Batman Returns at 30: Still as Weird as Big Budget Blockbusters Get

tThirty years ago, audiences flocked to see an exaggerated political satire about a disgusting sewer mutant’s mayoral campaign — a film that doubled as a weird romantic comedy about two lunatics with mask fetishes, punching and spitting into a snow globe. metropolis. Retrospect has a way of turning any box-office sensation into a curious time capsule, allowing us to marvel at the strange attractions that used to put butts on chairs. But through the lens of the modern blockbuster and the reigning superhero industrial complex that powers it, Batman Returns looks like a real anomaly, as weird and horny and maybe as personal as mega budget Hollywood glasses get.

It’s certainly a more idiosyncratic film than its predecessor, Tim Burton’s record-breaking popcorn sensation Batman, released in the summer of 1989 to a teeming, cheering crowd. In order to lure Burton back into the world of the caped crusader, Warner Bros had to give him more creative control over the sequel. The director practiced it from head to toe. Rather than the art deco noir aesthetic of the original, Batman Returns is going to be an all-Baroque fairytale. When the camera shoots like a nocturnal creature through the twisted architecture of the Gotham Zoo, it’s clear that we’re completely in Burtonville, the previous home of pranksters and lone barber-androids.

With Batman Returns, Burton turned Gotham into the greatest of the great peaks, terrorized by a gang of criminal carnies and populated by freaks on both sides of the hero-villain divide. That includes billionaire vigilante Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton, who slips back into the cumbersome cape and hood), ostensible hero of the film, who at one point compares himself to Norman Bates or Ted Bundy, serial killers with split personalities or secret hobbies.

Bruce’s problems have doubled, his screen time cut in half. Almost everyone agrees that Jack Nicholson’s Joker stole the first Batman. The second immediately surrenders the spotlight to the villains’ gallery, depriving Keaton of any dialogue during the opening half hour. The film is more of Danny DeVito’s deformed, tormented Oswald Cobblepot, AKA the Penguin, and of Michelle Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle, reborn into the vengeful, vampire Catwoman.

The other thing that pulled Burton back was the involvement of Heathers screenwriter Daniel Waters, who gave the material an arctic, black-comedy spice. The absurdist political angle of the plot was his idea. It’s an inspired joke, imagining that a creature as vulgar as the penguin could steal the heart of the electorate. In the film’s funniest reveal, DeVito’s super-villain is interrupted mid-meal, while sloppy eating a raw fish, by the new staff of beaming cops and volunteers who cheer on his candidacy. What seemed cynical in 1992 now looks rather touchingly naive. Imagine a politician quits a race just because he got caught on tape discrediting his base.

Waters’ plot is lumpy, forcing an illogical allegiance between the villains. It doesn’t matter — for Burton, it’s just an excuse to clash these outsized cartoon personalities, to build a vaudeville stage for three tortured animal-themed bandits. The director twists that classic Batman theme of the bad guys as warped reflections of the good guy to match his own enduring love affair with misfits. DeVito, wonderfully over-acting among hills and hours of daily prosthetic labor, makes the Penguin a lovable monster: gruesome in appearance, coarse and corrupt in nature, but still a tragic figure. Burton loves him like only a father can. And he recognizes him as a kindred spirit of his nemesis. Who is Cobblepot but Wayne without privilege, abandoned instead of orphaned? “You’re just jealous because I’m a real freak and you have to wear a mask,” he tells Batman. It is a point that the dark knight concedes.

Meanwhile, Pfeiffer, who got the part after Annette Bening got pregnant and left it, delivers one of the big movie star twists in comic book cinema: a stealthy embodiment of a hell-hath-no-fury attitude, hissing poisonous one-liners with confidence. and waging war against Gotham’s powerful, sexist exploiters. In both stylized performances and instantly iconic, form-fitting patchwork clothing, she could have stepped straight from the panels of the source material. Yet Pfeiffer also evokes the raw despair of a true identity crisis, roaring to the surface during a major alter-ego, ballroom tango with the enemy in the film’s silence before the climax.

If the political contest suggests a classic Preston Sturges comedy in superhero draft, there’s a whiff of Ernst Lubitsch in the screwball romance between Keaton and Pfeiffer, who circle each other in various forms of evening wear, hiding their double lives, secret identities and battle scars over a log fire cannon. . Batman Returns is hands down the kinky treatment of these characters on the big screen: the one that dares to see S&M fantasy in people who bury their svelte physiques under rubber and leather. It’s one of the reasons parents were so outraged by the weirder sequel, and why McDonald’s rejected the Happy Meals line. The dialogue is dripping with allusions. The Penguin, a cackling pervert, hungrily sniffs Catwoman’s boot and lusts after his interns.

Danny DeVito plays The Penguin, a pale-faced character with a beak-like nose.  In this scene, he stands in a sewer surrounded by penguins, holding an open umbrella with a black and white swirl pattern as a shield.
Danny DeVito plays the deformed and tormented Oswald Cobblepot aka the Penguin in Batman Returns. Photo: Warner Bros./Allstar

Remarkably, the film also has a class conscience. The real villain is neither the Penguin nor Catwoman, but Christopher Walken’s startled robber baron Max Shreck, named after the actor who played Nosferatu, but clearly modeled after a younger Donald Trump. He is, of course, another distorted mirror image of Batman – a Bruce Wayne who wants to prey on the humans instead of protecting them. “The law doesn’t apply to men like him,” Pfeiffer’s Catwoman sagaciously says of her boss, the man who pushed her out a window to complete her story of the origins of a supervillain. Years before Christopher Nolan sent Bane to occupy Wall Street, Burton more casually sent a jolt of class struggle through Gotham.

As an adaptation, Batman Returns plays just as fast and loosely as, well, the first Batman. Burton was quick to admit, in the memoir Burton on Burton, that he wasn’t much of a comic book reader—an admission that underscored his disdain for the canonical backstory and elements such as the character’s traditional dislike for killing. To some diehards, his Batman movies are heresy. Sure, they come from a less loyal or fan-pleasing era of comic book blockbusters. But their exaggerated visual pleasures and splashback-sized performances have their own allegiance to the original medium, a kinship to pulp spirit. They reject realism, which is perhaps the most appropriate approach to the story of a man who dresses up as a bat to beat up people with a similar flair for the dramatic.

What really marks Batman Returns as a product of an entirely different era of superhero spectacles is the decisive authorship victory that Burton claims over his borrowed intellectual property. Joel Schumacher, Nolan, Zack Snyder, Todd Phillips – all these filmmakers have found ways to put their own brand on the Batman mythos. But none of them have molded it so completely successfully in the form of their own preoccupations and obsessions. Batman Returns is first a Tim Burton movie, then a Batman movie. And to watch it today, at a time when finding the directorial soul of a superhero movie often requires some real detective work, basking in the eccentricity of its feat. The bat signal just can’t compete with the freak flag Burton flies over the Gotham skyline.

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