Director: Tim Burton
Stars: Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer
In 1992 Tim Burton was in the midst of the greatest creative run of his career. 1988’s Beetlejuice had been embraced for its wild comic fantasy and daring surreal imagery. That film also cemented a collaborative run with actor Michael Keaton who was proving himself versatile in the extreme. They made 1989’s Batman together with Jack Nicholson and it was a huge hit. Over twenty years after Adam West’s high camp variant of the caped crusader, Burton recast him as protector of an altogether more gothic Gotham City. And Keaton’s portrayal was more melancholic. He played Bruce Wayne as isolated, sad, another of Burton’s great outsiders.
Burton’s next film was also about an outsider and began his more prolific run of films with Johnny Depp. 1990’s Edward Scissorhands was a twist on the idea of Frankenstein’s monster. Depp played the title character, embraced and then spurned by 50’s style suburbia. It’s one of Burton’s great films about prejudice and is extremely damning of materialist American society (something that was booming in the 80’s). It’s become beloved, but its opinion of modern Western society is angry.
Burton and Depp would go on to work together again and again with varying degrees of success as the director’s creative spirit became lazier and descended into self-parody, but before all of that Burton reunited with Michael Keaton for Batman Returns and, in the process, made his best film.
Set at Christmas time, Batman Returns places its vigilante protagonist in the background, examining the methodology of the film’s criminals. Who they are. What they want. Keaton is memorable in the film, as resigned as before, if not more so, as if Bruce Wayne is fated, defined by his melancholic otherness. He stews in Wayne Manor for much of the film, obsessed with the freaks that parade on his television set; bizarre criminal masterminds that fascinate him because they remind him of himself, as though reflected in a funhouse mirror. He sees himself as a sort of monster. Where Christian Bale’s Batman is angry, Keaton’s is sad.
The three villains of the piece are interesting reflections of one another, and of Batman. Danny DeVito is Oswald Cobblepot, aka the Penguin. DeVito wears make-up and a fat suit that change his appearance dramatically. He’s an outcast and a freak. Tod Browning’s film Freaks comes to mind when we see him. Batman Returns takes the theme of prejudice from Edward Scissorhands and looks at it from another perspective. Cobblepot’s story is tragic; sent floating into the sewers at birth, rejected by his parents, he’s grown up underneath Gotham City in the company of social outcasts. In the audience we want to sympathise with Cobblepot. We know loneliness so we want to think we understand his pain. But Burton makes him a monster. When he’s introduced to society he leers at women, gropes them. He is groomed by the film’s second villain – Christopher Walken’s business tycoon Max Shreck – who sees him as a pawn he can manipulate. When Batman exposes him as such, Cobblepot turns on the society that he had tried to join. He is revealed as bitter, seething with resentment, an opportunist. He’s perhaps the most tragic figure in the film, but here it’s the monster who is prejudiced. Quick to judge those he fears are judging him.
Bruce Wayne is fascinated by Penguin because he reminds him of himself. Cobblepot’s parents are dead, like his own. They’re both orphans. Penguin is Batman’s negative self-image. Bruce Wayne grew up with riches, but if he’d had nothing, might he conceivably have ended up as weak and bitter as Cobblepot? This would be satisfying enough, but Burton’s film has two other villains, and they’re both mirrors of Wayne too.
Max Shreck (named after the extraordinary German actor who portrayed Nosferatu in F.W. Murnau’s 1922 film) is a business rival of Wayne’s. He is the one maneuvering Cobblepot. The puppet master. Wayne would probably like to think he has nothing in common with Shreck, but they’re both members of the social elite, they’re both important and powerful business men. Shreck lusts for power. He wants to build a power station that will suck energy from Gotham City, he wants to drain the town to enrich himself. He’s a glutton. Wayne Enterprises is a huge multinational corporation that affords Bruce the luxuries of building things like the Batcave and all of his elaborate crime fighting toys. Successful capitalists often build their wealth at the expense of others. The collateral damage of Wayne Enterprises is never explored, but Bruce Wayne is a fat cat, and cinema has taught us to dislike fat cats. Somewhere, one suspects, there are those who have suffered to maintain our hero’s extreme wealth. Bruce Wayne would despise the notion that he is the same as Max Shreck, but maybe he is? Shreck is his guilt, manifest.
