Well . . . I'm old, aren't I? Eh, not really depending on who you ask. But here's the thing - when a movie you love reaches a milestone, it brings on the nostalgia BIG TIME. Batman Returns was released on June 19, 1992. Compared to the original, groundbreaking Batman of 1989 it was met with mixed results. 25 years later and there is still debate on the film. Some call it a masterpiece, others call it a disaster. That could be said of a lot of superhero films . . .
Ahem . . .
Times were different back then and the film that was released was one that Tim Burton was excited about. He was able to take the characters in bold, new, unique directions and that's what he always wants from his films/projects. After a quarter of a century and hundreds of views, I've critiqued this film front to back. I'd like to share with you my favorite parts and the things that I think still hold up with this film so many years later.
MICHELLE PFEIFFER AS SELINA KYLE/CATWOMAN
No one will ever say that Pfeiffer is a bad actress. She's fantastic and gives her all to every role she's in. Selina Kyle is no exception. Her version of Kyle has a great arc throughout the film. She starts off a mousy, meek, underrated secretary (assistant) to corporate tycoon Max Shreck. When she digs too deep, she's cast aside, Shreck thinking that she'll never be missed. Not only does she come back, but she comes back with a vengeance. She gets her revenge on Shreck, goes after the men she wants (Batman and Bruce Wayne), and stands up straight for the things she believes in. Although she's considered a villain in the story, one could argue she's an antihero looking to right the wrongs that have been done to her in her life. She's not just a love interest to Bruce Wayne. Their attraction is mutual and believable but it doesn't define her. She doesn't hate all men, either. She's just trying to get revenge on the ones that she feels wronged her, which just happen to be all the male leads . . .
Pfeiffer brings a tortured soul to life in a realistic, tragic way. When we first meet Selina we get the feeling she's very unfulfilled in her life. From a guy that rejects her because his psychiatrist suggests it, to an overbearing mother, to a boss that makes her work too hard for too little, she's finally had enough and takes control of her life. And when she has that control? Boy, you better watch out!
THE LOVE STORY ISN'T FORCED
And can you really even call it a love story? Either way, it doesn't come into the film like a studio mandated contract stipulation. Batman and Catwoman have always had a love/hate relationship throughout their comic book history. My favorite Batman/Catwoman story is Batman: Hush. I've always been of the mindset that Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle belong together. Maybe in another universe, they find each other without all the tragedy and live happily ever after. However, given both people have an inherent self-destructive nature, they can't help but constantly hurt each other and themselves along the way.
In this film, the characters first truly interact when Selina has embraced her true self and meets Bruce at Shreck's office. Bruce is instantly infatuated with her. On their first date in Wayne Manor (where Bruce has all his first dates, apparently), she starts to fall for him as well. I think they recognize kindred spirits in each other. Even the next scene shows Selina frantically trying to put on her Catwoman suit while Bruce calmly chooses his Batman armor. They are two sides of the same coin. At the end of the film, Bruce desperately pleads with Selina to come home with him and he'll look after her. She's at first enamored with the idea then rejects it. As much as the other might want it, they can't be together. Selina knows this to be the truth while Bruce has to sadly come to terms with her decision. Hey we've all been there, right? #relationshipssuck
DANNY DeVITO AS THE PENGUIN
To this day, DeVito's portrayal remains my favorite version of the character. Like Bruce and Selina, Oswald Cobblepot is yet another tortured soul. I mean, hell, all the Batman villains are in some way, shape or form! In Batman Returns, we learn that the wealthy Cobblepot family gave birth to a hideous creature instead of a beautiful baby. They decide to throw this child into the sewer rather than, ya know, raise him and teach him to be a good man. Cobblepot is then raised by the Red Triangle Circus Gang and somehow or another, it's never really explained, turns them into a criminal organization bent on destroying Gotham City. As the film progresses, we learn that Oswald wants to reconnect with society, but only because he wants them to suffer the way he suffered.
