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Looking Back: Batman Returns (1992)

Tim Burton’s “Batman Returns” was the biggest summer movie hit of 1992. Its also one of Burton’s most peculiar, as it defies sequel-izing the first film in favor of exploring the darker shades of its disturbed protagonists. Many have noted how Burton’s 1989 “Batman,” while truly one of his signature films (and a terrific one at that), was reworked heavily during its making. Burton had to give in to story and commercial demands forced on him by the producers, Jon Peters and Peter Guber. Some of these touches unquestionably helped the film (particularly the third act, which was reportedly spruced up after Guber and star Jack Nicholson saw “The Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway).

Yet, Burton’s first lavish studio film put him in the position of having to compromise and adjust to outside decision making, unlike his personal, idiosyncratic visions for the brilliant “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” and “Beetlejuice.” Burton took his time to getting around to making “Batman II” and did so without the intrusion of Peters and Guber (who are nevertheless listed as producers on the opening credits). For better or worse, this is Burton 100%, undiluted and uncompromised. It makes for a rich, troubling and caustic fantasy, which is why it’s one of the best “Batman” movies and adds to the allure and exploration of the mind of Bruce Wayne.

Michael Keaton (after an iffy post-Batman run in the solid “Pacific Heights” and forgettable “One Good Cop”) returns as Wayne, who is recovering from his failed relationship with Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger, whose character is mentioned but never seen). Meanwhile, a Gotham City celebrity literally arises from the murk of the sewers; a small, deformed and diabolical man named Oswald Cobblepot (played by Danny DeVito) enters the spotlight. Managed by the crooked Max Schreck (played by Christopher Walken), Cobblepot’s quest to locate his parents and acquire respectability is only a surface ruse. In private, he’s blackmailing Schreck and lords over his demented, former circus crew as The Penguin. There’s also Selena Kyle (played by Michelle Pfeiffer), a meek, socially awkward secretary who undergoes a drastic change (to put it mildly), stands up to the sexist, bullying men in her life and becomes the Catwoman.

Perverse, psychologically probing and freak show crazy, “Batman Returns” is more of a companion to Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands” than a straight forward follow-up to his 1989 blockbuster.

Keaton’s Bruce Wayne seems to be internalizing rooms of madness, if not belfries of bats. His introduction is poetic perfection: when Wayne is summoned by the Bat Signal, he is powerful, ready and completely alone in the darkness.

Pfeiffer, in the film’s best performance, is phenomenal. While everyone plays the ghoulish humor their characters allow, Pfeiffer especially taps into what’s tragic and moving about Kyle, before and after she becomes a “yummy” vigilante. The casting of DeVito as The Penguin is almost as who-else obvious as Nicholson playing The Joker. Rather than give into easy expectations, DeVito, like Pfeiffer, taps into the black comedy and genuine pathos of the role. These are two great villains, played by actors giving fearless, admirably unhinged performances.

Walken’s Max Schreck (a nice nod to “Nosferatu”) sports a wild hairdo and is a powerful, readily trademarked corporate villain. He’s sort of Trump-like. This was back when Walken’s intriguingly odd take on his film roles felt new and inventive, as opposed to an old hat, obvious choice for him. The movie doesn’t need Schreck, really, but Walken is always fun to watch.

Since Burton’s first “Batman” had opened, only a few subsequent comic book films had appeared. They include Steve Barron’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (1990), Warren Beatty’s “Dick Tracy” (1990), the sequel “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze” (1991) and Joe Johnston’s “The Rocketeer” (1991). Unlike today, where at least four or more comic book movies appear a year (or even in a single season), Burton’s towering success with “Batman” signaled a newfound appreciation for graphic novel-based films with generous budgets and directorial control.

For a comic book movie, there’s not much action in “Batman Returns”. When the fight scenes do commence, they sometimes involve a man getting set on fire, an infant abduction, an interrupted rape and The Penguin biting off the tip of a man’s nose. A particularly sadistic touch was setting all this bloodshed at Christmastime! It may have spawned an unwise Happy Meal spin-off and thousands of merchandise but make no mistake, “Batman Returns” is not soft or for children.

If “Batman” was about Wayne recognizing his identity as a vigilante crime fighter and discovering his dark, unknown past with The Joker, “Batman Returns” is about his being kin with those who, like him, were damaged children. Wayne’s interest in Cobblepot sparks when he discovers he’s looking for his parents. A visibly sympathetic Wayne notes, “I hope he finds them.” Kyle’s past isn’t made known but her visible insecurities, talking to herself and crippling loneliness says a great deal. Kyle couldn’t have overcome her dismal existence without becoming Catwoman, though her embracing the new identity means having to resurrect herself- literally, after being murdered. Kyle’s transformation into the Catwoman is the best scene- it’s a creepy, skin-crawly bit that will unsettle anyone with a fear or dislike of felines.

As a commercial film, you wonder if Burton was purposely trying to distance his audience. His film is too hung up on grotesque violence and carnival imagery to fit into a mainstream template, though adequate word of mouth, anticipation and a juggernaut of promotion pushed it to the top of the ’92 summer movie crop. Yet, its defiantly out of step with the previous film. Whereas Prince tunes were effectively shoe-horned into “Batman,” the single song on the “Batman Returns” soundtrack (Siouxsie and the Banshee’s “Face to Face”) is eerie but forgettable. So is the Batboat action finale, which never matches the toxic balloon parade and bell tower climax of the previous film.

In the end, “Batman Returns” is less a thrill machine and more a tribute to those who have lost their childhoods, their innocence and struggle to find an identity. If “Edward Scissorhands” was an affectionate ode to misfits and oddballs, this is for those who have been scarred, visibly or psychologically, by the monsters they trusted. The Bat, The Cat and Penguin (as the movie poster tagline once described them) are certainly freaks but they make an odd, dysfunctional and potent family unit.

That final moment, with Wayne declaring, “Good will toward men…and women,” couldn’t be more perfect. Likewise, that glorious final shot. Now Wayne, and Kyle, are kin, sharing the fateful glow of the Bat Signal.

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