Thursday, July 31, 2008

"I am Catwoman. Hear me roar."

Batman Returns | rel. 1992 | dir. Tim Burton

Isn't that poster one of the most effortlessly awesome creations ever? I sure think so!

Everyone I know just loves Tim Burton and I'm not too sure why. I once told someone that I did not like any of Burton's films, and the person immediately questioned if I ever watched a Burton film. The person probably believed that if I have indeed seen one of Burton's films, I would instantly know what a visual artist and fantastical director he really is. There is no question that Burton exhibits an interesting creative vision for each of his films, but he is a lesser fantasy storyteller when compared to the likes of Steven Spielberg or Robert Zemeckis. Burton never fails to bore me slightly when he presents one of his Gothic tales or morbid bursts of imagination. Strangely and unexpectedly, I was thoroughly entertained in my second viewing of Batman Returns.

The Dark Knight's first two blockbuster cinematic outings in 1989 and 1992 were both directed by Burton. I will say rather boldly and daringly that I believe those two movies are the worst Batman movies of the modern bunch. While the Joel Schumacher movies are a combination of an illegal drug and rainbow-colored lava lamps, they are far more entertaining than Burton's gloomy, dull, and lifeless illustration of Gotham City.

1989's Batman will always be a classic, not because it is a particularly wonderful film, but it is the Batman film that most people of my generation watched on television or on video. I've seen it several times on television over the years and admittedly enjoyed it, but after seeing it on DVD just last year, I formed a new opinion on the original Batman: I don't like it.

No matter how charismatic and colorful Jack Nicholson's Joker is, he is never frightening and simply just lives up to his name: he jokes around--that's it. Now that mostly everyone has seen Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight, Nicholson's Joker will be merely a figment of childhood memories. Considering The Joker is surely the star, I already forgotten about Batman/Bruce Wayne and Vicki Vale. There is not one moment in the film that Batman/Bruce or Vicki are compelling or interesting at all. It is all about The Joker in Batman, and perhaps rightfully so.

Thankfully, Batman still remained more of a Batman film than a Burton film. But gee, was it boring to watch as a teenager.

Three years later after the glowing success of Batman, the WB gave Burton nearly free reign to fulfill his vision for the sequel, Batman Returns. With all the eccentric characters and chaotic skeletons on motorcycles, the film magnified all of Burton's sloppy fingerprints. The film continues on being more Burton than Batman and has absolutely no respect for the Batman mythos. But as someone who isn't crazy about those mythos, I don't exactly mind the origin stories of the two star villains in Batman Returns, but I don't exactly dig the stories either.

The film opens to the birth of a disfigured child around Christmastime (a strange time setting for a summer release, I must say). The child's parents react with horror and dump him Moses-style into a stream of Gotham and down he floats, into those murky sewers. Thirty-three years later, he becomes The Penguin (Danny DeVito) and mysteriously controls the Red Circus Gang to stir havoc and violence with a vengeance in Gotham City. Personally, I'd rather have the gentlemanly criminal mastermind originally depicted in the comics and later in the cartoons, but if this was the way Burton wanted it to work, I really don't mind. Unfortunately, it doesn't work.

To detach the film farther away from the mythos, Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) is a mousy secretary of some huge businessman by the name of Max Schreck (Christopher Walken). When Selina discovers a secret of Schreck's, she is pushed out of a window and left to die--until several stray cats come to the rescue and lick her back to life. So Selina comes back to life to her lonely apartment and at first, she appears to be somewhat of a zombie. Suddenly, she goes psychotic, starts spraying black paint all over her apartment, finds a rubber costume, sews it into a cool suit, and tries to avenge for her death with a sudden burst of confidence and ninja skills as Catwoman. Again, I would have preferred the dark-haired cat burgular from the comics and cartoons, but hey, this isn't too bad, right? No, I'm just lying to myself.

As far as I know, that Schreck guy Selina works for serves no purpose to the story at all other than the fact that he's a terrible, nasty businessman whose big secret is that he wants to suck all of Gotham's power source. If Burton and Co. found this idea interesting, they definitely got the wrong idea of what is interesting. And even if the idea just totally sucks--which it does--at least try to let it contribute to the story some way or another, but it never does. Casting a big name like Walken just shows how much filmmakers can waste great talents.

With Penguin, Catwoman, and Shreck in the picture, they almost forgot about Batman. I mean, he is only the title character. The problem with the Burton films (and Schumacher films, to some extent) is that the villains always overshadowed Batman. Batman Returns is a fine example of that, but Batman definitely has a stronger presence this time around. In the original Batman film, the character had more screen time, but he was just "there" most of the time, mainly because of obvious obligations. I did not like Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne or Batman in the original, but he gave a great performance as Bruce Wayne in his second go-around.

