Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Film Review - Batman Retrospective - Batman Returns (1992)

Hey all!

Still excited about The Dark Knight Rises?! Damn right you are!

As such, Ranticular will be running a fortnight retrospective of all the Batman films that have received theatrical release ever! Because my love of my fans is only exceeded by my love for Batman...

 Batman Returns (1992)

Plot: Batman has to stop Penguin from... you know what, I have no real idea, is he running for mayor, killing the first-born of Gotham or weaponising Penguins? Also Catwoman gets resurrected by cats, there are some sexual under-tones. Bring the kids!

Director: Tim Burton (and all his little fetishes)

Actors: Michael Keaton (Batman/Bruce Wayne), Danny Devito (Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin),  Michelle Pfeiffer (Selena Kyle/Catwoman), Christopher Walken (Max Shreck).

The Film Itself:

Batman Returns marks the point where comic-book sequels decided you got to go bigger (more villains), deeper (more characters, explored in better detail) and gloomier. If Batman (1989) set the standard for action-blockbusters, Batman Returns set the trends of grittier, darker follow-ups that focus less on story and more on characters... or does it...?

And, for that matter, is it really darker then Batman (1989)?

This film often gets held up as the most sinister film in the entire Batman canon, which I have always felt to be untrue for multiple reasons. For one, this film has a lot of day or brightly-lit shots, not to mention being shot against a Christmas setting. There is little of the shadows of Batman (1989) here. Secondly, the architecture of the Gotham from Batman (1989) is almost completely gone, replaced with a stereotypical and uninspired urban look. Lastly, while this film definitely has it's extreme moments, it can be very silly (don't even try to pretend the rocket-warfare penguins are anything less then adorable). It's also worth mentioning that being sexual does not equal dark, it equals erections. Just so we are all clear.


The film begins with a very well shot, almost totally silent scene of the Penguin being abandoned by his rich, snotty parents (one of whom is Paul Rubens, A.K.A Pee-Wee Herman!) due to him being born with deformed, flipper-like hands. His crib floats to the sewer, where Penguins rescue and raise him. This seems to set up the Penguin as a kind of Yang to Batman's Yin. Both of them lost their parents at a young age and in both case this proves a major driving force in their lives, for good or for ill. It's a great angle and such a pity when it gets dropped halfway through the film for no reason. Get used to plot points that seem to evaporate, one must assume all the blood in Tim Burton's head was rushing... elsewhere during the shooting of this film.

Like to his penis.

Oh and there are Penguins in Gotham sewer. I just realised how insane that is... Wow.

The Penguin is arguably the central villain of the whole film. While given the most screen-time, he is also by far the worst-written character in any Batman film until Bane became Poison Ivy's pit-bull in Batman & Robin. As I've mentioned in the plot section above, the Penguin's motivations never seem to fixate for very long. He is initially shown as a lonely deformed outcast who merely wants to be accepted, before abruptly morphing into an incredibly perverse and psychotic man-child who makes jokes while biting peoples noses off and offering to demonstrate his "French-flipper trick"to any ladies in ear-shot. Is the Penguin a socially stunted malcontent who just wants to get laid and eat raw fish, or is he a criminal genius masterfully playing the public's sympathies? This movie seems to want it both ways and never fully explains.

When Max Shreck (more on him in a second) explains his plan to get the Penguin elected to office, I was honestly gobsmacked. Aside from the audience having little idea what to really make of the Penguin, he is not really the person I would imagine anyone insisting on being their representative, the man is a spherical dwarf with flippers for Christ's sake!  Yet a huge chunk of the film is devoted to this plot, in what I must assume is Tim Burton's weak jab at the true nature of politicians. In this regard, Nolan's Batman films dominate Burton's to a degree that is just sad.

Nightmares A-Hoy!

