Thursday, June 2, 2011

It's human nature to fear the unusual: A critical look at Batman Returns

The inspiration to write a post struck me late at night, and here I sit in the dark attempting to set a record straight and right injustices against a family name, much like Oswald Cobblepot aka The Penguin pouring over birth certificates in the hall of records about a third of the way through Batman Returns. The family name I’m out to defend is that of the Burton Batman films, and this one in particular which as Christopher Walken elegantly puts it “frankly has a bum rep.” Perhaps the conclusions you can draw from the film’s plot itself and the reputation it has are eerily similar. Abandoned at it’s conception by critics and “comic fans” alike, Returns perhaps isn’t nearly as bad as some make it out to be, only misunderstood by those who can’t see past the grotesque exterior. Much like Batman himself, I feel the need to defend something which cannot save itself, and much like Catwoman; the subject matter at hand is too sexy and insane to be revered in the eyes of the public.

Batman 89’, which I might have been too harsh analyzing is still universally respected by critics and comic fans, many of whom are too bitter and jaded to admit that it may very well be a more true-to-form Batman and Joker story than The Dark Knight. Its sequel Returns however, falls prey to several complaints that are almost always the same by anyone criticizing it; which I’ve heard so many times that I’d venture to call them stereotypical critiques. While Batman 89 is decidedly dated at times and often very aged and misguided feeling in parts, I feel like Batman Returns builds and expands on the themes while incasing the story within the austere whimsical world of Tim Burton. I’d go so far as to say that Batman Returns is the most stylistically affected, though not afflicted, film Burton has ever done. This was a director at his peak; and it’s a shame to see how studios lost faith in these macabre visions for a while after this film’s release.

Perhaps one of the biggest faults Returns has, isn’t even to blame on the film itself so much as the untimely and nonsensical summer release. This is a Christmas film through and through, though it explores the darker and less jolly aspects of the holiday. Prevalent arctic themes, tree lightings and even a bittersweet wishing of Merry Christmas on the last line of the film add to the perversion of the holiday across a comic book landscape.

But wait…one of the main complaints about the movie is that it’s not a very good comic book film and it’s bogged down by being too unrealistic. Ask yourself for a moment if ANY film with a man dressing up like a bat, a woman dressing up like a cat and a man called “the penguin” can ever be interpreted as true-to-life and that argument goes out the window. Perhaps you’re looking for the hyper realism served up in The Dark Knight. You might notice that every moment the most whimsical and unrealistic character, The Joker, who seems to bend the laws of space and time with his all-too-convenient plans is not on screen. Compare that to the romantic arc in Batman Returns. Batman and Catwoman are enemies but Selina Kyle and Bruce Wayne are potentially lovers. Upon realizing each other’s identity for the first time, the immediate question posed is “do we start fighting?” This is a great way to delve into the psychological aspect of Batman. He’s often conflicted in his best moments by circumstances that make him want to give up his crusade; times when he’ll rise to the occasion and prove himself to be the true hero that he is. If you're questioning the scene where he kills a thug with dynamite you might as well question the scene where he levels Axis chemicals with explosives in 89', and also take into account that Bob Kane's Batman smoked a pipe and carried a gun. You have to wonder if Bruce meant what he said when he took off his cowl at the end of Returns and asked Selina to come away with him, or if he already knew she would never attempt to lead a “normal” life. Compare this to when Bruce wants to give up being Batman as a result of Rachel being DEAD in The Dark Knight. It makes for an excellent Batman arc…which contradicts how a lot of people say this isn’t a “Batman film.”

Isn’t the whole point of Batman the idea that he’s like an urban legend that strikes fear into the heart of his enemies? Batman isn’t going to flaunt around in every scene. That takes away a crucial element of mystery. Besides, he had his origin story in Batman 89. While the films don’t blend seamlessly given the shrunken scope of Gotham in Returns, you already know this Batman and what he’s capable of. Keaton delivers the same anger-fueled insanity in the role as he does in 89. If you don’t think there’s enough Batman in Returns, ask yourself what more was needed. As opposed to one villain in the first film, now there’s two that are extremely well developed, more so than any others in superhero films with multiple antagonists and there’s more action in this film than just about any of the other Batman films save for 89; all thanks to Batman and his comic book inspired arsenal of gadgets.