Keaton's performance as Bruce Wayne is full of charisma and charm, ingredients that were absent from his performance in the first movie. The scene where Bruce meets Schreck's character and throws the files across the table to Schreck is excellently done and captured Bruce's careless playboy persona perfectly. Keaton's Bruce also has electrifying chemistry with Pfeiffer's Selina and the scene where they masquerade at Schreck's ball only to realize that they are really nemesis in the nighttime streets is a wonderfully executed scene. Batman Returns is probably the only Batman movie that delivers an interesting romance that doesn't feel like idiocy or studio obligations just hit the screen.

So Keaton nailed his performance as Bruce Wayne, but what about his Batman? The problem with his Batman is that the character acts as a catalyst for the villains. Keaton's Batman delivers his words with this collected calmness, but his Batman always seem very separated from the guy behind the mask. There is this detachment about Bruce and Batman. Keaton never seems to form a connection between the two personas, while Christian Bale successfully does in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.

Keaton's Batman is also far from heroic. Say all you want, but Batman is widely considered to be a superhero. I don't think Batman enjoying some S&M that apparent to the average eight-year-old, but superheroes just don't set people on fire or blow people up and then smile about it afterwards. Keaton is not at fault here, but the people behind this film certainly are. For a film that had merchandise geared towards children, this is disappointing. Recently, The Dark Knight has been criticized for its PG-13 rating and advertisement toward children, but at least the film has an non-killing machine for a hero at the center of it all.

As for the controversy back in its release in 1992, Batman Returns is actually more puke-inducing than nightmare-inducing. There are just several very nasty scenes in this film that adds nothing to the plot or the characters in any way. Penguin bites a guy's nose and in result, blood splatters everywhere. Catwoman grabs Penguin's bird from its birdcage and puts it in her mouth and appears to be enjoying the taste of it--until Penguin threatens to kill her pet cat. Another scene that I found particularly stupid and also kind of awkwardly sick was when Catwoman gives herself a bath by licking her arms and rubbing the saliva onto her head. Oh yeah, Penguin is also unbelievably horny and I'm pretty sure that's apparent to the average eight-year-old.

So about the plot...well, I'm not sure if there is one. Penguin kidnaps Schreck and wants Schreck to turn him into Gotham's hero. They set up this silly plan to get one of his circus people to take the mayor's kid into the sewers just so Penguin can save him. Penguin becomes a huge Gotham celebrity, albeit Bruce's suspisions, and Schreck wants to get Penguin to run for mayor, a plotline that is laughably stupid. Catwoman's plotline sort of forms on the sidelines as she blows up Schreck's mall as part of her revenge plan. Then Catwoman gets terribly pissed when Batman hits her so she asks Penguin to join forces with her so they can destroy Batman together. I noticed that teaming up to destroy Batman has become sort of a tradition since Batman Returns.

The flaw with Penguin and Catwoman teaming up is that they are both so completely aimless about destroying Batman. Honestly, they don't even make that much of an effort because there is just so much going on in the film that their goal in destroying Batman kind of gets pushed to the side. I would have enjoyed some kind of reasonable, coherent plan brewing between the two, but sadly, they don't work too well together. It would have been interesting to see some conflict between the two villains other than more references towards Penguin's repressed sexuality, but like I noted so many times before, I didn't exactly get everything I wanted from this film.

This film had so much potential but almost everything goes to waste. Style is constantly chosen over substance. But I enjoyed myself, or more than I did while watching Burton's Planet of the Apes, Mars Attack!, Edward Scissorhands, and Big Fish. I guess on the Burton scale, I like Batman Returns as much as I like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I can't deny the fact that I was entertained by what I saw on screen.

So a part of me thinks the film is complete junk. No die-hard Batman fan can possibly love (like--maybe) this movie, especially after how much the people behind this film screwed up the origin stories of the film's two main villains for the worse and created a killer Batman. But another part of me kind of likes it because it is pure entertainment. The origin stories are ridiculous and unnecessary, but they possess sort of this admirable originality. I like the relationship between Bruce/Batman and Selina/Catwoman. I like Michael Keaton as Bruce. Michael Gough always gives a reliable performance as Bruce's trusty butler, Alfred Pennysworth. Pfeffier and DeVito are surprisingly solid, considering the material they had to work with. Danny Elfman's score brings a certain liveliness to the film. The screenplay by Daniel Waters and Wesley Strick is full of stupid one-liners, but they are funny while they last.

I guess what I'm trying to say is I like the Batman Returns for what it is. This is Burton's insane vision and I am finally getting the hang of that man's explosively weird and somewhat campy fantasy landscape. Burton's second installment is far from the best Batman movie, but it is a good movie--if not a good Batman movie--or at least, better than its predecessor.

Rating: 7/10


  1. I need to re-watch Burton's batman films. I personally still have very fond memories of them, but I haven't seen them in years so I might be wrong.

