Thursday, April 26, 2018

Batman Returns (1992) (9th Movie Review of 11)

    It’s a three-way creature feature showdown between the bat, the cat and the ugly, in Tim Burton's 1992 squeal “Batman Returns”. This was the very first direct movie sequel in the Batman franchise, and it’s a rather polarizing film to say the least. Initially it was heavily criticized by both fans and critics alike, but over the years it’s been reevaluated, grew a steady fan base and has sense been labeled as a classic in its own right. There’s some who’ve even described “Batman Returns” as the best superhero movie of the 90’s. Personally, I’d describe this film best as an average superhero film with some memorable highlights spread throughout. Back when I was a little kid in the 90’s, this was my least favorite of the four initial Batman films, and while I certainly don’t hate this film as an adult, it’s just never grown on me as anything special. Still, it’s not without some merit, but has it really deserved the renewed praise it’s gotten over the years, or is it still a lesser Batman film?    

     The movie begins with a flashback set 36 years ago during Gotham’s holiday season. A rich family has just given birth to a son, but he was born with odd deformities, and is quite vicious as it actually made a meal of their family cat. One cold December night, the parents took him out to the park and abandoned their monster baby in the sewers. We then segue into our opening credit sequence in which we follow the baby carriage floating through Gotham’s elaborately designed underground sewer channels. It’s certainly not the best opening credit sequences of the series, but it is still something to savor as it’s the last time we’ll get a title opening matched to Danny Elfman’s iconic Batman score. In present day, rumors of a mysterious Penguin-man beneath the sewers are spreading, all while a different bread of monster is hatching a scheme against Gotham city. It’s here we meet the sinister business tycoon named Max Shreck, who’s proposing the construction of an industrial power plant that will supposedly grant the city safe renewable energy, but in reality, it will be draining Gotham of its power supply and putting them in Shreck’s private stock holdings. Soon, the alleged Penguin man of the sewers emerges, knowing full well of Shreck’s dark secrets. Thus, he blackmails the tycoon in an effort to gain public affection, while secretly scheming his own plan to take vengeance on the city by targeting all the first-born sons of Gotham. Meanwhile, another wild card is added into the mix when the mysterious Cat-Woman arrives on the scene, who’s venting out her own issues with the city, and more specifically the people in it who she blames for ruining her former life.      

      Right off the bat, my biggest issue with this film is that all plot, story and character development is given to these three mediocre villains, while our hero feels more like a supporting character in his own movie. Michael Keaton returns to play Batman for one last outing, and he still kills it in the role. Unfortunately, like I said, he is given very little to do, and to further prove my point, neither Bruce Wayne or Batman get a single line of dialog until about 47 minutes in. No joke, despite being physically present, 47 minutes is how long it takes before our hero speaks a single line in this movie, and that’s not a good thing. 

Truthfully, he’s absent for so much of this film that whenever he does appear it’s like … “Oh yeah, this is a Batman movie, and I actually forgot he was in here”. I honestly think that this portrayal of the hero is the most underutilized great character in the history of cinema. I will say that the scene with Bruce Wayne standing up in his office with the Bat-signal illuminated in the background is one of his shining moments. Still our hero's only real character arc is a relationship with Cat-Woman, and her alter ego, which actually had some potential. The two could relate to living with split lives, and they even shared an engaging chemistry on screen, but I just don’t think it was developed enough, especially when their story is sidelined in favor of everyone else’s character arcs. It was bad enough in the first film when Jack Nicholson’s Joker hijacked the movie from Batman, but at least I felt our hero was still actively involved in the story. This film is very focused on the individual scheming’s of our three villains, whether it’s the Penguins public deception, Max Shreck using the Penguin as a puppet in his political campaign or Cat-Woman venting out her issues. Needless to say, all three of their plans are very boring and this film spends way too much time with the Penguin running for a political office. It forces me to ask in all seriousness … “How can a superhero movie have this many villains, and so much nothing on screen?” 

