With The Dark Knight’s forthcoming release, it’s little wonder how most movie-goers of the impressionable Batman/Batman Returns era are practically gagging in excitement. Granted, I personally was only 7 when Returns was released; I think it’s fair to say that the movie franchise itself was an integral part of my childhood years and exposure to cinema. Let’s face it; toy companies recognised that children love a hero, and superhero action figures flew off the shelves during the 90s. Whilst my enjoyment of the movie as a youngster was purely based on face value; pretty colours (when Burton permitted it); ugly, genuinely scary villains; easy to follow fight scenes; a woman in a dominant role; later, and more recent viewings have opened up entirely new aspects to consider, mainly; causality of the human psyche defining the characters, and consequently; the movie.
Nostalgia aside; I still consider this to be a very solid movie, and one of the best Batman outings to date. Considering the success of Batman in ’89, a second instalment was surely on the books. Hesitancy, however, was arisen from Tim Burton after having personally mixed feelings regarding his previous Batman expedition; luckily, we have the script of Daniel Waters to thank for bringing the director back into furore of Batland. Burton reprises his trademark gothic style, and delivers with force a new, improved Gotham City.
Considering it was a given that Michael Keaton was recast as the Dark Knight; he had proved that comedy was not his only forte; it fell to opinion as to whom the roles of the villains might be awarded. The role of the Penguin was scripted for Danny DeVito; the character was quite literally made for him, but confusion arose upon deciding the leading lady. The role was coveted by many Hollywood starlets, well, let’s think about this: the opportunity to flaunt yourself as a) not only a female villain in a highly publicised comic feature-length, but b) moulded into a tight, black PVC suit wielding a whip would surely project the lucky lady’s status quite considerably. Annette Bening won the role, but was swiftly replaced by Michelle Pfeiffer upon learning she was pregnant. Of course, there was also the small matter of casting the support character; Maximillion Shreck.
According to the casting director of Batman Returns, Burton blanched when she suggested Christopher Walken, saying “Oh…no…I’m afraid of him. He scares me.” Clearly, Walken’s demeanour was made for a character like Shreck if he could scare a guy associated with darkness, ghosts and skeletons.
“She tries to blackmail me; I’ll drop her out a higher window”
Again, like with Batman; it’s easy to see where, and perhaps why Burton favours his villains. We all know that Batman is the hero, but his adversaries are far more interesting characters: although usually deep rooted within psychological trauma, we’re still desperate to know what their motivation truly is. We have two villains concerned with different means of revenge, and another, more heinous villain who knows how to orchestrate a good puppet show.
The first third, in defining the villains, is the best. The opening credits featuring the Penguin’s abandonment as a baby is an excellent precursor and set-up for the rest of the movie; we’re already presented the opportunity of a villain emerging without having to go through tedious in-movie details; the picture is already colourfully painted. Of more interest, is Catwoman coming into being. Pfeiffer plays Selena Kyle; the down-trodden, lowly secretary with fantastic solicitude; it’s also interesting to note that in her initial scenes with Max Shreck, she plays a background figure of absolute no importance. How fitting that when she creates her alter-ego as Catwoman; she not only dominates the screen, but completely blows the original Kyle out of the water. The scene in which she comes home from plummeting to her (almost) doom is in stark contrast to her usual routine; she goes through the motions of her old personality in a dazed state, until we realise the ordeal has rendered her completely mentally unstable; trashing her apartment, and subsequently, creating her costume for an alter-ego more fitting her new personality. Pfeiffer’s role as Kyle/Catwoman is definitely one of my favourite performances from the entire catalogue of Batman movies. Her transition from meek Selina to assertive/neurotic Selina creates more depth, and almost scariness to Catwoman in action; she also provides an excellent character in terms of becoming simultaneously Bruce Wayne’s love interest, and Batman’s foe.
