BY BILAL LATIF, ART BY JASON DAVIS
Tim Burton shows Danny DeVito an illustration. Vertical stripes of red watercolour against white, like a big top or bloody jail bars, before which sits a black-suited blob of a boy.
Melancholy lines trace his featureless, dehumanised face, his pointed hands and feet. A caption reads: “My name is Jimmy, but my friends just call me ‘the hideous penguin boy.’” DeVito thinks he is simply getting an idea of the direction Burton intends to take with the Penguin: a shunned and pitifully ugly freak with which there is genuine pathos, the Elephant Man of Batman’s Rogues Gallery. Only in hindsight is it clear that, despite the movie’s title, the drawing also represents the heart of the film.
Ostensibly, the movie centres around Batman’s (Michael Keaton) efforts to thwart the plans of the Penguin (DeVito), who, urged by ruthless businessman Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), is attempting to usurp the Mayor of Gotham. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne courts Shreck’s employee Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer), unaware of her violently vengeful alter-ego Catwoman.
Not a bad premise to follow up the smash-hit 1989 original – except it becomes rapidly clear that the plot is simply a hook upon which to hang such decidedly non-commercial themes as alienation, abandonment, sexism and perversion. And the hub for this matrix of depression is a lustful, sewer-dwelling mutant with a face not even his mother could love.
Like a strange reverse-Moses, baby Oswald Cobblepot is cast into a river by opulent Pharaoh-like parents, only to be found and raised by Emperor Penguins and circus performers, who eventually enable him to exact revenge on all of Gotham’s first-born children. So far, so silly super-villain sob story. But DeVito’s performance is so engaging (and Danny Elfman’s score so sympathetic), that when the Penguin tells Shreck he simply wants to learn of his heritage, you almost forget that the conversation was facilitated by abduction and blackmail.
There is a certain charming wit amongst all the bile spat from Penguin’s repulsive mouth, and a very human vulnerability visible when his misshapen body collapses in grief at his parents’ grave. True, he is literally the most disgusting pervert you have ever seen, but vulgar comments and teenage breast-fondling are no surprise from a malformed heterosexual male whose main points of female contact are circus ladies who live in tunnels under the zoo.
Even his bit of nose-biting action is almost excusable. After all, the victim is kind of a prick.
Human pettiness, this film argues, is the source of much suffering. Indeed, Selina Kyle’s introduction has her performing the thankless task of serving coffee to a boardroom full of chauvinists who laugh when Shreck ridicules her for daring to comment on the business at hand. Kyle, the stereotypical mousy secretary, reacts with nervous chuckles and negative self-talk after the room empties. Yet even in her opening scenes, the character hints at the aggression lurking beneath the neuroses – when she is caught up in a riot on her way home from work, Batman saves her from a thug who wields a Taser, which Kyle later uses to shock her unconscious aggressor. The moment is played for laughs, but in light of the constantly unappreciative behaviour of her mother, her boyfriend and her boss, it looks like an unhealthy release.
Still, a little thug-zapping is healthier than acts of wanton destruction committed while dressed as a cat.
After Shreck shoves her out of a window for discovering incriminating evidence about his plans to stockpile Gotham’s energy, Kyle suffers brain damage which, in conjunction with the army of neighbourhood cats gnawing on her fingers, finally snaps her mind completely. Her psychotic breakdown results in the wrecking of her apartment and interestingly, given her comically disturbing shredding of childish things in the waste disposal and subsequent confidence, her maturation. Pfeiffer is particularly impressive in this scene, channelling the frustration of millions of women in a patriarchal society. Sure, the scene is melodramatic, and yes, it is absurd that Kyle could have fashioned an entire cat-suit complete with mask from one latex jacket. But Pfeiffer’s Catwoman became something of a feminist icon for a reason.
Strangely though, it is at times unclear as to what side of the debate Daniel Waters’ screenplay agrees with, if any. For every misogynistic security guard confusing his pistol for his privates, there is a violently insane Catwoman berating a potential rape-victim for being a passive part of the problem before declaring, ‘I am Catwoman. Hear me roar.’ Sympathy or sarcasm? Still, that the issue is even raised in a major American blockbuster is praiseworthy in itself.