People have said that Returns is too dark for a comic book movie, but look at Watchmen on the other end of the spectrum…since when did comic books need to be lighter fare for kids? In addition to bringing comic book movies into the spotlight, 89 also legitimatized them as films for adults and kids alike. Returns knows exactly what it wants to be. It’s not totally stuck in fantasy, but it’s not grounded in realism either. It’s carved out a nice niche for itself in between the campiness of the silver age Batman comics and their outrageous plots and the darkness of its predecessor of a film. Part of the appeal of comic books at the time of their introduction as a graphic medium was the ability to convey the impossible without limitations opening up new kinds of storytelling. Now this is becoming more and more possible thanks to CGI, but it’s great to see a film that was able to set its own standards and create a unique world in the span of roughly 2 hours. It’s just the right blend of black comedy and horror tragedy while still safely under the mantle of Batman.

The iconography of a Batman film is present throughout Returns, often times less in-your-face than it is in the newer films or in 89’. For example: pimping the bat logo. There’s an unforgettably moronic shot in Batman 89 where the Batwing flies past the moon and creates the bat logo. Not only does this defy physics, but it’s superfluous. Even less realistically, the Begins Bat signal is comprised of a prisoner wearing cut rags tied to a searchlight. How about a nice way to tie in the iconic logo and the bat signal without shoving it down our throat like the simple shot of Wayne reading in Returns when the logo shines through the window and he stands up and looks at it. It’s simple. It’s effective. It’s purely badass. Some would say that the shape of the bat signal is too precise…I have to argue, does that matter AT ALL? Like I mentioned before, realism flies out the window period in comic book films, so the logistics of the shape of bat signal are much less relevant than the source of the logo being from a tormented Arkham escapee or an idiotic shot of the batwing blocking the moon. Also part of the Batman iconography in addition to the obvious batsuit, is the Batmobile. While the design of the Batmobile is introduced in 89, the scenes with it are a bit unceremonious and don’t really show off the sleek awesomeness of the vehicle to its full potential. There’s something very “constructed” and fake about it as it cruises through the streets tipping fruit stands. In Returns, it’s a viable threat when it’s under the penguins control, driving recklessly through streets and smashing cars at top speed. Then in one of the single greatest and most innovative comic book movie moments I can think of, the Batmobile splits off the sides into the “Batmissile” to squeeze through a narrow gap between two buildings. It’s this same kind of enthusiasm you see in the “Batpod” scene of The Dark Knight that really makes the truck chase scene stand out. It’s Batman being one step ahead, and ready for anything.

Which brings me to refute another fault of the film, is that The Penguin isn’t a credible threat to Batman. Physically, he never was, and never should be, even in comics. The appearance of the character, deformed physically and mentally in Burton’s vision immediately creates a more formidable presence than anything prior in the comics or other adaptations. The audience fears the Penguin. He admonishes the viewer for treating him differently. First invoking feelings of fear, then pity, and then feelings of hate, the same cycle of emotions that Shreck and the other denizens of Gotham feel towards Penguin in the film. Batman, ever-vigilant is never scared of The Penguin because he knows what he has to do to stop him. Despite his confidence, The Penguin still manages to nearly kill Batman several times in the film, including the Batmobile bomb, an umbrella gun at the end and with the penguin commandos.

One of my friends in particular, a fellow Batman enthusiast faults the film the most for the inclusion of the “penguin commandos” aka live penguin army that lives in the sewer and eventually waddles into the streets of gotham with rocket launchers strapped to their backs while responding to a frequency signal. I think given the absurd nature of the rest of the film, this fits in pretty well. With every failed attempt, the Penguin continues to get angrier and angrier at Batman until he goes to an extreme which he’s clearly had in reserve for a long time coming. This is every bit as dangerous, if not more so than the Joker spraying the city with laughing gas from parade balloons or say…fear toxin in the water supply. If anything I would say that this is slightly more believable than those. If you’re asking how penguin could have possibly acquired the resources, then you also have to ask yourself how The Joker is able to employ Police Officers in The Dark Knight and plant a bomb inside of an inmate while unarmed inside of a holding cell. There’s certain things you just have to accept because like it or not…Batman is still based on a comic book, and like I said earlier, comic books serve to tell stories in a visually appealing way which you couldn’t find elsewhere. As Returns plays out like a big screen comic complete with it’s own artistic style, taking the penguin commando army in stride should be easy to get past after the first five minutes of seeing a baby eat a cat and get tossed into a sewer. At worst you can laugh at these “lighter” deaths and at best you can build a hatred of The Penguin’s pathetic character. The pathos are all there. I would say that there’s less suspension of disbelief involved in frequency controlled penguins than Doc Ock controlling tentacles with his “brain chip” in Spiderman 2…or even the concept of a Spider bite giving someone super powers. I don’t see how it could be difficult to accept, especially in a universe as absurd as Batman’s.

