Every Batman Ever Marathon: Batman Returns (1992)
Welcome to the Waiver Wire’s EVERY BATMAN EVER MARATHON. In the weeks leading up to the release of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ I will be watching and analyzing every feature film based on the Caped Crusader. The Batman film franchise is an old one with roots stretching all the way back to film serials produced in the 40′s. The first feature film came about in 1966 and our love affair with The World’s Greatest Detective has continued on ever since. Check back every Wednesday for the newest installments and I encourage you to join in and do the marathon with me. Here’s the schedule (click on the date for past installments):
Intro: 5/23; Batman (1966): 5/30; Batman (1989): 6/6; Batman Returns (1992): 6/13; Batman Forever (1995): 6/20; Batman & Robin (1997): 6/27; Batman Begins (2005): 7/4 ; The Dark Knight (2008): 7/11; Recap/Rankings: 7/18; The Dark Knight Rises (2012): 7/25
Batman Returns (1992)
Cast: Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken
Plot: A crazed circus gang emerges from Gotham’s sewers and tries to destroy the city…No, not really. There really is a circus gang, though. They work for The Penguin (DeVito), a deformed man/monster who was abandoned as a baby by his rich parents and subsequently raised by the penguins living beneath the Gotham Zoo’s arctic exhibit. The Penguin teams up with the villainous businessman, Max Shreck (Walken), who plots to make The Penguin Gotham’s mayor so he can carry out his own industrious crimes, unimpeded. Penguin meanwhile wants to kill all of Gotham’s first born sons as a sort of vengeance for his own abandonment. When Shreck’s frumpy assistant, Selina Kyle (Pfeiffer), stumble onto the plot Shreck tries to kill her but the traumatic experience turns her into the seductive vigilante/burglar, Catwoman. Batman (Keaton) must stop the ensuing chaos all while struggling with his romantic relationship with Selina.
Production History: Tim Burton did not originally want to return for a Batman sequel because he had mixed feelings about the result of his first film. But the darker second script, along with a promise for more creative control, satisfied him and he ended up returning for what would be his final Batman installment. Anette Bening was originally cast as Catwoman but had to drop out, eventually being replaced by Michelle Pfeiffer. Keaton returned at a huge salary bump and Danny DeVito was cast as a disfigured version of The Penguin. Burton also cast Christopher Walken as evil business man, Max Schreck, but was uncomfortable doing so because he found Walken to be frightening. Some things you just can’t make up.
The movie was a huge hit financially grossing $266,822,354 on a budget of just $80 million. It broke the record for highest opening weekend gross and earned critical acclaim. There was, however, a lot of backlash from parents who felt the film was far too dark for children. McDonald’s even dropped its Happy Meal toy tie-in to avoid controversy.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: As a kid growing up in the 90’s I loved Batman, especially the phenomenal animated series. For some reason the two Batman movies I watched the most were Batman Returns and Batman & Robin. Why I chose, what were at the time, the best and worst Batman movies as my two favorites, I’ll never know. But from the very first scene of Batman Returns I was rehooked. Right off the bat this feels like a Tim Burton movie and he increased creative control is apparent. The excellent music along with the dark, yet magic tinged, sequence in which The Penguin’s parents are disgusted by their deformed baby and dispose of him (basically right out in the open) feels like a scene that could be stop motion animated. Also The Penguin’s dad is PEE WEE FUCKING HERMAN! Chew on that for a minute.
While I had some big issues with Batman it did establish a pretty interesting Gotham City; a city that seems to exist out of time. Batman Returns continues that tradition by blending modern (i.e. 90’s) technology with a 1930’s/40’s/50’s aesthetic. Then that is mixed up with some gothic architecture and lighting to create a really distinct Gotham that feels like its own unique city rather than a clone of a real life metropolis. It makes Bruce/Batman fit in perfectly, a fact highlighted by his first appearance in the film. The mayor lights the bat signal and the movie cuts to Bruce sitting in a dark room brooding. Quite literally, he is sitting in a chair scowling and staring into the distance. He’s either super obsessed or super bored, either way his brand of crazy/tortured soul works perfectly for Burton’s vision.
My last general takeaway is that this movie sort of kicks ass. Like so much ass that I want to go back to last week’s piece and change it to “Batman (1989) is the shitty prequel to Batman Returns.” The film is just so much more self-assured and weird and dark and sexy. Burton is having a fun, DeVito is chewing scenery, Walken looks like a vampire, Pfeiffer’s iconic performance is insane (in a good way) and Keaton has more of a handle on his role.
THE BAT: Batman has taken some Gotham Parks & Recreation self-defense classes in between Burton’s two flicks but he’s still not the imposing fighter you’d expect for someone who routinely takes on entire gangs (of clowns and contortionists no less).