     Now I will say that of our three villains, it’s Michelle Pfeiffer as Cat-Woman who stands out as the most awesome thing the film has to offer. Michelle Pfeiffer is just on fire in the role, her costume is great, her screen presence is captivating, and even though her back story is different from the source material, this is easily the presentation that made Cat-Woman a fan favorite for a new generation of viewers. She begins as this really pathetic woman but then goes through quiet the transformation after she’s murdered by the sinister Max Shreck. Now it’s never clearly explained, but through the power of cats crawling all over her dead body and chewing on her fingers, she suddenly comes back to life as a supernatural Cat-person who’s actually blessed with the gift of nine additional lives. Again, there’s no real context as to how this actually came to be, but I’ve always liked the idea of her being a literal Cat-person, and this is just that kind of world where anything can happen. What I don’t like are her motivations, as for no real reason at all, she suddenly has a vendetta against Batman, and forgets all about taking vengeance on Max Shreck until the tail end of the film. Her only consistent character trait is that she’s crazy, and that for me doesn’t make for a very compelling character. In the plus column, she’s one of the few villains to actually engage our hero in battle, and she proves to be quiet the bad ass with a whip. Seriously, the fights between Batman and Cat-Woman are some of the best the series has to offer, especially their first fight on the rooftop.

    The next villain unfortunately ranks very low for me on the theatrical Batman villain totem pole. In my opinion, the evil business tycoon Max Shreck should have just been removed completely from this film. Seriously, between Cat-Woman and the Penguin, why is this the guy with the big evil plans against Gotham city? His motivations to build his powerplant are also very boring, and whenever this plot line comes up, I always tune out of the film until the next entertaining set piece takes shape. This was actually a character created for the movie, as he wasn’t initially part of the Batman lore. This makes it all the more irritating when he takes screen time away from the other classic villains and even Batman himself. Now it is a little exciting to see Bruce Wayne battling a villain in the business world, but the rivalry between the two unfortunately never amounts to anything truly engaging. The one saving grace to this character is that he’s played by Christopher Walken, and to his credit, he’s excellent in the role. He’s naturally creepy just by whispering to people in that monotone voice, and by looking at characters with that blank, empty stare of his. It doesn’t quite redeem this pointless character, but it’s just enough to save him from being completely useless. Also, for whatever reason, whenever I think about Christopher Walken, the first image that always comes to mind is him with that goofy grey hair and pin-striped suit.  

     Rounding up the cast is the main antagonist of the movie, the Penguin played by Danny DeVito. Now before I get into my issues with this character, let me just say that from a casting point of view, Danny DeVito as the Penguin is one of the all-time greatest that the superhero genera has to offer. He fits the role like a glove, and really turned out one of the most memorable Batman villain performances in the series. That’s not to say his delivery is always subtle, as he certainly has his hammy moments, but he really nails both the menace and even the pathos of this character. For us kids in the 90’s, the Penguin was the stuff of nightmares, and the makeup design for his Penguin features were outstanding. Unfortunately, with all that said, as a character, I found Penguin to be a very missed opportunity. No joke, there was actually a lot of potential for the Penguin to be one of Batman's greatest movie foes, but he's bounded by an uneven script. 

His grand scheme is to win the hearts of Gotham and have all the people turn against Batman, which is a new and interesting motivation for a villain, but it also wears out its welcome really fast. After so many scenes of his grouchy voice, ugly features and exaggerated performance, you begin saying to yourself “please, no more Penguin!” Also, I think the Penguin would have been a lot more interesting if he was just a sad and confused misfit trying to find his place in the world, but that’s not the case here. We see that the Penguin won’t hesitate to run over a defenseless old lady when he takes control of the Bat-mobile, and he freely admits to Batman that “He’ll play the city like a harp from hell”. We even see this guy collecting the names of all the first-born children, so he can kidnap them and drown them in the sewers, completing his vengeance on the normal people of the world that treated him so cruelly. So, in other words, what could have been an interesting, even complex character gets reduced to being another typical bad guy for Batman to beat. We actually see him do a number of evil things well before the crowds turn against him, like kidnapping and killing an innocent young girl, framing Batman, scheming with the other villains, and even biting a guy’s nose off.  