    In your case against Burton I can say that I agree with you to a point. I think Burton's style sometimes comes over substance, especially in his latter films(Charlie and The Chocolate Factory,Corpse Bride, Planet Of The Apes). With that said I cannot help but love Pee Wee's Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood.

    Particularly I think Ed Wood is Burton's seminal films. It steps away from his overtly stylized world and into a more natural setting, it is even in black and white. He does a character study on a terrible director, but doesn't make fun or judge him, he simply shows him for what he was; an eccentric, but well mannered person. I find the humanity in this film alone completely makes Burton worthy of being called a great director.

    I won't argue with you about your claims though. I think Nightmare Before Christmas(even though Burton didn't direct it) to be extremely overrated and although I really enjoyed Sweeney Todd I found it to be lacking in some areas. I can say he is really hit or miss.

    Anyways, now that I have talked in circles and probably made little to no sense I shall bid you adue.

  2. I also forgot about Big Fish. I actually do really enjoy that movie, but mainly because of the story, Burton's directing is a little off-putting, especially going between the fantastical and the real world it doesn't flow as it should.

  3. Shawn, I haven't seen a lot of Tim Burton movies, but the ones I have seen are disappointing. (Except Charlie and Batman Returns.) Maybe I've seen all the wrong ones? I have to see Ed Wood someday. It seems like my kind of movie.

    I agree with you about Big Fish. There are aspects of a good fantasy, but the real world scenes just don't blend well. It feels like Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney are playing two distinctively different characters in two vastly different movies, which makes Edward Bloom a less compelling character. I don't care much about the protagonist, thus, I don't care much about the film either.

    Burton's direction is competent and does a good job conveying the film's themes through symbolism. I actually had to write an essay about the symbolism in Big Fish in eighth-grade English.

  4. I would suggest reading the book of Big Fish, I know every says that but if you do like the story/ideas they are conveyed much better in the book.

    How'd you do on your paper?

    I wouldn't have been allowed to write a paper about a movie because I went to a tiny Christian schools where movies were the devil.

  5. Yeah, I might read the book someday. I don't know, most of the time when I like the book, I generally like the movie, vice versa--maybe with a few exceptions.

    It was the last paper I turned in during the school year and I never got it back. But I never got anything back in that class because a lot of teachers at public school are so lazy that they don't even bother to pass papers back. You probably got a better education at your tiny Christian school.

  6. Not really, my school didn't even have us read any books really...except the Bible.

  7. Good review Marcy, I gave this film a B- and thought it was an entertaining film. I love Burton's crazy dark vision for the film and I think the Batman costume in this film was simply the best I have ever seen. Yeah, I liked the costume more than the one in Begins and The Dark Knight

  8. Thanks, Farzan!

    I guess we're on opposite sides of the spectrum regarding the Batman costume. I like the more recent Batman costumes more than the old ones. I've never dug the logo, even though that is how the costume is supposed to like according to the comics. The old costumes also look like they've been made out of cheap plastic. The costumes in the Nolan films, IMO, look much cooler.

    I read your review on Batman Returns and it seemed like you liked many aspects of the film much more than I did. But like you, I was very entertained by the originality and creativity of Burton's vision. On the other hand, I really wished they stuck to the comics because Catwoman and Penguin could have been much less silly villains.

  9. Your right about the villains and that they could have been less silly.

  10. Batman Returns is the first remember seeing in a movie theater>. I had to have been about 4 at the time and the only thing I remember about it is Michelle Pfeiffer drinking milk out of a bowl on the floor. Or maybe I'm just making that scene up. Did that really happen? Perhaps I should see this movie again (although by your review maybe I shouldn't).

  11. James, this movie is so inappropriate for a four year old, but I'm glad it didn't scar you for life! :)

    I don't recall a scene with Michelle Pfeiffer drinking milk out of a bowl on the floor, but in this Batman movie, that scene sounds entirely plausible. This movie isn't exactly memorable.

    It's not great movie, but I kind of admire it for its Burton-esque originality. I guess it has its entertaining camp moments and I surely enjoyed the weird parts. I'd give a mild recommendation, but it's not for all tastes.

  12. This, up until recently, was my favorite live-action adaptation, but mostly I respect it the most for giving birth to the amazing BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES and the best adaptation of the characters to film ever, MASK OF THE PHANTASM (though THE DARK KNIGHT may eventually win out, I haven't watched it hundreds of times on video yet).

  13. Matt, I like Batman: The Animated Series after seeing several reruns of the show a couple of years ago. I have yet to see Mask of the Phantasm in its entirety, but I have seen scenes of Mark Hamill's incredible voice work as The Joker.

    Before the Nolan films, my favorite was always Batman Forever. It's harmless fun, even in repeated viewings. But the Nolan films are miles superior to any of those Burton/Schumacher films, IMO.