THE BRUCE: Keaton toned down a little of Bruce’s eccentric cheeriness that’s present in the first film. Even his date with Selina features a darker kind of flirting where the two meditate on duality. He’s still somewhat of pleasant guy but we get to see him play rich guy by challenging Max Schreck’s plan to steal Gotham’s power (in a bid to basically sell it back to them) and his lonliness seems ramped up. When he’s explaining that his dual nature ruined his relationship with former stalker girlfriend lunatic, Vicki Vale, there’s an underlying sadness in his eyes that lets us start to think about what sort of person engages in this lifestyle. It’s not a full on Nolan-esque look at the hero’s psyche but it definitely fleshes the character out in a nice way.
And, as I already mentioned, the very first time we see Bruce he is literally sitting in a dark room brooding. There is no other word to describe the look on his face and his troubled posture. He is brooding. It’s kind of silly but it’s also kind of perfect, much like this film.
THE SUIT: There aren’t any major changes to this Batsuit. It’s still too rubbery for my taste and any time the camera stays focused on it too long the whole thing seems ridiculous. The cowl does fit a bit better and we get some insight into the suit in that the Batcave has a closet filled with rows of identical rubber batsuits. It’s like Doug Funny grew up to be a brooding vigilante. Later on Batman removes the cowl by simply ripping it off. It literally tears like paper. I’m not sure how battle ready that is as a mask/face protector.
THE GADGETS: Burton remains disinterested in giving Batman anything too fancy. He does have a nifty homing Bat-arang which he can program to take out people circled around him. The problem is it seems incredibly inconvenient to program but luckily the gang of clowns he’s battling sit and wait for him to plug in their exact positions. Catwoman simply has a whip and one hell of the crazies. The Penguin, on the other hand, has an array of umbrellas he uses as weapons. Most of them are just guns in disguise but one is a mini-helicopter and another is a mobile (aka the thing you hang above a crib). How he learned to make these things or acquired the materials necessary while growing up in the sewer, well maybe his Penguin Dad has a background in espionage. In fact, before hooking up with Max Shreck (aka Nosferatu) Penguin seems to have unlimited criminal resources. He can sustain the payroll of an entire circus of henchman and at one point manages to get them to explode out of a humongous gift box in the middle of a crowded plaza. Oh, and he straps rockets onto an army of penguins. It seems sewer crime does pay.
THE CAR: Same old Batmobile. Except The Penguin turns this one into a fucking bomb! In his words “an H-bomb” although it doesn’t explode or employ hydrogen. Really The Penguin just hacks into the car and makes Batman run over a bunch of cops. So maybe by “H-bomb” he meant “RC Truck.” Give the guy a break, he grew up in a sewer.
THE ROGUE’S GALLERY: The villains really bring it in this movie. Walken is playing a stock “evil businessman” but his trademark delivery and demeanor really sell the role. His interaction with The Penguin (including a scene where he bribes him with a fish) is always spot on.
DeVito is definitely playing The Penguin over the top but he’s much more rounded (literally and figuratively) than Nicholson’s Joker. The Joker (in the first film) is just a thug who underwent an accident. The Penguin’s insane crimes are all clearly coming from a place of pain and rejection. At first he even seems sympathetic despite being manipulative and clearly lacking morals. As his actions become increasingly crazy you start to realize how scarred he is and it makes his vicious growling and leering at women all the more entertaining. DeVito really deserves credit for the physicality and layers he brings to what could have been a simple, silly role.
Books should be written about how great Michelle Pfeiffer is in this film. Her self-deprecating version of frumpy old Selina Kyle isn’t quite believable but she is entertaining. Pfeiffer really takes over after her transformation into Catwoman. Her deep seductive Catwoman voice is spot on and she carries herself with a mix of sex appeal, ferocity and genuine craziness. She also sells Selina, post transformation, by capturing her struggles with her dual nature and her feelings for Bruce. She makes their relationship about 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times more compelling than Bruce and Vicki’s in the first film.
THE ONE LINERS: Some gems include:
- “I am Catwoman, hear me roar!” -Catwoman
- “Eat floor! High fiber.” -Batman
- “I already have a pet cause.” –Catwoman
- “I’ll show her my French flipper trick.” –The Penguin, referring to an attractive woman
A few other great lines include Selina saying “It’s the normal guys that let you down. Sicko’s never scare me. At least they’re committed.” And the Penguin (after Batman sabotages his mayoral speech) says, while being pelted by a crowd, “Why is there always someone who brings eggs and tomatoes to a speech?”
THE VERDICT: If you couldn’t tell this has been my favorite film thus far. It combines great villains, memorable performances and a much steadier effort from Burton and the result is a rollicking good time. You can skip the first one, this is the real gem so far.
Next Up: Batman Forever (1995): 6/20