If it's crap ... We'll tell you
1992. White South Africans vote in favor of political reforms which will end the apartheid regime and create a power-sharing multi-racial government. The verdict surrounding the Rodney King verdict turns L.A. into a violent, rioting Hell. Bill Clinton wins the title of President of the United States. I was born. As you can see, this year offered its share of memorable and important cultural moments. As far as Hollywood and the film industry, “Batman Returns” was also an important moment, maybe not as a standalone film, but as a marketing and box office prototype that has been replicated ever since. But many have lost sight on the film itself and have formed unfair generalizations that, in my opinion, don’t hold up. As I start this new series, I encourage you to revisit the film your self (or maybe see it for the first time). Please respond with your own opinion and thoughts, as I’d love to hear them. Be prepared to skip several paragraphs if you’re more interested in the film itself and not the buildup.
So, following the success of the original “Batman” in 1989, Warner Brothers realized that they had a huge cash cow. After the terrible “Superman 4: Quest for Peace”, it seemed to all that the genre of the superhero film was dead. Yes, the story was bad and the effects and acting didn’t hold up for two minutes, but it was more than that. The unwavering optimism of the Man of Steel didn’t connect with the audiences as it once did. The character had run its course, leaving Warners scrambling to adapt their number two hero, Batman. Although the comics had been getting progressively darker since the 60s, the public conscious still thought of the Caped Crusader as campy, colorful, and laughable. Warners realized that giving audiences a dark, brooding Batman on the big screen would resonant as a huge cultural and commercial hit.
Tim Burton, who had only directed two films previously, was tasked with re-imagining the 50 year old character for Reagan-era America. I remember hearing somewhere that Burton held up a copy of “The Killing Joke” to executives, promising that Batman would be a lot more like this than the 60s show. Fast forward to the casting of Michael Keaton being cast as Batman, angering comic fans. However, an air of legitimacy was added to the production with the casting of Jack Nicholson as the Joker, not unlike the casting of Marlon Brando as Jor-El. The film’s success is still talked about, breaking box office records for its time and earning critical praise for its noirish landscape, foreboding score, and Nicholson’s performance. Obviously, a sequel was inevitable.
Burton, as most directors following a big budget/superhero film do, go back to their roots and make a smaller film that is closer to their respective aesthetic. In the process, he made one of his most beloved and signatures films, one that I myself have mixed feelings about: “Edward Scissorhands”. Also, it’s natural to assume that Burton was waiting on a good script to originate, as he previously said that he’d only return to the franchise if the story was good. With the death of the Joker in the first movie, new villains were needed.
Danny Devito was cast as the Penguin and Michelle Pheiffer was Catwoman, giving Warners a marketing field-day with “The Bat, The Cat, and The Penguin” tagline, making it sound like some sort of bad animal documentary. Once you go past one villain, comic book fans start to get worried, as many CBMs start to lose focus with multiple antagonists. But after repeated viewings of the movie, can you definitively point out Catwoman or Penguin as the “bad guys”? It’s way more complicated than that.
The film starts out with Oswald Cobblepott’s parents rejecting him and tossing him into the sewer, his hideous nature bringing out the ugliest of humanity. As he’s raised by the penguins of the sewer, along with assorted other freaks long forgotten, he adopts the persona of the Penguin, leading the Red Triangle Gang. He eventually lures Max Shreck (more on him later) to his lair but is convinced that maybe he should reconcile with humanity and meet his parents. Once he realizes they’re dead, he claims he’s a “man” and is coerced by Shreck to run for Mayor of Gotham City. But secretly, he’s been planning on kidnapping the children of the Gotham elite. Batman/Bruce Wayne has been wary of Cobblepott from the get-go and exposes him for the fraud that he is. Eventually, he dies in his final fight with Batman, seemingly unrepentant about the life he’s lead.
Although people see the character/performance of having no real depth, I fail to feel the same. Cobblepott is angry with the world and wants to sincerely be a member of society. After he discovers his parents are dead, I believe he makes a change and wants to inflict pain on those similar to his parents who rejected him and offered him no love in his life. He eventually acknowledges that he is NOT human, justifying for himself that humanity, at its core, is much more ugly at its core than he will ever be.
Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman, is also not a prominent social figure. She spends her days slaving under the cities #2 industrial billionaire, Max Shreck. She hates how she looks, acts, talks, and just the general facets of her life. When she’s nearly killed by Shreck, she finds new life(s) in the persona of “Catwoman”. She joins forces with the Penguin so she can see that Batman is taken down, which will ensure that no one will stop her in her revenge against Shreck. Meanwhile, she begins a romance with Bruce Wayne, obviously unaware of his secret identity. Ultimately, she sacrifices her life in order to kill Sheck and preserve Wayne’s alter ego. But, the ending leaves her alive, clearly allowing for a setup for a sequel or spin off. Cue Halle Berry.
Now for maybe the most intriguing character of the piece: Max Shreck, the true villain of the film. It’s actually easy to forget that Christopher Walken was in this movie, considering his name doesn’t get top billing or that his performance isn’t over the top, as he’s sometimes known for. He acts excellently in this movie, playing a corporate tycoon who only looks out for himself the entire movie. The only person he shows concern over is his son, which is understandable of even the most heartless scumbag. But the only reasons he plays with Cobblepott is because he’s initially blackmailed and he sees Cobblepott as a tool. Although Shreck wants to control the city, he wants a puppet figure that will help him, among other things, get him his power plant built. Once he sees the Penguin’s reputation tarnished, Shreck rejects him just like everyone else. Shreck is an interesting villain in a franchise than frequently values big name rogues with showy performances.
Now, maybe we should talk a little bit of the title character, Batman. I mean, this is why people came to the theater, right? Bruce/Batman doesn’t have as much screen time as expected, which provides the other characters more time to develop, but leaves audiences wanting more. One reason I see Batman being in the less is because Burton had more creative control than the original and felt that Wayne’e history and motivations had already been told. Burton may have saw this as a chance to make more well-rounded characters than Nicholson’s Joker (which is brilliant in itself, don’t get me wrong). Yes, Batman’s name IS in the title. But that’s because he’s simply returning.
Parents and marketing professionals were turned off by the film’s dark tone, although the original wasn’t exactly cheery itself. McDonald’s famously canceled its Happy Meal promotion with the film, seeing the movie as violent, dark, and just overall not being “kiddie” enough. This perception haunted the film even to the box office receipts, which were good and enough to deem it a financial success. But it didn’t gross as much as the original, telling Warners something was wrong. “But everyone wanted the movie dark. Did we go too far?” Sadly, the studio knew what the public wanted, and that was a toned down Batman that would appeal more to the whole family. Burton knew what was about to happen and flew the coop. Although I have positive opinions and like “Batman Forever”, it isn’t as good as Burton’s films and eventually laid the path for the Film That Shall Not Be Named.
Reflecting on Burton’s Batman era, I have nothing but positive feelings. Admittedly, I was raised on these films. They were part of my childhood and have a special place in my heart. Whenever I think of Batman outside of the comic book (and the animated series of the 90s), my mind goes to the dark, cluttered Gotham that’s infection of crime and atmospheric moodiness, scored masterfully by Danny Elfman, needed a janitor like Batman to fight the good fight in a way only he could do. Of course Nolan’s films are better and take the genre to newer and fresher heights but that’s not always the point. To me, Burton’s Batman jumped off the comic book page and onto the silver screen in a way that, to me, has yet to be duplicated. As the Penguin might say “But when it comes down to it, who’s holding the umbrella?”