So I’ve written a lot now trying to defend Returns from various possible criticisms (Why do people always bring tomatoes to speeches?) but what sets it apart from the rest? I can safely say that personally, as a lifelong Batman fan, Returns may be the most enjoyable Batman film to me. While for nostalgic reasons, The Dark Knight is still the most fun I ever had with a film given all the hype surrounding the release, Returns is worth a watch if you can overlook the lack of Nolan.

It’s the perfect mix of comic Batman characters with elements of movies ranging from comedy to horror. The suit is there. The tech is certainly there (remote controlled batarang anyone?). The action sequences are tight and well edited. On top of that, it also has my personal favorite musical score of all time for a film. Dark brooding, moody circus music perfectly fits the character of the Penguin and the slinky, screeching effects suit Catwoman’s character very well. Elfman also expands on the already great Batman theme from 89 and mixes the best cues when Batman is on screen with heightened versions of the Penguin suite when the characters are intercut on screen (such as the pursuit of the penguin through the sewers in the third act).

Speaking of the pursuit scene…out of all the secondary bat vehicles introduced in the third act of the Batman films (Batplane, Batwing, Bat sub, Batpod, Bat…sled…) the Batskiboat which narrowly dodges wayward missiles from Penguin Commandos is by far the coolest and most practical. There’s this great overwhelming presence of the absurd in Batman Returns, but the subject matter is so dark (I’ve heard people compare the film to an inkwell) that it’s hard to laugh at it. I think it’s a great mix for a Batman movie. It’s sad, often poignant at times, but also tends to feel like a sitcom akin to the 1966 Batman show crossed with the Addam’s Family. It’s a perfect cross between darkness and camp…beauty and the beast if you will.

One of the greatest scenes in the film is the death of the Penguin. After he has supposedly fallen to his watery grave through glass, he emerges dripping blood and bile from the water behind Batman, in one final attempt to kill him. He reaches for an umbrella, and accidentally "picks a cute one" before collapsing needing a "cold drink of ice water." Hated by everyone his entire life, in his death, the penguins emerge from the corners of his sewer lair and drag him into the water to sink to the bottom. It's touching, bizarre even to Batman, who watches the procession unfold. The music is powerful, sad and extremely fitting. It's incredible to see an incredibly humanizing and tragic end to a character that is so easy for most people to hate throughout the film.

Rather than just elude to the accepted truths of the Batman mythos like the super-urban high tech current films, grim to the core, I think Batman Returns is a good superhero film that’s certainly worth watching again if you feel like it’s “stupid” or not a “batman film.” I wish I could have spent more time praising the nuances in Devito’s performance or the greatness of Catwoman’s role in this film as the only truly well written female character in the Batman series’, but the pitiful legacy Returns has acquired among comic fans made this more of a crusade to set the record right. Though I would hardly call myself a Returns apologist…as there’s nothing to be sorry for. This is an excellent film.

"Come what may...Merry Christmas Mr. Wayne..."

"Merry Christmas Alfred. Goodwill toward men. And women."


  1. Matt, you've done an excellent job with this post. Returns is one of my favorites too but I still have my gripes with it. Aside from Catwoman not just being a simple cat burgular...she's bit by cats and eats birds? AH! Recently before Christmas I wrote a post on my blog including a bit that I wished Santa would bring me a copy of Batman Returns that CGI'd the Penguin's Batman Returns action figure "look" into the film rather than the human/penguin hybrid in the film. I didn't like Penguins flippers or gross appearance. I really think that if these 2 Burton modifications were taken out we'd have a wonderful, timeless Batman film that stands much more in line with the 89 Batman film. Other than that I really dug Returns. I just think it was too "Burtony."