Sunday, July 14, 2013

Beetlejuly: Batman Returns

One of the reasons Warner Bros. decided not to distribute Edward Scissorhands was because they wanted Burton to make a sequel to the highly successful Batman. After Burton finished Edward Scissorhands, he then decided to make a sequel to Batman for Warner Bros, only if Warner Bros. granted him entire creative control. The result was the only sequel Burton ever made to any of his movies and in my opinion, it's one of those sequels that is either on par with the first or even better. It's of course 1992's Batman Returns which sees Michael Keaton don the Batsuit once more as he takes on a penguin, a cat and a.....corrupted businessman? It took just about everything that made the first Batman film great and in many areas, it amplified these elements. It also gave us a more superior, more sympathetic villain than Jack Nicholson's Joker. Don't get me wrong, Nicholson was great as the clown prince of crime, but when it comes to the Penguin, perhaps my favorite Bat baddie, Danny Devito hit a home run and gave us an antagonist like none we had ever seen on screen before. Batman Returns was the first Batman film I saw all the way through and every time I watch it, I like it more and more. Some say it doesn't hold up as well today, especially since Nolan's trilogy is set in the concrete, but I think it's up there with the original Batman as well as The Dark Knight and surely beats out Batman Forever and the dreadful Batman and Robin (I'm just kidding, it's admittedly a guilty pleasure for me). It's style, it's camera angles, it's all around Tim Burtoness (is that even a word?), it really hits the spot for me and gives me that dark, twisted Batman fix whenever I need it.

This is Burton's second film to have a Christmas themed setting, but like Edward Scissorhands and even this summer's Iron Man 3, you obviously don't need to watch this film around the holiday season to enjoy it. Heck, it wasn't even released during the holiday season, it was released in June 1992. The holiday atmosphere just gives the film a signature style and glimmer and Gotham City and snow are like a match made in heaven. The already dark Gotham City looks fantastic with a coat of snow over it and this time around, we see a lot more buildings, lit up signs and giant sculptures that make Gotham the abstract place that it is. We also see the more corporate side of Gotham and the monsters that will do anything for big green benjamins. One of the film's antagonists is Max Shreck, portrayed by Christopher Walken. He's a Batman character exclusive to this movie and he was named after the actor who portrayed Count Orlok in the 1922 silent horror film, Nosferatu. Walken portrays Shreck as a lean, calm and collective businessman, but deep down, he's a selfish, malicious, cold hearted person who does anything to glorify his image. He even killed his own business partner in secret and filled Gotham's sewers with toxic sludge, something the Penguin brings up when he meets Shreck for the first time. Walken is by far the film's most unlikeable character and every time I see him on screen, I just want to give him a knuckle sandwich. Out of all the villains Walken has played throughout his career, this is one of his best. He comes off as a dirtbag who manipulates, tricks and even kills to get his way, to get his precious money. One of his victims is his assistant, Selina Kyle, played by Michelle Pfeiffer. She is driven so insane by Max's betrayal that she goes on a rampage throughout her own apartment and becomes the sinister Catwoman. Pfeiffer portrays Catwoman in an over the top fashion, but she's still a likable and relatable anti-hero. I love the relationship she has with Batman and that the two are fighting one minute and trying to smooch with one another the next. Catwoman seduces Batman many times throughout the film and at the end of the day, she just wants to tickle his bat ears and get on his bad side, all in one evening.

Michael Keaton returns as Bruce Wayne/Batman and although nothing has really changed with his performance, he does try to reason with the villains and try to make them see what is right in life. The way he talks to Selina and tells her that she and him are the same, split right down the centre is a scene that tugs at your heartstrings. Batman even takes off his mask and reveals himself to Selina. How he can tear that thick rubber mask off so frivolously is still unknown, but it's still awesome and for a brief couple of seconds, we can see Batman without the black eye makeup. I also like how calm and relaxed Batman is, even when he's in great danger. A scene in the film depicts Penguin taking control of the Batmobile and Batman realizes that he's in trouble, but instead of having an anxiety attack or breaking out in a fit of rage, he keeps his cool, uses his noggin and eventually overpowers the Penguin's control. It just goes to show that you can be a kick ass Batman without having a dark raspy voice or need to beat the crap out of your enemies every chance you get. Keaton still portrays Batman in that mysterious, laid back, yet intimidating style and that's the reason why I like him so much. Every time I see that image of him looming in the shadows, I get scared and thrilled at the same time. He was just born to play Batman and bring something new to the role. Keaton's Batman will always been known for his stillness, his passiveness, his sarcasm, his quick thinking and his hypnotic stare. I think he and Bela Lugosi' Dracula should get together and have a staring contest!

