Friday, December 30, 2016

Film Review: BATMAN RETURNS (1992, Tim Burton)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 126 minutes.
Tag-line: "The Bat, The Cat, The Penguin."
Notable Cast or Crew: Written by Sam Hamm (BATMAN '89, Joe Dante's HOMECOMING) and Daniel Waters (HEATHERS, DEMOLITION MAN).  Starring Michael Keaton (BEETLEJUICE, MR. MOM), Danny DeVito (TWINS, TAXI, ROMANCING THE STONE), Michelle Pfeiffer (DANGEROUS MINDS, SCARFACE), Christopher Walken (MCBAIN, THE DEER HUNTER), Michael Murphy (TANNER '88, NASHVILLE), Michael Gough (TROG, SLEEPY HOLLOW), Pat Hingle (SUDDEN IMPACT, NORMA RAE), Vincent Schiavelli (ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, AMADEUS), Jan Hooks (PEE WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE, SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE), Doug Jones (PAN'S LABYRINTH, "The Gentleman" on BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER), Paul Reubens (PEE WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE, BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER THE MOVIE), Sean Whalen (THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS, LOST), Diane Salinger (PEE WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE, GHOST WORLD).  Music by Danny Elfman (THE UNKNOWN KNOWN, BEETLEJUICE). Production Design by Bo Welch (MEN IN BLACK, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS). Art Direction by Tom Duffield (ED WOOD, BEETLEJUICE) and Rick Heinrichs (THE BIG LEBOWSKI, STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII). Special Penguin Makeup and Effects Production by Stan Winston (THE TERMINATOR, ALIENS, PREDATOR, A.I.).
Best One-liner:"You gotta admit I played this stinkin' city like a harp from hell!"

A whirlwind, three-ring circus of Neo-Gothic exuberance and German Expressionistic mayhem, Tim Burton's BATMAN RETURNS is, for my money, the finest of all the BATMAN films and a last great gasp of Classic Hollywood artistry lurking in the shape of a playfully subversive superhero movie (set at Christmastime). It's a movie so delightfully insane and packed to the gills with chaotic performances and sheer spectacle that afterward you might even overlook specific details that would be unforgettable in a different film, like Vincent Schiavelli commandeering a life-sized toy choo-choo train of kidnapping and child murder:

or a mangy poodle wielding a grenade:

or a circus strongman beating the devil out of a Salvation Army Santa Claus with a Rosebud sled:

And all of this in what is ostensibly a children's movie, lavishly marketed by mainstream tastemakers, tied in with McDonald's Happy Meals, and available at every mall in America––one could argue that Burton pulled off the artistic coup of the decade. In this vein, and in the vein of my beloved minutiae, allow me to extrapolate on my 10 favorite things about the film.  (There are a few spoilers, but I think I can safely assume that you've already seen BATMAN RETURNS.)

#10. Pee Wee (Paul Reubens) and Simone (Diane Salinger) as the Penguin's disaffected martini-swilling parents in an expressionistic prologue seemingly designed to "out-Edward Gorey" Edward Gorey.

It's an apparent dark coda to their near-romance in PEE WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE ("Au revoir, Pee Wee!").

#9. The aforementioned Vincent Schiavelli as an organ grinder with a Gatling gun inside his music box.

This is the sort of thing I mean when I say "playfully subversive." This is a summer tentpole studio action movie, for God's sake, and we've got sad-eyed character actors gunning down well-wishers at a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony!

#8. Evil clown bikers wearing oversized bobble-head skulls with googly eyes, chipped teeth, and hypno-wheels painted across their domes.

This is simply one of many details in a startling sequence of what amounts to "clown terrorism," but is truly an embarrassment of circus-horror riches.

#7. And in light of this carnivalistic assault, it becomes apparent that Batman has outfitted the Batmobile with a specific countermeasure for upending fire-juggling stilt walkers––namely these Schweet Stilt-Knockin' Paddle Wings.

I'm glad he finally got the chance to use those. Speaking of Batman––

#6. No Batman. Ostensibly the film is about him and his "return." And yet the title character appears in only 3 of the film's first 44 minutes. You might as well take Keaton's face off of the poster and replace him with Christopher Walken.

This is actually the story of three psychologically unbalanced characters and their increasingly manic quest for image control: Christopher Walken's Max Shreck (named for the silent film legend), Danny DeVito's Oswald Cobblepot, and Michelle Pfeiffer's Selina Kyle. Batman is but an ancillary character.

#5. Did I mention that the film takes place within Shreck's kleptocratic urban dystopia, ruled over by ubiquitous, leering depictions of an evil Felix the Cat?

This logo represents the Shreck Corporation, the true ruler of Gotham (who uses the Mayor, played by Altman standby Michael Murphy, as a prop until it is no longer politically expedient)
and its branding leaks into Gotham's real estate, energy, and commerce––it even governs how Gothamites tell time.