Christopher Walken as Max Shreck creates some sort of a dilemma for me. I’m never entirely sure what Burton and the crew had in mind for him; he was a character created solely for the movie, so as such; there’s no other research available. In all my years, and multiple viewings of Returns; I’ve never been able to shake of the feeling that Shreck is one of the true, evil villains, whilst not even entering Batman’s radar. Compared to the Penguin and Catwoman; who’ve had to suffer consequences rendering both mentally unstable; Shreck is simply a ruthless and ambitious businessman. Completely within his power to murder, and pull some strings; it always strikes me as a little bit odd that he wasn’t involved in the grander scheme of things (aside from reintegrating the Penguin into society), then again; three major villains for Batman to deal with simply wasn’t a possibility; the plot is dense enough with just the two. It’s easy to feel sometimes that his character may have been overlooked. It’s just a mild niggle, as Walken really does set an amazing atmosphere; his acting is superb, and I simply couldn’t imagine the role being played by any other actor.
As for the Penguin: well, the movie may as well have been called The Penguin’s Revenge. Just like with Jack Nicholson as the Joker previously; Danny DeVito steals the show depicting Penguin/Oswald Cobblepot; the deliveries in all his lines are perfectly sinister/comedic when appropriate. He is essentially Batman’s true foe, as Catwoman strives to fight her own personal battle. The most obvious thing to note is Burton’s complete reinvention of the Penguin’s character. To coincide with his typically dark theme; the original penguin simply could not fit the script: tearing away the dignified, cigarette smoking aristocrat to be replaced with a physically deformed, sadistic, sewer living monster. His short-lived return to society and humiliation emphasises his homicidal nature when he decides the whole of Gotham City must pay for his parents abandoning him as a baby. Personally, I think he’s a fantastic villain, with an excellent background; he’s initially relatable to Bruce Wayne, as both lost their parents at a young age. It’s enough to question Bruce Wayne’s/Batman’s character psychologically; who basically only exists to carry out his role as the caped crusader. The scene in which Bruce Wayne is sitting in the dark in a room waiting for a Bat sign is testament to the fact.
Despite the amount of characters to contend with; I don’t think this particularly compromises the storyline. Each villain is well fleshed out in terms of background; there’s no want there. I know some people might have qualms with the fact the movie is less Batman, more Penguin; however, there would be no Batman without these significant input from these villains; their actions make the story. I might have liked a few more lines from Keaton: apparently, he sat down with the writer and crossed out many of the lines that were given him. If he’s meant to fit the silent, dark, brooding stereotype; then it worked. I’m not a comic fanatic, but I think the role was well delivered to accommodate the needs of the cinematic viewers. I enjoy how the Penguin’s demise was managed; having flown off the handle after his rocket-penguins plan was foiled, he unwittingly leads the flock back to his abode, only for his rockets to be directed from whence they came from, and sending him to his watery grave; quite symbolic, really.
Danny Elfman’s influence is present throughout the entire movie. As well as having to create signature themes for Catwoman and Penguin; most scenes are often either accompanied by his signature haunting themes (very much like in Edward Scissorhands), operatic, and dramatic scores. The Batman theme seems to inspire an air of energy by itself. He apparently wrote about 90 minutes of music for the film; about twice the usual; it’s not surprising, as I can barely remember a scene which was not an Elfman moment.
“You’re just jealous because I’m a genuine freak, and you have to wear a mask!”
Visually, it’s wonderful for its time. Gotham City feels far more imposing than its predecessor; statues and buildings are bigger and darker than ever. Burton and Bo Welch (production) decidedly they wanted a decidedly fascist style to the city landscape; most likely to reflect the amount of power held over the masses, showcased in Penguin’s and Shreck’s plan to overthrow and replace the town mayor. Always a laugh is Batman’s inability to turn his neck; even though the Bat Suit was improved, giving a more armoured exterior; his movements are still as restricted as ever; there aren’t many fight scenes that last long enough to accommodate this; a punch here, a push/throw there, but it’s almost a defining part of his character, at this stage; seeing him pummelling his opponents with fluidity would seem alien. Perhaps some of the special effects are a little too obvious (such as Selina falling from the window), but such discrepancies are to be expected from a movie made almost 17 years ago.
Whilst thoroughly enjoying Batman, I’d have to say that Batman Returns offers more to the viewer; character, script and plot seems to be much more defined, and perhaps relevant: the Joker as the villain alone, although fantastically portrayed; seemed to meander into terrifying to clownish to, well, at some stages it’s hard to figure out what the Joker really is doing. Returns, I think, handled this aspect better; even more so considering there was more than one character dominating the screen.