Remembering “Batman Returns”

I grew up a Batman fan – a huge, huge Batman fan – and if you don’t believe me just ask my parents.  As a tot I watched the same few films over and over again:  Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), Batman (1989), and Ghostbusters (1984).  I feel like I recall seeing the 1989 Batman in theater with my dad, but that could have been a misremembered dream or confused memory; either way, I adored the Dark Knight.

When I saw an ad for Batman Returns in a magazine, I was captivated: The Batman logo, the same one I had in stickers, on t-shirts, and on numerous toys, was covered in ice and snow.  But the movie was coming out in June?  Hm.  Regardless I couldn’t stand the wait.  When my mom took me to see it (again possibly misremembered memory) it was in a strange theater in a nearby town, and one viewing wasn’t nearly enough.

That year I got piles of Batman stuff for my birthday and Christmas:  Action figures with Bruce Wayne and his removable batsuit, penguins with missiles strapped to their back, The Penguin himself, and many other trinkets that now likely exist in various states of quality in my parents’ basement.  That same year was the debut of Batman:  The Animated Series, so in short it was a glorious time to be a 6-7 year old kid.

My memories of Batman Returns from the perspective of being that age are few:  I focused more on the Batmobile and its newfound ability to re-engineer itself into a missile!

There were awesome things about how Batman got to the Batcave (via the Iron Maiden), his wings that let him glide from rooftop to street level, and his willingness to reveal his secret identity in front of Schreck at the film’s conclusion.

What didn’t register with me, at least a conscious level?  The sexual cravings of the Penguin, how Selina Kyle’s meltdown occurred (I thought the cats biting her infected her with cat powers), and really anything that was supposed to invoke political satire or pay homage to Burton’s inspirations.  It simply felt like a snowy, darker version of the 1989 movie that let me see some of my favorite characters doing new and exciting stuff.

Batman Returns was released in June of 1992, hoping audiences would overlook the snowy Christmas/winter aesthetic, and they were all too happy to oblige:  Moviegoers set a record at the time, with $47M made in the first 3 days of release; a record that lasted only a year thanks to Jurassic Park.

Critical returns were mixed:  Many parents thought the movie was too bleak & grotesque for children, with Danny DeVito’s Penguin portrayal standing out in particular.  The violence, sexuality, and colorless tone of Returns earned it dismissal from some pundits, but others, namely Roger Ebert, wrapped up Burton’s sequel nicely:

Tim Burton’s “Batman Returns,” even more than the original “Batman,” is a dark, brooding film, filled with hurt and fear, childhood wounds and festering adult resentments. It is also a most intriguing movie, great to look at, fun to talk about. There is no doubt Burton is a gifted director, but is he the right director for Batman?

…”Batman” had the Joker, played by Jack Nicholson, to lend it energy, but the Penguin is a curiously meager and depressing creature; I pitied him, but did not fear him or find him funny. The genius of Danny DeVito is all but swallowed up in the paraphernalia of the role. “Batman Returns” is odd and sad, but not exhilarating. I give the movie a negative review, and yet I don’t think it’s a bad movie; it’s more of a misguided one, made with great creativity, but denying us what we more or less deserve from a Batman story. Looking back over both films, I think Burton has a vision here and is trying to shape it to the material, but it just won’t fit.

Roger Ebert, 1992

As a 32-year old adult (ish?), I wanted to see how it held up after so many years and figured with the ice, snow, and sleet pouring down outside my window that the aesthetic was perfect for Batman Returns to ride again, only this time via HBO Now on my computer monitor instead of the ragged mechanical VCR/VHS medley I grew up with.

Having seen Tim Burton try and fail to make a good film for years now (his lone exception is the wonderful Big Fish), I could never quite put my finger on when the wheels fell off.  Edward Scissorhands is a remarkably beautiful and quirky film, Beetlejuice & Pee-Wee were fun gallavants in colorful silliness & macabre stylings, and in my head I always felt the 1989 Batman and 1992 Batman Returns were fantastic pieces of work.

He didn’t direct The Nightmare Before Christmas, I never saw Ed Wood (but have heard it is fantastic), and for all of its flaws, Sleepy Hollow is acceptable for what it is.  Using my timeline, you’d have to deduce that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is where the Tim Burton we know today (who makes forgettable and similar movies that generate Hot Topic merchandise) lost his way.