      Without a doubt, this is the darkest of the Batman movies, as it’s brooding and violent nature really gets carried away with itself, and half the time it’s just plain joyless to watch. Seeing this movie as a little 1st grader was simply one of the most frightening, unsettling and depressing experiences I ever had. That opening scene with baby Penguin in a cage eating the cat was something that kept me awake for weeks. Another scene that was hard to watch as a kid was when Cat-woman goes crazy and destroys own her apartment. I’ll admit that I prefer my Batman movies dark, and while this film succeeds as a haunting spectacle, there’s just something off-putting about the way this film handles its darker moments. I feel this film got too carried away with random “shock-value”, that if forgot to give any meaning or depth to certain horrific events. Take for example the scene when the Penguin kidnaps the Ice Princess and pushes her off the tall building in order to frame Batman for her death. This was actually a compelling idea that for once Batman just couldn’t rescue the kidnaped girl in time, but the scene itself was just poorly handled. There is no reason why Batman couldn’t have leapt off that building to rescue her, or used a grappling hook to catch her, especially sense we’ve seen him use both tactics to rescue a girl in a previous film. Also, not even five minutes later we see Batman gliding through the sky with wings, which makes it all the more stupid that he didn’t swoop down to catch her, or at least make an attempt. Worst of all is that this sudden death scene has absolutely no barring on our hero, she just plummets to her death, and Batman never once shows any sympathy for this, he just continues on like it was no big deal. 

     Now let’s single out the films visionary director Tim Burton and how his style stands apart from the other films. Naturally he directed the first 1989 “Batman”, and returned for this sequel, but this time was given the approval to do whatever he wanted. As you’d expect, it has Burton’s stamp of an artistic look and Gothic tone. The style and design of this film is amazing, as every shot has some kind of fascinating set piece, elaborate locations and if you look closely, there are several stone faces carved into the backgrounds of several shots. One of my favorite scenes is when we first see the abandoned zoo where the Penguin lives. There are so many unique set pieces and bizarre statues in this one tracking shot, and it just reeks of classic Tim Burton. It’s almost distracting as it feels less like a Batman movie and more like a strait forward submergence into another one of Tim Burton’s twisted worlds. Heck, this doesn't even feel like Gotham City anymore, but at the same time, I love seeing Batman in this kind of setting that only Tim Burton could create. Another different thing to note is that unlike any other Batman film, this one is set during the Christmas season. Thus, we have the contrast of the most joyous holiday mixed with all kinds of twisted, nightmarish imagery. I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but I think Tim Burton mixed these creepy visuals with the holiday season as a means to foreshadow “The Nightmare Before Christmas”, which came out the following year.

    Another thing that got carried away in this film were all the sexual innuendoes. Now the sexual tension between Batman and Cat-Woman is fine, but there’s no excuse for making the Penguin some kind of sexual predator in this film. All the sexual puns would sadly become a very annoying trend throughout the series until “Batman Begins” put an end to that. Now unlike latter installments, this film makes subtle references to the previous movie, especially in the context of Batman’s first love Vicky Vail. Another fun little detail is that during the opening we see that Paul Reubens, who played Pee-Wee Herman in Tim Burton’s “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure”, is also playing the Penguins dad, and that’s a cool touch. Speaking of that opening, I absolutely love the quire music that starts when the parents head to the park. Danny Elfman returned to compose the score for this film, and he not only brings back the music from its predecessor, he also gives us more. I'd actually go so far as to say that this is one of the best instrumental soundtracks in the Batman line up. We also get a new bat vehicle ... The Bat water glider. It’s always cool to see new Bat vehicles, and this one stands out.

