HIGH!!!” Part of me personally wants to laugh at this absurdity but also wants to nod in anguish, disbelief and sheer loss of faith in humanity. This villain is basically speaking of blowing up the genitalia of children to penguins. First off that is a grizzly and downright excessive idea, but it is being spoken to an audience who do not even know what on Earth you even are saying to begin with. Another example is Catwoman’s words to the mugger/possible rapist she encounters when she says “Be gentle it’s my first time.” OK, awkward to say the least. It’s odd when people make note of Marvel’s constant humor and quips, but here comes Catwoman stumbling onto the possible sexual assault of a woman in a dark alley way and responds to it with sexual innuendo. Then when Catwoman turns down Penguin’s sexual advances he says he ought to have her “spayed”. Again, sexual innuendo but at the same time a cat joke.

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The film has an interestingly over-fascination with sexuality it seems. Christopher Walken’s character mentions the “poon-tang” Penguin will get if he runs for mayor. Penguin alludes to a giant parasol, the parasol being his dick. In one line Penguin notes about a staff member – “I’d like to fill her void.” Penguin basically comes off as this sexual predator with an over-burdening libido who just wants to get laid. Reclaiming his birthright, running for mayor or mayhem and destruction is the least of his concerns, he just wants to teach the ladies his “French flipper trick”, whatever that is and it is best he shows no one. Catwoman’s costume is beyond fetish-tastic as she speaks of how “busting” Batman is making her feel “dirty.” In one moment it is alluded to off-camera that she reaches for Batman’s crouch, to quote George Takei – “OH MY!” Going back to the costume it does work, for its time. The 90’s was not a good time for women in comics. With the Comics Code Authority basically dead the artists had their time with women, on the page with crazy proportional twists, tiny waists and watermelon sized-breasts in skin tight bikini clad costumes. Now sex in film is perfectly fine, it is nothing new. This film gives us no sex and instead comes off as if the director or writer is a fourteen year old boy desperate to have sex but knows nothing of it save for what he has seen in porn.

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There we have silly bits, dark moments and ever-growing horniness it feels in this film. Where is the film going? I would argue nowhere. Penguin shows up to us saying he wants to “ascend” and find his parents. He does this and next thing you know Max Shreck talks him into running for mayor. He frames Batman but this hardly sticks with this fickle citizenry as they turn on him due to Batman’s recording of his vile but rather tame utterances compared to everything else said in the film. Next he plans to kidnap and drown the first born sons of Gotham. This fails barely a minute in and cashes in all his chips to just have his pet penguins blow up the city. We never get much fluidity between these points. Granted, there is some evidence earlier in the film building to tracking down the first born sons, but when this plan is finally exposed to the audience is comes off as both drastic and out of nowhere, with no set-up whatsoever. In fact, an hour in we do not know what the Penguin wants, before the mayor bid begins. Plus, an hour in and the hero and villain has not met yet. Matter of fact, Batman’s first appearance is not until fifteen minutes into the film.

Catwoman on the other hand provides no clear narrative either. She becomes Catwoman not really because of any real choice but rather the abuse itself as Glen Weldon sums up in The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture. Her first scenario involves saving a woman from assault only then to give her lip for it. Next she vandalizes a Shreck’s department store and proceeds to blow it up. Then she decides to join up with The Penguin to kill Batman all because he kind of got in their way, this quickly fails as by the end of the final act of the film she tells Bruce her goal is to kill Max. I can get behind this motive; however they never establish this or remotely tease it until the very end. Then in carrying out this goal she decides to kill herself in the process, as if that was the only way to accomplish her goal.

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Last but not least is our third villain, Max Shreck who hatches the mayoral campaign in hopes to have the new mayor in his pocket all because the current sitting mayor will not approve his power plant. Grant you, the basis of this power plant is to suck power and then sell it back at a profit. It seems the film is trying to just add a notch of social commentary of industrial capitalism and corrupt politics as a feather in its cap. Writer Waters noted this character was added “to show that the true villains of our world don’t necessarily wear costumes.” Yes, but I think we already knew that even in the first act of the first film. Plus, why do we need a third villain? Shreck probably has the clearest goal but it is tragically juvenile and his approach is outlandish too. Even as a child with no knowledge of politics I could never picture anyone voting for Penguin or actually working in his office after he made numerous dirty comments and bit the nose of a man.

