Batman Returns (1992)

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Batman Returns (1992)

Post  BoG on Sun Nov 23, 2014 1:28 am

The 1st Sequel to Batman (89), with Michael Keaton returning to the role of the caped crusader alias Bruce Wayne, this gave the hero two foes to tangle with (as opposed to the one, the Joker, in the first one): the Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), two famous foes from the comics and the sixties TV series. But, in this version, the Penguin especially was transformed into a very grotesque, repulsive villain, a creature barely human who we first see as creeping about in the sewer system of the city. Well, that's not accurate - we first see him as a baby, discarded by his rich parents, floating into the sewers during the credits, whereupon he is found by giant penguins. This, naturally, shows us even more than  the first film how it's all taking place in some alternate universe - city sewers are home to penguins here. Meanwhile, Selina Kyle (Pfeiffer) is a neurotic, repressed secretary working for rich businessman Max Shreck (Christopher Walken). She finds some incriminatory evidence in his files by accident and he pushes her out of a window. Though this should have killed her - even if she lands in the snow - she revives after her body is surrounded by cats; thus, Catwoman is born - makes sense?

In truth, not much makes sense in this film, but returning director Tim Burton probably didn't much care. He was all about the visuals and the monsters, seemingly fascinated by the concept of living this life as a misfit or, more, a freak. Therefore, he presents his three freaks in this story - the heroic good Batman, the ugly Penguin and the bad Catwoman (mee-yoW!). They are in conflict with each other in this film, sometimes just for the honor of being the top freak in Gotham City. Batman, for example, begins as sympathetic to the Penguin when the monster first appears, but very quickly becomes suspicious of his motives, as if he sees the Penguin as some kind of competition. There is the bare bones of a plot - the Penguin makes a bid for mainstream existence by teaming with Shreck and running for mayor; Penguin's real name is Cobblepot, an old money family name in Gotham. The Penguin has his own secret goals: he's head of the Red Triangle gang, a strange group of ex-circus performers, and his foul outer appearance accurately reflects his dark inner perversions. For this character, Burton & DeVito just pile it on - the Penguin's habits are gross, his leanings overly lecherous & depraved, and he's a stone cold murderer - he even kills one of his own gang near the end (recalling a late scene with the Joker in the first film). His main goal is to kill a bunch of baby children, something perhaps even the Joker would have balked at.
After the great success of the first film, Burton was probably given carte blanche for this sequel and he has almost no boundaries, especially with the Penguin character. Burton couldn't understand, for example, why anyone would fixate on all that black bile or whatever it was dripping out of the Penguin's mouth. He never considered that many people would just find it very repulsive and unsightly. But, I actually get most of the joke with this Batman sequel; it's not camp - not yet anyway - but a dark-humored opera. Yes, it's operatic once more but Burton just upped the dark humor quotient a notch. Mostly, the characters make statements about themselves and the world they operate in; they are, once again, not realistic but archetypes, twisted into absurd profiles. And, it doesn't get more absurd than when political promoters get the task of turning a monster into a viable political candidate and proceed with the job despite all the signs screaming at them that it's not possible. I think this and the previous film have not weathered well because there have been so many much darker and perverse films in several genres since then, such as the torture porn sub-genre, and these Batman films, while looking daring and outrageous 25 years ago, are rather quaint nowadays, dark fairy tales like most of Burton's work.
I thought Pfeiffer was terrific when I first watched this in the early nineties; as with most of the film, I'm not as impressed now, but she made a great first impression. She has to switch from demure to driven fanatic, running about in that skintight suit with a whip; she cuts quite a figure. Sure, some of it  - the lines, the dialog - is ludicrous, but within the context of this weird comic book-styled world, with a touch of Grand Guignol, it works. I didn't really understand her motivations or compulsions, but then maybe I wasn't supposed to (even her character asks herself late in the story "Why are you doing this?" - even she doesn't know!). Walken as Max, with his long white hair, gives his usually eccentric performance; in many ways, he is the one true villain, the rich suit hiding his bad deeds in high society. Keaton is a bit better in this 2nd one, since he doesn't have those embarrassing scenes where he stumbles through explanations to  a girlfriend. This is an ensemble piece so Batman/Bruce Wayne is not really the main character. His late scene with Pfeiffer when they dance and find out who each really is, is probably the best scene in the film. However, there are a few bravura flourishes throughout which represent Burton's skill at visuals, including Catwoman being hanged high in the air by one of Penguin's umbrellas and in the final scenes - Catwoman's final moments were always very memorable to me, as it's rare to see a female character dominate in such an over-the-top excess of costumed melodrama. BoG's Score: 7.5 out of 10
Bat Trivia: Penguin's parents in the first scene were played by Paul Reubens & Diane Salinger; they had appeared together before in Burton's Pee Wee's Big Adventure (85); Reubens is better known as Pee Wee Herman; though this Batman film had a huge opening weekend - a record at the time, over $45 million - its final domestic gross was only two-thirds of the first film ($163 million vs. $251 million), which was par-for-the-course at that time for sequels; the next one was Batman Forever (95), without Burton or Keaton.

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