Tim Burton’s second Batman movie is seriously delirious, a pastiche of gloom, big ideas, and many well-thought out silly details (like the best Tim Burton movies are) Why did I grow up thinking it was a failure?
review by Tessa
For sure I saw Batman Returns in the theater. Batman was huge in our house (and still is), and going to movies was a very regular activity. But Batman Returns never made it into quotable status, and its memory was lost to me, known only as a vague impression of being confusing and too long. Until this week when I borrowed it from my roommate and rewatched it. Shout out to my roommate for owning Batman Returns!
I admit. It is too long. It’s rambling and there’s no one huge plot to focus on, because the three villains all have different, shifting motivations. There’s nothing really quotable except for one moment where Christopher Walken, in the role of megalomaniacal businessman Max Schreck responds to Bruce Wayne’s civic-mindedness with one comment: “Yawn.” (Oh, and when Catwoman does a throwaway “Meow” and the Penguin, as part of his dying attempts to kill Batman, pulls the wrong umbrella from his arsenal and gurgles “Uck. I chose a cute one.”)
And no Prince songs, just a midi-style jazzy cover of “Superfreak” and a Siouxsie Sioux song.
But it’s not a flop by any means. Let me tell you the reasons why it’s worth a rewatch or two.
1. It’s a Christmas movie!
This is the second movie I’ve seen in as many months that surprised me by being set at Christmas (the other was Gremlins). No one does creepy Christmas like Tim Burton – as in Edward Scissorhands and Nightmare Before Christmas, snow falls from a black sky onto a world where things go terribly wrong and yet one or two people find each other or try to find their own goodness, among spirals and stripes if possible.
Here Christmas has come to Gotham, but a deformed boy, abandoned 33 years ago and raised in the (itself abandoned) Aquatic World at Gotham Zoo has come back to claim his birthright and find himself etc. He’s a manipulator, though. His first act is to shoot the lights out on the Gotham City Hall Christmas tree, using his gang of Circus Freak thugs (including skeleton-headed people on motorbikes, an Organ-grinder, several clowns, and a coldly silent lady with a poodle, pink dress, and sausage curls. Oh, and Max Shreck wants to build a power plant that will actually suck power from the city. And his undead secretary, dressed in a homemade catsuit, is also finding her voice and her voice is semi-homicidal and doesn’t like rejection from Batman. Can Batman save the Christmas spirit/a mayoral recall election/find love or at least a hookup on the California King at Shrecks department store/weather the withering judgement of Alfred???
2. Penguin, and his perfect grunting
Danny DeVito is saddled with what amounts to a prosthetic Pac-Man suit. He is adorably circular, instead of spherical. Not to mention his flipper-hands, stringy Ben Franklin hair, dark viscous drool, tiny triangular teeth and aerodynamic profile. And he’s saddled with really gross lines about how his character wants to “fill [Jan Hooks’s] void” — Penguin did not pick up on decency to women in his formative years. As befits a Batman villain, he gets quips galore, and as a villain who is gunning to be Mayor and win over the Gotham populace, he has plenty of showboat-y lines. Yet underneath all of this is some good acting. Penguin is an amoral being, sure, but he’s also a boy who was thrown into a river by his parents, and that still shows through. And he’s also sort of a penguin. He eats raw fish with smacking pleasure and when he’s emotionally agitated he lets out these little grunts. They are amazing. They are subtle! They really let the feral nature of Penguin show through his scheming persona.
3. Perfectly Stupid Bat Technology
The technology in this movie – made a couple years before the World Wide Web became a thing – relies mostly on radio frequencies, their jamming, and radar tracking. It employs 3 separate types of customized Batmobile radar: walking penguin, swimming penguin, and Duckmobile, all with their own graphics, and with each swipe of the radar punctuated by a “QUAAHHH” which approximates a penguin call, I guess.
The Batmobile is also equipped with fold-out bars that are precisely the right height to take out thugs on stilts, a giant metal pole that lifts the ‘Mobile up and turns it 180 degrees for when Batman is too cool for a 3-point turn and wants to fart fire on a guy in a devil suit so that he burns up in a painful flaming death.
But the best technological touch of the movie is when Bruce Wayne scratches a CD as though he were a DJ. Is that even a thing that happens without specific decks built for the purpose? Wayne just has a cutaway Discman with the Bat logo on it.
4. Blunt Mozart Businessman Hotness
I don’t know how I forgot this, but Christopher Walken is in Batman Returns. His portrayal of Max Shreck, like DeVito’s Penguin, takes Schreck beyond caricature. He has lines that could easily turn into Capitalist Pig #1 but he delivers them with a matter-of-factness and even openness that makes him seem almost reasonable. Dressed in Burtonized 30s style 3 piece suits and what can only be termed UltraMozart hair, he still looks hot. No really!
5. Catwoman has legit anger
Oh, Pfeiffer as Kyle as Catwoman. Why did I think you weren’t good at it? I may have been conflating Batman Returns with Halle Berry’s universally-panned Catwoman. I sort of wanted to stop watching the movie and just take pictures of Catwoman, or make gifs. Pfeiffer brings a giddiness to Kyle’s destruction that is captivating.
There’s a scene where she throws some spray paint cans into a microwave, theatrically slams it shut, and then prances offscreen with her arms crooked up at the elbow and hands floppily waving with excitement. She’s bored with typical expressions of power from male figures, but they keep pushing her off of buildings and out of windows because she’s smarter than they realized or she has the gall to “lead them on” by being attractive and then reject their unwanted proposals of marriage. The Gotham of this movie is filled with outsized sculptures of male heads, classically posed and holding up the city, so she’s also sort of metaphorically taking on a city held up by the idea of Men and run by Old Patriarchal Families, including the Waynes. When she loses it and screams and throws things there’s nothing hysterical about it.
Also, if a genie granted me 3 wishes I might use one to spend a magical night having magically obtained Michelle Pfeiffer’s hairstyle from the holiday shindig scene in this movie – a scene where, incidentally, she dances with Bruce Wayne and reveals her anger at the upper classes – much like the scene in Dark Knight Rises, only better, of course, in hairstyle and in every other way.
BONUS: The over-the-top sets and costumes
Or, not so much a bonus as a large part of what makes the movie great. It’s really beautiful, with shots that are set up so well that I paused to admire them like paintings. The crowd gathering at a press conference lit in red and calling to mind George Grosz’s angry, grotesqsue visions of Weimar Berlin.
The city itself like a Lynd Ward woodcut. Penguin’s cohort arranged like a royal portrait worthy of Velasquez.
All that matched with some whimsy like a duck-mobile! The perfection that is Selina Kyle’s pink apartment filled with stuffed animals, cat t-shirts, dollhouses, and her exquisitely tailored sad-executive-assistant suits.
All of this is why I’ll always love Burton’s Batman much more than Nolan’s. It has rewatchability and imagination, and can play with themes without becoming deadly overserious. I’m not going to delude myself into thinking that I’ll ever convince Nolan fans of it, but that’s okay. I’m just glad to have rediscovered its charm for myself.
Many more low-grade but still visually stimulating screen shots can be found on my Flickr.
PS: If anyone can tell me who Pfeiffer’s Catwoman voice sounds exactly like, I will love you forever because I can’t figure it out and it’s driving me batty. (get it?)