The Penguin really feels like the character that suffered the most from constant re-writes and script-alterations. There are moments where the audience are meant to sympathise with him and, to DeVito's credit, he manages to inject a little tragedy here and there. Sadly, the character is so half-formed conceptually and so fickle in his motives that he is never much more then a disgusting punching bag for Batman. Again, I cannot stress enough that I haven't a clue what his real motivation is. Revenge? Fame? Groping coeds? He has three separate master plans that all happen one right after another, and while the second (killing the firstborn sons of Gotham) is seeded early in the film, the rocket penguins have no explanation at all. The Penguin is easily the most broken element of the whole film and it's no fault of Danny DeVito, who does a great job with what he's given. Consider this; he manages to make the Penguin threatening while in a custom-made arcade Bat-mobile car, screaming the line "I played this stinking town... like a HAAAAAAAAARP FROM HELL!". Overall, the weakest element of Batman Returns.

 Oh well, on to Max Shreck.

Now That Would Have Been Mind-Blowing... But No.

Despite using the same name as the actor who played Nosferatu, Max Shreck in Batman Returns is just a member of Gotham's 1%, here portrayed by Christopher Walken, who very kindly agreed to be beamed down from his home planet to appear in this film. Make no mistake, this is one of Christopher Walken's stranger performances. Aside from the classic speech-delay that Walken always seems to have, Shreck has some wonderful speeches, including one of my favourite moments in the entire Batman filmography, which occurs near the end when all the characters have been unmasked.

Max: Selina?! Selina Kyle?! You're fired. (to Batman) And Bruce Wayne. Why are you dressed up like Batman? (Imagine that line, but with pauses in all the wrong places)

Catwoman: Because he is Batman, you moron!

That... is... wonderful.

Anyhow, Shreck owns a department store... and wants to build a nuclear power plant (a logical expansion plan), neither of which really factor into the story at all beyond highlighting that he is a capitalist and therefore evil. Max is far better explained then the Penguin but at the same time very little of merit actually happens to him, beyond getting murdered with an electric kiss by Catwoman at the end (it's that kind of movie). Max is more like the glue that binds the story together, being initially the only common element between Penguin, Catwoman and Bruce Wayne.

The best thing about Max is his son Chip (Andrew Bryniarski), who is amazing. Basically Chip is a kid doing a hilarious impersonation of Christopher Walken... TO CHRISTOPHER WALKEN'S FACE! Chip is one of the more subtly funny parts of the film and I could watch him Walken-it-up for hours, but for the sake of time let us move on.

We are also introduced to Selena Kyle, Shreck's over-worked, frazzled and mousey (get it?!) secretary and soon-to-be Catwoman. Selena is portrayed as weak and easily dominated by Max, at least until she gets murdered by him. This proves a temporary set-back as, thanks to an army of cats nibbling at her corpse (...yeah...), Selena is reborn as Catwoman! While this character can be accused of being very hammy, she saves the film from becoming boring. Her scenes are the few dark moments of Batman Returns. She also has quite a Greek tragedy about her (being quite clearly insane but trying desperately to over-come it) which makes her a far deeper villain then the Joker from Batman (1989). A great example of this is when Selena destroys her apartment (a-la Citizen Kane) in a superb bit of recently-reanimated insanity. It's a very scary and sad scene that stays with you long after you have finished watching the film.

Catwoman gets a lot more actual development then the other villains over the course of the story, including a plot I really liked where Bruce starts to fall for Selena as Catwoman finds herself wanting Batman, culminating in the excellent masquerade scene. Selena and Catwoman are definitely shown as separate entities (unlike many Batman villains in the films), with some of the tenser scenes in the film created by Selena slowly going mad as the Catwoman side of her takes over. And what a side it is...

The heightened sexuality of Catwoman was where the film really brewed controversy, with Batman never really being portrayed as a sexual creature in any real way since Batman (1966). Indeed, in the comic Arkham Asylum, A Serious House On Serious Earth, the Joker manages to enrage Batman by acting sexual in his presence, something that was considered quite ground-breaking in 1989. As such, the image of Catwoman and Batman engaging in an S&M-style fight before Catwoman licks Batman's cowl (I said cowl!)... (As in the head-piece on his costume, you filthy fuckers...) was very shocking for many fans of the comics at the time, to say nothing of the parents who took their children to see this film! Warner Brothers were buried under complaints about Catwoman and her whip and her leather mask with stitches and... and... Oh my...

Sweet Dreams A-Hoy!