But the star of the show is undoubtedly Danny Devito as Oswald Cobblepot/Penguin. He did to the Penguin what Heath Ledger did to the Joker 16 years later. Devito's Penguin is a villainous, resourceful, and calculating mastermind but he's also a sympathetic, confused and misunderstood misfit that we can't help but feel sorry for. He was abandoned by his parents when he was just a baby and was raised in the slimy Gotham sewers by a bunch of freakshow performers and penguins. He has a heated grudge for the aristocrats and rich citizens of Gotham and desires to become the city's mayor, bringing a new reign of order the city had never seen before. He also desires to be excepted and admired, even if he was born with flipper like hands and a oval shaped body. It's a very different take on the character, straying far from the comic book version as well as the version Burgess Meredith brought to life in the 60s television series. Burton drew inspiration from the mad scientist in the 1920 German expressionist film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and reimagined the Penguin as not only a dignified, ruthless gentleman of crime, but a deranged, tortured soul, constantly haunted by his past. It's a shame to see him emerge from the sewers and try to adjust to the public life, cameras and paparazzi flashing all around him. He then vows to find his parents and after an endless, sleepless night of searching, he comes to realize that they are dead. He then tells the citizens that he is not an animal, he is a human being and that he should be treated as such, despite the fact that he has obvious abnormalities. It is then that the Penguin gets a lot of the recognition and admiration he longed for as Shreck helps him run for city mayor. During these scenes, you can really feel his determination, his perseverance and his motivation to get to the finish line. At times, I kind of wanted to see him win the election and become mayor, but we all know he was running for mayor with the promise that he would help Shreck complete his power plant project. Oswald gives eloquent speeches, hits on the ladies, comes up with ideas off the top of his head and at times, gives into his animal like impulses. In one of the film's most disturbing scenes, he randomly bites a guy's nose after the guy makes a slight joke. It goes to show that no matter how respected Oswald is and how much he is excepted in society, he will always have the inner demon that causes him to do animalistic things.

Then, as Bruce Wayne ruins a campaign speech, dubbing over his speech with harsh comments he made earlier, the citizens of Gotham turn on the Penguin and it's then that he ultimately turns against them, vowing to get back at the "retched pinhead puppets". He then returns to the sewers and comes up with the plan to abduct all the firstborn sons of Gotham and drown them in the polluted sewer water. He also says the complete opposite of what he said earlier. He is not Oswald Cobblepot, he's the Penguin. He is not a human, he's a cold blooded animal and once again, he gives into his animalistic impulses. As one of his clown henchmen protests his idea of killing all of Gotham's firstborns, the Penguin mercilessly shoots him with one of his umbrella guns and kicks him into the green water. You can really tell at this moment that he's going to do some major crap. He's through with Gotham City and is ready to make them pay. But as all heroes do, Batman foils his plans and rescues the children, much to the Penguin's disgust and fury. He then decides to dispose of Gotham all together and destroy it by putting missiles on the back of his penguins, sending them above to launch the missiles and spread chaos. Of course, Batman foils that scheme as well and he and the Penguin have an impressive one on one in which the Penguin uses his umbrella like a sword and uses it to choke Batman. Eventually, Batman unleashes a swarm of bats on the deformed fellow and sends him falling into the green Kool Aid water below.