Shreck's image control is based in silencing his critics, and in a few notable cases he murders them, from his business partner down to his secretary. He positions himself as a political kingmaker, appropriating from Nixon and Boss Tweed
and his quest for power has a nice (electrical) arc that sees him becoming the literal embodiment of "power" while still retaining his shock of white hair.
 This scene always felt very "Large Marge" to me.

#4. Said kingmaking is of DeVito's Cobblepot, who explicitly wants to know "who I am"
and tracks down his birth parents (in a graveyard), blackmails major corporations, brandishes severed hands, poses for photo ops, runs for mayor, proposes Biblical plagues, and evokes Werner Krauss' Dr. Caligari (from THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI)
while making remarks like "You flush it, I flaunt it!" which could just as easily be a quote from his character on IT'S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA. It's a hurly-burly "riches to rags, rags to riches, riches back to rags story," and while you can take the boy out of the sewer, it becomes more difficult to take the sewer out of the boy, which is beautifully illustrated in the following scene––

#3. Whereupon a preening political operatives Jan Hooks and Steve Witting prepare DeVito for his poll-tested makeover
and DeVito's Penguin responds in a Joe Pesci-style outburst of violence by biting Witting's nose, which proceeds to gush blood.
(This scene was especially memorable to my childhood self, who had never seen such an unexpected eruption of Pesci-style violence onscreen.)

#2. In his final persona, that of a fat man-baby in dirty drawers (soon to be spewing actual, black bile), he addresses an assembly of penguins who are wearing little missiles like backpacks.
Burton evokes George Patton's penchant for chest-thumping belligerence in a rather inspired bit of subversion. It's as if this entire film was constructed for the purpose of undermining popular myths, whether municipal, political, corporate, militaristic, or sexual––which leads me to the créme de la créme, or at least the cat who got the cream––

#1. Pfeiffer's Selina Kyle. She's unceremoniously shoved to her death (by Schreck, her boss) and reborn as "Catwoman," who has eight more lives to redefine herself and emerge from the shadow of Shreck's corporate branding.

She does this while wearing barely enough PVC to cover Michelle Pfeiffer, which has been vacuum sealed and held together by autopsy stitching. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

It's her initial transition that is the most remarkable, as she destroys the markers of her CATHY-style, stereotypical single woman's existence in an amazingly deranged sequence that sees her annihilating the very concept of corporate girlhood, even using traditional instruments of homemaking to fuel the destruction. She feeds her stuffed animals to the garbage disposal,

smashes mirrors and Hummel figurines with a frying pan,

makes like a punk Nora Helmer and spray-paints her doll's house black

and adjusts her polite and demure "HELLO THERE" neon sign (which is already cool enough to be in a Jarmusch movie)

into the more appropriate "HELL HERE." She then proceeds to slink around in her new S&M costume in a fabulous tableau of yowling, mewling, and posing.

Her subsequent lives see a number of interesting adjustments, from department store bomber to agent provocateur to day-job slacker. She tries "socialite" on for size during a sequence where she dates some rich guy (I think his name was Bruce Wayne?). One of her lives is even spent as Paul Kersey. It's short-lived, but this is straight out of DEATH WISH––a proto-Tommy Wiseau is taking liberties with a holiday shopper in an alleyway when he encounters Catwoman's particular brand of vigilante justice:

The ol' Tic-Tac-Toe.

Though I have to say my favorite Catwoman-related moment might be when she concludes a scene in the Penguin's bedroom (charged with a weirdo, nearly pre-pubescent sexual fascination on the Penguin's part) by saying "Maybe I'll just give myself a bath right here."

and proceeds to lick her costume while the Penguin lolls around, aroused and confused, in the background.

––Sean Gill


gweeps said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
gweeps said...

I must watch this wonky movie again soon. It's the most interesting Batman out there, perfectly balancing pathos and absurdity.

Happy New Year, Mr. Gill. Thanks for the blog.

Sean Gill said...

Thanks, gweeps, and the same to you!

J.D. Lafrance said...

Yeah, this BATMAN is Tim Burton at his most Burton-esque - using the clout he gained from the massive financial success of the previous BATMAN movie to really cut loose on this one and boy, does he ever as you so nicely pointed out in your review.

I don't think I realized just how subversive of a movie it was at the time but looking back at it now it is amazing that it was made and turned out the way it did. Such a shame that studio clamped down on the next one thereby causing Burton and Keaton to wisely exit. The mind boggles at what Burton would've come up for a third installment!

Sean Gill said...


Oh, what I wouldn't give to see Burton's BATMAN 3! However, I do appreciate Schumacher's shenanigans on some (lower) level, as it is a bold move to reinvent Burton's German Expressionist/Neo-Gothic universe as 90s Club Kid/Raver Circus madness. To put it another way, let's say I enjoy F.W. Murnau's NOSFERATU and Paul Morrissey's BLOOD FOR DRACULA for similarly different reasons!