Last but by no means least is Michelle Pfeiffer’s astonishing turn as Celina Kyle. In Burton’s film Kyle is Shreck’s secretary, downtrodden and struggling. One night she finds out too much about Shreck’s plans so he pushes her out of a window to kill her, but she miraculously survives and is reborn as Catwoman. She cuts up a PVC coat and fashions it as a skin-tight cat suit. She starts playing vigilante like Batman, but her ideal is less about punishing criminality and more about encouraging women to be strong, or scolding them if they’re not. She hates the person she has been so she vandalises all of her cute clothes and dolls, rejecting her former self as childish and silly. She saves a woman from being mugged but then admonishes her for being weak. Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is a feminist and an activist. Her indignation is righteous, especially when it appears in stark contrast to Cobblepot’s horny lechery, but Pfeiffer plays her as brilliantly unhinged. Her S&M style outfit is a provocation to Gotham City and to us in the audience. Don’t you dare reduce her to a sex symbol, it says. She celebrates her sexuality but also uses it as a threat. Pfeiffer’s version of the character became so iconic that Olivier Assayas used her as inspiration for his film Irma Vep.
And again, Bruce Wayne sees himself in Kyle. This time he likes the idea, finds it romantic. He goes so far as to reveal himself to her, tearing his cowl away at the end of the movie to show her who he is, betraying the secretiveness of his identity as a gesture of love. Pfeiffer is the least villainous of the three antagonists; she has principles. She isn’t that far removed from Bruce Wayne; both have fashioned heightened alter egos that allow them the ability to project strength. Burton rewards her for her strength and integrity; she lives to the end of the film where Cobblepot and Shreck do not. Indeed, she rises up into the foreground of the movie’s final shot.
Few modern superhero films take the time to investigate their villains in the way Burton does here. Marvel’s films are huge successes, but they almost all focus on the heroes and their villains are mostly anonymous, functional, McGuffins. Burton stylised himself as a Hollywood outsider, making movies that called out to introverts and those who considered themselves ‘weird’. It proved irresistible, provided a healthy streak of the subversive, but he was savvy enough to do this while remaining successful and profitable. He made ‘weird’ desirable and beautiful.
Batman Returns is his most beautiful film. The design work is second to none, repeatedly iconic. Consider the vision of Penguin riding through the sewers on the back of his gigantic yellow duck, or the exteriors of Gotham City; the buildings and parks heavily influenced by German expressionism. And there’s such great physicality to everything. The film is tactile. Penguin’s henchmen riding strange vehicles that conjure connections to steampunk. The film looks like the wild imaginings of a toymaster let loose on the world. The city itself is a vision in greys, reflecting moral rot and corruption. Into this it’s villains bring zany colours or outlandish costumes. Christmas lights pop against the concrete gloom of the city and frequent snowfalls make it look as though the whole movie is taking place inside a snowglobe. Batman Returns marks Burton at the peak of his aesthetic extravagance. He would attempt such things again later in his career with Charlie And The Chocolate Factory and Alice In Wonderland, but by the time those movies arrived he had become more fond of computer generated production design, and it rendered them garish and tacky. Burton’s late films look awful, but his early ones have a physicality to them that makes them gorgeous, resplendent.
Burton never returned to the series and later entries in the nineties returned to the high camp of Adam West, but to cringe-worthy degrees. In the 2000’s Christopher Nolan picked up the franchise and created his own trilogy. Like all Christopher Nolan films they’re impressive constructs that feel more like architecture than cinema. To his great credit he also invested in villains, but though his films are exciting in their own ways, they’re also detached and clinical. All head and little heart. They’re like Michael Mann films; stylish and modern, but not personal. Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns are more idiosyncratic. They’re also humorous. Batman Returns frequently pokes fun at the idea of Batman. One of the most memorable gags sees Bruce Wayne enter a closet of his superhero suits. Of course they’re all the same, but he picks out a seemingly specific suit. Not that one, but this one. The film is mocking its hero. It’s a gag that would’ve sat perfectly in The LEGO Batman Movie. But here it is 25 years earlier, in live action.
So my argument here is that Batman Returns is not only the best Tim Burton film, but also the best Batman film. From design to performance to how it draws reflections on its hero without even needing to have him on screen. I frequently dismiss it in my head as being just good. Superhero movies are tough to take seriously, especially when we think in terms of influential or inventive cinema. It’s only when I take the time to sit down with it again that I’m reminded of its greatness. Watch it again. You won’t regret it.