After a scene in which Catwoman electrocutes Shreck (leaving her fate unknown), the Penguin emerges from the water, black ink like liquid spewing from his nose and mouth. As he goes to retrieve an umbrella, he grabs the wrong one, but he is still determined to "murder" Batman despite his declining health. He squawks one more time and then slums to the floor, dead as a doorknob. He is then giving a burial by the only friends he ever had, the penguins, who drag his body and place it into the depths of Gotham's sewer. It's surely a tragic end to a tragic villain, one of the most tragic superhero movie villains ever. All the Penguin wanted was acceptance and throughout the movie, we saw what lengths he was willing to go to to get that acceptance. We can also feel the pain he feels and the anger he feels for being abandoned and left to suffer in a contaminated sewer when he was very young. Although his parents did such a nasty thing to him and it caused him great agony, the Penguin eventually came to accept it and even forgive his parents. That makes him a very human character and not so much a villain after all. He may have been driven to do bad things, but he had a precise reason for doing these things and wanted to show the world just how brilliant minded and intelligent he was.  As I said before, the Penguin was misunderstood and longed to be just like everybody else. He also longed for love, something people very seldom gave him. Danny Devito portrayed the Penguin powerfully and still to this day, it's my favorite interpretation of the character.

He also drives a duck mobile. What more can be said. Duck mobiles are awesome!

Yeh, I know, most of this Batman Returns review has been devoted to the Penguin, but I do think he is the star of the show and Batman is just there to do what good guys always do. Think of it as Wreck It Ralph with Fix-It Felix Jr. as Batman and Wreck-It Ralph as the Penguin. But what other greatness does this film have in it's possession. Well, once more, the score by Danny Elfman is defiant and grandiose. The score that plays during the Penguin's death is one of the most emotional tunes I have ever heard and every time I hear it, I get a feeling of deep sorrow. The music that plays during the fight scenes also gets the adrenaline flowing and as always, Elfman's Batman theme fits with the character and makes the film feel epic and exhilarating. The ending scene of the film gives us a bittersweet feeling, but I think it's a perfect ending to Burton's duology and lets your imagination fill in the voids. As Bruce Wayne and Alfred drive off into the snow filled night, we get one more look at the deranged Gotham City and out of the misty skies comes the Batsignal. Before you can blink, Catwoman, who was thought to be dead from an earlier scene emerges and the end credits roll. That....this just spectacular. Although it set up a sequel brilliantly, it also tied the knot and forever sealed Burton's Batman universe shut with nails and hammers. In many ways, we don't need to know what Keaton's Batman embarks on next. We don't need to see what malevolence Catwoman causes after the events of Returns (although a Catwoman spinoff was in the works for some time). We don't need to see Billy Dee William's Harvey Dent return and become Two- Face or Robin finally join Batman's side. The ending to Batman Returns lets us fill in the empty space ourselves and make our own assumptions. Maybe it was after Batman Returns that Bruce decided to give up Batman, at least for a while. Perhaps Gotham finally stopped being the crime filled "hell" it was notoriously known as. The ending makes us ask questions, but it also sums up things on a high note.

We all know there wasn't a sequel, at least a sequel directed by Tim Burton. As Batman Returns didn't earn the amount of money Warner Bros. was expecting, they made the series more mainstream and more family oriented with 1995's Batman Forever. Although Burton was producer of that film, it didn't seem to capture the same kind of magic and essence Batman and Batman Returns delivered, not to mention that Joel Schumacher's direction just wasn't of the same caliber as Burton's. But Batman Forever, as well as Batman and Robin do have their following and although they were met with negative reception upon their release, they have built quite a substantial audience as the years progressed and some people even consider them superior to Burton's two films. And even if Christopher Nolan's trilogy has come along to forever mold the shape of Batman films and what they stand for, Tim Burton's films will always have that style that grows on me every time I watch them. They have their cheesy moments, but what movies don't have cheesy moments? They have flaws, but what movies don't have flaws? They are dark and gritty and full of ghastly, grotesque imagery, but what Tim Burton film isn't equipped with that? Burton did a great job interpreting the Batman lore and understanding what makes it so great, giving it his own touch and wizardry in the process. When asked what film I like better (Batman or Batman Returns), I tend to place them both on the exact same level, both in quality and all around entertainment. These films might be over the top and outdated in some people's books, but in my book, they will always be my favorite Batman movies.

The only major flaw Batman Returns has to offer is that since Burton was directing it in the 91-92 timeframe, he wasn't able to direct the film based on a poem he wrote during his Disney days. Tune in next time and we'll talk all about a certain....Nightmare.

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