Really you can trace some of this back to Batman Returns.  It employed many of the Tim Burton staples that have become some of his most profound weaknesses as a filmmaker:

  • Bleak and colorless palette
  • Danny Elfman score that stays inside the same boxes it always does
  • All the primary characters are flawed or outcasts
  • Some sacrificing of dialogue and enriching exposition to focus more on world-building
  • Set design & production elements overshadowing the actors

That’s not to say these are BAD, per se, but it feels like a lot of Burton’s movies want to remind you first that you’re watching a Tim Burton film, telling a complete story second.  Batman Returns suffers from that a little.

The Penguin’s desire to bang anything that moves was a little wearisome, but understandable, yet he has a lot of cheesy lines (“Just the pussy I was looking for” comes to mind).  I enjoyed seeing him return to form after a doomed-to-fail escapade running for Mayor, but it seemed like his only motivation for that was to get laid.  They could’ve focused more on establishing him as a menace crimeboss beforehand so we could see him come full circle, but I guess you can’t have everything.  His battle with discovering his humanity is interesting, but only so far in that the payoff of Penguin’s last stand is premeditated by his character, resplendent in a stained onesie, addressing bleachers full of actual penguins.

Catwoman was fantastic, mostly, thanks to a terrific performance from Michelle Pfeiffer, who made the role her own and gave the character a wild, bent screen presence that stood out among her peers.  Her frustration and failure in her life and career is something we all can relate to at some point, and when she does finally snap after surviving an attempt on her life, the destruction of her apartment is something many of us have done in our heads numerous times.  I personally felt like her smashing up all of her stuff only to sit down and masterfully stitch a skin-tight leather bodysuit was a bit odd, but no more odd than puzzling over when she learned to use a whip and employ martial arts.

Then there’s Batman, once again portrayed by Michael Keaton.  From what I’ve read, Keaton had no interest in reprising his role, taking the part for a massive increase in pay so that he could broker a real estate deal. He doesn’t get a lot of room to grow, especially considering the more Wayne-focused 1989 film, and it reflected poorly on his Batman Returns performance.  Bruce gets almost nothing to do but hang out for a minute or two at a time before another excuse to become Batman is promptly delivered via television or Bat Signal.  In the end when Bruce is the only one left and he and Alfred are driving around Gotham, Alfred says, “Come what may, Merry Christmas Mr. Wayne.”  It feels like Alfred sums it all up.

“…Well that was pretty damn weird, but whatever – happy holidays, Bruce.”

Keaton’s said some really interesting things over the years about his part in the Batman films and Tim Burton, and now that he is enjoying the fruits of a career renaissance he likely can look back on these films with a more positive and appreciative light.

“It was quite the cast with Michelle Pfeiffer and Danny DeVito and everyone. It wasn’t as satisfying to me when I saw it, but maybe that’s because the bar was set so high on the first one. I think I only watched it one time. I knew we were in trouble in talks for the third one when certain people started the conversation with ‘Why does it have to be so dark?’ ‘Why does he have to be so depressed?’ ‘Shouldn’t there be more color in this thing?’ I knew I was headed for trouble and that it wasn’t a road I was going to go down.”

Keaton, 2011

“I hadn’t been stupid about (returning for a 3rd Batman film).  I always knew it was a big machine with a big studio and corporation behind it. But the simple answer was, it wasn’t any good. I was nice. I said to them, ‘This is a really interesting character with a dual personality.’ I tried to make them understand. But when somebody says to you, ‘Does it have to be so dark?… I thought, are we talking about the same character? So finally I just said no.”

Keaton 2016

For all of that, the guy who was Batman/Bruce Wayne to the early 90’s kid version of yours truly made me smile a bit recently.  When asked about returning to play the Dark Knight, Keaton said he’d do it again but on one condition:

“If it was Tim Burton directing? In a heartbeat. Tim, in the movies, really invented the whole dark-superhero thing. He started everything, and some of the guys who have done these movies since then don’t say that, and they’re wrong.”

Keaton 2016

While the current caped crusader outfit is worn by Ben Affleck and neck-deep in a DC Cinematic Universe, maybe someday Tim Burton and Michael Keaton will cross paths again to see if they have one last story to tell.

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