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Batman Returns (1992)
DIRECTOR: Tim Burton
SCREENWRITER: Daniel Waters
MUSIC BY: Danny Elfman
STUDIO: Warner Bros. Pictures
RELEASE DATE: June 19, 1992
MPAA RATING: PG-13
A More Burtonesque Caped Crusader

Written by Chris Pandolfi

It’s strange; despite being weaker, Batman Returns is far better at being a Tim Burton movie than the original Batman. With a blanket of Christmas snow, he brings some levity to the menacing gloom of Gotham City, the buildings of which appears to stretch hundreds of stories into the air. By depicting circus performers and freaks, he adds cartoonish overtones to the villains, who are unmistakably evil. By giving the production designer reins to Bo Welch – who also designed Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands – he can freely indulge in locations that are architecturally implausible. There’s a playfulness that wasn’t present in the previous movie, a curious regression that reflects the manchild psychology of Burton’s first major character, Pee-wee Herman.

That being said, the film is still very much a comic book adaptation, complete with highly entertaining action sequences and impressive special effects. And in spite of the visual flippancy, the characters and themes have not emerged from the shadows. Burton has been key to the salvation of the Batman franchise; with his darker aesthetic, he has freed it from the sterile, innocuous, mind-numbing camp of the Adam West television series, a blight if ever there was one. For Bruce Wayne/Batman, he has recast Michael Keaton, who once again shows surprising versatility in just one role. The character continues to be a paradox. As millionaire Bruce Wayne, he’s mild mannered, sociable, and normally built. As Batman, he’s ruthless, solitary, and made even stronger with his padded black bat suit.

This time around, the Caped Crusader faces not one but two villains: The Penguin and Catwoman. The former is the subject of a prologue sequence depicting his birth. We never see what he looks likes as a baby, but it’s obvious he was born defective. One snowy night, his heartless parents (one of which is Paul “Pee-wee Herman” Reubens) place him in a buggy and dump him into a river, which flows through the sewers and winds up, appropriately enough, at the local zoo’s penguin exhibit. Brought up by sideshow oddities, the adult Penguin – who prefers his birth name Oswald Cobblepot (Danny DeVito) – is a deformed madman with a serious axe to grind. His ultimate goal, which I will not reveal, requires him to enter politics and run for mayor. Forced into being his campaign manager is Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), a creepy and corrupt department store mogul who has his own evil plot brewing. I would expect nothing less from a man named after the actor who brought Nosferatu to life.

Catwoman begins as Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer), Shreck’s mousy personal assistant. She nearly uncovers his dastardly scheme and is pushed out the window of his executive suite, located at the top of the department store. Miraculously, she survives. But the trauma leaves her in a state of total mental breakdown, and after trashing her apartment, she transforms herself into a nimble, provocative minx in a skin-tight vinyl suit. She even provides herself with claws on her gloves and a whip. Although it’s never adequately explained, there’s a strong implication that she has been revived, perhaps even possessed, by the soul of a cat. The curious appearance of ally cats at the spot where she fell is telling of something, although I’m not sure of what. Regardless, I certainly took notice of the cat that chews her fingers into bloody stubs.

As their costumed alter egos, Wayne and Selena are enemies, quick to engage in ferocious hand-to-hand combat intended to maim. But even then, there’s always an undercurrent of primal sexual tension. There’s a scene, for example, in which Catwoman stealthily slinks on top of Batman as he lies injured on a rooftop; they both look up and see a sprig of mistletoe, at which point Catwoman lewdly licks Batman from his chin to his nose – an indisputably feline gesture of affection and fastidiousness. As themselves, they may well be on their way towards falling in love. One of the film’s most fascinating scenes has Wayne and Selena at Shreck’s masquerade ball; as Batman and Catwoman, they must wear masks, but at the ball, they’re the only two people in attendance showing their faces. In a very direct way, truth hides in plain sight.

The ending involves an army of penguins with missiles affixed to their backs and mind-control helmets on their heads. While this may be appropriate given the story’s comic book origins, it lacks the climactic gravitas of the previous film, which took place at the top of a looming gothic cathedral and didn’t involve any animals. It didn’t even involve technology, save for the gun Batman used to rope The Joker’s foot to a stone gargoyle. Some of the visual jokiness is successfully counterbalanced by the final confrontation between Batman, Catwoman, and Shreck, which has its fair share of exaggerated physicality but is really more of an emotional climax. Although Batman Retruns doesn’t quite carry the same weight as its 1989 predecessor, it’s still terrific entertainment.


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