If Batman (1989) was for pre-adolescent boys, this film is for extremely adolescent boys and sexually ambiguous (read: awesome) girls. Say what you may about the film being an excuse for Tim Burton to throw his kinky desires onscreen, this film has sex-appeal in spades. While it may not necessarily be darker then Batman (1989), it certainly is more grown-up in this regard.

So the villains in Batman Returns are a diverse if disappointingly under-cooked affair, an issue that would haunt Batman films in the future as well. If you are looking for real villainy however, then look no further then the title character! Tim Burton's take on Batman and Bruce Wayne seems to have become even less grounded, not just in the comics but in any sense of logic. Indeed, the first reveal of Bruce Wayne is done through a very silly Bat-signal moment, where all the windows in Wayne manor seem to catch the Bat-signal and focus it, just so Bruce Wayne can get a scene where he stands up in front of a huge, lit-up Bat-Symbol in his library. Bruce, aren't you supposed to have a secret identity?

Batman is even less of a defined character then in the previous films. Batman swaps silly phrases with Catwoman ("Mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it... But a kiss can be deadly if you mean it"... What?!) only moments after an innocent woman dies. This Batman also causes a police-car pile-up that probably murders half of the Gotham police precinct. Batman even removes his mask in front of three separate villains at the end for no real reason! Having said all this, Bruce Wayne and Batman are fairly minor players in this story. Due to a villain over-load, Bruce and Batman get side-lined pretty badly in their own film.

Perhaps due to feeling ignored, this film's Batman has no problem murdering a load of evil carnies and other henchmen in fun ways, including burning them alive, shattering their skulls with lumps of cement and using a giant comical bomb to rip them apart.

Unless You Use It For Murder, Of Course!

Yes, this Batman is way more blood-thristy then the Batman of Batman (1989). He just slaughters half the criminals he encounters in an orgy of festive death, using actual martial arts and not getting shot or collapsing once! I will admit, the action scenes here are very tight and well executed which is a big improvement on the previous film. Catwoman and Batman's brawls have a savagery to them which also works extremely well as a violent sexual metaphor. The scenes of the Bat-mobile still look great. The final sewer showdown is actually kind of funny, very exciting and quite sad all at once; a fantastic climax that the film doesn't really deserve!

While i've already covered the bulk of the story, it's worth noting that the story here does not flow smoothly at all. In fact the story seems like a dense and confusing ocean that the audience is forced to swim through between all the action. Due to the constantly dropped plot-points, it can be hard to follow what's going on at times or if anything mentioned scene to scene is actually relevant.

So... do I like or hate Batman Returns? I will be honest, every time I watch it, my feelings on it are different. The best way to sum up Batman Returns is as a series of excellent set-pieces tied around a very sloppy story. There are both great (Catwoman, Max Shreck) and awful (The Penguin) characters in here in equal measure. Despite it's flaws, there is some genuinely great stuff to enjoy here. For many people this is the best Batman has ever been and, while I disagree, I will accept that this is probably the most varied and unusual of the Batman movies. It's both an improvement and a step-backways from Batman (1989).

Overall, I feel that Batman Returns is weaker then Batman (1989) but still well worth a look if you're in the market for a uniquely sexualised adult superhero film.

Oh... Nevermind...

Rating : 3 out of 5 - For Thrusting Many A Young Nerd Into Adulthood.

See If You Like : Girls (Or Fat Pervy Dwarves, Whatever), 

As much as people like to complain that Joel Schumacher ruined the 90's Batman franchise, this film is in fact the root of the issue, just not in the way people think... After a huge complaint campaign and reduced profits for Warner Brothers following Batman Returns, it was decided that the series needed to go in a more... child-friendly direction...

We will get to that next week, but first we have to take a look at the most ignored member of the Batman film family, as well as what I personally regard as one of, if not the best, superhero film story ever...

Til next time!


  1. I love how the Batman Returns poster at the start has the name of the actors directly over the characters.

    Also, excellent review. I don't agree with ALL of your points but you've analysed it really well (for the record, the parts I disagree with are the parts where you say that there are other redeeming features besides Catwoman, who I don't think is nearly redeeming enough).

  2. Aw thanks man, but your telling me you don't like Chip?! Blasphamy!