Penguin has a great arc throughout the film. While he never really changes per se, he shows himself to the audience as a great manipulator and puppet master. Penguin emerges as a hero to Gotham City, having "saved" the Mayor's baby and then wanting to run as Mayor to clean up the streets of Gotham City. Of course, he's the one dirtying them up, but the citizens don't realize that right away. Once he's exposed as a fraud, he retreats back to the sewers and tries to exact his revenge on Gotham City.
DeVito plays the character so well. Just when you're starting to sympathize with him, you realize he's just playing you and you hate him again. It almost works even on Batman! When he's first introduced he says, "I want to find my mom and dad and try to understand why they did what I guess they felt they had to do!" Bruce looks at him and feels sorry for him. Bruce knows what it's like not to grow up with parents. Then he sees Penguin standing next to Max Shreck and then he immediately realizes something is up. While on patrol, Alfred asks him, "Are you concerned with that strange, heroic, Penguin-person?" Batman replies, "I think he knows who his parents are . . . There's something else . . ." Bruce sees through Cobblepot's BS in a heartbeat. It takes some time, but he's able to show the citizens of Gotham that Penguin doesn't just look like a monster - he IS a monster.
I could go on all day about that greatness! But I'll leave it at that. DeVito nails the character. From cunning manipulator to deranged psychopath and everything in between, he's a villain to remember in the Bat-films.
A VILLAINOUS ALLIANCE
If there's one thing lots of superhero films are guilty of, it's putting too many villains in one film. Luckily, and maybe I'm in the minority here, I think all the Bat-films have done it in a very unique way. Batman definitely has the best rogues gallery in all of comic bookdom. Any villain that you think can't be redeemed I guarantee some writer somewhere has found a way to make them cool. Every writer/artist has had their own interpretation of the characters. Burton realized that these extreme people would have extreme personalities and capitalized on it. Both are unhinged, but they are still smart people. If they want to defeat Batman, they're gonna have to work together. While their alliance is (believably) fragile, it is real. The film does a good job of setting up why the other hates Batman. In Penguin's case, he's running for mayor and realizes Batman can expose his true nature at any time. With Catwoman, she recognizes that Batman will stop her from wanting to get her revenge on Shreck so she needs an ally to stop him. Also there was the whole . . . throwing her off a building thing.
Saved by kitty litter . . .
These characters may not have interacted much in the comics, but their alliance in the film doesn't feel forced or studio mandated. They're both weird, tortured people looking to stop Batman. And really, that's all the motivation they need . . .
DANNY ELFMAN'S SCORE
I've mentioned this before but it's worth repeating - Danny Elfman knows how to make a memorable fucking movie score. Every scene in the film is heightened and given new energy by Elfman's brilliant compositions. The music is written in such a way that it's recognizable as Danny Elfman, but it fits each individual character. Batman's theme is instantly recognizable as a dark, brooding, yet heroic theme. Penguin's music sounds like a tragic Circus symphony, and Catwoman's theme is playful, mysterious, and dangerous. When the music comes on, it's a sign that either the hero is coming to save the day or the villain is coming to wreck it. When the music needs to be softer, it is, when it needs to convey an emotion, it does. The music never overpowers the film, it enhances it in every possible way. Movies these days don't do that anymore. I bet you'll instantly recognize Elfman's Batman score but will have a hard time remembering what Iron Man's theme sounded like. It's a sad truth about movies these days. Hopefully, with Elfman doing the Justice League score, we'll start to remedy this oversight.
