Batman Returns

Sunday, December 23, 2007

There’s no doubt in my mind that Batman Returns is better than Tim Burton’s first stab at making a film about the dark knight. Batman Returns is sharper, tighter, darker and, most importantly, more entertaining than its predecessor. In every regard it trumps the previous film.

Now some people would say, ‘well, what about the Joker? Surely he’s better than the villains in this film?’ Well, I’d have to disagree. As enjoyable as Jack’s performance is in that film, DeVito and Pfeiffer surpass him. Hell, even Christopher Walken as Max Shreck is better. And that’s because the script in this film is more playful than the one in the first movie. The actors get more meat to sink their teeth into. In comparison, Nicholson’s performance is just grandstanding. Sure its highly entertaining grandstanding, but it still has quite a hollow ring.

One of things that surprises me about Batman Returns is that none of the villains is entirely evil. Of course it’s nothing new to have the tragic villain, but often films are quite heavy-handed in their attempt to garner sympathy for their antagonists. But here the film’s villains are almost overwhelmingly wicked. They’re greedy, they’re murderous and they’re power hungry. But yet weirdly, each one has a touch of humanity. Shreck, the immoral businessman, the man who’s probably the most wicked of them all, sacrifices himself so that his square-jawed son won’t die. Of course, this is probably out of a narcissistic desire to ensure that his seed doesn’t disappear in the ether, but nonetheless he still performs a selfless act. Then there’s The Penguin. He blackmails, he murders and he even plans to drown lots of children, but yet you feel he has a right to be angry. He’s been betrayed and thrown away like he’s a piece of shit by his parents – no wonder he’s fucked up. And of course Catwoman has lots of shades of grey.

And it’s perhaps Catwoman who is the most interesting character. Here you have a woman who is a doormat. Every man in her life walks all over her. The reason for this seems to be her repressed sexuality – her apartment is full of dollhouses, pink t-shirts with kittens on them and cuddly toys. She seems almost sexless. No wonder no one looks at her when she expresses herself in such an infantile way. But once Catwoman is born, all of those things are thrown away and destroyed. And the scene where she does this is one of the best in the film. It’s filmed with complete rage – she’s violently discovering herself and her sexuality, and all the childlike accoutrements of the past are smashed into pieces. She’s no longer going to be walked on. She’s no longer going to be treated like a child.

And for the rest of the film she schizophrenically alternates between good and evil. She helps a mugging victim but then berates her, she helps concoct a plot to frame Batman but then momentarily baulks when someone gets killed, and she wants to pursue a relationship with Bruce Wayne but can’t accept the idea of a happy ending. She can’t reconcile the two parts of her personality – her sexual needs and her need to be happy and content.

A character who is less conflicted about his sexuality is The Penguin. I love the way he’s portrayed as an oversexed lech. In one scene he eagerly pins a button to a young woman’s blouse, leering at her breasts and in another he leers at a campaign worker’s arse, saying that he’d like to fill her void. It’s wonderfully perverted. And then there’s the way that Max Shreck convinces The Penguin to become Mayor. He promises him unlimited poontang. Everything else fails to fire The Penguin’s imagination, but this changes his mind. And then there’s the moment where he meets Catwoman. ‘Just the pussy I’ve been looking for.’ The film is incredibly oversexed.

But the film is all the better for it. After all, two of the main characters dress in rubber and vinyl respectively. They’re bound to be a bit kinky. And the scenes between Catwoman and Batman are superb. Here you have two freaks who are perfect for one another. Their fighting is just a substitute for fucking. But they’re so screwed up that anything resembling a normal relationship is beyond them.

And it’s telling that even though Bruce Wayne and Batman get comparatively little screen time, his scenes in this film are much more interesting than those in the first film. I mean, his relationship with Vicki Vale was uninteresting in the extreme, but there’s actually something weirdly tragic about his relationship with Selina Kyle/Catwoman. Both know that they’ll never be content. But although this all sounds pretty heavy, there’s also some wonderful humour. There’s a great little scene in Bruce Wayne’s mansion when Selina asks that Alfred the butler think of a dirty limerick to tell Bruce – she doesn’t want Bruce to think that she’s rejecting him. ‘One has just sprung to mind,’ is Alfred’s response.

But all of the humour in the film is gloriously black. One of my favourite lines occurs when Max Shreck is threatening Selina – he’s caught her going through his protected files. ‘It’s not like you can just kill me,’ she says. ‘Actually, it’s a lot like that,’ Shreck replies. And then he plays with her, by going to kiss her and then laughing before pushing her out of the window. The film has a black heart, and I personally think that’s great.

But as black as the film’s heart is, there are also a couple of beautiful moments. I personally love The Penguin’s death. He rises from the water like a monster and then with a glorious cue from Danny Elfman, he goes to kill Batman and accidentally picks a cute umbrella instead of a deadly one. He then collapses flat on his face and dies. And then if that isn’t enough, a group of penguins emerge and tenderly lead him to a watery grave. No attempt is made to water the character down, to make him more likable, but you still can’t help but feel for him, which is kind of an extraordinary feat for the filmmakers.

The other moment I really love is when Batman is called at the start. The Bat sign shines bright through Bruce Wayne’s mansion, casting light on his dark study. It’s a very economical way of showing that this is all that gives his life meaning – before the sign shines through his window he’s motionless in the dark. So while people accuse Burton’s Batman films of being shallow (I certainly think that’s the case when it comes to the first one), it’s a less valid criticism of the sequel. As well as the beautiful production design and cinematography, there’s plenty to get your teeth into. You can’t just expect it to be handed to you on a plate.

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  1. honey, I would love to read your reviews on Harry Potter movies, you would crush them.