Adding to the atypical tone is Christopher Walken’s corrupt Max Shreck. Named after the star of the silent vampire masterpiece Nosferatu, Shreck is himself a capitalistic bloodsucker, cynically suggesting the Penguin’s election campaign in order to facilitate his own electricity-harvesting agenda. Walken’s gaunt frame and trademark staccato delivery combine to create an eerily intimidating amoral businessman, who nonetheless amuses with occasional deadpan snark. Rumours abound that the character was originally supposed to be Harvey Dent returning from the original film, but while Shreck’s ultimate fate suggests an interesting potential origin for Two-Face, it is difficult to imagine Billy Dee Williams’ Dent as such an evil caricature, and surely Dent’s obviously villainous behaviour before disfigurement would defeat the purpose of Two-Face entirely.
Fortunately, Walken is so entertainingly Satanic that such speculation becomes academic, and we are enrapt in his blackly comic performance, whose influence can even be felt in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man – Norman Osborn and Max Shreck are both wisecracking evil CEOs with questionable views on women.
For a film called Batman Returns, Batman himself seems conspicuously absent. When he does appear, Keaton is excellent as always, particularly in his wordless introduction – Bruce Wayne brooding in his study (since the original film for all we know), Keaton’s face transforming from pensiveness nearing boredom to noble determination in the brilliant flash of a reflected Bat-Signal. He is predictably brilliant as Batman, intimidating, knowing, and this time with a deliriously wicked sense of humour – the only time Batman smiles is when he straps a bomb to a thug. Having Batman adopt his harsh Bat-whisper even when talking privately to Alfred (Michael Gough) via video in the Batmobile is also a nice and telling touch.
Improving upon the first film, the twisted romance in this movie seems much more believable and natural. Wayne and Kyle are two deeply broken individuals drawn to each other out of a (mostly) unstated understanding of their similar yet opposing psyches. That their costumed night-time battles subversively evoke sadomasochism is, as a similar scene in Watchmen, simultaneously disturbing and fitting. In a fictional Gotham as bizarre as Burton’s, fairy-tale love stories have no place.
Some feel Batman himself has no place in Burton’s interpretation. Yet while he may not be the driving force behind the plot and while the three villains are arguably more fully developed, it is important to note that Burton’s Batman, by definition, dwells in the shadows. He is not given to public adulation and inspiring speeches. He is a silent, twisted creature of darkness whose environment and enemies both inform and illustrate his troubled mind. What is the Penguin if not the homicidally misanthropic Orphan Wayne could have become? What is Catwoman if not the Vigilante his code prevents him from becoming? What is Max Shreck if not the corrupt Businessman Wayne’s upbringing allowed him to avoid transforming into?
What is Gotham itself, beautifully constructed by production designer Bo Welch and team, but the very landscape of the Dark Knight’s soul?
Gotham Square, the focal point for many pivotal scenes, is a testament to Fascism, a nicely-lit Christmas tree unsuccessfully attempting to draw attention away from the angularly muscled, toiling statues that flank it, or the looming and intimidatingly ugly industrial architecture. It may not be the same type of nightmare as Anton Furst’s designs for the original film, but rest assured, this story takes place in a frozen-over Hell where individuality is ground out of the smilingly terrified population, strong opinions to be expressed only by criminal freaks.
Even Batman’s armour – while sleeker, more functional and generally aesthetically-pleasing – sacrifices the organic for the mechanistic. Fitting that such a cold movie takes place in winter.
The Yuletide context renders the action scenes some of the most seasonal this side of Die Hard, while the snow lends the film a haunting quality evident in Burton’s previous film, Edward Scissorhands. Touches like this, combined with the focus on such twisted, pale characters, show how very much more Burton cared about Batman Returns over the original, which was, by all accounts, a very stressful film to make.
Ignoring any semblance of continuity, and thus unfettered by the sometimes trivial and fluctuating details of the ever-changing source material, Burton and team boldly stake out new territory to craft a quirky masterpiece masquerading as a superhero movie. Not until Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy 2: The Golden Army would viewers experience such a visually exuberant filmmaker’s more confident second attempt at a comic book hero.
Because in the end what matters more than fidelity to the source material is the greatness of the adaptation. Great filmmaking is often self-portrait. And which magnificent monster of this menagerie does Burton most sympathise with? Whose story is told, complete, from troubled birth through misunderstood life to violent death?
While developing Batman Returns, Tim Burton paints a picture. Vertical stripes of red watercolour against white, like a big top or bloody jail bars, before which sits a black-suited blob of a boy. Melancholy lines trace his featureless, dehumanised face, his pointed hands and feet. Burton writes a caption: “My name is Jimmy, but my friends just call me ‘the hideous penguin boy.’”