TIM BURTON'S INFLUENCE
One of the major complaints about this film is this: "It feels like a Tim Burton movie that just happen to have Batman characters in it." My counter-argument is, "That's a bad thing?" Tim Burton has made some of the weirdest films you've ever seen, yet they stand apart from other filmmakers. He has a really unique vision for his films and it's noticeable in every single frame. Characters like Batman, Catwoman, and the Penguin are head to toe in black and white while the rest of Gotham City is in bright colors. Each of the main characters is shrouded in darkness while the rest of the world is bright, shiny, and fun. However, these "dark" characters are far more interesting. Their worlds have been turned upside down in one way or another. It could be the death of their parents, being rejected by their parents, or being overlooked by the whole world, their worlds are all scary, tragic, and painful. Therefore, their worlds are far more interesting. The only color on Batman's costume is the yellow oval around his chest piece. Catwoman and Penguin have no color on their costumes. Batman retains a little bit of Gotham City with him wherever he goes, but Catwoman and Penguin have none. By the way . . .
MAX SHRECK: GOTHAM'S LEX LUTHOR
It's easy to dismiss Christopher Walken as a walking meme or an easy impression to show your drunk friends (I've done it). But here's a little bit of truth for ya - Christopher Walken is an Academy Award winning actor (Deer Hunter 1979). Nothing against DeVito, Pfeiffer, or even Keaton, but Walken brings some gravitas to this wacky movie. He's the only main character not dressed in a ridiculous costume or make up. His portrayal of Max Shreck is meticulous, conniving, and downright evil. He doesn't care for the citizens of Gotham City. He doesn't even really care about his bottom line. All he cares about is himself. He's going to preserve his own life at all costs. At the beginning of the film, the Red Triangle Circus Gang is looking to kidnap him and he doesn't put up much of a fight when his son steps in on his behalf. Later in the film, he's happy to team up with the Penguin if it means his reputation won't be tarnished (although he's trying to further his own agenda). He kills his secretary (assistant) without a second thought. He drops Penguin as soon as the public turns on him without a shred of remorse. In fact, he just shrugs, "them's the breaks" he's saying with his actions. He's one of the best parts of the film but he's often overlooked because he's not in a garish costume. Which is a shame because he plays arguably the most important role in the film. He's the one that ties all the main Bat-characters together. He's Selina's boss, Penguin's associate, and Bruce Wayne's rival. And he does it without being the Walken stereotype we love to joke about at parties!
MICHAEL KEATON AS BRUCE WAYNE/BATMAN
Here's the tough one. How do I accurately describe my feelings toward Michael Keaton as Batman without sounding like a raving lunatic and in only a few short sentences. I'll give it a shot!
As an actor myself, I recognize the want to put on a show. When the audience is eating up your performance you want to give them more, more, more like a Rebel Yell. However, that's not always the way to go. As an actor, you're slaved to your character. Michael Keaton, coming from a comedy background and likely being a "more-more-more" type of performer, understood this. However, he fights against it and gives a performance that can only be described as "less is more". Don't get me wrong - that is in NO WAY an insult. It's probably the highest compliment I can give to him. No offense to the other Bat-actors. They all give great performances in the films that they are in, but in Burton's Bat-films, Keaton is basically playing the "straight" man to the "wacky ensemble."
His Batman is a silent guardian. He doesn't say much, his actions speak louder than words. In most scenes, he doesn't speak unless provoked. However, with his eyes and his body language, Keaton says a lot without having to say anything at all. Every situation he's in, he seems to have it under control. Even if he is in over his head, it doesn't show. This is the Batman I grew up with. He could get out of any situation with sheer confidence and willpower alone. By the end of the film, he's the figure that the Circus Gang fears most. He's re-established himself as Gotham's protector. Penguin may have put up a good fight, but Batman is the champion.
It's interesting looking back on this film. I think as a kid I watched it and loved it because it was Batman. Now as an adult, I can watch it knowing who made it, what their motivations were, and what the end product looked like and judge it from there. Based on nostalgia alone, this will remain one of the best Bat-memories I have. But given that I've had 25 years to watch it and love it, I'll this - Batman Returns has aged well and I'll always love it as a weird, unique, exciting Bat-film.
Till Next Time!
JJ - The Comic Junkie!