erik lundegaard

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Batman Returns (1992)

Moviegoers may be forgiven for asking: Batman returns? OK, when?

Seriously, when has a movie ignored its title character for so long? In the first 45 minutes of the film we get the long, drawn-out origins of both the Penguin and the Catwoman, plus the machinations of Max Shreck, and we see Bruce Wayne/Batman for, what, five minutes? That’s a long time to ignore your superhero.

This film shows why, for all of his love of things gothic, Tim Burton was the wrong guy to keep this franchise going. His entire oeuvre is about a love for the misfit — Pee Wee, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood — against the insistent banality of quote-unquote normal society, and by this point in the storyline Batman is no longer a misfit (the boy who lost his parents/the vigilante called “The Bat”) but an institution (the guy whom the cops call when there’s trouble in town). No, the misfits here are the villains, particularly Oswald Cobblepot, alias the Penguin, played hammily by Danny Devito, and it’s to him that Burton shows his love and attention. Shortly after Oswald’s birth, his parents — looking like Victorian Brits, even though it’s 33 years from the present day — throw him over a bridge in Gotham’s city park and he floats away in his basinet, wailing, and then down, down, down into Gotham’s sewer system until the basinet bumps into some penguins: refugees from a nearby theme park. So sad. Who wouldn’t have sympathy for an unwanted child? Yet by the end, after we’ve seen the Penguin kidnap these and blow up those and display every disgusting trait both human and animal, Burton still gives him a somber funeral procession. The Penguin emerges from the sewerish slime, black goo streaming from nose and mouth, only to die on land so he can be carted back, by his loyal penguins, to the sewerish slime. And we’re supposed to still care? Instead one looks at one’s watch.

In truth, this Penguin was never a good supervillain. None of them are. A good supervillain should have clear motivations, a great scheme, but you put three together and their schemes keep bumping into and sidetracking each other. So Max Shreck needs to install a puppet mayor for his faux power plant and chooses, for his candidate...the Penguin? If he could get this ugly, grunting, bloated creature elected, couldn’t he could get anyone elected? Why beg this creature to play the role? The Penguin, for his part, wants to murder every first-born son of Gotham, but allows his wishes to be sidetracked for a mayoral run that, of course, falls flat.

And what of the Catwoman? As Selina Kyle, mousy secretary, she’s both browbeaten and then killed by Max Shreck, so you’d think she’d want to get Shreck, and, yes, that eventually becomes her scheme, but getting him too quickly wouldn’t serve the two-hour film. So first she goes after all men in general and then Batman in particular. Why Batman? Sure, they fight, and she falls, and so he’s the second man to kill her. But why this fascination with him beforehand? Is it because, near the beginning of the film, after he saved her from a marauding member of the Circus Gang, he didn’t stop to talk to her? Here’s what’s worse: In that scene, he did pause, he did stand there, while chaos still reigned, so she could utter her line: “Wow, the Batman. Or is it just ‘Batman’?” It’s a moment that only makes sense in our universe, where Keaton and Pfeifer are the stars of the film, rather than in their universe, where she’s just a mousy secretary and Batman still has villains to battle. But he pauses, then walks away, allowing Selina to feel sorry for herself: “Wow, that was very brief. Just like all the men in my life. What men?” Buck up, honey.

Michael Keaton, by the way, remains as good as ever. He’s both intense as Batman and distracted as Bruce Wayne. He’s definitely not playing the playboy bit, but what he’s doing works. His one idiotic move is to take off his mask in front of both Catwoman (who knows who he is) and Max Shreck (who doesn’t). Why do that? Particularly since he has to destroy the mask in order to remove it. Particularly since, while he doesn’t know how much he can trust Catwoman, he knows he can’t trust Max Shreck.

Love the first time we see him. The Circus Gang is running amuck and Commission Gordon turns to a subordinate: “What are you waiting for? The signal!” We then get the famous bat signal, which, through a series of reflective devices at Wayne Manor (a smart addition), gets reflected on Bruce Wayne brooding in his study. He stands tall, bat signal behind him, ready to do battle.

Like I said: It’s cool. But it’s also problematic. One could even argue that the bat signal is always the beginning of the end for Batman. In his first incarnation (Batman ’43, Batman ’89, Batman Begins), Batman is always a vigilante, prowling the rooftops in search of crime, and as wanted by the cops as feared by the crooks. The bat signal is the first big step away from “Batman as vigilante” and toward “Batman as institution.” Now he’s no longer his own man. Now he comes when called. Look at the difference between the beginning of the two Burton films. In the first, he’s proactive. He’s out there, searching, a dark figure in the night. In the second, he’s passive. What would he have done if the batsignal hadn’t woken him from his reverie? How long would he have brooded? One imagines crimes are still being committed in Gotham but Bruce Wayne? He’s got brooding to do. The batsignal, as cool as it is, makes Batman look passive.

Final thought. The Penguin, basically the main character in this film, is, as a baby, sent down a stream in a basinet. When he returns, he returns to kill every first-born son of Gotham. The Moses analogy is obvious. Which makes Gotham...tyrannical Egypt? Slave-holding Egypt? Who is Tim Burton siding with anyway?

—June 22, 2008

© 2008 by Erik Lundegaard