By contributor Patrick Zabriskie
Let’s be fair here, Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’ wasn’t a great movie, but it was at least an entertaining one. You felt good when you finished watching it—or at least I did. Coming off of that movie, I decided to check out Tim Burton’s ‘Batman Returns’, believing that it would be like the first movie: Not great but at least entertaining. I was wrong on that second part.
The movie again sets us in the gothic metropolis of Gotham City. However, it looks and feels vastly different from the first movie. Evidently, all of the previous sets and even the matinee paintings had been scrapped, and we are introduced to a redesigned Gotham that looks nothing like the old one. This is a rather disappointing aspect, as it takes away all sense of familiarity. Also, the entire film takes place during the Christmas season, so everything is drizzled in wet, cold snow. Why do I say all of this now? Because this sense of unfamiliarity and, frankly, depression that we get from the Gotham landscape sets the tone remarkably well for the rest of the movie.
We are again introduced to Batman, played again by Michael Keaton. Evidently, his relationship with Vicky Vale didn’t last and he is again the lone (and single) guardian of the city. On the villain’s side, we have three, well two and a half at least: The Penguin, The Catwoman, and a greedy industrialist named Max Schreck. The Penguin (Danny DeVito), we learn is in fact a deformed and oddly carnivorous child (one of his first actions out of birth is to eat the family cat) who was dumped into the sewer by his seemingly un-loving parents. Don’t worry though; he was raised by a group of lost penguins that live in the sewer, before joining the circus and returning as the leader of a gang of homicidal clowns. Wow. That really sounds as ridiculous as I thought it did. Yes, Tim Burton took a substantial amount of liberty here on the character of the Penguin. Originally in the comics, he was just a rather stout yet intelligent businessman, named more for his suit than anything else. Unfortunately, Burton seems to live in a world inhabited by problem children, so he had to “re-invent” the character (although corrupt might be more fitting). Max Schreck played by Christopher Walken is a self-centered businessman with many skeletons in his closet. He eventually comes into contact with the Penguin and works as a sort of partner with him, often influencing the Penguin’s actions for the worst. Lastly there is Catwoman (Michelle Pfeifer). Again, Tim Burton was weird here. Catwoman is created when Schreck pushes his secretary, Selina Kyle, suspicious of his activities, out a multi-story, falling to what we believe is her death. But is she dead? It doesn’t matter, because a group of rogue cats come by, repeatedly biting her, and our secretary is resurrected as a Catwoman, but not before she destroys everything in her apartment to purge herself of—something (?). Out for revenge and thrills, Catwoman trades sides to her liking in the conflict between Batman and the Penguin.
If you don’t like the way the characters are introduced, you’re not going to like the story. The Penguin manifests himself to the people of Gotham as a rejected misfit and gains enough popular sentiment to run for mayor. The movie portrays him as incredibly conflicted as he struggles between the desire for power and crime (with support from Shreck), and the idea of being a legitimately good person. To his credit, though not up to par with Jack Nicholson’s Joker, DeVito’s performance is a good one and shows a lot of enthusiasm for the character, especially under heavy make-up. Meanwhile, Batman struggles to combat this potential threat along with romancing Selina Kyle, not knowing that she is the Catwoman. This sounds like a decent enough plot, but it’s all very muddled and confusing. The acting is good, but its simply not compelling enough. Michael Keaton’s performance is up to par, but he doesn’t have enough lines. Michelle Pfiefer is interesting as Catwoman, but she tends to overact. Even Christopher Walken has too bland a character to really shine. What further compromises the story is the level of bizarreness in this movie, and it’s not just limited to the nature of the characters themselves. For example, there is a scene where the Penguin gives a Patton-Style speech to an army of penguins with rocket launchers on their back, and the filmmakers treat it seriously. I’m sorry, but no—that is unacceptable. At times, it doesn’t even really feel like this movie is about Batman. It feels more about the Penguin. Unfortunately this undermines his role as a villain to an unnecessary degree, and it ultimately doesn’t feel natural. The ending though is the killing blow for this plot. A general rule about superhero movies is that somehow, even if the hero loses, they manages to do something or cause something that allows them to win at least in spirit. ‘Batman Returns’ manages to do just the opposite. Even though he has managed to beat all of the villains in this movie and save Gotham, our hero finds himself depressed and challenged at then end, and the audience feels that he has truly lost. Batman, by essence, is a symbol of hope, and this movie denies us the ability to experience that.
The other aspects of the movie go the way of the plot. The sets and setup are interesting to look at but end up coming across as too melancholy. I don’t like movies that take place during Christmas that aren’t about Christmas (Okay, just ‘Die Hard’). But somehow, when Christmas serves as a backdrop, it is often distracting or, worse, depressing. Danny Elfman’s score, which was so lively and powerful in Batman, has been reduced to depression and sadness in this movie, and despite a few interesting “diddies” here and there, is overall weak and unfulfilling.
In short, ‘Batman Returns’ represents the problem with giving someone like Tim Burton too much creative freedom. Burton must have been dissatisfied with ‘Batman’, and in the sequel he just tried to do too many things too differently. To his credit, the story is interesting, but it simply isn’t handled well in the context of this movie. Perhaps it would have worked better if this movie were not a Batman film. Had he made a cult-gothic thriller about the plight of a deformed-man in a city of crime, this movie may have turned out better. But as a Batman movie, it’s just a disappointment.