Saturday, December 3, 2016
Bat-Christmas Watch: Batman Returns (1992)
So, I was at work and I DM'd Jamie.
Me: You want to watch a Christmas movie tonight?
Jamie: Yeah. "Batman Returns"?
Me: *a single tear of joy rolling down my cheek, certain I married the right woman*
I didn't immediately get to see Batman Returns (1992) upon its release. I was at a (sigh) 7 week drama camp for high schoolers that was well worth the money as, in week 2, I realized I absolutely did not want to major in drama when I did go to college. So when I got home and more or less immediately drove to go see the movie, I was aware it was "weird", "not as good as the first one" and the other things people were saying at the time. My memory of seeing the movie that first time was primarily of (a) Catwoman and (b) my girlfriend at the time laughing at me as my 40 oz of soda spilled all down the floor of the theater. Great girl.
It's been a long, long time since I watched this movie. It's nowhere near one of my favorite films, superhero or otherwise, and it's always been a bit of a mess. Sure, it features things I love in theory - a Circus of Crime, penguins loaded down with missiles and helmets, the Batmobile, Michelle Pfieffer... but it also feels like too many cooks were in the kitchen deciding what this movie would be.
The movie has a lot going on, and I mean A LOT going on, but refuses to pick a focus, everything sort of treated with an equal and not terribly enthusiastic weight. It was the movie that decided a sequel needed to up the stakes and thus we needed not one but two villains with completely separate plotlines, character arcs, etc... loosely tied together by yet a third villain in the amazing/ ridiculous character of Max Shreck. And it's all so much to get through for exposition, I believe we're thirty or more minutes in before we see Michael Keaton doing much of anything.
It's an interesting movie to watch in retrospect as it's still so very clearly steeped in its era. Comic books were still thought of as the literature of children and mental deficients, and actors and directors on late night talk shows always (always) made fun of the source material, insisting they didn't read comics. For good or ill, that meant when a big budget was actually approved, Burton was able to do whatever he wanted with the source material, carving out his own, very weird, version of Batman.
The movie seems to want to make a feminist statement - and I remember that from the first time I watched it - but it gets so lost in the "Selina Kyle is in meltdown" that it muddies the message even as its absolutely plain that trying to stick to gender norms is what both got Selina Kyle "killed" and has stood in her way every day of her life. Lashing out against those forces makes sense, but it doesn't meld terribly well with the equally as interesting "we're both split personalities" romantic tension set up between Selina and Bruce. All of that sexual/ romantic tension might seem silly if it didn't produce two of the best scenes of the movie - the one on Bruce's couch and the really pretty terrific sequence at the Maxquerade/ Winter Ball where they realize who they are at the same moment.
I'll pause here, because for all the faults of the movie, and Burton as a director (sorry Burton-philes), this scene is beautifully played even if it feels like it's been imported from a much better movie.
I don't wanna belabor the point too much, but Pfeiffer and Keaton are both great actors and maybe this scene was the one where they weren't so saddled with Bat-nonsense/ costumes that they got to, you know, act.
There's a full movie of Catwoman's competing issues, breaking away from whom she was and accepting who she is (maybe with Bruce) that I would have felt was more than enough movie. And, it would have told us a lot more about Bruce Wayne, who winds up a cipher in his own film.
But, nope, Danny DeVito was hot at the moment in Hollywood (ask yer parents, kids. It's true!), and for some reason we needed to rehash the plot of a not-well-remembered Batman '66 episode in which Penguin runs for Mayor.
The thing is - I kind of like what they did with idea of the character of The Penguin, even if it is not really anything like The Penguin of the comics in character or appearance (he's hitting at about the same percentage as Batman is Batman in these movies). He's just this disgusting, horrible, violent, irredeemable goblin and maybe his parents weren't entirely wrong trying to throw him in a frozen creek. I mean, his initial and then final plan is to murder all the first-born sons of Gotham for no particular reason, and even one of his gang points out "this is maybe a bit much, right?"
Yeah, there's some 80's-ish commentary about politics baked in, the media, business interest warping our public perceptions of awful candidates. And, in light of the results of the recent election, it's a little depressing to see Batman taking down the Penguin simply by playing back some of his comments about the public (oh, how sweet and naive we all were).
The Penguins various plots from kidnapping the Snow Queen to hi-jacking the Batmobile are crammed in there, necessary components to make his part of the script work, but compared to the Catwoman story, they feel superfluous and uninteresting.
DeVito himself is actually in great form. He's clearly relishing playing the vile character, and even when the scenes he's in drag, he's pulling the spotlight. It's just hard to care about all the threads of his actual storyline, especially as they kind of blow by very, very quickly in order to fit it all in.
Keaton does this weird mumbling thing through a bunch of his scenes, which would play better as a guy lost in his own thoughts, if it didn't come off as disinterest in the movie Keaton is starring in. I contend that he's not my physical ideal as Batman, but he's a legitimate take on Bruce Wayne/ Batman, and I think we've all agreed that it works much better than you'd think and at least as well as Ben Affleck grinding his molars.
As I alluded to before, I don't think Burton is a great director, and that's because I think he's always struggled with spectacle over story. He's certainly famous for particular scenes, set design, characters and mood, but his stories always seem secondary to just getting his fetishes up there on the screen (see: Catwoman in vacu-formed vinyl). The movie just blips from one scene to the next, things happening, but it's only in two points or so that we see the characters as people experiencing something and not just people dropping quips or lines someone will use in the trailers.
I don't know who replaced Anton Furst on Batman Returns, but Gotham loses some of the gritty urban hellscape for a more cleaned-up art deco look suggesting Gotham is back on track as a city.*
Most odd, the characters simply exist. The Penguin's backstory is not infancy springs to adulthood to middle-age. He's obtained a circus of crime, and that's sort of interesting. Catwoman was someone before she was a secretary who gets shoved out a window. The only reference to Batman's past is an explanation of why Vicki Vale isn't in this movie. There's no weight to any of it, and maybe that's what we're missing in the bigger story.
The movie also has a weird fascination with mentioning sexual organs in polite euphemism, sometimes out of the blue. Certainly the first Batman film was not sexless (we salute you, Kim Basinger), but there wasn't nearly as much mention of people's junk. It's kinda weird in a Batman film to hear so many penis-related non sequiturs.
When it comes to the movie's violence - which isn't all that much, it is fun to shout "Bat-Murder!" every time Batman kills someone, usually needlessly. But, hey, we were coming out of the 1980's.
It's not the worst Batman movie. Schumacher would be along soon enough to provide those films. But it's also not quite the myth-in-a-box that it's predecessor provided.
*there's some suggestion on Furst's imdb.com page that he may have killed himself in part due to his lack of involvement in this picture, which... yeesh