Friday, 7 July 2017

BATMAN RETURNS: 25 years later

Released in 1992, Batman Returns was the eagerly anticipated sequel to 1989's Batman. Controversial on release, the movie has undergone a critical revival in the decades since. Even with successive Bat-movies, it stands out as the most unique big screen take on the Dark Knight.


Abandoned in the sewers as a child by his wealthy parents, Oswald Cobblepot (Danny DeVito) has returned to Gotham to exact his revenge. His emergence to the surface world triggers the neurosis of the city's other crazed denizens: Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), a rich business man with plans to milk the city for all its worth; his timid secretary Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer), who is ready to smash more than just the glass ceiling; and finally, Bruce Wayne, the solitary billionaire who sees in Cobblepot a reflection of his own inner freakishness.  

One of my earliest memories is Batman. Like all kids in the nineties, there were plenty to choose from: The movies, the cartoon, sixties TV show and the toys were all part of my childhood. And while I liked them all, the one that always stuck in my head was Batman Returns. For whatever reason, my parents never bought it for me, and I only saw it a few times on VHS or TV.

About ten years ago, around the time Batman Begins came out, I got curious to re-watch the old movies again, and to see if they stood up. I had not seen Batman Returns since the nineties, and had forgotten most of it by then. Re-watching it then and now, I am amazed at its imagination, its pathos and ability to make its dream-like world feel weirdly real.

Compared with the original '89 Batman and the Schumacher films which followed it, Batman Returns feels like a film surrounded by TV commercials - Batman '89 gets by on its set design, Elfman's score and Nicholson's Joker; the Schumacher movies turn their characters into mannequins for the various costumes of the accompanying lines of Bat-related toys.

    On the surface Batman Returns is not that dissimilar to the rest of the franchise. The nineties Batman movies are criticised for having too many villains and not focusing on the title character, but in the case of Batman Returns, they at least serve a thematic purpose in that they reflect aspects of Bruce Wayne/Batman's character. While Burton keeps Batman in the shadows, the focus on the overlapping dynamics of his relationships with the movie's three other major characters serve to define his role within the film's bizarre diegesis.

    In his own deranged way, Danny DeVito's Oswald Cobblepot presents a flip side to Michael Keaton's Bruce Wayne. Both are born of privilege, but due to childhood trauma they are forced to live as outsiders, unable to enjoy the privileges of their status. Abandoned by his wealthy parents for his freakish appearance, he presents a villainous inversion of the trauma that motivates Batman. But whereas Bruce is motivated to stop what happened to him from happening to anyone else, Cobblebot's is the exact opposite. With his parents dead, Cobblepot has expanded his sense of persecution to include the society his parents represented. By killing the first-born sons of Gotham, he intends to perpetuate his pain, triggering the grief that parents never showed for him.


    If the film has a real villain, it is Christopher Walken's Max Shreck: a city father who projects an air of civic responsibility, in reality he is a heartless capitalist out to suck the city dry (rather like the person he is named after).  Ultimately he is the most outright evil character of the piece because he operates from a position of pure selfishness -  all the other characters have some kind of underlying ideology (or in Oswald's case, a motivation). Max does not. The only thing he cares about is his identikit son, but even that affection is based on ego. Max just sees his son as an extension, a perpetuation of his greed and ambition.

    Like Cobblepot, Max is a dark reflection of Bruce. Unlike Wayne, whose inherited wealth has not impeded his sense of empathy and philanthropy, Max is a self-made man whose self-reliance has warped into mono-mania. It's an interesting juxtaposition that highlights just how much of an outsider Bruce Wayne among the jet set.


    The most iconic part of the movie is Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman. Beyond her look, I think the main reason this version of Selina Kyle has stuck in the pop culture psyche is that she remains the most interesting of the character's big screen incarnations.

    Sitting outside of the good-evil binary, Selina shares qualities with both Bruce/Batman and Cobblepot - neither a hero nor a villain, she is a rather unique character in that she is granted agency, and refuses to be aligned by either of the male characters. She even ends the movie on her own terms, rejecting Oswald and giving up a chance at a relationship with Bruce. This is a neat rebuke to the traditional, tidy romantic closure implied by the Bat films released either of this one.


    The relationship between Selina and Bruce is the most interesting dynamic in the movie. To be honest, it is surprisingly affecting considering how little screen time the characters actually share. The movie repeatedly juxtaposes sequences of their dual identities meeting/fighting/flirting, in a bizarre form of double courtship. Unlike Oswald, they are split. But whereas Bruce is able to seperate his two lives, Selina finds Catwoman to be a far more appealing persona. In rejecting Bruce at the climax, she is rejecting the idea of meek and mild Selina. 'I would love to live with you in your castle forever just like in a fairy tale. I just couldn't live with myself.' In this way, she further highlights how isolated Bruce is - even among the freaks, he can never be complete.


    As with all Burton movies, these are all interesting ideas that the movie kinda, sorta explores, but not in a way that resolves. Still its these character dynamics, as bizarre and haphazard as they may appear on the page, that make the movie so damn fascinating.

    From a technical standpoint, the movie is a marvel. Freed from the constraints of the previous movie, Burton directs the whole movie with pace, pathos and a wonderfully dark sense of humour. The photography features his signature blue tone (very Edward Scissorhands), and Danny Elfman's score is just sublime. His re-arrangment of the Batman theme for the opening credits is just the greatest. The cast are all great - the three villains are the clear standouts - and are aided by the wonderfully arch wordplay from Heathers scribe Daniel Waters, who, considering his previous experience, I am guessing was responsible for Selina Kyle's expanded role.

    The movie's not perfect - it does not really have a main character; the villains have multiple schemes which seem to switch repeatedly in importance; Gotham appears to house about 100 people and is about the size of a village square; and I don't understand why the Penguin dies at the end. There's a lot of stuff to pick at, but it just doesn't matter. It's like the filmmaker's vision is so coherent it can motor through plot problems and weird character beats (Batman killing the strong man) without disturbing the whole. 

    One of things that stands out about Batman Returns from the position of 2017 is how unconcerned it is with fidelity to its source or a broader continuity. Aside from the title, a few cast members and the odd reference to the previous movie, Batman Returns is a singular entity with its own sense of macabre internal logic. A rarity for the genre,  it feels of a piece with itself. With the genre's increasing reliance on continuity and a shared visual aesthetic, we are unlikely to see its like again.


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