What about Batman? The film is titled Batman Returns but returns to what, for what and when? Batman here is very reactive and never is working every night, prowling, lurking and investigating. The city is under attack and he swings in to save the day. Once the scene ends he goes back home. Batman for Bruce Wayne is almost more of a part-time job, he clocks in and he clocks out in a sense. In the beginning he wished The Penguin the best in finding his parents. A few scenes later with no real explaining he changes his mind on this. Later on he wants a relationship with Selina but with 32 different plots going on this really goes nowhere. If we go back to the last film we learn the Joker killed his parents and he kills The Joker. Then why is he still Batman here? We could have titled the film Catwoman and The Penguin but that may not get many butts in the seats for a screening.

Burton is a man with no interest in comic books, save for The Killing Joke given its simple layout. Prior to this the Penguin was never a grotesque, horny, sea pig with green vile for blood. Yes, there was the penguin motif, umbrellas, hat, some deformity and icy cold lairs and hide outs. This Penguin is more or less a combination of Dr. Caligari with his somnambulist and Edward Scissor Hands. Nothing about him reads as a penguin, which is often viewed as a bird in a fine tux. In fact, Bob Kane claims that was basically the inspiration. There was a sense of Penguin wanting respect in society but usually did not get it due to his criminal or sometimes outlandish behavior and deformity as well. Danny DeVito’s Penguin does not even bother to try and gain respect when he is too busy sizing up your daughter. Catwoman on the other hand has never had a major, clear background origin. Under Frank Miller she was a prostitute, this was retconned later as she was undercover and then in New 52 her new origin paid homage to this film. With all of that said, no this is not true to what most comics people know. However, prior to the films she had two different yet slightly similar origins that both dealt with a traumatic event from falling, leading to amnesia and her switch to Catwoman. In addition, these origins always included an abusive male figure. Hence, this film is not too far off. However, the cat burglar position is completely thrown out the window. This Catwoman comes off as a character lashing out at traditional femininity when she wrecks her generic, pink home with a frying pan and then goes out with claws to enact physical dominance mainly over men it seems. Batman is very blasphemous as he kills several people throughout the film. He rips his mask off in front of Selina (I’ll buy it) but Max Shreck! I already made mention of his lackluster, reactive personality. But even worst is his bumbling-ness. He slowly stumbles up to save the Ice Princess, he looks confused and has no clear fix in mind for his Batmobile during the get-away, and this is a Batman who packs acid to throw at Catwoman. Another ringer is when he flies over Gotham menacingly after he was just framed for the murder of the Ice Princess. Batman, this is not helping your P.R. right now.

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Tim Burton I would argue is great at visuals but is not the best story teller per say. He embraces this art deco, Goth, fascist architecture for Gotham that works well. The costumes for the characters certainly stand out and stick with you even if you do not like them. Catwoman has a vinyl leather gimp suit, being more modern. Penguin instead dresses in a more British, Victorian style. The film feels and looks cold. German Expressionism feels at play here, but not very well or subtly either I might add. As much as he dresses up his sets, they are rather dressed down with the lack of people. Gotham Square looks about as busy as a small town gas station. The film feels so produced and distracting in that you know it is just a set, with a few extras hired on. Gotham has character on the surface level of its design but deeps down it is soulless with its small population of non-diverse citizenry. The narrative is too disjointed with ever conflicting tones and no underlying theme for the film. I guess the lesson is to not throw people out like your baby or your secretary. The three villain structure pre-dates Spider-Man 3 and I dare say does it worse. At least we knew pretty cut and dry what those villains of Peter Parker wanted. The plot to a degree was possible to follow just not very desiring to though in Spider-Man 3. Burton has a strange fascination with freaks, monsters and outcasts. Comic book nerd and psychologist Dr. Andrea Letamendi makes note of how this film is for the outcasts and creatives ones out there. I would argue if these outcasts you speak of also want to sexually assault women and kill babies, well then they are outcasts for a good reason. Burton tries to create sympathy for some of these characters but all one can do is pity The Penguin and Catwoman just needs to see a really good psychologist, unlike her comic book counterpart. The film is hardly about Batman at all, for our director has no interest in him it feels. Our villains do not even feel very interested in Batman. If anything it is just a Tim Burton film starring Batman. I would argue this film is one example of the benefit of studio interference. Does it stand the test of time? Well it can be used to show the excess and gratuitousness of the comic books of the 90’s but in film form instead.

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