     Now despite referring to “Batman Returns” as dark and brooding, this film also gets very goofy and cartoony. In-fact the cartoony nature of the action scenes in this film would set the stage for the silly battles seen in later films like “Batman & Robin”. In this film, our hero spends a lot of time battling a group of circus freaks called The Red Triangle Gang, and as a result, the film goes a bit overboard with its goofy circus presentation. We have bobble headed skeletons on motorcycles, jugglers on stilts that don’t seem to do anything useful other than stand in the background and juggle and seeing the Penguin drive his giant rubber duck-mobile just looks silly. We do at least get more wide-spread destruction and mayhem over the previous film. I’ll also give Tim Burton some credit because directing action scenes has never been one of his strengths, but he really gave it his best shot with the battle sequences in this film. He also manages to incorporate some memorable visuals into the fight scenes, like when Batman is gliding through the sky on his wings while all the real bats are swarming on the crowds beneath him. I especially love the three-way creature feature showdown when Batman, Penguin and Cat-Woman all meet for the first time in Gotham’s streets, leading to Cat-Woman’s famous line and a building explodes behind her. My favorite scene by far is the car chase in which our hero finds himself pursed by the cops for once, and to make matters worse, the Batmobile has been taken over by the Penguin. Aside from all the vehicle destruction and car pile-up’s, this is my favorite scene because for the first time in these films I felt that Batman was actually being challenged by something. There’s even a great moment where the situation gets so intense that for a split second we see Batman drop-out of character, and the all to human Bruce Wayne personality is on display under the mask.   

     Now in my review on the first “Batman” movie from 1989, I talked about how even though the climax was very simple it still felt very epic and awesome. This movie somehow is the exact opposite, as there’s far more spectacle and explosions on display, but it just doesn’t feel all that grand or special. Once the Penguin fails to kidnap all the first sons of Gotham he moves onto phase two, which is easily the goofiest threat to ever be unleashed on the city. Where some villains attack Gotham with toxic gas or a giant Freezing gun, this guy unleashes an army of cute little penguins in battle suits and rockets strapped to their backs. It’s the most surreal finale a superhero film could possibly have. The final showdown between Batman and Penguin is nothing special either, as the Penguin just doesn’t make for an exciting foe for our hero to battle. Although I do like the banter, especially when Penguin says to Batman “Your just jellies because I’m a genuine freak while you have to wear a mask”. Things do get really good once Cat-Woman emerges on the scene. I love when Batman tries winning her over, and he even goes so far as to rip off his mask in front of her. It’s great stuff but also very tragic as Cat-Woman is too far gone to reform. We then get two of the franchises best villain deaths right back to back with each other. I may not care for Max Shreck but his death is as epic as they get. Cat-woman basically takes her revenge by electrocuting him, but he doesn't just get fried, Max Shrek gets firkin nuked in this big electrical explosion and is reduced to a grilled corps … it's awesome. The Penguins death follows next, and this is a very quiet, somber death that’s beautifully shot, and always left an impression. 

     Now I know I’ve given this movie a lot of guff but it really isn’t terrible. It’s watchable, and has it’s highlights that any Batman fan can appreciate. “Batman Returns” certainly has its faults, it can get overly dark, down beat and even boring at times, the hero isn't given that much attention as he should, and the villains aren’t all that interesting. There’s also numerous plot holes that are never explained, like how did the Penguin get the blue prints to the Batmobile, and there’s other examples that would take all day to list. However, this is still a very unique entry that can’t be confused with any other installment in the series, and that helps it stand out. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy this film on some level and there are select merits about the film that I absolutely love. The art direction is outstanding, it’s a haunting spectacle to behold and while I have issues with the characters, the cast is still excellent all around. So, for all its highs and lows, “Batman Returns” is a film I can watch and enjoy but it certainly isn’t one that I personally care to re-watch that often. 

    I give “Batman Returns” 2 ½ stars out of 5. Up next is a review of another sequel, but this one is notoriously well known for its faults. That’s right, “Batman & Robin” is next and I can’t wait to talk about that one. 

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